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A woman does not just wake up on day and decide: “I think I’ll get into an abusive relationship today.”

There are many interlinking, subconscious factors that contribute to her choice of a manipulative, controlling and dangerous partner. Firstly, parental role models build a blueprint of relational patterns that children unconsciously emulate. Women who were exposed to domestic violence growing up have an increased risk of attracting an abusive partner in adolescence and early adulthood.

According to a recent UNICEF study, “at least one in every three women globally has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way – most often by someone she knows, including by her husband or another male family member. One woman in four has been abused during her pregnancy.”

The travesty of domestic violence is that it is abuse suffered at the hands of men who should be our protectors, which is why there is so much shame associated with domestic violence realities. Women face a double bind in the sense that they carry the shame after abuse and feel an obligation to protect the abuser.

This imbalance of power is what forms the basis of toxic relationship dynamics that over time, becomes a familial pattern of relating with others. Fairytales also seem innocent enough, with the perfect Prince Charming sent to take the damsel in distress out of her difficult, lonely life. Fairytales soon turn into teen romance novels, where codependency is projected as the unquestionable basis for romantic love.

The woman is cast as incomplete without a male companion, she is only valuable when she makes herself sexually desirable. She is relegated to a possession, not an equal partner. The ‘chick flick’ genre of movies reinforces this template of romantic relationships:

  • Male is strong
  • Female is weak
  • Love = jealousy
  • Love = need
  • Love = pain

An underlying fear of being alone, coupled with the notion that “this is what love is like” is what traps women in an insidious spider web of manipulative and controlling relationships.

A woman who has been exposed to domestic violence as a child may experience nice guys as being ‘boring’. They are subconsciously attracted to the element of danger and unpredictability in the ‘bad boy’ because when exposed to the traumatic episodes of seeing their mother being beaten, the inherent fight or flight response triggered in a crisis situation is negated. They can neither fight nor flee and so the brain begins to build coping mechanisms.

Girls who watch their mothers being abused are subject to the same level of misogyny from the abuser, even is she is never physically abused. The weight of shame due to domestic violence is shared by the family. 

Her identity becomes enmeshed with her mother and the unexamined behavioral patterns become a self-fulfilling prophecy. She believes that she is unworthy of real love, that she is doomed to be alone because she is already broken.

These ‘collateral victims’ begin to learn how to appease the controller, they become hyper-alert to cues that might trigger another violent episode. They become primed to pacify an aggressive person. This is often the underlying factors that draws women to emotionally unavailable men.

The ‘broken hero’ is like a red flag to a bull. The woman believes that she has the power to help the man to become who he can be. She has learned the need to be needed. The dance of codependency has many steps and she has practiced them for years. Deep down, there is a core belief that only when he changes, then she is worthy of being loved.

There is a physiological link to the “unfinished business” of childhood, where she was powerless to change a fundamental relationship model, that she subconsciously tries to recreate and overcome. This becomes a toxic relational mix and she feels powerless to change it. (It is possible to heal from unhealthy relationship patterns with professional help).

Are you in a codependent relationship?

  1. There’s a certain chemistry that feels familiar: The relationship was sparked based on a mutual attraction. Something in you felt pity for your partner at the beginning. You feel as if they are just misunderstood and with a little help, will become the person you know they can be.
  2. Being around them is sometimes scary: You often feel unsafe around this person. They may tend to drive too fast, drink too much or manipulate you into doing things that you’re not comfortable with. Women who have experienced abuse are often people pleasers, who find it difficult to say no.
  3. Their constant criticism confirms the negative voices in your head: Your partner may have started out being charming, flattering you with compliments and making you feel like the centre of their world. As time went on, you find yourself battling a barrage of constant criticism, where you feel like nothing you do is good enough. If you were honest with yourself, you would admit that the negative things they’re saying about you is simply confirming the things you already believe to be true about you.
  4. The increasingly isolation feels normal: You might have ignored the first time your partner checked your phone or deleted someone’s number because he was jealous. Eventually, you notice that you’re constantly making excuses for not spending time with your friends and family because you’re trying to avoid the fight that always happens when you try to maintain the social connections you had before you met him. You try to convince yourself that he is only doing that because he cares about you and want you all to himself.
  5. You begin to accept that this is as good as it gets: Although there might be moments of intimacy in the relationship, you still feel like you can’t really be yourself around this person. The fear of being alone forces you to accept the relationship for what it is because you don’t believe that you could find love again if he leaves you.

We were unable to choose how we were raised and what we learned as children. We do, however, have a choice about we relate to ourselves and others as adults. Reclaiming your life and developing healthy relationships is worth the price of recovery.

Resource book for this article: Women who love too much, Robin Norwood