If You’re Trying to Spot an Abuser, Look for Someone Who’s Emotionally Immature

a black and white photo of a child throwing a tantrum
Image by majorvols / CC BY

In spite of the fact that we haven’t seen each other in years, I still think about my therapist Sue every now and then.

On the surface, we shouldn’t have worked well together therapeutically. Because we didn’t have much in common. She was a mild-mannered person with Biblical verse plaques sprinkled on the walls of her office. She served me tea on delicate porcelain ware. The old-fashioned kind I’d only seen in my grandmother’s house.

True, Sue did like math an awful lot (we bonded over that discovery, that we had that in common) but admitted she hated writing papers. Writing in general was tedious, and it was the hardest part of getting her degree. And forget about public speaking.

I ended up in her office since I was new to the area, going through a divorce, and desperately needed to see someone who would take my weird insurance. Someone who could see me at a time that would work with the person giving me rides there and back.

Sue was pretty much the only person that fulfilled these criteria. So Sue it was.

She’d never heard of polyamory before we met. Wasn’t clear on BDSM or the kink scene, what any of it was. I did my best to educate her, and to her credit, she began to research it on her own.

And in spite of the superficial differences between us, we connected well. Sue was fantastically incisive. Upon seeing my history, she was astounded that other attempts to diagnose me in the past had been such a mess. “Let’s get some objective data,” she said, before suggesting a series of scored tests. They weren’t cheap or quick, but I took them.

And we had a good place to start our sessions together, a snapshot of my major malfunctions. Which was a big help.

But even aside from that, Sue had a way of consistently blowing my mind by stating things that were revolutionary to me as though they were obvious to her. Usually this was after a tearful stream of consciousness where I’d told her some woeful tale in unedited essay form. The rough draft that twists and turns and goes wildly off topic. Deviates.

I’d take a breath to sip some of the tea she always brought me. And in those few moments where I wasn’t carrying on because I was drinking the tea, she’d hit me with truth bombs I wasn’t expecting.

“Well, that’s pretty common for people who have had abusive childhoods, that behavior,” she said in one such pause after I’d been off on a tangent about stuff I was struggling with.

According to the notes I wrote in my private journal after that session, I almost choked on the tea when she said that (it didn’t help that my sinuses were congested and my throat was swollen from crying, I was always a leaky faucet in therapy). “Are you saying I had an abusive childhood?” I asked, stunned.

She looked back at me with a look I interpreted as disbelief. “Well, you were just saying that your mother used to slip raw hamburger into your plate at dinner and laugh at your horrified reaction, what do you think?”

I sighed. “I dunno. I was a difficult kid. I had a way of making her feel bad about herself, of making her look like a bad mother. That’s what she always said at least.”

“Well, that’s her truth,” Sue said. “You don’t have to believe it. Do you think the things your mother did were something an adult should do?”

I shook my head. “No, it was immature. But she was like that. She acted like a 12-year-old. She’d throw fits when she didn’t get her way. Insult or hit you. Set up an ‘accident’ where you got hurt and then blame you for it. Laugh.”

“And she made fun of your friends when they filled out, right?” Sue said. “Made fun of them gaining weight?”

I nodded. Maybe Sue didn’t like to write and hated public speaking, but no one could ever accuse her of having a bad memory. She rarely had to consult her notes in our sessions together.

“Do you think that’s something an adult should do?”

“I dunno,” I said. “I’m no parenting expert. I don’t even have kids.”

“Well, let’s put it another way,” Sue said. “Is that something you’d ever do to a kid?”

“No,” I said. “But I can’t get past the idea that I was immature, too. You know, I could be sassy, especially then. In middle school.”

“How old were you?”

I paused. Oh. “I was actually 12. Well, no, that’s not true. I was 11 when it started.”

“I want you to think about that,” Sue said. “If someone else told you they expected that an 11-year-old girl should act more mature than a 30-something woman when they were in conflict, what would you say to that? Would you think that was fair?”

I sat for a while with that question. It took me a while to answer it in session, but even after I’d left her office, I was thinking about it for days. Answering it over and over again, in different ways. Most of the time, the answer was “of course not.” But other times, I could feel myself leaping to my mother’s defense. Running her half of things in my head on an endless loop. I wanted to cut the ribbons of the tape that was playing, but it was hard. So hard.

One night later that week, Justin happened upon me curled up in our bed, crying.

“What’s up? “he asked.

“Therapy’s kicking my ass,” I replied. “Don’t worry. I’ll still go. But I hate it and it hurts.”

It took me several weeks to fully internalize and accept the idea that I’d had an abusive childhood. For years, I’d been telling myself I was the problem. Even after authorities got involved, my mom got in trouble, and I started to stay with other families, she told relatives and anyone who would listen, really, that the arrangement was because of behavioral problems I was having. A stunning accusation since I rarely ever got in trouble at school and was considered largely a good kid by other families.

