Throughout our lives we all make many mistakes in a variety of ways. This is a natural and normal part of the human condition. We hurt ourselves and others- sometimes in unimaginable ways.
In my practice, I see many men and women of all ages and stages in life, who were badly hurt, abused, neglected and harmed by their parents emotionally, sexually and physically. Many of these patients told me that being treated badly somehow felt normal. It was really all that they ever knew.
The one thing that these patients have in common is that they got to a point in their lives where they made a decision to finally get to the root of their problems and change the way that they were living.
They were tired of being depressed, anxious and hurt. They were weary of engaging in destructive, self-destructive and self-sabotaging behaviors. They were done with people who had nothing to give. And most of all, they were tired of seeing themselves as victims. They are my heroes.
What I’ve found, however, is that it typically takes a crisis or a major wake-up call before people are willing to honestly look at their patterns of behavior and relationships and be willing to make the necessary changes.
CASE STUDY: Cara and Steven
Six months ago, I received an email from Steven, 32, and Cara, 30, who both expressed an interest in beginning couple’s therapy. They were from the Midwest and had rented an apartment on the Upper East Side, hoping to enjoy a New York City lifestyle.
During our first joint session, they both professed their love for each other. However, they described their relationship as volatile and sometimes violent. Steven and Cara met each other after college when they were in their late 20s. Both had been verbally and physically abused by their families.
Steven’s mother spent years going in and out of psychiatric facilities while he was growing up. She was very violent at times and later was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. Steven’s father was a mild mannered man, who kept himself busy running the family’s many businesses in the United States and abroad. He was away a lot and neglected to protect Steven and his younger sister from their mother’s abuse.
Cara’s mother on the other hand, knowingly, chose to look the other way during the many years that her husband physically and sexually molested Cara and her older sister.
It was not surprising that Steven and Cara gravitated toward one another. They understood each other’s hurts and pain and hoped for a happily ever after future.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
Initially, their relationship was loving and devoid of drama. The first time that Cara hit Steven was during an argument — a year into their relationship. Steven was planning to be away on business for about a week. Despite the fact that he promised to keep in close contact with her, Cara was angry that he was leaving.
She demanded that he text her and call her numerous times during the day and evening. When he said that he would try to call as much as he could, even though he would be busy at meetings, she angrily punched him in the face. This was the beginning of their cycle of violence.
Cara didn’t work and would spend most of her days alone on the phone with her mother and watching television. She had no friends. She would attack Steven verbally and physically when she was upset or frustrated. This pattern of violence escalated to the point where Steven would need to leave their apartment at all hours of the day and night and would often sleep in his car.
I attempted to work with Cara individually. However, she was resistant to examine her abusive childhood and was in complete denial about how her erratic, abusive and violent behavior was pushing Steven away. In many ways, this was a replay of how her own mother denied and enabled Cara’s father physical and sexual abuse. Although I attempted to encourage Cara to work on her many issues, she made the decision to terminate therapy.
During my individual sessions with Steven, he maintained that although he still loved Cara, he realized that he needed to end the relationship. He was able to see how his violent relationship with Cara was very similar to his relationship that he had with his mother when he was growing up. He felt guilty about leaving her and worried about how she would manage without him.
Steven and I worked out a plan. He was going to move back to Chicago, where he was now the CEO of the family business. He agreed to financially support Cara for one year and allow her to stay in their Manhattan apartment until she either found a job or moved back home with her family.
I recently received an email from Steven, thanking me for giving him the courage and permission to extricate himself from his relationship with Cara. He is now living Chicago, making friends and is looking forward to beginning to date. Cara has moved back with her family. They have no contact with each other. Steven has learned the important lesson that “love is not abuse.”
Beatty Cohan, MSW, LCSW, AASECT is a nationally recognized psychotherapist, sex therapist, author of For Better for Worse Forever: Discover the Path to Lasting Love, national speaker, national radio and television expert guest and host of the weekly “Ask Beatty Show” on the Progressive Radio Network. She has a private practice in NYC and East Hampton.
Beatty would love to hear from you. She welcomes your questions and comments. For more information go to beattycohan.com.