The Abusive Personality/Abusive Relationships

Excerpt from: WHY YOU DO THAT, by John B. Evans, PhD, LCSW

If you or someone you know is struggling with intimate partner abuse and/or violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 

1 (800) 799-7233 / Chat: THEHOTLINE.ORG / Text: “START†to 88788 

This description covers multiple levels of abusive patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior as experienced by both the abuser and the victim(s). Abusive traits are found in both men and women, but in relationships, they are much more common in men. 

Let’s start with a few facts: 

  • Most abusive relationships are not physically abusive—they are verbally and emotionally abusive. 
  • Physically abusive relationships usually begin with verbal and emotional abuse, and verbal and emotional abuse remains a part of physically abusive relationships.46 
  • The great majority of abusers are men.46 There are no shelters for battered men. 
  • Domestic violence will affect one in three women (American Medical Association).12 
  • More women suffer domestic violence than experience automobile accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.
  • Attacks by male partners are the number-one cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 (U.S. Surgeon General).12 
  • One in five teenagers has a violent experience while dating.77 
  • Five million children per year witness assaults on their mothers.12 
  • According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an average of about 20 people per minute are physically abused by their intimate partner in the United States. 
  • Each year, the city of Dallas, Texas, receives approximately 20,000 calls concerning domestic violence.
  • In 2018, 137 women worldwide were killed every day by intimate partners or relatives. About 87,000 women were killed worldwide in 2017, and 58 percent of them were victims of domestic or family violence.138 
  • There are societies where violence against women does not exist.52 

     Many of the calls I receive for couples counseling involve some level of abuse—usually verbal and emotional abuse, and usually on the part of the man. The great majority of abusers in relationships are men, the logical outcome in any male-dominated society where the man is considered to be the natural head of the household. While abuse does occur in heterosexual relationships where the woman is the perpetrator,52 these are unusual cases. Abuse also occurs in gay and lesbian relationships. Because abusive behavior presents itself in a multitude of ways, the reader is encouraged to read this chapter in its entirety. 

     I initially thought the large percentage of abusive relationships walking into my office was a fluke because, through 10 years of graduate school, two masters degrees and a PhD in the behavioral sciences, I never heard even one professor so much as mention the topic of abuse. I have wondered if tenured professors avoid the topic of abuse because so many tenured professors, male and female alike, are abusive to their students and they would be talking about themselves. Outside of relationships, such as work or academic environments, etc., I have witnessed considerable authoritarian power-trip abuse by women as well as men. The phrase “power corrupts†does describe many people. Many of us have experienced abuse at the hands of the owner or manager where we work or an instructor at school. Many abusers are equal-opportunity abusers and are somewhat abusive to almost everyone over whom they wield power. Other abusers seem to get their power- trip fix on just one or a few unfortunate victims. 

     Simply pointing out to the victims of abuse that people are free to get another job, change schools, or get a divorce ignores the complexities of actually doing so, and this is especially the case in abusive relationships. The longer an abusive relationship continues, and as the abuse escalates—as almost always happens—the more complex and difficult the relationship is to end,12 and this is the case if there are no children involved. Add children to the mix, and some women find themselves mired in severely abusive relationships with no financial resources, no one who understands their plight, and no apparent way out—and the children suffer as well. 

     It is not just the power surge and sense of dominance and control that drives the abuser, but also the privileges and special treatment they receive.12 An abused woman’s needs may be totally neglected as she caters to the needs of the abuser, justified by his assertions that she does not appreciate how difficult life is for him, how hard he works, and how tired he is. There is, however, help available for abused women who recognize the abuse and are willing to reach out. My primary goal as a therapist is to help victims of abuse begin to recognize that they are in an abusive relationship so they can begin to accept that the abuse is not their fault. Along with blaming her for the family’s problems, it is common for an abuser to eventually accuse the abused woman of abusing him. These are manipulative attempts to counter any accusations she has made against him in the past or might make against him in the future. Only with a very clear recognition and understanding of abusive behavior can the abused woman begin to deal more effectively with the abuser and seek the help that is available if necessary. 

