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Why Do Some Victims of Abuse Become Abusers Themselves — And Others Don’t?

Breaking the cycle of abuse becomes substantially harder when so much of the burden falls on the survivors

Fatima, an 18-year-old Torontonian who works in a library, can do little to please her controlling mother and brother. “They both set very high standards for what kind of a person they want me to be, and when I don’t meet those standards, they yell at me — a lot,” she says. “A week never goes by without them going into a fit like this. Sometimes, they’ll gang up and yell at me together.” Transgressions as minor as being five minutes late to meet them or ducking out of the house for 20 minutes without permission result in verbal abuse, name-calling, gaslighting and slut-shaming. “They’ll yell at me about how they wish I was dead,” she continues. “Have you ever heard that voicemail that Alec Baldwin left for his daughter? It’s just like that.” 

Fatima’s father passed away before she was born, and she used to fantasize that he was a more gentle soul than the rest of her family, and that if he’d been alive for her upbringing, she’d be a happier person. It was heartbreaking, then, for her to learn that he was physically and emotionally abusive to Fatima’s mother and brother — perhaps even the source of some of their abusive habits. “They don’t go into detail about it often, but I know for a fact that he would hit them both a lot,” she explains. “It definitely makes me understand why they are this way.” (Fatima’s name, as well as the other victims quoted in this story, have been changed for privacy and safety.)

Among the difficulties of understanding abuse is that the bright line we sometimes imagine between victim and abuser is illusory. People who abuse others are often victims of abuse themselves — whether at the hands of their parents, other relatives, strangers or previous lovers — and they can repeat the patterns of abuse they were subjected to, or create new ones, in their relationships with others. A great tragedy then is that abuse can become a cycle, and the burden of breaking it necessarily falls on victims. 

Not all victims of abuse will go on to abuse others, but studies suggest that about one-third of them will. Certain factors have been found to worsen the long-term impact of abuse and make it more difficult to break the chain, including abuse that started early in life, abuse that lasted a long time, abuse in which the perpetrator had a close relationship to the victim, abuse that the child experienced as particularly harmful and abuse that occurred within a cold familial environment. Victims of abuse who do go on to become abusive themselves may not always repeat the exact nature of their own abuse, either — a person who was sexually abused as a child may not go on to sexually abuse her own children, for example, but may be a neglectful parent. 

Olivia, a 27-year-old tech worker in the Bay Area, is very conscious of the need to break the cycle of abuse in her own life. Her father was neglectful, physically intimidating and explosively angry, and she’s aware that her father’s parents were similarly behaved, so she worries about this behavior continuing down the line. “My dad used to say, ‘It’s not a family holiday until someone cries,’ and there was almost a degree of pride to it,” she explains. “Or at least, since that was how things were growing up for him, it’s okay that his daughters or wife were driven to tears.” She worries that she might have the same blind spot her father does. “My dad would never have thought of himself as abusive,” she explains. “Now, I didn’t think of myself as an abuser in any of my relationships, but who was I to judge? I thought my home life was normal until high school.”

This sense that abusive behavior is “normal” is one of the key reasons it can be continued by victims. “If love has been coinciding with abuse as long as you can remember, you may not even realize that what you’re seeing is abusive behavior,” says Elise Franklin, a psychotherapist based in L.A. “Someone that is used to being told, ‘You’re worthless,’ may feel strangely at home with that messaging from others, and also pass on that messaging, too. We’re creatures of patterns and habits, and if we’re not mindful, we can re-enact these over and over unconsciously.” 

Franklin says that a lot of victims who have carried on the pattern of abuse in their own lives have no idea that their own experiences constituted abuse. “So many times I’ve asked patients about abuse, and gotten a firm, ‘Nope, never been through that,’ only to discover that they wouldn’t call it that but were absolutely abused,” she continues. “A lot of the time people don’t think of the behavior as abuse because they think they deserved it.” 

For a patient like this, being beaten up because they threw a tantrum feels like a proportionate, deserved and normal punishment. “It’s only when someone teaches them that actually there are other responses to a tantrum,” she continues, “and that it doesn’t mean you’re ‘bad,’ that people can see a different way of behaving when they grow up.” 

The feeling of abuse being justified or deserved is a crucial predictive factor in terms of whether the victim will go on to abuse others. “What seems to be a major factor in those that end the cycle of abuse is having had someone external, or something inside of them, that let them know that the abuse wasn’t their fault,” Franklin explains. “This is why therapy can be so helpful for people who have experienced abuse.” Here, the role of people outside the immediate family can be crucial. If a child is being abused by her parents but has one teacher, neighbor, friend or cousin who can provide the perspective that the abuse isn’t normal or deserved, that can make an enormous difference to her emotional resilience and future outcomes. 

Emily, a 28-year-old paralegal in Chicago, has witnessed the different life outcomes of a victim who is able to get help and move on, and one who is perpetually stuck in the victimhood mode, becoming abusive as a result. “I was raised by my mom and her now-ex wife, J, both of whom were children of alcoholic mothers,” Emily explains. “My mom was able to heal and work through her own trauma healthily [she’s been in therapy and attended Al-Anon groups since the 1980s], while my stepmom was very much not able to do so and ended up emotionally abusing all of us from the time I was eight until I was 23.” 

