Seeing the best in life's challenges

The Cycle of Abuse

on November 6, 2013

All around me I am observing the fall-out of the Cycle of Abuse.  Since this cycle has not affected me directly, in a dramatic way, it is easier for me to observe and ponder it.  But since it is close enough, this cycle insists that I think about it.  If you found this post through Google, you are probably thinking about the same situations that have prompted me to write.

I am always looking to understand.  I want to find solutions.  So in my mind I have been working at integrating concepts that together, for me, create an understanding of the cycle.  I believe that you can’t “solve” something if you don’t first understand it.

These situations involve lots of details.  Some facts are known, many are not.  At one level, and especially to the persons involved, the details are terribly important.  To those of us who are not directly affected, it can be very tempting to get wrapped up in the details, to investigate or become obsessed with finding out what really happened….but step back and think about it — for what purpose?

If we really care about this issue, we will care more about understanding the dynamics of it, and less about the details.  We will want to figure out how to break the cycle.  So this is where I’m coming from as I’m thinking out loud here.

I’m talking about the Cycle of Abuse in families.  We hear about instances of parents abusing children, and we can’t fathom why anyone would harm a child, a child they are supposed to love and care for.  Why does this happen??

The concepts I’m talking about come from ideas presented in several books.  I’m thinking about these concepts as overlays, as I talked about in my post Thinking in Color.  The concepts are:

            Love Languages (Gary Chapman)

            Control Dramas (James Redfield)

            The Process of Grief (Elisabeth Kübler-Ross)

I’ll attempt to describe each of these concepts, and then talk about how they fit together…and if this feels to you like I’m getting at something, you might want to look further into the books referred to in the above links.

Love Languages

The Love Languages idea is that we each “feel” loved in different ways, the languages of:

  • Words of Affirmation
  • Acts of Service
  • Receiving Gifts
  • Quality Time
  • Physical Touch
  • (Food?)

If I show love in one language, to someone who feels loved in another language, there will be a disconnect.  I intend to love, yet the other person isn’t feeling it.  Mostly, thinking about this is a really great exercise in self-awareness and in understanding how others can be different.  No one love language is “right” or “wrong”, we just have our different preferences.

Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that Mindy Meier suggests that there is another language, food.  This makes sense to me – what else is “comfort food” but a way to feel loved?

Control Dramas

James Redfield’s concept of Control Dramas describes how humans “get” love from others.  He talks about Control Dramas in terms of getting “energy” but we are really talking about the same thing.  Energy, Love, Attention….same thing.  We talk about little kids “wanting attention” – what they are looking for is love or energy.

Redfield explains that we get energy many ways, food being the most basic one.   But humans also get energy from each other.  He describes four basic ways that people use behavior to get attention from others:

  • The Poor Me
  • The Aloof
  • The Interrogator
  • The Intimidator

I cannot do these justice here….so click this link to read a description from Redfield.

Redfield talks about how each person must look at their own family dynamic to understand their own preferred control drama(s) and why they learned to use it.  If you had a parent with an active style, it is likely that you will use a passive style, and then your children will likely use an active style.  For example, Intimidators tend to have children who are Aloof, and those children have kids who intimidate.  It’s more complicated than that, but you get the basic idea.  Here is a great summary of the book The Celestine Prophecy.

All of these Control Dramas are ways to get energy from external sources. When a person has an internal sense of self-love and no longer needs to “get” it from others, they no longer feel the need to control others or manipulate them into showing love.

So to put these concepts together, if someone is manipulating someone else into showing love, all that showing is going to be expressed in one of the Love Languages.

An Intimidator who uses Words might be a Verbal Abuser.  If his Love Language is physical, he might abuse physically.  If his Language is Gifts, he might threaten to take away material things.

The more extreme the behavior of the parent, the more extreme the behavior of the child.  Extreme aloofness (neglect) in a Parent is likely to result in a Child with extreme active behavior (intimidation or interrogation).   Likewise, these behaviors can be very subtle and can exist in relationships that appear to be highly functional.  The possible combinations and scenarios are endless.

