What makes a person become abusive? Most people would agree that people aren’t born abusive, but that they become that way. How does the path turn an innocent child into someone who abuses?
[A quick disclaimer: during this segment, I will be using masculine pronouns. I will be doing this for ease of writing. Also, while there are some women who are abusers out there, statistics show an overwhelming majority of abusers are men and therefore another reason while I will be writing this way]
How can you spot an abuser? It’s quite difficult. These men are typically very reputable in the community and charming to boot. They are smart, funny, successful and tend to be quite romantic. On the surface, it looks like a solid deal and it’s really no wonder why so many women are duped.
But as people get closer to these men, they begin to see some of the warning signs. What we find are some key characteristics. These men are:
- Manipulative, having a keen ability to twist words for his benefit, confuse you, guilt you, use emotions for his benefit and keep you on eggshells.
- Controlling, feeling he has the right to tell you what you can/can’t do, has a right to all the authority, limits you’re your personal freedoms, and makes all the decisions.
- Entitled, believing he truly is of more value than you. He expects all of his emotional, physical and sexual needs to be met whenever he wants, is deserving of respect and is immune to accountability. If he was a compass, you would be the needle always pointing north.
- Superior. In his eyes, you are inferior. It makes you into an object. You are less intelligent, competent and logical and more sensitive. He will depersonalize your humanity making it easier to chastise you as needed.
- Confused because they really do believe love and abuse are synonymous. He sees his role as one of controlling and fixing you and if he must use abuse as a means to correct your poor behavior, it’s only because he loves you.
- Reputable. These men are enraged at home and calm and serene in public. Selfish at home and generous elsewhere. Domineering at home while compromising with friends and colleagues. It helps him feel good about himself and to isolate the victim.
- Justified, truly excusing his abuse because you made him act that way. If you wouldn’t act so out of line and pushed me beyond what any man could handle, then this would not have happened.
- Minimizing, and sometimes outright denying of his abuse. His distorted thinking serves to protect his self-esteem and make the victim feel like she is losing her mind.
- Possessive, believing he owns his woman. This can sometimes manifest in extreme jealousy and isolating behavior, viewing other relationships for the victim as a threat to his domain. He will try to keep her away from sources of strength and under his rule.
All these traits considered, it’s quite easy to see how these relationships evolve through the cycle of violence and how these men are destroying women, relationships and themselves all over the world. It would be even easier then to paint a picture of these men as monsters, but I must interject that to do so will only exacerbate the problem. We must understand how and why these men have gotten to this point if we are to ever truly stand up for the cause of ending abuse.
These men are not monsters. Do not misunderstand me-what they do and the abuse they deliver is absolutely monstrous, but the individual himself is most definitely not a monster. Yet society puts such a strong stigma on an abuser, it actually causes more of a deterrent to the recovery process. If we can for a moment step into his world, we may get just enough empathy to know how to discerningly cause the proper change in our fight for non-violence and an end to abuse and healing for these men.
I am in my 5th year in working with abusive men and have come to understand more about how they develop into an abuser. I will attempt to provide just a short, generalized synopsis to increase understanding and empathy.
As children, these boys are typically in home environments that are toxic. A child is dependent on his caretaker to meet his needs as he is dependent in almost every sense of the word through much of his development. The parents are there to teach the children about the world, about relationships and about themselves. However, these young boys are typically exposed to parents who do not meet their needs and bring relief from stress, but are actually are the sources of the child’s stress. It causes a dilemma that is nothing short of chaos: “I need this parent to survive and they are an unsafe person”.
These boys very quickly learn that relationships are dangerous and destructive. The parent tends to have a very high need for control and a low tolerance for noncompliance due to poor emotional maturity, very low stress tolerance and few healthy coping skills. This often results in an exposure to physical, verbal and sexual abuse. For this child, connection is often unavailable or sporadic and very dangerous. This really just scratches the surface.
Now imagine being a tiny and somewhat helpless child in this environment and imagine how you might feel. Likely they would be constantly anxious at the least, that all familiar eggshells feeling some of us have grown to know. Knowing that relationships are something we learn from modeling, think about all the confusing messages you would learn about what a relationship is. Think about all the emotional damage the child would carry with him and how they would have very little access to any healthy coping skills as again, they were never taught any.
And now fast forward 20 and 30 and 40 and so on years and what do we see? We see adult boys who are still hurting and who feel helpless and are trying to find empowerment in the only way they ever learned.
As a reminder, I am in no way trying to excuse or stick up for these men who are abusive-the abuse is absolutely an atrocity. But we must, must, must as a society learn to find and understand the balance between something I always tell these men as they enter my Domestic Violence counseling program:
“Your wounds from childhood are NOT your fault, but is most DEFINITELY your responsibility”.
Can you see the fine line in there? We are not excusing the behavior-they must begin to accept responsibility for all that they have done and all of who they are, but if we right them off as a bad or stained person and attach the scarlet letter appropriately, it is only further worsening all of the wounds that they gained as innocent children and perpetuating all that they have experienced and believed, further entrenching them into a world of the abusive mindset.
I have seen the weight of shame these men carry around, screaming to be heard and understood as if they are still yelling at the caretakers who wounded them in the first place. I’ve seen grown men in my office weeping about how much they are hurting and how they carry around the voice of their father, continually taunting them all day wherever they go and whatever they do. These men need certain ingredients in order to make the healing transition from an abuser to a healthy and secure connector. Some of the most potent changes I have seen come from these men derive from an atmosphere of receiving validation, affirmation, significance, support, respect, safety and security. Inject that atmosphere with knowledge of what a healthy relationship is, proper coping skills such as emotion regulation, communication skills, self-control, boundaries and conflict resolution and we begin to see hopeful healing in these adult boys to grow into the men we always knew that they could be.
My hope is that we all can become more aware of domestic violence and how to avoid the cycle of violence and discern who is an abuser. But more than anything, if we can grow in understanding and empathy, I believe we will gain the necessary compassion and wisdom to truly step into a revolution to end domestic violence as spouses, as parents, as friends and as fellow humans and continue in the quest of redeeming true relationship.
Learn more about Phil Zaffos, MA, LPC & Heidi Zaffos, MA, LMFT, LPC and Foundation Counseling .