Abuse Victims Try Too Hard to Understand

Abuse Victims and Dissonance

Abuse victims often experience “cognitive dissonance.” That is, they witness behaviors appearing to make no sense. So, naturally, they try to make sense of things. They just want to reduce the pain associated with dissonance. But in trying too hard to understand, they inadvertently perpetuate more victimization.

The Unfortunate Legacy of Traditional Psychology

Some theories of human behavior have been around a long time. And one of the more dominant theories is that deep wounds, insecurities, fears, etc., cause us to do the hurtful things we do. This theory also asserts that we’re largely unaware these underlying motives. Now, such a theory has its place. It even has validity in some situations. But every theory has its limitations. And, unfortunately, holding traditional perspectives can be very dangerous for an abuse victim.

The abuse victims I’ve worked with all had the same initial question: Why?.  Why does he (she) treat me this way? What’s going on inside her (him) to make him (her) do these things? And I’ve found these abuse victims to entertain the same fatal fantasies. If they could only figure out what makes their abuser “act out” they might be able to fix things. Moreover, if they could just get their abuser to see what’s really going on inside, perhaps they’d stop abusing. Traditional psychology taught them to think this way. It taught them to look for root causes. Unfortunately, in so doing the theory contributed to their victimization.

The Perils of Trying too Hard to Understand

When we try too hard to understand we inadvertently revoke the power we have. We have power to choose and to act. And we can observe and evaluate behavior. Moreover, we have the power to set limits and enforce boundaries. Try as we may, we can’t control others. And when we try, we only waste precious energy. That’s why it’s so important to direct our energy where we have power. We can judge behavior on its own merits and take appropriate action in response.

A woman once told me her boyfriend didn’t really seem to match the profile of an “abuser.” He only got physical once, and that was because he was drunk. And he wasn’t generally abusive with his words. In fact, she found him witty and charming most of the time. But all that would change when he lost his temper. But that only happened when he was “really stressed” or had been drinking. So, she just knew that if they could both just understand what was “really bothering him,” things would change. Clearly, however, her strategy wasn’t working.

A Different Perspective

This woman and I began focusing only on behavior. When things don’t go his way, he lashes out. He calls her names and says other hateful things. He throws and breaks things. And he rarely apologizes. Moreover, when he does, he still insinuates others are really to blame. All his behaviors worsen when he drinks. But he finds no reason to curtail his drinking. Still, her big question in the beginning was “why?”. My answer took her aback. “It doesn’t matter,” I asserted. “Besides,” I inquired, “whose responsibility is it to understand and fix these problem behaviors, anyway?” This question really piqued her interest.

True, I wrote my 4 books so folks could better understand the nature of character disturbance. But understanding doesn’t itself bring empowerment. Only taking action empowers. You can set limits on certain kinds of behaviors. And you can take self-protective action when someone crosses a critical boundary. When it comes to destructive behaviors and the “stinking thinking” prompting them, it doesn’t matter why. You have to judge behavior on it’s own merits. And you have to regard past behavior as the best predictor of future behavior. That will help you take proper action.

Concluding Thoughts

I’d like to give all the victims and would-be victims out there the same message. Stop wondering whether it’s his (her) ADHD, past trauma, fear of abandonment, etc.. You don’t need to understand what’s prompting a maladaptive behavior to correct it. Besides, the best insight comes with correcting behavior first and experiencing the consequences. (I’ll have more to say about this in future posts.) And perhaps most importantly, remember where the burden for changing problem behavior lies: on the person exhibiting it.

Tidbits

Two different producers have fashioned brand new videos for America, My Home! Check them out on the song’s page. This song opens and closes my Character Matters program. (The program will air live Sunday, May 6, 2018.) And you can hear the song in its entirety Memorial Day weekend.

Look for more workshop dates soon on the Seminars page.

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16 thoughts on “Abuse Victims Try Too Hard to Understand

  1. “…it’s so important to direct our energy where we have power. We can judge behavior on its own merits and take appropriate action in response.”

