Abuse is a specific kind of cruel behavior that leaves painful wounds that can come back and bite hard many years later. The abuser always reserves the right to keep doing whatever it is the abused person is hurt by — which, in the case of a child in particular, makes the pain traumatic and permanent. Trauma is ready to be reawakened at any time, it springs up with full fury when the same nerve is roughly touched. The hurt of being traumatized is compounded by self-recrimination — why do I always make people treat me like that?
The real injury of abuse is the abuser’s implacable reaction to the hurt person’s pain, the complete abandonment of the person the abuser hurt. Incapable of yielding, listening, understanding, reassuring, acknowledging that they caused the pain, the abuser tries to force the other person to accept the fault for whatever happened and to shut up about it, forever, often with a threat of much worse to come if they continue looking for sympathy that only a needy weakling would ask for in the first place.
We all hurt other people sometimes, because we human beings are an imperfect breed. We don’t always treat others the way we’d like to be treated. If we behave in a way that hurts somebody close to us we can often fix it by listening, understanding, reassuring, letting the other person know that we’re sorry and will do our best in the future to treat their feelings with more care.
None of that basic decency and conflict resolution has anything to do with abuse. When an abusive person angrily hurts somebody and the hurt person reacts with pain, the abuser reflexively goes to work. The ongoing “I’ll give you something to cry about, you little bitch,” is much more traumatic, in the long run, than the original slap, kick, punch or cruel words. It is the complete withdrawal of all sympathy afterwards, making the injury purely the problem of the one who suffered it, that leaves the deepest cut.
Abusers are famous for elegant displays of faux regret, flowers, lavish gifts, praise, assurances that they’ll never do the bad thing again. Every victim of domestic abuse, every consumer of popular culture, is familiar with this kind of false charm campaign. The charm and ostentatious shows of tenderness serve to overcome the defenses of the beaten spouse, reassure them of a love they long for, a love that is, at best, problematic. “If only you hadn’t done that,” someone like OJ will say, after the beating, gently stroking the lover’s face, “I wouldn’t have had to do that to you. You know how much it hurts me when you make me act like that, my love.”
A horror story as familiar as any ever told. You made me do it, asshole. What happens after the little explosion of rage is the truly injurious part of abuse, it makes you doubt yourself in a way that guarantees more of the same. “You want some more?” the bully will say, trying to make you flinch. Flinch and you lose. Treating the bully to a hard kick in the nuts is always in good taste, but not always practical. Getting away from people who abuse you, as soon as you can, is a better, safer way to avoid more abuse.