     Maintaining power and control may be done in an overt manner, with threats of retaliation or physical harm, if she does not give in to his demands. But most abusers use an almost infinite variety of more subtle techniques to manipulate and control their partners. In cases of more serious verbal and emotional abuse, some level of physical abuse will likely occur in the future.12,46 More commonly than not, the manipulated and abused woman will not recognize the abuse for what it is, and she will blame herself for the problems in the relationship and family. 

What Abusers Do 

     Some abusers will try to control what their girlfriend or wife thinks, believes, says, or does by immediately disagreeing with her opinion on a regular basis, regardless of the triviality of the topic. The message the woman receives is that her opinions do not matter. The abuser may act as if his partner does not even have a right to an opinion. In some cases, before the partner even finishes her sentence, it is made clear to her that she is wrong, and through words or tone of voice, she is notified that the conversation is over. She may be made to feel like she should just stop thinking, which is essentially the abuser’s goal. A woman who feels totally inadequate and cannot think for herself will become less assertive and be less capable of leaving the abusive relationship. This style of abuse is demonstrated in the following discussion. Watch for these abusive techniques: 

  • Abuser denies his obvious anger. 
  • Abuser insults the woman. 
  • The woman’s opinion is completely disrespected. 
  • Legitimate disagreement is not allowed. 
  • The woman’s self-esteem and self-confidence are repeatedly degraded. 

She: The new skyscraper downtown is really changing the city’s quaint character. 

He: No, it’s not. It’s just different. You’re just thinking backward again. You always do that. You think like a child living in the Stone Age. 

She: I was just saying that a building that tall seems…

He: (raising his voice) The problem is, you keep thinking. Cut out that part, and you might make at least some sense. 

She: Why are you so angry? I was just… 

He: (Even louder) I’m not angry. You’re just telling me what to think again. You think you’re so smart. You think you know everything, and when I give my opinion, you just start another argument. Try listening sometimes. You might learn something, but I have my doubts. 

She: Well, it seems to me you are angry. Maybe I say things the wrong way sometimes, but when you raise your voice and… 

He: Yeah, it’s all me, isn’t it? You don’t seem to notice the harassment I have to live with every day whenever you feel like dishing it out. I think you live to complain and I’m always on the receiving end. I bust ass all day and come home, and dinner’s not ready half the time, and it usually tastes like crap anyway. And then I make the slightest mistake, and you just won’t let me forget it. You’re a fucking shit. Remember the time you… 

     In this example, the abuser angrily insults the woman while denying he is even angry, yet the woman wonders what she did to upset her husband. There are times when he is just so wonderful, and he never talks to other people that way. This kind of abuser may use any conversation to degrade their partner’s self-esteem and self-confidence. These abusive relationships may be completely devoid of any authenticity, empathy, and honest communication. If the abused woman makes an attempt to explain to the abuser that the way he treats her is painful, the abuser angrily changes the subject to a discussion of her faults and what he does not like about her. She is now the problem, and the discussion is now about her. He is the authority, and she is now subjected to a long list of trumped-up grievances against her. His retaliation techniques make it almost impossible for her to discuss her viewpoint. If the abuser does admit to some anger, he will make it her fault that he is angry—and the woman may never even realize that she was denied the chance to discuss her unhappiness with him. In most cases involving an abusive personality, virtually all interactions, whether he is being nice or abusive, are designed to manipulate the woman’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and her ability to think for herself and act on her own—all while having her stay in the relationship. There is no avenue toward a stable relationship, although the woman continues to believe she is in a committed relationship with the possibility of stability if she can just get her act together and stop upsetting him. He has convinced her that she is the problem—everything is her fault. 

The abuser may later deny her the right to revisit the issue by simply denying that the previous discussion or abusive event ever occurred. He simply states, “I never said (did) that,†possibly followed by, “You’re really starting to lose it,†or the seemingly milder, yet equally damaging, “Are you ok?†or, “Are you all right?†This abuse technique, if repeated often enough, may get the woman to question her own stability and sanity. Many abusers continue their denial of events right into my office, even denying severe physical abuse. 

