As a retired registered nurse practitioner with certification in Family Practice, and in my several years of working in the mental health field, in both in and out-patient settings, and in my personal life, I have seen these relationships and the “abused abuser” who has lost the war with the other abuser.
Dr. Eric Berne, PhD in his book, Games People Play, which is an old favorite of mine, describes these relationships which are like mixing gasoline and fire. In the abuse triangle, each party takes a transitory position in each of the three “chairs” in a game of “musical chairs, abuse version,” sitting at sometimes in the “victim” chair, sometimes in the “abuser” chair, and sometimes in the “rescuer” chair.
These relationships may maintain a status quo for years with neither party gaining or losing significant control over the other, but they may escalate into great physical violence in which first one party takes the initiative to physically hurt the other and the “offended” party then “fights back.” (Justifiably, in their own mind.)
The relationships may also be one in which there is little or no physical violence, but more passive-aggressive behavior or financial maneuvers in which one party tries to take financial advantage of another, or sets themselves up as an entitled dependent of the other party.
Frequently, if one of the parties “loses” a particular bout in a big way, the loser presents themselves as an “innocent victim’ of the other one. The abused-abuser will be quite adept at a pity-ploy in presenting themselves as the “totally innocent” victim of a wily abuser. They will rabidly maintain that they had no idea that they were being abused or that this heartless person would take such advantage of them. Unfortunately, there are many cases where a truly innocent victim of abuse has no idea what the partner is doing because the abuser in the relationship covers their tracks well until the final devaluation and discarding of the victim.
How do you tell the difference between the genuine victim and the pseudo-victim, the abused-abuser? Frankly, it is not always an easy thing to do.
Each victim, whether a true victim or a pseudo-victim, of course, likes to believe that they were unjustly treated by the abusing party. With a genuine victim there comes a time, though, when they will accept the fact that they “should have seen this coming” and that they allowed the abuser to continue to abuse them after signs of abuse were apparent. Maybe they went back to or stayed with the other party after multiple physical assaults or infidelities.
The pseudo-victim (abused-abuser) however, will usually maintain that there was no way that they could have seen this coming and that they were not responsible for the choices that they made. They tend to maintain that they were helpless victims of something that no one could have foreseen coming, almost like a tsunami hit them out of the blue, without any warning. They maintain that they deserve your pity and compassion and, oh, by the way, support for which they are entitled. How can they help themselves, they are powerless? They are totally helpless and because they deserve such pity and support from others, they should not be required to take any responsibility for any of the consequences to their lives created by the abuser.
This sense of the almost “enjoyment” of their plight, the sense of entitlement to “special consideration” because of their past circumstances and the desire for others to provide for their needs eventually becomes apparent if you are around them for very long. Being a person who likes to help others, I have fallen for the “pity me” ploy on more than one occasion.
One of the “games people play” described by Berne is the “Yes, but….” game, in which the “helper” person gives a suggestion to the person needing help, and the winner is determined when the person needing help says “Yes, that is a great idea, but I can’t do it because….” and the helper person has no more suggestions. The needy person has “won the game” by showing that no suggestion to help them will work, they are truly powerless in life.
Whatever help is provided to an abused-abuser pseudo-victim is never enough to suit their sense of entitlement, and rarely solves even their immediate problems, and begins to rankle the “helper” who sincerely wants to help someone whom they think has been unfairly treated by an abuser. Unfortunately, it is usually quickly apparent that the pseudo-victim, starts to take advantage of the person who is attempting to “rescue” them from the unfortunate situation in which they find themselves—of course with little or no effort on their part.
Most true victims of an abuser will soon recognize that there were “red flags” apparent fairly early on in the relationship that they saw, but discounted the validity of, and overlooked that “fault” in the abuser, hoping for improvement in the relationship. The abused-abuser, however, will tend to deny the existence of these “red flags” prior to the tidal wave of the final devaluation and discarding. In listening to the stories of the pseudo-victim, however, you may hear them talk about the behaviors of the other party that were obviously red flags, or you may get an indication that the pseudo-victim “gave as good as they got” from the other party, fighting back physically, or passively-aggressively, or even financially.
The old stories about how police officers hate domestic violence calls because if they arrive and the man is beating up his wife, and they try to stop him, the wife will turn on them, is usually a good example of a two-abuser relationship. Unfortunately, I think this gives all “victims” a bad name, as many people, including a great many police officers, seem to think that there are always “two (valid) sides to every story” and that there are no relationships in which one party is the true abuser and the other is the true victim.
While not all true victims will heal and grow from the experience, unfortunately many, because of social, financial, cultural, or trauma bonding pressures, will return to the abuser, or connect with another abuser. Abused-abusers, the pseudo-victim who has been discarded by the previous co-abuser-victim, will seek another victim, masked in the helplessness of the pity ploy. They will use the new victim’s caring and empathy against them. As Martha Stout says, when you find you are feeling “pity,” you are dealing with a psychopath. When you feel that “nothing I do to try to help this person help themselves” is working, watch for the “Yes, but….” game and then disengage, you are being played.