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Why People Remain In Abusive Relationships: Another Point of View

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Fictional Literature:

There is a piece of literary pornography that has been around for a very long time and was even made into a legitimate Hollywood movie many years ago because of the appeal of the story. The writer of the book is unknown. The tile is, The Story of O. It is not even known whether the writer was a male or a female. Some have suggested that it was written by a woman. Aside from the fact that it is an obvious piece of pornography, the book also directly relates to the issues of abuse, sadism and masochism. "O" is a young woman who allows herself to become enslaved, humiliated and sexually exploited in the worst ways imaginable.

What is so disturbing about the Story of O is the fact that it effectively and powerfully describes a reality that exists for some people. The case that will be discussed in this blog is based on several true stories of people whose names have been changed and whose circumstances are fictional, so as to hide real identities. However, the theme and issues are the same for them and for "O" in The Story of O.

Why Would Someone Allow Abuse and Sexual Exploitation?

During my many years as a therapist I have met people who reported the plain fact that their parents never intended to have them. It was made clear to these individuals during their childhoods that they were either unplanned, or were the result of sexual relations prior to marriage. Of course, learning that their births were an accident, these people did not feel good about themselves. Even worse were those people who, as children, were told that they were not wanted and were considered to be "bad seed," or "inherently evil."

The concepts of "bad seed" or the "inherently evil child" have their roots in religion. Unfortunately, in more than a few cases, this type of thinking became the rationalization for abusive behavior towards this individual. In no way does this suggest that religious belief is the reason for the abuse of children. People seem to find endless reasons for abuse, from mental illness to drug and alcohol addiction. However, the concept of the bad seed is discussed in an essay of Freud’s called "Mourning and Melancholia." Freud’s states that the child takes in an image of the punitive parent who is abusive and cruel and makes it part of themselves. Thereafter, this child, who goes on to become an adult, spends their time and energy punishing themselves in a self destructive effort to punish this bad object inside of their mind. In other words, they join with the parent in punishing their own self.

Whatever the reasons for the abuse, the result is that the child comes to believe that they are being beaten because they are "bad" and deserve this treatment. Sigmund Freud had written about this in another one of his brilliant essays entitled, "A Child Is Being Beaten." In a very basic level what Freud is stating is that the child comes to confuse being beaten with being loved. In the mind of this child to be beaten is to be loved.

Some of this may be difficult to believe but I have treated a few patients, over the years, who fit the description of the person who believed they deserved to be beaten and who confused abuse with love. These individuals fit the paradigm of the woman in "The Story of O."

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT AHEAD

Case (fictionalized): This is a composite of several cases over many years with details completely fictionalized, such as ages, gender, location, sexual orientation, etc.

A twenty five year old woman was referred to me for psychotherapy for the treatment of depression and suicidal ideation. She was born in the mid west and grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family. Her father died of liver disease due to alcoholism when she was fifteen years old. She had two younger sisters as she is the oldest child in the family. Both of her parents were very strict and orthodox in their religious convictions and subscribed to the old fashioned belief that "to spare the rod is to spoil the child." For this patient, "the rod" was never spared. Her mother flew into rages at her on any pretext. She would beat her to the ground and then kick her when she was down. Her father was more predictable in his sadistic behavior. He would come home drunk and curse and verbally demean her if there was the slightest "misbehavior." Not only did she not hate this cruel and abusive mother but she loved, adored and desperately clung to her. It is important to note that none of this abusive behavior was ever perpertrated on either one of her two younger siblings.

Late into her adolescence and after her father had died, she learned that she was conceived out of wedlock between her mother and father. They married because it was the socially proper thing to do in the small protestant town in which they lived. From the moment of her birth she was viewed as unwanted by her parents. Her mother’s rage was due to the fact that, had she not been born she never would have married her father. Conceived before marriage, she was viewed as the "bad seed." More than anything, her mother blamed her and not herself for the unhappy marriage to her alcoholic father.

This intelligent, high achieving and attractive young teenager was prohibited from going to a college away from home because her mother did not trust her. She complied, but, due to her depression, performed poorly in school. When she graduated she took a low level job in a local factory near her home.

One day an older man who was forty years old seduced her with promises of wealth and happiness if she went to work with him and followed him around the country on his business trips. Young, naive and hopeless, she ran off with him knowing full well that he was married. It did not take long before he forced her to have sex with him and then started to refer to her as his "piece of meat." This started the next episode of abuse in her young life. She remained with him because she loved this man and would do anything to feel loved and accepted. While he never physically beat her, he treated her as a prostitute and referred to her in those terms, even introducing her, in public, as his personal "harlot." He forcibly sodomized her and ignored her cries and pleadings to stop. Soon after, he used his power over her to pass her around from one man to another and collected "fees" as though he were a pimp and she a prostitute.

At age twenty four, one year prior to her referral to therapy, he suddenly died of a heart attack. She was crushed but did not want to return home to her mother. Instead, she began working as a prostitute in a big city and supported herself in this way. One year later, at the first anniversary of her lover’s death, she became suicidally depressed but did not have the courage to commit suicide. She spoke to a physician and was referred to treatment.

She was placed on anti depressants by the psychiatrist to whom she was referred. In addition, she started to use psychotherapy to learn about her self, the meaning of abuse and how self hatred, rooted in both of her parents’ attitudes towards her, caused her to believe that she deserved punishment. Incredibly, she did not know that she was a survivor of abuse at the hands of her parents. At the start of therapy she defended them and their treatment of her. Gradually, as she learned more about herself and her family, she accepted the fact that she had, indeed, been abused.

During the years of her treatment there were many times when she reported fantasies of being beaten by me. She thought that if I loved her that is what I would do to her. It took a long time for her to see the connection between these fantasies or wishes and the fact that she had been raised in a way to cause her to believe that punishment was love and that she deserved punishment. There were many times when she was convinced that I would come to see the "real her" underneath her facade and would tell her to leave therapy and never return. The fact that this did not happen and that I did not belittle and humiliate her came as a shock. Gradually, through steady and patient work she started to change the way she thought about me, herself and the way she related to men. She learned that her parents were murderous in their treatment of her and that her mother seemed to wish her dead. She discovered how she fully absorbed the bad object or self concept of the "bad seed."

This patient is doing much better now. She is working and earning a living. She lives separately from her mother and rarely sees her sisters. She has distanced herself from her family and is much better at defending her dignity. She "gave up the bad object" and no longer confuses abuse with love. She no longer wishes to die and is better able to enjoy her life on a daily basis. The work has been slow and steady, resulting in real change after many years of hard therapeutic work.

The "case" discussed here is a composite of many patients, male and female, seen over many years. They had each introjected a bad object or inner view of themselves and confused abuse with love and, even more important, some form of acceptance. When they were able to give up the bad object and learn how abused they had been they were able to move on to live fairly well adjusted lives. I want to add that this composite of cases even includes several gay men who had suffered under similar circumstances during childhood.

One final note is that in almost all of these cases the parents of the patients had, themselves, been abused during their childhoods. It lends further support to the well known fact that abuse is passed from one generation to the next with horrible consequences for everyone.

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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