“Am I the abuser?”
Good question.
Alright, let’s start with how you can identify that you are spiraling downwards into abusive behavior.
Abuse starts with blame. “I feel bad and it’s your fault.” You experience your own abusive tendencies as resentment, as the desire for revenge, as the desire to dominate or control your partner. When you are trying to “win” the battle or the argument, then you have taken the very first baby step towards abuse. Your partner may very well also be toxic, but “they did it first” is an excuse that is not going to help you get any better.
Abusers always genuinely feel like victims. Why? Because if you are abusive then you are trapped inside a mindset that blames others for your own emotions. Your partner makes you angry. That makes you feel like they are controlling you. Therefore, since you feel like someone else is in control, you feel that you are being victimized. This victim identity allows you to avoid reality, it allows you to avoid the difficult work of change, and it allows you to justify your attempts at revenge.
And you will become more abusive the more your revenge fantasies fail. Because in your mind, you are “losing”. But you may not see yourself as abusive because you are so focused on your partner’s shortcomings, character flaws and minor sins that you do not realize that you have become what you hate. Blaming your partner hides your ego from reality.
The problem with blame is that it is addictive. There is a rush of emotional energy that comes from being aggressive. There is a burst of confidence, and a feeling of power. But like all addictions, you need a stronger and stronger dose to get the same feeling.
So it starts off as an argument. Then it turns into calling them selfish. Then you curse at them. Then you start calling them a pathological liar. Finally you are telling them and anyone they know that they are narcissistic, a sociopath, abusive, misogynist, evil, etc. And even if you don’t say the words, your partner can see in your body language what you are thinking. “Crazy, asshole, jerk, stupid, dishonest…”
The old, tame labels don’t give you the same high, so you just have to keep upping the dose. You need to say more and more vicious things in order to get that feeling of power. Finally you start implying or threatening violence. Perhaps you eventually carry out the threat.
You are an addict.
And you justify your addiction by being so focused on what they have supposedly done that you don’t notice what you yourself have turned into. You cannot recover from your addiction by searching your past to figure out what caused you to be abusive. Your behavior is a habit, and what sustains that habit may have nothing to do with what caused it. You also cannot recover by trying to change whatever your partner does that has made you so angry. If they change their behavior, once there is a new argument or conflict, you will just become resentful about that.
Under conditions of conflict, stress and arguments, you are habitually trying to feel powerful. But in a relationship, you cannot feel powerful and valuable at the same time.
In a relationship, there is no such thing as winning an argument.
Here is the good news. Just like anyone can become abusive, anyone who is abusive can stop being abusive. It’s a lot of work. And you will have to change your mindset about some things, especially about emotional pain.
Pain is not punishment.
Pain sends a message. In other words, you would not want to be a leper. Lepers don’t feel pain, and as a result don’t realize if they have been cut or injured. This can lead to terrible consequences, as untreated cuts get infected. Pain is information. When you feel pain while getting cut or burned, it is telling you something important. It is telling you that you need to address the wound.
So if you are an abuser, you will have to stop seeing pain as a punishment inflicted by someone else. Instead, you have to see it as information telling you that you are losing your connection to your partner. It is a warning, telling you to reconnect.
You must have a growth mindset towards relationships. Failure and loss are temporary and are opportunities to learn. Failure does not mean you are a failure. It means that you have to figure out how to do better. If you have to, think of it like failure is a puzzle you have to solve.
If you have to, think of pain as a clue in a detective novel. Your job is to put the clues together.
This is why it is best to try to stop the spiral of blame as quickly as possible. Try to interrupt blame even when it seems harmless.
Now here comes some hard news. Even if you are in a mutually abusive relationship, in order to reform and heal, you must commit to change alone. You can ask your partner to change, but you cannot demand that your partner change. You must simply take responsibility for your own healing. If you change and your partner does not, you will have to leave.
And in fact, even if both of you change and get better, there is no way to predict what will happen to the relationship. The relationship might get better. Or it might end. Or it might turn into something completely new.
You are worth saving. Yes you, the abuser. You are worth saving. Your relationship might not be.