I had a conversation today with a good friend of mine who is a fellow adult survivor of childhood emotional abuse. We were debating what to do with the fact that our abusive parents were, themselves, abused as children.
It’s no secret that many abusers grew up in abusive homes. My emotionally abusive father grew up with horrific abuse, from broken bones to abandonment. And I grew up hearing stories about his abuse from my enabler mother, who regularly excused his behavior by reminding my siblings and I how much worse he had had it. In a way, we were made to feel lucky that we were “only” emotionally abused (nevermind the fact that he was also physically violent with my mother).
For years, I followed my mom’s lead, excusing his ferocious rages and nasty comments because I felt deeply sorry for him. From the time I was a small child, I was conditioned to put his feelings before my own. Whether he screamed and swore at me, made snide comments about my weight, punched a hole in a wall in anger, or made fun of my hobbies and career aspirations, I was supposed to shrug it off because, supposedly, “He couldn’t help it.”
It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood and in the midst of my own recovery from his and my mother’s abuse that I realized – of course, he could have helped it. Not every child who was abused grows up to be an abuser. It’s not easy, but there are many things one can do to break the cycle, from seeking therapy to taking parenting classes to reading self-help books, etc. Realizing that there was help available to him and that he refused to seek it helped to strip away some of the sympathy I’d had for him that was preventing me from moving on. I could still understand why he did what he did, but I no longer had to excuse it.
My friend has a slightly different take on this. For her, it was key to her recovery to accept that her abusive mom was so damaged that she couldn’t have behaved any other way. In my friend’s view, accepting her mother’s limitations and believing that she couldn’t have been any different helped her to stop having expectations about their relationship or wishing it were different. So, whereas I needed to accept that my father could change but chose not to, she needed to accept that her mother simply couldn’t change at all.
I suppose that both of our theories boil down to the same essence, though: 1.) An abuser’s traumatic childhood does not excuse his or her abuse; and 2.) It is futile to expect change, at least if the abuser refuses to accept that he or she has done anything wrong.
What do you think? Can abusers who were severely abused themselves “help” their behavior?