Without her mother’s positive example and a therapist who was willing to label J’s behavior as “abusive,” Emily isn’t sure she wouldn’t have become like her stepmother. “I internalized a lot of what J would say to me and how she treated me over the years,” Emily continues. “I’m still trying to unlearn some things, because I know that if I don’t do the work, I’ll inevitably repeat the patterns she taught us.” 

Researchers in this area repeatedly stress that the relationship between victim and abuser isn’t a deterministic one — i.e., just because you were abused as a child, doesn’t mean that you’re fated to become an abuser yourself. “The vast majority of people who experience child sexual abuse won’t go on to offend,” says Allyn Walker, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University who studies people who are sexually attracted to children but who have never committed a sexual offense. 

The numbers back them up: If around one-third of victims go on to become abusers, that means that the vast majority are able to break the cycle of abuse. “That’s a really important finding,” Cathy Spatz Widom, who researches the link between victimhood and abuse, told the National Institutes of Health. “It has this important message that, if you have a history, you shouldn’t necessarily feel that you’re bound to continue in this cycle of maltreatment.” 

Walker cautions that believing otherwise can be very stigmatizing. “We already know that there’s huge stigma out there in terms of victims coming forward about experiencing abuse — there’s the potential that they won’t be believed, that the abuse will be downplayed and that they’ll be told they misled their abuser — all of which discourages a victim from disclosing the abuse to others,” Walker says. “Adding in this idea of ‘victims will become future offenders’ is just one more incorrect assertion that can keep them silent.”

Not to mention, victimhood is only a single predictive factor in terms of future offending. In his book, Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children: Theory, Assessment and Intervention, researcher Michael Seto reports that, besides having also been sexually abused as a child, other predictive factors of offending include neurological deficits, antisociality, drug or alcohol abuse and impulsivity. “One study found that the strongest predictor from childhood of becoming an abusive parent was not having been abused, but rather having felt as a child that one was unloved and unwanted by one’s parents,” reports Daniel Goleman in the New York Times. “[This is] an attitude common, of course, among abused children, but also found in families in which there is no overt abuse.”

Olivia’s father saw himself as a victim, and used his children to bolster his aggrieved sense of self. “He thinks of himself as an underdog who was beaten down on,” she explains. “We were alternatively completely ignored or rounded up to appreciate some movie or activity he liked, and sometimes we’d have to play audience to him telling us for hours about everything the world, government and his evil ex-wife (i.e., our beloved mother) was doing wrong to him.” But when her father would stomp around yelling at Olivia and her sister or punch the car roof repeatedly, he considered that justified behavior — not the behavior of a bully. “He sincerely believed the things he said when he was angry didn’t count, and didn’t need to be apologized for,” she adds. 

Victims of abuse who have become abusive themselves are usually completely unaware that they’ve switched roles, so deeply do they see themselves as victimized, disempowered, small, abandoned and unloved. They essentially still see themselves as child-victims, and this can result in them neglecting or lashing out at their actual children. “Being abused is incredibly disempowering, so someone who has experienced that as a child might grow up trying to overcome that feeling of disempowerment, which can sometimes turn into them ‘conquering’ others,” Franklin explains. “Essentially, old, repressed anger gets turned into a kind of revenge which they take out on others — it’s an unconscious message that ‘I’m big and no one will hurt me again, and to make sure of that I’ll hurt others first,’ even if it’s their own children or partners.” 

When it comes to breaking the cycle of abuse, personal responsibility is a crucial concept. In its groundbreaking therapeutic model for preventing sexual abuse among people who are sexually attracted to children, the German Prevention Network “Kein Täter werden” (meaning, “Don’t Offend”) lists “taking responsibility for one’s own behavior” as among the key therapeutic focal points identified in research as “decisive” for preventing abuse. In other words, the child-victim must recognize that he is now an adult who holds power over others, and take responsibility for the ways in which he exercises that power. 

Being abused by a person who was once, or is also, a victim can cause mixed feelings for the present victim. “At first I was very sympathetic toward her, since she’d often talk about the things she went through,” Emily says of her stepmother. “But the moment the sympathy turned to anger was when I realized she was still not growing or learning.” 

Fatima says the fact that her mother and brother were abused by her father helps her to see why they’re so unrelenting in their criticism and yell so often, but it’s not much of a consolation day-to-day. “It definitely makes me understand why they are this way, but I can’t forgive them until they say sorry, which they never have,” she explains. “I’m angry at them for making me grow up so quickly and for ruining my childhood.”

If anything, Fatima thinks that their own abuse should have made them more empathetic and resolved not to continue the cycle, in the same way that it did for her. “It’s because of my mother and brother that I never, ever raise my voice at anyone, and I never resort to name-calling during arguments,” she continues. “If I came out more strongly, why couldn’t they?”