But people believed her and not me (I chose not to discuss it at all, the whole thing was too painful). Because she was the adult, and truth be told, I was kind of a wacky person, bohemian, offbeat, daring. It wasn’t a big leap in their minds that I’d be a hellion. Besides, most people would rather assume a kid is capable of being a brat than an adult is capable of abusing a child. In all fairness to them, I didn’t want to admit it to myself. How could I expect them to?

It had been an easier story to tell myself, that I was a bad kid, that I’d deserved the mistreatment. I preferred it to knowing that my mother, a person who others assumed would be my greatest supporter (“a face only a mother could love,” etc.), had been systematically taking me apart brick by brick. Because something about me challenged her. Threatened her. Deeply disappointed her. Simply by being who I was.

But I suddenly saw it for what it was. And it was horrible.

So there I was at 30, with this odd new identity that I didn’t want: Survivor of childhood abuse.

Don’t Feel Sorry for Me, I’m Fine, and I’ve Made the Most of It

Please don’t be sad for me, by the way. My childhood may have been abusive, but it’s also the only one I’ve ever known. It doesn’t feel like a tragedy to me or something gone wrong — it feels simply like what happened. I don’t know what it’s like to have parents who were my greatest allies. I literally don’t know what I was missing.  And I found love and support in other places, with other relatives, in other families. It’s not quite the same, but it’s something.

I had a friend in college who actually did end up in foster care after her father killed her mother and went to prison, and… well, I know you’re not supposed to compare scars, and that it’s not helpful for most people to frame it that way… But, look, her adolescence was way worse than mine. She didn’t have friends’ parents or teachers or other people that stepped in, not the way I did. So in some ways I feel fortunate that I made friends easily and found other families who liked me and would let me crash there. And that I wasn’t stuck in foster homes that were the stuff of nightmares.

I think the greater problem with being abused as a child was that it prepared me to be an easy mark for people with abusive tendencies. My love life when taken as a collective whole has been full of unmitigated disaster. And I’ve been harmed so many times by people I trusted completely that I’m amazed that I can actually still have healthy relationships with other people.

I’ll admit it’s been a struggle, to put it lightly (much of which I’ve written about), and I’ve only recently built up the proper defenses, in the past five years or so. But you know, I’m in not one but two great relationships right now, and I have a ton of awesome friends. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.

Look for Emotional Immaturity

The self-work has also actually borne a lot of fruit, once I stopped blaming myself for everything that went wrong in those relationships (while still acknowledging that I’m not perfect). As an adult, I can easily spot people with strong abusive tendencies with incredible accuracy. I’m actually rarely surprised when something particularly ugly comes to light about someone in the kink or poly communities. Or in Hollywood. Or wherever, really.

Looking back on every person that ever abused me, they all have one common thread: They are big fucking babies. And by that, I mean that they’re emotionally immature. They’re the ones who’ll act like their arm has been amputated when they get a paper cut.

And not only do they hurt, but they also take that pain as their truth and use it as justification to act however they want. Never stopping to consider the consequences or the nuance of anything. The bigger picture. Pain is their crusade, their all-access permit to absolution for any crimes they’re about to commit.

This tell has served me well, because you can find it in abusive people of any gender, any D/s role, any mono/poly/ambi affiliation.

You can even use this tell to find the abusers that hide among the white knights and abuse advocates.

Notably, several years ago, an active sexual assault victim’s advocate in one of my social circles went on to molest someone, egregiously violating someone else’s sexual consent in front of multiple witnesses. A person that was positively evangelical about consent. She had this tell, too — she was a big fucking baby.

Childlike and Sensitive Versus Childish and Immature

Make no mistake: I really like sensitive people. People who approach the world with childlike wonder, stars in their eyes. People who feel things deeply and love even more deeply. But they need to be mature, too.

Childlike is lovely — but I can’t stand childish people, who can’t understand that other people have wants and needs of their own. Who throw tantrums when they’re not catered to, responding to disappointment with threats, ultimatums, games. People who can’t be adults when they need to be, who are intent on being both utterly dependent on someone else for their need fulfillment and totally in control at the same time. Who feel like it’s their right to behave like a child in every conflict.

Sometimes it can take a little while for someone to show you that face, but if you watch carefully, you’ll see it. Even if it’s something that they can’t admit to themselves (because they’re babies, and babies rarely, if ever, accept responsibility).

And people like that are incredibly dangerous. They’ll make your life a living hell.

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Please note: Whether someone opts to engage in consensual age play, act as a little, etc., has nothing to do with this phenomenon. Affected and actual immaturity are different things.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this! I too have struggled with accepting that I was abused by my mother, having to get past defending her to recognize the abuse. I too owe that recognition to a therapist, one who said to me, “Of course you want to defend your mother. She was the only mother you had, and she probably did love you to the extent that she was capable of loving anyone. But you need to turn your focus away from her for a while and allow yourself to grieve for the motherless child you were.” I’m still at work on this – at the age of 70, I’m nearly finished with a book I began 15 years ago (3 years after her death) about her mental illness, my experience of growing up with that, and what the mother-daughter bond can look like in these circumstances. It’s part memoir, part imaginative biography – and just to mix things up a little – part fantasy about two little wild girls, she and I in some alternate reality.

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