Is It Best to See a Past Abuser as Perpetrator, Victim, or Both?
To genuinely get over an emotionally painful relationship, alter how you see it.
Posted Sep 15, 2020
If in a past relationship you were gaslighted, cheated on, or otherwise deceived and exploited, concluding that you were victimized is definitely warranted. And as long as you do so in a way that generates self-compassion—devoid of any residual feelings of guilt, wrongdoing, or remorse—such redemptive self-regard can be vital to your psychological self-repair.
Perhaps the worst aspect of being betrayed is that it can seriously compromise your self-image. So if, finally, you don’t blame yourself for being duped but rather attribute it to your grossly insensitive partner, you can get on with your life without being afflicted with this handicap.
Still, if you’re to heal from your painful experience, there’s a lot more that may be necessary to do. Why? Because to move beyond whatever standstill this relationship could have left you with, you need to make peace with it, fully come to grips with it. And that can’t happen without first accepting that what transpired was probably inevitable. Given what, personally, was going on with you at the time, as well as the severe personality flaws of your disrespectful, egocentric partner, things were unfortunately destined to play out pretty much as they did.
That's not to say that the perpetrator didn’t in fact selfishly use you. At least consciously, no one wants to be the object of another’s cruelty or injustice, so the person perpetrated against could hardly be accused of knowingly encouraging, or being complicit in, this abuse.
Consequently, if earlier they felt responsible for bringing their emotional suffering on themselves, it’s critical that they grasp how, unknowingly, they got tangled in the perpetrator’s web. And, generally, without having had such a devastating relationship before, they couldn’t adequately recognize what was taking place (as in “hindsight is always 20/20, but none of us is afforded the opportunity to live life backward). It may not matter which one of you broke off the union, for the rejection—regardless of who initiated it—almost always results in the victim’s feeling less than, gotten the better of, or even ostracized.
In my extensive clinical work attempting to help individuals integrate what had shaken them to the very core, I try to help them understand the nature of this failed relationship on many levels. At the beginning, their “story” may reflect my central focus, but to help them truly digest the totality of their experience, I also have them reevaluate—critically but compassionately—the person who so took advantage of them (see, e.g., my Psychology Today post “Can Compassion Transcend Forgiveness?”, which in certain respects is closely complementary to this piece, with some of its key points reiterated here).
That is, the sooner they’re able to forgive themselves for whatever part they unwittingly played in their deception and apply self-compassion to their hurts, the sooner they can be guided toward the self-trust, healing, and inner balance that’s eluded them. Only then will they be ready to transfer this focus to their (secretively tormented) perpetrator also.
They need to ask themselves whether their partner’s making them feel weak really indicated strength on the perpetrator’s part. And whether people with strong egos (vs. big, inflated—but terribly fragile ones) really need to prove their strength by putting others down, degrading them, subordinating their needs and desires to their own.
In short, abusers develop an all-consuming “program” of exploiting others to hide deeper feelings of insecurity and inferiority. They may seem to have high self-esteem, for after all, that’s what is projected to the outside world. And, too, they may succeed in deluding themselves into fraudulently believing they’re superior, that they’re entitled, far more “special” and deserving than others. But the fact that they can’t handle criticism without all sorts of defensive pushback reveals clearly enough just how frail their ego is.
When I have my client consider what they know, or suspect, about their perpetrator’s former romantic or lustful relationships, they’re likely to share that they failed as well, and for very much the same reasons that theirs did. And this despite whatever flattering-to-self narrative the perpetrator might have glibly offered them, which never quite rang true to them in the past.
Why? Because perpetrators—most of whom are in Cluster B and have pronounced narcissistic traits— demonstrate an almost irresistible need to control everything and everybody. So when such a relationship is over, in one way or another, that ending was “engineered” by them. The main question here is if having power over others is at the heart of their personality disorder, what might this be in reaction to?
Virtually all researchers agree that, at bottom, these perpetrators are characterized by deep feelings of humiliation, worthlessness, and isolation. They themselves experienced the burden of victimhood in growing up. And the many defense mechanisms this insecurity created were extremely distrustful, self-protective strategies preventing others from reactivating the vulnerability so upsetting to them in the past (e.g., see Richard Schwartz, 2001, Introduction to the Internal Family System Model).
