It doesn't always happen. But it happens to a large enough degree that it can be referred to as commonplace. A number of studies indicate that between 30 - 70% of young abusers (physical or sexual) have been sexually abused themselves. Statistics on adult abusers who were sexually abused as children are lower - approximately 10 - 22%. However, I suspect that a much larger percentage of adults who have been sexually abused as children have developed coping and/or relational styles that are abusive - if not to others, then certainly to themselves. It doesn't sound shocking to say that someone who was abused as a child may become self destructive as an adult. But how far off is that from abusing others? The point here is that children who were abused are taught to abuse as a way of communicating and connecting. And many times their primary role models, their parents or other family members, are the ones who taught them this.
Why would anyone repeat behavior that has hurt him or her so profoundly? Almost no one consciously sets out to become abusive. The behavior is handed down over the generations because it is learned behavior. The behavior feels familiar and it feels like home. It is instinctive; furthermore, the abuser may not know any other way to behave. Adults who have been abused as children by their loved ones mix up love and abuse. It is both a natural (for them) way to communicate and a release of anxiety - the anxiety surrounding the original abuse. It is a way to turn the tables and finally have a sense of power or control in their intimate relationships. Many times, they are able to cover up their behavior from the outside world and only exhibit abusive tendencies with those closest to them. That's either the way it was with their original abuser or it is a way to carry on the secret that they have lived with their entire life.
Abused children grow up with low self-esteem. Many feel inadequate. They wonder if they deserved to be abused. Oftentimes, their abuser convinced them that they deserved the abuse at the same time that they told them they loved them. Deep down abuse survivors don't believe that they deserve a healthy, loving relationship - if they even know what that looks like.
At the same time, they carry a lot of anger about what happened to them. The world is not a fair place. Their defense systems, while initially traumatized, have now become over-reactive. They are in a constant state of “fight – or – flight”. Their automatic defense systems are driving them to attack before getting attacked. By becoming the abuser, they can now play the powerful role in this relationship. And maybe they even believe that by doing so they can make it right this time and thereby heal themselves.
Finally, if love is tied into abuse by early experience, then the abuse survivor might even feel more alive when they are abusing themselves or others. They may be sexually aroused by abusive behavior - especially if their young bodies responded sexually to their abusers. Physically abusive behavior and sexually abusive behavior become intertwined.
Childhood emotional abuse is also carried into adult abusive behavior. As is usually the case with this type of abuse, it is more complex, more difficult to identify and more varied in the resultant behavior. And there are less studies and statistics. But there are some common signs of an emotional abuser:
1. Verbally abusive and demeaning behavior
2. Constantly criticizing and demanding
3. Emotionally withholding and undermining
4. Using negative labels and pathologising other peoples' behavior.
5. Showing little or no compassion and minimizing others feelings while describing themselves as the victims.
6. Discounting the reality of the other or "Gaslighting" - making others feel as if they are crazy.
Childhood emotional abuse victims become adult abusers for the same reasons that those who were sexually or physically abused become adult abusers. But they have even lower self-esteem (see my article on Emotional Abuse) and may try and cover it up by verbally attacking others before they themselves are exposed as "worthless individuals".
So how do we help someone break the cycle of abuse?
Abusers have to first become aware of what they are doing. And then they have to want to change. As anyone who has been in an abusive relationship knows, this is an extremely difficult task. Abusers are well defended in their behavior. They honestly believe that they are the victims not the villains - and at one point, as children, they were, so they are partially correct. Their sense of reality has been skewed all of their life and changing would involve psychologically reorganizing a life-long pattern of socialization. Never engage abusers, this is what they want and need. All that one can do is calmly point out the hurtful behavior that he/she is experiencing and silently walk away. If the truth is recognizable enough, the abuser may then try and understand their role in what went wrong.
Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT
Roni Weisberg-Ross is a West Los Angeles based psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of sexual abuse, emotional abuse, severe depression and relationship issues