I was prompted to write this after pondering the number of unhealthy relationships that exist in the world. Call it an occupational hazard, since as a psychotherapist I have seen far too many of them over the 40-some years that I’ve worked in the field.
What may have begun as starry-eyed romance, devolves into vitriol and sometimes violence. But I imagine that no one goes into a relationship with the thought that they expect to be assaulted verbally or physically by someone who claims to love them. And yet, people do go into partnerships trying to escape family of origin dynamics where addiction and aggression may live together inharmoniously, thinking that it will be different for them.
People often go into relationships unconsciously.
An informal review of my professional experience brings to light that the majority of clients who see me to either work through relationships in which repeated infidelity, active addiction, emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or spiritual abuse is occurring, or to end the relationship, come from parents who were not great role models for navigating relationship waters.
Many survived Adverse Childhood Experiences that distorted their perception of their worthiness to have positive relationships, assuming they could even recognize a healthy partner if one showed up. Some have reconciled themselves to a “this is how it will always be” mentality. They feel helpless to do anything about it, for so many reasons. They may have a limited or non-existent support system, are financially dependent on their abuser, or succumbed to the barraging to the point that they are worn down. They may also have children, meaning there are custody issues. And they may be trauma bonded with their perpetrator.
Would Tina Turner have married Ike if she knew he was a monster despite the fame that being on stage with him initially afforded her? She became a resilient thriver and a role model for others when she left, and the parting gift for her was that she became far more famous and successful than he ever was. He died of cocaine toxicity, hypertensive cardiovascular disease, and pulmonary emphysema. When she died in 2023, she was in the presence of her loving second husband, Erwin Bach, who treasured her and was a true partner.
Jennifer Gardella, PhD, is the author of Domestic Violence Awareness: Listen for the Whispers of Abuse. In her cautionary tale, this intelligent, professional, successful woman fled an abusive marriage and shares, “Domestic Violence is so much more than broken bones and bruises. It isn’t your job to ‘heal’ him. People have to want to participate in their own healing. You and your partner should live your own independent but connected lives. One should not control the other. You need space. And all of that then comes together to create a bond.”
Consider what you would do if someone who attracted your attention told you this from the get-go:
“I believe in being the boss of my home, whose authority is absolute. I get to tell you what to do and if you don’t meet my demands, I have the right to deal with you however I want. I will berate you, control you, inhibit your growth, stifle your dreams. You will not have your own friends or interests. I will only be faithful to you if it suits me. You are only in my life to meet my every desire. I will diminish your sense of self-worth until there is almost nothing left. And if you get me really mad, I will strike you.”
Would you choose to be in a relationship with this person, regardless of how the “might as well face it, you’re addicted to love,” hormones are flowing?
Moreover, if you ignore the red flags and move ahead with this person, believing that you can heal or change them, and have children with them, would you be okay with them choosing to “discipline” your future children with put downs, yelling, spanking (a.k.a. assault), and then have them justify it by saying that they were raised that way and turned out okay? Can you imagine them saying to your child, “I will hit you to keep you in line and there’s nothing you can do about it. You will grow up to think that a bigger, stronger person can assault a smaller, weaker person at your whim. You will treat your children the same way, because, after all, that is our heritage”?
Because trust me, if they believe that, they didn’t turn out okay.
My hope is that when someone tells you who they are, you would believe them. Pay attention to the red flags when they are clear as day, and count on the trusted people in your life to be help you see if the relationship you’re entering into, or remaining in, is a toxic one.
In sessions with abuse survivors, I remind them that it is essential to break the cycle. I ask them if it’s okay that I am angry at the perpetrator on their behalf and that my protective Momma Bear comes out and wants to confront the abuser and demand to know, “How dare you treat this person that way?” I take into consideration the adage that “hurt people hurt people,” and I add that they don’t have to—healed people can heal people too.
Here are a few important questions to ask a potential partner (and yourself) in order to break the cycle of abuse:
>> What models did you have for loving relationships when you were growing up?
>> What did you learn from them and what did you learn from those that weren’t healthy?
>> What did you learn about self-love?
>> How was love expressed in your childhood?
>> How was discipline handled? If physical punishment was used, how do you feel about continuing the pattern?
>> If you were a survivor of abuse, have you done your healing work with a therapist?
>> If addiction was present in your family, how has it impacted you?
>> How do you want your relationship to mirror that of your parents and how do you want it to differ?
>> If someone disagrees with you, how do you handle it?
>> When things don’t go the way you want, how do you deal with disappointment?
>> How do you express emotion, most especially anger?