So—finally—how much can you blame them for all of this? Sure, it's your prerogative if that's what you want to do. And, to be sure, blaming others for our difficulties does tend to make us feel better about ourselves. But if you're seriously interested in learning all you can about how you were so susceptible to this psychologically wounding, you might want (to provide but a single instance) to consider that your own father was driven to develop an addiction because of his own desperate need to feel better about himself. And at this level, can you actually blame him? That is, don't we all strive to escape physical or psychic pain and move toward whatever offers us more pleasure, or at least takes the edge off our distress—or despair?
In other words, can you be so sure that if, however unintentionally, you were brought up as your perpetrator was, to essentially dislike yourself, and that then introduced to something (whether a substance, relationship, or activity) that made you feel less bad about yourself that you, too, wouldn't return to that addictive experience repeatedly—particularly when you started to feel down? It's hardly coincidental that we commonly talk of addictions in terms of "getting high." For the “lower” you feel, the more compelling the need to find that which can dependably lift you up. But ultimately, dependability results in dependence—and additional suffering from withdrawal symptoms when you make efforts to moderate it.
Because expanding your self-compassion precedes experiencing more compassion for another, particularly the perpetrator, and this compassion usually happens only after you engage in a process of self-forgiveness, your first task is to explore how, along with blaming the other party, you’re continuing to blame yourself. Proclaiming yourself a victim, however justified, isn't that helpful in enabling you to reconcile what happened to you without regarding yourself negatively.
I believe that when we're fully able to grasp why our parents (or anybody else) did things that harmed us, that our native capacity to experience compassion for all human suffering can enable us to let go of the self-righteous anger and resentment that impedes our personal evolution. We need to comprehend that the hurts and wrongs done to us weren’t done deliberately, but rather derived from others' not knowing how to heal their own wounds in a healthier manner. And this revised understanding can liberate us from negative feelings that may be keeping us stuck in our lives.
At first, you may have trouble convincing yourself that your parents were actually doing the best they could. But the more you're able to emotionally identify with their own troubles and torments, the more you'll discover how, given their struggles and their limited resources in coping with them, they couldn't really have done any better. In a sense, they were simply, by default, destined to make a "royal mess" of things. And hopefully, with this newfound awareness, you'll find in yourself a depth of compassion that can help put into a more positive perspective your own pain.
What if we had the same parents they did? The same genetic makeup, or personality? Or if, in growing up, we imbibed the same messages about ourselves that our "wrongdoer" did—whether of inferiority, shame, or (indeed!) entitlement? Further, what if those messages left us with the same neediness, pent-up rage, or ruthless, exploitative ambition that became their legacy?
Once "blessed" with such bounteous, high-minded, and heartfelt compassion, which actually subsumes and transcends the process of forgiving both you and your perpetrator, you're free to get on with your life—get on with it disencumbered of self-defeating thoughts and feelings toward those who, however inadvertently, did indeed harm you.
Earley, J. Self-Therapy: A step-by-step guide to creating wholeness and healing your inner child using IFS, a new, cutting-edge psychotherapy, 2d ed. Larkspur, CA: Pattern System Books, 2009.
Schwartz, R. (2001). Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model. Oak Park, IL: Trailheads Publications. https://ifs-institute.com/store/39
Schwartz, R. (2008). You are the one you’ve been waiting for: Bringing courageous love to intimate relationships. Oak Park, IL: Trailheads Publications. https://ifs-institute.com/store/37
Seltzer, L. F. (2009, Sept 15). Child entitlement abuse. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/evolution-the-self/200909/child-entitlement-abuse-part-1-5
Seltzer, L. F. (2014, Feb 12) What if your ambivalence can’t be resolved? https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/evolution-the-self/201402/what-if-your-ambivalence-can-t-be-resolved?amp=
Seltzer, L. F. (2018, May 30). The internal blame game: How you’re at war with yourself. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/evolution-the-self/201805/the-internal-blame-game-how-you-re-war-yourself