Many women have consulted me for psychotherapy after having survived a terribly abusive relationship. More often than not, their presenting problem is depression and anxiety that they attributed to the loss of their lover. Curiously, it was the termination of the relationship, which they experienced as rejection, that bothered them more than the fact of the abusiveness. They confessed to feelings of amazement over the fact that, at the start of the relationship, he was wonderful. How could this have happened. In all cases they denied that there was any way they could know what was going to happen and that could have prevented their choice of that man. Many of them were angry about the idea that they could select another abusive man yet again. Research shows that many people ignore the warning signs of abuse at the beginning of a relationship.
A paper published in the journal, "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin," (Zayas and Shoda, 2007) examined the influence of prior experiences on partner preferences. The question was, having been in a an abusive relationship, what was the likelihood it would happen again. A very clever experiment was done in which female subjects were shown profiles of potentially abusive men. The profiles showed them to be jealous, impulsive, angry and with low self esteem. Women who had prior histories of being abused by ex lovers were three times more likely to choose an abusive man as opposed to those who did not have this history.
Interestingly, men with a history of being abuse selected female profiles of women who were dependent and fearful of being rejected. Seemingly, men and women were shown to have a "knack" for making a compatible choice that would get them into terrible trouble.
It would be wrong to believe that there is anything inevitable about people making bad choices. Knowledge is power and knowing the characteristics of potentially abusive people can serve as a guide to who should be avoided. In other words, pay attention to the characteristics listed above: jealousy, anger, low self esteem and prior histories of being abusive.
However, knowledge does not always help because the tendency to make a poor choice is sometimes quite unconscious. For example, it is like a bad habit in which the behavior repeats itself without any awareness. That is why it's important to listen to friends and family when they issue warnings about a particular person. Others can often spot problems that we cannot because it's too close for us to perceive what is happening.
I find it interesting that many women who find themselves in relationships with these types of men then ask me what they should do? They state that they love this person and do not want to lose him. My advice is to locate the door and leave now but with more wisdom so this does not happen again.
What are your experiences with abusive people?
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD