The Web of Abuse

If you’re familiar with the cycle of abuse, you might remember something like this:

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This is a good pictorial example of how abuse functions in a relationship. I think this needs to be expanded to include what happens in other relationships during and after one has left the primary abusive relationship.

Abuse usually doesn’t come out of nowhere. There are patterns in one’s life whether or not they’re acknowledged. For example, one might tolerate behavior (yelling, blaming, hitting, rape) from a loved one that one would not tolerate from a stranger. At some point in our life, our loved ones taught us this type of behavior was normal, acceptable or even a sign of love. These dynamics may be replicated in our relationships for a very long time.

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Sometimes the abuse we’ve experienced is so insidious (covert, psychological, emotional) that we do not even recognize it as abuse. We only know we find ourselves in the same awful relationships over and over again. Victims of abuse may perpetrate against others or internalize–believing they are wrong, flawed, unlovable and worthless. Both scenarios are equally dangerous and can lead to harm being inflicted upon others, oneself or both.

The larger cycle of abuse can be multi-generational, can extend throughout one’s family, network of friends, coworkers, even whole communities. Abuse can be so pervasive that to extricate oneself from the cycle can feel impossible. When one accepts that they are not inherently flawed or unlovable but stuck in a vast network of abusive relationships, the question then becomes, “How do I get out?”

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I think the analogy of the fly stuck in the spider’s web captures the hopelessness I’ve experienced trying to extricate myself from a very abusive network of relationships. If you have any experience with addiction, you can think of it like trying to live clean and sober when all your friends and family members are addicts. Like many people, I blamed myself for all my unhappiness and believed (still believe) myself to be unlovable. In reality, I’m no more or less flawed than any other person, maybe slightly more aware and definitely very lovable in the context of a healthy relationship.

I felt compelled to write this as a reminder to myself but also as a reminder to others who are in the trenches with me, struggling to lead fulfilling lives. Abuse is awful. It’s like a virus that spreads from person to person. I think a lot of people are scared to acknowledge the abuse that permeates their lives because they might have to admit their part in it and also accept that the people they loved and trusted the most might not have had their best interests at heart.

When I realized how abusive my mom was, I was devastated–and still am. It’s a loss I don’t quite know how to grieve. Once I realized it though, I began to see quite clearly how the same dynamics popped up again and again in relationships throughout my life. At times, I feel like that fly caught in the web, trying in vain to free myself from threads that keep sticking to me. I’m also afraid–afraid that even if I manage to break free, my wings won’t carry me to safety.

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The virus of abuse can be virtually undetectable. Symptoms are made manifest in depression, anxiety and eating disorders and on a larger scale in hate, greed and war. Abuse can be inflicted on others as physical, psychological and emotional injury or by denying people their basic physical, psychological and emotional needs. Have you SEEN what happens to children who are victims of neglect? If you still doubt how detrimental neglect is to a person, consider why we use solitary confinement as a form of punishment.

I don’t believe in ranking types of abuse–it’s enough to recognize that it’s occurring and make moves to stop it. Recognizing behavior as abusive is a huge step in escaping the web. Trying to make sense out of what’s happening in an abusive relationship can result in further entanglement while deciding not to participate, while difficult, can be a powerful step in stopping abuse.

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Once you have recognized a relationship as abusive, you can also make moves to psychologically and emotionally detach from it. Deciding that the other person is stuck in the web too or is actually the spider can help you begin the internal separation that is so necessary to leaving. Also, when the people who hurt you are people who, if you did not know them, you wouldn’t go to for advice, would not ask them for a favor or trust them with your children–ask yourself, “What is my criteria for people whose opinions I value?”

I was thinking about this earlier after being hurt by someone’s crass behavior. This is a person who said we should send all the homeless people to an island so we wouldn’t have to deal with them. This is the 32-year-old adult man who spends 90% of his waking life glued to his computer (and threw a tantrum the last time his game stopped working). This is someone who truly believes that some people are worth more than others, values possessions over relationships and still acts surprised when he hears a “well-spoken” black person. I realized I DO NOT VALUE THIS PERSON’S OPINIONS AT ALL!!

In closing, I’d like to remind my fellow soldiers to keep trucking. I’m cheering for you. Keep trying to spot abuse when it pops up in your life and keep revisiting your criteria for who gets to be in your life, whose opinions you will take into consideration and whose you will file into the trash bin.

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