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Working With Abusers and Victims of Abuse (part 2)

written by: Kosjenka Muk

Coaching abuse victims

Victims of various forms of abuse might be aware they are abused, but not know what should they do - or sometimes they might believe it's all their fault. I had a few clients who were convinced they were abusers, and later it turned out they were guilt-tripped by their partners to believe that asking for healthy balance and expressing their needs was abuse. Words have power, and playing with words to twist one's perception of reality is one of the favorite weapons of abusers.

One way or another, both abusers and their victims are conditioned (or self-taught) to justify and minimize abuse, and find excuses for the abuser (even if the victim often feels too much empathy and responsibility to be abusive in turn). Again, first focus on finding as many specific details as possible.

Many victims were "trained" (or self-trained) as small children within unhealthy families to be particularly responsible, considerate, tolerant, and put their own needs last while taking care of others. Abusers can often "smell" such personality traits, and they usually start with mildly testing potential victims with off-hand criticism, manipulation and pushing boundaries, to see if the other person will conform and give ground.

Victims usually need help with valuing their feelings and needs more (abusers primarily focus on their own needs). They need to understand they have the right to follow their own goals and values, and that being incompatible with another person is perfectly acceptable. You'll probably have to help them learn to avoid justifying themselves or trying to prove their point of view to their partners, and simply stick to their own values instead.

An abuse victim will probably need help with resolving some kind of emotional bond with the abuser. A part os such a bond is often something called the Stockholm syndrome, which means that a victim often develops gratitude for small reliefs and rewards occasionally given by the abuser, as well as compassion for the abuser. However, there is another emotional pattern often originating in the victim's relationship with parents, which is reflected in the victim's hope of finally proving their own value and receiving approval from the abuser. A victim lives in hope that the abuser would soon recognize how easily and joyfully they could live in mutual understanding and cooperation (which doesn't happen because the abuser simply doesn't value such kind of happiness enough, compared with power and privilege). This is often the same kind of hope that keeps children bonded to immature parents, hoping for their love and approval, and it can be very difficult to give up. This is usually the most important emotional pattern to resolve.

Too much empathy

People who are prone to abuse, manipulation and control, often spontaneously choose empathetic and overly responsible people as partners (victims), because they feel on some level such a person could be more easily convinced to neglect their own needs and boundaries. A very empathetic person can feel an urge to stay with an abuser even when the abuse becomes obvious, hoping to help the abuser resolve their emotional trauma and feel loved. It's important to help such a victim understand that it almost certainly won't help, for the following reasons:

  • as the partner is not the real cause of the abuser's behavior, they cannot be the solution, either. My experience with people who were abused as children shows that no matter how kind, caring and compassionate their partner might be, the consequences of childhood abuse cannot be resolved through partner's help only. The change has to happen internally and requires strong motivation. If an abuse victim tries to help the abuser, it usually only motivates the abuser to objectify and disrespect them even more.

  • The abuser simply doesn't respect their victim enough to allow them to be of real help. They usually believe in their partner's inferiority (which often has roots in sexism and patriarchal traditions), so they perceive cooperation as "lowering" themselves, and receiving help as humiliation.

  • An abuser usually finds too much pleasure and benefits in manipulation and control to give them up easily. The joy and beauty of mutual esteem and cooperation are either unfamiliar or simply not interesting enough to them, compared to the pleasure they find in power and domination. Sometimes both the abuser AND their victim perceive drama as "exciting" or "passionate", and a healthy relationship as "boring".

Another source of confusion for an abuse victim can be being aware of some good personal traits of the abuser. It's easier for the victim to see the human being with virtues and faults in the abuser, than for somebody who only reads or hears about abuse. It's important to help the victim understand that one doesn't have to be a monster to be unhealthy, egotistic and violent. Help them understand that they don't have to hate someone or label them as a monster to leave them. Also, help them recognize the difference between personal traits and life values.

Help the victim become aware that, whatever the abuser might (claim to) feel for them, it is NOT love. An abuser can desire their victim, be possessive about them, or even need them, but they still don't respect them or see them as a real human being. Healthy adult love is absolutely incompatible with control and violence.

Help the victim recognize what kind of relationship they really want, and compare it to what they've got. Help them recover their self-esteem and trust in themselves - or to build them if they didn't have the chance to develop those qualities before.

Cultural support for violence

Abuse within families and intimate relationships is just one aspect of a culture that glorifies power, domination and control over others. How many people do you know who admire ruthless "strongmen" in world politics, and justify their crimes? I know some otherwise fairly intelligent people who do. How many times did you read online comments in which people admire manipulators or even thieves, and barely spare a thought for their victims? Or articles in which violent berserk soldiers are lauded as heroes? Or, just consider the traditional ideas of what does it mean to be "a real man".

When you read about various events of violence, injustice and discrimination in the world, even if you are not tempted to blame the victims, do you notice yourself thinking something like, "Well, that's just how things are in this world" or, "This is not even so unusual", or, "That's how it's always been"? It's a sign that you are influenced by a culture that at least tolerates, if not justifies and approves of, injustice and violence.

I hope and believe that things will be much better within 100 or 300 years, just like nowadays things are much better compared to early 20th century, not to mention all the earlier centuries. The progress wasn't stopped by the two world wars or any other crisis since. In the meantime, it's the responsibility of each of us who are now alive, to add a brick or two into the foundation of a better world, if possible by being a living example of it. We might not live to see this house being finished, but we can be among its creators.

back to part 1

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