When Love Turns to Abuse

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By John Biroc, Ph.D, MDT and clinical director and therapist at Alter Health Group

Human beings naturally affiliate. We gravitate toward friendships, bonds with family, work connections and community relationships. It is through these connections that we begin to form a sense of our own identity, where our sense of “self” is formed through the bonds we make with others. We need to know where we belong and how we fit in the big picture. 

Through identification with the family of origin, children’s sense of identity is developed via the role models of mom, dad, grandpa, grandma, uncles, aunts and others in the immediate family. During the adolescent period, teens pull away from the assigned self-label formulated by the family and look for an identity within the larger community.  

Eric Erikson designed a stage theory of human development that is presented in terms of crises or turning points. Erikson defined the adolescent period as “Identity vs. Confusion.” If teens are not able to form a concept of who they are within the vast society, they are left with a sense of confusion which leads to anxiety and often extreme acting out in an attempt to push limits and seek boundaries of self.  

I recently purchased a new car and it came with three different manuals to help me navigate through the modern age of buttons and automatic safety reactions. We are not cars; we do not enter the world with manuals. We tend to learn about life and our place within life through engagement. Existentialism describes our entry into the world not as being born, but being thrown. For after we arrive, we have to plot our course through the uncharted vastness of the world. In great part, this understanding of the world and our position within it comes about through our affiliations with others.  

Soon we begin to formulate a concept of what the world is and how we need to maneuver the quagmire of interpersonal interactions. This quickly becomes what psychologists call the “Comfort Zone.” This zone is often not that necessarily comfortable, but it is, at least, “known.”

Through our life experiences, we continually enter passages into our personal manuals and tuck those manuals away in our subconscious to call on later for definitions and guidance.

It’s difficult to look at abusive relationships without understanding the formulation of this “Comfort Zone” and the need to form bonds with other human beings; however, these connections can become abusive — both physically and emotionally — do to the subjective motivations of either (or both) party.

Amy was a college student in one of my classes. She was, vibrant, intelligent and personable. She dropped into my office on one sunny California afternoon. She closed the door behind her, sat, took a deep breath and began to tell me about her father who had died about seven years earlier. “I’d like to bring him back to life so I could talk to him. I feel so unfinished with that relationship,” she said. “So you could tell him how much you miss him?” I inquired. “No,” she said, “…to tell him how much I hate him for his attitude toward me. He put me down in public, made fun of the things I did and was physically.” She began to unravel the story of her relationships, telling me that, at the young age of 28, she had been married five times. As we spoke, I asked about her husbands. Amy portrayed each one with the exact words she used to describe her deceased father.  

In order to put her experiences into some form of intellectual control, she married the same abusive personalities for one of three reasons:  

  1. It’s the only kind of close relationship she knew. 
  2. With each new relationship, she was driven by the thought, “This time, I’ll be able to change him,” and thus provide the bookends to her unfinished father issues.
  3. Or, “I hate him and I’ll get even with him by making him suffer.” This, of course, contributes to the abuse.

The early pattern of abuse had become the “known” of her life and was therefore embraced.

What does abuse look like in a relationship? 

An abusive situation involves the demeaning of one person in the relationship by means of forcing dominance by the other through physical, sexual or emotional means. This is administered without the expressed consent of the victim. Even though the victim attempts to avoid the abuse, the victim remains in the relationship and often contributes to the engineering of the abuse pattern. It must be noted that the frequent return of the victim to the relationship infers to the perpetrator, through positive reinforcement, that the relationship, although abusive, is accepted.

Signs that might indicate someone is/was in an abusive relationship?

The victim is often told that he or she is worthless; that “no one besides me would ever accept you! You are flawed and need to have my control.” This does not necessarily have to be verbally stated, but implied or played out through physical and/or sexual means. As a person is being physically struck, for example, the implication is that they are only objects, not humans. As a therapist, I will be aware of language that indicates abuse, look for physical signs such as black-and-blue marks around the arm or neck as well as black eyes or burns, a drastic lowering of self-esteem indicated by withdrawal or frequent therapy session cancellations.  In addition, investigating a person’s social involvement could also indicate the same type of withdrawal because of embarrassment over the abuse should someone find out. It is the opposite of this withdrawal — healthy human bonding — that is required for re-balancing and support through the process.

In the case of sexual abuse with children, abuse would be suspected if the child uses language alluding to sex or uses sexual connotations before the normally expected age of awareness of sex. Teachers are always on the lookout for physical signs such as black-and-blue marks around the child’s body as well as sudden shyness and/or withdrawal from social contacts.  

Could abuse lead to long-term after effects?