    I wish I’d been given this advice years ago! Instead, I spent way too much time and energy (first in an abusive marriage, and later in an abusive church situation) trying to figure out the ‘why’ question in the hope of resolving things. It wasn’t until later – when a couple from that church falsely accused me in legal action they attempted – I became so desperate that I stopped caring about ‘why’. There was no sense in what they were accusing me of doing anyway, so I simply concentrated on protecting myself and my family.

  2. Thank you for posting this valuable information – it really does need to be a significant part of the manipulative character identification process. I shared it, because I, too, stayed too long in the “why” arena, and I still get pressure from others who have swallowed the “they must be hurting deeply” Kool-Aid. I still think the why behind what we do is important, but only to a point. (Everything should be only to a point.) We all have legitimate reasons why we may have emotional responses or behaviors that can make people feel uncomfortable, but there is, ultimately, no excuse for doing harm to another, including emotional harm, short of genuinely fending for your life or the life of an innocent other.

  3. Thank you! I have been obsessing over my abuser’s behavior for several years now, reading everything I can find on narcissistic personality disorder in particular. As if all of that reading could somehow inoculate me from the effects of being continuously manipulated and put down. Or help me to “change” them back to the person I once thought they were.

  4. With my ex I thought that the way he treated me, putting me down, lying to put himself up, was from deep insecurities about himself. So I thought to make things better for us I should try to build him up. One day I tried talking to him about all the amazing things he had done with no formal training. He told me “stop talking like that”. I said, what? why? He said “it makes him nervous”. Whatever that meant about him I knew that trying to help him feel better was just not going to work. It wasn’t long after that that I left. I know some stuff about his life that was difficult. But there is stuff in my life that was difficult too. But I never tried to put him down to elevate myself nor did I lie about what I had done in life. I still don’t know why he felt more comfortable with the lies he told, than with my telling true positive things to him. Doesn’t matter, he’s out of my life.
    I’ve done lots of counseling for depression which is an emotion I felt. The people who made my life miserable never went to counseling for their actions such as lying and manipulating. I made an image in my mind of my ex going to a counselor and saying “I need help, I lie about lots of things even when I don’t need to. Help me stop lying”. That image immediately helped me get out of the mindset I can so easily sink into, the mindset that something is wrong with me. If someone is abusing you mentally or physically they have the problem, they need to get fixed. What we need to do is figure out how to keep them at arms length or farther.

  5. This article has really got me thinking I’ve been sooo wrong about the success I thought I was making in a relationship with a loved one. Well, not just the article I must say. we just went through ANOTHER “episode” of attention seeking /rewarding behavior. Of course this was as always to my detriment.
    Feeling quite hopeless. Sad to say that I think it’s time to say goodbye forever to this character disturbed family member.

    1. Lydia, it seems that distancing is sometimes the only way to deal with disturbed family members. And it might be the only way they will ever come to terms with their problems. Unfortunately if their behavior doesn’t end up in some suffering for them they have no incentive to change. While an alcoholic might end up drunk in a ditch and a physical abuser might end up in jail, the smaller abusers often don’t suffer consequences and can often find a string of people to use and abuse. But to stay in their lives and hope they can see the error of their ways in my experience doesn’t work and just ends up in endless hurt.

    2. I have had to break ties with my 47 year old son after putting up with his awful behaviour since he was 12. He didnt see me for 3 years once – I dont know why. Maybe he was showing his power the peice of xxxx. I cried for 3 years. Havent seen him for 15 months now. Havent cried once. It is sad but something changed inside me when he roared at me ” what is your problem man” in a horrible voice in my own home. I think he is mentally disturbed but surely he must know. If he stopped smoking weed his brain might start functioning in a less disturbed way. I have to stop myself from hating him because I have spent the best years of my life trying to find out ‘why’. Stayed in a city I don’t like to remain with him. Now I’me 65 I hope he’s slung his hook for good. I cant bring myself to send him a birthday card as it may cause him to return on the scene. I still pray for him though. Hes given me long term depression. Life is much better without his unpleasantness. What can be done apart from praying?

