I recently saw a sign that read: “There are a million reasons for abuse, but not a single excuse.”
Sharon* (name has been changed) came into my office last week after being a client for almost a year. Over the past few weeks, she has been working towards disclosing a “secret.” Finally, through an established trusting relationship, Sharon was ready to tell me her “secret.” She is 16 years old and has had a 19-year-old boyfriend for almost a year. She was finally able to disclose to me how abusive this young man has been to her. Having told me of various forms of abuse, she also stated how angry she is at him, while at the same time she says that she cares for him.
Sharon described the abusive relationship with this young man, telling me many of the terrible things he had done to her, while, at the same time, attempting to defend his actions. She did this by putting herself down with a perception that she is not worthy of more and better than what she got. Why do people get themselves into such relationships where they see themselves as the cause, and even accept responsibility, for the perpetrator’s behaviors?
What makes an abusive relationship? Let’s remember, abuse is illegal, immoral, and inhumane. Often the abuse is clouded with caring messages and visions of allure. These abusive relationships are often characterized by such behaviors as extreme jealousy, controlling, emotional withholding, rage, and verbal abuse as well as physical and sexual abuse. Such relationships often start out as happy and provide a sense of togetherness.
In most situations of abuse, the perpetrator is the male, though this is not always the case. A common feature is the over-controlling man who soon needs to know every move of his partner and gets upset with her should he not be informed. The woman often finds herself more isolated from her old friends, and on the receiving end of endless questions from her partner. Soon the partner starts losing interest in old friends and things once enjoyed.
Everyone has heard the songs about how much love can hurt. But that doesn’t mean physical harm; someone who loves you should never abuse you. Healthy relationships involve respect, trust, and consideration for the other person. Love and caring should not mean constantly worrying about the possibility of being hurt or of the end of the relationship. In the United States, it has been disclosed that one out of every 11 high school dates reports some form of physical abuse.
Abuse can be physical, emotional, or sexual. Slapping, hitting, and kicking are forms of physical abuse that can occur in both romances and friendships. Emotional abuse (such as teasing, bullying and humiliating others) can be difficult to recognize because it doesn’t leave any visible scars. Threats, intimidation, putdowns and betrayal are all harmful forms of emotional abuse that can really hurt – not just during the time it’s happening, but long after, as well. As my client Sharon can testify, all these forms of abuse result in low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. In addition, the victim often starts relating to life in a victim mode and adopts such an attitude to all life experiences.
The first step an abuse victim must take is the realization that no one deserves to be taken advantage of and no one deserves to be abused. The victim must realize it is the perpetrator who must accept total responsibility for his behavior. No matter what the victim has done, it is the perpetrator that is ultimately responsible for what he or she has done. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Those victims who cannot realize this fact must seek treatment to unlock the hidden causes of this sense of unworthiness for their own sense of dignity.
What happens to the victim who continues to see herself as such, where there is no resolution and closure with the perpetrator? Emotionally abused children often grow up to be emotionally abused teens that also grow up to be abused, and abusive, adults. Often these victims perceive themselves as hopeless, helpless and unworthy. Our society has countless professionals who work with such individuals. Such people often struggle with stress, dissolving relationships, fragmented family values and pain. There is a connection between emotional abuse and hypertension, eating disorders, ulcers, sleep disorders and countless other heath-related problems.
Research has often found a relationship between teens who are self-abusive and who have been abused in some form or another. This is a topic of its own, which I might address in this column in the future. However, briefly, self-harm has been defined as “a variety of behaviors in which an individual intentionally inflicts harm to his or her body for purposes not socially recognized or sanctioned and without suicidal intent.” In a published article by a Cornell University research program on self-injurious behaviors in adolescents and young adults, it was found in clinical populations that self-injury is strongly linked to childhood abuse, especially childhood sexual abuse.
In addition, there was evidence that earlier, more severe abuse and abuse by a family member may lead to greater dissociation and thus greater self-injury. Self-injury is also linked to eating disorders, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression and anxiety disorders. The lack of empirical research in non-clinical populations reinforces the assumption that most or all of self-injurious behaviors is a product of pre-existing disorders; however, in more recent research in general populations of adolescent and young adults, this has been challenged.
Back to my client, Sharon*, who is now heavily into serious drugs, missing many of her school classes and starting to alienate herself from her mother with whom she was so close. Sharon’s behaviors don’t just affect her. Her mother has sleepless nights, is now struggling with health issues of her own due to the aggravation and has lost much too much weight due to the stress and worry about her daughter.
Though Sharon’s parents are divorced, her father, who used to be a good place for Sharon to visit, has now been pulled into the picture in a negative manner as he has become extremely critical of her and very judgmental. This leaves Sharon feeling even more alone and more desperate, which in turn leads her to more injurious behaviors. Though she understands that she is on a very destructive path, she does not see how, nor want, to resolve the situation, as she now feels too desperate, hopeless and useless.
Not only are these clients draining on their families, they are likewise draining on the therapist who is trying, at times literally, to save a life.
We must not only worry about our teens, but our unmarried and married children as well. Self- abusive behaviors and bad relationships can sneak up when least expected. Let’s be there to be aware and supportive.
Mr. Schild is the Executive Director of Regesh Family and Child Services in Toronto, Ontario Canada. Regesh runs many programs helping families and youth dealing with personal and family issues in their lives. He can be reached at 416-495-8832 extension 222 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.regesh.com.