I Want to Return to an Abusive Relationship

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Reader’s Question

My girlfriend and I have been together for 4 years but just recently separated. She told me that I am selfish and have an inability to take responsibility for my actions. She also says that I have a real problem with thinking that I am going to be in trouble, which probably stems back to my parents.

My partner is sometimes abusive and has physically assaulted me at times. She constantly tells me that I am a moron and that her anger is all my fault — that I don’t think and I drive her to do those things such as hit me.

I need to seek help as I don’t want to lose her. What can I do to fix my issues in relation to my fear of getting into trouble? I need help with my selfishness and inability to take responsibility for myself.

Psychologist’s Reply

The idea that we act out in our adult romantic relationships unresolved issues we have with our parents was made popular by Sigmund Freud. The more contemporary view along those same lines has to do with attachment styles. The idea is that our early experiences with our caretakers (usually parents) may set the template for how we respond to others with whom we form deep romantic attachments. A securely attached person is generally comfortable with intimacy because he or she feels secure in his or her own identity — a close relationship is valued, but isn’t required for a sense of worth and wellbeing. That’s the ideal.

Unfortunately, not everyone is so secure in their attachments. Anxiously attached individuals tend to worry about being rejected or abandoned, so they are hyper-vigilant to that possibility, and seek reassurance in an attempt to calm their attachment anxiety. Other people are not comfortable being emotionally dependent on someone, and so they keep people emotionally at arm’s length. These individuals are referred to as exhibiting an avoidant attachment style. Ultimately, both the anxious and avoidant styles result from a degree of mistrust when it comes to relying on others emotionally, and may have their roots in early childhood experiences with caretakers.

From what you’ve described, your fear over being in trouble may be more accurately characterized as fear of being rejected or abandoned. As a result, you seem to be accepting of emotional, verbal, and physical abuse so long as your partner does not abandon you. Your girlfriend, on the other hand, may be exhibiting signs of avoidant attachment — that is, she feels most comfortable maintaining control over the relationship, even when that means taking advantage of your dependence on the relationship.

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The healthiest goal may be to work on your own attachment style so that you’re no longer willing to be the recipient of abuse simply to maintain your status as attached to a partner. When we feel anxious, it’s natural to seek the quickest and easiest path to immediate relief (in this case, patching things up enough to resume the relationship as it was). However, the easiest fix usually is not a lasting one (or necessarily the healthiest) because it does not address the underlying issues. With that said, I encourage you to work individually with a qualified counselor. Rather than focusing on why you do things your partner deems worthy of abuse, the issue to resolve is why are you willing to put up with abuse for the sake of being in a relationship. Stay motivated toward personal growth by focusing on the potential for a relationship that is mutually loving and supportive. Yes, that eventual relationship may be with a different partner, but your happiness and mental health will be that much greater.

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