Contrary to the victims, perpetrators of domestic violence (when in the relationship) aren’t as easy to spot. Read on to find out why and what to look for.
She’s always the brunt of his “jokes”
There are two ways to be seen as “superior” or as better then someone else – one’s a good way and the other’s a bad way. The good way is to possess a talent, quality or skill that differentiates yourself from others; the bad way is to tear others or someone else down in order to rise above – want to guess which way abusers swing?
Everyone loves a good laugh so how can you tell if the joke’s really not funny? Easy: with good jokes, everyone’s laughing – including the person who may be subject of the joke – but when the subject of the joke is ashamed, uncomfortable or hurt (everyone’s laughing except for him/her) it’s not a good joke, it’s being mean.
A PsyD isn’t needed for anyone to pick up on discomfort; it’s what prompts us to ask “Are you ok?” because we sense that something isn’t right. Abusers like to “make jokes” at their victims’ expenses because it keeps victims shut down: quiet, shy, withdrawn and to outsiders it makes victims look undesirable: stupid, silly and/or incompetent.
Try to come to a victim’s defense and you’ll either become the target of the next “joke” or his aggression (cause then it’s not funny anymore) AND she’ll “get it” from him once the party’s over: “Whose that idiot who said he actually liked your cooking, huh?!” Try to give him “a taste of his own medicine” and she’ll get it even worse, especially if the joke hits home or is something she’s told you about him.
He “harmlessly” flirts with her right there
“Harmless flirting” really isn’t so harmless when you put it under the DV spotlight. Flirting is basically a human mating ritual so if a man or woman is in a committed relationship, no flirting should be initiated by either party because the point of remaining in a committed relationship is commitment, right? Flirting while in a relationship is not only disrespectful to a partner but to the relationship as well and becomes only more embarrassing with age (despite what the flirters may think/believe).
Abusers LOVE flirting – particularly in front of their victims – because of the many functions it serves. Not only is an abuser’s flirting objectifying the target, but it sends messages to the victim like “She’s attractive to me; I’m (still) attractive and available; You’re not (as) attractive” and keeps the victim tied to the abuser through insecurity by “threatening the relationship” (because she can see for herself the possibility of losing him to another woman). Flirting also helps in keeping her isolated from her support system because if he constantly hits on her friends/family members, they’ll avoid him – and her subsequently if he’s with her all the time, which will always seem to be the case.
Doesn’t hesitate to get the kids involved
Healthy, age-appropriate social boundaries… abusers just don’t have ‘em. Good parenting practice (abusive or not, divorced or not) is to keep adult issues, topics, situations and problems between adults – especially the “icky things” like sex between parents. Other things like finances, housework, employment, health and hygiene, etc. don’t require a child’s seal of approval because these are adult matters that are supposed to be handled by the adults who are the child’s caregivers BUT this is not the case in DV households where the abuser always has to be right, always has “to win” and always has to have the last word (and if that means enlisting the children to make it that way, then so be it).
What’s particularly insidious about this boundary breach (getting a child involved in an adult matter) is that it sets the stage for worse to come. Abuser and children “overriding” the victim’s decisions on a popularity vote may look like harmless democracy in action but if this is the standard operating procedure, the final outcome is that the victim’s parenting will be undermined and in that case, the victim will hold no voice, authority over or respect with the children. Trying to correct this dynamic with an abuser will not work because it’ll be asking him to surrender power, control and popularity with the kids and the kids will be enjoying the benefits of this arrangement too much to willingly give it up. Where this arrangement really becomes visible is if/when the abuser and victim separate in which case, the children may behave aggressively, disrespectfully and defiantly toward the victim while on “best-bud” behavior with the abuser.
It’s always her fault
Abusers don’t do well with taking responsibility for the consequences of their own actions when things go wrong (but they don’t need to take responsibility when they have a victim right there to blame).
At the same time however, when things go well or positively the “only reason” for success is because of the abuser and/or his efforts – anyone else who gets credit or acknowledgement for contributing is encroaching on his territory and attempting to steal his thunder.
An abuser’s inability or unwillingness to take a look at his part in something bad/wrong as well as his inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the victim’s part in something good/right is actually part of what indentures her to him. How? Like this:
Something goes wrong and he blames her for it. Although she knows she had nothing to do with what went wrong and tries to convince him of her innocence, the more she tries to extricate herself from the problem, the more he asserts that it is indeed all her fault. This can actually escalate to a point where she ends up begging and pleading to be forgiven by him (and by then, she may not even know what she’s asking to be forgiven for!) After hours of arguing, he may eventually forgive her for making him so angry. Whatever the problem that started it off is irrelevant because the mission’s been accomplished: she’s apologized for her transgression and he’s forgiven her this time/again.
