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Working With Abusers and Victims of Abuse

written by: Kosjenka Muk

If for whatever reason you are interested to learn about the topic of abuse, I strongly recommend the book "Why Does He Do That?" by Lundy Bancroft. This book is especially useful for dismantling some common myths about what causes abuse and violence - whether physical, emotional or verbal - and for understanding how abusers control their partners and why. While I believe that the author exaggerates somewhat in his claim that it's usually men who abuse women and rarely the other way around, I suggest that you avoid getting carried away by that part of the debate, and read the book because it's full of detail, experience and practical insight. No matter your age, gender and sexual orientation, it can help you recognize the causes, strategies and red flags of abuse, and hopefully get out of such a relationship in time.

I'll mention here some of the important insights Bancroft's book offers, and in the rest of the article I'll talk about my own experience working with abusers and victims of abuse (although that experience is somewhat limited considering that I only work with voluntary clients, unlike social service workers and related institutions).

So, according to Bancroft, the key traits of abusers are:

  • They are deeply convinced (which they learn from family and cultural models) that dominating and controlling one's partner is acceptable and justified. Therefore, abuse is not primarily a result of childhood trauma, low self-esteem, loss of control and similar (even if those factors are often involved), because many other people suffer consequences of trauma and intense emotions too, but do not resort to abuse. Abuse is primarily a result of a value system that allows and justifies it.

  • They find significant and often conscious pleasure in having power over their partners, and privileges rather than balance.

  • They are exceptionally self-centered and convinced their own needs and desires should come first, while their partners' needs are secondary if not irrelevant (such childish egotism can indicate they are searching for a parent substitute, rather than a real person). In that case, they perceive it as a provocation whenever a partner expresses their own will, different opinion, or different desires. For them, a relationship is not cooperation and mutuality; a relationship exists to serve them, and them only.

  • They mentally objectify (dehumanize) their own partners to avoid feeling guilt, compassion or responsibility, and they find all kinds of excuses to criticize their victims and blame them for their own abusive behavior. They literally learn to perceive their partners as some sort of posession. (Cultural, religious and traditional influences play a role in this, too.)

  • In time, under influence of their own excuses and dehumanizing their partners, they become more and more tolerant to higher levels of abuse, and they lose control more and more easily.

  • Periods of warm and kind behavior are a part of their strategy (instilling renewed hope and trust / compassion into the victim).

  • In public, abusers are often charming, relaxed and have good social skills. They might be charismatic, and some abusers might even come across as shy and mild-mannered. They can express genuine compassion and respect for people other than their partners and children, because they don't perceive such people as property and responsible for pleasing them. This confuses the victim and makes it more difficult for the victim's claims to be taken seriously.

All these traits and behaviors can be either conscious or unconscious, but are often more deliberate than most other people, even most helping professionals, presume. Bancroft mentions many situations in which his clients let their guard slip for a moment and revealed deliberate, convoluted manipulative strategies and awareness of how those strategies might influence their partners. They simply don't perceive their partners' feelings important enough to consider.

Coaching abusers who are voluntary clients

I had both male and female clients who complained about their partners ignoring their needs and being cold to them, while later, usually in couple coaching, it turned out it was actually them who were controlling and oppressing their partners. Sometimes it's the abuser who first seeks coaching or therapy, who presents themselves as very sensitive and aware of the need to improve communication. This type of abuser can skillfully manipulate an inexperienced helping professional and "recruit" them as their "flying monkey" to confuse and weaken the victim even more.

Sometimes, the desire to be objective and impartial made me a bit too objective and impartial, in the beginning at least, until more details came out. Abusers are often aware of that, and are likely to try to manipulate you by accusing you of taking sides. They are also likely to hide details or lie about them. Therefore, if you are a helping professional, as soon as abuse is mentioned, it's important to explore both sides of a story and ask for as many specific details as possible, because sometimes an abuser might seek help first and claim that they are the victim of abuse or neglect (and sometimes they truly believe that).

Some things to pay attention to in such situations are:

  • Abusers tend to focus on their own desires and needs, and rarely if ever mention or show understanding for their partners' feelings (although, some might pretend that they do care, if they are skillful enough). As this is not so far away from average human behavior, you need to be very careful and pay attention to instincts that warn you there might be something strange here. If at all possible, ask to talk to their partners to hear their side of the story. The victim role is a particularly insidious form of abuse.

  • Some abusers might admit certain violent and controlling behaviors, but they are likely to justify and minimize them. Again, ask for very specific details to get a better insight into a situation. Be as calm and neutral as you can while you do that.

  • Sometimes (but certainly not always) an abuse victim might come seeking help to "become a better person" and please their partner, believing that abuse related problems are their own fault and responsibility. An abuser might come to blame their partner, seek confirmation and support for their views, or recruit a professional to help them criticize and control their victim. The helping professional needs to be particularly careful and skillful to find out enough details while avoiding being perceived as blaming, suspicious or partial. Again, pay attention how much understanding, empathy and respect does a client show for their partner's needs.

  • Abusers might be deeply convinced they have the right to control their victims. Their strong belief can make their non-verbal communication congruent and convincing. Some of them might say they want to resolve their own emotional issues "which make them attract such problematic partners", and you might only later find out that what they actually want is to control their partners. As a professional cannot read minds and it would be foolish to pretend to, in the beginning it might be impossible to be sure how things really are. Stay alert to recognize potential incongruity, excuses for their own behavior, and unrealistic expectations of a partner. Also, make sure to never criticize or make judgments about a partner you've never met.

  • As soon as you confront an abuser with their unrealistic expectations, excuses and aggressive behavior, expect them to blame you, make accusations, and try to manipulate you in various ways, including threats to damage your reputation and, in the worst cases, to your physical safety. Most times, an abuser will try to punish you with passive aggression (refusing contact with you, refusing to answer questions during sessions, victim games...), while their active aggression is often reserved for their partner. If you work with voluntary clients, it's much less likely that someone would threaten actual physical violence, but they could threaten to sue you or damage your public image. Consider up front, if possible, how do you want to deal with such threats. Keep in mind that few abusers would put their threats into practice just because you tell them your thoughts. Even if they do, they are not likely to reach enough people to create significant damage, especially if you have already established a reputation of quality for your practice.

  • Regardless of whether you believe a client to be an abuser or a victim of abuse, helping them discover and deal with their childish emotions, toxic beliefs, and sense of inadequacy is unlikely to hurt anybody. Even narcissism usually hides a fragile sense of self and deeply suppressed feelings of inadequacy. In milder cases, some abusers might realize that when they feel better about themselves, they don't need to be pleased all the time by their partners, and they can allow themselves to see other perspectives and feel more empathy for their partners. Still, be aware that working on emotional issues is often not enough to resolve abusive behavior if the abuser is not willing to face and change the core issue: the value system that justifies disrespect, manipulation, and control over a partner.

  • If at all possible, require them to come with their partner for a couple session at least once. Many low-level abusers are less likely to lie with abandon if their partner can hear and confront such lies. Of course, sometimes the victim of abuse might be too afraid (or too manipulated) to disagree with the abuser and give their own version of the story, but such couples are not likely to voluntarily ask for coaching or therapy anyway.

  • Be aware that abuse doesn't necessarily include physical violence; various forms of manipulation, insults, criticism, demeaning comments, intimidation or passive aggression are also abuse and can have heavy consequences for a victim's self-confidence and personal boundaries.

Mild abuse is sometimes difficult to distinguish from unhealthy and inconsiderate behavior which is still within boundaries of "normality". My current working definition of abuse is trying to control another person and break their will, regardless of whether it's done deliberately or subconsciously. This is not a perfect definition, but it's pretty good for practical purposes.

Part 2: working with victims of abuse

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