- There are certain circumstances that can set a person up to enter a relationship with an abusive partner.
- Many victims repeat a pattern based on what they learned by witnessing their parents' behavior or having been abused in childhood.
- Life experiences such as being abandoned, neglected, or overly controlled can also contribute to being attracted to an abusive person.
In my previous post, we began a discussion about the importance of self-understanding. Self-understanding can help you realize why you ended up in an abusive relationship in the first place, as well as why you stayed in one. For example, while any man or woman can find themselves in an abusive relationship, there are certain circumstances that can set a person up to enter such a relationship and to have a difficult time leaving an abusive partner. In particular, it has been found that victims of abuse have a history of the following:
- Being emotionally, physically or sexually abused in childhood
- Being neglected in childhood
- Being emotionally or physically abandoned as a child
- Having a personality disordered parent (narcissist or borderline)
- Having a parent who is an alcoholic or alcohol or drug abuser
If your childhood history includes any of the above, it is understandable that you would have been attracted to an emotionally abusive partner.
I want to make something very clear. This is not about victim blaming. Nor am I saying that every victim comes from an abusive family environment. There are some victims of emotional abuse who come from healthy families. But there are also many who come from dysfunctional or abusive families where they had at least one parent who was abusive to their partner and/or children. If this is your situation, part of forgiving yourself for the abuse is to come to understand that you were in fact, repeating a pattern. This was the case with my client Kara. (Please note: all the names and identifying information have been changed to protect my clients’ privacy).
“I don’t know why I didn’t see it before, but my husband is very much like my abusive father. They have so many of the same characteristics. They are both self-involved and have very little awareness or concern for the feelings of others. On the other hand, they are both extremely thin-skinned and get their feelings hurt all the time. Just as my father constantly complained to my mother that she didn’t care about him, my husband complained about the same thing. He always felt slighted by me. If I wasn’t paying constant attention to him he felt neglected. Now, when I look back I remember that my father was the same way. Meeting his needs was supposed to be my mother’s main job. He expected her to drop whatever she was doing as soon as he came home. My husband had the same expectation. He even called me several times a day to tell me to run an errand for him. It was as if he thought my entire existence was to take care of his needs.
“Now that I see the similarities between my husband and my father I realize I was just doing what both my parents taught me to do. To my parents, the woman is supposed to be subservient to the man. My father acted this out in front of us kids all the time and my mother went along with it and didn’t complain. No wonder I married who I did and no wonder I ended up acting just like my mother!”
This new awareness was the key to Kara being able to forgive herself for marrying an abusive man. As soon as she was able to connect her past with her present she was able to forgive herself for choosing an abusive partner.
There is still another way that coming from an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional family can set you up to be attracted to an abusive partner. In an attempt to undo the past and reach a different outcome, many people find that they are intensely attracted to a partner who is a replica of an abusive parent. On an unconscious level it is as if they believe that if they can get their partner to appreciate them, love them, or not abandon them, it can undo what their abusive parent did to them. This phenomena is called the repetition compulsion.
We can be involved in the repetition compulsion even when we deliberately try to find a partner who is different from an abusive or neglectful parent. This was the situation with my client Kelly who didn’t realize that she had married a man who was a replica of her father. “I just never saw the similarities. In fact, I thought I was marrying a man who was the opposite of my father,” she explained during one of her sessions.
Kelly had made the mistake of focusing on outward appearances when choosing a partner. Her husband Lucas had qualities that were very different from her father, like the fact that he didn’t drink, was more financially stable, and was more outgoing than her father ever was. But the repetition compulsion is very powerful unconscious drive and can cause us to be blind to traits that are far more troublesome. In Kelly’s case, although her future husband appeared to be much more outgoing and accepting than her father ever was, when she got to know him better she realized he was actually very critical of others, just as her father had been.
If you suspect that perhaps you repeated a pattern from your parent’s marriage, or you chose a partner because of the repetition compulsion, the following exercise will help you determine whether either or both are true for you.
Exercise: Discovering Your Pattern
- Draw a vertical line down the center of a piece of paper
- In the section closest to the right margin, make a list of your ex-partner’s emotional characteristics, both positive and negative (i.e. demanding, critical, good sense of humor).
- In the section furthest from the right margin write down the emotional characteristics (good and bad) of the person who was most abusive or neglectful toward you as you were growing up. It can be one of your parents or another family member or caretaker.
- Read over your two lists and compare your answers. Circle the things the two people have in common.
This exercise can help you better recognize your pattern—the reasons why you were attracted to your ex-partner.
Other Reasons Why Your Past May Have Created Your Future
While repeating a pattern of replicating your parents’ relationship or choosing a partner who is like one or both of your parents is the most obvious reason for choosing an abusive partner, there are other life situations that can also influence our choice of partner. For example, ask yourself, “What occurred in my childhood, adolescence or early adulthood that could have had an impact on who I became attracted to or conversely, who was attracted to me?
For example, if your mother or father emotionally or physically abandoned you as a child doesn’t it make sense that you might have been attracted to someone who wanted to be with you all the time? Even if this person was overly possessive or jealous, isn’t it understandable that it might have felt good to have someone care where you are all the time? Someone who couldn’t bear to be without you? Wouldn’t this have comforted you since you are always afraid of being abandoned again?
Melinda was sexually abused by a neighbor from the time she was 8 years old until she was 11. This abuse had a profound effect on how she felt about herself, primarily due to the intense amount of shame she experienced. “For years I hated myself,” she told me. “I thought the abuse was my fault because he told me I had seduced him and because I kept going back. After all, if I didn’t like it, why did I do that?
“Because I felt so bad about myself I didn’t think any man would want me. I wasn’t popular in high school, in fact, boys pretty much ignored me. So when a guy at my first job started paying attention to me, I was pleasantly surprised. I was used to being passive, so it didn’t bother me that he liked to be the one in charge of everything—like where we went and even what kind of sex we had. When he asked me to marry him I was thrilled that anyone would even want me given how bad I felt about myself. That began almost 15 years of utter hell, with my husband treating me like a slave and increasingly becoming more and more demanding sexually.
“I realize now, that if I had not been sexually abused I would have never married my husband. I would have realized that it isn’t right for one partner to have total control over every aspect of the marriage. And I certainly wouldn’t have given in to his outrageous and abusive sexual demands.”
Still Other Reasons for Being Attracted to an Abuser
While you may be one of the victims of emotional abuse who came from a healthy family, you may have gone through some kind of devastating loss (i.e. the death of a parent, a break-up or divorce) just before you met your emotionally abusive partner. Because of this loss you were especially vulnerable and the abusive person was able to prey upon this vulnerability.
This is what my client Elena shared with me, “I realize now that I would have never been attracted to my husband if I hadn’t just lost my Dad. I was devastated and this made me vulnerable to my husband’s charm. He swooped in and rescued me, holding me while I cried, listening to me as I talked endlessly about how much I missed my father. He was so kind and loving that I fell in love with him almost immediately. I didn’t recognize that I was just trying to replace my father with another man.”
If any of the information from above seems to explain your attraction to an abusive person or if you identify with any of the case examples, this should help you understand why you became involved with an abusive person. Forgive yourself.
This post was excerpted from my book Escaping Emotional Abuse.
Engel, Beverly (2021). Escaping Emotional Abuse: Healing from the Shame You Don't Deserve. N.Y., New York: Citadel Press.