     Until the abused woman recognizes the abuse for what it is and that the abuser will probably never allow a rational meeting of the minds, she will continue to experience ever-increasing stress and pain and ever- lower self-esteem and self-confidence. Without recognizing the abuse, there is little chance the woman will have the strength to stand up to the abuser or leave him. An abuser will make sure the woman understands, at some level, that her needs and desires are less important than his needs and desires. Abusers frequently choose women who have submissive personalities. Dependent and avoidant personalities, along with those raised in strict cultural or religious environments that promote the submissiveness and subservience of women, are well represented among the spouses or partners of abusers.  


     The unpredictable nature of some abusers creates additional tension in the abused woman’s life, as she never knows when the next round of abuse will begin or what will trigger it. After a period of relatively good times, during which some abusers come across as very loving boyfriends, husbands, or fathers, the abuser may gradually become increasingly critical of anything she does, no matter how trivial. At other times, during a seemingly normal discussion, the abuser may just explode in anger out of the blue for no apparent reason, leaving the abused woman no room to respond and, of course, wondering what she did to set him off. 

     What the abused woman does not know is that these random and unpredictable anger explosions are consciously calculated to confuse her as she struggles to figure out what she did to trigger his anger. The abuser knows that she will never suspect that he would treat her that badly for no reason. With repeated occurrences, an abused woman may begin to question her own stability and sanity. The sense that she is unstable increases her feelings of insecurity and incompetence. The abused woman’s ever-increasing insecurity and feelings of incompetence make it much less likely that she will have the strength to leave her abusive husband—which is precisely the abuser’s goal. 

     The tendency of some abusers to use unexpected anger and rage as a technique for ending any conversation or involvement they want to avoid may play itself out in the bedroom. One common scenario I hear involves husbands who only care about their own sexual satisfaction, not the woman’s. After having his needs met, any request by the woman may draw a tirade of accusations about her selfishness and sexual inadequacy. Of course, the woman now questions her sexual adequacy as well as her emotional stability, while the abuser can get on with his day or fall asleep without concern for her needs. An alternative scenario in the bedroom is the abuser who tries very hard to please the women, but in the abuser’s case, it’s so he can hear the woman tell him how wonderful he is. It’s still about meeting his needs.12 

Mr. Nice Guy / Mr. Thoughtful Husband and Father 

     One of the most common techniques abusers use to keep the abused woman from leaving the relationship is to become “Mr. Nice Guy†and “Mr. Thoughtful Husband and Father†for days, weeks, or even months at a time. Typically, the longer the relationship, the shorter and less frequent the nice periods tend to be.12 I have known several abused women who would finally decide to leave the abuser and start packing their bags, only to have the abuser apologize profusely, shed some tears, and become just the nicest guy. More often than not, the abused woman forgives him and returns, convinced that he has really changed. Unfortunately, in the great majority of cases, and after a few days, weeks, or months of relative calm, the abuse begins again. The abuser becomes increasingly moody, critical, and ill-tempered at first, and eventually explodes into full abuse mode, whether verbal and/or physical. This scenario where an abused woman starts to leave the abuser, but then returns to Mr. Nice Guy, may play itself out multiple times before the woman finally begins to accept that he will always abuse her again. 

     Unfortunately, some abused women put up with the abuse for the rest of their lives. Very few seriously abusive men do the extensive work necessary to change their abusive attitudes and behaviors on a permanent basis. Even women who recognize this fact may repeatedly convince themselves that their abusive man is the one who is different. They insist on believing their man will eventually recognize his abusive ways and stop his abusive behavior because it just does not make logical sense for this not to happen. I warn these women that if they decide to continue the process of breaking up and leaving the abuser after he becomes Mr. Nice Guy, to be very careful. It is at this moment, when the abuser’s manipulations finely fail, that some abusers focus on revenge and become very dangerous. 

