Women in Abusive Relationships: Like Everyone Else, You’re Guilty of Love

(Update: All the posts of this series have been collected into one piece, Seven Reasons Women Stay in Abusive Relationships, and How to Defeat Each One of Them.)

In Women in Abusive Relationships: The Good Daughter Syndrome, we nailed down two ideas: that spiritual health without psychological health is like a gym without exercise equipment, and that one’s psychological health has a great deal if not everything to do with how and by whom one was raised.

The great difficulty with psychological healing is that it’s like trying to look at your own eyeballs. You’re too close; you have exactly the wrong perspective for the task. This is the great value of psychological counseling: It involves an objective person listening to you, someone with virtually no vested interest in your story beyond helping you explore and understand it. Perfect! When else in your life do you get to talk to someone who is utterly objective about you—who has no role or history whatsoever in your personal life—and who never, ever turns the conversation into something about them?

Verily, is seeing a psychologist is the greatest thing in the history of totally lopsided conversations. (Not that you can get your insurance to pay for such counseling anymore, since trying means landing before someone who’ll be handing you a prescription for an antidepressant “medication” before you can say, “But I’m trying to actually get better, you shameless hack.” So now, or certainly increasingly, only the rich can afford competent psychological counseling. Which kind of works out, since being rich tends to make people crazy.)

If you’re a woman in an abusive relationship, you’ve got to take seriously the truth that something about the way you were raised has left you trapped in the terrible cycle in which you are now spending out your life. If you don’t face the fact that your past is largely determining your present, you’ll never be able to create for yourself a better future. You’ll be forever stuck reacting to the past, rather than being, as a healthy person is, proactive about the future. You will continue to be a victim of your own life, because you will continue to lack the objective perspective critical for realizing the sort of radical change of which you are now in such tremendous need.

None of which is to say that every woman in an abusive relationships grew up in an abusive household. Human psychology is hardly that cause-and-effecty. Some women in abusive relationships grew up watching their father beat their mother; some didn’t. It’s a complex world; we all have very complex emotions and psychological responses to it.

But you can bet on one thing: If you’re in an abusive relationship, you are living out your loyalty to whatever it was your parents taught you about themselves, reality, and you. Tolstoy was right when he said that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But at the bottom of it all, every unhappy person is unhappy for the same reason: They are fervently devoted to their parents. For better or worse, we all love our parents like we don’t (and can’t) love anything else in this world. We love them in ways we can’t even begin to understand.

Well. We can begin to understand that. If we try—if we really put in the effort it takes to understand what about our loyalty to our parents is presently good for us, and what about it is bad—then we can, finally, fully embrace the former, and kiss the latter good-bye.  And for the sake of own mental clarity and health, that’s exactly what we must do.

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  • kaelovinlife

    great blog. i believe that relationships are all about choices…and if you are in an abusive relationship, it's because you choose to be there.

  • The way I learned it is that we all get messed up one way or another due to sin…sin committed by us and/or sin committed against us by others. Creates a wrong view of ourselves, and God, and all that. Since our parents raise us, and are all imperfect (to varying degrees) it makes total sense that they often have the biggest effect.

    If we can learn to see ourselves (and God) in a healthier way, then we can start breaking cycles and all that. This is where I think counselors can be really, really helpful–if you can find a good one, like you pointed out.

  • Greta Sheppard

    Your line: "When else in your life do you get to talk to someone . . . who never, ever turns the conversation into something about them?" is not a fair nor biblical accusation.

    Romans 5:4 says:"'experience works hope'" To judge a counsellor for bringing themselves into the picture is unfair. When, in counselling sexually abused women who feel life is over for them I share my own story of recovery and living in a happy marriage, it gives hope to them. There is healing in hearing another's story….

    Textbook theories in counselling are not nearly as effective as a personal success story of expereince. Laying on a couch while someone makes notes on what you are saying can be remedial, but if the listener has not expereinced the emotional pain of the patient,they have difficulty understanding the depth of the hurt. The words of advice can be dry and empty. Support groups, like AA, have proven effective because there is personal support from others who are going through the same thing.

    This is a good post…but I had to respond to that one line.

  • Kae: That’s way too harsh—though I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way. And I’m sure you understand that it’s hardly that simple.

