Breaking the Cycle of Abuse: How to Move Beyond Your Past to Create an Abuse-Free Future

Breaking the Cycle of Abuse: How to Move Beyond Your Past to Create an Abuse-Free Future

by Beverly Engel

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If you were emotionally, physically, or sexually abused as a child or adolescent, or if you experienced neglect or abandonment, it isn't a question of whether you will continue the cycle of abuse or neglect but rather a question of how—whether you will become an abuser or continue to be a victim. Until now, you may not have had the resources you needed to sort


If you were emotionally, physically, or sexually abused as a child or adolescent, or if you experienced neglect or abandonment, it isn't a question of whether you will continue the cycle of abuse or neglect but rather a question of how—whether you will become an abuser or continue to be a victim. Until now, you may not have had the resources you needed to sort through the debris of your childhood before embarking on a new life as a husband, a wife, a partner, or a parent, and you risk passing on abuse or neglect to your partner and children. Now, in this breakthrough book, Beverly Engel, one of the world's leading experts on emotional and sexual abuse, explains how to stop the cycle of abuse once and for all.

There isn't just one way to break the cycle; there are many. In this powerful book Engel offers you empowering tools focusing on support and compassion, education, abuse prevention strategies, and long-term recovery strategies. If you are just starting to see signs of abusive or neglectful behavior in yourself or in a partner, if you are a victim of abuse, or if you are continuing a pattern of abuse, Engel gives you the ability—in the privacy of your home and at your own pace—to complete an entire therapeutic program designed to help prevent you from crossing the line or from continuing to do so.

Throughout the book, Engel shares many dramatic personal stories, including her own experiences with abuse and abusive behavior. She also addresses the sensitive topic of sexual abuse and how to avoid becoming an abuser if you were sexually abused yourself. Engel explains why abusive patterns are established and presents both short-term and long-term strategies for gaining control over emotions while offering alternative ways to react to stress, anger, fear, and shame—significant factors in continuing the cycle of abuse. Her step-by-step program provides the skills needed to:

  • Stop negative behavior before it becomes habitual and causes significant harm to your loved ones
  • Heal the damage you experienced from prior abuse or neglect
  • Change negative attitudes and beliefs that create a victim or abuser mentality
  • Learn healthy ways of communicating needs and resolving conflicts
  • Learn parenting skills that will help prevent you from passing on what was done to you
  • Repair damage that has already occurred to your relationships, including those with your children
  • Seek out further assistance and support

Those who perpetuate the cycle of neglect and abuse do so because they are out of control and feel they have no other options. Breaking the Cycle of Abuse shows you those options, giving you the power to break abusive patterns for good and offering a legacy of hope and healing to you and your family.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
According to Engel, "in the past twenty-five years studies on abuse and family assaults strongly suggest that abused children become abusers themselves," yet victims often don't receive any treatment until their repetition of the abuse is already underway. In this clear, empathetic self-help book, Engel aims to stop that cycle by teaching readers to remember the past truthfully, to identify and manage their emotions, and to recognize the characteristics of abusive relationships. An experienced psychotherapist and prolific author (The Emotionally Abused Woman; Loving Him without Losing You, etc.), Engel is also an abuse survivor herself. Her attitude towards her readers is gentle and understanding; she clearly knows firsthand how difficult victim and abuser patterns are to break. Readers are expected to perform a good deal of homework aiming at self-discovery: answering simple questions, writing down their memories, tracing family patterns, etc. Some may argue that Engel presents the most crucial advice—what to do if you've already become abusive—too late in volume, by which point an abuser may have dropped the book. But the middle chapters—on shame and its manifestations, on anger, sorrow and fear—are some of the best, especially when Engel delves into the effects of physical, sexual and emotional abuse on children. Though she deals thoroughly with the psychology of victims, Engel concentrates far more than in her earlier books on trying to reach violent and sexual offenders. Violation begets violation, she says. Parental attitudes and behavior, be they cruel, indifferent or supportive, are passed on to later generations. This book is an excellent choice for readers who come from an abusive past and are struggling to make a brighter future for themselves and their families. (Publishers Weekly Annex on-line, November 15, 2004)

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Read an Excerpt

Breaking the Cycle of Abuse

How to Move Beyond Your Past to Create an Abuser-Free Future
By Beverly Engel

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-65775-1

Chapter One

What Will Be Your Legacy?

