One of the hardest things for non-survivors to understand is the way that survivors of abuse defend their abusers. A common question I get asked is “How could you possibly think your parents were GOOD?”
To non-survivors, my situation looks simple. A father who plays pornographic video games with his seven-year-old daughter is a bad father. A mother who isolates her daughter from social support and starts physically punishing her and grooming her toward heterosexuality after she comes out as gay is an abusive mother. Parents who let cult members into the house and create cover stories to excuse ritual abuse don’t deserve sympathy when their adult children go no-contact.
Here’s the problem. People aren’t just born with an innate understanding of what love, intimacy, trust, goodness, and understanding are. Those things are supposed to be learned during infancy when a child is helpless but learns to trust that an adult will take care of them. Children who are abused by their primary caregivers have what is supposed to be their very first loving relationship marred with abuse. If the “care” a child received at their most vulnerable was infrequent, unreliable, or affected by shaming (ie: parents being disgusted with their baby/constantly angry at their baby for crying), then the baby never has anything positive to measure future relationships against or even to measure the parents’ behavior against. If the parents say “we love you more than anyone else in the world,” the child is going to believe that is true. If the parents say “other children get more love than you do because you’re worse than other children/more annoying than other children/less attractive than other children/less lovable than other children/etc.” then the child will believe that as well.
Unlearning that kind of message, especially when the child started learning it in infancy, is not as simple as hearing “you didn’t deserve it” and then going “oh wow, that’s such a revelation! My life is fixed now, thank you so much!” Sure, survivors need to be reminded that they deserved more love and care than they got, but asking a survivor to implicitly understand that on a deep, core level just because you say it to them sometimes is asking a bit much.
Infants actually need to emotionally attach to someone in their lives in a secure manner. This means that even if a parent is rejecting, sadistic, or otherwise abusive, the infant will still try to attach to this person. The child *needs* love from that person to avoid being left with literally nothing.
This is part of why abuse survivors often date abusers when they get older. They desperately need someone they can connect with, and abusers are more likely to offer instant relief than good partners. Good partners will want to gradually get to know the survivor and let intimacy develop naturally. Abusers will push for immediate trust and intimacy, which initially feels like fresh air to a survivor who lacks it from other sources. Beyond that, stigma against people with mental health issues and traumatic backgrounds can make good partners reluctant to give abuse survivors a chance. This can mean that abusers are much easier to form bonds with than “good people” are.
In addition to manipulating attachment needs (deliberately or unintentionally), abusive parents are rarely abusive 100% of the time. Some abusers financially support their survivors to keep them dependent, and other abusers will buy expensive “just because” gifts for their children, which leaves their children feeling indebted. Some abusers say “I love you; you’re wonderful” on odd numbered days or exhibit “good” behavior just some of the time, leaving survivors thinking that the abuse is just their parent reacting to stress or some passing problem that can be eventually overcome. Many survivors think they can figure out a rhyme or reason behind the “good days” and “bad days” to ensure that only good days happen from now on. That’s rarely actually possible, so survivors suffer.
Survivors aren’t dumb for believing their abusers are good or right. Those are common beliefs that can take a lot of work to overcome.