Unseen traps in abusive relationships

Most of the time, people don’t realize they are in abusive relationships for majority of the time they are in them.

We tend to think there are communication problems or that someone has anger management issues; we try to problem solve; we believe our abusive partner is just “troubled” and maybe “had a bad childhood”, or “stressed out” and “dealing with a lot”.

We recognize that the relationship has problems, but not that our partner is the problem.

And so people work so hard at ‘trying to fix the relationship’, and what that tends to mean is that they change their behavior to accommodate their partner.

So much of the narrative behind the abusive relationship dynamic is that the abusive partner is controlling and scheming/manipulative, and the victim made powerless. And people don’t recognize themselves because their partner likely isn’t scheming like a mustache-twisting villain, and they don’t feel powerless.

Trying to apply healthy communication strategies with a non-functional person simply doesn’t work.

But when you don’t realize that you are dealing with a non-functional or personality disordered person, all this does is make the victim more vulnerable, all this does is put the focus on the victim or the relationship instead of the other person.

In a healthy, functional relationship, you take ownership of your side of the situation and your partner takes ownership of their side, and either or both apologize, as well as identify what they can do better next time.

In an unhealthy, non-functional relationship, one partner takes ownership of ‘their side of the situation’ and the other uses that against them. The non-functional partner is allergic to blame, never admits they are wrong, or will only do so by placing the blame on their partner. The victim identifies what they can do better next time, and all responsibility, fault, and blame is shifted to them.

Each person is operating off a different script.

The person who is the target of the abusive behavior is trying to act out the script for what they’ve been taught about healthy relationships. The person who is the controlling partner is trying to make their reality real, one in which they are acted upon instead of the actor, one in which they are never to blame, one in which their behavior is always justified, one in which they are always right.

One partner is focused on their partner and relationship, and one partner is focused on themselves.

In a healthy relationship dynamic, partners should be accommodating and compromise and make themselves vulnerable and admit to their mistakes. This is dangerous in a relationship with an unhealthy and non-functional person.

This is what makes this person “unsafe”; this is an unsafe person.

Even if we can’t recognize someone as an abuser, as abusive, we can recognize when someone is unsafe; we can recognize that we can’t predict when they’ll be awesome or when they’ll be selfish and controlling; we can recognize that we don’t like who we are with this person; we can recognize that we don’t recognize who we are with this person.

/u/Issendai talks about how we get trapped by our virtues, not our vices.

Our loyalty.
Our honesty.
Our willingness to take their perspective.
Our ability and desire to support our partner.
To accommodate them.
To love them unconditionally.
To never quit, because you don’t give up on someone you love.
To give, because that is what you want to do for someone you love.

But there is little to no reciprocity.

Or there is unpredictable reciprocity, and therefore intermittent reinforcement. You never know when you’ll get the partner you believe yourself to be dating – awesome, loving, supportive – and you keep trying until you get that person. You’re trying to bring reality in line with your perspective of reality, and when the two match, everything just. feels. so. right.

And we trust our feelings when they support how we believe things to be.

We do not trust our feelings when they are in opposition to what we believe. When our feelings are different than what we expect, or from what we believe they should be, we discount them. No one wants to be an irrational, illogical person.

And so we minimize our feelings. And justify the other person’s actions and choices.

An unsafe person, however, deals with their feelings differently.

For them, their feelings are facts. If they feel a certain way, then they change reality to bolster their feelings. Hence gaslighting. Because you can’t actually change reality, but you can change other people’s perceptions of reality, you can change your own perception and memory.

When a ‘safe’ person questions their feelings, they may be operating off the wrong script, the wrong paradigm. And so they question themselves because they are confused; they get caught in the hamster wheel of trying to figure out what is going on, because they are subconsciously trying to get reality to make sense again.

An unsafe person doesn’t question their feelings; and when they feel intensely, they question and accuse everything or everyone else. (Unless their abuse is inverted, in which they denigrate and castigate themselves to make their partner cater to them.)

Generally, the focus of the victim is on what they are doing wrong and what they can do better, on how the relationship can be fixed, and on their partner’s needs.

The focus of the aggressor is on what the victim is doing wrong and what they can do better, on how that will fix any problems, and on meeting their own needs, and interpreting their wants as needs.

The victim isn’t focused on meeting their own needs when they should be.

The aggressor is focused on meeting their own needs when they shouldn’t be.

Whose needs have to be catered to in order for the relationship to function?
Whose needs have priority?
Whose needs are reality- and relationship-defining?
Which partner has become almost completely unrecognizable?
Which partner has control?

We think of control as being verbal, but it can be non-verbal and subtle.

A hoarder, for example, controls everything in a home through their selfish taking of living space. An ‘inconsiderate spouse’ can be controlling by never telling the other person where they are and what they are doing: If there are children involved, how do you make plans? How do you fairly divide up childcare duties? Someone who lies or withholds information is controlling their partner by removing their agency to make decisions for themselves.

Sometimes it can be hard to see controlling behavior for what it is.

Especially if the controlling person seems and acts like a victim, and maybe has been victimized before. They may have insecurities they expect their partner to manage. They may have horribly low self-esteem that can only be (temporarily) bolstered by their partner’s excessive and focused attention on them.

The tell is where someone’s focus is, and whose perspective they are taking.

And saying something like, “I don’t know how you can deal with me. I’m so bad/awful/terrible/undeserving…it must be so hard for you”, is not actually taking someone else’s perspective. It is projecting your own perspective on to someone else.

One way of determining whether someone is an unsafe person, is to look at their boundaries.

Are they responsible for ‘their side of the street’?
Do they take responsibility for themselves?
Are they taking responsibility for others (that are not children)?
Are they taking responsibility for someone else’s feelings?
Do they expect others to take responsibility for their feelings?

We fall for someone because we like how we feel with them, how they ‘make’ us feel

…because we are physically attracted, because there is chemistry, because we feel seen and our best selves; because we like the future we imagine with that person. When we no longer like how we feel with someone, when we no longer like how they ‘make’ us feel, unsafe and safe people will do different things and have different expectations.

Unsafe people feel entitled.
Unsafe people have poor boundaries.
Unsafe people have double-standards.
Unsafe people are unpredictable.
Unsafe people are allergic to blame.
Unsafe people are self-focused.
Unsafe people will try to meet their needs at the expense of others.
Unsafe people are aggressive, emotionally and/or physically.
Unsafe people do not respect their partner.
Unsafe people show contempt.
Unsafe people engage in ad hominem attacks.
Unsafe people attack character instead of addressing behavior.
Unsafe people are not self-aware.
Unsafe people have little or unpredictable empathy for their partner.
Unsafe people can’t adapt their worldview based on evidence.
Unsafe people are addicted to “should”.
Unsafe people have unreasonable standards and expectations.

We can also fall for someone because they unwittingly meet our emotional needs.

Unmet needs from childhood, or needs to be treated a certain way because it is familiar and safe.

One unmet need I rarely see discussed is the need for physical touch. For a child victim of abuse, particularly, moving through the world but never being touched is traumatizing. And having someone meet that physical, primal need is intoxicating.

Touch is so fundamental to our well-being, such a primary and foundational need, that babies who are untouched ‘fail to thrive’ and can even die. Harlow’s experiments show that baby primates will choose a ‘loving’, touching mother over an ‘unloving’ mother, even if the loving mother has no milk and the unloving mother does.

The person who touches a touch-starved person may be someone the touch-starved person cannot let go of.

Even if they don’t know why.