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Glenn Yank, MD is a Psychiatrist located in Tennessee.


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Question:
Hi, I was married for 11 years to a man that was abusive. Mostly it was verbal and emotional but there was just enough physical abuse that I was afraid of him. I have been divorced from him for about 10 years and raising my 3 boys on my own since then. My ex husband is on his 3rd marriage and I don’t even date! What is wrong with me? I am overweight and sometimes I think I use my weight as protection from others so that I won’t be treated badly again. Could that be why I find it so hard to lose weight? I am afraid that my marriage, which was NOT happy, was my only chance at happiness and I blew it. My ex seems to have changed with this third wife, which sometimes makes me think that I deserve the treatment I received from him. Maybe I provoked him, unintentionally. Ann

Answer:

Your statements and questions raise a number of issues to which I would like to respond:

First, and most importantly, nobody ever deserves abuse in any form. Your statement that “maybe I provoked him” indicates that you are buying into the myth that one adult (or a child) can be responsible for another adult’s actions, a myth often proclaimed by abusers to avoid responsibility for their actions. Typically the abuser will say something like “Now look what you made me do,” or “You pushed me too far,” or some similar poor attempt to shift blame to the person who was abused! Regardless of what you did or did not do, your ex-husband is responsible for his actions.

Sometimes survivors of abuse hold onto the belief that they caused or deserved the abuse as a way to avoid the horrible feeling of helplessness that goes with accepting that they did not have control in the situation. Self-blame, then, becomes the price paid for holding on to the beliefs that you could have changed the situation and that you still had some power. Sometimes the only power a person has, with regard to an abuser, is to leave the relationship, if they can. Leaving an abusive relationship often requires a lot of courage, because the person must then face both being alone and the feelings they are left with about the relationship. This is no easy task, but can change the pattern of accepting abuse.

The next issue I would like to address is your thoughts that you use your weight and avoidance of relationships as ways to protect yourself from being hurt again. These are common patterns of behavior when a person believes deeply that they either will be hurt in a relationship or deserve to be hurt in a relationship. The belief that you will be hurt again if you let someone close is reasonable, if you have been repeatedly hurt in relationships. Overcoming this belief can be facilitated by therapy focused on looking at the pattern of past relationships, including the choice of people with whom to get involved. If you can identify a pattern in the relationships (in addition to winding up being hurt), this may help you change the pattern and the outcome of future relationships. For example, an all-too-common pattern that I see in my clinical work is the pattern of women who had alcoholic fathers becoming involved in a series of relationships with men who have alcohol and drug problems, with the hope that they can “save” these men, or that the men will change if only the woman is loving/patient/forgiving/hardworking enough. This inevitably fails, the woman blames herself, and repeats the pattern with someone else. This pattern is called “co-dependence,” because the woman’s self-esteem and actions are dependent upon the behavior of a person who is dependent on alcohol and/or drugs. This is a very difficult pattern to break, but if it is identified, the person has a chance to break it with the help of therapy and support groups.

Overcoming the belief that one deserves to be hurt in a relationship is even more complicated, because in this case the belief is not based just on past experiences in adult relationships, but is based on beliefs of “inner badness” that derive from childhood experiences of abuse, neglect, and/or invalidation. When children are treated in these ways, they may come to believe that there is something “bad” about them. Some children are repeatedly told there is something “bad” about them and eventually come to believe it, or are punished if they don’t agree to it. Other children come to believe they are “bad” because they cannot come up with any other explanation about why dreadful things keep happening to them, and this belief becomes their way of making sense out of their chaotic experiences. Still another pathway to this belief is that it is the only alternative to feeling that they are completely helpless, i.e. they “make” these dreadful things happen to them. In all of these scenarios, the child is left with very low self-esteem and the belief they deserve to be hurt.

The therapy needed to help a person overcome this belief may be complicated because the person may have the expectation that if they disclose too much to the therapist, the therapist will figure out they are bad and ultimately hurt or abandon them, too. Thus, developing an alliance that allows sharing of these painful, inner beliefs can take a long time, while the person is testing to see if the therapist is trustworthy. Once an adequate alliance is established, there will be a lot of work to do to find the origins of the beliefs of inner badness and help the person find alternate ways to understand their childhood pain.

Finally, I would like to address your statement “I am afraid that my marriage, which was NOT happy, was my only chance at happiness and I blew it.” It sounds to me like you believe this to be true. But there is no evidence to support this belief. How do you know this was your only chance at happiness? You have stated that you have avoided relationships since your marriage, and if you can take responsibility for this behavior, you can change it. How do you know you are the one who “blew it?” You described your ex-husband as being abusive toward you – this would indicate it was his responsibility that the relationship failed. These beliefs are examples of what are called cognitive distortions, and therapy can help you to recognize and believe alternate explanations for your experiences that allow the possibility for future choices for actions that can lead to feeling much happier.

To have another chance at happiness you must first believe you deserve it, then learn about your past patterns so you do not repeat them. I think you will need the help of a therapist to accomplish these tasks, and I hope you will seek one to help you.

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Disclaimer: The information contained here is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional advice relative to your specific medical or mental health condition or question. ALWAYS seek the advice of your physician or other health provider for any questions you may have regarding your medical or mental health condition. Information provided here DOES NOT constitute a doctor-patient relationship between you and the column author.

© Copyright 2003-2005. All rights reserved. Contact: ShrinkTime Last edited: 05/17/03.