      1. Dorothy,
        My heart goes out to you. I know somewhat of how you feel. Remember this though, it doesn’t matter “why” the narc or CD is doing what they’re doing. It only matters “that” they’re doing it. The actions, not the feelings of the perpetrator matter.
        I tell my little grandson and granddaughter often, even if your mad it’s not ok to hit your sibling. I tell them all the time don’t cry tell your brother please give me back my toy and funny thing is at grandma’s they do just that!!!
        Yesterday was Mother’s Day and my child spent the first part of the time we had together “telling” me how I needed to change a service I had. I wasn’t complaining about my service???
        He spent the middle part of the day talking to a stranger at the park we all went to in my subdivision. Even “invited” her to my home for the summer to go swimming in my pool????
        Then he ignored me telling him look at the crane in the pond right in front of us and speaking harshly to me I don’t care about the crane refusing to look at it?????
        I paid attention the whole time, didn’t skip a beat at this point and continued to walk home with husband and grandkids without a word or negative emotion!!!! I’m making progress I think!!!

        1. Hi Lydia, nice to hear from you. I do worry ‘why’ because it could have happened to him because of traumatic childhood, in which case I feel responsible for his monstrous and strange attitude. You mention that you didnt respond with a word or negative emotion. My son had me well trained and I could never answer in anything but a placatory and pleasant way because of fear of upsetting him. (in other words I had to walk on eggshells and he had to be handled with kid gloves so to speak). About 35 years of this is soul destroying especially when I have no husband for support and the rest of the family dont know what hes like. I am on anti depressants for last 17 years. He has been a millstone round my neck. Fortunately there are no grandkids, although I would love some. I wonder if it would change him. Anyway I dont want him back. There is nothing to miss. Who would miss his awful behaviour – turning up when he wants – sitting and sulking for no reason at all. Glowering in some awful mood. Its not acceptable behaviour is it? I think he need someone to tell him the truth. I did consider managing to get myself back onto speaking terms with him to try and get him to see a psychiatrist. I would do this in a crafty way by telling him his childhood had a bad effect on him etc so as never to criticise him (this would be disasterous). but for some reason I simply cannot look at his face again, with that horrible self absorbed nastiness. When he snarled at me the last time I saw him it gave me a horrible fright and when I think of all the nice people I have known in the past it seems to me that hes insulting them as well. I think he might have mental illness as well as well as a personality disorder. Anyway hes a nasty piece of work
          whichever way you look at it. I will pray. Do you get support from your husband? I hope so. Is he your only child like mine is? What does his partner think of his behaviour to you.

  6. I don’t bother trying to understand this stuff, as the more you try, the more you’re giving a narc your power, and exactly what they want-for you to question your sanity.

    Don’t waste your time trying to understand what is best called crazymaking.

  7. It seemed at one point trying to understand why the X did what he did was important. Then I educated myself on CDs and Narcs and their common behaviors and got a good understanding of the person I was dealing with because he fit the list of behaviors so well that he became predictable – I was still quite astonished by it and taken aback – but it did become predictable.
    Then when I saw all the harm he intentionally caused myself and my daughter, my the “why” he did what he did wasn’t nearly as important as getting the heck away from him (which is hard to do during drawn-out court battle). But redirecting the “why does he do this” to self protection and working on myself became of upmost importance.
    Think of it this way, what if someone else tried to get into your head to figure out why you did this or that or what in your history could have affected you and what did your past do to form your being and could it be this or that – can you imagine someone getting in your head trying to figure you out – and hoping you change? Never! It doesn’t matter what someone else “thinks” about you, the “whys”. It does no good, and really, as the article says, it doesn’t matter. Quit wasting time and energy on those thoughts. That’s all they are, are thoughts. They don’t bring change. Refocus on ourselves, how we can live a good life and enjoy what’s left, restore and rebuild and get the heck out of the lives of those who are injurious to us.