The upside of this equation isn’t hard to understand: how many of us have ever chased after someone’s approval who was unwilling to give it? Victims hold onto the pipe dream that if they’re just good enough, do it right this time, make him happy, etc. he’ll finally see how valuable and good and special she is – he’ll realize how much she loves him, he’ll see how much he’s hurt her and it’ll all be all right. The sad thing is that in this quest to prove to him how good she is, something will go wrong along the way and it’ll (once again) be all her fault.
He loves her like an object or possession
especially if she’s the mother of his children because in that instance, she is “his property” just as the kids are his property.
The best analogy I can think of to illustrate an abuser’s love for his victim is to compare it to a dog’s love for his favorite chew toy: it may not be the prettiest or his only toy but if you try to take it from him, what happens? He growls and moves the toy away from you right? And what happens when he’s “tired” of it? Although he drops the toy and walks away, is he done with it? It may look that way but if you make a move towards the toy, the dog’ll rush back to it, grab it and run away with it. The toy can’t extract itself away from the dog and even if the toy were alive, do you really think the dog’s going to let it go anywhere? The only way to make sure the dog doesn’t get the toy again is for a third party to step in and either take the toy away when the dog’s not looking or restrain the dog to keep him away from it. Out of sight does not mean out of mind however, because if the dog realizes his toy is missing he’ll relentlessly hunt for it – the dog will only leave the toy alone when he chooses – in absence of third party intervention, the dog is comfortably in control of his beloved toy.
Healthy, adult relationships based upon mutual respect are 50/50 partnerships that bear the hallmarks of love, empathy, compassion and selflessness (thankfully they don’t resemble anything like a relationship between a dog and his chew toy). In abusive relationships, however, these qualities do not exist because they do not mutually exist. Why? Because the sad truth is that abusers do not respect their victims – nor do they have any empathy or true compassion for them.
The abuser loves his victim as easily as he loves his dog, his chair, his kids, his beer, his house – the difference between those items is their value to the abuser. “Stability” in an abusive relationship means that the abuser resents someone/something one minute then can’t live without it/him/her the next.
Definitions aside, because the abuser maintains the upper hand in all aspects of the relationship (whether the victim realizes it or not) there is/will never be a 50/50 partnership (which becomes a real problem in many divorce proceedings where a “one size fits all” 50/50 standard is applied).
He ultimately makes all the decisions: speaks for her
You ask her a question, he answers (even if the question is coming from a doctor inquiring about her menstrual cramps). On the topic of doctors, abusers do not want their victims being “left alone” with a doctor because out of eye contact and earshot, she might say or show something that might look like evidence of abuse so the abuser will want to be with her “for support” and to “help explain” what’s going on with her.
Historically a sign of emotional bonding (“They’re so close they finish each other’s sentences”) under the DV lens it’s a sign of emotional bondage. In longer-term DV relationships, you can spot this instantly because she won’t even attempt to answer your question; instead, she’ll turn and defer to him out of habit and out of habit, he’ll respond. If he’s not there to answer for her, she’ll “get stuck” and will ask for a delay in order to consult with him (get the answer) or if you push her for an immediate response where she won’t have the opportunity to consult with him, she’ll panic (because she’s afraid of providing “the wrong answer” = punishment). You’ll know quickly if she’s given you “the wrong answer” when you receive a painfully apologetic and panicked call to correct the “error”: “I’m so so sorry!!! I didn’t mean to say I’d bring peanut butter cookies – I meant chocolate chip – is that ok?” This’ll be followed by some form of self-deprecation and another apology for the disruption she’s caused.
He HAS to know where she is all the time
Work, live or be friends with a victim and you may find yourself romantically commenting “Awww, he can’t live without you!” or “How sweet that he worries about you so much!” because the attention and devotion he displays towards her is just over-the-top. Unfortunately the romantic notions that everyone’s fawning over are actually the building blocks of stalking: obsession and possessiveness; jealousy isn’t cute when it scares people away and leaves a victim isolated.
In this state there is no margin for error and lateness is no excuse: if a victim said she’s going to Foodland 5 miles down the road, then the odometer had better read 10 miles round-trip precisely on her return and the time she spent at the store needs to coincide with the abuser’s estimation of how long it should have all taken; price check at the register, a long line, red lights and traffic have no bearing on an untimely return – lateness is only an excuse to cover up an imagined “what she doesn’t want him to know”. A compliant victim will have learned well along the way to be where she says she’s going to be when she says she’s going to be there and any interference or delay will send her into a panic (and him into a rage).
He’s the “expert”
Abusers cannot and will not be outdone by anyone ever (in their minds). Everything and everyone is substandard and even if they’re proven wrong, that doesn’t mean that the abuser is going to go along and agree with the reached conclusion. Seeing himself as “smarter then your average bear” the only thing that can ever go wrong for him is if someone’s “deliberately and maliciously messing with him” – no proof needed to substantiate this suspicion.
An abuser’s natural lack of empathy, unwillingness to hear anyone else but himself and inability to see beyond himself can have painful and devastating consequences, especially for children, ie: If the abuser’s not hungry, then no one else can be or is allowed to be hungry – proving him wrong will not get anyone food – it’ll only get him angry at those who are hungry for contradicting him (or if there’s an audience, for embarrassing him). Circumventing an abuser’s judgment call by providing food = defiance and defiance = punishment. Tragically, too many children die each year because abusers have chosen to ignore medical emergencies or situations beyond their expertise.
Whoa – that was fast!
Once upon a time (in 1937) a fictional princess named Snow White pined “someday my prince will come” and sure enough, a Prince Charming appeared. In 1950 another princess, named Cinderella, took the fantasy of being whisked off one’s feet (by an essential stranger) to live “happily ever after” a step further. By the time Disney started to correct itself in 1989 by introducing us to a headstrong and independent (not another co-dependent) princess named Ariel, the damage was already done: generations of girls had grown up dreaming of the fairy tale meeting and marriage – thing is, the girls weren’t the only ones watching these movies!
“Good things come to those who wait” – yea, try telling that to a “Prince Charming” whose professing his undying love for you (on the third date) with an engagement ring in hand. Or better yet: how’s about an unexpected whirlwind romance (over Spring Break) that ends with an exchange of vows on a secluded beach at sunset? He’s awesome! He’s intense! He’s sooo charismatic, exciting, romantic, spontaneous and sexy! “I don’t know that much about him – but we have the rest of our lives to figure it out!”
An abuser doesn’t want to wait; he wants you and he wants you now – there’s no turning back. Abusers don’t abuse on Day 1 or Date 1 – that’d scare the intended victim away so they have to get her hooked, hooked fast and committed whether that’s through sexual intimacy, engagement, marriage, pregnancy, moving in together or any other situation that would make it impossible for her to just walk (or run) away.
Abusers have to ensure that when they say “I’m sorry” for the first, fortieth and four hundredth time that their victim will accept the magic of their apology and stick around for more; if he can keep her believing in the promise of a “happy ever after” there’s no reason to change a thing – the longer she stays the harder it is for her to leave and he knows that. Abusers are actors and Prince Charming 24/7 is a taxing act to keep up, so fast is always the way abusers (make the) move.
He’s an exceptional actor
The reason why abusers are so hard to detect is because they’ve devoted a substantial amount of time, thought and energy towards perfecting their public persona; abusers can’t abuse if they’re identified, being watched or apprehended, so manipulation and deception are part of their daily routines and behaviors. The more and longer an abuser’s guise is maintained, the more confident, comfortable and self-assured he becomes in his role and it’s not unusual for abusers to eventually come to believe their own lies (which is why lie detectors will not work on abusers/why abusers will pass lie detector tests).
Victims must become actresses themselves to exist and survive in an abusive relationship but there’s a key difference between an abuser and a victim’s acting: while abusers are in a role of their own creation they are in their comfort zone being in control; victims, on the other hand, are performing an act under extreme psychological duress and over time, that tends to seep out despite a victim’s best attempts to keep it under wraps. Victims may give excellent performances to cover up the abuse but they won’t be convincing characters and the price they pay for their deception can be quite steep post-separation when there’s no longer a reason to act and they’re facing judgment. In that instance (when a victim becomes a survivor through healing) she’ll make dramatic changes while the abuser will steadily maintain his character, simply moving on to Act II. From all outward appearances she’ll be seen as the more erratic of the two while he’ll be seen as the more stable.
Mind boggling, isn’t it? Welcome to the world of domestic violence…