Does it matter if your abuser was abused?

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?

“Your parents will be dead soon” – Or, what not to say to adults who are estranged from their abusive parents.


I am one of the growing number of adults who are estranged from their parents.

It has been over two years since I’ve spoken to my parents. I don’t generally talk about this with strangers, and my close friends are supportive, but this situation has caused a rift with the rest of my family-of-origin. One of the reasons for this rift is that, to a person, everyone in my family who has spoken to me about the situation has assumed the estrangement was my choice, and, therefore, my responsibility to fix. This happened even when I tried to explain that this was not the case – at least not in the way they thought – so I stopped trying to explain it to them.

In my case, the estrangement happened almost by default. Although my parents had given me plenty of reasons during my childhood to question whether a continued relationship was wise, I never had any intention of cutting them off. “Let bygones be bygones,” I would think, even when it became clear to me that many of the issues I struggled with as a young adult were directly tied to the emotional abuse I’d suffered as a child. Even when I was diagnosed with C-PTSD, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that tends to afflict adults who were raised in unstable homes. Even when I noticed that, far from having stopped when I left home at 18, the abusive behavior continued with every phone call and visit, well into my thirties.

(For example, at one point, I had the startling realization that I had never once visited home as an adult without, at some point during the visit, being sworn at by my parents – everything from my mom screaming that I was a “selfish asshole” when I asked her to knock before entering the room in which I was staying to being asked if I was “fucking stupid” when I asked my dad for a ride somewhere. This latter happened because at some point, they stopped allowing me to drive their cars when I flew in for a visit (No reason was provided. They had allowed this when I was younger, and I had a clean driving record, so it was very strange). Since they lived in a rural area, this effectively trapped me at their house when I visited, so I often had to plead for rides like a 12-year-old – and, just like when I was 12, the answer was often an enraged no, as if the very question was offensive. I couldn’t afford to pay for both a plane ticket and a hotel or rental car every time I visited, so this became a hugely uncomfortable ordeal that I had to go through if I wanted to see them. And, at that time, I did).

In spite of all of this, I didn’t walk away. The way my estrangement happened was like this. For most of my adult life, I had been putting virtually all of the effort into the relationship that existed between my parents and I – all of the visits, nearly all of the phone calls, and all of the forgiveness and understanding.

One day, after my mother made yet another insensitive comment during a phone conversation, I decided that I would take a break from calling for a while. I wasn’t planning to never speak to them again – I just decided it was time to let them put in some effort for a while. I figured that, this time, I would just wait until they called me.

They never did.

It was as simple as that. We didn’t get into an argument, no one screamed at the other, no crazy act precipitated the estrangement. I simply decided that I wasn’t going to do all of the work to keep in touch anymore, and it turned out that what I had suspected for a while was true – they weren’t willing to put in any effort themselves. Even so much as initiating a phone call.

Two years later, I am married to a man they have never met and have a son whose birth they didn’t acknowledge. They did not congratulate me on my wedding. They weren’t there when I suffered through two miscarriages, one of which required an operation. They didn’t ask how I was doing during my difficult pregnancy, nor send so much as a text when my son – their grandchild – was born. They knew about all of these events because I was still in touch with two of my siblings at the time. I never even got a, “Mom and Dad said to tell you congratulations.” Nothing.

Still, well-meaning (?) relatives would periodically say to me things like:

  • “Whatever happened, you have to let it go.” (What happened isn’t a “mystery” – I can tell you exactly what happened if you’d like to hear it. Didn’t think so.)
  • “You shouldn’t prevent them from seeing their grandson.” (They haven’t even asked to see him – not even a picture of him).
  • “That’s just the way they are. You know that.” (Yes, I do know that. And now, in spite of your attempts to pretend otherwise, you’ve revealed that you do too. So, why, exactly, is this my fault again?)
  • And, my personal favorite, “They’re getting old. They’ll be dead soon. You’ll regret this.”

Let me take up that last one for a moment because it’s the one I’ve heard most often. Putting aside the fact that my parents are in their 60s, not their 90s, and in generally good health – making all of these predictions of their impending doom a little odd – I’m not sure what people are trying to achieve with this statement. Other than to encourage me to apologize for the audacity of doing nothing and to try and make me feel guilty for not reaching out to people who, effectively, made it clear that they were unwilling to put even a modicum of effort into our relationship.

Here’s the thing – if someone should be worried about my parents’ death, it’s them. If they had wanted to talk to me, I wouldn’t have turn them away. If they had wanted to visit, they could have stayed in our guest room. In short, if they had wanted any sort of relationship with me at all, they could have just pick up the phone. Or sent a letter. Or a fucking email. I hadn’t given them any indication that they were not welcome in my life, apart from expecting them to stop acting like they didn’t want to be in it. They voluntarily exited it, and all I did was not apologize and beg them to stay, like I used to when I was younger.

So, are THEY worried about dying without seeing me again? Without seeing their grandson? Without “making amends”? Is anyone calling them up to remind them that they are getting older and it might be time to “Let ‘whatever happened’ go?” Somehow, I doubt it. Because, everyone “knows how they are” and that it would be a cold day in hell before either one of them admitted fault, especially if they had to reach out first.

For my parents’ sake, I hope they still have many healthy years ahead of them. But, if they don’t, I will not be consumed by guilt. They seem to have no fear that they will die before they have a chance to reconcile with me – so why should I fear it?