Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions..
Navigating relationships with people who deny they have been abusive in the past can be difficult. My mother was verbally abusive and neglected me when I was growing up. She told me I was stupid and could not do anything right.
Mom ridiculed my body, my weaknesses, and my mistakes. She often raged at me and administered painful “spankings.” As I grew into adulthood, I asserted myself and demanded the hitting stop. I insisted that she treat me with respect. She changed her behavior towards me and stopped being so critical.
In my 20s, I longed to understand why my mother treated me in such a hurtful manner while I was growing up. I wanted to understand her anger and why she thought the emotional and physical abuse was OK. I decided to probe by bringing up something from the past. The situation was not abusive, but it was something I found embarrassing. I finally said something to her such as: “Mom, you used to send me to (a neighbor) and ask them to borrow money for you. I really felt humiliated when you did that.”
“I never did that.” My mother looked into my eyes and almost convinced me I was crazy. If I touched on anything related to past abuse and neglect in conversation, she deflected and retreated behind a wall of denial. I was not going to get answers to my questions about my past. Her avoidance created a dilemma in me. Can I be in a relationship with someone who would not admit she had been abusive to me when I was a child?
My view of her was quite different from the people around her. To others, she was a kind, caring, generous person. Some of my peers would tell me how lucky I was to have a mother like her. I would become confused and feel guilty for being angry with her for her abusive ways. Was there something wrong with my memory? I wondered.
Mom saw herself has a doting mother who gave me everything I ever wanted. Yes, I had nice clothes, good food to eat, and a nice home. She spoke about the sacrifices she had made and induced guilt to avoid sensitive topics. My mother thought of herself as a good person who tried her best.
My mother did have many good qualities and did love me in her own way. Sometimes, her put-downs and ridicule felt like a bad dream. When she was no longer verbally abusive, I decided to forgive her and to continue to have a relationship with her. I realized that I had to take steps to handle her denial.
Why Abusers Use Denial
There are many reasons why people choose to deny that their words or actions are harmful. Some refuse to see their words and actions as abuse. They rationalize their actions, make excuses for their behavior, and minimize the impact of what they do. For example, sexual predators claim that they were misunderstood and that their actions were consensual. Denial helps them evade the consequences of their actions.
On the inside, offenders may be hurt, broken people who are afraid of facing the consequences of their actions. I put my mother in this category. These offenders are terrified that admitting their faults and feeling their emotional pain would destroy them. They do not want to face the guilt and shame they carry deep inside.
Others use denial to manipulate and gaslight others. They blame everyone and everything around them instead of taking responsibility for their actions. Some offenders hide from the topic by saying they do not remember abusive events. If they are alcoholics or addicted to drugs, they may not actually remember what happened.
Some offenders want to be seen as good people and hold onto the mask they show to the world. They do not want to tarnish their image by admitting wrongdoing.
Steps to Handling Abusers in Denial
Some abusers in denial are toxic or even dangerous. Their behavior may result in the need for criminal prosecution or other consequences. We may need to limit or end contact with them. We may choose to have relationships with formerly abusive people if certain protections put in place. These measures will keep us safe from harm.
Forgive them for what they have done
We need to let go of our emotional pain. Stewing in anger and resentment will poison and destroy our relationships with perpetrators and consume us with bitterness. Forgiveness releases us and helps us to heal.
There is a difference between forgiveness and accountability. People are responsible for what they say and do and should face the consequences for their abusive behavior.
Stop self-blame for their harmful behavior
Some abusers can manipulate us into thinking that the problems were all our fault. They would not have hit us if we had dinner ready on time. They would not have yelled that we were stupid if we stopped making mistakes. We must see through this evasion of responsibility and put the blame on the perpetrator
Let go of our expectations
We tend to hope that people are going to admit the harm they have done. It is possible that abusers can change and come out of denial, but it may not happen. As Dr. Phil often says, people cannot change what they do not acknowledge. Some people lack the insight that would help them understand that their words and actions were harmful. Others refuse to face the consequences of their actions.
Boundaries protect us from getting hurt. We cannot change the past, but we can control the present. Further abuse should not be tolerated, and consequences must be enforced to shield us.
Accept the situation
If we keep hitting a wall of denial when we confront abusers about their behavior, the time will come when we need to stop trying. We have to accept that we do not have the power to make offenders face the harm they had done. We may only be able to have a relationship if we do not talk about our painful pasts. If we insist on trying to bring abusers to their senses, we will become frustrated and angry when denial rears its ugly head. Beating our heads against their walls will only give us headaches.
If we insist on hitting walls with the battery ram of truth, we will probably get hurt. Offenders may deflect, manipulate, lie, and attack us. They will minimize our emotional pain, mock us for being offended, and justify their actions. They may tell us we are crazy for objecting to their treatment. They may even blame us for the situation and accuse us of lying. Avoidance keeps them from feeling bad about their behavior.
Do not expect apologies
We crave an apology from those who hurt us. Expressions of regret help us to forgive and put the past behind us. We may never hear: “I’m sorry,” however, and get closure that way.
My mother never got to the place where she could admit wrongdoing and apologize for anything she had done. My mother never came out of denial, but we did enjoy a good relationship overall. I gave up trying to talk about the past. Doing so was a waste of breath. Mom came to live with my family and me for the last few years of her life. I never got an admission of guilt to the abuse and neglect, or an apology, but I did get the benefits of having my mother in my life.
Is it possible to have a healthy relationship with a former abuser? The answer is yes. Understanding denial and using the measures outlined here can protect us from harm and help us put the past behind us.
The Truth About Abusers, Abuse, and What to Do, Psychology Today, Darlene Lancer
Child Abuse and the Role of Parental Denial, MentalHelp.net, Allan N. Schwartz, PhD
Why Do Abusers Deny or Minimize the Abuse? Kelly Magazine, Kelly Graham, MSW, RSW
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.