  • Its been interesting to read this series, its very rare that you see christian men taking seriously the issue of violence against women. I'm slightly concerned though that your posts are coming across as really quite paternalistic. While I recognise the good in what you're doing, I wonder if you would consider some follow up posts looking at why so many men abuse women. There is already FAR too much focus on why women stay in abusive relationships, and far too little energy being spend questioning why it is that so many men are abusive, and challenging the attitudes that encourage this in both church and wider society.

    p.s. Kaeloveinlife don't actually know what to say to such a horrible remark. Have you ever known someone in an abusive relationship? I know that if I was, I certainly wouldn't confide in someone who would be so quick to judge me for what SOMEONE ELSE has done.

  • Rachel: I can only take one subject/concern/approach at a time. I thought (and think) it best to first and foremost get women out of those relationships. And I think the most helpful way to do that—the only way I really have at my disposal—is to try and write directly to such women, and hopefully help shed some light on some of the internal forces at work inside them that might be contributing to their staying or feeling stuck in their bad relationships. I'm not sure how that comes across as "really quite paternalistic"—and of course I don't want to do that, but … anyway, that's what/why I'm writing what I am.

  • I think my last comment came across on paper a lot more aggresively than it did in my head (aargh, I'm so bad at internet communication!) so my apologies for that! I've been really enjoying reading your blog since I came across it a few weeks ago 🙂 I wasn't really meaning to get at you, its more just frustration that (at least in the UK, can't speak for the US) so much focus is put on women leaving abusive relationships (for example, in governemnt campaigns) and so little focus on the men who abuse. (Or, in a smaller amount of cases, the women who abuse.)

  • Rachel: No need to apologize (though thanks for it). But you're right, of course: the only real way to get at the heart of the problem of domestic violence is to get the men who do to understand why they hit their women—so they'll stop. For sure! But in this instance addressing the effect is of more immediate concern than is addressing the cause. First you tend to the patient, then you deconstruct the accident. You understand.

  • Well, I sort of agree. But to take your analogy a bit further, what if this kind of accident (lets say its a car accident) was happening every day, and if anything they were happening more and more. Everyones desperatly running round, with all the best of intentions (and doing a lot of good) helping people who have been hurt. But in actual fact, the problem is that we're making cars the wrong way, and if we changed the way we made cars then the accidents would happen a lot less, and actually we'd be helping stop a lot of people from getting hurt. (I'm definatly taking the illustration too far, but the the car is the current way we do relationships between men and women, and its faulty, which, among other things, leads to a power dynamic which in part causes violence in relationships.)

  • Lost me.

  • Jean

    John, I have been in an abusive relationship, and you are right! I never thought of it from your viewpoint before, but I was taught by my parents that marriage was forever. Divorce was wrong. My Dad was a minister who I had heard preach against divorce as sin. So, I did not want to get a divorce and bring shame on my father's ministry or his name. I did not want my parents to know that I was so stupid to have made a bad choice, so I wore long sleeves to cover up my bruises, and tried to smile, and say everything was great. And somehow, I believed, that I must have done something to deserve such bad treatment. I know better now, but when I finally had to escape to save my life, and my parents found out the truth, even though they had taught me that divorce was wrong, and the message was that if you are a Christian, you will not divorce – they didn't mean for me to stay in a marriage where I experienced fists pounding my body and heard words saying I was worthless and unlovable. Somehow, they thought I would know that was not okay. I really do think that love for my parents and honoring what they had taught me, and not wanting to bring them shame, kept me there way too long. I'm so glad that God has healed me of the pain of that marriage, and also of any pain I have had towards my parents. The Lord is good that way.

  • SJ

    I’m one of those women. What people don’t understand is how it happens. I was a strong independent woman. I got married, had a few kids and bam, he turned into an abuser. I felt I was stuck with several young children to take care of. I also wanted to protect them. As it turns out, I got divorced and sadly the courts will give lots of time to with the kids to abusive men.

    In fact, if you can’t prove he is abusive, because you covered it all up, like I did, then you may actually lose time with your kids. I waited til they were old enough to be able to call me if anything went wrong and they have, and I’ve had to take legal action.

    So, you see people stay for alot of reasons, not because they want to be abused, like being abused? Are people serious with this? As for the men, it is very rare that an abuser becomes non-abusive. They have a sense of having the right to be abusive, and that is very hard to overcome. I havent seen it happen in all the support groups I have been in for abused women, not once. So, in effect, it is the women who can be helped and the abusive men, quite likely not, as they don’t see a problem and are not willing to change.