I was talking with my honey this weekend and we were discussing codependent behaviors, something that both of us are intimately familiar with having grown up surrounded by alcoholics. We have both witnessed codependent behavior and been codependent in our own behavior, so we’re experienced with it. One of the major issues that stems from codependent behavior is that of the abused spouse who won’t leave their abuser. To the best of my knowledge (please correct me if you know otherwise), no one has been able to adequately explain why this is true. It is a major challenge that police and violence prevention organizations face in trying to help the victims of ongoing abuse. (Please note, I am specifically being gender-neutral here because this type of abuse and codependent behavior isn’t limited to husband-on-wife violence, it exists in the opposite form as well as in same-sex relationships and in parent/adult child relationships.) Getting the person who is being beaten to leave the relationship is often a challenge.
Why Do Abuse Victims Stay With Their Abusers?
So this weekend, I was musing on why that is. I’ve been in emotionally abusive relationships in the past (which can be even more insidious because the abuse is rarely witnessed and sometimes difficult to admit because there are no physical bruises to prove it to yourself). Why would an otherwise intelligent person decide to keep putting themselves in harm’s way? They haven’t lost the ability to reason. They know that if they stay, it’s likely to happen again – no matter how much they may wish to live in denial. They will tell you that it’s because they love the person that they stay. But even this doesn’t make sense when you look at the underlying mindset of codependency.
Who Are They Really Expressing Love For?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that they don’t love the person – they do. But this isn’t why they stay. Think about codependent behavior for a moment. It is manipulative, sneaky, and entirely focused on controlling the abuser’s actions. Granted, there’s good reason to want to control their actions – self preservation being primary. But that’s not an act of love from the victim to the abuser, it’s an act of love from the victim to themselves.
The Last Act of Love
I would like to put it to you that the last true act of love a codependent person does for their abuser is to map their self-love onto the other person. When the victim takes their own sense of self-love and gives it to the victimizer, they have placed all the power into the hands of the one they love. (There are cultural reasons for this, but that’s for another blog post.) Every act from there forward is an act of self-love as the victim tries to manipulate the abuser into giving them the self-love they need back.
Demanding, Controlling Behavior
This explains why codependents have such a strong belief that the other “should” take care of them, nurture them, love them. Because of course, they would expect their self-love to do this for them. The problem is that the other person isn’t them. And that person is never going to treat them as well as they should be treating themselves.
Fragmented Sense of Self
What’s my point here? The reason that victims don’t leave their abusers is that to do so would mean abandoning the piece of themselves that they have mapped onto the abuser. They have literally fragmented themselves in an effort to hold onto the relationship and to leave it would mean making that fragmentation permanent. So long as they stay with the person, they can see and touch their self-love on the other person. If they leave without knowing how to take their self-love back, then they will be forever less than their whole selves. THIS is why victims stay. Not out of love for the abuser but out of preservation of the energetic self.
Unmapping The Self-Love
It would seem that the key to freeing the victims is in helping them to reclaim their self-love. If we can help the victim to unmap their self-love from the abuser, then we can begin to reach them. If we can help them to realize that what they are doing in manipulating and controlling the other person isn’t an act of love for that person but is an act of love for themselves, then we can begin to help them see that there are more effective ways of loving themselves – starting with taking back the responsibility for that self-love from the abuser. It is through the act of personal empowerment and the development of self-love that these people free themselves. Let’s help them by giving them a visual they can work with to empower the process.