On PBS, Wayne Dyer told a story written by Portia Nelson, “There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk; Autobiography in Five Short Chapters.” It’s about walking down the street and repeatedly falling into the same hole until she finally decides to walk down a different street.
I began to think how this parallels what often happens to victims of abuse. I jotted down how it might go.
You meet a guy who’s kind, romantic and crazy about you. So caught up by his attention and adoration, you agree to marry him, immediately- wouldn't want to miss this opportunity. Once married, he begins to nit-pick, pointing out what’s wrong with you. When you try to call him on his behavior, he claims you are “too sensitive,” crazy and self-absorbed. Soon he’s telling you that you are stupid and worthless and can’t do anything right. He does a number on your self-esteem and teaches you that you cannot trust yourself. He begins to batter you because you “push his buttons.” You’re stunned that this has happened and struggle to make sense of it, fix yourself so he will love you like before. His mind games and threats trap you in the relationship. It may take years to get out.
You meet a guy who’s kind, romantic and crazy about you. You feel harried and anxious to be in a relationship and walk away from the past. You’re new partner wants to take care of you. It feels so good after what you’ve been through, you marry him. You start to grow stronger. He reminds you of your previous poor choices and how he knows what's best for you. He begins to point out what is wrong with you. It isn’t long before you see that he’s another abuser. You start blaming yourself. What’s wrong with me? How could I be so stupid to do this again? Maybe I am a horrible person and deserve this treatment. Perhaps, you end this relationship sooner. Maybe you stay longer ashamed to admit you’ve done it again and no one will ever truly love you. But to save your life (and maybe the lives of your children) you finally leave.
You meet a guy who’s kind, romantic and crazy about you. You feel that time is running out for you and you don’t want to be alone. So damaged by the previous relationships, you don’t believe you can take care of yourself. You’re surprised that anyone loves you. You look him over carefully and decide to take a chance-- live with him not marry him. OMG. Not again!!! Maybe all men are abusers. There are no nice men out there. If you want someone, you’d have to put up with the abuse. It becomes so painful that in spite of the fear of being alone, you’re out quicker this time, feeling worthless and helpless.
You meet a guy who is kind, romantic and interested in you. But you don’t trust your gut anymore. How do you know if he’s truly a great guy or another violent man hiding behind a facade? You blow up the relationship.
You go into treatment with a therapist who is trained in domestic abuse issues. You learn that the abuse was not about you, but about your partner. It was not your fault. You were a victim sucked in by well rehearsed controlling men. You learn that you are a survivor. You take time to rediscover yourself, learn to trust your gut, repair your self-esteem, build a career and change your self-talk. Most important, you learn that you can take care of yourself.
You meet a guy who is kind and romantic and seems interested in you. You don’t feel rushed. As a matter of fact, you like being single, running your own life. So you date him with no preconceived notion that he will be a life partner. He doesn’t try to rush you into a commitment. He respects your boundaries. He talks and listens. He has a passion in life and encourages you in your passion. You meet his friends. He meets yours. You have shared interests and some that are individual. You take plenty time to do the things you enjoy doing on your own. He respects that and pursues his own interests. You like him as a person. He shows respect to others. You talk about marriage. What is his vision for finances, shared responsibilities, children, etc.? If your visions don’t jive, you walk away or if you choose, keep the relationship at its current level. Then you open your heart wide.
Last word: While this scenario is more likely if the victim was raised in an violent home, any of us can fall into it. We end up living with ghosts from past relationships. Therapy can help us learn how to keep those ghosts from destroying our future relationships. Through therapy, we learn how to stand up for ourselves and work through difficulties with our partner, creating a stronger, healthy bond.