Is it possible to realize something is wrong without knowing it?
April 26, 2010 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Given that you've suffered some form of abuse growing up, is it possible to have a successful relationship given you have no self-awareness of the fact that this is not normal?

I'm asking this question for the purposes of a short story that I'm writing.

Assuming you have a person who has suffered sustained physical or emotional abuse while growing up and does not have the self-awareness that the way he or she feels is not right; is it likely that person will be able to find a partner that is able to cope? Is the person doomed to continually go around in circles until they acquire some self-awareness of the situation? What if the person refuses to believe or does not accept the fact?

I am specifically interested in finding out what the course of action is if a person does not know or is unable to work out that it is not normal -- as may be the case for example in the rural third world. What happens to such people? Do they just lead very unhappy lives or is psychological support/counselling now universal enough that this should not happen? Or is it human instinct that lets you know something is not quite right.

Anecdotal evidence welcome.
posted by gadha to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
First you have to define what a "normal" relationship is in that particular culture. In many parts of the world it's normal to beat and rape your wife -- the non-abusive relationships are the abnormal ones.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:38 PM on April 26, 2010


Anecdotally, i wish that people who have no history of abuse would stop writing characters who's main motivation is an abusive past/present.

as your question sits, there are too many unknowns about the person, their abuse, their culture, and their partner(s) to even hazard a guess.
posted by nadawi at 3:42 PM on April 26, 2010 [9 favorites]


anecdote: I have had a woman who had been in abusive relationships tell me that she could not be sure a man loves her unless she can make him display his anger violently. Even if she rationally knew otherwise, she just didn't feel loved unless a man was violent.
posted by idiopath at 3:43 PM on April 26, 2010


@Jacqueline: I define "normal" as a relationship defined by western standards.
@Nadawi: Thanks for your input anyway.
posted by gadha at 3:45 PM on April 26, 2010


My shitty childhood has shown in my relationships through a sort of dialectic. Every serious partner I've been with has had their own issues which have interlocked, in some way, with mine. And so I kept on cycling around amongst various people, learning lessons, getting burned, fucking up, being the victim of others' fuck-ups, until I just kept on learning who I was and why I was getting involved with the people I was getting involved with. Not everyone is so lucky or unlucky.

Your question is general. I guess my answer to your general question would be, it depends. How is your character self-aware or not self-aware of his/her past? Would this person learn from his/her mistakes? What role models does this character have in lieu of or in addition to his/her parents? What social circle does this person have? Does this person talk about his/her problems or bottle it up? Once again, it depends, it depends, it depends.

Think about why your character does everything s/he does and is with whomever she is with. What would she get out of it? What would they get out of it? I would steer very, very, very clear of Otherizing her or her partners, abusive or not. Think about how your own neuroses have informed your romantic decisions, for better and for worse. Now imagine your neuroses have more drama behind them. Use some empathy.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:06 PM on April 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


is it likely that person will be able to find a partner that is able to cope?

Cope with what? What type of abuse is it, what are the specifics of it and what is their personality like?

Is the person doomed to continually go around in circles until they acquire some self-awareness of the situation?

That depends on the person and the scope of their life. Sometimes people find a good nice with their various problems and the world, say maybe a forest ranger who spends most of their time away from people because they don't trust them, want to deal with them.

What if the person refuses to believe or does not accept the fact?

Then they move on and make do in some form or fashion.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:17 PM on April 26, 2010


Anecdotally, I have known people who grew up with (1) absentee or (2) abusive parents who really, really had a tough time having a relationship with a loving partner (think "Giving Tree" loving, seriously, for that second one) because they were always looking for an ulterior motive or suspecting a hidden agenda. They just assumed that they weren't *worthy* of all the trust or love, so the other partner MUST be stringing them along.

When the relationships inevitably ended, they felt justified. Really, though, it was just horribly, horribly sad.
posted by misha at 4:25 PM on April 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


There was a study that showed that spanking is traumatic to children, except when it's a cultural norm. So in that kind of situation, they aren't traumatized. It's possible for such a person to come to believe that being spanked is normal, and then find out one day that it's not. In that case, they will become traumatized retroactively, when they find out that it's wrong/abnormal and that their parents believed the spanking was wrong/abnormal. And then you have the case where the person knows it's wrong, but unconsciously, so they might repress or disavow the trauma and the knowledge that it's wrong.
posted by AlsoMike at 4:26 PM on April 26, 2010


Assuming you have a person who has suffered sustained physical or emotional abuse while growing up and does not have the self-awareness that the way he or she feels is not right; is it likely that person will be able to find a partner that is able to cope?

This is the thing, it doesn't cause someone to "feel" or even to behave in one certain way.

What you're looking for is information on resilience, I think. The answer is: it varies.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 4:37 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Anecdotally, i wish that people who have no history of abuse would stop writing characters who's main motivation is an abusive past/present.

Yeah, and this, a bazillion times. It's so tired. This model is not the only way to think about abuse and what it means.
posted by dubitable at 5:09 PM on April 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think that the different standards of defining or acknowledging abuse, and how that affects the way abuse is experienced, is a legitimate and not inherently offensive question. In many places and times hitting ones partner, or even spousal rape, has not been called abuse. This has to have a significant effect on how it is experienced and dealt with.
posted by idiopath at 5:31 PM on April 26, 2010


@dubitable:
Also, sorry, but how the fuck do you know how it might be a certain way in the "rural third world?"