Nicole had wanted a baby for so long, and now here she was holding her newborn daughter, Samantha. She looked down at her beautiful baby and was full of pride. As she began nursing she anticipated feeling love well up inside her. But instead all she felt was impatience. Why isn't she sucking? I don't have all day, Nicole thought to herself. She pushed her nipple inside Samantha's mouth but the baby wouldn't take hold. "What's wrong with this baby? Why is she rejecting me like this?" Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of the problems between Nicole and Samantha, problems that mirrored those Nicole had with her own mother as she was growing up.

Peggy couldn't believe it. Once more she'd chosen a man who turned out to be emotionally abusive toward her. "I don't know why this keeps happening to me; they always seem so nice at the beginning but they all turn out to be monsters. I feel like I'm some kind of 'abuser magnet' or something."

Janice couldn't believe the words that came out of her mouth. "You selfish little bitch. You think the world revolves around you, don't you?" As much as she'd vowed it would never happen, Janice said the exact words to her daughter that her mother had so often said to her when she was growing up.

Marianne was tryingto watch her favorite TV program but her two-year-old son kept screeching at the top of his lungs. Marianne had warned the boy to keep quiet but he just wasn't listening. Now she'd had it. She got up, picked up her son, and shook him hard. "What's wrong with you? Why don't you listen?" she yelled. When she finally stopped shaking her son she was horrified to discover that he was unconscious.

Robert couldn't control himself. How dare his wife speak to him like that! He shoved her against a wall and began hitting her over and over again. Then he dragged her near lifeless body through the house and dumped her on the bed. He went back into the kitchen, poured himself another drink and sat down. He was still shaking inside with rage. "That'll teach her to talk back to me," he told himself. But several minutes later another voice inside him whispered, "You're no better than your father-you're a monster just like he was."

Jack was horrified the first time he felt a sexual attraction toward his daughter. "What kind of scumbag am I?" he asked himself. Then he found himself getting angry with her for no apparent reason and pushing her away whenever she wanted to sit on his lap. He criticized the way she dressed and accused her of being a little tramp. Even though he had blocked out the memory of his own molestation as a child on a subconscious level, Jack was deathly afraid that he would do to his daughter what had been done to him.

Karen could hardly breathe. A voice in her head kept saying, "It isn't true, it isn't true." The social worker was telling her that her daughter Heather had accused her stepfather of sexually molesting her. "That's impossible," she found herself saying to the social worker. "He's been a wonderful father to Heather. Heather lies. She always has. You can't believe anything she says. She's just trying to get attention." But deep inside Karen knew the truth. And she knew the horror that her daughter must be going through. She knew because she had been molested when she was a child.

If you relate to any of these examples, you are not alone. There are thousands of others like yourself who are reenacting the abuse or neglect that they experienced as a child, adolescent, or adult. Some, like Janice, Marianne, and Robert, find themselves acting out their frustration and anger in the same ways that their own parents did, in spite of their best efforts to the contrary. Others, like Nicole and Jack, blocked out the memory of their own abuse but are forced to revisit it when they find themselves thinking or behaving in ways that upset or even repulse them. Still others, like Peggy and Karen, repeat the cycle of abuse not by becoming abusive themselves but by continually being victimized or by marrying an abuser and becoming a silent partner in the abuse of their own children.

