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5 Truths About The Cycle of Abuse & Mental Illness

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Abuse is a very difficult topic to discuss with my clients. It is even more difficult to accept when it you are the target of the abuser. Abuse can come in many forms, even sneaky forms, and it takes not only experience with people and relationships but also appropriate boundaries to cope. Abuse can be described as any act that creates some form of suffering for the target of the abuse. The targeted person can suffer multiple emotional and psychological wounds, even if the abuse is physical. The psychological and emotional wounds can lead to decreased self-esteem, fear, uncertainty, lack of motivation, anhedonia (lack of pleasure in things once desired or enjoyed), and mental health symptoms. Considering all of this, can you imagine how vulnerable a person can be living with and trying to cope with someone who has an untreated or severe mental illness but also engages in abusing others? This article will briefly discuss the “victims” of the abuser who also struggles with mental health challenges. This article is meant to highlight the emotional toll abuse takes on an individual and possible considerations for the victim.

No one ever wants to be abused. It is a very frightening, lonely, and upsetting place to be. Abuse can be very difficult to identify and rectify, especially if the abuser has psychological or emotional problems him or herself. As a child and adolescent therapist, I have seen my fair share of abused wives and children who are trying to live peacefully with the father who is enraged, threatening, and perhaps even paranoid and delusional. For our purposes here, I will explain delusions and paranoia. A delusion is a false belief held to be true, despite evidence to the contrary. Evidence may prove that something isn’t true but the individual experiencing delusions may still believe the delusion and totally ignore the evidence. Someone who is delusional is not always logical, despite being able to possibly maintain a job, appear intelligent and aware of things, be able to provide for the family, and keep friends. A delusion also can seem reasonable to someone else. For example, a delusion that the world is ending based on the current challenges of the nation does not seem strange when you consider religious beliefs of the world ending. Paranoia is very similar to a delusion and can cause someone to believe their delusions even more. Abusive individuals with a mental health history will often fit this description. It is important that we all keep in mind that an abusive individual will often also have a mental health problem (diagnosed or un-diagnosed). This is certainly not to take the attention off of the person’s need to control his or her emotions. But it is necessary to point out that most abusers need help themselves.

What makes life with an abuser, primarily those with mental health challenges, difficult to separate from is that:

  1. The abuser isn’t always bad/ugly/challenging: The most challenging reality for many victims of abuse is that they struggle with the many faces and emotions of the abuser. In cases involving romantic relationships, leaving the abuser may become very difficult and even confusing as the abuser often changes from nice to not so nice, sometimes all in a matter of seconds. If the victim is dealing with an abuser who also either abuses alcohol or drugs or has a mental illness, the cards change that much faster and things become so much more convoluted. For the clients I have counseled in the past, their main concern and fear was that their parent (the victim of the abuse) would remain stuck in limbo because, as one of my 7 year old clients said, “my dad is sometimes nice and sometimes bad.” The cycle of abuse often entails the following:
    • Phase 1: Tension building stage when there is a breakdown of communication (miscommunication, disagreements, etc) and the victim may feel the need to keep the abuser happy to avoid drama or chaos.
    • Phase 2: Incident occurs in which the abuse happens (physical, sexual, emotional, psychological)
    • Phase 3: Reconciliation stage which includes the abuser showing some emotion/regret and the victim being pulled back into feeling sorry for the abuser, experiencing feelings of love or compassion toward the abuser, or a strong desire to make things better by forgiving the abuser. The abuser may even apologize and promise to get help. Everything during the stage may appear to be positive and the process of working through the trauma may seem possible to everyone involved.
    • Phase 4: Calm occurs in which everyone seems okay. The abuse has not happened and it may seem as though perhaps the abuse will never happen again. The sad and very frightening reality is that the abuse will occur again but perhaps in a different way and at a different time.
  2. The abused cannot separate the abuse from the person they love: It can be very difficult to conceptualize the abuser as being someone you love, care about, and respect. This is why it can be very difficult for abused children to consolidate their ideas of love with their reality of abuse from a parent or loved one. Sex abuse scandals are often convoluted because the victim often struggles to report the abuse because of their overall perception of the person who is abusing them. The closer the bond (between the abused and the abuser) the more difficult it can be to separate the abuser from the abuse. Many of my clients under the age of 16 typically ask me “how is this possible? He always told me he loved me and would not let anything happen to me.”
  3. Considering a separation or divorce can hurt more than the abuse itself for some: Separating from the abuser means that you will never again experience the love once experienced and enjoyed from that person. For others, the reality that their expectations, hopes, and dreams may come to an end makes separating from the abuser difficult. The parents of some of my clients tend to report that they understand the seriousness of the abuse and recognize that they need to leave but struggle with the idea that they are:
    • Leaving the abuser behind (who needs help)
    • Separating their children from the loved one
    • Accepting the reality that they are abused and vulnerable (and is now considered a victim)
  4. Youths are always affected in some way: For a parent who is struggling with abuse within the relationship must keep in mind that kids are going to always be affected in some way. Abuse is not easy to live with and it isn’t something you can just get over. Abuse is traumatizing and it changes the way we see relationships and sometimes life itself. My therapy sessions, with parents who are struggling with the abusive behavior of their spouse, tends to focus on empowering the parent and educating them to the benefits of separating. Nothing is more traumatizing and upsetting than abuse. We all have “battle scars” but those scars don’t always mean that they will become barriers or blocks to healthy living.  It is safer to figure out what to do to make life healthier than to worry about the effects of the separation, important decisions that need to be made, etc.
  5. Sometimes walking away from the abuse is the wisest decision: Whether it is a parent, grandparent, friend, spouse, or father, sometimes walking away is wisest. Sometimes the abuser is unable to make necessary changes and may refuse to change, despite agreeing to get help or agreeing to stop the behavior. Abusive behavior is like a bad habit that cannot be changed and that requires the abuser to engage in introspection, healing, and possibly even therapy. Strict boundaries are needed when abuse enters a relationship of any kind. Sometimes boundaries entail walking away and seeking a better way of living.


Do you know of (or have experienced) a similar situation? What did you do? How are you coping? As always, feel free to post below. I enjoy communicating with my readers.

I wish you well


References: (2016). Therapy worksheets. Retrieved on 3/2/2016 from,

5 Truths About The Cycle of Abuse & Mental Illness

Támara Hill, MS, NCC, CCTP, LPC

Támara Hill, MS, NCC, CCTP, LPC, is a licensed therapist and internationally certified trauma professional, in private practice, who specializes in working with children and adolescents who suffer from mood disorders, trauma, and disruptive behavioral disorders. She also provides international consultations and works with some young and older adults struggling with grief & loss or life transitions. Hill strives to help clients to realize and actualize their strengths in their home environments and in their relationships within the community. She credits her career passion to a “divine calling” and is internationally recognized for corresponding literary works as well as appearances on radio and other media platforms. She is an author, family consultant, Keynote speaker, and founder of Anchored Child & Family Counseling. Visit her at Anchored-In-Knowledge or Twitter and Youtube Youtube If you are interested in scheduling a telehealth family consultation, feel free to let me know. *Ms. Hill has moved all content to her other social media platforms. Take care!

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APA Reference
Hill, T. (2016). 5 Truths About The Cycle of Abuse & Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Mar 2016
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