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Can a relationship survive psychological abuse?

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Repentance is not enough: a true will to change and heal wounds is necessary.

Psychological abuse is a terrible reality that many people bear in secret and in silence. It tends to happen most in asymmetrical power relationships, where one member of the couple is more dominant, while the other gradually loses his or her freedom.

First off, let’s be clear: psychological abuse is a twisted behavior that should not be tolerated. We need to be informed and aware, because psychological violence increases over time. What starts small can grow and turn into a spiral of destruction.

When there is abuse, there are two people who have problems: the abuser and the abused. Abusers may have some form of mental illness, but in most cases, they are victims of deep emotional wounds that they may not even be aware of. Their childhood is often marked by abuse and toxic family relationships. People repeat and reproduce what they have lived in their formative years, sometimes even without being aware of it.

These people do not really know how to form healthy relationships, so they are incapable of loving others with true freedom and affection.

The three phases of abuse

Abuse typically takes place in three stages.

First, there is a phase of increasing tension as the daily conflicts grow and snowball. Then, there is an explosive phase after all of the accumulated tensions cause the abuser to explode emotionally, often through physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual aggression. And third, there is a phase of remorse, the aggressor apologizes for his acts and recognizes the aggression he perpetrated. However, his sense of guilt hurts his self-esteem, and this leads him to start the three-phase cycle all over again.

The types and stages of abuse are often linked to clear symptoms of personality disorder on the part of the aggressor, and over time, the victim psychologically weakens, beginning to suffer from those same disorders.

The aggressor repents and promises not to do it again, but it is only a temporary repentance, because the cause of his behavior has not been cured.

So, it is very important to be clear: a person who abuses another has a behavioral and affective disorder, and needs professional help. Repentance is not enough: the abuser needs to have a genuine will to change and heal his wounds.

If you are a potential victim dealing with someone who is showing signs of abusive behavior, you have to act by setting clear limits. Shouting should not be allowed in the relationship, and silence is not always the best answer. In the case of physical or sexual violence of any kind, you must react firmly. If the case requires it, the abuser must be reported to the authorities.

Whoever acts this way once will do it again. Abusers rarely change on their own; their personality has well-defined psychological features that become part of their lifestyle.

Consequences of psychological abuse for the victim

Psychological abuse deeply weakens and undermines the victims, who are increasingly unable to defend themselves and get out of trouble.

It usually happens like this: in a first phase of the abuse, the victim generally resists, but in the end, he or she yields to the aggressor. The victim tries to make sense of what is happening, and they try to dialogue with their abuser to find solutions. But true dialogue isn’t really possible because deep down, the abuser is unwilling to listen and change. Next, the victim tries to adapt to the aggressor’s demands, to avoid conflict and keep the abuser happy. He or she is confused by the aggressor’s sudden changes of behavior.

Stuck in a spiral of unpredictable violence, victims often suffer a series of psychological effects: they begin questioning their own way of being, trying to justify the abuser and doubting the validity of their own personal behavior. This leads to the development of feelings of inferiority on the part of the victim and the tendency to fall into emotional dependence.

A situation of prolonged psychological abuse can have a very negative impact on the victim’s psychology and lifestyle. Victims of abuse suffer increased tension and stress, with side effects such as fatigue, sleep disorders, nervousness and irritability, headaches, digestive and anxiety disorders, etc., until they reach the point of being clinically depressed, when they feel unable to defend themselves or change the situation.

Obviously, over time their other relationships start to break down, and they sometimes let themselves go, falling into apathy, discouragement, and disinterest as a result of their great insecurity and lack of self-confidence, their increased emotional dependence on the abuser, and their pervasive feelings of guilt.

What to do if there is aggression between spouses 

Remember the key principle we mentioned at the beginning: abuse—whether it be emotional, psychological, or physical—should never be tolerated. Once you detect it, you must react, out of respect for yourself and to defend your children.

The first step is not to allow yourself to be abused any longer. Accepting abuse is accepting a grave human injustice. If you are the victim of abuse, you must not allow yourself to feel guilty, as if you had somehow brought it upon yourself, or deserve it. No one deserves to be abused, and you did not bring this upon yourself.

When you do not feel capable of changing the situation on your own, it is best to seek help. Turn to your family, close friends, or a competent and trustworthy psychologist. Don’t be afraid to open up and talk about it. Never keep silent about the pain you feel inside. Opening up means that you have accepted that there is a problem, and that you, as the victim, are not necessarily the cause.

Remember that emotional abuse has its roots in childhood, both in abusers and in victim who do not know how to defend themselves.

Another important step is to recognize that abuse involves two people. When someone becomes abusive, the victim needs to take the initiative to clearly define the boundaries of what is happening, and react so as not to allow it or get out of the abusive relationship.

It is important to address the issue with the abuser in a calm and clear manner, and if this is not possible (or if it fails), proceed with the advice mentioned above (get family support, psychological help, report the abuser to the authorities, etc.).

When the abuser really wants to change, he or she will show it with deeds, by seeking personal psychological help, making time for couples therapy, and showing sincere repentance for his behavior. If this does not happen and the abusive behavior continues, it’s time to consider the possibility of a separation, for the good of the victim and the children. An abuser has no right to destroy the lives of others.

This article was written in collaboration with Javier Fiz Pérez, Psychologist, Professor of Psychology at the European University of Rome, delegate for International Scientific Development and head of the Scientific Development Area of ​​the European Institute of Positive Psychology (IEPP).

This article was originally published in the Spanish Edition of Aleteia.

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