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Learning about Abusers

"If you feel your world is full of abuse, maybe in fact, you are surrounded by abusers."

-- Me in 2012

An Example: John and Jane Doe have a night out

"We were out a bar one night. We got a little drunk, but were having fun playing pool. I went to the bathroom and return to see some other guy trying to pick up my woman at the pool table. So naturally, I'm angry and push the guy away and tell Jane we're leaving, now. She starts to complain, so I grab her by the hand and head out the door. We get outside and I ask her what happened. She has some excuse about how she was just waiting for me to return and this guy comes over and offers advice on the next shot to sink the 8 ball. I told her if she wasn't dressed like a slut the guy wouldn't come over at all and she wouldn't have ruined the night. I push her out of the way and head back to my car to go home. Next thing the police are all up in my face asking me questions and I'm the one getting arrested."

In reviewing police records, court testimony, and Jane's statements after the session, one learns a totally different story. John did indeed come back from the bathroom, proceeded to beat the guy offering advice with his pool cue until the other patrons pulled him off. And then, when outside, John hits Jane hard enough to knock her to the sidewalk while yelling obscenities at her. The bartender comes outside and tells John and Jane to leave the premises. John pushes Jane into oncoming traffic and walks back to his car. Jane is hit by a passing car and is brought to the hospital. John then shows up at the hospital an hour later to see Jane with flowers, a teddy bear, and a promise to go to anger management therapy. Their explanations are worlds apart.


I learned by observing abusers in counseling sessions how abusers minimize, deny, make excuses, manipulate, recruit allies, blame victims, and use a series of tactics to maintain their power and control over intimate partners. It took me a few training sessions to recognize what was going on in front of my eyes.

My first surprise is how likeable abusers can be face to face. They are charismatic and try very hard to come across as sweet and charming. At first, they are not the stereotype you imagine when you think of an abusive person. Sitting in a room with 12 men talking about their past week was enlightening. I really struggled at first to listen to what was being said through the lens of power and control. What takes time to develop and detect is what is not being said by the abusers. It's not until the third or fourth observation that I started to really be able to pick up the manipulation, excuse-making, victim-blaming, and sometimes very subtle word selection coming from everyone in session.

As part of the first 40-week session, every member of the group gives a weekly check-in about their emotional state and abusive behavior over the past week. What's easy to pick up is how the individual giving the update minimizes, or selectively chooses their words, during their updates. Generally, in a well-functioning group, the other members may challenge or ask questions about the update, which is spot on and gets to the core of what the current speaker is trying to gloss over or minimize. It's enlightening to see how the group calls out the manipulations while individually, each member is trying to get their own excuses past the group.

What's most enlightening is that, after spending a number of hours with the same group, you learn about what brought them to the group. Hearing from probation officers, court dockets, and other counselors the horrid details, and in many cases, years of police records behind the charismatic, likeable person in front of you is nothing short of shocking.


If you asked me 20 years ago to describe both abuse and an abuser, invariably I would have described stereotypes:


Used from

A taller, stronger, somewhat primitive, "out of control" man, physically threatening or beating a woman. It's taken the last 10 years for me to learn how incorrect, or incomplete, that stereotype is in the world. The reality, as I have learned from trainings and reading, is that while these stereotypes exist, they are less prevalent than one would expect. One can categorize abusers and abuse in different ways, but as I've learned from years of training at Emerge, physical abuse is only one of many abuse tactics to control intimate partners. The vast majority of abusers do not “look like” the stereotype. Instead, they present as normal, upstanding individuals, showing their true nature only to their targets.

On what abuse looks like, categories can reflect a continuum of abuse. The continuum exists because of the increasing need of the abuser to maintain their power and control over the victim. At first, verbal threats and abuse may be enough to keep the victim subdued. Eventually, though, if that stops working, the abuser may then need to escalate or change tactics to financial, emotional, professional, and other types of threats and abuse. Some abusers may never resort to physical abuse, or some may only need to use it once, and then threats will suffice. On the lethal stage, the book "Why Do They Kill?" is a fine exploration of the motivation (a desire for power and control) and progression of control techniques which lead up to killing a victim by the abuser. However, the small minority of lethal abusers can camouflage the much larger numbers of equally controlling abusers who employ less obvious methods.

The abuser is not driven by a simple need to escalate their abuse to keep others in line, they are driven by a sense of entitlement. Specifically,

" the feeling or belief that you deserve to be given something
(such as special privileges)"

from Merriam-Webster's definition. This entitlement is the core of their personality, their attitudes and beliefs. The abuser believes they are better than others and are entitled more privileges than others. Combined with the sense of entitlement, the abuser desires to maintain power and control over others. I mean, after all, they deserve all of these privileges and you do not, right?

The wheel of power and control is a fine tool to learn more.