Unmasking Abuse


Most abusers are men. Still, some are women. We use the masculine and feminine adjectives and pronouns (‘he", his", "him", "she", her") to designate both sexes: male and female as the case may be.

It takes two to tango – and an equal number to sustain a long-term abusive relationship. The abuser and the abused form a bond, a dynamic, and a dependence. Expressions such as "folie a deux" and the "Stockholm Syndrome" capture facets – two of a myriad – of this danse macabre. It often ends fatally. It is always an excruciatingly painful affair.

Abuse is closely correlated with alcoholism, drug consumption, intimate-partner homicide, teen pregnancy, infant and child mortality, spontaneous abortion, reckless behaviours, suicide, and the onset of mental health disorders. It doesn’t help that society refuses to openly and frankly tackle this pernicious phenomenon and the guilt and shame associated with it.

People – overwhelmingly women – remain in an abusive household for a variety of reasons: economic, parental (to protect the children), and psychological. But the objective obstacles facing the battered spouse cannot be overstated.

The abuser treats his spouse as an object, an extension of himself, devoid of a separate existence and denuded of distinct needs. Thus, typically, the couple’s assets are on his name – from real estate to medical insurance policies. The victim has no family or friends because her abusive partner or husband frowns on her initial independence and regards it as a threat. By intimidating, cajoling, charming, and making false promises, the abuser isolates his prey from the rest of society and, thus, makes her dependence on him total. She is often also denied the option to study and acquire marketable skills or augment them.

Abandoning the abusive spouse frequently leads to a prolonged period of destitution and peregrination. Custody is usually denied to parents without a permanent address, a job, income security, and, therefore, stability. Thus, the victim stands to lose not only her mate and nest – but also her off-spring. There is the added menace of violent retribution by the abuser or his proxies – coupled with emphatic contrition on his part and a protracted and irresistible "charm offensive

Gradually, she is convinced to put up with her spouse’s cruelty in order to avoid this harrowing predicament.

But there is more to an abusive dyad than mere pecuniary convenience. The abuser – stealthily but unfailingly – exploits the vulnerabilities in the psychological makeup of his victim. The abused party may have low self-esteem, a fluctuating sense of self-worth, primitive defence mechanisms, phobias, mental health problems, a disability, a history of failure, or a tendency to blame herself, or to feel inadequate (autoplastic neurosis). She may have come from an abusive family or environment – which conditioned her to expect abuse as inevitable and "normal". In extreme and rare cases – the victim is a masochist, possessed of an urge to seek ill-treatment and pain.

The abuser may be functional or dysfunctional, a pillar of society, or a peripatetic con-artist, rich or poor, young or old. There is no universally-applicable profile of the "typical abuser". Yet, abusive behaviour often indicates serious underlying psychopathologies. Absent empathy, the abuser perceives the abused spouse only dimly and partly, as one would an inanimate source of frustration. The abuser, in his mind, interacts only with himself and with "introjects" – representations of outside objects, such as his victims

To embark on our exploration of the abusive mind, we first need to agree on a taxonomy of abusive behaviors. Methodically observing abuse is the surest way of getting to know the perpetrators.

Abusers appear to be suffering from dissociation (multiple personality). At home, they are intimidating and suffocating monsters – outdoors, they are wonderful, caring, giving, and much-admired pillars of the community. Why this duplicity?

It is only partly premeditated and intended to disguise the abuser’s acts. More importantly, it reflects his inner world, where the victims are nothing but two-dimensional representations, objects, devoid of emotions and needs, or mere extensions of his self. Thus, to the abuser’s mind, his quarries do not merit humane treatment, nor do they evoke empathy.

Typically, the abuser succeeds to convert the abused into his worldview. The victim – and his victimizers – don’t realize that something is wrong with the relationship. This denial is common and all-pervasive. It permeates other spheres of the abuser’s life as well. Such people are often narcissists – steeped in grandiose fantasies, divorced from reality, besotted with their False Self, consumed by feelings of omnipotence, omniscience, entitlement, and paranoia.

Contrary to stereotypes, both the abuser and his prey usually suffer from disturbances in the regulation of their sense of self-worth. Low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence render the abuser – and his confabulated self – vulnerable to criticism, disagreement, exposure, and adversity – real or imagined.

Abuse is bred by fear – fear of being mocked or betrayed, emotional insecurity, anxiety, panic, and apprehension. It is a last ditch effort to exert control – for instance, over one’s spouse – by "annexing" her, "possessing" her, and "punishing" her for being a separate entity, with her own boundaries, needs, feelings, preferences, and dreams.

In her seminal tome, "The Verbally Abusive Relationship", Patricia Evans lists the various forms of manipulation which together constitute verbal and emotional (psychological) abuse:

Withholding (the silent treatment), countering (refuting or invalidating the spouse’s statements or actions), discounting (putting down her emotions, possessions, experiences, hopes, and fears), sadistic and brutal humor, blocking (avoiding a meaningful exchange, diverting the conversation, changing the subject), blaming and accusing, judging and criticizing, undermining and sabotaging, threatening, name calling, forgetting and denying, ordering around, denial, and abusive anger.

To these we can add:

Wounding "honesty", ignoring, smothering, dotting, unrealistic expectations, invasion of privacy, tactlessness, sexual abuse, physical maltreatment, humiliating, shaming, insinuating, lying, exploiting, devaluing and discarding, being unpredictable, reacting disproportionately, dehumanizing, objectifying, abusing confidence and intimate information, engineering impossible situations, control by proxy and ambient abuse.

his comprehensive essay, "Understanding the Batterer in Custody and Visitation Disputes", Lundy Bancroft observes:

"Because of the distorted perceptions that the abuser has of rights and responsibilities in relationships, he considers himself to be the victim. Acts of self-defense on the part of the battered woman or the children, or efforts they make to stand up for their rights, he defines as aggression AGAINST him. He is often highly skilled at twisting his descriptions of events to create the convincing impression that he has been victimized. He thus accumulates grievances over the course of the relationship to the same extent that the victim does, which can lead professionals to decide that the members of the couple ‘abuse each other’ and that the relationship has been ‘mutually hurtful’."

Yet, whatever the form of ill-treatment and cruelty – the structure of the interaction and the roles played by abuser and victim are the same. Identifying these patterns – and how they are influenced by prevailing social and cultural mores, values, and beliefs – is a first and indispensable step towards recognizing abuse, coping with it, and ameliorating its inevitable and excruciatingly agonizing aftermath.

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