Help! How Can I Help My Abusive Partner?

Louisa Leontiades Advice Column, Epic Relationships

Dear Louloria,

I’ve lived with a man for several years, and about a year ago we decided to “go poly”. It was the first time I realized that I didn’t have to put all my energy and effort into one other person, that I was allowed to care for myself and my own needs.

Sadly enough, taking responsibility for myself made me realize that I had been taking way too much responsibility for my partner, but when I tried to stop taking that responsibility, even to ease it slowly back to him, it didn’t go well. Now we’re stuck in a destructive relationship pattern that has abusive tendencies. Most times when I try to take responsibility only for myself and not for him, when I suggest things to make our life and relationship better it ends up with me feeling shame or defending myself for my feelings or thoughts.

The man I knew wouldn’t want to be abusive. The man I knew often said he wanted to treat everyone right, that he wanted to be shown his errors and how to do things better. But the man I knew is often not there any more. What can I do? Everywhere I read the only advice in abusive relationships is to leave as soon and quickly as possible, and I’m trying to do that. But a part of me wants to reach that man I knew, wants to help him see the abusiveness and help him choose another pattern of communication. I know he would appreciate it deep down, if I could only reach through the brick walls of defence reactions.

– Ms. TryingToGrow

Dear Ms TryingToGrow,

I’m going to address your question in three parts. Firstly I’m going to explain the difference between responsibility and fault–it’s important that you understand it, if you are to follow the rest of my answer. Secondly I’m going to clarify who is responsible for what in your relationship. Thirdly, I’m going to suggest what you might choose to do about it. [This is long, grab a cup of coffee].

1. Responsibility and Fault

As children, we unconsciously choose the survival mechanisms which will serve us best. Our choices are not our fault, nor are we capable of taking responsibility for them. But as conscious adults, we can choose to take responsibility for our actions and emotions–both past and present.

For example, as a child I might have been bullied into hitting someone else. I did this because my survival mechanism determined it was the best way to protect myself and it was not my fault. As a conscious adult I can take responsibility for my past actions, and change my present behaviour accordingly. Hitting someone else may have been the way I survived then; it is less likely to be the most appropriate choice now.

By assuming responsibility, you can change how you experience the past and how you respond in the present–yes, you can reframe the past as a lesson, learn from it and give yourself access to healthier choices now.

Consciousness is the extraordinary gift which allows us to assume responsibility for our actions/emotions and frees us from the unconscious blame-fault model. But language defines how we see the world, and english does not help us delineate between fault and responsibility. We tend to use them interchangeably but they are not the same.

Fault implies that you are the cause of a situation, that you have control over other peoples’ feelings and behaviour… it is therefore at odds with the concept of responsibility, which is about owning your–and only your–choice of actions and feelings in response to a situation.

I want to make absolutely clear then, that when I talk about responsibility I am not blaming you, shaming you nor am I saying that it is your fault.

2. What’s going on…?

Your relationship pivots of the interplay between agency and responsibility. Agency is the power to choose your actions and/or emotions. Responsibility is (as the name suggests) taking responsibility for your actions and/or emotions.

  • Relinquish either or both of them to someone else and you’re both in trouble.
  • Take either or both of them from someone and you’re both in trouble.

They’re two sides of the same coin, both stemming from an attempt to compensate for low self-esteem. And as should be evident, this game takes (at least) two people to play. How might these pan out in personal relationships?

  1. If you exercise agency, but absolve responsibility for that agency: you will most likely attribute the responsibility for your agency (actions and/or emotions) to others. In an example concerning actions, ‘I hit you, and it was your fault.’ In an example concerning emotions, ‘I am hurt, and it is your fault’
  2. If you relinquish agency, but keep responsibility for the agency you have relinquished: you will most likely take responsibility for others actions and/or emotions. In an example concerning actions ‘You hit me and it’s my fault.’ In an example concerning emotions, ‘You are hurt and it’s my fault.’
  3. You might relinquish both agency AND responsibility in which case, you become a puppet, an object without power and responsibility. You will do things according to someone else’s direction and attribute responsibility to them for ‘making’ you do it.
  4. But accept that you have the agency to choose your actions and/or emotions (only yours) and assume responsibility for your actions and/or emotions (only yours), and ta-da. You not only have the capacity to choose your actions and/or emotions, but you can change them because you own them. You empower yourself and do not disempower anyone else (they can still disempower themselves though).

