When Abuse Makes You Think You Hold the Power
Unfair blame breeds a sense of responsibility — and keeps you stuck.
Several days ago, I attended a lecture about domestic violence. The topic drew rather limited attendance, but the small size of the audience had the benefit of opening up a lively and raw discussion. Some women in attendance had worked for nonprofits. Others had experienced abuse themselves. I was in the latter category. And while it’s been over a decade since my last abusive relationship ended, something very clear crystallized for me while I sat there contemplating. Something that had never quite been clear to me before:
Abusive people aim to make you feel like you are in control.
Which breeds a very false sense of empowerment in the victim.
And that’s a huge part of the problem.
Abusive relationships don’t usually start off abusive. If someone punched you in the face on your third date, you’d probably realize something was very amiss and walk away, confident in your assessment that your date was out of his/her/their mind. (Which is precisely why they won’t; abusive people are masters at knowing how to play the mind.)
However, most often, abuse starts with subtle put-downs and gaslighting — easy to dismiss as simple miscommunication in the early stages.
Then, these cutting comments escalate in their severity as other forms of control are implemented.
And only after you’ve been drawn in and begun doubting yourself — and/or become somewhat isolated from the people who can help — does the physical violence usually start.
This is not just lip service; any solid source on domestic violence will summarize the progression similarly. The pattern is textbook.
However, what I’ve realized is that, as abuse progresses in its severity, you still tend to feel like the relationship can be turned around. Turned around by you. Because of the fact that an abusive partner generally blames their outbursts, meltdowns, explosions, and other unpleasantries ON YOU. They say that you caused it because you made that decision, said that thing, used that tone, chose that moment, made that request. An abusive person can turn any choice into a wrong choice, and it’s all a lie, but you’ll believe it, because their emotions come to hold such sway over your world that they become your guiding reality. And who questions “reality?”
So you simply take the blame you’re given.
But here’s why this is important: the flipside of blame is power. If you can be blamed for something, then surely you must have been responsible for it, correct? Only people who hold the power to make something happen can be blamed for it…. right?
In an abusive situation, of course, the idea that you were responsible for the abuse or “made it happen” is an enormous lie. But as long as your abuser can convince you that their accusations have any validity, you’ll still feel like you wield some control — when in reality, they’re the one controlling you. (Sounds like a mindfuck. I know. That’s how abuse works. Abuse generally anchors itself in mindfucks.)
So you’re made to feel in charge, by being made to feel that your (abusive) partner is a helpless victim blown about by the caprices of your supposed failings. Being constantly told that you’re the reason for the abuse makes you come to feel like you hold a huge amount of sway over the abuser’s emotions, and even their behavior.
And it makes you feel like if only you could figure out the right things to do (or say, or try), and if only you could consistently do (or say, or try) those things at the right times, then you could turn your whole world around. Abuse hooks you into the idea that you hold your abuser’s emotional response — and therefore the peace of your entire world—in the palm of your hand.
… Except that you don’t: it’s a false sense of control and empowerment. Because abuse is a choice, and it’s a choice that the abusive person makes. Not a choice that you make. As such, you aren’t in charge of their actions or reactions at all. You hold NO power over how they behave.
In fact, by making you second-guess yourself in every moment (which they do by assigning you an outsized sense of responsibility for their emotions), THEY are holding an enormous amount of power.
This is crucial to realize because as long as you believe you have the control, you will continue to believe that you can change things, that you can “do the right things” to make it better. You can’t. You never will be able to. Because it’s not about you; it’s about them.
When I was in my last abusive relationship, I spent years trying to figure out the winning formula. How could I tweak my own behavior, communication style, apparel, and so on, to improve the relationship or help my ex become a happier person? I tried isolating myself increasingly from friends, devoting more of my income to his needs (while also turning down work opportunities he grumbled about), making lifestyle changes, making investments in furnishing the home that he unilaterally opted to buy, seeing a counselor, gently suggesting that he see a counselor, finding new sorts of moments at which to bring up important topics of discussion (and agreeing never to bring up other topics on which he tried to silence me), confiding to one of his loved ones that I was worried about him, and so on. Basically, I tried any combination of: 1) things he requested, 2) things he insinuated might help, and 3) things I desperately assumed might help.
The list of efforts I made to make our home a happier place was endless… and frankly that list blurs into an unhappy haze; few details remain in my memory now, more than a decade later, not just because it was so long ago, but also because the experience was too painful and because abuse is irrational. Memories with no internal logic don’t quite gel in the same way as memories that make sense.
Regardless, because I cared about him so much and was so invested in the joint future we were building, I didn’t want to give up on him. That — and the fact that he’d tricked me into believing that I truly held some degree of constructive power over his moods and behaviors (if only I could just figure out how do the right things!…) — is why it was only once I reached the point where I decided, I have literally tried EVERYTHING I could think of, everything that felt like it made any sense to try — that I felt at peace with walking away.
I’m lucky that point arrived before things got more dangerous or destructive. I hope you can walk away before things reach that point too.
Years ago, I was totally caught up in the illusion that I had some empowering measure of control in that abusive relationship; that’s why I kept trying to make changes, regardless of the fact that (realistically speaking) those changes were never going to matter. Like many abusers, my ex had created the illusion that his victim (yours truly) was in charge of his emotional state — and therefore also in charge of the actions he took in response to his emotional storms.
But I never was in charge of these, of course: each person’s emotions are their own responsibility to manage in a healthy way.
The moment we accept that others are in charge of their own emotions (just as we’re in charge of ours), we realize that we don’t control how they will feel, much less how they will behave. But until we figure this out, we run the risk of continuing to expose ourselves to further risk and further pain.