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How and why can good people become abusive?
In short: yes, it is sometimes possible for otherwise good people to be abusers in close relationships. I had (at least) one such in my family; I worked as a coach with several of them. Although I don’t specialize in abuse so I may not be able to give the whole picture, I can share what I have learned through experience.
For starters, no one is completely good nor completely bad. We have all developed various parts of ourselves along the way. The human brain is capable of simultaneously containing very contradictory impulses. We often expect that if someone feels empathy and healthy feelings in one segment of life, then at least logically they should be able to apply that in other segments as well, but people are still very irrational beings.
Likewise, abuse is neither simple nor one-dimensional, nor is it all equally intense. Emotional blackmail, the role of the victim, and various manipulations can conditionally be classified as a lighter variant of abuse. Yet many people do such things unconsciously, as part of the culture or family in which they grew up. That is why abuse should be viewed less in light of intention, and more in light of effect. There is not even a clear transition between abuse and healthy behavior, it is often about nuances.
One of the common things I see in otherwise well-intentioned people who end up acting abusive is the need for the relationship to be perfect. One of them told me that when his wife disagrees with him, he can’t help but experience it as disrespect, and the feeling of being disrespected makes him angry. (That, of course, had a lot to do with how he was brought up.) Others may feel that a love relationship should be like an idyll where all their needs are met and where they experience no dissatisfaction and frustration. It is essentially the child’s search for the unfulfilled ideal of the parents. When the partner shows that not only they cannot fulfill all these wishes, but also have their own needs and a separate identity, childish idealization can turn into childish outbursts of anger.
A deep fear of losing control is another common cause of abuse. This fear also usually has its roots in one’s childhood. There are people who are mostly warm or well-intentioned, but due to various traumas, they feel the need to be in the driver’s seat and cannot allow others to interfere at all or do anything unforeseen. Anything unexpected or different can cause irrational fear in them, and fear often leads to anger as an attempt to re-establish control and therefore safety.
The third type, as I mentioned earlier, are people who have learned to be afraid of, or do not know how to express themselves directly, say what they want and stand up for themselves, so they try to do so indirectly – through manipulation, playing the victim, passive aggression. They often think that this is normal behavior and either they are not aware that something else is possible for them, or the thought of clear communication scares them too much. They usually come from families where there was a combination of aggression on the one hand and manipulation on the other, so they expect the former and protect themselves with the latter.
In short: people can be warm and well-intentioned, yet deeply immature and unhealthy. The ability to empathize can moderate toxic behavior, but it’s possible that unhealthy emotions override empathy.
Can such a person change?
Only if they are highly motivated to change, fully aware of the problems they have, and determined to take responsibility for their feelings. It is essential that there is continuous effort and that gradual change for the better can be seen. Apologizing and regrets after each new outburst is not enough.
Unfortunately, this is very rare because such people often have an unconscious impression (until life finds a way to beat them up a little) that their behavior brings them more benefits than harm. One of those benefits is often a sense of basic safety, even survival, if they experienced a lot of fear as children. Facing all these fears again is something most choose to avoid.
Can I help such a person?
For the same reasons as above, very rarely. The motivation for change should come from within, not from without. As a rule, words and arguments are not enough to overcome irrational emotions from childhood. If you try to save such a person, it is far more likely that you will instead become mired in their world, losing at best time and energy, then perhaps self-esteem and identity, and at worst physical health or even life.
The need to save such a person, as well as the hope that you will succeed in changing them, are most likely a pattern you carry from your relationship with your parents. Let’s remember: people often in relationships hope that their partner will change in the way their parents did not. If this resonates with you, I recommend that you focus on your own emotional healing first, otherwise you will make your self-esteem dependent on an unhealthy person, which usually ends badly.
You can talk to such a person about how their behavior makes you feel, where you think it might be coming from, and what are the likely consequences. Pay extra attention to communicate in a healthy way when giving an unpleasant feedback. The rest is up to them – and I believe that unhealthy behavior should be followed by reasonable consequences.
How can I tell if it’s time to leave?
A perfect angel might be able to maintain inner peace and self-esteem even around someone who fits the previous descriptions. But most of us are still human, and our enjoyment of life greatly depends on the quality of our relationships with important people. We also need to count in all the insecurities, injuries and traumas that we ourselves carry from childhood. It is unrealistic to expect that toxic behavior will not affect us, even if we ignore the potential danger of a physical attack.
In a relationship worth maintaining, you should feel comfortable, valued, safe and free. Your self-esteem should be stable. You should not wonder what the other person is thinking and how they will react to something, but rather should be able to trust that your partner will calmly and respectfully explain to you if something you do bothers them.
The more insecurity, confusion, lack of freedom, and especially the feeling of inadequacy you feel, the more necessary it is to get out of such a relationship. No matter how much compassion you feel for your partner, no matter how much you appreciate their better sides. Sympathy will not help, it can even make things worse: if the partner experiences more and more concessions, efforts and attention from your side because of their immature behavior, they may unconsciously perceive your efforts as a reward for immature behavior.
If, despite your sincere efforts, you feel insecure and uncomfortable in the relationship; if you have to restrain yourself to avoid upsetting your partner, if your communication does not work, if you can’t come to a mutual understanding… it is not necessary to label your partner as an abuser so that you could leave; it is enough to recognize that you are not compatible and that the relationship is not working. If you don’t feel good in a relationship, then the relationship isn’t good for you, even if it’s no one’s fault.