(For the sake of simplicity, I at times have used the male pronoun to refer to the abuser, and the female pronoun to refer to the victim. In reality, the roles of victim and perpetrator are not gender-specific and either the male or the female can be in either role).
It is common for an abuser to have an extreme problem with separation. The abuser has emptiness and needs inside (often unmet needs from childhood), and expects others to become the missing parts of him/herself. There is a difficulty accepting a “no” from one’s partner, or a partner’s inability to fill in a void that can never be filled (rather, it must be mourned). The abuser is confused about boundaries, where he/she begins and the other person ends.
So the abuser tries to control the separateness of the other so that he/she does not have to face the painful reality that another person cannot in fact become part of the self, and cannot be used as putty to fill a void. The abuser will do everything possible to control the other, in order to erase evidence of the separateness of the other’s existence. Reality can be distorted at will in order to support the fantasy that the other can be used as an object rather than as a person to have a relationship with.
This issue of wanting to erase the other’s separateness can be found in most of us; it is not specific to the abuser. Most of us wish at times for others to meet our needs, and we don’t want to have to worry about the other’s needs conflicting with our own. Many of us wish at times for perfect understanding from another, and yearn to feel that another is alike to us and the same as us. Many of us feel shut out when the other says “no” to our desires or sets a boundary or a limit, whether by telling us they want space from us, or privacy, or to spend time with others, etc.
So, what is it that makes the “abuser” unique?
In contrast to the general population, the person who becomes abusive in the context of an intimate partner relationship, is a person whose separation difficulties are so extreme that control tactics designed to sustain the illusion of perfect togetherness and completion by the other override the other person’s rights to safety, autonomy, and security. In a sense, the other person’s feelings, needs, and desires are discounted (at times to the point of violence) in the service of the illusion of control over the need-fulfilling object.
Understanding these dynamics can organize a number of ideas for us. Firstly, we can now understand some of the typical warning signs of “abuse”. The abuser isolates his/her partner from family and friends because the abuser wants to possess his/her partner completely and entirely. There must be no competition in terms of time, attention, or affection. The abuser wants to know his/her partner’s whereabouts at all times, to foster the illusion that the partner is never out of one’s reach. Impatience sets in when the abuser’s needs are not met immediately because it confronts him with the reality that his partner does not exist solely to meet his needs and may at times be unavailable.
The abuser becomes angry if his partner does not follow his advice, because this means that she has her own mind and opinions, and they cannot be one if she does not think as one with him.
He blames others for his actions because in fact others are viewed as part of himself. He appears to have two sides to his personality because while under the illusion that all is “one” between them, he relates to his partner as part of himself, kindly and with compassion, with caretaking and understanding. However, when she shows up as “separate”, she is no longer part of him and he becomes enraged at the same women he loved a few minutes before.
He puts her down to keep her from having her own mind and believing that she can and is entitled to a separate existence outside of himself. He has unrealistic expectations of her because he does not relate to her as a person with her own needs, wishes, and limitations, but only as an extension of his own self.
The abuser despises his partner’s privacy because a thought that he does not have access to, means that she is free to think freely about him, the relationship, and her own needs. Her privacy panics him.
He may reject her separate interests outside of the relationship, viewing such things as hobbies, projects, or community involvements that his partner is involved in as competition for her love.
Other signs of separation issues in the abuser may include intense protectiveness of his partner (to prevent her from coming under the control of anyone besides himself), as well as the sense that they must and can read each others’ minds at times (sustaining the illusion that their minds are one). These two behaviors may be experienced as gratifying to the woman, especially if she has her own unmet needs seeking expression.
Who is Often Drawn to the Abuser?
The young woman who is drawn to this man (who promises the fantasy of perfect “oneness” while they are dating) often has issues with separation of her own, although hers are often expressed in a very different way. She often has trouble setting boundaries because she does not want to “hurt” the other by expressing her own separate needs. She may fear anger because this means that there is distance between herself and the other; this may lead her to submit to relationship expectations that are distressing or painful in order to avoid the experience of distance.
She may crave the sense of “perfect understanding” that she at times can feel with a man who wants to be “one” as much as she does; however, with time, she comes to sustain herself on the hope that she will someday get the understanding she seeks, rather than with the understanding itself, since this man often becomes quite unavailable to provide understanding when he begins to understand that she is her own person.
Many things can contribute to separation issues in such a woman, making her more prone to becoming drawn to a relationship that promises perfect togetherness.
If a woman’s parents, for example, viewed her achievements and behaviors as a reflection on them, this confusion about who is who, and that parent and child are not one and the same (or part of each other), may contribute to a similar comfort with a man who fills himself through his partner. Some families view separation as rejection and become cold when a child starts asserting her separateness and own opinions. This teaches a person to expect relationships to be about undifferentiatedness. The examples are numerous.
This is not to condemn the person who becomes a victim. Although his/her separation anxiety may be very intense; nonetheless, the victim’s behavior is not destructive and the abuser’s is. So the consequences of the same issue are not the same at all, and we cannot put abuser and victim into the same category.
