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It’s not uncommon for people who have suffered emotional, physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their parents or other primary caretakers, to allow themselves to be abused in adult relationships. Although the idea appears to be paradoxical—wouldn’t abuse survivors go out of their way to be around people who are not abusive?—that is not how things often work out. Understanding why you’re drawn to or surround yourself with abusive people will help you unhook from them and from abusing yourself with food.
When parents who are supposed to be loving are abusive or, alternately, are abusive and loving, a paradigm of “love wedded to abuse” is established. In a child’s mind, the two go hand in hand: love equals abuse or, at the least, is accompanied by it. This association occurs whether the abuse is constant or intermittent. The experience cuts deeply into a child’s psyche and forms the template for future relationships. For example, a client once told me she knew she was in love because “it’s the most painful experience I’ve ever had.” In truth, parents who abuse their children are not acting lovingly at all. Of course, they are doing the best they can, but that best is far, far from good enough. Love requires that we put the other person’s needs before ours, especially when raising children.
Abuse is a self-centered, often impulsive act. In truth, many parents are sorry for what they’ve done after they’ve done it, but that doesn’t change the fact that abuse is unloving, self-serving behavior. After all, children have no clue that parents are doing them wrong. This is true even when parents apologize for harm they have caused their children. Most offspring assume their parents are powerful and smart—and right. So when children are loved and abused, not only do they believe the abuse is deserved, but there is an automatic pairing of love and abuse. As children develop, they tend not to question this coupling and go on to find partners or others who replicate it because it feels unfamiliar and strange to have love without abuse. Moreover, when others are not abusive to them, they often unconsciously try to “get them” to act hurtfully. I have seen this dynamic over and over in my practice: clients unconsciously try to provoke me into treating them poorly rather than kindly (which I, of course, don’t do).
If you had an abusive childhood, you would be wise to examine your beliefs about love and abuse. Remember, love is not pain, but its antithesis. Love is everything else but a cause of intentional pain. Something to think about as you work to transform yourselves into whole, healthy individuals and improve your relationship with food.
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