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Doc@DrIrene.com

Interactive: Unintentional Abuse

 Interactive Board: Unintentional Abuse  Your ALT-Text here

June 12, 2006 

In my childhood, my father was verbally and physically abusive,  although well-meaning. He had a temper, was demanding with school, controlling, etc... I was often fearful of him because his punishments (including hitting) had more to do with his own moods than my school grades. Yes... I remember being terrified of bringing home the average grade.  I became a doctor to get his approval.  And in so doing, you managed to turn childhood negatives into a positive! Congratulations!

The few short relationships that I had with nice, talkative, understanding men (opposite of my father) didn't work out. They always dumped me because they were either not over their exes or were too busy with work.  One dumped me because I had been disrespectful towards him. Somehow I must have brought some characteristics of my father the abuser into my relationships, and must have been disrespectful, self-centered and critical without even noticing. It is almost always true that you will not be aware of these aspects you bring in.

So 18 months ago I became involved with a colleague. The characteristics were there: temperamental, limit-pusher, controlling, arrogant and judgmental. However he was also a lot of fun to be with, and I thought that since I had been more ‘dominant’ in my other relationships and they didn’t work out, maybe this time it would work out because he was more dominant than I was. The beginning was blissful, we were ‘soulmates’, ‘so alike’, ‘perfect’. We went on amazing trips together. And working together made the relationship progress quickly by spending all our time together.

Then the rollercoaster started – the usual stuff: controlling, judging,  criticizing, capriciousness, and lack of respect (but veiled). My confidence and self-esteem chipped slowly away. He was right all the time. I  moved in with him and unwittingly isolated myself from friends and family. I did my best to please his every whim, thinking that it was my duty. Some days I would wake up and feel horribly wrong but not know why, and then I would lash out at him who was treating me well that day – I looked like the abuser.   After his misbehavings, he was very good with words and apologies, but I came to realize that his apologies were just words and he does not take responsibility for his behaviour, nor is he interested in managing his anger.  He did admit that a previous girlfriend had mentioned that he had been verbally abusive.  He gave me all the information but drowned it in such long explanations (‘I grew up as an only child so I don’t know any better’) that I lost track. Aware of my childhood, he convinced me that I was ‘bringing my father’ into the relationship and overreacting to him. Probably true, but relationship-wise, all this does, at least temporarily, is gets the focus off him!

He even made me believe that I had some borderline traits, that when I complained strongly about a friend who upset me – he analyzed my words and said that I was splitting. We all have some borderline traits! This is a first-rate example of why lay diagnosis or diagnosing an individual we are connected with emotionally, even when coming from a professional, is dangerous. And I believed all this and even went to a therapist to ‘take my father out of my relationship’. Good for you!

Following him having cold feet about our new house, I took a month’s break and moved out while he was ‘thinking’ things through.  I  re-connected with friends and family, and finally realized what was happening.  Yes! Through therapy and friends, I realized that our relationship recreated that feeling of unsafety from childhood.  An e-mail exchange ensued and at the end, the true verbal abuser declared himself after I said I would leave: curse words, and I was to blame for all his problems.  You bad girl! All your fault! ;D

After the abusive e-mail the decision to leave him there was easy. And this is testament to your emotional health: your ability to leave him whether or not you still care. I knew that he was narcissistic but I had not picked up some borderline traits (his accusation of me having those traits are projection methinks.) Right. Keep in mind that narcissists engage in projection as much or more than those with BPD. Now I am re-living some of our arguments and realize that they were about control – I’m going through the realization phase. Excellent.

I do not feel any love for this man anymore, if anything I feel plain DUMB to have played along in his game for so long. Hmmmm... I do feel some anger and shame of having been such a fool. Double Hmmmm. Methinks you are being awfully hard on thySelf! I now understand that he is perturbed without knowing it and he does have a good side to him, he means well but cannot follow. Right. Just like Dad. We'll come back to your self-judgment below.

But I am mad. Good! Some days I am seriously thinking about suing him for emotional damage...has that ever been done? Probably. However, consider your motives. Also, will the time, energy and expense involved in suing him further your own long term goals? Should I give him a copy of ‘The Verbally Abusive Relationship’, but will he understand? So, you still care... Before you say you don't, or you just want him to "know" or whatever: remember that the opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference. And, believe it or not, it is OK that you are not there yet.

My question to you is that having known a situation of abuse and control far too well from childhood, I am afraid to revert to my old pattern and exhibit some controlling or abusive behaviour.   I am seeing a therapist right now and I know that I am not ready to be with somebody else.  Excellent!

How can I avoid going back to the only pattern that I know, how can I learn to establish boundaries and respect others’ boundaries? By continuing with the work you are doing now with your therapist.

Is my pattern ingrained in me? You have learned the ropes of this pattern, and you can thus modify this pattern by learning otherwise. Right now I am connecting with new friends who have lived similar experiences, which really helps, but at the same time I am becoming phobic of men in general and have  little trust. You've always had little trust. You are just aware of it now. Good for you because believe it or not, this is progress. And are there specific points that I should raise with my therapist? Whatever interests you. Consider bringing this page to discuss with your therapist, though I suspect your therapist already understands your path.