If you were emotionally, physically, or sexually abused as a child or adolescent, or if you experienced neglect or abandonment, it isn't a question of whether you will continue the cycle of abuse or neglect, it is a question of how you will do so-whether you will become an abuser or continue to be a victim. The sad truth is that no one gets through an abusive or neglectful childhood unscathed, and an even sadder truth that no one escapes without perpetuating the cycle of violence in some way. In many cases, those who were abused or neglected become both abusers and victims throughout their lifetimes. Although this may sound unnecessarily negative to you, it is the truth. Research clearly shows that those who have been abused either absorb abuse or pass it on. In the past twenty-five years studies on abuse and family assaults strongly suggest that abused children become abusers themselves, and that child victims of violence become violent adults. Individuals with a history of childhood abuse are four times more likely to assault family members or sexual partners than are individuals without such a history. Women who have a history of being abused in childhood are far more likely to continue being victimized as adults.

We don't need research to tell us what we know intuitively. If abuse and neglect were not passed down from generation to generation we simply would not have the epidemic of childhood abuse and neglect we are experiencing today. "But I know plenty of people who were abused or neglected as children who did not grow up to be abusers or victims," you might counter. Even though I'm sure there are any number of survivors you can think of who seem, on the surface, to be leading normal, healthy lives, I can assure you that there are many things that go on behind closed doors that the average bystander never knows about. If you could be a fly on the wall in the home of the average couple where one or both were abused or neglected as children I can guarantee that you would see history repeating itself every day in a multitude of ways.

You might see it in the way the husband talks to his wife in the same dismissive, condescending tone in which his father spoke to his mother. Or you'd notice the way his wife passively concedes to her husband's demands, just as her mother did to her father's. You might see it in the way one or both parents has an inordinate need to dominate and control their children. Or both parents may repeat the cycle by neglecting their children in much the same way they were neglected by their parents-putting their own needs before those of their children; not taking an interest in their children's school work, hobbies, or friends; or being emotionally unavailable to their children because they are abusing alcohol.

If one spouse was physically abused as a child you would likely see that kind of abuse repeated as well. Even the most well-meaning person will find himself exploding in the same kind of rage he witnessed or experienced as a child. His rage is likely to surface when he drinks too much, when he feels provoked, or when he is reminded of or "triggered" by memories of his own abuse. Or, the reverse may be true; if a woman was battered as a child or witnessed her mother being abused she may have grown up to marry a man who physically abuses her or her children. Like her mother, she will be rendered helpless-unable to defend herself or to leave.

If one or both spouses was sexually abused you would have to be a fly on the wall in order to discover how the cycle is repeated in the family because it is done in such secrecy. All too often a sexually abused male (and less often, a female) will sexually abuse his or her own children. If he married a woman who was also sexually abused (which happens more times than not) she will often become what is called a silent partner-someone who is in such denial about her own abuse that she stands by while her own children are being molested. Although not all victims of childhood sexual abuse molest their own or other people's children, sometimes they are so afraid of repeating the cycle that they cannot be physically affectionate toward their own children. Others raise their children to believe their genitals and their sexual feelings are dirty and shameful.

There are also many other ways that abuse gets passed down to the next generation that are even more difficult to spot, at least initially. Charlene couldn't wait to have a baby. She wanted someone she could call her own, someone she could shower with love. Much to her surprise, Charlene discovered that she was unable to bond emotionally with her son no matter how much she tried. "I love him, of course, and I'd do anything for him. But somehow I just can't bring myself to be affectionate toward him. And I always feel guarded with him-like I can't allow myself to feel the love I know I have for him." When Charlene and I explored her history the reason for her inability to bond with her son became evident. Charlene's mother was unable to emotionally bond with her when she was a baby, and her mother remained emotionally distant from her as she was growing up. "I used to question whether she was even really my mother. I always felt like maybe I'd been adopted or something. She just didn't treat me like a mother should treat her own child. My gosh, is that the way I'm treating my son?"

Todd's mother was just the opposite. She had lavished him with affection and emotionally smothered him from the time he was a baby. As Todd got older his mother became very possessive of him, not wanting him to leave her side for very long, not even to go outside to play with friends. This possessiveness continued well into his teens when she would feign sickness to keep him from going out on dates. When Todd did manage to have a girlfriend his mother always found things wrong with her and insinuated that the girl wasn't good enough for him.

