This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Overcoming Codependency” seminar. This portion is an excerpt from “Step Three: UNDERSTAND the impact of my suffering.” To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.
“Abuse doesn’t end when the abuse stops (p. 157).” Melody Beattie in The New Codependency
Abuse is an event(s) with lingering consequences. That is what the question, “I said I was sorry, why are you still upset?” misses. Abuse is an event more like a house fire than a cigarette burn. A burn produces initial pain, but heals with little more than scar. A house fire has more far reaching consequences.
“Children who witness the abuse often experience their mother’s powerlessness and humiliation. Many lose their childhood innocence because their sense of security has been violated and they feel dramatically unsafe. Children often develop anxiety in anticipation of the next attack, blame themselves for the abuse, and fear abandonment – especially if they should fail to keep the violence secret. They are left isolated and frightened as they carry the weight of shame, responsibility, guilt, and anger (p. 62).” Justin and Lindsey Holcomb in Is It My Fault?
This section examines five effects of an abusive relationship. These impacts may overlap with addictive relationships.
1. Physical Pain
The most tangible effect of abuse may be – if the injuries are not life threatening – the least impactful. That is not to downplay physical pain. It’s just that bruises heal and broken bones mend. It’s obvious when they’re present and they illicit sympathy from others. The other effects we will discuss do not provide these courtesies.
What forms of physical pain have your abusive relationship(s) caused for you?
How does it feel to write these events and injuries on paper? This question leads us to the next effect.
2. Emotional Pain
Abuse means we have to “deal with” things we were never meant to deal with. Healthy coping strategies were never meant to have to process the violent betrayal of a trusted love one. The result is that our emotions can be all over the place; for reasons that are, at least initially, not very clear to us.
“Destructive relationships make it extremely difficult to think calmly, clearly, and truthfully, especially when we feel frightened, intimidated, or deceived (p. 53).” Leslie Vernick in The Emotionally Destructive Relationship
- Fear – When our safety is in question, it is natural to be afraid. When we’re not sure what will jeopardize our safety, it is natural to be afraid for no reason (at least that the immediate situation would call for). The result is that fear migrates from a response to danger to a persistent emotional state.
- Guilt – From the time we were young, it has been natural to reason backwards from “if I’m being punished” then “I have done something wrong.” Punishment meant guilt. Our emotions habituate to this correlation. However, in abuse, this correlation is no longer accurate, but it may be dangerous to point this out. Guilt over being abused is false-guilt.
- Shame / Embarrassment – When guilt changes from a response to “what I’ve done” to a sense of “who I am” it has become shame. Our sense of embarrassment and shame is one way we can take undue responsibility for someone else’s behavior. We pay the social price for the sin committed against us.
- Anger – Abuse is wrong. Anger over abuse is right. Displaying that anger towards our abuser can be dangerous. But that doesn’t make the anger evaporates. So the anger often begins to leak into relationships that are safe and spill onto the people with whom we do feel safe.
- Sense of “Going Crazy” – What happens when your “at home” world doesn’t play by consistent rules and your “outside home” world goes on as if nothing is happening? You feel crazy. Imagine driving when the traffic lights and signs lost all pattern and meaning. Now imagine you look around and the other drivers seem calm. You would feel crazy. That’s life as part of an abusive relationship.
- Despair – For a while, you think “things will get better.” You’re not sure when or how, but it’s hard to imagine things will always be like this. At some point that optimism fades, and it is crushing. That is often what prompts people to look for a study like this. While the pain of despair is excruciating, the prompt to begin to respond to the dysfunction differently can be a blessing.
“One of the most important things to know about the impact of abuse is that these mood swings and dysfunctions are a natural and normal way of dealing with trauma. Unfortunately, many people look at these symptoms and think that the problem lies with the victim, when in fact these responses to trauma are perfectly normal (p. 71).” Justin and Lindsey Holcomb in Is It My Fault?
What forms of emotional pain have your abusive relationship(s) caused for you?
3. Relational Confusion
Imagine playing a sport where you were forced to play by the rules and your opponent was not. Now imagine that rules that you were forced to play by were frequently subject to change and came with stiff penalties. That is life in an abusive relationship. It is confusing, because it is both unfair and ever-changing.
There is no profile for an individual who is abusive. Any one, of any personality or history, can be abusive. But the qualities below are relatively common to abusive individuals and account for the relational confusion of abuse.
- Double Bind – A double bind is a set of expectations that are both individually reasonable and mutually exclusive. A spouse may want more time together or for each partner to work more to retire debt. Either is reasonable; together they are mutually exclusive. A double bind, which is usually unintentional, creates a trap where the other person is set up to fail. In a non-abusive relationship, double binds are unhealthy and hard to identify. In an abusive relationship, double binds are dangerous and unsafe to discuss in isolation.