I grew up in the rural third world, I have lived in the rural third world, I frequently am in touch and go back to the rural third world (8 countries in Africa). Certainly my experience has been people who grow up with it in these countries seem to be unaware or have these thoughts quashed but it is getting better. I was wondering, anecdotally if people had experience in other places.
posted by gadha at 5:44 PM on April 26, 2010


Well, in some places women are treated as being of much less value than men in every way. Then if they end up working and living in the US and are treated poorly at work and in relationships, they may not notice for a while. Eventually they do wise up though.
posted by meepmeow at 6:00 PM on April 26, 2010


I had a good friend that would break up with guys that "loved her too much." She'd say that she had no real reason to break up with them, but that it felt uncomfortable. She had a train wreck of a childhood.
posted by magikker at 6:22 PM on April 26, 2010


Go sit in on a couple of support groups for Al-Anon and their families. I'm sure you'd get some real close encounters with people who just don't get that what they were raised around, what is now controlling their own behavior, is just not right. Plenty of people come in the door who are still in a state of denial.

You'll also see others in various states of dawning consciousness of how their behavioral deficiencies are/have been affecting their lives and relationships. Their grapplings with the need to change, groping their way blind to a healthier direction.

Maybe some of them would be willing to talk to you.
Don't dismiss these experiences because it's alcohol & not being beaten/raped/tormented. Important parallels exist & are probably worth your time to examine.
posted by Ys at 6:50 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Anecdotally, i wish that people who have no history of abuse would stop writing characters who's main motivation is an abusive past/present.

Do we know that OP has no history of abuse? Is there anything in the post to say so? I think not.
And even if OP has no history of abuse, is it better for people who have no experience of something to remain incurious about it? Can't see any reason to squash someone else's creativity and curiosity just for -- for what?
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 7:22 PM on April 26, 2010


What AlsoMike said about "retroactive trauma"... It's an interesting phenomenon to experience. I have no details I care to share, but know that the phenomenon is real. A child doesn't know what is "normal." There is only what you have grown up around. But move that child to another environment...

It's like poison. Or maybe pollution spilled into a clear pool. You're OK, except for a few things you didn't much like, but they were just...things that happened. And then someone tells you what those things were, and what they meant, and suddenly that "mostly happy" childhood you had... ...It's like changing the lense; adding a filter. That phrase, "seeing things in a different light." Suddenly it's no longer isolated "things that happened." Every time you reach back, you see more things that tie into the "things that happened." And the anger and confusion and the hate and the rage, it just keeps growing. And the good parts, they've gone cloudy, they've been poisoned, and slowly you realize that, no, it was a crappy, crappy childhood. And you forget the good parts for a while.

What a nice term for it. "Retroactively traumatized" ...I felt so robbed, when the poison spread and even the good parts went away.

It's really hard to reconcile the good parts. And you can have a crappy, crappy childhood even while having a good childhood. It is such a balancing act to say "This person did Bad Things" and then remember the good things [about them]/[about the life they built for you]. When you're writing your story, try to remember it's not black and white. There are bits that are black, but between the black, there's the whole spectrum of life in all its colors. And it trivializes the challenges of healing when the abuser is All Bad.

And not all Bad is obvious, even when people are watching.
posted by Ys at 7:43 PM on April 26, 2010 [8 favorites]


Ys: thank you for taking the time to write that, it was an excellent testimony and I hope that was the kind of information the OP was looking for, because it was definitely worth hearing.
posted by idiopath at 9:05 PM on April 26, 2010


Unless you're talking about repressed memories, it seems pretty unlikely that a person who was beaten, demeaned or sexually assaulted doesn't realize that he or she was beaten, demeaned or sexually assaulted. I am very close to someone who was subject to all of these behaviors growing up. She knew it was happening. She did NOT know that her experience was unusual, unfair or wrong until she got out of that house and found other ways to live.

A few stories from her life:
* When she and her husband got in their first argument as a married couple, she reacted by throwing dishes and hitting him. He reacted by retreating and crying. He'd never been around violence, she'd never been around anything else. I don't believe she ever hit him again, but it was a number of years before she was able to restrain her urge to throw or break things in moments of severe anger, and many more years before she could react without yelling and saying cruel things.
* She has a story about visiting a neighbor with a two year old a few years before she had children of her own. The child grabbed a dish and tipped it over, spilling food everywhere. The mother reacted by rolling her eyes and wiping up the mess. The person I know was stunned at this restraint; when kids made mistakes, they were hit in her world. This moment was an epiphany for her.
* She had several children over a period of 12 years. She sometimes got irrationally angry at her older children when they misbehaved and she would yell and spank. The punishment would probably not be considered abuse, was doled out for legitimate rule breaking, and was certainly not as severe as what she experienced as a child, but it was a little unhinged. She gradually grew better at controlling her anger and learned other forms of discipline, and did not hit her youngest children at all.

I'm her oldest daughter, and I'm incredibly proud to have her as her mother. I find her strength and personal strength inspiring, and I'm grateful beyond belief that she found a gentle man to marry. She was only 18 when she married my dad. It could have turned out badly for both of them, but 38 years later they're still together and learning and growing together.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:07 PM on April 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


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