The Sirens’ Call: Breaking The Cycle Of Emotional Abuse (Part 3 of 4)

Breaking The Cycle Of Emotional Abuse

Empaths, or those who tend to be sensitive, thoughtful, considerate and warm spirited, are often the ones sought out and even cultivated by the emotionally/psychologically abusive person. However, the abuser’s “prey” extends beyond the empath and almost anyone can be snared into the destructive dynamic. To understand the dynamic of being the “chosen one” for an abuser, it’s important to understand the concept of counter-dependency. Codependency is the habit of gaining self-worth from pleasing others or trying to be the perfect person. Its lesser known cousin, called counter-dependency, is the other side of the coin of codependency—it’s the habit of gaining self-worth by manipulating and controlling others.

What happens in counter dependency?

In counter-dependency, the one being controlled is akin to a pawn on the abuser’s chessboard. The abuser does not see others as people, but rather as things—as vessels containing “narcissistic supply”, whose role in the abuser’s life is to be shuffled about the chessboard much like a pawn piece. Narcissistic supply is the name given to the constant attention the abuser craves. In short, a counter-dependent individual’s goal is to prey upon others for adoration, admiration, approval, applause, and undivided and exclusive attention.

If you have been caught in this dynamic and are the source of your partner’s narcissistic supply, your worth is gauged solely on your ability to be successfully manipulated and used for your partner’s gain or pleasure. Keep in mind that pawns are much like chattel: they are disposable if “a better deal comes along,” but will be fought for if the abuser senses that they are losing control of a valued source of narcissistic supply. Basically, you have low value if you can easily be replaced, but a higher value if not.

If you are a valued, or perhaps the only source of an abusive partner’s narcissistic supply then their counter-dependent behavior may become extremely controlling or even threatening. And having children with an abusive partner can produce extremely challenging and even dangerous behavior if there is an attempt to leave the relationship.

Getting away from the abusive behavior

Recommending the best defense or approach to breaking the cycle is a complex process and there is no easy solution, especially when the partner has aggressive or destructive inclinations (such as temper tantrums, destroying property) or violent tendencies. A conversation using “I” and “we” statements, or standing up for your rights, may yield some short-term changes /improvements in the abuser’s behavior; however, history has shown that in most cases the old behaviors return in time and often can become intensified if the abuser is threatened by the prospect of you leaving. Ultimatums also can result in moderate “changes” in behavior; however, these too are short-lived and often the return to the old self can be a much more destructive relationship. Threats to leave that are never fulfilled may intensify the abuser’s need for control, translating into an increase in the frequency, intensity and duration of the abuser’s control outbursts.

Nonetheless, there are effective strategies for breaking the cycle or leaving an abusive relationship. The suggestions that follow are based on the idea that couples counseling or individual therapy are likely to result in limited changes or improvements in the dynamic, and that threats to leave, attempts to appease, avoiding interaction or arguing with the abuser are likely to lead to further control attempts and may possibly deepen the destructiveness of the relationship.

The solution focused question often produces the clearest outcome from the abused partner. The solution focused question is: “Knowing what we know today, if nothing changes, where will this relationship be in a year? Where will you be in a year?” The answer to this question typically leads to two options. The first is to stay and continue to be diminished, punished and controlled even after several attempts to reset the relationship; the second is to leave the relationship. Unfortunately, there is limited to no middle ground.

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David Saenz
Psychologist, PhD, EdM
Dr. Saenz is a veteran Psychologist with 40 years of experience in the field. In those 40 years he has: conducted over a thousand disability, personal injury, and court ordered/forensic evaluations; provided individual and group therapy in correctional and inpatient settings; worked as a community psychologist.

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