Other Common Abuse Techniques 

     The variations on abusive techniques and behaviors are endless, and abuse is usually very subtle and difficult to detect. Here is a list of the more common themes and techniques used by abusers:12,46 

∙  Problems are usually her fault. Even when an abuser admits doing something reprehensible, expect him to say some variation of, “Well, you made me do it†or, “I wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t…†Unfortunately, an abused woman will likely believe the abuser’s accusations and think she is the problem. She will believe she just needs to be a better wife or girlfriend and try harder not to upset him. 

∙  The abuser may falsely accuse her of doing the same kinds of abusive things to him that he has done to her. The abuser’s goal is to counter and neutralize any accusations she has made against him in the past or might make against him in the future—possibly in court. When an abused woman does react to abuse by striking back in some way, even physically, her behavior is considered defensive, not abusive.12 Absent his abuse, the woman’s response would not have occurred. But poorly trained or ignorant police officers or judges may not see it this way. It is very important that abused women not strike back physically since this makes it possible for the abuser to call the police and have the woman arrested for domestic violence. Now the abused woman has an arrest record the abuser can hold over her head and point to when he talks about her to their friends, in divorce court, or at child-custody hearings. 

∙  The abuser may feel threatened by the woman’s job or her academic endeavors and sabotage her efforts to succeed. He may say they can no longer afford her tuition, or say he can no longer watch the children while she is in class or at work. The abuser is aware that if his partner becomes educated or gets a promotion at work, she may become less dependent on him, and he might lose his control over her—and she might even leave the relationship. Besides, her life should promote his needs, not her needs. 

∙  The abuser may maintain control over the money, house, car, etc., by keeping most possessions in his name. Credit cards are in his name so he can cancel her card, or threaten to, to help maintain his control over her. The abuser may spend much more of their income on himself than on his spouse or children. 

∙  The abuser makes himself the victim. The abuser may actually succeed in changing the abused woman’s anger at him into some level of guilt and sympathy for him. The abuser may also solicit the sympathy of friends by telling them how difficult it is to put up with her extremely emotional and irrational behavior. Most abusive behavior in relationships occurs in the home, hidden away from public scrutiny, and the abused woman may have little support from friends who believe the abuser’s accusations. 

∙  In public, the abuser will typically put on a display of Mr. Nice Guy and Mr. Thoughtful Husband and Father. Unknowing friends may tell the abused woman how lucky she is to have such a wonderful husband. When the woman’s inevitable anxiety and depression are evident, the abuser points out her symptoms to their friends as confirmation that something is wrong with her.12 These friends now assume the abused woman is responsible for the sadness and depression they have so often seen in her. With this technique, among others, the abuser may manipulate friends into having a low opinion of her. He may also manipulate the children into having a low opinion of their mother. 

∙  Silent treatment: The abuser may refuse to respond to her at all. Examples include turning and walking away after rolling his eyes in disgust, refusing to return phone calls, etc. The silent treatment is an abusive response, not the lack of a response. 

∙  Threats and Intimidation may be dished out in myriad ways, including physically threatening gestures, such as clenched fists, staring or glaring at her, screaming or cursing, blocking her exit, getting extremely close to her and in her face while angry, threatening to leave her and the children, etc. The abuser may break or throw things, including throwing things at her or near her. The abuser views his partner and children as his possessions to do with as he pleases. 

∙  The abuser may get the woman to question her stability by periodically asking, “Are you ok?†or, “Are you all right?†These questions clearly imply that something is wrong with her. 

∙  The abuser may require his partner to take care of all chores and child-rearing tasks, leaving him free to do whatever he pleases. In some cases, the woman rarely even sees the abuser as he concentrates on other aspects of his life while ignoring her and the children. 

∙  Jealousy: The abuser may insist on knowing her whereabouts at all times, grilling her about where she has been, who she has talked to, what took her so long at the grocery store, etc. He may repeatedly accuse her of flirting with other men or cheating. 

