Susan was composed, yet she was noticeably angry. It’s hard to listen to the one who abused her emotionally and physically for years now claim he has been a victim much of his life. The one who called his own mother the night before a life-saving surgery and told her (not how much he loved her, but) how terrible she had been as a mom. The one whose toddler had belt marks beneath his diaper and who was rescued by Child Protective Services after he was left locked in the backyard with the dogs during a pizza run. “Who is the victim?” she asked, wondering if she had completely lost her mind.
Yet she knew. He had always seen himself as a victim, and he convinced many people that he deserved their special attention because of it. He stole what he wanted: money, candy, clothes, lovers, and more. He was volatile and manipulative, attacking one day and cuddling the next. It was scary living with him, and Susan finally began to blossom when she moved far away, where she felt safe.
Many years have passed. That toddler is now a parent. Susan’s abuser has stopped using drugs and is making an effort to restore his life. He tries to make up for the abuses with cards and gifts, but there has never been a specific acknowledgment or an apology. Now this. He publicly declares he is the victim. It seems so twisted.
She wants to vomit. Instead, her eyes well with tears. “Are there just some conflicts that can’t be resolved?” she asked.
“I hope not,” I declared, and we began.
ACTION ONE: DEFINE THE CONFLICT
Susan and her abuser disagree about him being a victim.
ACTION TWO: IDENTIFY THE INTERESTS
Susan thought she had forgiven him. She believed she could live without the apology. She expected it to be easier to move on. She didn’t expect him to claim he was the victim and dismiss the pain of those he victimized. She wanted to forget about all of it and enjoy her new life. She wished none of it had ever happened: the attempted drownings, the rape, the thefts, the lies, and all of it.
She didn’t want to consider what was going on in his world. She feared it was pure evil, but she kept going.
She presumed he thought he was a victim: of parental abandonment, neglect, and illness. He probably believed Susan deserved to be damaged because he saw her as privileged, if not spoiled. He expected to be the one who got the attention. He wanted to feel special. He wished she had never been born. She tried not to wish that, too.
ACTION THREE: PLAY WITH THE POSSIBILITIES
If Susan could have had this conflict resolve in any way possible, her abuser would have acknowledged the scars he left her with, and he would have apologized for the years of therapy it has taken her to stop wanting to die (or maybe to stop living like she had already died). Maybe they could then share their stories of victimization and let go of them for good. Maybe they would also have an open and authentic relationship based on love and trust.
She cried as she thought about the abuses she knew he endured, and she wondered if he subconsciously subjected himself to them as a sort of penance for his sins. Suddenly, she hated herself for needing acknowledgment. Yet she was also wise to ensure she was safe.
ACTION FOUR: CREATE THE FUTURE
We took baby steps. Forty years of mental manipulation does not disappear overnight and might also require some guidance from a licensed psychotherapist.
- Susan agreed to be happy for her abuser and to encourage him to resolve all of the past conflicts that have been in his way.
- She agreed to cry, yell, vomit, or do whatever she needed to release her emotions–as long as she didn’t project them onto anyone else.
- She agreed to share with three people close to her what is going on around this relationship and to ask for support in being as strong as possible under the circumstances of each moment.
ACTION FIVE: STAY ON PARR
We started here, with these actions. We will soon revise the plan and add the requests for acknowledgment and apology–when the time is right for everyone involved. We will revise and repeat as necessary for as long as is required. For now, Susan is enjoying the practice of “loving from afar” someone who she feared she would hate or fear forever. It is giving her confidence to love other people she doesn’t understand, too.