  8. I left a repeat cheater on Jan 29 this year after I discovered all of his lies. I discovered he cheated last year (the third time) and kicked him out and started divorce proceedings. He was furious and DEMANDED reconciliation. His dad started dying in the spring and after he passed my husband “would not accept condolences from someone who didn’t like him”. I broke down and accepted him back tentatively. Every single day he promised me he wanted to be in the relationship and wanted it to work. Every single day. I questioned him on inconsistencies between his behavior and his words and he accused me of having uncontrolled anxiety. I discovered in Jan of this year he had been sleeping with the same cheating partner since the fall. Yet, he looked me in the eye and said he was in the marriage 100% from last summer until 4 days before I caught him. I disconnected and haven’t attempted conversations to understand anything since that time. Yet, this week I found myself asking him why. Asking him if he ever cared etc. His answer was the following: I wasn’t honest with myself. I kept telling myself it would get better, but it never did. I wanted it to be something I enjoyed and was happy about. It was a constant struggle. I always felt tense and on guard at home when you were there. I couldn’t relax. I lived like that for a long time. I couldn’t leave the kids.
    He lied to me, he lied to his kids and he kept going out and finding pleasure from other women and now he’s turning it around on me making him edgy? Maybe it was me questioning him while he was screwing another woman? That must have made him very edgy. How dare I do that? I can’t believe I caved to get that why from him. I regret knowing his answer because it only makes me feel bad and quite honestly, it’s a crock of baloo. My therapist has mentioned misplaced emotions. I think she is right. I did read Leave a cheater, gain a life and everything in the book is about my X. He is truly every single word written and I used that knowledge but somehow I forgot about it and needed to know again. He is a narcissist.

  9. Sarah,

    I hope you keep reading the blog and posting. All of us have been commenting on the current topic “Overcoming Gaslighting Effects” I would encourage you to post on this topic for now, as I am sure you have gone through plenty of gaslighting. We have experienced posters that have gone through the same thing you are reporting. I did myself, it is unbelievable how we are sucked in and “believe a lie.”

    I encourage you to join us on the new topic, you will learn a lot and you will receive input from other posters and most of all, support. I would encourage you to read all of Dr. Simons books, all of them focus on the true issues concerning the CD. Dr. Simon has also done many You Tubes about the CD and is an expert in this field. Dr. SImon does seminars around the US on this topic for those in the medical field. Just to let you know you have found a good place to find the information you may be looking for.

    For now, take very good care.

