Yes, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and every abusive family has limitless nuances. Everyone can be a victim of family abuse, regardless of their age, sex, education level, economic status… regardless of any individual characteristic, simply put. The violence feeds off specific dynamics within a relationship, and it is as complex as everyone involved. These dynamics prove to be entirely wearisome for all family members, but also almost impossible to break away from. The reason lies in a self-perpetuating game of power and control.
The destructive cycle
Even though not one abusive family is identical, there are some typical characteristics of such relationship. Abuse usually happens in cycles. The family goes through periods of calm before the storm, when, even though things are more peaceful on the outside, the tension builds up and an intense episode of abuse and aggression is inevitable. Combined with destructive tactics of asserting power over the victims of abuse, such vicious environment usually results in a lifetime of self-doubt, emotional exhaustion, and fear.
The game of power and control, (unwillingly) played by every member of the family, is maintained by insecurity. Both the victim and the abuser are unconfident and in deep but pathological need for one another. The abuser fears that (s)he will show how insecure (s)he is and dreads looking weak. However, (s)he also profoundly believes that (s)he is unlovable. On the other hand, the victim is also terrified that she is not lovable in general and loved by the abuser. So, they both accept the unpredictability of their relationship – the inconsistent reactions and inconsistent affection. Yet, in such apparent capriciousness, surprisingly strong bonds form, and we often see the most abusive families with their members being seemingly incapable of separating and setting boundaries.
How the game of power and control is played
The toxic game of power and control is usually played by the abuser using different tactics to dominate, and the victim submitting to it out of a fear of being rejected and unloved. This turns into a relentless chase for approval and affection, which comes in an erratic form, exhausting all of the victim’s energy and joy. Some of the common maneuvers the abusers habitually use to firmly establish the pattern of hegemony are:
- Intimidation: implementing different scare-tactics, using looks, words or gestures to evoke fear, suggesting that the affection is conditioned by the victim’s “correct” behavior, etc.; also, a special form of intimidation and abuse takes place when the abuser threatens (openly or covertly) to commit suicide, leave, or be harmed in any way, if the victim does not behave in a certain way.
- Emotional abuse: making the victim feel guilty and even responsible for the abuse, insulting, humiliating, calling names, causing to feel insecure, inadequate, and helpless, etc.
- Using economic domination: using money and possessions to make the victim submit (“…while you’re under my roof…”, “…you’d die hungry without my paycheck!”)
- Isolating the victim from the outside world: this doesn’t have to be a complete isolation, but separating the victim physically or mentally from her or his friends, other family members, or outside influences ensures that (s)he will feel even more afraid of losing the abuser’s affection and even more susceptible to whatever the abuser tells her.
Of course, these tactics all involve somewhat subtle means of abuse. The more direct aggressive forms of family violence (physical or sexual abuse) fall under the same broad category, and do not differ greatly in their foundation. These are merely more drastic and potentially even fatal manifestations of the same needs and insecurities. However, even the less explicit abuse can result in great harm, and should never be taken lightly just because a physical injury hasn’t happened. This is why it is crucial to recognize and try to transform the maladaptive patterns and habits of a family.
Living within an abusive family is often as difficult as finding ways to change it. The complex dynamics are even more complicated by the fact that it is almost never that just two members of a family engage in an unhealthy relationship. Every member has their own role in preservation of the pathological exchanges, much of which are completely unintentional and automatized responses. Which is why making a change is often impossible if it’s not a joint effort, usually guided by a therapist. Nonetheless, it is an effort worthy of our time and energy, as the majority of families can change and become places of love and security.