So, it seems reasonable to imagine a child whose parents are absent, either physically or emotionally, in an extreme way, who responds by developing a Control Drama of Intimidation.  If this child has a Love Language of Physical Touch, he may grow up to control and intimidate his children in a physical way.  These children may very well respond by becoming Aloof or a Poor Me.

This seems to me to be a way to explain the Cycle of Physical Abuse.  Does this make sense to anyone else?

Grief is Part of the Cycle

The Cycle of Abuse is painful.  It is painful for all of those involved.  We tend to think about the perpetrators/active Controllers as being “bad” and the passive controllers as being “victims” but if you take away the judgment, it is really just a dynamic that makes sense because all of the people in the cycle are just looking for love as best they can.

And when people are in pain and have wounds that need to heal, they grieve.  We might primarily think of grieving as a process we go through when someone dies, but we also grieve other kinds of losses.

We instinctively know that when others, especially family members we love and trust, treat us in ways that are controlling rather than loving, that we are doing without the love we deserve.  This is loss.

You are probably already familiar with the stages of grief:

  • Denial and Isolation
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression (Sadness)
  • Acceptance

To fully heal from grief, one will eventually get to the Acceptance phase.  But this doesn’t happen for everyone.  Especially with the kinds of wounds we are talking about, people can remain in their preferred Control Drama, using their preferred Love Language, in a certain phase of Grief.  Pushing through all of this has to be a really difficult, painful ordeal.

For example, a person who uses the Poor Me approach, might very well get stuck in the Denial/Isolation or Depression/Sadness stages.  If they express love in a verbal way, they may continually talk about how sad they are.  A child in this situation who loves by physical touch may become very clingy and want to be held all the time.  They might need a whole lot more quality time.

The active Dramas of Control might more likely get stuck in the Anger or Bargaining phases.  Physical types might act out in Anger, verbal types would more likely rant or attack those who are not in agreement.

It’s important to note that only the person in the situation, can figure all of this out for themselves.  None of us know what’s in another’s head or where they’ve been.  For those who are close to the one who is hurting, this can be a challenge.  Well-intended “helper” types may want to tell the person what to do……but sometimes “helping” is really just another form of control.

Is there a Way Out of the Cycle of Abuse?

To SOLVE the problem, we want to help all parties learn how to find love in appropriate ways.  And getting love from another person is never the ultimate solution.  Each of us must learn to love ourselves and to know that we are loved unconditionally by God.

And yes, this makes much more sense if one believes in a higher power, in God or Source or Spirit.  And so, of course, no surprise, this is a complicated, multi-faceted problem that has a complicated, multi-faceted “solution”.   And as you are reading this, if your personal belief system does not align with some of these ideas, then the solution I’m talking about won’t make sense to you.  Which is totally fine.

Remember, this is just me sharing my own thoughts and pondering.  You have to decide for you whether this makes sense for you.  (And this is an example of how the idea of each person making their own independent conclusions for themselves works.  Just as a person can learn to feel loved without external influence, one can learn to decide what they think about something without someone external trying to convince them to adopt a point of view.)

So I’ll continue with my line of thinking…  If we choose to assume that this dynamic works along the lines I have described, then the question is:

How do we break the cycle? 

Awareness is the first key step.  If we are aware that this is going on, then we will recognize the behaviors in ourselves.  In order to be aware, we must be able to see it.  So anything we can do to have more openness about the problem is a step in the right direction.

The cycle can only continue in the shadows.  Leslie Morgan Steiner pointed this out in her book Crazy Love.  A key aspect of her escape from a violent relationship was that when she broke away, she told anybody and everybody about her situation.  She did not allow shame to control her and keep her in the cycle.  She was brave then, and even more brave to share her story so that others would know they are not alone.  She broke away from the cycle, and she is helping to support others to do the same.

Support for the Victims.  A vital, immediate need is for the victims of abuse to be safe.  This is so terribly important and something that is beyond my expertise.  I don’t want you to think I forgot this aspect, but I’m not going to attempt to go into it here.

