A courageous member of my recovery support group for abused women recently asked:
“I have an odd question I can’t shake and I’m hoping I’m not alone. Do any of you ever wonder if *you* are abusive as well? My husband traumatized me in a big way, more than once, no question.
After that, I wasn’t always a great person, I said some wicked things, was tempted to be unfaithful (I’m not proud), and maybe I bullied him in some ways? As I read a book on healing, I cringe a little when I read about abuse and wonder if I did this to him when I reacted to what he did to me. Thoughts? Wisdom?”
Darling survivor girl…
The very fact that you’re asking this question means probably the answer is no. Probing into your own actions because you’re worried you might have been abusive too, means most likely that you are NOT.
Let me clarify…
In every abusive relationship, there may be things a victim has said or done that are unhealthy. These may range from lashing out in anger at mistreatment to simply enabling and putting up with bad behavior far too long. Being scared to set boundaries can be just as unhealthy as losing your temper.
It is a deeply important part of healing to recognize and take responsibility for these things so you can grow past them and break the cycle. This includes learning to see patterns instead of treating issues as one-time events. If you don’t, you’re almost guaranteed to carry your survival coping mechanisms into your future.
Your victimhood will stalk you until you face it.
Don’t overlook the flip side. Nearly every abuser will deflect responsibility for how they treat others, projecting their own actions onto the victim. Blaming you for their chaos and emotional immaturity is part of the playbook. Making it all about how hurt they are that you’re bringing up the ways they’ve hurt you — that’s just standard operating procedure.
That means, an equally crucial part of healing is learning to reject your abuser’s conditioning. Stop accepting that someone else’s mistreatment of you is your fault. Start basing your interactions on the premise that every person is fully responsible for their own choices and nobody else’s.
Think of each person’s feelings, words, choices, and actions as emotional luggage. Everyone has their own suitcases to carry. Your choices are your responsibility, my choices are mine. When your choices damage me, that’s your responsibility. Me noticing and pointing out those hurtful actions, doesn’t make me responsible for them — it just means you haven’t escaped the consequences.
When there’s a conflict, ask yourself: “Which part of this conflict is mine to carry?” And then only carry the load that belongs to you.
If it’s not your luggage, don’t pick it up.
This is especially important in situations where abuse is entwined with addiction, adultery, and emotional abandonment. The temptation to take responsibility for your abuser when they are manipulating you to shoulder the blame for their sexual straying can be overwhelming.
“If I offered him more sex…”
“If I had less attractive friends…”
“If I didn’t get my feelings so hurt when he cheats…”
“If I wasn’t so tired from taking care of the kids…”
“If I changed my hair or personality…”
“If I lost ten pounds…”
Abused spouses are often quick to accept blame. Not once do you feel that you have permission to say “Your choice belongs to you, and no one else.” Instead, often from the very beginning of the relationship, you’ve been psychologically conditioned to place your abuser’s preferences, needs, and desires higher than your own. Part of that toxic conditioning includes gradually accepting more of the blame for how your abuser acts.
When your abuser says “If you hadn’t done ____, I would never have done what I did. Look what you made me do! Look how you made me hurt you! Look how you made me stray!” you believe them.
Except, God never says that.
Unfortunately, many therapists treating abuse victims have been trained under a co-dependent/co-addict model borrowed from Al-Anon (intended for spouses of alcoholics). While the Al-Anon treatment model may hold merit in the arena of substance abuse (I’m not an expert there so I won’t pass judgment) — it can bring serious flaws to abused spouses of those addicted to sex and pornography.
Quite often, the spouse of a sex addict had absolutely no idea about the addiction. You married someone who presented themselves as charming, kind, intelligent, and compassionate — and there may have been few or no signs of addiction, abuse, abandonment, control, or narcissism in the early phases.