∙  Isolation: The abuser may attempt to isolate the woman in any way he can, such as chasing off her friends, forbidding her to visit her family, or even getting rid of her pet. He may increase her isolation through deal-making, such as agreeing to refrain from some abusive behavior or agreeing to help her in some way if she will drop some outside activity and stay home with him. A friend of mine’s abusive boyfriend said he would pay her rent if she would get rid of her dog, an obvious attempt to eliminate all of her emotional attachments except to him. 

∙  Sarcasm is a common abuse technique and is very effective at reducing the woman’s self-esteem and self-confidence. On the receiving end, the pain of sarcastic jabs can be severe, while the abuser views himself as simply having a great sense of humor. If the woman tells him she does not like the sarcasm, he may tell her she has no sense of humor or that she is too sensitive and should just get over it. 

∙  The abuser simply denies saying what he said or doing what he did. He may say her complaints are just another sign she is losing it. With unstable emotions from years of abuse, the abused woman may start to wonder if the abuser is right, and if she is, in fact, becoming unstable. 

∙  Confusion: While explaining his opinion, the abuser may begin to say things that are very different from, or completely the opposite of, what he said just moments earlier. Not expecting this kind of deception, the woman becomes confused and frustrated. She finally gives in assuming she is just unable to understand the complex issues involved or that it’s just not worth the stress to continue arguing. The abuser gets his way—again. I am always amazed that some abusers have succeeded with this technique for so long that they walk into my office and try to pull the same confusion technique on me. I am much more likely to catch this “abuse of logic†technique because, unlike the overly trusting woman, I am watching for it. 

∙  Abusers may use religious beliefs and the fear of God as a technique of control. Requiring strict adherence to religious beliefs, readings, or rituals, the abuser may feel secure in his abuse, knowing his wife’s religious beliefs will bind her to the abusive marriage or family. Abused women may not recognize the subservient position some religion-based lifestyles may force on them.  

∙  The abuser requires emotional support from her but offers little or no emotional support to her—or the children. 

∙  Sexual abuse: Sexual abuse may include sex on demand, forced sex (rape), waking her for sex when she is asleep, inflicting pain during sex, or insisting on sex acts she does not want. If the abused woman becomes pregnant, the abuse may increase, especially if it is an unwanted pregnancy.52 

 âˆ™  Criticism is the technique of choice for many abusers. A steady drip of artful criticism is all some abusers need to maintain control and dominance over the woman’s thinking, emotions, behavior, and self- esteem. The compliments these abusers do offer may only be for the manipulative purpose of getting them what they want. Whether snide remarks about her clothing or cooking, or a verbal assault on her intelligence or emotions, criticism slowly chips away at the woman’s self-esteem and self-confidence. The abused woman eventually internalizes his criticisms, and the abuser’s presence is no longer necessary as she begins to self-criticize and doubt her own competence.12 Lowered self-esteem and self-confidence increase the woman’s dependency on the abuser. If she struggles to correct her perceived imperfections, the abuser will likely criticize her even more, triggering even more self-criticism on her part. Along with ridicule and name-calling, criticism may also have an accusatory nature. Consider these typical comments: 

♣ I didn’t ask you what you thought. Of course, that doesn’t keep you from sticking your worthless two cents into everything. I wonder how long I can put up with this crap. 

♣ I can’t believe you liked that movie. It sucked. If you were a little more perceptive, you would know that, but you just go off into your little ozone. I hate it when you do that. 

♣ You can’t think, period. You get so damned emotional, and that’s when you just keep going after me. 

♣ The way you’ve done the yard looks ridiculous. The whole neighborhood will be laughing at us. 

♣ You can’t do anything right. You’re an idiot. 

♣ Blew it again, huh, dumbo? 

