Childhood trauma is NO excuse for abusive behavior

By Bri & Nicole, love is respect Advocates

Here at love is respect, we often talk with people who are experiencing abuse in their relationship, and they want to determine why their partner is being abusive towards them. Sometimes this search for “why” leads them to believing that their partner is abusive because they experienced child abuse or went through some other form of trauma in their past.

It is natural to want to find an explanation for why someone is harming you, and we’d like to provide some clarity on this topic. Although child abuse and trauma can have distressing lifelong effects, this does not cause someone to abuse their partner later in life. Surviving child abuse or witnessing domestic violence as a child does not ultimately determine that someone will become an abuser themselves. A partner who is using their past to justify their choice to abuse is making excuses and failing to take accountability for their actions. Unfortunately, it is common for abusive partners to redirect blame and responsibility from themselves, onto their partner. Its important to know that this is never acceptable. Redirecting the “reason” for abuse is something we consider gaslighting, which is a form of emotional abuse.

We do know that childhood trauma can affect a person’s mental health, especially if they haven’t reached out for treatment- but of all the life impacts of child abuse listed on, intimate partner violence is not one of them. Abuse stems from a toxic mindset of wanting power and control over a partner. Many people who experience trauma or abuse in their childhood grow up to be healthy, respectful partners in their romantic relationships.

Abuse is a choice, not something that is caused by someone experiencing child abuse.  

So what does this mean for you?

If you are experiencing abuse in your relationship...

To start, please know that abuse is not something you deserve to go through, and your partner’s past does not justify their current choice to hurt you. Having an abusive partner can certainly take a toll on your mental and physical health. Many victims and survivors of relationship abuse find it helpful to seek out counseling. It can also be beneficial to practice some intentional self-care, even if it’s as simple as getting enough sleep at night, eating full meals, or going for a walk. Journaling is another powerful activity that can allow you to process the abuse and provide a therapeutic way to document what is happening. If you do choose to journal about the abuse as a way to record the details for evidence, be sure to keep this documentation in a safe place that your partner is not likely to find.

Another way to prioritize your self-care is to consider a safety plan. This involves thinking of creative ways to try to stay as physically and emotionally safe as possible. Safety planning tries to anticipate the abuse and prepares a plan for what you’ll do when things escalate. If you need help creating a safety plan for yourself, try working through our interactive guide.

If you are concerned that your childhood trauma is negatively impacting your relationship...

You’ve taken a big first step by being reflective about this and seeking more information. Know that your trauma and feelings are completely valid, and you are not alone in feeling the effects of past trauma on your life. That said, both you and your partner deserve to have a healthy relationship filled with trust, respect, equality, and open communication. A relationship with these elements is fulfilling and rewarding for both partners, and it’s important to remember that having a healthy relationship is a choice that both partners must make.

Our earliest caregiver relationships have great impact on how we think people will treat us as we grow. If you couldn’t rely on your parents or caregivers to provide you with physical and emotional safety, it’s understandable that you might fear others will do the same. The closeness and intimacy that romantic relationships entail can remind of us those early caregiver relationships and, in turn, make our fears associated with that trauma particularly strong. These feelings are valid, and you deserve a safe space to process them and work on healing from the trauma of the past. Once that happens, you may find that it’s easier to choose healthy behaviors in your relationship.

You’re not alone if you’ve attempted to protect yourself from having painful experiences similar to your childhood by choosing unhealthy behaviors. Perhaps you find that you’re always wanting to know where your partner is, you are checking up on them constantly, or maybe you are pressuring and coercing them to not spend time with certain people. While it may be easy to link the reason behind your behaviors to your insecurities caused by childhood trauma, none of these behaviors are healthy or fair to your partner and behaving in these ways will not allow you to process or work through your trauma. It is important to remember that behaviors are choices and how you choose to behave is not something that is outside your control, regardless of past experiences.

Many times, behaviors and feelings get a bit mixed up. Feelings- whether tied to previous trauma or not- are not something we have control over; they are a natural human reaction to experiences. We do have control over the behaviors we choose in response to those feelings and experiences. Sometimes, choosing unhealthy or abusive behaviors as a response to hurt feelings becomes so second nature that it feels like an automatic reaction that is outside of our control- but it’s not. If this is something you are doing, a great first step to changing is to see that there is a difference between feelings and behaviors, and reactions and responses. This is just a first step though. If you’ve escalated your behaviors to an abusive level, it’s going to be important to take further steps to prioritize your partner’s safety. This may involve taking a break or ending the relationship, which will allow your partner to stay safe and can be helpful for you since it gives you the time and ability to concentrate on the long-term steps necessary for healing from childhood trauma.

Healing and changing into a healthier person/partner often requires in-depth support from a counselor who is experienced in working through trauma and, ideally, also familiar with the spectrum of unhealthy and abusive behavior in romantic relationships. If you’re ready to work on healing, you can use GoodTherapy to locate counselors in your area. Additionally, we recommend exploring some of the research by Lundy Bancroft on changing abusive behavior. Also, know that you can reach out to a love is respect advocate anytime, if you have concerns about the healthiness of your romantic relationship.

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