Domestic violence: Abused women FAQ

This article was written as a free-flowing conversation in which a woman asks questions about abuse. It was written by Peggy Reubens, LCSW. She founded the Trauma/EMDR Treatment Service at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies Training Institute in New York in 2003.

No matter what he says you did, he has no right to hurt you.

Photo: Derek Story / Unsplash

Many people think that all battered women have black eyes and broken bones. When there is physical violence, there is always emotional abuse as well. But domestic abuse encompasses a whole range of ways of controlling and hurting. Even when no physical action is taken, there are verbal threats or implications that violence could occur.

Even when there are no threats of violence, there can be emotional abuse. Some of the most insidious forms of abuse by a spouse are emotional. And you don’t have to be married (or living together) to be a victim of domestic violence.

The purpose of this article is to help women begin to figure out if they are in abusive relationships – and what they might want to do if they decide that they are. Better understanding your situation helps you separate emotionally from the batterer.

How do I know I’m being abused?

Look for a pattern in his behavior.

The notion of a pattern is very important. While moments in which we control partners are not ideal, they’re pretty common among couples. Often people go for help with these things and they should. But one minor incident in years of living together does not constitute abuse in the way this article is defining it. The point of this article is to help women who identify a pattern in the control and/or rage of their partners.

Why does he treat me this way?

One way of understanding many abusers is that they feel inside like babies deserving of an all-giving mother. They do not tolerate disappointment when you are anything less than perfectly nurturing. For some abusers, that may occur in any area of your life together. For others, their particular triggers (food preparation being a very common one). Disappointments at home may remind him of his first household with caretakers who didn’t meet his needs.

There is another category of abusers who are interested in all areas in which they can control you. This may have less to do with specific disappointments, than with a need for all-out dominance and a hair-trigger temper that erupts even outside your relationship.

Some professionals also distinguish a third category of abusers. This is one who lacks the ability to feel the pain of others, (sometimes enjoys inflicting pain), and has no scruples in manipulating people in any area of his life. Clearly, this is the type of abuser who puts you in the greatest physical danger.

But our FAQs currently are focusing on the first type of abuser described above, because his behavior can be the most confusing to the woman involved with him.

I don’t understand how one burnt roast can cause such an explosion

Like the baby whose needs are unmet, he has a tantrum. Unfortunately for you, he has adult weapons to use in this tantrum, be they his vocabulary, his knowledge of your weak points, the use of his fists, or the threat that he could get physical.

It can be very confusing to you to see the adult body and hear the adult vocabulary (sometimes a very sophisticated one) at the same time as feeling the infantile rage just underneath the grownup veneer. Are you dealing with a man you need to fear or respect or are you hooked up with a baby you need to comfort or at least tolerate?

(By the way, it hopefully helps you to identify his baby side but it is not a good idea to tell him he’s behaving like a baby – it will only make him feel more belittled and therefore revengeful toward you),

So, is battering just a psychological problem?

No. The ultimate answer to why he batters is: BECAUSE HE CAN. What that means is that society has given him the idea that the woman is property, and his home is his castle. A behavior he knows he’d never get away with in the outside world, seems to be permitted at home.

(Some batterers are also aggressive outside the home – this is not a good sign but at least it makes this type of man more predictable. The inconsistency of many batterers’ behavior at home vs. outside is more confusing for us to grasp.)

So we’re saying that not all men are batterers, it takes special circumstances to motivate abusive personalities – but once formed, these men who might like to abuse many people get the message that there will be consequences for so doing everywhere EXCEPT with his woman. That’s what is meant by he does it BECAUSE HE CAN.

Another way to put this is to say that it takes a combination of culture and family dysfunction to create an abusive personality.

If I were different, would he stop?

Yes and no.

Some batterers learn to respect a woman who is setting firm limits; they cease or lessen certain behaviors – say, physical aggression. However, this doesn’t end their central need to control you (see below).

Other batterers step up their behavior on all fronts when they feel defied by a woman.

Why is that?

1) He is invested in getting respect or the outward appearance of respect. That may be cultural and/or from feeling undervalued in childhood. And this need can be aggravated by being undervalued currently (for instance at work).

2) Your newfound assertiveness feels like the threat he fears most – the beginning of the end of the relationship. If “mommy’ can refuse to do things, “mommy” might refuse to stay with him altogether. Then how will “baby” survive?

It’s important to understand that some abusers are motivated by (1) and (2) while others are mostly driven by either (1) or (2). Figuring out which will help you to know how to maximize safety for yourself and/or strategize how to leave him.

But will he actually survive if I do leave (especially if he’s a #2 type)?

“#2 type” refers to the previous question.

The great likelihood is yes, he will survive. Often it’s also what is best for him in the long run.

How could that be?

Because if there’s any chance of his facing himself for real, it will come when he “hits bottom” and realizes what his behavior has cost him.

These men have very “thick” defenses against facing their own behavior, and they need a shock. Think of it as “tough love” you might have to give a difficult adolescent.

Many abusers will not face themselves but will rather quickly replace you with the next willing woman. While that’s tragic for her, your concern about his survival is taken care of. The sad truth is that these men are all too good at finding the caretaking they’re convinced that they need.

Why is control so important to him and why is he so selfish?

1) Because he thinks he can – and SHOULD – control you

2) Because he’s terrified of being controlled

3) Because he’s terrified of being abandoned

4) Because he doesn’t feel grownup inside, even though he may appear adult outside.

Isn’t any part of this my fault?

I like to quote a saying of the early battered women’s movement: “No matter what he says you did, he has no right to hurt you.”

Even if you agree that you did it whatever it was (but make sure you ask yourself carefully if you really did it the way he says you did, with the bad intent he says you had, etc.) – even then, it’s a felony to assault you in any way (including restraining your movement) and in many places, it’s a felony even to threaten to cause bodily harm or restraint.

Yes, you may have spoken nastily, or you may have not done what you promised to do, etc. We are not perfect. But he does not have the right to punish you physically or even verbally.

But I am in a bad mood a lot and sometimes I hit/shove/threaten him first

This may very well be in response to years of his abuse. But there is also the possibility of “mutual abuse” where each partner tries to control the other one. If you recognize the profile of the batterer described above in yourself, get help!

Well, what are his rights?

He has the right to tell you how your behavior affects him, to leave the room or the home for a while to cool down, or even to leave the relationship permanently if you displease him so much. But one sign of an abuser is that they hang on with one hand while slapping you with the other. A healthier man would just leave such a “defective” woman as he claims that you are!

Why does he not realize the emotional and mental devastation he has caused? Can he change with therapy?

There are various ways of looking at this. I believe many batterers are in a dissociated state when abusing you. That means that he does not feel like he is the one hurting you, or he sees himself do it but it is like a dream, or he sees that he does damage but he minimizes the depth and severity of the damage. It seems that there is also a type of batterer who knows exactly what he is doing but I don’t think that’s the one you’re describing in your question.

The kind of man you refer to is the more confusing type – he seems to be intelligent and grasp most of life but in this area, he seems dumb, dense, or deliberately avoidant. He needs help to accept that he is capable of violence, and he may not either accept that help or be able to benefit from it. So far, results from therapy with batterers are not encouraging. Programs with the best results are comprehensive – including signing an unconditional “no-violence” contract, mandatory group attendance, individual mentoring, and (later) couples work.