Throughout these blogs, the question on your mind may have been, “what drives an individual to batter or abuse his or her partner?” There are certainly many people who would like a definitive answer to this question. Some are inclined to assume that abusers are mentally ill, or have something innately “wrong” with them.
However, abusive behavior is often learned, as are most behaviors. It may be a consequence of an individual’s upbringing, or a person may simply be doing what they’ve always done, continuing to engage in abusive behaviors because they’ve yet to face any real consequences.
Although there is no definitive answer to this question, or exact formula for what makes a person abusive toward others, there are common characteristics of abusers/batterers. Some of the following characteristics may help to provide insight into the minds of abusers, and how they rationalize their actions. These characteristics, of course, are not all-inclusive.
Not everyone who abuses another person will embody them, and not every person who shares one or several of these characteristics will go on to batter an intimate partner. This lesson aims to provide information about what we typically see in abusers, and how they must take accountability for their actions.
Common Characteristics of Abusers/Batterers
Low Self-Esteem: Behind the seemingly tough or confident front that we often see abusers employ, most actually suffer from low self-esteem. This low self-esteem can cause them to feel needy, or even dependent on their partner. With this dependence often comes a fear of losing their partner and, in response, he or she may become controlling and/or possessive. In heterosexual relationships, men sometimes overcompensate for their low self-esteem by acting in hyper masculine ways, which boosts their ego.
Excessive Jealousy: In healthy, non-abusive relationships, some jealousy is expected, and even considered normal. However, in abusive relationships, abusers differ in that they often mistake jealousy for love. This can intensify their possessiveness, and increase their overall lack of trust. Such jealousy and mistrust can ultimately prove destructive.
A Tendency to Rush Into Relationships: At least partly as a result of low self-esteem, many abusers may feel the need to always be in a relationship. This “need” can often cause them to rush into relationships, and to pressure someone to commit when he or she may not be ready. They may use extreme flattery, or even claim that it’s love at first sight in order to coax someone to jump into a relationship.
Cruelty to Animals and/or Children: Many abusers are often insensitive to the pain or suffering of animals and/or children. Beyond causing physical pain, an abusive person may tease, or harshly criticize a child until he or she becomes emotionally distraught. Abusers often use children against their partner, by preventing their partner from seeing them, or punishing the children to “get even” with their partner. The same can be said of animals, particularly if a beloved pet is dually owned by both partners.
Substance Abuse: As a means to cope with low self-esteem, excessive jealousy, stress, and/or any of the other difficult emotions that abusers often feel, many turn to drugs and/or alcohol. That said, neither substance causes abuse. Perpetrators of domestic violence are just more likely to abuse either or both substances than are people who do not engage in abusive behaviors. When a person uses either drugs or alcohol, or both, his or her inhibitions are lowered, making it more difficult to control emotions (particularly difficult or negatives ones).
This can intensify existing issues between a couple such as poor communication, or anger management issues, and ultimately lead to acts of violence.
A Tendency to Blame Others for Their Actions: As we have discussed in previous lessons, many abusers often blame their behavior on their victims. Some may blame their partners for provoking, or angering them. Others may blame their partners for causing unnecessary stress. Others may not blame their partners, but instead blame something else, entirely.
“I was just drunk. I couldn’t think straight,” for example. Their attempt, regardless of what or who it is placed upon, is to deflect from their own problems by manipulating or intimidating their partner into believing that whatever happened was his or her fault – victim blaming. This is only further compounded by the fact that many abusers are in denial that they, themselves, are the ones to blame.
Poor Communication Skills: As we have also discussed in earlier lessons, many of those who abuse others lack the skills to appropriately and effectively communicate. Most, if not all, of these people likely do not know how to communicate calmly or constructively, and instead express themselves by yelling or speaking very, very harshly to others.
In response, some people may shut down entirely, which could cause an abuser to feel as though he or she hasn’t been heard. This could potentially cause frustration, and ultimately lead to violence. In this instance, the problem is at least partly rooted in a lack of proper communication skills.
Dual or Multiple Personalities: Often, abusers seem to have dual or multiple personalities: one that is shown to his or her partner, and one that is shown to the rest of the world. This can be one reason that those outside of the relationship are seemingly oblivious to the abuse going on within it. Disbelief can make it difficult for a victim to get help from his or her friends or family.
Hyper-masculinity: As we mentioned above, many men who are abusive maintain belief systems that revolve around being superior to women, and that they should, as a result, be dominant in relationships with them. These men may believe that they should always be regarded as the “man of the house,” and/or the partner with the final say on any and all issues. His word over hers, if you will.
Sometimes, these men view women as objects or property, instead of actual human beings, to be controlled and possessed and maintained however they see fit. Such men often expect their needs to be met first and foremost, which can include the sexual aspects of their relationships. These belief systems are often products of a man’s own upbringing, or religion, or social circle. Sometimes, it stems from low self-esteem.
Unrealistic Expectations: Many abusers, both men and women, expect their partners to meet all of their needs, first and foremost. They may rely on their partners for everything: physically, emotionally, and sometimes economically. In healthy relationships, both partners should be able to meet their own needs, and not entirely depend on any one person. The idea that another person can be everything one needs is unrealistic. Both partners should be encouraged to foster their lives, in all aspects, outside of the relationship. This includes having dreams and goals that, while they may be shared, are ultimately separate from the relationship.
Though these characteristics are common among abusers, they do not serve as justification for violence. An explanation does not equate an excuse. We must all be held accountable for our actions, and this absolutely includes those who engage in abusive behaviors and patterns. As we have discussed, abusers often have trouble taking responsibility for their actions.
Many live in denial, or project blame on to someone or something else. Abusers can, however, begin to learn personal accountability through domestic violence programs and/or psychotherapy. Victims or witness of domestic violence can seek to enforce accountability by taking legal action against an abuser, although, as we have discussed in previous lessons, our criminal justice system is lacking in uniform active prosecution of domestic violence offenders.
As communities and societies, it is increasingly important to educate the public on what constitutes domestic violence, and teach children that using violence, control, and/or manipulation is immoral. We must hold abusers accountable, and stop blaming victims for the abuse they have experienced.