Scapegoat Relationship Challenges – Transcending the Legacy of Hurt



by Glynis Sherwood MEd

Many people who were scapegoated by family during childhood grow into strong adults who are capable of forming loving and supportive relationships.  For a significant minority of scapegoats however, relationships – with themselves and others – are challenged by ongoing problems with trust, self worth, shame and healthy boundaries.  Read on to discover roadblocks to self worth and assertiveness, and how to overcome recurring victimization.


What is Family Scapegoating?

Scapegoating is a form of systemic abuse where one or more family members are blamed and shamed for problems and dysfunction within the family system as a whole.   Family bullying undermines the identity and self worth of a developing child, and can stunt potential in adulthood.  The long term consequences of this abuse include anxiety, depression, low self esteem, underachievement, addictive behaviors and relationship difficulties.


In scapegoating families, ‘love’ – if it exists – is withheld and always conditional.  A climate of emotional deprivation and invalidation by one or more parent figures and/or siblings can lead to chronic low self worth in the target.  Parents who initiate or tolerate scapegoating tend to be emotionally absent/unreliable, narcissistic, addicted or otherwise mentally unhealthy.


Relationship Challenges


It’s not unusual for people who have been scapegoated since childhood to struggle with personal, work or school relationships.  The disruption of healthy attachment bonds, especially with parental figures, can lay the foundation for interpersonal difficulties.  Scapegoated children rarely feel emotionally safe because they are unable to trust the people they depend upon and, consequently, may harbor doubt that they are good enough to be truly loved.  Scapegoated children and adults may suffer from chronic insecurity in relationships – especially intimate relationships – due to this emotional betrayal and ongoing lack of support by their family caregivers.


Sadly, scapegoats can be magnetically attracted to people who repeatedly neglect, abuse or otherwise victimize them, which bolsters shame and self blame.  By falling into a recurring victim role in intimate relationships or friendships, they unconsciously reinforce their scapegoat identity, as this is ‘the devil they know’.  Human beings have an innate tendency to be drawn towards relationships that feel familiar, regardless of how unsound those relationships might be.  If a scapegoated person believes they are worthless, they are vulnerable to gravitating towards relationships that reinforce this feeling, even though on a conscious level, all scapegoats long for love and acceptance.


Scapegoats often have challenges with trust, and may repeatedly ‘test’ people who value them to prove they care.  Unfortunately this can unintentionally lead to the desertion they fear, thereby ‘proving’ they are flawed.  Scapegoats can be constitutionally defensive, and react defiantly towards people in positions of authority who may wish to help them, as authority in their families was a weapon that was wielded against them.  When relationships break down like this, people who have been scapegoated don’t get the help and support they need, leading to isolation and fear, as the rejection they experience confirms their worst fears about themselves and others.  In this way, the revictimization of scapegoats becomes an unconscious self fulfilling prophecy.


Scapegoats’ relationship challenges can be further aggravated by difficulty managing emotions, especially hurt and anger.  They may tend towards feeling anxious and overwhelmed, or shut down and numb.  Due to unmet childhood attachment needs, scapegoats may live in fantasy worlds where they dream of being rescued by an ideal parent, family, lover or therapist.  They can become infatuated and over-involved with intimate partners or friends of the same gender as the scapegoating parent, potentially leading to mistreatment and tolerance of abuse by the idealized friend or partner.


To varying degrees most targets believe the destructive myths they were told – that they are defective and responsible for the scapegoater’s problems and happiness.  This internalized scapegoating – aka the ‘Judge’ or ‘Inner Critic’ – is the most harmful aspect of scapegoating, if targets come to believe they are fundamentally flawed and irredeemable.


Scapegoating early in life – when self identity is being formed – leads to low self worth as targets are taught they are bad, inadequate and unlovable.  When viewed as an unquestionable ‘truth’ by the scapegoat, this becomes an unconsciously held belief that undermines their psychological well being.  More insidiously, targets may look to their abusers – who have the ‘proof’ that they are bad – to redeem them, leading to a cycle of destructive dependency. 


Scapegoated children are at risk of becoming adults who lack a true sense of their identity, their value as people, or a blueprint for healthy relationships.  Targets can be further undermined by feelings of disinterest in, rather than attraction to, psychologically sound relationships as they seem boring.


