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Below is an Interactive Board sampler. A fuller listing is found in the "Stories" menu above.

4/14 Interactive Board: Codependent Partners

3/23 Interactive Board: He's Changing... I'm Not...

3/1 Interactive Board: D/s Lifestyle

1/14 Interactive Board: My Purrrfect Husband

12/12 Interactive Board: What if He Could Have Changed?

10/23 Interactive Board: Quandary Revisited

8/24 Interactive Board: Quandary! What's Going On?

7/20: Dr. Irene on cognitive behavior therapy and mindfulness

6/12 Interactive Board: Unintentional Abuse

11/7 Interactive Board: Is This Abusive?

12/29 Interactive Board: There Goes the Wife...

11/4 Interactive Board: A New Me!

10/8 Interactive Board: Seeming Impossibility

9/8 Interactive Board: My Ex MisTreats Our Son

5/1 Interactive Board: I feel Dead - Towards Him

4/26 Interactive Board: Why is This So Hard?

4/19 Interactive Board: I Lost My Love...

4/7 Interactive Board: Too Guilty!

Quandary: Who Is The Victim / Abuser

Quandary: Who Is The Victim / Abuser?

by Dr. Irene

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
- Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

March 3, 2000

A reader posted the following in response to Victim Partner Turns Abusive: 

..."I printed out a lot of pages from this site for my husband because he is an abuser. He thought it was all very interesting, but seems to feel I was the abuser. He thinks I am playing games with his mind by refusing to have sex with him when I don't want to. He resorts to emotional blackmail. This was pointed out by our counselor when we were in marriage counseling.

To me its important they realize they are being abusive so they can get the help they need to stop being abusive and change the way they think and their beliefs. Am I wrong Dr Irene??? We have to realize we are victims and recognize our codependent and victim behaviors so we can change them.

I ask because my husband just seems to think its all me..."

Am I Wrong?

No, you are not wrong. An individual cannot change themselves unless they recognize that they are abusive, or codependent, or (fill in the blank). Recognition is half the battle. Changing it is the other half.


What is going on when each partner thinks they are the victim of the other? This situation, by the way, is the norm. The identified victim is screaming, "Look what X is doing to me!" The identified abuser is screaming, "Look what Y is doing to me!" What's going on?

First recognize that I am not talking extremes. It is not hard to pick out the abuser and victim in cases of battery. But roles are rarely this clear-cut. What about cases where both parties batter each other? What about partnerships in which there is no battery, yet verbal and emotional abuse run rampant?

Labels Can Get Us Stuck

While invaluable in the recognition and identification of a phenomenon, labels can present problems as well. Just as there is no such thing as "the normal" person (e.g., 2.3 kids, 1.5 dogs, etc.), there is no such thing as "the victim" and "the abuser."  

Boundaries Or Withholding?

The identified victim usually needs to recognize when  his or her boundaries have been violated and put a stop to it. The identified abuser usually needs to recognize that their boundaries have not been violated when they are denied entry into their partner's space. 

For example: The above poster mentions that her husband felt she was being abusive in refusing sex with him when she did not want sex. Throughout the site, and elsewhere, the consensus is that if an individual does not want to make love with their marital partner, it is their right - in fact it is their responsibility to themselves - not to! The writer's husband interprets her behavior as "abuse" in that it constitutes a passive-aggressive withholding of what he seeks. This is his point of view. 

If she is not inclined to make love with him because he does not treat her lovingly, which is what I read between the lines of this woman's post, her husband feels abused - when, in fact, she is simply taking care of herself! He cries "abuse" because she will not let him violate her boundaries / personal space - as he may be used to doing or expects to do. 

The distinction between maintaining boundaries or behaving passive aggressively can be murky because withholding is an element of abuse; many abusive individuals "specialize" in withholding sex, affection, compliments, etc. These individuals feel justified  withholding loving behavior - because they have a problem with how they were treated, etc. They will, rightfully from their point of view declare, "I cannot make love to my partner because I was treated poorly." 

Yet, their idea of "poor treatment" may be that they felt ignored that their partner was on the phone last night with mom for an hour. This is passive aggressive tit-for-tat retaliation, not boundary setting. 

Care For Yourself!

