“Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, love is lacking.” ~Carl Jung
Abuse can occur between any two people and can take the form of physical assault, psychological manipulation, damage to one’s self-esteem, humiliation, verbal mistreatment, or sexual assault. Abusers can be men or women. I’m sharing this small chapter from my book, “MiXED NUTS or What I’ve Learned Practicing Psychotherapy” (It’s one of the few chapters in the book that contains no humor) in the hope that it might help an abuse victim.
The longer you put up with abuse, the harder it is to walk away.
When I work with abused women, my job is to convince them that the abuser won’t change, and all she can do is get out. It’s not an easy thing for her to accept. Her self-esteem is at rock bottom. Deep down, she doesn’t believe she deserves better than this. She’s afraid that no one else will ever love her. She’s afraid of what her partner might do if she should leave. She wants to believe his excuses. She wants to believe that their love is so special that it will somehow get them through this.
No abuser starts abusing on the first date.
First, he must win you over. Then, he must wear down your self-esteem. No one with a healthy sense of self-esteem allows abuse. The most effective and least detectable way to lower self-esteem is to poke fun of some weakness or mistake. He does it in the spirit of “only kidding” or teasing but it becomes a running joke that subtly affects you, makes you feel defective, less lovable. Abusers usually have control issues, so the abuser now begins “correcting” you, in the guise of helping or teaching you something. Correcting soon becomes criticizing and adds to the further deterioration of your self-esteem.
People with controlling personalities unconsciously enjoy the superior feeling that they get from correcting and criticizing others but pretending to teach or tease minimizes the chance of negative consequences.
I should make it clear that most people with controlling personalities are not abusive, but most abusers have controlling personalities. Some abusers suffer from antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.
The mental health field has an abysmal record of “fixing” abusers.
That’s because controlling another person is a deeply-seated need for controllers. The act of abusing becomes a primary source of the perpetrator’s self-esteem and gratification. Domestic violence offenders are often forced by the courts into mental health counseling, but they simply learn to say whatever will satisfy the counselor. It’s important to understand that the abuser feels guilty of no wrongdoing. In his heart, he believes that even his worst abuse is a normal and natural reaction.
Another factor that prevents change is that losing one’s temper becomes a habit. It’s like a drug. It is a great feeling of release – a rush – for the person who is losing his temper. Once you give yourself permission to express rage against another human being and get away with it, no one can take it away.
Blaming is a common aspect of abuse.
Abusers take no responsibility for any of their wrong actions. They see every abusive act as a natural response to something their victim did, failed to do, said, or failed to say. Catch an abuser with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar and he’ll tell you he was forced to do it because you didn’t give him any cookies. All abusers want you to believe that you can stop the abuse by changing yourself.
How many women have told me that their spouse “warned” them that, if they said “one more word,” he wouldn’t be responsible for the outcome? Then, of course, the abused spouse says something and gets hit and tells me how it was, ultimately, her fault because he warned her.
Bullshit! There is nothing my wife could say to me, nothing my wife could do to me that would make me hit her or be emotionally abusive to her. She could get me to walk away. That’s all.
Other common aspects of abuse are manipulation and guilt. Abuse victims eventually reach the point where they want and need the approval and love of their abusers. This is often a huge factor in why they stay and tolerate the abuse. Abusers are motivated solely by their own self-interests. If you want to know why an abuser said or did anything, ask yourself how it benefited him. Abusers are incapable of loving another person in any meaningful way. But they are experts at using their victim’s need for attention and affection to manipulate them.
It’s important to understand that, while abusers are incapable of loving others, they’re incapable of loving themselves, also.
Abusers need to feel superior.
They will obsessively find fault, teach, correct and criticize.
There is an unspoken agreement in every successful, healthy relationship: “I’m not perfect, and you’re not perfect. I’ll live with your imperfections if you can live with mine. I prefer to go through this life with you.”
In an unhealthy relationship with control issues, the unspoken attitude is, “Here is perfect (hand held high) and here is you (hand held low). I’m going to devote my time and energy to pointing out the difference.”
Abusers often grew up with an abusive parent.
If Dad hit or attacked emotionally when he was angry, then a child learns that abuse is a normal expression of anger. Emotionally-healthy men learn the opposite lesson.
If you are in an abusive relationship, and you have kids, your kids are learning two lessons:
Being abusive is normal.
Tolerating abuse is normal.
Abusers often isolate their victims.
He doesn’t like your friends and family and does his best to sever or weaken your ties with them. He has worked very hard to get you under his control. An objective friend or relative who genuinely cares about you might see right through his game and ruin things for him.
Abusers apologize to minimize consequences.
It’s inconvenient to have to charm and train a new victim. Here is the “Cycle of Abuse”:
- Tension building phaseThis occurs prior to an overtly abusive act and is characterized by poor communication, passive aggression, rising interpersonal tension, and fear on the part of the victim. During this stage the victim may attempt to modify his or her behavior (“walking on eggshells”) to avoid triggering their partner’s outburst.
- Acting-out phase
Characterized by outbursts of abusive, sometimes violent, incidents. During this stage, the abuser attempts to dominate his or her partner, with the use of physical or emotional violence. This is the most destructive and hurtful part of the cycle.
- Reconciliation phaseCharacterized by affection, apology, or ignoring the incident. This phase marks what appears to be the end of the abuse, with assurances that it will never happen again, or that the abuser will do his or her best to change. During this stage, the abuser expresses feelings of remorse and sadness to minimize the possibility of consequences for his actions. Some abusers walk away from the situation with little comment, but many will shower the partner with love and affection. Some abusers may threaten self-harm to gain sympathy and prevent their victim from leaving the relationship. Abusers are frequently so convincing, and victims are so eager for the relationship to improve, that victims will stay in the relationship.Although it is easy to see the outbursts of the Acting-Out Phase as abuse, even the more pleasant behaviors of the Reconciliation phase perpetuate the abuse because the victim is now convinced that the relationship isn’t all bad, convinced that there is hope, and the abuser has successfully avoided any consequences for his actions.
This phase usually ends with a period of relative calm and peace before interpersonal difficulties inevitably arise, leading again to the tension building phase*.
* Some experts break the Cycle of Abuse down into as many as eight distinct parts. I prefer to help fix anal-retentiveness rather than practice it.
Abusers don’t abuse consciously.
They abuse automatically, which is worse. Where there is a conscious effort, there can be a conscious choice to stop. Automatic behaviors are not a matter of choice. The last breath you took was not a conscious choice. Abusers abuse as thoughtlessly as they breathe.
Like all controlling personalities, the abuser has little insight. He believes that his abuse is a perfectly normal reaction to his victim’s behavior.
While the abuser robs his victim’s self-esteem, he gains a huge dose of self-esteem from abusing. Apart from the satisfying rush he gets from losing his temper, the abuser feels clever and powerful when he manipulates his victim. In many cases, this is the only situation in the abuser’s life where he does feel clever or powerful.
Most abuse victims protect their abusive partners.
They do this by helping keep his ugly little secret. They often feel embarrassed to admit they’re in an abusive situation. It’s important to understand that when they keep abusive behavior a secret, the abuser wins. He stays in control. Victims need to confide in trusted friends and relatives. Tell them what is going on. In the long run, it’s an insurance policy. The abuser is limited as to how he can hurt you and what he can get away with when there are people in your life who know what’s going on.
There are women’s shelters in many areas that will work with abuse victims and help them to leave quietly and without incident. It’s worth looking into. It costs nothing to talk with people who understand and are there to help.