The Fine Line Between Victim and Abuser: When the Abused Becomes the Abuser

One topic that we often don’t want to discuss in relation to abuse is the cycle of abuse and the number of abusers that started off being victims of abuse themselves. It’s uncomfortable – on one hand, we want to support them and the obvious hardships that they have faced.

However, at the same time, if they are continuing this cycle, there is a new victim that also requires our attention, sympathy, and protection. The struggle lies addressing the situation adequately in order to break the cycle once and for all.

It can be difficult to collect accurate data, as many cases of abuse go unreported or underreported, and many adult survivors of childhood abuse no longer discuss their past, however, the statistics that are available are staggering. Experts estimate that anywhere from 30-70% of young abusers were sexually abused themselves previously, while 10-22% of adult abusers have a history of sexual abuse as a child. These statistics only refer to previous experiences of sexual abuse, not even touching on those who were physically, mentally or emotionally abused throughout their lives.

As a child, we are learning how to communicate and interact with one another. This is an incredibly important time in our lives, the time I which we are developing our personality and the way in which we present ourselves to those that we meet along the way. If a child grows up in an abusive home, the example for how to communicate is a negative one – they literally learn that manipulation, deceit, and abuse are ways of communicating and connecting with others. This is especially true when the abuse occurs at the hands of their primary role models, including parents or close family members.

While these children don’t grow up into adults who consciously choose to treat their own children in the same way that they were, we subconsciously revert, in many cases, to the behaviors we learned in childhood. Therefore, an abused child may actually struggle to differentiate between acts of love and abuse. This is their ‘normal.’ Sharing her own story of her mother – a victim of abuse who continued the cycle, Darlene Ouimet wrote, “When she grew up, it was as though she couldn’t wait to have someone to pick on because she believed that’s how life works. It was ‘her turn.’ Not her turn to ‘abuse’ or overpower someone, but her turn to be loved in the only definition of love that she knew; the false and dysfunctional one that she had been taught.”

For others, this continuation of abuse is the result of an automatic defense mechanism, a way of managing their own abuse that carries on into their adult lives. As children, they discover that they can either sit back and wait for the abuse to come their way, or they can act pre-emptively, striking their abuser first. This includes stonewalling, criticism and any other verbal or emotional attack. Over time, this develops into a habit known as ‘reactive narcissism.’ In this particular mindset, if the individual believes that someone is going to lash out at them or attack them in any way, they will act first to spare themselves the pain. Unfortunately, these perceived attacks may not always be as clear as they would like to believe, causing them to lash out at those who actually meant them no harm.

It is incredibly challenging when the line between victim and abuser is so blurred, but we owe it not only to the current victims but those to come in the future, to break this pattern. This will involve a great deal of work and effort from the abuser to break free from their guilt and shame, admitting to their current situation and accepting help both in the form of support from friends, family and loved ones, as well as professional help to rewire their natural responses. While it certainly won’t be easy, it can be done.

Image via Psych Central Blogs

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