Signs of Relationship Problems with Self and Others Due to Scapegoating:


  1. Inner Scapegoating – False self blame and guilt due to projection by character disordered, addicted or psychologically unhealthy family members.  Targets are accused of scapegoaters’ behavior, leading to internalized scapegoating, low self worth and abandonment anxiety.
  2. Over or under-involvement with an intimate partner or friend due to attachment trauma.  Can fluctuate between clinging and avoidant behavior.
  3. Trust Issues – Difficulty knowing what is right or good for oneself in relationships, or how to recognize healthy relationship potential in others.  Being suspicious or on guard and testing people.  Being rejected by people who tire of being tested, thereby confirming the scapegoat’s worst fear that they are unlovable and will inevitably be rejected if they pursue intimacy.
  4. Defensive or Submissive Boundaries – Two Polarities:  1/ Haughtiness – Arrogance, difficulty with authority.  A defiant, mistrustful attitude.  Overly guarded, suspicious or mistrustful behavior;  2/ Doormat Syndrome – Fawning behavior triggered by an attempt to over-compensate for low self esteem and/or fear.  Overly compliant with domineering people.  Passivity, tolerating abuse or neglect, having a double standard towards self – e.g. care take others, but neglect self.  Target opens up too quickly, or to inappropriate people (e.g. confides in the parent who abused them about personal or relationship problems)
  5. Personality Disorder Problems in the Target of Scapegoating – Especially Narcissistic, Borderline or Dependent Personality Disorders.  Personality disorders are destructive, hard wired character traits that stem from childhood abuse and neglect.  Personality Disorders are difficult to overcome and require long term, specialized therapeutic approaches.  People with personality disorders typically do not seek treatment as they view others as being responsible for their problems.  In order to heal from the damage of family scapegoating, it is essential to treat the disorder.  (Click here for more in depth information about personality disorders )
  6. Interpersonal Relationship Problems Fueled by Fantasy, Intensity and Drama – 1/   Love or Friendship Addiction – Seeking self worth from relationships. Choosing partners or friends who are not available emotionally, unreliable and hurtful, like family scapegoaters.  Obsessing about an intimate partner. Panic if abusive or negligent partner or friend threatens to – or ends – the relationship.  2/  Codependency – Avoiding oneself by focusing on ‘fixing’ and controlling people with serious problems who may be similar to the parent(s) who abused or neglected them, thereby feeling both useful, superior and resentful at the same time.  3/  Sex Addiction – Self medicate pain and temporarily boost esteem through compulsive sex with people you either don’t know, like or trust, and/or don’t care about.  May include humiliating, punitive or otherwise shame based sex acts.


Trauma Bonds – Bonding with the Abuser


Trauma Bonds occur when love and abuse are paired, especially during early childhood development. When children are raised by caregivers who scapegoat, hurt or neglect them, love and abuse become fused together.  Over time this association – that love and pain fit together – becomes hard wired, creating a Trauma Bond.  Accordingly, targets may be attracted to others who have the potential to hurt them, as this feels normal and exciting.


Although most targets long for a loving connection with others, they may find it difficult to feel attracted to someone unless more subtle abuse dynamics are present, meanwhile rationalizing or denying that this is problematic.  Examples of small ‘a’ abuse dynamics include domination, neglect, expectation of care giving from the target without reciprocation, submissive behavior, unjustified self sacrifice, and an atmosphere of fear or insecurity in the relationship.  In scapegoating families, trauma bonds are the norm.


Signs and Patterns of Trauma Bonds


Signs in Families:  Parents are shallow and self absorbed.  They expect their offspring to make them happy, and become resentful and hostile when children are unable to accomplish this unreasonable feat.  These parents are unreliable, have a tendency to lie, break promises and distort reality to get their way, and lack accountability for their behavior.  Scapegoated children monitor their parents for signs of approval or disapproval and adjust their behavior by giving up on their needs, in order to appease their parent(s), lower abandonment anxiety or to not feel invisible.


Patterns in Adult Relationships:  The Scapegoat is drawn to relationships that initially may feel good but eventually become hurtful.  As these relationships feel  ‘familiar’, the scapegoat is prone to confuse traumatic attachment for healthy bonds, and the cycle of neglect and abuse continues.  Scapegoats are at further risk of psychological injury as – just like in their family relationships – they tend to blame themselves, or are blamed by others, when they can’t make toxic relationships work.