My approach with abusive individuals is to tell them that it is their job, not their partner's job, to take care of themselves. In this case, I would advise the lonely individual to speak up the next time they feel neglected by their partner. But, I also caution that while it is their responsibility to initiate their request, it is also their responsibility to accept "no" for an answer - and without holding a grudge. After all, holding a grudge is like shooting yourself in the foot. You aren't likely to endear yourself to anyone by being cool or nasty towards them. "Acceptance" can be difficult for the individual who implicitly and irrationally assumes that they are entitled to get "their way." 

Ditto with denied sex: it is your responsibility to ask for what you want, but it is also your responsibility to gracefully accept "no" for an answer. Your partner's feelings are as important as your feelings. Your partner has a right not to make make love with you for whatever reason. When I am asked, "But, what kind of marriage is that?" I am likely to advise that if an individual has done everything in their power to be gracious, loving, and understanding towards their partner (which is their responsibility to themselves), and sex is still not forthcoming, then the individual needs to choose whether or not sex is important enough to merit threatening the relationship. "Forcing" or cajoling another to give what they don't want to give will only lead to resentment and problems down the road. This holds true whether the partner is biochemically disinterested, ill, overtly angry, or passive aggressive! 

One of my favorite sayings is, "Ask for what you want once; or even twice. After that, assume your partner heard you and will not or cannot give you what you want. Accept it."

The Water Is Even Murkier

Asking, "Who is the abuser / who is the victim,"  implicitly questions which partner is trying to exercise "control" over the other by their attempt to meet their implicitly-held  entitlement demands; the classic "My Way" stuff. However, once again, things are not so clear cut. The issue is clouded by the fact that nobody is perfect. Not even the saintliest victim will maintain his or her cool all the time. Not even the most self-sacrificing victim will never ever be passive-aggressive or (gasp!) controlling. In fact, victims are extremely controlling, though their objective is usually along the lines of being loved and gaining approval. Nevertheless, the point is, we are human; we mess up all the time.

The abuser person is expert at immediately picking up the slightest momentary acting out. This guarded person is likely to mentally keep tabs, or never let the victim forget their misbehavior. The victim, often too expert at soul searching, recognizes their misbehavior - and gets lost in wondering if they are the abuser! All this occurs while the abuse and trampling of boundaries continues. 

It Goes Two Ways

While I advise my victim people to continue their soul searching, for it is good for them, I also caution that they give themselves the same (generous) benefit of the doubt they give their partner. I also encourage these individuals to recognize their equality and therefore expect consideration and benefit of the doubt in return. 

We are out of balance when we harbor implicit expectations about what we are entitled to from our partner. We are also out of balance when we obsess over our errors and what we didn't give.

Healthy thinking assumes:

bulletthe ability to reflect on and learn from one's mistakes
bulleta sense of worth and entitlement
bulletthe ability to gracefully accept "no" for an answer. 

The Abusive Victim

In some cases, the abuse has gone on for so long, or the individual feels so provoked; has put up with so much, or, for whatever reason, the victim is so very, very angry, there is little benefit of the doubt left for the partner. This is the victim who is likely to misbehave at every turn - and feel justified in doing so. This is the victim who behaviorally and psychologically has come to resemble the abuser: this person wants to push their abuser away, punish and hurt them.  

Is this person a victim? An abuser? A victim-abuser? Good question. Sometimes I don't know either. I remember the battered wife I treated for several months. The next time I saw her, she was divorced, had horror stories; had been in a shelter, etc. But, her current boyfriend was preparing to leave her because she was verbally abusive, had hit him several times, and blocked his access with her car. This so-called "victim" dropped out of treatment as I started confronting her on her misbehavior.

On the other hand, I remember the recovering addict who came to me to deal with a self-proclaimed "anger problem." He was engaged in furious acting-out with his former girlfriend in a never-ending courtroom battle over their child. Although she allied herself with the battered woman's movement, it turns out he was the victim! He knew no better than to blow up at her lies and provocation. This young man stayed in treatment and turned his life around. He still doesn't attack, but he has learned to defend himself and fight back fairly and well. Last I heard, he was "winning" in court.

So, who is the victim and who is the abuser? Seems to me that the individual who takes responsibility for his or her life and thinks "smart" - is neither!

Smart Thinking

Back to the original poster whose question inspired this article. This savvy lady took care of herself. She searched her soul, didn't give away the benefit of the doubt -  and went on to answer her own question:

"This article really interested me because I did wonder if I was turning into an abuser because of his constant remarks. But when I really think about the things he "claims" are abuse, its just me setting my boundaries and him having a huge problem with my boundaries."


I  want to read the posts.