Surprisingly, Todd finally did manage to get married, and he and his wife had two children. On the surface, it looked like Todd had escaped unscathed from his emotionally smothering mother. But the truth was that Todd was an extremely angry man. He felt trapped by his wife and kids, just as he had with his mother, and he verbally abused them mercilessly. He also acted out his anger against his mother by compulsively seeing prostitutes and subjecting his wife to venereal disease and AIDS.

Tracey tried all her childhood and into her adulthood to get her father's love and approval. But her father was very remote and distant, and she found she could never get his attention, no matter how hard she tried. When Tracey was eighteen she left home. Although she never gained her father's love, it appeared that Tracey was a normal young woman. She moved to a nearby city and got a good job and her own apartment. Shortly thereafter she met a young man named Randy who swept her off her feet. He lavished her with affection and praise and told her he was madly in love with her. She agreed to marry Randy after knowing him for only two months.

Initially, because Tracey had been so love starved, the fact that Randy didn't like being away from her made her feel good. But gradually Randy became more and more possessive and jealous. He didn't like Tracey going out with her girlfriends because he was convinced she would flirt with other men. Tracey understood this-she was afraid other women would flirt with Randy, too-so she stayed home with him. Then Randy started getting upset when Tracey wanted to go visit her parents. He'd start a fight every time she wanted to go, and she would end up staying home. Gradually, Tracey became isolated from all her friends and family. This was to be the first step in what was to become an extremely violent relationship. In Tracey's attempt to marry someone who was different from her father, someone who would give her the attention she so desperately needed, she had fallen for a man who was so insecure that he had to have complete control over his wife.

As you can see, someone who may seem like they have adjusted quite well to an abusive or neglectful childhood may look entirely different in the privacy of his own home when he is interacting with his partner or his children. But I'm preaching to the choir here. Most of you who are reading this book are aware that there is a risk that you will repeat what was done to you in some way. And for many of you, that risk has already become a reality. You've already begun to abuse your partner, neglect or abuse your children or other people's children, or abuse your employees or coworkers. You've already been emotionally or physically abused by at least one partner and perhaps already established a pattern of being revictimized in the same ways you were as a child.

The cycle of violence is manifested in other ways as well. Those who were raised by alcoholic parents often become alcoholic parents themselves. Those who were raised by parents who suffer from a personality disorder sometimes end up having the same personality disorder. (It can be argued that alcoholism and some personality disorders may have a genetic component, but the truth is that the environmental influence cannot be denied. When many of these individuals enter therapy and begin to work on their unfinished business from childhood, many are able to recover from their disorders.) Our parents also pass on negative beliefs that not only influence us but can cause us to become abusive or victimlike in our behavior.

From a Legacy of Pain to a Legacy of Hope

If we are honest, most of us remember moments when we heard or saw ourselves interacting with our partner, our children, or someone else close to us in ways that are far too reminiscent of the way we ourselves were treated as children. We usually react to these moments with disbelief and horror: "Oh, my God, I sound just like my mother," or "I can't believe I'm acting just like my father." We simply cannot believe that we have repeated the very behaviors we despised in our parents.

The truth is we all carry with us the legacy of our childhoods-whether it is security and nurturing or abandonment and neglect, guidance and respect, or abuse and disdain. In fact, we carry the legacy of not only our own childhoods but also the childhoods of our parents and their parents before them. Unfortunately, often times this legacy is a legacy of pain. Although many parents try to treat their children better than they themselves were treated, generation after generation of people continue to pass down emotional, physical, and sexual abuse to their children and their children's children.

We also repeat the legacy of pain by reenacting the abuse we experienced at the hands of those other than our parents.


Excerpted from Breaking the Cycle of Abuse by Beverly Engel Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

BEVERLY ENGEL is an internationally recognized expert in emotional and sexual abuse. A licensed therapist for twenty-eight years, she is the author of many nonfiction books, including The Emotionally Abusive Relationship, Loving Him without Losing You, Honor Your Anger, The Right to Innocence, and The Power of Apology. She has appeared numerous times on national television programs including Oprah, Starting Over, and CNN.

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