When you go to counseling and under the co-dependent model you’re told, “This is partially your fault because you’re addicted to your addict and you’re to blame too, because you just keep trying to control the addict in your life” — it can be a devastating source of secondary trauma. Is it possible to be co-dependent as an abused spouse of a sex addict? Of course. But is it necessarily an automatic assumption? It should NOT be, and if your therapist or counselor is telling you that it is, you should consider finding a new one who understands trauma better.
Dr. Barbara Steffens’ amazing book “Your Sexually Addicted Spouse” (see book review video below) powerfully refutes this. Dr. Steffens and her co-author Marsha Means conducted 10,000 hours of research on how to treat abused spouses of sex addicts.
Steffens asserts that spouses of sex addicts are actually operating on a trauma model, not a co-addict model. This means your behavior is not to control the addict, so much as it is to try and get back in control of your own environment. Your coping actions are likely for the purpose of re-establishing a sense of safety after the trauma of betrayal.
Think of it this way — imagine that you experienced a car-jacking. You’d probably compulsively check your backseat (and maybe even your trunk) before getting in the car and driving, as a result of the trauma. You might do that for months or even years before you felt reasonably safe again. None of that means you’re trying to control the carjacker who traumatized you. It just means you don’t want to get carjacked again. It means you’re trying to make sure your own environment is safe.
It means you’re grasping for stability,
for a chance to relax and breathe,
instead of constant awareness and hyper-vigilance.
It’s very similar with abused spouses.
Except when you’re living in an abusive environment, you’re not just having flashbacks of that car-jacking last year — you’re living in a constant state of hyper-vigilance because your “car-jacker” sleeps next to you. Your abuser and might decide to act out at any moment. The acting out might be a verbal assault, the silent treatment, an unexpected financial expenditure that wrecks the monthly budget, or a new sexual exploit.
In an abusive marriage with sex addiction, there is often a constant trickle of disclosures, combined with the constant tension of not knowing how long the “good behavior” from your abuser will last. It’s enough to turn the most self-composed woman into a person she herself can’t even recognize.
Each woman reacts differently when she’s abused, and yet case after case appears eerily similar. Some women get angry and push back, but more often we just shut down. We go silent, we become smaller, we try to morph ourselves into whatever nebulous shape-shifting identity is held in front of us as the goal. We choose not to notice when the goal-posts are moved, over and over and over again.
Should we each take responsibility for our responses and our own behaviors? Yes of course.
Our choices are our responsibility.
But you must also remember that living with ongoing trauma can create patterns of coping responses, which are not natural to your identity. The behaviors you needed in order to survive may not be healthy, but they may also not be your true character. Breaking trauma cycles brings healing as you find freedom, and allows you to take responsibility for your survival patterns, so you can eventually become a healthy version of yourself again.
This means, if your coping mechanism was to diminish your intelligence and avoid conflict in order to keep the peace — God may call you to speak up and use your brain for His glory.
If your coping style was to take the blame and enable others, God may teach you how to set firm boundaries and reject responsibility for others’ actions. Whatever you learned that kept you sane while being abused, you may need to unlearn after you’re free and safe again.
I was standing in my parents’ kitchen a few years ago, when my father spontaneously walked over and wrapped me in a giant hug. “Sweetheart, it’s so good to have you back again. For more than a decade, your body has been here, but your soul was just gone. It was like you were a hollow shell wearing your face. But finally, I have my daughter back.”
I burst into tears. My daddy was dead right. I’d been systematically disassembled for so many years, I’d become someone I didn’t even know. It was good to finally be back.
So… does your reaction to being abused mean you’re the abusive one? It’s possible. But it’s also entirely possible that your coping mechanisms were developed as a way to survive living under abuse.
Regardless, you need to take responsibility for your actions only. Only you can decide that you are ready to heal. Only you can determine that you are no longer a victim.
Your choice to heal is yours alone.PS: if you haven’t read the book… go order it! LOL
If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.
For anonymous, confidential help 24/7, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).
Want survivor resources to read? I’ve gathered my favorite books on abuse recovery, healing, and relationships into a handy list here.
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