Abuse of Children

     Many abusers will, directly or indirectly, abuse their children as well. Abusers may ignore or criticize their children or exhibit an authoritarian and dictatorial approach to p . Hidden away from public scrutiny behind the closed doors of the home, control, humiliation, and physical punishment may be the norm. There may be an absence of rational explanations for decisions and logical consequences for discipline.45 Abuse is particularly damaging to children since they want to pull closer to the abusing parent(s) for protection and support while simultaneously wanting to get away from the abuse. This “approach-avoidance†conflict may become the very basis of a problematic personality as the abused child grows up into adulthood.122 When abused children with low self-esteem that is deeply ingrained reach adulthood, they may continue to allow other people, such as a spouse or boss, to abuse them as well. Abused children may sometimes grow up to be the abuser. One recent study134 suggests children from abusive and dysfunctional homes, including physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, divorce, incarceration, etc., were considerably more likely to experience cancer, depression, or attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder in adulthood. An abusive environment may also have serious physical effects on a child’s brain development. Abused children are more likely to have smaller brains as well as other brain abnormalities.125

Common Abuse Techniques Affecting Children:12 

∙ Criticising children: The effect of criticism on children is hideous. After being criticized, the child will struggle to do better, only to be criticized again. The child, not understanding the parent’s abusive nature, believes the parent’s criticisms are true and concludes that he or she is just not good enough, so the child tries even harder, only to be criticized again. Believing the parent’s criticisms are true, the child’s self-esteem and self-confidence sink lower and lower. When the abusive parent goes through his Mr. Thoughtful Husband and Father periods, he may encourage and compliment the child, only to tear the child down again when he reenters abuse mode. The child, whose self-esteem, self-confidence, hopes, dreams, and happiness had been elevated by Mr. Thoughtful Husband and Father, is devastated—over and over again. These children may suffer depression, have problems at school, and have difficulty getting along with other children. Many of these children eventually become some of the depressed adults filling the offices of therapists and psychiatrists the world over—not to mention AA meetings. Children who are routinely criticized may not recognize their positive traits, and when successful as adults, they may be unable to give themselves the credit for their accomplishments. Both the child and the later adult may continue to think, consciously or unconsciously, that it is just a matter of time before everyone sees how worthless and incompetent they really are. 

∙  Excessive punishment: Excessive punishment may be dished out for minor infractions or when the child has done nothing wrong at all. The parent/child relationship is severely damaged when the child develops hatred for, and fear of, the parent(s). Studies at the American Academy of Pediatrics and Duke University found even socially accepted spanking to increase aggression in young children.78,79 

∙  Ignoring the children: When ignored, children will believe they are the problem and believe their parent would spend more time with them if they were better children. This can sabotage a child’s self- esteem and self-confidence. When children are ignored, the pain of being ignored may be worse than the pain of punishment. Children may misbehave to get attention, even if the attention comes in the form of punishment.45 

∙ Abusing the mother in front of the children: Although some abusers may attempt to hide their abuse of the mother from the children, they are kidding themselves. Children almost always sense problems in the family, presumably because they have not developed the defense mechanisms that blind so many adults to the elephants in the room. Unfortunately, young children frequently blame themselves for the chaos in the house, with the element of guilt added to the child’s fears. In some families, the children and adolescents may actually be abusive to their mother because this is the behavior they have learned from watching the abusive father. It’s not lost on the children that their father always seems to get what he wants by abusing their mother, and the children may find they sometimes get what they want when they treat their mother in an abusive manner. Of course, the abusive father sides with the now- abusive children if the mother complains. 

∙  Revenge—abusing a child or children to get back at the wife for resisting his abuse or some other perceived infraction: Any mother will experience extreme anguish when her child is abused and she is helpless to stop the abuse. She may submit to the man’s abuse to protect the children. 

∙  Openly disagreeing with the mother’s parenting techniques in front of the children: This makes it much more difficult for the mother to discipline the children and enforce rules. The children may begin to view their mother as the unfair bad guy, or they may begin to manipulate their parents by playing them off against each other. It is a truism among family therapists that effective discipline requires a united front on the part of the parents.45 It is abusive to consistently offer children the confusion of conflicting parental rules and discipline. 

