How to Deal with Abusive Relationships

Once I was translating for His Holiness the 17th Karmapa in India, and His Holiness said that if you tolerate abusive action from anyone, that’s not compassion, and that’s not patience. He gave the example that some people say if someone hits you on the left cheek, you should show them the right cheek. He said that’s not really compassionate action, or a practice of patience. That’s actually very self-centered, ego-centered because all you care about is yourself.

You’re trying to practice tolerance, patience, love, kindness, or whatever you think. But you don’t care about that person’s karma. You don’t care about that person’s path, or helping to transform that person’s negative habits. You are kind of encouraging that person to engage more in aggression. In the end, that person’s path is going down and down, while yours may be going up and up. Because you’re being more tolerant, maybe more patient, and what-have-you. So His Holiness said that’s really ego-centered.

I always think this is the best answer for us. And to add to that, in my view, there’s really no sense of love there. If you really love that person, then you should care for their happiness. And when you encourage this kind of abusive habit, you’re actually making them more and more impatient, more and more unhappy. So that’s not really an expression of love, towards anyone. Therefore, Karmapa said if someone’s trying to hit you, then you should stop them. You should hold that person’s hand.

And if it’s a persistent situation, then you should leave that situation. Definitely. You don’t want to be a “karmic enabler” of bad karma.

I think there are different ways to go about it. If there is a sense of love between the individuals, then of course you can seek professional help. Then if that doesn’t work, if all of the avenues you try don’t work, then leave. I’m not suggesting leaving with the first impulse. Because it can also be you, in some situations––you never know. I’m not saying this applies in every situation, such as in really abusive cases. But in a general sense of relationship, we also are involved in our own habits that can perpetuate, or attract, more neurosis. In some cases, our neurosis feeds each other’s. So even if we leave that particular abusive situation, we may just end up in another one. So first I would suggest trying some kind of therapeutic professional work to see if it can be sorted out. And if there’s really a persistent problem there, then leave.

Responding to Harmful Behavior: An Exercise

hen we are trying to determine how to respond skillfully to abusive behavior in a relationship, we need to first ensure our physically safety and the safety of those in our care, such as children. If we are sure of our basic safety, then we can take time to look at the situation more closely by asking ourselves some questions. There are no right or wrong answers. Doing this exercise is one way to get clarity about your situation. It can also help to speak to a therapist who can help you think through various options.

1. Do I really love this person? Am I in relationship with them for our mutual growth, or do I stay with them out of fear?

2. Understanding that no one deserves to be emotionally or physically abused, how do I respond to this person’s abusive behavior? Do I respond with firm clarity and kindness, setting boundaries about what I will and will not tolerate, and leaving the scene when necessary? Or do I also lash out in anger?

3. Whether I stay in this relationship or leave it, do I care about this person’s wellbeing? Rather than engaging hateful or negative thoughts about them, can I wish for their happiness?

4. By staying in close relationship with this person, am I able to help them? It is possible to help them without hurting or endangering myself or others?

5. How many opportunities have they had to change this behavior? If they have not changed their behavior after many opportunities, is it possible I am enabling them to accumulate more negative actions?

Whatever you discover by engaging in these questions, either alone or with the help of a therapist, try not to blame yourself or the other person. Each of us in a relationship is responsible for our actions, both positive and negative. Thinking of yourself and the other person with kindness is always helpful, whatever the outcome of the relationship may be.