Abusive relationships rely too heavily on a skewed version of traditional role assignments between men and women. The primary assumption held by an abusive partner is that a woman’s role relegates her to a position of lesser value. This leads to an imbalance of power imposed by guilt and fear. The woman who has not developed a sufficient sense of self will tend to subjugate her personal sense of identity to her role in the relationship; since the outcome of success or failure might fall, in her eyes, on how good a wife (housekeeper, lover, friend) and mother she can be. Her efforts become focused on pleasing her spouse, and she forgets herself. Then, when children join the union, she can quickly lose herself to the desires and needs of her children.
In exchange for her identity, the woman who suffers abuse can begin to look to her partner for her sense of well-being. This is because she believes that in the ideal world, her partner would nurture her emotionally in a way she wishes she had been nurtured during childhood. Occasionally, women clients of mine have described this process when attempting to tell their stories of development within the context of marriage. One client, Sarah, continuously passed the responsibility for her personal well being to her spouse. Married 20 years, Sarah’s expectation for marriage was that if she was happy, she credited her husband for that happiness. If she was sad, she looked to him to solve the problem that caused the sadness. If she was angry or tired, these experiences were often her fault.
Never during her experience of any emotions did she ask herself the questions that reflected personal responsibility for her own emotional and mental health. If she was sad, she never responded to the sadness by asking herself: “What is this sadness telling me about myself? What do I need to do for myself so that I can feel soothed and able to experience feelings of sadness as they naturally occur in this situation?” Instead, her attitude implied: “I feel sad. Where is my husband? I need to tell him that I’m sad so he can make me laugh and this sadness will go away.” This was her attitude because she didn’t yet possess the tools for soothing herself in her sadness. This, and the tendency for a woman in a relationship of unbalanced power to believe she can soothe and appease an angry partner, contributes to the ongoing cycle that perpetuates violence in a relationship.
When a woman loses herself in a relationship and passes the responsibility for her well-being to her partner, she is expecting to be re-parented within the context of an adult relationship; she seeks to meet his needs in a nurturing fashion and emotionally delegates her psychological well being to his care. This produces increased pressure on and increasing feelings of inadequacy for her spouse. He married an adult woman, and increasingly finds himself with a dependent and needy little girl. Hopelessness develops when he is unable to care for her emotional needs or heal her childhood wounds. She has merged herself into an enmeshment that does not allow her to see herself as an individual within the context of her relationship. In her eyes, they are one emotionally and his is the responsibility for her happiness or misery.
This woman is, therefore, unaware that she can choose between completely submerging herself into the relationship and holding onto herself as an individual in her own right. If she is able to hold onto her individuality within the relationship, she can give to the relationship from a place of strength. And if she holds on to her individuality, she can receive support and comfort from her spouse during times of need without exhausting his emotional resources. If only she knew that developing a strong sense of self could lead her there.
This discussion would not be complete if we didn’t look at the other side: what happens to you when he doesn’t care for his own emotional needs instead of looking to you to “make him happy”? He begins to look to you for his happiness and blame you when something goes wrong. You feel confused and guilty when the little boy tantrum creates grown man damage to your mind, body and soul. You thought you were joining your life with a man who promised to take care of you and you believe you’ve done something wrong every time he shows himself to be less-than what he was during your courtship. If you could only hold on to your individuality when he starts the cycle of tension that leads to another one of his outbursts. Hold on to it long enough to recognize when he is blaming you for something that isn’t your responsibility.
Please, recognize that developing a strong sense of yourself will lead you out of confusion, guilt and fear. It begins when you just keep listening to your own inner voice about what is real and right. Just keep listening to your own inner voice.
Click here to listen the first in a four-part series on healthy vs. addictive love.
© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2014 All Rights Reserved. Any use of this article without Tamara’s express written permission is prohibited.
In cooperation with 2bsisters, Tamara is in the process of making her recovery curriculum for domestic violence survivors available via a protected online format. This curriculum is for victims who have not yet been able to escape, those who have recently escaped and those who have been independent for a time but still need to strengthen themselves as survivors.