Why We Continue Abusing Ourselves and Others
by Beverly Engel, MFT

If you were emotionally, mentally, physically or sexually abused as a child, it isn't a question of whether you will continue the cycle of abuse or neglect, it is a question of how you will do so-whether you will become an abuser or continue to be a victim. If you have fallen victim to repeating such a pattern this information can be an important first step toward breaking the cycle of abuse.

Learned Beliefs and Behavior: There is overwhelming evidence that abusive behavior is learned since many children who witness abuse grow up to repeat the behavior as spouses and as parents. In one study, it was found that seventy-three percent of batterers witnessed violence as children. When children witness abuse, or are abused, they are seeing, hearing and learning about violence.

The Repetition Compulsion: Originally defined by Freud as the repetitive reenactment of earlier emotional experiences, this type of behavior is often seen in the lives of trauma survivors. The repetition compulsion is an unconscious drive that compels us to "return to the scene of the crime" so to speak, in order to accomplish a new outcome or to gain understanding of why something occurred.

To a large extent, the repetition compulsion explains why, if one of your parents was controlling and domineering, you will tend to treat your partner and/or children in a controlling and domineering way. This is often how abuse gets passed down from one generation to the next. But not everyone who was abused grows up to be abusive. The repetition compulsion can also work in the opposite way. Instead of becoming your abusive mother or father, you may end up marrying someone very much like him or her. It is an attempt to psychologically master the previous traumatic experience. It's as if your unconscious mind is saying, "If I can only do things differently this time I'll get my mother (or father) to stop abusing me," or "If I can just be patient enough and loving enough, I'll get my father (or mother) to love me."

We Go With What is Familiar: People often choose negative situations that are familiar over positive situations that are unfamiliar. If what is familiar in an intimate relationship is abuse, you may unwittingly get involved with someone who mistreats or abuses you. In addition, many survivors of childhood abuse or neglect equate love and affection with abuse.

Identifying with the Aggressor: After abuse, a victim's view of self and the world is never the same again. The experience of being abused challenges one's most basic assumptions about the self as invulnerable and intrinsically worthy and about the world being just and orderly. Identifying with the aggressor, taking on the aggressor's characteristics and assuming responsibility for the abuse allows feelings of helplessness to be replaced with an illusion of control.

There are significant sex differences in the way trauma victims incorporate the abuse experience. Research indicates that abused men and boys tend to identify with the aggressor and later victimize others, whereas abused women are prone to be attached to abusive men who allow themselves and their offspring to be victimized further. Boys tend to feel especially humiliated when they are victimized. Instead of risking being seen as a victim, which is typically not acceptable for males in most cultures, they prefer to deny their victimization and take on the role of the aggressor against those who are weaker than themselves.

Learned Helplessness: This term and concept was developed by pioneering researcher Martin Seligman, to describe what occurs when animals or human beings learn that their behavior has no effect on the environment. The impact of this experience leaves an individual apathetic, depressed and unwilling to try previous or new behavior. This concept is relevant to some survivors of childhood trauma who may show some degree of learned helplessness due to repeated exposure to traumatic events. Those who have been unable to escape violent situations in their homes are much more likely to refuse help and accept future violent situations as inescapable. This is true even when presented with real options to avoid future violence.

Self-Blame: Self-blame can lead to a lifetime pattern of victimization. Children blame themselves when they are abused by their parents because the child needs to hold on to an image of the parent as good in order to deal with the intensity of fear and rage which is the effect of the trauma. Victims may also blame themselves for their own victimization because it allows the locus of control to remain internal and thus prevents helplessness.

Beverly Engel is considered one of the world's leading experts on abuse and is the author of 16 self-help books. Her latest book is "Breaking the Cycle of Abuse: How to Move Beyond Your Past to Create an Abuse-Free Future" (2004; www.JosseyBass.com).