Scapegoats in trauma bonded relationships feel a lot of anguish, but are also usually stuck and have difficulty detaching.  They can’t let go of hurtful relationships due to abandonment fears that arise when they try and break free.  The scapegoat puts up with repetitive, damaging relationship conflicts, due to normalizing pain, self blame and seeing themselves as defective.  Scapegoats may pull back from traumatically bonded relationships out of desperation and despair, then panic, minimize the hurt and return to abusive relationships.  This unstable yo-yo behavior leads to more self doubt and anxiety, as they view themselves as weak.  Scapegoats hold on to destructive relationships by selectively ‘forgetting’ the abuse and focusing on the fantasy.  The fantasy is fueled by unmet childhood needs for healthy attachment bonding with parent(s).  Traumatically bonded relationships are hurtful, but it feels even more terrifying to leave.


Adults with a history of abuse, neglect or scapegoating are quite vulnerable to pursuing trauma bonds.  By focusing on fantasy, driven by profoundly unmet relationship bonds with parent(s), scapegoats deny the reality and re-injury of hurtful relationships.  Rather than seeing the truth regarding the limitations of the person they are obsessed with, they idealize them and condemn themselves for not being able to make the relationship work.  People who fall into adult trauma bonds are seeking to be rescued from their painful childhoods, and crave validation from others in an attempt to escape the shame that defines them.  Unfortunately they gravitate – like moths to flames – towards people who belittle, criticize and reject them, thereby confirming rather than eliminating the shame based identity they long to be liberated from.  Traumatically bonded relationships are always both ensnaring and destructive.


The Way Out


Overcoming relationship challenges, including trauma bonds, requires the ability to detach emotionally from toxic relationships and rescue fantasies while focusing on building a stronger sense of self.  This necessitates both the ability to tolerate difficult feelings stirred up by abandonment anxiety, while facing the ‘reality’ of the toll of unhealthy relationships on oneself – i.e.  continued shame, hurt, desperation, loneliness, betrayal and conflict.  Targets of family scapegoating must learn to identify and trust their feelings and perceptions.  For example, learning to view painful feelings as signals to withdraw from abusive relationship dynamics, rather than turning on themselves and feeling obliged to stay and ‘fix’ the problem.  Scapegoats must learn to stand up to shame and focus on healing themselves first, as their psychological well being depends on it.


Scapegoats must also do the one thing they were never encouraged to do in their abusive families – take themselves seriously.  This requires being able to stop taking the bait of fear, false blame, obligation and guilt.  Scapegoats must learn to say ‘No’, even if it doesn’t feel right.  Over time, the capacity to say ‘No’ to undermining relationship dynamics begins to build self worth as the scapegoat is choosing to treat themself with dignity and self respect.


Scapegoats must learn to admit to themselves that they can’t win – and have never won – the game of relationship abuse and neglect.  This will require setting limits, including curtailing interacting with people who insist on mistreating them.  By focusing on themselves and setting healthier boundaries, over time scapegoats begin to develop an internal locus of control, a self protective stance and a heightened sense of self worth.  Scapegoats in painful relationships must constantly remind themselves of reality – that their painful feelings are warning signs they must trust, that love doesn’t hurt, and that abuse, control and neglect have no place in relationships.


Scapegoats must also be willing to look outside the bubble of fantasy to see who they are dealing with.  They need to understand that people who attack their character and self worth are the enemy, and not ‘evidence’ of their shortcomings.


As scapegoats begin to observe, rather than absorb the harmful projections of others, they start to recognize when they are being manipulated and mistreated in relationships.  They also begin to discover what feels healthy in relationships.  By attending to triggers and negative beliefs that stir up feelings of humiliation and self loathing, they can care for themselves by withdrawing from abusive relationships, and let go of false shame, thereby freeing themselves to grieve their traumatic losses and become the whole people they were meant to be.  Healthy relationship bonds stem from a foundation of strong self identity, and building a supportive relationships with oneself.


Photo Credit – Mrs. Noyseno – PhotoPin



Scapegoating in Families: Intergenerational patterns of physical and emotional abuse, Dr Vimala Pillari, Philadelphia, PA, US: Brunner/Mazel, 1991

Child Abuse: Pathological Syndrome of Family Interaction, Arthur Green, Richard Gaines and Alice Sandgrund, The American Journal of Psychiatry, 2015


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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor (BC), specializes in recovery from Attachment Trauma, Family Scapegoating, Low Self Worth, Anxiety, Depression, Complicated Grief, Relationship Challenges and Addictive Behaviors.