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Asking the Wrong Question in Abusive Relationships


What do you think is the most common and persistent question clients ask me about their abusive relationships? And what’s the most unhelpful question they could ask themselves? The answer is the same question: “Why is my abuser doing this to me?”

If this question doesn’t initially strike you as off-base, take a moment to consider why that might be. Unless you’re someone’s therapist, the problem isn’t why someone does something hurtful to another person. It’s why someone who’s frequently hurt by another person puts up with abusive behavior and continues the relationship!

Here’s an example. I have a client who’s adult sister is always causing trouble in the family. My client’s mother was alcoholic when she and her sister were growing up and is sober now. However, she’s still narcissistic and critical. My client’s sister and her mother have constant friction. And when they do, the sister blames my client for being Mom’s favorite, complaining that she, herself, still doesn’t get what she needs from Mom and putting my client down for receiving alleged special treatment. This is abusive to my client who keeps asking, “Why does my sister blame me for what happened to her?”

Here's another example. One of my clients is married to someone who was emotionally abused by a controlling, domineering father. My client is fed up with her husband’s smoking, drinking and, the final straw, an online emotional affair. Her husband can be nice to her and he can also be nasty, including calling her names and putting her down. They’ve talked about divorce but they’re both ambivalent about splitting up after a long marriage and not wanting to face life alone. My client keeps asking me, “Why does my husband act the way he does, sometimes nice and sometimes mean and awful?”

Now, think about what’s unhelpful about these clients’ questions. The answer is that it puts the focus on the other person rather than, in each case, on what my client can do. What do people really want to know when they ask why someone is doing something hurtful to them? They want to know “is it me?” or “what can I do to change this person to stop the behavior?” If someone is stomping on your foot, do you really want to spend time figuring out why they’re doing it or do you just want the foot stomping to end? 

As I said, the important question in these situations is why you stick around and keep trying to understand why someone hurts you. Maybe you think you deserve it. Maybe you think you did something wrong. You didn’t. A better question is, “Why do I put up with abuse and what do I have the power to do to get out of the situation or relationship?” Notice that the focus here is on you changing, not someone else.