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The Cycle of Sexual Abuse

Why Sexually Abused Children Grow Up to Have Abusive Relationships in Adulthood

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Updated June 27, 2011

People who were sexually abused in childhood often engage in abusive relationships as adults, either being repeatedly victimized, or becoming abusers themselves. It can be hard to understand why someone who has been sexually abused in childhood would engage in an abusive relationships again -- why wouldn't they avoid abusive relationships? Maureen Canning, MA, LMFT, herself a child abuse survivor, recovered sex addict, and relationship therapist, explains the many reasons in her book, "Lust, Anger, Love: Understanding Sexual Addiction and the Road to Healthy Intimacy." The top ten reasons are listed here:

1. It feels familiar

If the connection between abuse and "love" is made early in life, the feelings of shame and anger, which naturally happen as a consequence of the abuse, are interpreted as feelings of love and passion. People who have been abused may not realize other ways of feeling in relationships are possible. They believe they are feeling love for their abuser, so when they are later abused in an intimate relationship, they perceive the familiar feelings of shame and anger as love and passion.

2. It is an attempt to heal

By becoming an abuser, a victim of childhood sexual abuse can try to undo the abuse by taking the opposite, seemingly more powerful position. By engaging in a relationship with another abuser, they can try to re-live the relationship with their original abuser in the hope that they can get it right this time.

3. They feel inadequate

People who were abused as children may believe, on some level, that they are not good enough to deserve a genuinely caring relationship. They feel in a one-down position to others, making it hard to accept real love. They may have even been convinced by their abuser that they deserved the abuse.

4. They feel grandiose

People who were abused may also feel, on some level, that they are better than others, and have a hard time respecting other people as equals. They feel in a one-up position to others, making it hard to enter a mutually loving, respectful relationship. They may even feel one-down to some people, and one-up to others, engaging in abusive relationships at the same time they are being abused by others.

5. It is a search for power and control

By becoming an abuser, someone who has been abused can play the role of the more powerful person in the relationship, in an attempt to overcome the powerlessness they felt when they were being abused.

6. They may be sexually aroused by abusive behavior

In some cases, if early sexual experiences involved abuse, they may become sexually aroused by abusive behavior. This does not mean they want or wanted to be abused, or that they genuinely enjoy abuse, and not all victims of abuse experience this.

7. They feel very angry

People who have been abused carry a lot of anger about what happened to them, and abuse can be a way to express that anger.

8. They may try to hurt others before being hurt

If abuse and hurt feels inevitable, people who have been abused may view sexual relationships as preditory, and try to "kill before being killed."

9. They are searching for intensity

When children are traumatized through sexual abuse, they may associate or confuse intensity with pleasure. They may be attracted to abusive individuals, and high risk activities in order to feel pleasure, as they need the "rush" of danger in order to feel aroused or to experience orgasm.

10. Living a fantasy feels safer than reality

Because abuse is so painful, people who have been abused may cope by retreating into a fantasy world. This may include idealizing others to the point where abusive partners are seen as wonderful, or others are abused as a result of the overwhelming disappointment felt when they cannot live up to the fantasy.
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