∙ Using the children as pawns during a divorce settlement: A common example here is the abusive father who never showed interest in, or spent quality time with, his children yet seeks full custody during the divorce to make his wife suffer for leaving him. He may also tell the children how awful or sick their mother is, and the children, having seen their mother anxious, distraught, and depressed many times, may believe it. I have witnessed abuser retaliation when the wife is leaving the relationship, or about to leave, by saying she is crazy, mentally ill, an alcoholic, having her committed to a mental institution, etc. For some abused women, it only gets worse in court, especially in situations where the man controls the money that pays the lawyers. Life may become a living hell for stay-at-home moms who may not have the financial means to fight the abuser in court. Unfortunately, many family judges and lawyers are ignorant of the dynamics of abusive relationships. Incompetent judges may believe the abuser’s statements about his wife’s emotional instability or incompetent parenting and even believe the abuser’s statements that the mother has tried to turn the children against him. Of course, the abused mother may actually suffer emotional problems and depression, but these are symptoms caused by her husband’s abuse.12 Once the abuser has custody, he may then use the children as pawns to continue “revenge abuse†against his ex-wife for years to come, while making little effort to meet the children’s needs. 

Avoiding Abusers: What to Watch For 

     Most people are aware of the need to get to know someone before becoming emotionally involved, in part, to avoid the abusers. My experience as a therapist, and conversations with police officers, suggests there are many more abusive personalities out there than most people realize. As mentioned earlier, most abusers are very nice during the early parts of a relationship. Lundy Bancroft, in his landmark book, Why Does He Do That?12 states that the abuse may begin when the abuser feels like he owns the woman. The abuser’s feeling of ownership may begin when they first become sexually intimate, first move in together, or when they get married. A friend of mine got out of one abusive marriage and dated a “nice guy†for two years, only to have him refuse to sleep with her on their wedding night to get back at her for some perceived infraction. The abuse began on their wedding night. But most abusers will give off subtle signs of their abusive attitude toward women much earlier. The exceptions are the abusers who have been busted in previous couples therapy or a previous divorce and have learned to play a better game. 

     Here are some basic steps women can take to protect themselves.2,12,46 Avoid a man who: 

  • Wants immediate, total commitment. 
  • Talks about how badly women have treated him in the past. 
  • Stares you down or looks at you in ways that intimidate you. 
  • Lies to you. 
  • Threatens to break up with you unless you (fill in the blank). 
  • Criticizes you—or others. 
  • Is emotionally unavailable. If he seems more interested in his work or hobbies than he is in you, be very careful. Of course, he may not act this way until you have been involved with him for some time. 
  • Asks you for money. 
  • Routinely makes problems or disagreements your fault. 
  • Is overly insistent on sex on his terms, emphasizes painful or rough sex, or simply cares more about his needs than your needs. 
  • Is moody—his moods appear to shift for no reason. 
  • Even hints that the man should be the head of the household. 

     Many in religious communities may disagree with this last one, but many abusers incorporate religious beliefs into their abuse to increase their level of power, dominance, and control. 

     When I suspect abuse in a relationship, my first goal is for the abused woman to recognize that she is in an abusive relationship, and to become educated about abuse as quickly as possible. If the abused woman has come to see me by herself, I encourage her, without the abuser’s knowledge, to educate herself about abuse ASAP. I keep the amount of reading to a minimum, since many abused women must do the reading on their lunch hour at work to avoid having the reading material in a location where the abuser might see it. I ask abused women to read this chapter ASAP and then read selected chapters in these two books: 

(1) The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans 

Chapter: The Characteristics of Verbal Abuse 

Skip the first two or three pages, and go to the list of abuse techniques and read the rest of the chapter (about 17 pages). If this is the only book you have, also read the first 58 pages while you find the second book. 

(2) Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft 

The Abusive Man in Everyday Life
The Process of Change 

The Types of Abusive Men
How Abuse Begins
Abusive Men as Parents (if you have, or want to have, children) 

     If there has been the slightest threat of intimidation or physical abuse even once, I suggest going directly to the chapters in the second book, Why Does He Do That? 