Why the abusive behavior can be so hard to spot during the courtship process:
The feeling of perfect “oneness” can often be sustained during the courtship phase of a relationship, when a couple becomes preoccupied with each other, and while partners temporarily turn their attention away from pursuits outside of the relationship. The relationship at this point has also not yet been tested by the challenges of everyday reality impingements. When all is well and both partners are healthy, this is no problem. The illusion of perfect “oneness” can be very soothing and enjoyable and may serve as a memory that buffers pain in the future.
However, healthy people will come to terms with the separateness in the other in a mature way, once reality does in fact start to set in. They will accept that their needs cannot always be met immediately and in exactly the way they want them to be, and although disappointed, they can give some and take some. They can take responsibility for their own feelings and understand that when the other disappoints them, it may not be personal and is not designed to deliberately cause pain. They can forgo their own needs and see the needs of the other often enough. They can feel sad and frustrated when they wish for something and cannot get it. They can come to terms with seeing parts of their partner that they wished not to know during the dating process, until their relationship would be stronger and could handle it. One does not try to control the feelings of the other because he doesn’t like the way they make him feel about himself.
The abusive person will not come to terms with these painful aspects of adult life and reality. The abusive person will try to make it not be so that the other person really is their own person. He cannot even see the other at all. He is not in love with his partner as a person separate from himself, but is in love with the way his partner makes him feel when all is “One” between them. All love is gone when that feeling is shattered. This person cannot really understand the effect he is having on the other at all.
This may turn into full-blown abuse. The abusive partner will criticize his partner and tell her that no one else could ever love her, to ensure that she will never feel good enough about herself to expect him to treat her well or to consider leaving if he does not. He will isolate her from everyone so that she becomes dependent on getting her needs met from him alone, and then when she does not submit to his control, she has nothing. She then must submit.
He takes control of the finances so that she cannot ever leave for fear of how she would support herself and manage the finances. When she does not submit to his control despite all of the emotional and verbal abuse, and especially if she threatens to leave him (the ultimate separation), he may resort to physical force to force her to stay, to grab onto her and hold her down the way a small child will grab desperately and hysterically onto his parent’s leg when the parent is on the way out the door. However, this man is much stronger and more driven than that small child.
He may threaten abandonment when she shows signs of separateness so that she can feel how abandoned he feels when he confronts her “otherness”. He may run away, not call for hours, withdraw into cold and punitive silences, even threaten to kill himself if she leaves him.
How to Help if Someone You Love is Being Lured In
When a young man and woman are involved in dating each other, and someone notices that there is difficulty between the two of them in both being themselves and negotiating their differences, there can be many roadblocks to helping this couple become aware of the issues at hand.
First of all, the two may already be involved in a mutual state of “blissful oneness’ and may be, by that point, so intent on sustaining that feeling that they simply will not even consider any challenge to that feeling. Second of all, many children with separation issues come from families where separation is difficult in the first place, and they may feel the need to use an equally powerful attachment to separate. In this way, the person may use their dating partner to move away from their family, and if family members challenge this, the person may become defensive and defiant.
This is never an easy situation and one that often evolved through many years of family interactions. However, several things may be helpful in trying to gently nudge the potential victim of an abusive relationship to consider the potential for difficulties.
It is important to empower her regarding her concerns and ideas so that she feels supported in trusting her instincts and bringing up issues that concern her. If she is criticized by her own family, she may second guess herself and have trouble challenging criticism or mistreatment by her dating partner.
Similarly, it is important to talk about her concerns in a non-reactive way, so that she does not feel caught in between competing attachments, such as her family and her date. This person needs to be encouraged to evaluate her own sense of things, good and bad. Reflective comments may help with this, such as “It sounds like he makes you feel very protected and understood and that you like that, but other times you are afraid to say your own opinion and that you are worried about that”. This allows her to reflect on what she herself is saying and draw her own conclusions that feel like they belong to her. Otherwise, she may simply feel more and more confused about “who is right”, and defensive. In contrast, a comment that would most likely be experienced as unhelpful would be, “I really don’t have a good feeling about him. I don’t like him and I’m really worried about how much you seem to like him…”.
Similarly, it is important to encourage her to work through all of her concerns during the dating process until they are resolved in a way that feels comfortable to her. It is unhelpful thinking to tell oneself such things as:
• We’ll work that out when we’re married
• I’ll change him
• I don’t want to think about that
• Everyone is rushing me
• He said something that upset me, but he must have not meant it the way I took it
It is important for couples to have real, live data about how differences and conflicts will be negotiated, before committing to a long-term relationship with each other. Both should feel comfortable that differences can be worked through in ways that are mutually respectful and that allow both partners to have a voice.
In addition, it is important to help the young woman become aware of the process between the two of them, in addition to the content. Comments such as the following can help her to think about the process a little bit more:
• If the two of you will have different ideas about the children, how will you deal with that?
• Can he see your point of view when you disagree with him?
• Do you find yourself not saying certain things? What things are those? Why don’t you say them?
When to Seek Further Help
I would strongly recommend seeking professional help if you know someone who is dating and is showing the following signs:
• His/Her personality is changing
• He/She has lost interest in things previously enjoyed or valued
• He/She denies certain things that are obvious to everyone else.
You may also find the following book helpful: