Living in an Abusive Environment
Q. I grew up in a very abusive background. In adulthood I lived in an equally abusive environment because, I am beginning to realize, it’s what my brain knows. In a few weeks I will be released from a safe house—for a second time—where I have been recovering from an episode of severe physical and sexual battering. The doctors have advised me never to return to the same environment. My minister, on the other hand, tells me I need to “turn the other cheek” and try again because my daughter needs a father. I’m having difficulty reconciling these two perspectives. (My partner is remorseful and says he is willing to seek help for his alcohol and battering addictions. Of course, he said that last time, too, and never followed through; but when not drinking, he’s really rather pleasant much of the time.) Do you have any comments?
A. I certainly do have some comments. Several, in fact!
- Growing up, the brain absorbs patterns and expectations from the environment. Since you grew up in an abusive environment, your brain finds that familiar (even though intellectually it may not have liked it). And in terms of damage, it doesn’t matter whether you were personally abused or whether you witnessed others being abused. Unfortunately, many people tend to replicate the environments in which they were raised or move to a style 180 degrees different. Remember, however, that 180 degrees from dysfunctional is still dysfunctional. Recognizing dysfunction and choosing to develop and live a more functional lifestyle is the better choice.
- There are at least three stress reaction forms: Fight-Flight, Conserve-Withdraw, and Tend-Befriend.Fight-Flightis the form that has been studied the most. Researcher Shelley Taylor PhD has discovered that while females may go into Fight-Flight initially as a response to stress, they usually move quickly into the Tend-Befriend reaction form. When in Tend-Befriend, females try harder to “get it right,” and if there are children present, often concentrate on caring for them (although that doesn’t always mean the females prevent the children from being abused). Understanding this tendency can help a female make a decision to avoid returning to an abusive environment to try again, a decision that may save her life.
- I believe that each human being is leased a brain and a body to use while on this planet. When you lease a vehicle, the company expects you to maintain the vehicle according to manufacturer guidelines and to return it in the best possible condition. Would you allow others to scratch or dent your vehicle or smash it up in any way? I think not. And if you did, there would be financial consequences. Based on that metaphor, turning the other cheek does not justify allowing others to scratch, dent, smash up, or emotionally abuse your brain and body. My brain’s opinion is that you are responsible for taking care of your brain and body to the best of your ability, which includes protecting it from any type of abuse.
- Many very charismatic individuals (including those who are “really rather pleasant much of the time”) have learned to displace their own internal discomfort by heaping abuse on other individuals. They can do this by being critical, blaming, sarcastic, controlling, or by exhibiting any number of other negative behaviors across a spectrum. At some level they may experience remorse or even guilt and try to make up for their bad behaviors between episodes. It takes two to tango, however. Every pathology has an ecology. There must be an individual who chooses to be abusive and an individual who agrees to put up with receiving the abuse, often in a codependent manner. It’s the victim-abuser dance. In my brain’s opinion, it is never okay to allow oneself to abuse others or to be abused¾not even once.
- Do you choose to have your daughter grow up, as you did, in an abusive environment so that her brain will internalize these behaviors as “familiar?” Do you want to role model that this is normal and accept the likelihood that she will replicate a similar environment in adulthood? Do you want her to have that type of life? She is worth more than that. So are you. Every human being is! You deserve NOT to be abused simply because you exist. How much do you really love your daughter? Your choices will have a great deal to do with the quality of your daughter’s life in adulthood and whether or not she will break the cycle of abuse in her life and the life of her children. If you are confused about the potential impact to her, you might read “The Body Never Lies” by Alice Miller. Childhood abuse has serious ramifications for mental, physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual health in adulthood.