It is a strange thing to comprehend: most of us as abuse victims actually feel sorry for the person abusing us. Why is that? How can it be that, after all he* has put us through, we choose to see this person who treats us contemptuously as a fragile, hapless creature worthy of our patience and understanding?
In my own experience and having had the opportunity to work directly with many victims, there are several things that may keep us feeling sorry for the guy – and subsequently bound to him.
First, sympathy compels us to see our abuser as a wounded man rather than a cruel man. Sympathy redirects our focus from his actions to his wounds, whatever they may be, moving the abuse to a position of secondary importance and diminishing the truth that is right before our very eyes. His wounds are deemed more important that the ones he inflicts upon others. Where abuse is involved, sympathy serves as both a coping mechanism and a form of denial.
We choose to believe that, in spite of his guilt, he is innocent.
But the truth is that, although he may have been a victim, now he is a perpetrator.
Second, sympathy protects the abuser from the consequences of his behavior. As a sympathizer, the victim is troubled by the potential pains and inconveniences her abuser might suffer should she leave him. Many a victim recognizes that few would tolerate the kind of treatment she receives from her abuser, which means that, without her, he could end up alone. Looking at it from that perspective, the victim’s protective stance is profoundly ironic. Because no else would put up with his horrific treatment, she feels an obligation to do so.
We are willing to cope with our abuser’s cruelties rather than be “cruel” to our abuser.
But the truth is that it is unhealthy to protect an abuser from the consequences of his behavior, because consequences serve to reflect the truth about who he is and what he has done.
Third, our sympathetic focus often finds us adopting a role as “the good one” in the relationship. This type of role-playing creates an opportunity for us to prove that we are worth loving. It becomes our aim to be as perfect as possible, to show our abuser what love and respect look like, even with the historically unrealistic prospect of inspiring him to change.
Remaining with “a bad guy” becomes something of an identity for us as victims. We become an overcompensating complement to his treachery. Our preoccupation with holding things together gives us a purpose, a job to do, a role to play as we work to soften and diffuse the hostile environment he creates.
Our intent is to one day reach the heart of our abuser. Should we succeed in doing so, our success will also serve to validate our self-worth and perhaps bring to fruition the kind of intimacy we long for – even if we are miserable in the meantime.
We believe our devotion will yield a positive outcome that will eclipse our pain.
But the truth is that our devotion tells him that whatever he is doing must not be that bad. Why would he change?
Fourth, sympathy is laden with hope. Our abuser has said a lot of cruel things, treated us badly and left us wondering how we have survived to this point. Yet we don’t want to give up or let go, because to our way of thinking that would mean that we have failed, or that perhaps we aren’t worth loving. After all we have been through, all we have invested, believed, hoped and prayed-for, can we really walk out with nothing – even less than nothing to show for our efforts? To do so feels like an utter waste of every moment we have spent loving this man – a waste of love, a waste of life.
So we cling to that tiny thread of hope and believe that change must be imminent. Maybe tomorrow…
But the truth is that if he wanted to change, he would. The truth is that you are not obligated to continue investing in someone who continually fails to love, honor and cherish you.
So the bottom line is that your sympathy gives your abuser power, binds you to him and diminishes the truth about his motives, his actions and your pain.
To be blunt: You need to stop feeling sorry for him. Your sympathy accomplishes nothing. The healthier and more appropriate response is to be angry, for day after day he has chosen to demean and neglect you. Allow that righteous anger to fuel your determination to begin the process of reclaiming your value, to begin taking care of yourself, to never allow him to abuse you again, and to release him to reap the consequences of what he has so cruelly sown.
“Do not associate with a man given to anger; or go with a hot-tempered man, or you will learn his ways and find a snare for yourself…” Proverbs 22:24-25
*Although abusers can be of both genders, statistically the overwhelming majority of abusers are male; therefore, the abuser is referred to in the masculine. The reader’s understanding is appreciated.
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