Of all the things I hear from readers, by far the most common is this: “I cannot believe I married my mother after all. I thought my husband was totally different but, at the end of the day, he treats me just as my mother did. How did that happen when all I wanted was to get out of where I grew up?” While most of the comments are about romantic relationships, many address a range of relationships including those with friends, colleagues, and even acquaintances.
Some of these women come to this recognition early on in their relationships but others take much longer because they are still bound up in the same cycle they experienced in childhood: Needing someone’s love and attention and trying, desperately, to figure out how to get them. Why is it that in our quest to find a new way of living and connecting that is different from our childhood experiences, so many of us fall into the trap of choosing someone to be close to who is so much like the very people we are trying to escape? This is what one reader wrote me:
“I honestly thought I was some kind of magnet for abuse until I finally went into therapy and realized that I was part of the problem. I justified and explained away hurtful behaviors no matter who was doing them—my mother, lover, friend, or boss. I thought I was being kind by giving people the benefit of the doubt but all I was doing was making myself vulnerable to the same kind of treatment I received as a child. No more for that.”
Unfortunately, all of the coping mechanisms daughters adopt in childhood to manage day-to-day life aid and abet the possibility that she will be far more tolerant of emotional and verbal abuse as an adult than she should be. As I make clear in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, much of the damage done in childhood lies below the surface of adult behavior, and is both unconscious and unseen. That is especially true when it comes to the effect of verbal and emotional abuse inflicted by a parent, parents, and sometimes siblings.
Normalizing and denying abuse
Studies show that even in adulthood, women are loath to categorize the behaviors of others as abusive in nature. In childhood, it’s easier to deal with staying afloat in the family by dissociating and excusing parental behavior, especially if your goal is still to win that parent’s love and approval. After all, what is more frightening than facing the fact that the very person charged with caring for you and loving you doesn’t? It is much less terrifying to blame yourself or simply to think that it’s just the way she is and it’s not personal.
Of course, abuse is very personal indeed. And, alas, the habit of rationalizing abuse—by thinking the person didn’t really mean it, that the abuse was sparked by anger or frustration so that it doesn’t count, or by taking responsibility for having somehow “caused” the abuse—carries over from the original parent-child relationship and becomes an unconscious pattern of behavior in adulthood.
Being the eternal peacemaker
“I think I spent my entire childhood either covering my ears or cowering in the room I shared with my sister. Both of my parents screamed 24/7, either at each other or at one of three kids. My main goal was to play Casper the Ghost so that no one would notice me and yell. When I did get caught in the crossfire, I immediately said I was sorry even if I did nothing. That became my way of dealing with stress or disagreement always. Basically, I turned myself into a doormat and welcomed in anyone inclined to step on me. I finally saw the light when one relationship included physical abuse. That sent me into therapy and saved my life.”
Those raised by a highly combative or controlling mother (and father) or one high in narcissistic traits often do what they can to fade into the woodwork and hide in plain sight. They effectively muzzle themselves, detaching from their thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires in the process. When all else fails, they simply take the blame and apologize, even though they’re not a fault; it’s simply a mechanism to keep the peace or stay out of the fray. This way of going along to get along is the ultimate self-effacement and, not surprisingly, these daughters have little sense of who they are, in addition to having low self-esteem. In his book Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin describes narcissism as a spectrum with healthy self-regard in the middle, pathological narcissism on one end and echoism on the other other; the daughters I am describing here are echoists, content to stay off the radar.
Unlearning what was learned and spotting abuse
Thanks to the malleability of the brain, once you begin to recognize how you have tolerated abusive behavior, you can begin to change your responses by taking certain steps.
- Establish clear boundaries
It is never okay for anyone to call you names or berate you for generalized failings; that is bullying and no matter who’s doing it, you need to call them out.
- Stop making excuses or rationalizing
Be aware and vigilant about your tendency to keep the peace at all costs and to let people off the hook; each of us is responsible for the words that come out of our mouths. Remind yourself that it’s healthy to be both self-assertive and self-protective.
- Distinguish between self-blame/criticism and taking responsibility
One of the hardest lessons to unlearn is untangling self-criticism—the habit of blaming anything that goes awry on your own supposedly fixed and unchangeable character flaws—from taking responsibility for your actions. This kind of unlearning is more of a process than not and will become easier as you recognize your old default positions when someone is nasty or abusive.
- Know that abuse has no place in a relationship
This simply has to be a hard-and-fast rule, and words “love” and “abuse” have no business being in the same sentence. If you hear yourself saying “but he loves me” about an abusive partner, please seek out professional help immediately. Similarly, if you hear yourself saying, “he can be abusive but he’s loving too,” you have locked yourself into a place which will be very hard or impossible to get out of; again, please seek counseling immediately.
Make no mistake: verbal abuse is never okay. Neither is excusing it.
Photograph by Aziz Acharki. Copyright free. Unsplash. com
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.