Thanks for your help! Emma

Dear Emma, your case well exemplifies that abusive behavior is not an on/off phenomenon. It rests with the balance of power in a relationship. At the core is an inability to feel safe, to trust. When you are with men who are gentler than you are, you become dominant; when you are with a tougher man, you become victim, as you were in childhood.

Emotionally, you are able to identify both with your victimized part  and also the part of you that is identified with your father's power. There is no doubt in my mind that you sought to mimic his power in your own adulthood - so you would never fall prey to another person's dominance again. Think: weren't there times in childhood that he used his power to make you feel very, very safe? For most children, there are.

When abuse exists in the home, intentional or otherwise, children - who need to feel safe (it's about survival) -  tend to identify with the power-base in the family, i.e., the abuser. Even if they are abuse targets, they know where their bread is buttered. This is why kids in abusive homes too often won't open their mouths to the authorities. Abused kids often don't quite trust the poor, broken victim parent's ability to care for them. Why should they? The victim-parent has not protected them from abuse. Some kids remember not being able to wait to grow up - so it would be their turn to wield the power of the abusive parent!

You grew up wanting Dad's approval -  and his power. Hence you studied hard and became a doctor. Good for you! Thank your father, in part, for your impetus to work so hard and succeed. Your objective is always to turn your greatest deficits into your greatest strengths. Unfortunately, the work doesn't stop there, but you are off to a good start.

Often, as in your case, there is a real contempt towards any victim: contempt towards your mom (or any weak person in your life today), who didn't have the strength to protect you from the whims of the abuser. Also, expect contempt towards your self - that "weak" part of you that and couldn't take it, the "weak" (dumb, foolish, etc.) part of you that Dad disapproved of.

In proof of your own contempt, I offer your own words: "I feel plain DUMB to have played along in his game for so long... I do feel some anger and shame of having been such a fool." As I said earlier, methinks you are awfully hard on yourSelf!

You face internal conflict: You can't quite respect your partner unless they stand up to your subtle power plays. You push on and on, testing, testing, looking for someone who is gentle and loving, yet who won't let you run all over them (which you are very good at). If you can walk all over them, they can't possibly be strong enough to make you feel safe. You want to find someone strong that you can lean on, but he should be more consistent and trustworthy than Dad.

Unless you run across someone who plays an interlocking game, like your recent boyfriend, your partners are likely to find the back and forth "testing" annoying at best, offensive and abusive at worst.

So, you see, you harbor both faces of abuse. How can you achieve a balance of power?

A very good place to start is by noticing your contempt towards those who appear "weak" to you. Noticing something means simply becoming aware of it; you don't need to do anything with it, other than to see it more and more clearly.

You may argue that others don't appear weak to you, and that you don't feel contempt or other such feelings. I caution you to slow down, for this is where you insult unintentionally. Look carefully, and without self-judgment. How is it that you feel contempt towards these men? How is it that you feel unsafe? How are you critical towards them? Etcetera, etcetera.

You probably already know this isn't about other.  It is about you and your relationship to other inside your own head. You will find that your reactions to other are your reactions to the "weakness" inside of you, and your contempt towards it.

While your negative judgment of other has nothing to do with other -  and everything to do with you, it is usually easier to see these things in other first.

Try to get a handle on your tendencies affect your view of other, and then proceed to find the corresponding contempt for the "weakness" in self.

Before you can stop being critical and judgmental of other, you need to learn to be OK with all your icky "mistakes," simply because they are part of life. Think of it this way: had you not chanced into the last relationship who opened your eyes, you would still be walking around seeing yourself as trusting, yet making the same mistakes over and over. Perhaps you need to thank him for coming into your life because he is what you needed to understand what you understood...

Allow yourself to feel whatever you feel for these people or for yourSelf, and, instead of passing judgment, realize that any child growing up in your situation would grow up to harbor the same type of feelings you do. In doing so, you move towards acceptance and begin to change the core Daddy taught you.

The other significant part of your emotional turbulence is your tendency, like a little girl, to believe at some level, that you need this strong, benign "Rock of Gibraltar" to lean on.

As you progress along this path, in your isolation and inability to trust, one day you may stop looking for someone to lean on. No matter how strongly you may protest, the reality is that no person exists who can take care of you.

And, if you are lucky, you may realize you already have everything you need - in yourSelf. How safe is that? No need to test anyone. You can be with anyone - and still feel safe, simply because you are.

Touchy-feely little books and training in mindfulness can speed your trip to self-acceptance. Here are a few favorite reads:

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The Seat of the Soul  by Gary Zukav.

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A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield

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Wherever You Go, There You Are : Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

I threw a lot at you dear Emma. Please think about this and post any questions you have. I will stop by next week to reply to you. And if you need more time before my next input perhaps to process it with your therapist, or whatever, just drop me a line and I will wait.

Readers,  click here to view the posts.

My warmest regards, Doc