It takes two to tango. I despise that phrase because it implies equal responsibility for the abuse inherent in an abusive relationship. It is true that for every abuser, there is a victim of abuse. If the victim refused to stay, there would be no abuse at all. While that is true, it puts equal responsibility for the abuse onto the victim, and that isn’t right (Things Victims Say and Do To Cause Abuse).
The abuse victim reacts to abuse, but is not the controller, not the manipulator, not the abuser (Domestic Abuse Victims Think They’re the Abuser). The abuser chooses to abuse, yet she is not the only one with a choice, nor the only one with the power. The victim is also able to choose his reaction to abuse and to retain his power.
Responsibility for the abuse belongs to the abuser; responsibility for the reaction to domestic abuse belongs to the victim.
Are Victims Responsible for the Abuse They Suffer?
No. Victims cannot control when an abuser lashes out. Victims do not control an abuser’s thoughts, feelings, or actions. When an abuser abuses, she is responsible for her own words and actions.
Abusers tell their victims “You make me do this!” and “This is all your fault! If you had/hadn’t ___________, then I wouldn’t act this way!” The abuser wants to make you feel responsible for her actions. Much of the time, the victim does accept responsibility for the abuser’s actions and, in the future, tries very hard to do (or not do) whatever it was that set off the abuser’s rage.
The dirty little secret is that the abuser changes the story for the victim at will. When victims do what the abuser asks, more often than not the abuser will say the victim did NOT do as asked or say that they asked for exactly the opposite and claim the victim has such a poor memory he didn’t realize his mistake.
So, since victims cannot accept responsibility for the abuser’s twisted actions, what are victims responsible for in the cycle of abuse?
Victims Are Responsible for Their Reactions to Abuse
The environment created by abuse creates several illusions:
- you think you are powerless and have no control,
- you fear leaving the abuser as much as you fear staying with her,
- you think the abuser’s opinion of you is at least partially right,
- you think you are as “bad” as the abuser and deserve some punishment because you abuse her, too.
These illusions are powerful ideas that your abuser wants you to adopt whole-heartedly. But there is one idea that cuts through the crap and shines bright as day. The truth is that *every person including victims of abuse are in control of his own thoughts, feelings and actions.
This means that your abuser cannot make you think, feel, or do anything. You can’t control the abuser, and she does not have the power to control you, either. You must take responsibility for your own words and actions, even if you said or did them in an act of self-preservation, out of fear, or in an effort to stand up for yourself.
- When you retaliate with hateful words, those words are your responsibility.
- When you lie about small things to prevent arguments, those lies are your responsibility.
- When you attempt to redirect her anger elsewhere, the manipulation is your responsibility.
Living in an abusive environment can strongly provoke you to act contrary to your nature. When you act contrary to your nature, you feel guilt. Guilt weakens your ability to see the truth and strengthens your belief in the abusive illusions. Believing the illusions spirals you further into the abusive cycle.
Victims Who Own Their Responsibility Can Break the Cycle of Abuse
The answer to breaking the cycle of abuse lies in your ability to act in ways that cause you no guilt.
- If you feel guilty for retaliating with verbal abuse, then do not verbally abuse the abuser again.
- If you feel guilty throwing something at your abuser or slamming a door out of anger, then do not do those physically violent things again.
- If you feel guilty for lying to the abuser about money, friendships, or work, then do not lie again.
- If you feel guilty for manipulating the abuser, then do not attempt to control or manipulate again!
You will have to choose healthy behaviors to substitute for your bad habits. Perhaps you can walk away, or maybe you can say, “I can’t talk to you right now” and go do something else. If your abuser follows and pesters you, perhaps you could call a friend or drive to the store alone.
In time and with practice, you will react to abuse in ways that do not cause you guilt. Without a guilty conscience, you will soon discern truth from illusion, and your sense of power over yourself will return. At that point you will be ready to decide what to do about the abuse.
Staying and coping is one alternative, separation or divorce are two others. When you regain your sense of power, more solutions will become visible, and you will choose for yourself the solution that is best for you.
*Battered Woman Syndrome is a defense used in court when an abuse victim murders the abuser. BWS is an explanation for motive that can lighten the sentence of a murderer; it states the victim has diminished responsibility, but it does not remove responsibility. Knowing that abuse can get so bad that you think your only way free is by murdering your abuser may help you understand why it is important to accept responsibility for your reactions to abuse now – before the worst happens.
*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so do not take my pronoun choices as an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimized.