Early Signs of An Abusive Relationship
Sep. 20, 2017
Published: Sep. 18, 2017
Book Review by Zinta Aistars (see original)
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Berkley Trade, 2003
In the United States alone, two to four million women are physically and emotionally assaulted by their partners. At least one out of three American women will be a victim of abuse by a husband or boyfriend in her lifetime. And while all physical violence in relationships includes a strong element of emotional violence, there are still more relationships in which emotional abuse alone is the weapon of choice. It is the latter that can be so difficult to detect from the outside looking in, so easy for the abuser to hide not only from others, but even to rationalize to himself. Yet the damage done from emotional abuse, with or without the physical component, is far more injurious in the long run and far more complex to heal.
Author Lundy Bancroft was former co-director of Emerge, the first program specifically created for abusive men in the United States. He has worked extensively with abusive men for nearly two decades and has frequently been expert witness in the legal system involving abuse cases.
Bancroft outlines the early warning signs of an abusive man; ten abusive personality types; the role of addiction in abuse; what can and cannot be changed in abusive men; and how to get out of an abusive relationship safely.
One of the most frequently accepted myths, even by therapists, is that the abusive man’s partner is in some part accountable for the abuse—if only as “enabler.” First among 17 myths Bancroft dispels in his book is that the victim of the abuser plays any part whatsoever in the abusive behavior of her partner. Bancroft writes:
“Part of how the abuser escapes confronting himself is by convincing you that you are the cause of his behavior, or that you at least share the blame. But abuse is not the product of bad relationship dynamics, and you cannot make things better by changing your own behavior or by attempting to manage your partner better. Abuse is a problem that lies entirely within the abuser.” (pg. 19)
If Bancroft’s book hammers home nothing more this one truth, then it is worth its weight in gold. Today’s therapists and many modern-day books of relationship self-help commonly advise that it “takes two to tango,” that both partners are accountable—yet Bancroft dismantles this theory and illustrates time and again how an abusive man is an entity in himself. The victim’s only role in this dynamic is to protect herself, and, ultimately, to leave the relationship as the abuse usually only escalates—not only over the length of that particular relationship, but also over a lifetime of relationships in which the abuser is a partner. The longer (and more intimate) the relationship, the more his abusive behavior has time to surface and escalate.
One by one, Bancroft invalidates all the common excuses an abuser will inevitably use. The exploded myths are:
While many of these circumstances may indeed apply, none of these are excuses or even causes for his behavior. Dealing with any of these issues, while that may be otherwise helpful to him as a troubled individual, will not have any lasting affect on his abusive behavior. In fact, dealing with any of these issues first and foremost, rather than dealing directly with his thought patterns, can and often does aggravate his abusiveness.
What Bancroft proves with admirable ease and inarguable clarity, building block by block, is that the abusive man is not only in complete control of his behavior, but that he chooses to behave as he does because he feels justified and he enjoys the control he yields. He takes pleasure in controlling another human being and having her at the beck and call of his ego—most often, in the form of multiple affairs, some of which may or may not be abusive in nature (yes, an abuser can be nice to some while cruel to others, evidence of the control he has over his behavior).
In his mind, this man has built himself up to be supremely entitled. Therapy will not work on him, because it is not his underlying emotions that are the core issue, but his thinking process. That is, his lack of a healthy value system, his lack of empathy for the person he abuses, his general disrespect for women. It may or may not be that he had a rough childhood with poor role models. But somewhere along the way, the abuser made a choice to be who he is, and the rewards of his abuse are too great for him to want to make the necessary changes. He will resist changing, will often insist change is “impossible” for him, and is expert at listing endless reasons and excuses why he remains as he is. “He may hide what he does because he thinks other people would disagree with it, but he feels justified inside.” (pg. 35)
Hand in hand with abuse is the abuser’s compulsive lying. He not only lies to his partner, but he lies to himself. Always concerned with the image he presents to the public, he often rewrites his own history and presents a whitewashed version of himself and his life to others. Over time, he becomes so convinced of his own lies that he can even be capable of passing a lie detector test. Why sweat it if you believe it? In his mind, how he behaves is based on acceptable reason. Even as the truth is put irrefutably on the table, he will insist on his own “truth” at any cost.
Typically we hear of abuse being handed down from generation to generation, i.e. the abused becomes the abuser. Bancroft argues this is not genetic as much as it is observed and, in adult years, chosen behavior: “… research has shown that men who have abusive mothers do not tend to develop especially negative attitudes toward females, but men who have abusive fathers do; the disrespect that abusive men show their female partners and their daughters is often absorbed by their sons … the great majority exhibit a more subtle—though often quite pervasive—sense of superiority or contempt toward females, and some don’t show any obvious signs of problems with women at all until they are in a serious relationship.” (pg. 41) The casual and short-lived relationship may allow him to keep his charming mask intact, but the more longstanding and serious a relationship, the more the abuser shows his true colors.
Bancroft explains the dangers of therapy with abusers, why it escalates abuse rather than alleviates it in the long run. “You can’t manage an abuser except for brief periods. Praising him and boosting his self-opinion may buy you some time, but sooner or later he’ll jump back into chewing pieces out of you. When you try to improve an abuser’s feelings about himself, his problem actually tends to get worse. An abusive man expects catering, and the more positive attention he receives, the more he demands. He never reaches a point where he is satisfied, where he has been given enough. Rather, he gets used to the luxurious treatment he is receiving and soon escalates his demands … The self-esteem myth is rewarding for the abuser, because it gets his partner, his therapist, and others to cater him emotionally.” (pg. 43)
It is no accident that many if not most abusers have problems with pornography use and cheating on their partners. Pornography is based on objectifying women, building the sense of justification in the mind of the abuser for his behavior toward women, who are, in his mind, more object than human, not worthy of respect or empathy, and exist merely for his pleasure.
“Objectification is a critical reason why an abuser tends to get worse over time. As his conscience adapts to one level of cruelty—he builds to the next. By depersonalizing his partner, the abuser protects himself from the natural human emotions of guilt and empathy, so that he can sleep at night with a clear conscience. He distances himself so far from her humanity that her feelings no longer count, or simply cease to exist.” (pg. 63)
Bancroft sums it all up: “Abuse and respect are diametric opposites: You do not respect someone whom you abuse, and you do not abuse someone whom you respect.” (pg. 64)
And where there is no respect, there is no love. While many abused women stay in abusive relationships even after the abuse surfaces time and again, hoping for change that never happens, Bancroft reminds us that respect is the necessary ground floor on which love is built.
“The more a man abuses you, the more he is demonstrating that he cares only about himself. He may feel a powerful desire to receive your love and caretaking, but he only wants to give love when it’s convenient.” (pg.64)
The abusive man may not consciously be lying when he tells his partner he loves her, but he is probably unable to recognize the emotion of real love. He easily confuses it with a “powerful stirring” that is actually nothing more than having a desire for a partner “who devotes her life to keeping him happy, a desire for sexual access, a desire to impress others by having you as his partner, and his insatiable desire to possess and control you. It is not that the abuser is incapable of genuine love,” Bancroft says, as much as it is his inability to “really see you.” (pg. 65)
With all this confusion in abusive relationships about what is and isn’t genuine love, Bancroft offers: “Genuine love means respecting the humanity of the other person, wanting what is best for him or her, and supporting the other person’s self-esteem and independence. This kind of love is incompatible with abuse and coercion.” (pg.65)
Another reason therapy fails so miserably with the abusive man is because he is a practiced liar—a form of emotional abuse in itself—and cannot be relied upon to be honest with himself, let alone his therapist. Bancroft writes of his experiences in programs that do work with abusive men, and how initially very few of them will admit to how extensive their abuse has been. While all will admit, quite freely, in fact, to some of their abuse, few if any will admit to its full extent. They may also have so justified it in their own minds that they no longer recognize it as abuse. Regrettably, it is a rare therapist who will contact the abused partner for her side of the story (something Bancroft and the Emerge program always does), which will inevitably vary radically from his. It is impossible to treat what one does not know. Without checking on their stories, too many therapists inadvertently validate the abuser and help rather than defer his faulty thinking.
