"Why do I keep choosing abusive men?"


I hear this a lot.

Women who ask me this often add that they have sabotaged loving relationships with good-hearted men because it didn't feel right. They wonder what is wrong with them.

I find that the problem originates in development as a child. We cannot get free of our families' influence even after they are dead and gone. Our families teach us how to love--for better or worse. Our families give us an identity--for better or worse. Family members even stick with us as accusing voices in our heads, or as wise advisors.

Women who impulsively choose emotionally or physically abusive men learned early in childhood, usually from their fathers, that love is not real unless it hurts. Developing a trusting attachment to a caregiver is more important than food and water for a small child. If that caregiver is unpredictable and abusive, the child will rationalize this by taking on the burden that he or she "deserves it" to avoid the catastrophic realization that the caregiver cannot be trusted. So to survive, the child's unconscious mind cements the idea that 1) abuse is a safe place, and 2) he or she belongs in such a relationship and deserves that treatment. Again, such abuse can begin so early as to be deeply and even unconsciously ingrained.

We must all accept responsibility for our actions and choices, but doing so also involves recognizing that certain impulses are so ingrained and automatic as to be essentially beyond control. The appropriate response to that recognition is not guilt, and it's certainly not acceptance; it's seeking trauma therapy.

Addendum/post-script:

It is unfortunate that BDSM, due to popular books and movies, has been normalized as a sexual preference, when individuals are often drawn to it as a method of coping with trauma of the above-described type. I got a call a few months ago from a potential client asking me if I am a kink-friendly therapist. Not having any idea what she meant, I responded that I consider myself to be a "friendly therapist," and asked her what she was seeking help with. She reported that she felt unfulfilled in her marriage, and that there was no intimacy in her relationship, sexual or otherwise. She told me that she played the "slave" or masochistic role in her BDSM sex, and said (this is a literal quote), "My husband just can't beat me hard enough anymore for me to be aroused!" I asked if she had been abused as a child, and she said, "Well, my father sexually abused me, but what does that have to do with it?" I explained briefly that therapy could alter her distorted perception of love-equals-hurt, such that a regular sexual experience could be as intimate as she would like. She seemed interested, but then warily told me that she would consult her "BDSM mentor." I wondered what that person was like. She never called back, but it was ethical for me to be up front about my not blanket-supporting BDSM for sex abuse victims.

There are similar issues, which for reasons of not losing one's therapy license, in some states, are totally off the table as therapeutic goals. Regardless of what the client thinks or wants, politicians seek to impose their morals on the individual, because the individual's well-being means zilch to the main goal of advancing their careers by riding trends of ever-changing culture and morality.

This is not a political or culture-war issue. Regardless of one's stance on whether a young man who decided to become transgender after a brutal gang-rape (real case) should be encouraged to explore becoming transgender, or should be treated for trauma--again, regardless of one's stance on this, there should be some real fear of the precedent set when the government mandates the former outside of any mitigating circumstances (the gang rape and trauma). This is a law that just passed in California. By the way, the young man in this anecdote was encouraged to express his new identity, and the therapist structured sessions around celebrating this. After a few months, it was found out that the young man had been prostituting himself, and then he disappeared off the radar. I hope he's alive. What will happen when ALL therapies must be passed by the government, and therapists (much like many doctors feel now) are simply dispensers of pre-selected, scripted treatments?