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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Does Past Abuse Signal Future Abuse?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 13th 2012

Does Past Abuse Signal Future Abuse?Many women have consulted me for psychotherapy after having survived a terribly abusive relationship. More often than not, their presenting problem is depression and anxiety that they attributed to the loss of their lover. Curiously, it was the termination of the relationship, which they experienced as rejection, that bothered them more than the fact of the abusiveness. They confessed to feelings of amazement over the fact that, at the start of the relationship, he was wonderful. How could this have happened. In all cases they denied that there was any way they could know what was going to happen and that could have prevented their choice of that man. Many of them were angry about the idea that they could select another abusive man yet again. Research shows that many people ignore the warning signs of abuse at the beginning of a relationship.

A paper published in the journal, "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin," (Zayas and Shoda, 2007) examined the influence of prior experiences on partner preferences. The question was, having been in a an abusive relationship, what was the likelihood it would happen again. A very clever experiment was done in which female subjects were shown profiles of potentially abusive men. The profiles showed them to be jealous, impulsive, angry and with low self esteem. Women who had prior histories of being abused by ex lovers were three times more likely to choose an abusive man as opposed to those who did not have this history.

Interestingly, men with a history of being abuse selected female profiles of women who were dependent and fearful of being rejected. Seemingly, men and women were shown to have a "knack" for making a compatible choice that would get them into terrible trouble.

It would be wrong to believe that there is anything inevitable about people making bad choices. Knowledge is power and knowing the characteristics of potentially abusive people can serve as a guide to who should be avoided. In other words, pay attention to the characteristics listed above: jealousy, anger, low self esteem and prior histories of being abusive.

However, knowledge does not always help because the tendency to make a poor choice is sometimes quite unconscious. For example, it is like a bad habit in which the behavior repeats itself without any awareness. That is why it's important to listen to friends and family when they issue warnings about a particular person. Others can often spot problems that we cannot because it's too close for us to perceive what is happening.

I find it interesting that many women who find themselves in relationships with these types of men then ask me what they should do? They state that they love this person and do not want to lose him. My advice is to locate the door and leave now but with more wisdom so this does not happen again.

What are your experiences with abusive people?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Relation of abuse and rejection - - Apr 14th 2012

A very interesting article.I am a woman who had a loving, non-abusive relationship with my late husband.  But I experienced abuse from my mother growing up, felt rejected although I suppressed that for most of my life, and grew up to be sometimes abusive and rejecting of my own daughter.  Perhaps needless to say, I was shocked and surprised by myself and did my best to get help and stop that kind of behavior.  But the damage to a young child was perhaps already done?  Despite my best efforts and professional therapy.

She is now in a relationship with a man who appears to be charmingly dominating, who disrespects me, and I now have little contact with either of them.

So, theoretically, do we learn to accept abuse as a price to be paid not to be rejected by parents whom we need to survive?  And what can be said about the love I genuinely felt for my parents, even when I could acknowledge that their behavior had been abusive?

It was much safer for me growing up just not to feel or see the warning signs of potential abuse.  Because then, if I acted scared, the parent would really then abuse me.  It’s as if my fear of being abused would come across as an accusation that the parent was “bad” or “wrong” and that added to the bad mood they were already in to the point that it was intolerable to them.  So they would dump it off on me.  Not excusable, but reality.

I had to go back and actually feel the pain and horror of being accused of things I didn’t do, evil motives I hadn’t had, and the terror of rejection.  Very, very painful places to go through.

I wonder if people who have been in abusive relationships and also had abusive experiences growing up can really be free of that without professional help for their self-esteem, sense of self, and long buried or cut-off emotions.  It would be nice to think that they could, because healing all the damage can sometimes take a long time.And for some people, never.

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