He chose to relinquish responsibility for his needs/happiness; in most cases this is because someone has learned that this is the optimal way to survive. In all likelihood his parents/formative caregivers assumed responsibility for his happiness, tried to meet his every need and disempowered him by not teaching him to take responsibility for his own needs/happiness. He learned to relinquish responsibility for his happiness in order to please them. You simply were available to him to continue the pattern. It was familiar, he felt safe with you. But he continued to be disempowered.

You chose to assume responsibility for his happiness; you also probably learned that this was the optimal way to survive. You would be more acceptable to your parents’/formative caregivers if you made them happy. If you initiated actions to please them. Your partner was simply available to you to continue the pattern you had learned. It was familiar, you felt safe with him. But you continued to be disempowered. This is a position that many women find themselves in, because we are taught to sacrifice our needs for others.

I call it survival, because it is. Rejection by our caregivers at a young age risks our lives; we need to be accepted and acceptable. But they disempowered both of you and as children you both chose–unconsciously–to go along with it, as a matter of survival. His was by passive relinquishment of responsibility, yours was by active assumption of responsibility. This was neither of your faults but by continuing the patterns, you both unconsciously created your present relationship dynamic.

Now you have become conscious that you have a choice. You have chosen to stop assuming responsibility for his emotions and he is angry with you because his choice of actions and feelings are ‘loose cannons’, unrooted in responsibility. He has no idea how to take responsibility–how can he, he has never learned how! It is frightening for him because he only has the survival mechanisms he knows, and suddenly they are not serving him anymore. So he abuses you in an attempt to try to influence you to change your behaviour. But he still doesn’t take responsibility for his actions and/or emotions. That he has no tools to cope healthily with your move into consciousness is not your responsibility.

I suspect it will be more difficult for him to get out of this cycle because he was in a comfort zone, whereas you became increasingly uncomfortable with the burden of taking responsibility for two people (you realised only when you felt relief from stopping). No wonder he’s resisting so much. His choice appears to him to be between comfort and pain. Your choice is between some pain and some other pain.

3. What might you be able to do about it…?

Of course you want to help him. Your strongest survival mechanism is after all, to take responsibility for his emotions (and now apparently, his actions). By trying to help him, you are unconsciously trying to take control of/influence his behaviour. You are preventing him from taking responsibility for himself and if you continue you will only make the situation worse. Now you are conscious of it, you can choose to stop.

The only way for him and his self esteem to improve is for him to take responsibility for his actions and emotions. But that must be his choice. Can you reach him?

Only by continuing to assume your own agency and by taking responsibility for your agency–and only yours.

If he cannot get what he wants from you, if he cannot force you take responsibility for his actions and/or emotions, he has very few options available to him.

  1. Escalating the abuse to try and make you take responsibility for his actions.
  2. Finding someone else assume responsibility for his actions, or
  3. Assuming it himself.

Assuming his own responsibility is the hardest choice; it’s the polar opposite of the survival mechanism he has learned. He’s probably not even aware that such a choice exists and even if he is, it might be too frightening. Whilst those other two options are on the table, they seem to be the easier options. They are ‘known’. This is the reason most abusers continue to abuse. He may continue to abuse if he feels there is a chance that you will change your behaviour. He thinks he needs you to change in order that he may survive. And as long as you stay, he will most likely believe that there is a chance. If you leave, this choice will no longer available to him and he will be only be able to choose one of the other two.

I cannot say whether you should or should not leave him. You and only you know what other factors are at stake. If I did ‘tell’ you what to do, I would only be undermining your own agency! You and only you should make this decision.

What I can say, is that by trying to help him, you are still taking trying to take responsibility for his agency. It is your choice, but now it is your conscious choice. If you choose to stay I strongly suggest therapy. Lots of it. I have known couples who can recover from this situation, but only when they are both consciously committed to change. I can count those couples on one hand, among hundreds. This commitment can only be seen by actions, not by empty promises.

Still, I believe that leaving is the quickest and most sure way for you both to start taking responsibility for yourselves. By leaving, you assert to yourself that you are worth more. It is the first step to building your self-esteem; whether he will also use it as his first step, only he can decide.

Good luck,