- Mood Instability – The more predictable someone’s moods, the less likely they are to be abusive. When our responses to life are consistent, the more an agreed upon rhythm emerges between us and those around us. It is normal to have some mood fluctuation (i.e., “waking up on the wrong side of the bed”) but as this tendency becomes more pronounced, relationships become more volatile.
- Impulsivity – Abusive individuals are very self-centered. The willingness to harm another individual reveals how much their desire trumps the well-being of others. Being driven by one’s own desires, often results in an impulsive style of decision making. It is not only moods that change, but desires and goals also shift frequently and starkly. We live trying to read the moment because that is what the abusive relationship demands.
- Rigidity – On the opposite side of impulsivity is rigidity. Some abusers are impulsive – it’s unclear how to please them; other abusers are rigid – unwilling to accept legitimate delays to their desired outcomes. From this we see that abuse is about extremes; the same quality (i.e., goal focus) can be distorted either rigidly or impulsively and contribute to an abusive dynamic. We begin to live as if this “one thing” is all that matters because it is what determines whether we are safe.
- Tumultuous Relationships – When a primary relationship (i.e., parent, spouse, boss, etc.) is chaotic, it is difficult for other relationships to be unaffected. We often expect others to be as difficult to please as our abusive relationship. We become either too accommodating (to keep the peace) or defensive (to set boundaries) for the other relationship to develop a healthy balance.
- Identity Confusion – Living to appease someone else distracts us from discovering who God made us to be. We begin to live-to-survive more than to fulfill-a-purpose. Pursuing God’s design is perceived as a luxury that can only be considered after safety is ensured. The result is that we never get around to asking, “Who am I? Why am I here?” because we’re fearfully answering, “How can I keep [name] happy?”
- Recency Effect – The “recency effect” refers to the tendency to define life by the most recent event or a person by your most recent interaction. The recency effect is very strong on abusive individuals and they train those whom they abuse to be unduly influenced by the recency effect. The result is that whether the most recent event/interaction was great or terrible (the recency effect is usually accompanied by all-or-nothing thinking) disproportionately influences your emotions and perception of life.
- Grandiosity – Abusive individuals often over-value their own significance. This can be seen in the much larger response to an offense against them, than in their response to an offense against others. The abused individual begins to live with this same priority; “my abuser is more important than I am” for two related reasons. It is a survival skill. There is an assumption that those who can do damage are more important.
What forms of relational confusion have your abusive relationship(s) caused for you?
4. Spiritual Confusion
In unhealthy relationships, God-questions abound. Where is God? Does God care? Whose team if God on? If God doesn’t change this relationship, why do I still bother with him?
Additionally, Scripture is often used as a point of leverage or justification for the abusive patterns. What does it mean to forgive someone in active addiction or who is frequently abusive? Can we forgive and still enforce consequences? Is it a sign of bitterness to draw attention to a pattern of behavior (which involves appealing to past offenses)?
These are the kind of questions we will grapple with in Steps Four through Six. At this stage in the journey, we would want the inclusion of this material to accomplish two things. First, to help you realize you’re not “crazy” for feeling this way. Second, to bring comfort that you’re not being “a bad Christian” for asking these questions.
What forms of spiritual confusion have your abusive relationship(s) caused for you?
5. Distorted Self-Image
In relationships marked by addiction, abuse, or comparable forms of dysfunction, you feel powerless and stupid. Never have you tried so hard at anything only to see it continually fall apart and fail. The longer this goes on, the more it affects your sense of identity and competency as a human being.
One of the first things we look for in chaos is control. We don’t want to live out-of-control lives. Responsibility seems to be the door to control, so we begin to assume responsibility for more and more of the things that are going badly around us. We will pay the price of guilt for the relief of perceived control.
Maybe it worked for a while. But eventually we are either crushed under the weight of guilt for everything that is going wrong or overwhelmed by reality of very limited control over important things. Usually, we don’t choose one or the other (i.e., crushed under guilt or overwhelmed by lack of control), but vacillate between the two.
We learn something important here. Unhealthy coping mechanisms usually give short-term benefits, especially in the midst of dysfunction, and long-term detriments, particularly when we are outside the dysfunctional environment. In this way, we begin to live like an addict; trading short-term relief for long-term pain.
What kept us safe in dysfunction that lets dysfunction into what could otherwise be healthy relationships.
- Avoiding certain topics is safe in abusive relationships, but keeps healthy relationships at a superficial level.
- Taking on additional responsibilities may be a survival skill in an addictive home, but results in potentially healthy relationships always feeling one-sided.
- Adapting to the moment prevents escalation in unhealthy relationships, but when this is all we do, we can make it feel like we don’t have a voice even in healthy relationships.
What forms of distorted self-image have your abusive relationship(s) caused for you?
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Codependency” post which address other facets of this subject.