Yesterday, I speculated that patterns of attachment may account for at least some of the tendency abused children have to maintain harmful relationships in adulthood. You can’t escape abuse from a caretaker, I thought. You are forced to make the best of things, to maintain feelings of closeness and to solicit whatever nurturing you can from the person who is harming you. And so that becomes a reflexive response to the rents in a relationship that harm leads to. You have been forced to mend things, and you become an excellent mender, even of relationships that would be better left torn to shreds.
But I think there are most likely several other reasons also. And, among them, the power of ideas. Specifically, attempts to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of conflicting ideas.
Because what I hear, if I talk to someone about an ongoing harmful relationship is, “But he’s a good person,” or “But she doesn’t really mean it,” And I also hear, “He loves me. She cares.”
As if no one can both care about you and threaten your well-being to the extent that you need to escape them. No one can both be a decent person and cause harm to others. These two ideas must be mutually exclusive, and noting the harm and the care or other indications of a more benevolent nature creates an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance that is most often resolved via denial.
In contrast, I think it’s perfectly possible for both of these ideas to exist in the same person. On the one hand, everyone has good qualities. The BTK killer was a good father and good husband. His only problem–and not a small one–was that he tortured and killed other people in his spare time. My dad was a regular church goer. He didn’t cheat on his taxes. He was scrupulously careful in his work.
Just as we all have our faults, we also all have our strengths.
And, on the other hand, most of us harm others when our own abilities to manage ourselves and our own lives become excessively strained, and what leads to harm is usually some facet of human nature that has gotten out of control. All of us want to punish other people when we feel angry. We become self-absorbed when our needs and desires become too intense. And we lose our ability to feel empathy when we are in pain. Even your own dog will bite you if he’s hurting enough.
This doesn’t justify harm. I’m not saying that. I’m simply saying that these two things are often true simultaneously. Someone can harm others without being a monster, and often harm arises out of a diminished ability to calm oneself, manage life, or exert self-control rather than because of a global lack of concern for others–although that’s also possible.
But if you see these two ideas as incompatible–harm and a basic decency of character–then making sense of one’s own victimization by a trusted other becomes extremely difficult. Further, being unable to resolve the contradiction can keep you stuck in something you shouldn’t be in because you can’t sort out what to do.
My own way of resolving the apparent contradiction was to come to believe that harmful behaviour harms everyone and not just the victim. So, while distancing oneself from a person who’s harming you–or ending the relationship altogether–may cause some temporary pain, the negative effects of harming someone else–especially a loved one–leads to greater long-term damage to the perpetrator than the temporary sting of loss.
As Ervin Staub contents,harm falls on a continuum, and harm committed unchecked often leads to greater harm in the future. This occurs in part because harm damages the perpetrator’s conscience–as they tend to justify their actions in order to manage their guilty feelings. So this ends up blurring the line between right and wrong. Even if morality was clear at one point, it becomes less clear over time. And it also impairs the perpetrator’s capacity for empathy, because harming others causes empathic distress. And avoiding this distress requires a denial or minimization of the feelings of the the victim.
So even if the abusive behaviour begins as nothing more than a loss of control, and an inability to rein in those basic human capacities to want to punish others or to over-aggressively defend oneself from threats, it can end up becoming engrained and constitutional, so that by middle-age, violence has become a way of life.
At the same time, I know that most perpetrators continue to abuse someone else even after the first victim has fled. But that’s not my headache, is it? I can’t be responsible for what people do when I’m not even there.
As a child, I didn’t have other choices. I could neither flee nor effectively assert my own rights. But as an adult I can, and it’s also my responsibility to do so. And maybe that’s just a fancy way of blaming the victim, but I don’t think so. I’m just saying that perpetrators are as complex as the rest of us, and I’m also saying it can be kinder to leave.