  10. Lucy,
    I very much share your attitude regarding the use of CD abuse survivors utilizing the knowledge and insights we obtain from researching these topics as a means of self growth.
    After 9 years of marriage my wife left our home 9 months ago. We had gone for couples therapy during our marriage and again after the seperation. These sessions ultimately proved fruitless due to two very different narratives of our relationship emerging in sessions with the therapists we went to since last August. I should mention my wife herself is a therapist, which coupled with years of what I now know was gaslighting lead me to believe for years that I was majority at fault for our inability to communicate. Both therapist we attended after the seperation seemed far less insightful to the lady we had attended while together, who my wife was adamant we should not attend again as that therapist had pointed out inconsistencies in what my wife’s version of events. My awakening to my wife’s dishonesty came about with the sessions we had immediately after seperation. My wife and this therapist would have started these sessions prior to my arrival, even though I had always arrived well before our allotted appointment time. In our last session with him he spent the entire session trying to goad me into anger by calling me a lying SOB and shouting other profanities. My wife who admonished me during our marriage if I used the F word would join in periodically during the session by saying ‘ your a f*** er Dan ‘. They finished the session by telling me I was a’ love parasite’ and needed to have a breakthrough. I smelt a rat but agreed to return for further sessions prior to leaving. In the following days I began to do some digging. This therapist who my wife said was unknown to her prior to our couples sessions had in actual fact been her friend with over 3 years. I also checked his qualifications and found the were from an online course which cost £500 and took 3 weeks to complete.
    Needless to say that opened my eyes to the need to educate myself. I returned to the therapist we had during our marriage and she pointed me in the direction of researching covert abuse and covert narcissism. At first I couldn’t believe that my ‘ very good person ‘ wife could be such a person, but the more I read the more bells began to go off in my head. When I watched a youtube interview between Meredith Miller and Dr. Simon about gaslighting my dissonance finally began to lift and I began emerging from the F.O.G ( Fear, Obligation and Guilt ) which had bound and bedazzled me for years.
    I’ve researched to the point of binge research since then. I’ve gone through the entire gambit of emotions associated with CPTSB since ( at least I hope I have moved through most of them by this stage ) and I have come to these conclusions…..I will never be able to get inside my wife’s head. I never really knew her and was completely and utterly taken in. What started out as research to try and save my marriage turned to hoping to help my wife change to finally realizing that our toxic marriage has to end. I have learned so much about myself and my own flaws and weakness along the way and hope to continue working towards self improvement and healthy self regard for the rest of my life. This research has also helped me to identify some individuals in my own family and circle of friends who seem to have unhealthy traits. I’ve set up some healthy personal boundries which have resulted in the loss of one old friend recently…but sad as that is it has given me confidence that I may be able to lead a much more positive and enlightened light in the present and future.
    Finally I would like to thank you Lucy and Dr. Simon for providing sufferers and survivors of CD abuse with this excellent website and I would like to say to all those reading this who may be going through the acceptance faze of realizing they are in a toxic relationship, that too often when we have become ground down to the state of ‘ living to die’ it might seem to you that you don’t have the strength even dream of becoming free of the hell you live with….BUT YOU CAN ! You will be amazed at how STRONG you really are. It takes immense strenght to stay in a toxic relationship, but in time you will come to understand it has been misplaced strength and is so much more overpowering when you use that strength to leave your abuser(s), work on forgiving yourself, focus on healthy self regard and grow towards an uncompromising consciousness….and don’t be afraid to allow the real you to come to the fore.
    Wishing you all the very best from Ireland for now and a very rewarding and enlightening journey to fulfillment,
    Dan

    1. Dan,
      What an ordeal you have been through. And the therapist teaming up with your X, it’s as we like to say, it’s like being raped twice. I can imagine how much gaslighting the X put you through. Spouses such as yours and mine, and others here, they don’t “love” us, but they found us useful in the marriage, otherwise, they’d have just been honest and said this marriage is not what I want, it’s over, go live your life. No, they string you along with dishonesty and gaslighting and whatever it takes to keep you there. It’s sick.
      So you, like I and others here, have gone through all those stages of education, the realization of what really had been going on, the shock, the betrayal, the anger, the bewilderment, and finally, the fog clearing and accepting the truth of what happened. (that truth is hard to find when living with a CD), and it does take a while.

      I love what you wrote:
      “It takes immense strenghth to stay in a toxic relationship, but in time you will come to understand it has been misplaced strength and is so much more overpowering when you use that strength to leave your abuser(s), work on forgiving yourself, focus on healthy self regard and grow towards an uncompromising consciousness….and don’t be afraid to allow the real you to come to the fore.”
      That is when we heal, restore our lives, and start really living a good life, bonding with good people and discarding the toxic.
      As you say, you have now realized the toxicity you’re finding in what were friendships, as have I, and am so aware now of how people affect me, in a positive way and adversely. I’m presently having trouble with a very old friend who is toxic to me, and not quite where you are on ending it.
      I so love hearing of success stories like yours, what can happen when you come out of the fog and begin to work on yourself, getting “out of their head” and into our own.

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