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Love on the Skids: The Cycle of Abusive Relationships and How to Break It

People who are caught in abusive relationships often find themselves in a repeated cycle of abuse they can't break out of. Even if they end their relationship and start over with a new partner, their next relationship is stunningly similar to earlier ones.

Why do some of us tend to end up in abusive relationships time and time again? And how can you break out of the cycle of abuse?

Let's have a look at Julia's experiences.

Julia's Story

The Marriage

Julia could not believe that the time had finally arrived.  She was about to get married after a long, although sometimes conflicted, relationship with Julian.  Even their names matched! 

They had been through some rough spots—sometimes Julian had more than a drink or two, but if anyone knew how to handle that, it was Julia.  Julia and Julian had made it through those challenges and arrived at what for Julia was the peace she always had sought since she was a little girl—getting married to the man of her dreams. Julia was not merely happy; she was ecstatic.

The Childhood

Julia’s childhood had been less than wonderful.  Her father was an alcoholic and sometimes flew into drunken rages.  Her mother seemed to have fled the house as much as she could to avoid her husband’s wrath. That left Julia and her younger sister at the mercy of a mercurial and abusive father. 

After that horror of a childhood, Julia’s whole life was finally coming together.  Julia had escaped the nightmare of her childhood.  She was going to be happy ever after, just like in the children’s fairy tales.

The Divorce

Not quite.  Not really at all.  It took ten years before the divorce was finalized.  It was a mess.  Julian had become a full-blown alcoholic, or maybe he always had been, and Julia had minimized the problem in the days when she wanted to see no evil, hear no evil.

She had thought that, if anyone could deal with a partner who liked alcohol, it was she, but it had not worked out that way.  When the children came, she then found herself having to protect them.  At least, she did not run away from the house alone; she took the children with her.  Finally, it just became unbearable and she ended up in divorce court.

The Puzzle

Julia was puzzled. She could not understand how she ended up in an abusive relationship -- with an alcoholic, just like her mother.  She had grown up wanting anything but to end up with an alcoholic.  But when, during the course of her relationship with Julian, she saw Julian drinking, (a) she did not view him as an alcoholic and (b) she figured if anyone knew how to deal with someone else’s alcohol problem, it was she.  Unfortunately, she was wrong on both counts.

The Role of Love Stories in Abusive Relationships

The Recovery Story

Julia, unbeknownst to her, had a recovery story, where her role was as codependent—she was the one who was going to get the partner through.

As many of us know, it rarely works out that way.  Addictions are very powerful and for someone to recover, they have to decide that they want to recover—no one can save them if they do not want to be saved.  Codependencies are a constant challenge and often do not end well.

The Cycle of Abuse: Repeating Past Patterns of Behavior

You may be congratulating yourself on not having a recovery story.  But that is not the point here.  Rather, it is that we often, unconsciously, find ourselves repeating both the patterns we saw in our parents or undesirable patterns we showed earlier in our life that we thought we had left behind us. Abusive relationships involve entire cycles of abuse, and can be very hard to break out of them.

Stories are passed on from one generation to the next

Stories often pass from one generation to another and from one phase of life to another.  Just when we think we have conquered a problem from our past, it insidiously comes back to haunt us.

Often, we say we will never ever end up being like our parents in some respect, and then we end up repeating in chilling detail their exact dysfunctional pattern of behavior.

Certainly, that is what happened to Julia.  She could have seen the signs with Julian, of course.  She chose not to.  Who among us is not susceptible to the same blindness when we are in love?

The example I gave was of a recovery story.  But repeated dysfunctional patterns can be of any love story.

Many people who see abusive relationships as a child swear to themselves not to end up in an abusive relationship as an adult (see the abuse story), only to keep ending up abusing or being abused, for reasons they cannot fathom because there is nothing they more wanted to avoid in their lives.

Any of us can end up repeating past patterns of others or ourselves, because love stories are acquired by experience in observing others’ relationships and then are reinforced and hardened by our own repetitions of those patterns, some of them, unfortunately, dysfunctional or even harmful.

Recognizing and Moving beyond Your Dysfunctional Stories

Here, then, is the question:  How do you recognize when you have a dysfunctional love story and what do you do about it to break out of the cycle of abuse?  Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer but it does have an answer.

Do you encounter the same problem again and again?

First, looking across your different relationships, or across time in one particular relationship, have you observed the same problem over and over again?  Do you keep ending up with abusive, or alcoholic, or unfaithful, or uncaring partners? 

If you see a repeated pattern, you must consider the possibility that the repetition is not merely a matter of bad luck, but rather, that you are seeking partners with a characteristic you would say you don’t like.

Worse, you may be creating in your partner the very behavior that you find intolerable.  It may seem inconceivable to you that someone would seek out people who are so obviously bad for them, or that people would create, in others, behaviors they find aversive. 

Yet, people do these things all the time.  You cannot solve a problem you don’t recognize you have.

Make a choice to break the pattern

Second, if you are repeating a pattern, consciously decide to do all you can to break it or consider seeking counseling or psychotherapeutic help in breaking the pattern.

You need to realize that these patterns can be fiendishly difficult to break, first, because they are so deeply imbued within us, and second, because we may find people more attractive who show the very behaviors we tell ourselves we find to be repulsive.

How would someone turn a partner into exactly what they don’t want?  Through rewards and punishments.  Much of the reward system we create for others’ behavior is created by us without our conscious awareness. 

Look at your words and also at your nonverbal language like your gestures, facial expressions, and excitement.  Your partner picks up not only on what you say you like, but on what your behavior shows you actually like. 

Thus, think about not only what you are saying to your partner, but how you are acting, even at the level of what you do not attend to and thus ignore.

The Importance of Vigilance

You can make progress on your repetition of past undesired behavior. 

The thing to remember is that you probably never fully overcome it.  You always have to be vigilant, because as soon as you think you have the problem licked, once and for all, it is likely to come back. 

I remember a colleague of mine in my earlier days as a professor at Yale saying to me, “You never really stop smoking.  You only go into remission.”  His comment applies to virtually all our unwanted patterns of behavior. 

We always have to be vigilant.  If we are, we can succeed, not necessarily in eliminating them, but by pushing them down so far below the surface that they never recur.

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