Why People Struggle to End Verbally Abusive Relationships
Our brains are not equipped for predicting the behavior of illogical people.
Posted Nov 16, 2016
After getting out of a verbally abusive relationship and entering counseling, Destiny contacted her abusive ex, Andy. She had just found out that she had breast cancer and was reaching out for support. They texted back and forth for a while. He then told her that he had also been in counseling, that he wanted to support her through her treatment, and that he loved her. Then Destiny made what she refers to as "a stupid mistake"—she took him back.
One night at Andy's place Destiny, who had just begun radiation treatment, told him that she was sad and very scared. She tried to talk to him about her feelings. He listened for a bit, but then said, “That’s all you talk about. Just be happy.” Destiny responded, “You said you would support me. I just wanted you to listen.” Andy got mad and screamed, “There is something seriously wrong with you. It is over, we are done! Get out!"
Destiny left. This was not the end of it. After numerous other abusive remarks and threats, Andy contacted her again. He wanted to put his behavior behind them, as if it was not a big deal. Luckily, Destiny was smart enough not to take him back again. But her story raises a question: Why do so many people go back to verbally abusive relationships?
Having an insecure attachment style owing to mistreatment or neglect in childhood can contribute to our tolerance for verbal or emotional abuse. But there are other factors that make people overlook the early-warning signs of verbal abuse and continue in an abusive relationship, even after they realize they're being subject to abuse. As Patricia Evans notes in her book, Verbal Abuse: Survivors Speak Out, it is wrong to assume that only people with difficult upbringings, a lack of education, or struggles establishing a career and finding friends are verbally abused. Evans reports that her clients range from homemakers to business people, and even relationship therapists.
What are other factors that contribute to our tolerance of verbal abuse? The answer has to do with something we all have—a theory of mind. This refers to a set of assumptions, beliefs, and predictions about other people’s behavior. How accurate our theory of mind is depends on a number of factors, including the behavior we were exposed to in childhood and our later friendships and relationships. If we are exposed to odd and unpredictable behavior as children, we might come to see this kind of behavior as the norm, which causes us to frequently make the wrong predictions about others.
People with a secure attachment style are more likely to have a highly accurate theory of mind. But even if you are securely attached, your theory of mind is suitable only for making predictions about the behavior of people who are acting fairly rationally. When we are exposed to someone whose behavior does not follow a logical pattern, our assumptions, beliefs, and predictions are bound to be unreliable.
Verbal abusers are extremely illogical in their behavior: They can appear sweet and charming to the rest of the world, but act like monsters behind closed doors—except when they want something from you. These people express the type of ungrounded anger you normally see only in people who have been seriously wronged. They can go from a neutral mood to rage in seconds. They blame their partner for things over which that person has no control. They even blame their partner for their own abusive behavior.
Because their behavior is so illogical, a person with an otherwise accurate theory of mind can make the wrong predictions about an abusive person again and again. Your mind is not going to update an otherwise successful theory of mind based on the behavior of a single individual. The unconscious brain is likely to set aside the illogical behavior as a one-off case and continue to apply the otherwise accurate theory of mind to the person.
Destiny, for example, found rational explanations for her ex’s abusive behavior and treated his sudden, kind, and sweet behavior as a sign that he changed. So, she returned to her abuser, expecting him to behave differently.
The truth is that the only accurate predictions we can make about verbal abusers is that they will not follow normal behavioral schemes. Verbally abusive people do not show anger only when they feel wronged by the person their anger is directed toward. They do not blame and criticize people only when there are grounds for blaming and criticizing. They do not accept favors from people only when they feel they deserve favorable treatment.
In this type of situation, the best thing you can do is to keep this hard-learned lesson in mind: Your otherwise accurate theory of mind does not apply to people who are verbally abusive. To keep yourself safe, stay away from the abuser and watch out for early signs of abuse when you're pursuing someone new.
Berit "Brit" Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love.