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Why we can get stuck in abuse cycles

Our definition of what love looks and feels like is formed in our early childhood years. The kind of love we receive and is role modeled to us by our primary caregivers becomes unconsciously engrained into us as 'normal'. This is often how our love language develops; if your family showers you with compliments and praise, or shows their love through giving gifts, or doing favors for you... it is encoded in the brain and nervous system as 'love' and becomes associated with a feeling of belonging and safety.


However, childhood is rarely only praise and gifts. It can come with yelling, passive aggression, emotional outbursts, blaming, shaming, punishing, dismissing, invalidating, gaslighting, emotional neglect, bullying, control, or other forms of physical, mental, or emotional abuse. This maltreatment also becomes encoded in the brain and nervous system as a 'normal' part of loving relationships. It often isn't until later in adulthood when we look back to reflect on our childhood that we realize how unhealthy certain aspects of our childhood were.


If it's all we knew and we didn't have anything to compare to, how could we know it was maltreatment?



Maltreatment can be small traumas or big traumas; psychology does not determine trauma by the severity or details of the incident(s), but by the way the brain and nervous system of the individual interprets the event.


When we are raised in a household in which the maltreatment or abuse was from a primary caregiver or attachment figure who the child is dependent on, the child must learn how to remain attached to an abusive caregiver.


The child must somehow reconcile the abuse, as they are also dependent on the abuser for survival.


Dissociation allows the child to cope with the overwhelming emotions of being betrayed, abandoned, neglected, or abused by a primary caregiver. It allows them to stay attached to the attachment figure.


They must, in some way, compartmentalize the feelings of betrayal and avoid awareness in order to continue seeing their caregiver as potentially caring, despite being maltreated, to survive in an environment where they cannot fight and cannot flee.


This is what can often keep us trapped in an abusive relationship in adulthood. The same mechanism that was needed to "see the best" in our primary caregiver is now keeping us stuck in patterns of maltreatment.



If we dissociate too much from the reality of the maltreatment and focus on the best qualities of the abusive partner, we will find ourselves stuck in an unhealthy relationship and/or a cycle of leaving and continually running back to them. It often feels like a roller coaster of confusion, oscillating back and forth between loving them and being done with them.


Many can even see the maltreatment for what it is but still feel stuck in this cycle. One of the most effective ways to break this cycle is to connect more deeply to the reality, specifically your emotional experience of the reality. For some this can be quite difficult, as the purpose of dissociation is to escape reality and our emotions. It can be painful to sit with the emotional pain of betrayal, neglect, and abuse... but it is essential to accepting the truth of the reality.


Through connecting more deeply with how the abuse makes us feel, our brain and nervous system can slowly begin to change the association of what was previously 'normal' to unhealthy and abusive.

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