The Odd State of Being Okay With An Abusive Partner

By now most of us know about persecutors and their enabling victims. The professional and popular literature, as well as the media have long addressed the abusive dynamics that may sadly thrive in dysfunctional relationships. They still exist mind you, but more people are aware of abuse than before. This I know because I worked on a spouse abuse grant years ago and found many to deny its existence. Nevertheless, there are certain individuals that I find particularly fascinating in this dynamic. Most notably, those that tolerate verbal abuse or neglect (not physical abuse) on a consistent basis such as: bullying, criticism, name calling, or rejection, because they consciously have decided that it is “worth it” to maintain the relationship. Many have had years of therapy and have concluded that they would have more to lose by ending their relationship than they would by freeing themselves from it. You might suggest that these people are masochistic or simply replicating prior abuse, but they are not necessarily the unhappiest that I have encountered. In fact, some said with a chuckle that it was their lot in life, and that there were plenty of good times to offset the bad. At dinner one night a friend of mine drew a straight horizontal line on a napkin. He said to consider this line to represent the threshold for his tolerance for abuse. But he added with a smile, his relationship was not so bad because he only approached the line or experienced the abuse intermittently. He claimed that he generally found pleasure in his relationship. For a second I was speechless. But I finally conjured up enough reality to tell him that most abusive relationships experience some good times. It is rare that one is abused every second. There must be a bathroom break somewhere; or at least time for a meal or a movie. We know that in the abuse cycle, following an incident the abuser may beg the victim for forgiveness and be a model partner for a time, only to abuse soon thereafter.

So, what about these tolerant victims? In interviewing them, the one theme that stood out is that none of these individuals wanted to sacrifice their lifestyles for a divorce and a chance at a healthier relationship. Even if they had money there was something about losing control of it, or suffering a significant materialistic loss that bothered them. One man told me that if a divorce should occur he would have to sell the home that he built himself—an experience he could not bear. Another man said that his wife was a hoarder and that just getting the house ready to sell would kill him faster than any abuse. Oh, and he also did not relish the idea of splitting up his retirement money. A woman in her 60s told me that she loved the vacations she and her husband frequently took and could not even think of giving them up. Another man told me that he could never afford to live the luxurious lifestyle he enjoyed without his wife’s substantial income. Others claimed not to want to upset the children. But I found that even when the kids were long gone, the parents were still together.

I know that many of you are already seething at me for not simply including these enablers in the general enabling population. Yes, they might be masochists. Yes, they might be replicating abuse from their respective families of origin or via a negative life experience. And yes, all of them might be in a state of denial. But at least in terms of the latter, most were not. Most of these people weighed their options carefully and made a choice. As one of my clients put it: “I would rather live with the devil I know rather than the devil I don’t know…and I get to keep the house at the Jersey shore.”  Not everyone is a purist you know.     

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