     Even with these readings, therapy remains critical for many abused women to begin to accept that the abuse is not their fault, and that the abuser does not love her, or even desire the kind of relationship she always just assumed she was getting.46 In my work with abused women, it is common for an abused woman to begin to recognize the reality of her husband’s abusive personality, only to slide back into denial between sessions. For even extended periods of time, some abused women will begin each session with some statement to the effect of, “But he really is a good guy at heart†or, “But he must love me some.†These abused women are highly resistant to accepting the fact that the abusive man is not a good guy and does not love her at all, by any reasonable definition of love. The loving acts of kindness offered by an abuser are usually manipulations designed to get the abuser what he wants and to blind the woman to the abuse. In the abused woman’s thinking, if the abuser does not love her at all, even just a little, this can only mean she is completely unlovable. I must repeatedly emphasize to these women that the abuser’s lack of love for her has nothing to do with her at all. The abusive man is probably incapable of really caring about the feelings and needs of any woman, and he would have been just as abusive to, and just as incapable of loving, any other woman—not just her. With some abused women, I keep an ongoing, and growing, list of the abusive things the abuser has said and done to her, and we review this “reality check†at the beginning of each session. Over time, repeated doses of reality can be very effective at combating deeply rooted and persistent denial—but not always. 

     Some abused women may suffer some level of a personality style or disorder, such as a dependent or avoidant personality, that contributes to their submissiveness and denial. Suffering from one or more of these personalities will make recognizing abuse and leaving the abuser much more difficult. In these situations, the possibility of more extreme abuse, or successive abusive relationships, becomes much more likely. Most important, the abused woman needs to accept that a serious abuser will probably never change, although he may become the nicest guy in the world for even extended periods of time as a manipulative technique to keep the abused woman from leaving the relationship. 

     Finally, if you seek professional help for an abusive relationship, I strongly encourage you to get a recommendation from a women’s shelter or someone who understands the problem of abuse. If possible, go see the therapist by yourself without the abuser’s knowledge. Even if there has not been any physical abuse, it is best not to make assumptions about how the abuser will react to the knowledge that you are going to see a therapist who, for the abuser, represents a potential loss of control. I have met many women who were in individual or couples therapy with a therapist or minister that simply had no clue about the dynamics of abusive relationships. I’ve had several clients who talked about a previous therapist who just sat there while the abuser continued the abuse right there in the therapist’s office. 

     A friend of mine was in therapy because of her abusive husband, and neither she nor her therapist recognized the abuse for what it was. My friend showed her therapist this chapter and her therapist attempted a clumsy cover by saying, “I think that’s what I have been telling you all along, I just didn’t use the word ‘abuse’.†Poorly trained or ignorant therapists and ministers seem to have the idea that if they can just get the couple to sit down and have a calm and honest conversation, their relationship will stabilize, and they will raise their children in a peaceful and stable environment. Unfortunately, abuse doesn’t work that way. 

I know of many cases where an abuser has manipulated a poorly trained therapist or minister into focusing on the abused woman as the cause of the family’s problems and succeeded in getting the therapist, minister, and sometimes a psychiatrist to agree that the abused woman is unstable, bipolar, an alcoholic, etc. I believe it is the norm for abused women to suffer at the hands of inadequately trained therapists as well as ignorant lawyers and judges. I have heard other therapists, and sometimes the lawyers representing an abused woman, say something to the effect of, “You know, I think a couple’s problems are almost always 50/50. They’re usually both at fault.†This is ignorance and incompetence at its worst and reinforces the abuser’s propaganda that the abused woman is the problem. Many abusers are all too happy to accept 50 percent of the blame—until they get the woman away from the therapist’s office.12 This is also abuse by incompetent graduate schools that make no attempt to adequately train their graduate students in the dynamics of abusive relationships. Just because a therapist says he or she understands abusive relationships does not make it so. Through 10 years of full-time graduate school, two masters degrees, and a PhD in the behavioral sciences, I never heard one single professor even mention the topic of abusive personalities or abusive relationships, or assign any readings on this topic. I have now encountered enough abused women who have suffered through incompetent counseling to believe the lack of training I received in graduate school is the norm.