It is often said that children learn by example and, specifically, by what they observe in the actions of their parents. A son who sees his father abuse his mother has a good chance of repeating the behavior with his own spouse. A daughter who watches her mother be abused is at risk of being abused. And so, any parent who is or has been in an abusive or toxic relationship may wonder how it will affect his/her child or children.
Being that my relationship with the father of my own children was manipulative, verbally abusive, and controlling, I most definitely wondered. I most definitely was concerned….for a long time. As a parent, I wanted the ideal. I wanted my children to live with both of their parents in a single household and see their parents stay together. Simultaneously, I wanted my children to learn how to treat others with care, consideration, and respect and learn how to be treated with the same care, consideration, and respect. And yet, the ideal was not one of the available choices and without it as an option, I didn’t quite know what to do. What was best?
Ultimately, I more or less decided that my children were better off if their father and I stayed together while they were young to avoid any potential custody battle. Once they were older, I hoped that it wasn’t too late for them to learn from my experience, mistakes, and (eventual) courage to change and stand up for one’s self. The jury is still out on that for the most part and for a time it even looked like my daughter might repeat my choices. Her first boyfriend in high school was not unlike her own father, even eventually enlisting in the military and wanting to marry her. Fortunately, she chose differently than I did. Fortunately, she is now dating someone else who treats her well and many of her old wounds from the past relationship and her childhood have healed. That’s not all, however. It seems that my daughter has acquired her own wisdom within the challenge of her experiences and I believe it’s something worth sharing.
While we were sitting around one night talking about her past relationship, she vocalized something quite simple and profound that sums up manipulative and abusive relationships better than I ever could or any self-help book I’ve ever read. Describing the uncertainty and indecisiveness one feels within an abusive or toxic relationship, she made the following statement:
“You go back and forth between ‘I deserve better’ and ‘I need to be better.’”
Read that again if you need to, but what she was saying explains completely the internal tug-of-war that takes place inside every single person who’s ever been in an abusive relationship with a narcissist, sociopath, someone with borderline personality disorder, or any other abusive type. Wanting to be the best person you can be for the person you love is natural, even when you know you deserve to be treated better. Maybe you think that if you love more and do better, the abuser will heal or be able to love in return, but it’s never enough. Furthermore, seeing small improvements in the abuser’s behavior can often do more harm than good, as they can keep one hoping and in the situation longer.
And this is why it’s so difficult to leave. We want to improve ourselves. We want to treat others the way we want to be treated. We know this to be good. We know love to be good. Relationships take effort and we’re willing to give all we’ve got toward that. We want a win/win and mistakenly think the relationship could be that. We also mistakenly think that if we leave, we lose….and we’re afraid to lose. We don’t want to lose this person we love.
But what if it’s not a loss at all? What if it’s a gain or a win? My daughter didn’t lose. She gained and won in the form of a new relationship in which she is happy, thriving, living, and loved. And yes, we all should have that too. We all deserve better.