Most abusers cheat on their partners; it is a large part of their sense of entitlement. Bancroft refers to this type of abuser as “The Player.” He is extremely needy of female attention. Charming and flirtatious when he chooses to be, he plays his women, friends and lovers, against each other, all to serve his ego. His tactic is to tell each of his women how the others have mistreated him, eliciting each one’s support and validation. He uses women with no regard for the effect of his behavior on them. He will blame past breakups on the women rather than to take responsibility for the common denominator: himself. It is not uncommon for this type of abuser to claim that he was the abused one, and that if he ever reacted in abusive manner, it was surely her fault. She had it coming to her.
An abuser is, however, neither monster nor victim, Bancroft states. He has two sides to his personality, distinct as Jekyll and Hyde, and so his partner will hang onto the relationship sometimes for many years, pinning her hopes to his “good” side and suffering through the bad. He is fully capable of being a good and loving man. The point is… he chooses not to be. By adulthood, the manipulative and controlling behavior he learned from various sources growing up—key male role models, peers, and pervasive cultural messages—has become so deeply integrated that he acts largely on automatic. “He knows what he is doing but not necessarily why.” (pg. 113)
Bancroft lists red flags for women potentially entering into or already in abusive relationships to protect themselves:
Bancroft discusses in great detail what is and is not abusive behavior (we can all be abusive on occasion, but watch for ongoing patterns that will not change even when confronted about the behavior) and how to respond. He lists typical responses that indicate you are dealing with an abuser (the abuser commonly tells you that you are being “too sensitive” when his hurtful remarks reach their mark). Bancroft also describes the “gaslighting” effect the abuser uses on his victim, constantly traveling back and forth between good guy and bad guy to keep you unsettled and confused. He will take back words he said one moment, only to tell you in the next that is not at all what he meant, causing his partner to question her sense of judgement. He is expert at mind games.
Skeptical of change, Bancroft advises skepticism in the victim not yet ready to leave, and describes, again, what to watch for in the abuser to detect that his apologies and promises to change might actually be sincere. To begin with, he states, the abuser who is sincerely remorseful will not put a timeline on the expression of your hurt and anger, “giving you some extended room to be angry about what he did, rather than telling you that you’ve been angry too long or tying to stuff your angry feelings back down your throat,” nor will he make excuses or try to offer rationalizations for his behavior. (pg. 133) If he complains that your “grievances” take too long and tells you to “get over it,” he has not yet taken responsibility for his behavior and is showing a lack of readiness to change.
In spite of abuse, many partners of abusers have a very difficult time leaving. In explanation of this bond between abuser and abusee, Bancroft discusses why it is actually more difficult to leave an abusive relationship than a normal relationship that has run its course. “The longer you have been living with his cycles of intermittent abuse and kind, loving treatment, the more attached you are likely to feel to him, through a process known as traumatic bonding.” The longer you stay, Bancroft warns, the harder it becomes to leave. His advice is to leave sooner than later, especially if children are involved. (pg.134)
Bancroft gives recommendations for finding help (legal advice, support groups, therapy for the abused partner, which he suggests the abuser should pay for as part of making amends), from checking with the source to uncover deceit (he strongly suggests women involved with these men to check with each other rather than to accept his side of the story), to hotlines and organizations to assist women in abusive relationships.
“If I were asked to select one salient characteristic of my abusive clients, an aspect of their nature that stands out above all others, I would choose this one: They feel profoundly justified. Every effort to reach an abuser must be based on the antidote to this attitude: Abuse is wrong; you are responsible for your own actions; no excuse is acceptable; the damage you are doing is incalculable; your problem is yours alone to solve.” (pg. 376)
Why Does He Do That? is a comprehensive book offering much good advice and a deeper understanding of the abusive relationship. Bancroft concludes with a call to action for society—to not look the other way when we see abusive behavior, to offer support to abused partners, to take a second look at the kind of behavior we encourage with the current trend to objectify women. Awareness and sensitivity to this epidemic of domestic violence (and make no mistake, emotional abuse, too, should be considered violence) can go a long way to eliminating it.