Shifting Roles in Abusive Relationships

by Mr. Stone

Abusive relationships can be very difficult to understand. They cause so much real pain and suffering to so many people. One way to get some perspective is to think in terms of a psychology that combines three roles – abuser, victim, and rescuer. The three roles are bound together in one powerful "dance." When there is an "abuser," there is also a "victim" and a "rescuer." "Victims" have "abusers," and they also have "rescuers." "Rescuers" have to have "victims" and "abusers."

To understand what is going on in an abusive situation, we need to ask – who is the "abuser"? Who is the "victim"? Who is the "rescuer"? We won’t have an effective understanding of the situation until all three actors are identified.

Jane is the victim of Sam’s abuse. Her ex-boyfriend tries hard to get her out of this abusive situation. His "rescuing," however, completes the psychological triad of roles and, unknowingly, reinforces the "dance."

It is important to recognize that these roles can also shift. Today’s "rescuer" may have been yesterday’s "abuser." Yesterday’s "victim" may today be a "rescuer." If you observe long enough, you will see a person shift from one role to another. Although the roles may change, the game stays the same.

Dave was seriously abused as a child. As an adult, he is very concerned about helping victims of abuse, rescuing even stray animals. However, he has moments when he gets very frustrated and experiences a disturbing impulse to lash out. Sometimes, he can become very scared and flooded by a dreadful sense of guilt, like a child who expects to be punished and even feels that he deserves it.

In this way, abusive relationships can spread. "Abusers" create "victims" and "rescuers"; "victims" recruit "rescuers" and "abusers"; and "rescuers" find "victims" and "abusers."

Dorothy promised herself that she would never be abusive to her children in the way her mother was to her. However, she often feels that her children are taking advantage of her and feels abused all over again. This angers her and she can "lose it" with her children. Unknowingly, her children have been recruited into Dorothy’s dance and have been given "parts" to play, part which they learn well and begin to enact.

Ironically, each person involved in an abusive situation is somehow playing each role. An "abuser" may also be a "victim" and a "rescuer"; a "victim" may also be "abuser" and a "rescuer"; and a "rescuer" may also be a "victim" and an "abuser."

Some individuals may feel uncomfortable with this perspective. People may not want to see that an "abuser" has also been a "victim" and has tried to be a "rescuer," often of the very person whom he is abusing, believing that this viewpoint lets the abuser "off the hook." It may also be hard to acknowledge that a "victim" can also be an "abuser," or that a "victim" may really be trying to "rescue" his or her "abuser"; some may interpret this as "blaming the victim." Another challenging notion is that "rescuers" can also turn out to be "abusers" and "victims." For instance, if a "rescuer" becomes frustrated in his or her attempts to "rescue" a "victim," then it becomes very easy for the "rescuer" to begin to feel like a victim and then to "blame the victim" abusively.

Mark, who was sexually abused as a child, became a therapist to help abused children. He is intent on ferreting out the "truth" and can become very insistent that his child clients be truthful about being abused, even to the point of threatening them with hospitalization to "break through" their denial. He is a "rescuer," "abuser," and "victim," all rolled into one.

Often people want to claim one role and deny that they have played any of the other roles. "I am a rescuer – not an abuser." "I refuse to be a victim." "I am a victim – not an abuser." However, from our psychological perspective, we can begin to see that, if a person claims one of these roles and denies the others, then that person must find someone else to play the denied roles, or at least proclaim that someone else is "really" the "abuser" (or "victim" or "rescuer").

Diane was shocked that her in-laws were demanding visitation with her children. Sadly, her marriage to Jeffrey had broken up largely because of Jeffrey’s own experience of abuse by his parents, which was repeated in his marriage to Diane. But now Jeffrey’s parents were taking her to court and "pretending" to be loving grandparents who were victimized by Diane and possibly by the judge. Their steadfast denial has infuriated Diane, who is having thoughts of revenge.

However controversial this perspective of shifting roles may be, it can help answer some frustrating questions. For instance, people often get frustrated trying to rescue victims. In these cases, the victim who is resisting being rescued may not consider himself or herself to be a "victim." Instead, they see themselves as a "rescuer" of their "abuser," whom they see as the "victim." They may also feel that their "abuser" is their only real "rescuer" and that their "victim" behavior may be a way of transforming their "abuser" into being their "rescuer." Some victims admire their abuser, who puts into action an aggressiveness that they themselves have suppressed – "at least he knows how to fight for what he wants."

Sue’s parents are very concerned about their daughter’s boyfriend, Tom. He has a bad temper and they have just learned that he hits Sue. They are even more upset that Sue defends Tom and resists their demands that she break up with him. Sue sees Tom as a nice person who grew up in a horrible family situation. She loves him and is trying to help him get his life together. She believes that he loves her and won’t let anyone else hurt her.

It is not unusual for an abusive relationship to begin as a "rescue relationship." If you are having problems dealing with someone in an "abusive relationship," you could try shifting your perspective slightly to see the relationship as a "rescue relationship" which has developed problems. If you are not getting anywhere telling a "victim" to leave their abuser or telling an "abuser" to stop brutalizing their victim, you may have greater success by emphasizing your appreciation of how they have tried to "rescue" each other, and how that rescuing is no longer working out very well.

Mary came to counseling at the insistence of just about everybody in her life. Her husband was abusing her. Noting that her family’s pleading and her friend’s advise to leave "the abuser" had not worked, her counselor asked her about when the relationship had been a "good one." Mary seemed relieved and described how she had helped Frank get off the street and off drugs. The counselor could see how much this had meant to Mary and how scared Mary was now that Frank was rejecting her help. The counselor gained her trust by observing that Frank must be "hurting inside."

This leads to words of warning. If you get involved in trying to do something about an abusive relationship, you yourself will, in all likelihood, be pulled into this dance of abuser-victim-rescuer with its shifting roles. We all have these roles in us, ready to be triggered. Be prepared to be cast into each of the roles and to have each role connect with something in yourself.

So what hope is there? Do the "roles" always take over? Is there any way out of this psychological trap? The first basis for hope and for effective action is to be aware of this dance, to become more and more expert in detecting its various manifestations in others and within yourself. Develop "triple vision," the ability to see all three roles.

Secondly, it may help to try out the paradoxical idea that each of these three roles has a deeper truth and usefulness that needs to be embraced to put an end to the abuse. Sometimes we need to be "abusive" to forcefully intervene. Sometimes, we need to appreciate the "victim’s" wisdom of patiently tolerating suffering. Sometimes, we need to "rescue" or be "rescued," even if it gets complicated or is unappreciated. We can also explore whether the "deeper truths" of these three roles somehow foster a judgment about suffering that can inform and support a renewed willingness to take action.

Thirdly, we can develop a sympathetic regard for those persons involved, no matter what roles they play. This does not mean justifying their role-governed actions. People should be held morally and legally accountable for the damage they do. However, sympathetic regard for the suffering that is at the core of this dance may be a way of liberating others and ourselves from a psychological trap to which we are all vulnerable.

Date published: 3/8/00 3:47:02 PM
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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