Recognizing you are being abused is difficult when you love the person who is abusing you. This is true for both children and adults. The mind will go to great lengths to protect a person who cannot emotionally accept that they are being abused. The greater the abuse, the more elaborate the strategy the brain employs.

In the case of children, there is nothing to compare the behavior to – how do you know it is abuse? Maybe this is common or maybe I deserve it? It is far easier to blame oneself for what is happening than to believe that the person who is supposed to be taking care of you is hurting you – that the person you love may be evil. It is far easier to believe that if only you had behaved differently, the result would have been different, rather than the realization that you are a victim of a great injustice outside of your control, and it may never end. And it is even more complicated than that.

What if the abuse is subtle and infrequent and your abuser otherwise takes good care of you and seems to love you? What if later, even as an adult, you are not sure that it was actually abuse but something more ambiguous? And what if, not only the abuser, but also other family members, tell you that you are crazy – you just imagined these things? Now you are taking on everyone you love. Can you be sure? Can you emotionally handle losing your whole family? These are the obstacles and the questions that many childhood victims of abuse have to confront.

When a client is emotionally resisting or cannot clearly remember what happened as a child, we sit in that space of “not knowing”. How does not knowing affect your life? Usually, if you cannot be sure of what happened in the past - or if you’re not even sure that anything at all happened - then that uncertainty infects other areas of your life in the present, oftentimes resulting in your distrusting your instincts in all matters. How can I be sure of anything if I can’t even be sure of something that traumatic – that fundamental a betrayal?

Adults in abusive relationships find meaning in the reasons why they stay. And only when they can no longer fool themselves or they find other resources, do they leave. When an abused adult is asked “how could you or how can you love your abuser, he/she can rationalize their feelings. Children never have a choice. So adults abused as children may be able to intellectually rationalize the past, but that doesn’t stop the guilt and shame they experience for having been part of the abusive relationship. And if it was a parent they still love, they are further burdened with the self-denigration of continuing in a relationship with their abuser and caring about them now.

Many people are under the impression that in order to heal the past you must confront your abuser. I have found that while many times that works, sometimes it makes no difference at all – or worse yet, can further complicate the healing process. And the difference isn’t simply whether or not you want to continue having a relationship with that person. It’s true that if you don’t presently care – and I don’t mean hate, which is a feeling – but actually don’t care about your abuser, it will probably feel cleansing. But cleansing is different than closure. That can only be realized once you forgive yourself and are no longer psychologically held back by the past. If you do still care about this person, if you still want to have this person in your life, then it really depends on what you are hoping for by confronting them. The ideal scenario is that your abuser (and whoever else covertly aided them by looking the other way) recognizes and acknowledges how they have hurt you. The more likely scenario is denial or minimization on their part and therefore more frustration, self-doubt and self-loathing for you. It is not the abuser(s) who needs to be forgiven; it is the abused - and only by themselves.

When the abuse has taken place within the nuclear family, some clients have asked me – “Do I have to walk away from my family in order to heal? Because I can’t walk away from my family, I love them.” The answer lies in the question. The burden is yours to carry. If you still love them then you have accepted their limitations. If you still love the actual abuser, then you may understand something about them that we don’t. And if they are not continuing to hurt you, then the choice is yours to make.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT

Author's Bio: 

West Los Angeles psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of sexual abuse, emotional abuse, severe depression and trauma.