Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

Understanding the Dynamics of Abusive Relationships

Kiss me, kill me, kiss me, again - the dynamics of abusive relationships

Abusive relationships are fairly simple. They are driven by insecurity, fear that feeds that insecurity and an expectation of inconsistency, both real and perceived.

An abuser is morbidly insecure. S/he (yes, potentially, she) has little sense of his/her own social value and makes an effort to gain or re-gain some semblance of that value through domination and control. The fear that feeds that insecurity has two fronts: fear of not being lovable, and fear of appearing weak. The paradox here is that the abuser is, in fact, weak, which is why s/he abuses -- to maintain a sense of control -- in the first place. The perceived inconsistency on the part of the abuser by the victim is that the victim is not submitting to the abuser's domination.

The victim is also morbidly insecure and for surprisingly similar reasons. S/he also has little sense of his/her own social value, but makes an effort to establish that value by losing him/herself to the demand for submission. The fear that feeds this insecurity is also about not being lovable or loved, and there is a willingness to accept the inconsistency of the abuser's attention for the sake of being loved.

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The pathological need to control on the part of the abuser and the pathological need for attention on the part of the victim is a match made in heaven. We are all just a bunch of neurotic habits that tend to find a fit with our opposite to create a psychosocial balance. Abusive relationships are one of the most extreme cases of this dynamic.

So, what do abusive relationships look like? Well, it's not always about being slapped around. Abusive relationships come in all forms along with physical abuse - social abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse (we are not referring here to molestation), financial abuse, etc. Abuse is about a dynamic of extremes, domination and submission. It is about giving and withholding, also in the extreme.

Let's look at social abuse. Have you ever had a boss who praises you one minute, and makes you wonder if you'll have a job tomorrow the next? Or let's you work yourself to the bone on a project, only to take credit or give the credit to someone else? That's an abusive dynamic. Your boss has a need to control you because s/he is threatened by you, or has a sense of insecurity about his/her own ability to motivate or lead. And you have a need for a job -- a metaphor for being loved - so you put up with it; you submit.

The abuser is also driven by a more subtle and primitive sense of fear. Because s/he is often limited in his/her social perspective, and sees things only from an egocentric perspective (i.e., has not developed a sense of ethnocentric compassion), s/he will lash out when s/he sees no other options.

The victim, on the other hand, tends to be an emotional anorexic. Starving themselves, or allowing him/herself to be starved and then gorging themselves on whatever comes his/her way only to feel guilty about it later because of a sense of not deserving what s/he has received; a state of mind that drives his/her neediness - needing, not having...having, not wanting...needing, again.

Sometimes for the victim there is also a sense of familiarity and comfort in an abusive relationship, which is why victims will often return to an abusive relationship or, leaving one, will unconsciously seek out another.

Think about growing up. Was there something that your family did that was unusual (sitting around at night, singing together or working in a community garden) that you just assumed everyone did, and you were later surprised to find that you were mistaken? It's the same thing - if you are socialized to equate love with pain or withholding, then you will seek out love in that form.

My favorite example of this is the silverware drawer. Think about where the silverware drawer was in the house in which you grew up. Now, think about where it is in your house. Allowing for architectural differences, I suspect about 90% of you will find that it's in the same place is was when you grew up. It's a memory map...why fix it, if it's not broken?

But what if you don't, or can't, recognize that it's broken? That's where we get ourselves into trouble and how we come to repeat social and relational patterns.

Abusive relationships are tricky and, just as a fish doesn't know that he's wet, we often don't see the subtle markers for abuse in a relationship because we are in it. Further, relationships fill our needs and, when our needs are being met, we don't necessarily have an imperative to take a look at how they are being met.

Here's the thing. It all comes back to us, to our responsibility and accountability. But, in this case, it comes back to responsibility to ourselves and accountability to ourselves. Instead of just riding the wave, if we choose to mindfully examine the nature of our relationships and make a determination of what is acceptable and not acceptable to us, of what feeds us, rather than bleeds us, then we are living, and loving, authentically and with mindful awareness.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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