The abuser/victim dynamic is a complex and subtle one. We have empathy for the person we see as being abused. This makes it a more complex dynamic. We want to help them after all. Subtle, because the abuser is often triggered into their action. Often, the victim’s stepping on the abuser’s sense of self in some regard. This triggers the abuser. The dynamic is prevalent in almost every relationship in some form. As you read lookout for ways that you may be engaging in it in yours.
What do we mean by “this dynamic is prevalent in almost every relationship”? Let’s face it, we all engage in “emotional abuse” on some level. When you think about it, any time you feel the need to say “I’m sorry” it’s because emotionally you have stepped into it with someone you care about. Abuse, like everything in life, occurs on a scale. What we label “emotional abuse” is usually occurring on a high level and with regularity. At the same time, pretty much everyone has lashed out when they feel triggered and this is a microcosm of emotional abuse.
The most heinous emotional abuser is usually just fine until, just like the rest of us, they are triggered. A couple I worked with recently had a dynamic where the victim was constantly undercutting her partner by undercutting his choices, criticizing his performance in bed, and his ability to provide. He would stuff his reactions feeling angry and guilty at the same time and would inevitably explode emotionally terrorizing his wife and his family. ARage provides a false sense of power. It can feel like recapturing one’s masculinity. However, he runs the the risk of losing everyone he loves and cares for in the process
Though this is an extreme example, every relationship passes through some version of this dynamic though it may be toned down or even more intense in the case of physical abuse. This is a two-sided dynamic. The couple is triggering one-another in an endless loop. In the example above, the wife has a consistent patois of small criticisms. They may even be spot on the money. Each little criticism is chipping away at his sense of masculinity and self-esteem. She probably feels abused by his outbursts and that is triggering her critical monologue. In this dynamic, no one really “starts” it. It’s an ongoing back and forth that can only be stopped when one person decides to step out of it.
The abuser/victim dynamic is a complex and subtle one, but we are not justifying abuse here. Some people are walking powder kegs waiting to go off and just about anything can trigger them. Stepping out of the dynamic means leaving that person. Getting as far away as possible from them in those instances. Most of us are not living under that kind of terror. Most of us are engaged in a more regular pattern of mutual abuse. This pattern is diminishing our sense of intimacy and safety in subtle ways over time.
In our hearts, we all want a deeper sense of safety and intimacy. Putting an end to the abuser victim dynamic in your relationship is the first step to getting there.
Step 1: Notice when you are triggered. Feeling triggered is basically any time you feel irritated, annoyed, and angry.
Step 2: Once you notice you are triggered take time out. Triggered can look like speaking critically, raging, or catching the feeling before it shows up in your behavior. Let your partner know you are taking a time out and you will return. You don’t want them thinking that you are “stonewalling” them.
Step3:During your “time out” take some breaths, recenter yourself, and consider what is it that you are really upset about. Consider what feeling are you having? What triggered it? How can you express this and shift the dynamic?
Step 4: Express Yourself: Use this formula: I am feeling X (feeling like mad, glad, sad, or afraid), when Y (situation) happens, because of Z (your concern), and I would love to talk about this in more detail when you have time….
This is the first step to dismantling a destructive dynamic we all learned at the feet of our families. The abuser/victim dynamic is a complex and subtle one. In all likelihood, it’s going to take regular application, effort, and insight to work through. Some of you will find this a simple task, others may need a little help. Whichever camp you fall in, don’t hold back! You can have a deeper more meaningful partnership. All it takes is applying yourself and consciously working towards what you want.