Of course, it could. In addition to the risk of physical injury, the abuse can take a major toll on the emotional stability of the victim by creating depression, low self-esteem, suicidal ideation and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to studies, rates of PTSD among abused women are about three times higher than non-battered women. In an attempt to flee the abuse, women have often become homeless and/or turned to drugs and alcohol to alleviate the emotional and physical pain. 

The situation is amplified by the emotional toll abuse takes on children growing up in abusive households. In one study, 85 percent of abusive interactions are witnessed by children. Imagine the information about life that these children are placing in their personal manuals!

What are some common thoughts/feelings/experiences someone might have after leaving an abusive relationship?

There has been a researched pattern referred to as the “cycle of abuse” that can occur in relationships. The relationship starts out calmly and respectfully. An event happens that propels the abuse. There is then a distancing within the relationship. The perpetrator experiences the distance and his/her sense of loss (of both the other person and of acquired power), so the perpetrator apologizes profusely which leads to the “Honeymoon Phase.” This is the time when the victim is again victimized through the weapon of attention and adoration from the other. All is love and light and the relationship returns to “normal.” That is, until there’s another event that threatens the perpetrator and brings up his/her insecurities that ignites the abuse. And so, the cycle continues. If the abuse is a part of the Comfort Zone, both parties may be contributing to the continuation of the abusive relationship.

For example, the feelings a person might have after leaving an abusive relationship can often be determined by their position on the abuse cycle and the number of times they have been through the cycle. The lure of the “Honeymoon Phase” can be such that a victim will yearn for the repeated closeness that is marked by this phase and the concept that “this time it will be different,” will repeat in the mind of the victim and cause a desire to go back. The dangerous delusion of “If I am strong and loving, I can change him,” often leads to an obsessive longing to go back. This strong honeymoon period is a classic case of positive reinforcement. 

On the other hand, if the cycle has not been repeated over time, when victims leave the relationship with the understanding of the cycle, they can grasp the notion that they may have mis-chosen their partner in the first place and move on without the pull of the repeated positive reinforcement. 

How long might it take to heal?

This is very difficult to ascertain as it involves the reinforcement of the abuse cycle in an adult relationship and the history of the victim being victimized as a part of their upbringing. The Comfort Zone is the definition that describes our identity and the mechanisms to aid and define us as we adapt to the world. We have to figure out the world as we move through it. The first teachers we have are our parents to whom we necessarily give power. Parents help us define our existence; however, if they are abusive, we begin to see the behavior as “this is normal. My comfort zone, my knowledge of life, includes abuse.” It is difficult to guide a person out of their comfort zones for we are defining a world that is unfamiliar and foreign and therefore often produces high anxiety. They have worked all their lives to define life, so it is anxiety-provoking to see the world in a new light.  All emotional growth and education involve extending one’s area of reference. This can take a very long time and may never occur because an individual’s self-esteem is constructed at a very early age. The abusive relationship may be within the comfort zone that victims have developed. Hence, the pull to return. 

What about the abuser?  

Males make up about 75 to 80 percent of the abusers in a relationship. The abusive personality is not well defined, but traits such as low self-esteem, early run-ins with the law, problems with alcohol consumption and a sense of personal inadequacy help to develop a feeling of lack of power in the world and in a relationship. In order to compensate for personal inadequacy, the abuser looks for external means to feel a form of power. The more victims have left him, the less powerful he feels. Therefore, the behavior of reducing the victim’s sense of personal control becomes an obsession. 

How to recover from an abusive relationship? 

  1. Accept that the relationship is, in fact, abusive. It’s often difficult to view life through the eyes of an objective observer, for the world has been so far defined from the subjective eyes of who we determined we are by way of our experiences.
  2. Understand the abusive cycle.
  3. Reach out to others and form healthy connections outside the relationship to provide support and re-affirmation of your worth. Be aware that an abuser will attempt to undermine your external relationships as this threatens his control over you. 
  4. Expand your social connections and foster loving and caring friends with whom you can talk. This will also help to develop a new Comfort Zone of engagement.
  5. Find a good therapist who can be a guide through the process. 
  6. Be open enough to see the world anew. The world in front of you does not include a concrete destination, but life is a continual process and experience. Remember that control is available. Events in life are simply events — they happen. We give those events meaning through our experiences.

Good luck with re-writing your manual.

About the author: John Biroc, PHD, LMFT, is a clinical director and therapist at Alter Health Group where he is helping to innovate and advance addiction treatment practices. Hehas been a college professor, clinical director and clinical supervisor for recovery centers in Southern California and has also been a consultant for the film industry and a motivational speaker for major corporations. He holds two master’s degrees (theatre and psychology) and a doctorate from USC in Psychology and blends the concepts of intellect and creativity in his approach to recovery. Dr. Biroc has taught at UCLA, California State University, Northridge and Antioch University, and has worked as a contract therapist for mental hospitals in California. Learn more at www.alterhealthgroup.com.