Toxic Relationships: "My Relationship Is Different!"
Don't Make Excuses for an Abuser
There is often a perception that abusive relationships only involve certain kinds of abuse, or that abusive people only behave a certain way. People look at their relationship and the person they are in the relationship with and say, "This person is different. This relationship is different. It's not the same." It can be one of the hardest things to accept that this is in fact not true.
It doesn't matter what kind of relationship it is. Whether it's family, friend, spouse, child . . . those in these relationships with a narcissist or other abusive type of person will often say—and believe—that their circumstances are somehow different from the other abusive relationships they've seen or heard about. They may think their circumstances are special or that the abuser has some kind of mitigating factor going on that makes it different, unique and not like other abusive relationships.
"She says hurtful things but she's had a hard life. It's not the same as Bobby's situation. His wife is just mean."
"He hits me but he's got emotional problems. He's not like those guys on the TV movies. He has a real problem."
"Mom puts me down but Grandma was the same way and that's the only way Mom knows to parent. She's not doing it to hurt me or be cruel like these mothers that abuse their children. She just doesn't know any better."
The idea seems to be that abusers are mean and hateful for the sake of being mean and hateful, so if someone seems to have a problem or history that explains their behavior or excuses it somehow, they are not a real abuser. They are somehow different. This is just not true. Every single person in every single abusive relationship thought this exact thing: "It's different. He's different. She's different. I'm different. This isn't the same as those other terrible relationships I've seen or heard of. This person can be nice sometimes. They seem sorry. They have other problems. They have reasons." But all abusers have reasons. All abusers have problems. All abusers have excuses.
Your Relationship Is Not Different
It's not different. And while most people are happy to find that they are not alone, it can be hurtful and even shocking to realize that everybody has the same story they do. Everyone thought their relationship was different and special and therefore not subject to the "rules" of "real" abusive relationships. Everyone knows that when a relationship has been identified as abusive, it should be ended because abuse is wrong. So the whole thing ends up being rationalized:
"Yes, I know we should leave abusive relationships but he's not really abusive. He's damaged. He's suffering. He's sorry."
"Yes, I know we're not supposed to put up with abuse but this is different. She's had a really hard life. She needs help."
Part of this is denial and part of it is because, in some ways, people have been conditioned to believe that a person cannot be both a victim and an abuser. But this is just not the case. Many abusers have had a legitimately hard life. Many abusers have a genuinely sad story and most really were victims at one time. That often explains their behavior, but it does not excuse or mitigate it. Ever. Just because there is an explanation for something doesn't mean it's excused. A person can usually explain why they gave themselves permission to murder another human being, but that doesn't mean it's OK that they did it or they will now face no consequences just because they had a reason. Suffering abuse is no excuse for abusing other people who had absolutely nothing to do with that. All too often, this is the justification that is given. And all too often, it is accepted.
People see this person they live with or that they know. They can often see that this person really was a victim, or they really are suffering or they really do have other problems—problems that may be significant. And people have been conditioned to believe that if someone is a victim, things are not their fault. Therefore, they can't be an abuser. So they accept these justifications for abuse - which is really all they are. The problem here is the misunderstanding of responsibility. No one is ever to blame for being abused, and there are absolutely no exceptions to this. No one is responsible or in control of another person's actions. Ever. However, that does not mean that the person's own actions are not their responsibility. If someone was abused as a child, that does not make their own abusive actions as an adult somehow not their responsibility. Abuse is often a cycle in families and it only stops happening if someone stops it—starting with themselves.
Do Abusers Know They Are Abusive?
Sometimes, the explanation for abuse is that the abuser doesn't realize their behavior is hurtful or not OK. While this is usually not true, even if it were, how does that make it OK to stay committed to the relationship? Ignorance is only an excuse once. After you've told someone their behavior is hurting or bothering you, they know better. If they don't stop, they don't care. It's as simple as that. If there were a situation where someone really couldn't stop or truly couldn't understand, then the relationship is still toxic because they are still behaving in a manner that does not respect or consider the other person. It doesn't really matter whether abuse or toxic behavior is intentional or not. It affects people the same.
For the record though, most abusers are aware their behavior is hurtful. They don't care, at least in the moment when they are doing it, and that is when it really matters. Being sorry later is great and all, but if it doesn't stop someone from behaving that way in the first place, it doesn't really matter. What we often find is that abusers regret the consequences of their actions rather than the actions themselves. This is why the supposed remorse usually only shows up when they are actually faced with these consequences. If there are no consequences, there is often no remorse. They are sorry their actions led to the consequence, not for the action itself. If it hadn't led to that consequence, then it probably wouldn't matter. In other words, "I'm sorry I did this because it has led to this consequence I don't like." They are not sorry because they feel what they did was wrong. It only becomes wrong when it leads to an outcome they don't like. The consequence is often resented mightily and the victim may be punished for having feelings or being human.
The truth is, this is a very old story and it's one that has played itself out over and over again. The idea that their relationship is different and therefore fixable or otherwise salvageable can be a big part of what keeps people in these relationships so long. Sadly, the outcome is always the same. We often say, "Hurt people hurt people," and it's true. But that is an explanation, not an excuse. Hurt people may hurt people, but that doesn't mean they have the right.