Containment of the Perpetrators.  We have to limit the ability of perpetrators to harm others.  This is another vital, immediate need if we are going to address the problem of abuse, particularly physical abuse.  This is another aspect that is beyond my expertise and is not the focus of my post.

However, I do think it is important to think about why and how we “contain” abusers.  Is it possible to do this with compassion and kindness?  After all, these people probably would have been considered “victims” earlier in life.

As part of the Grief, we can be so angry, hurt and upset with the abuse that has been committed, that we want to make the abusers pay, and pay hard.  We wish on them the most terrible punishment we can imagine.  We want them to feel the hurt that we feel.   We want revenge.  What we really want is to make it right, a payback that will null out the offense, which is impossible.  ALL THIS IS UNDERSTANDABLE.   And no one should feel like they have to apologize for being in this place and thinking this way.


Heavy-handed punishment is full of fear.  It is intended to invoke more fear.  It is intended to make others so afraid to commit the same acts, that they don’t commit them.  And it would be great if severe punishment actually acted as a deterrent, BUT IT DOESN’T.

Worse, the stigma of being associated with an abuser, who is the target of such anger and hatred and revenge, rubs off on the innocent victim of the abuse.  Especially when the victim is a child, a child who wants more than anything to know that they are loved by a parent.  Heavy punishment and judgment and condemnation compound the shame of the victim.  A victim who is ashamed and just wants to hide or escape, is less likely to be able to heal.  And more likely to self-harm or lash out or commit suicide.

So, what is the goal here?  To GET EVEN or to BREAK THE CYCLE??

Some will say this is hopeless, that we will never be able to break the cycle, that it is impossible to heal these horrible wounds.  Well, if it’s hopeless, then why are we even talking about it?  This is another way that drama keeps the cycle of control alive.

Understanding the Cycle

To actually solve a problem, we have to understand it.

Redfield talks in his book about examining our parents and their styles and much more, to understand the whole of the environment that we were born into.  Looking at our grandparents can help us understand our parents and why they developed their own personal “style” of loving and controlling.  Here’s an example of someone who has been doing this kind of analysis.

So in other words, an individual who has been a victim needs support in understanding the dynamics of their situation.  They need support in embracing their own self-worth.  They need our encouragement to tackle the difficult process of healing.  This is another huge aspect of breaking the cycle.  This is the aspect that is a lot of work and will take a lot of time.

Healing is the only way to break the cycle.

Understanding and Healing will lead to Wisdom.

You can look at Child Abuse or Domestic Abuse in different ways.  If you focus on the horrible details of the abuse, it is very difficult not to focus on the pain and the hurt.  If you have empathy, you will feel this pain.  This is an important aspect of understanding these situations.

But you have to decide where you are going with your understanding.  Are you going to stay inside the situation, inside the pain, feeling the wounds and the fear?  Things like guilt and shame will keep you in the fear and pain.  If they are strong enough, it will be very difficult to move through and beyond this understanding.  And this is totally understandable!

To step back and let go of the emotion doesn’t mean you don’t care.

It’s guilt and shame that will say, “Don’t you CARE???”

Guilt and shame are powerful, fear-based methods of control in themselves.  They keep us in the drama, rather than helping us move through and heal.

If we are ever going to “solve” this problem and break the cycle, we have to be able to step back and face it without the emotion, the pain, the fear, the guilt, and the shame.  We have to KNOW that the victims are no less “lovable” than anyone else.  And we also need to know that the perpetrators (who probably started out as victims) are also “lovable.”  There are no “bad” people, only harmful behavior.  And that harmful behavior is only the result of someone looking for love in all the wrong places.

That’s why it’s important that those of us who have NOT been wounded by this cycle need to come alongside those who have been wounded.  We need to listen.  We need to work to understand.  We need to support without judgment.  We need to provide encouragement.  We need to remain calm and loving.  We need to do the best we can.

I believe there is Hope.


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