Five Reasons People Abuse Their Partners
A problem with anger management isn't one of them.
Posted October 27, 2015 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
“Why does he do it?” This is the question we are frequently asked here at our treatment program for men and women who have been abusive to their partners. While some abusive partners are motivated by a need for power and control, that it isn’t true for many of the people we work with.
To illustrate what happens in many of the abusive relationships we treat, let’s talk about a former client, Joe. Joe was in his late thirties when we met, soft-spoken and courteous. The father of three, he was now living for the first time in a decade alone and apart from his family. His wife, who had initiated the separation, was tired. She’d been telling him for years that she didn’t like how he treated her when they fought. Even when they weren’t fighting, she was tired of his assumptions, and his entitlements. “Everyone always says you’re so nice but they don’t know what you’re really like.”
Joe arrived for his first session at Menergy desperate to save his marriage. He could acknowledge that the yelling, name-calling and throwing things during fights were problems. He’d slapped her twice and pushed her and blocked her from leaving the room and those things he knew were obviously wrong and he’d stopped the physical abusive a while ago. Now, instead of putting his hands on her, he would purse his lips and glare. When his wife tried to resolve the conflicts between them she encountered a silent unyielding wall.
But even when they weren’t fighting she felt utterly alone. Somehow he’d decided that the kids were her job. It wasn’t what they’d agreed to but it had settled into this pattern which didn’t seem that unusual. What was different in her case was that she had to accept it or to risk pushing him and who knew what that might mean? Would he scream in her face or would she find herself with the new silently rageful Joe who could go days without speaking to her?
Over many years of treating abusive behavior, we have learned that the problem isn’t that people like Joe can’t ‘manage their anger.’ When Joe’s boss chews him out at work, he doesn’t blow up. So if the problem isn’t anger management, then why do people abuse their partners?
Five reasons many people behave abusively:
1. Difficulty tolerating injury. Knowing how to have your feelings hurt without retaliating is an important relationship skill.
Joe was the only son of older parents and they wanted everything for him. For his part, Joe was mostly an easy child, well-liked and a good student. He could, however, throw epic tantrums, becoming stormy and implacable and, as he got older, disappointments leveled him. A test score that was lower than expected, not getting picked for a team, slights on the playground, these things could leave him devastated.
His parents wanted to protect him- they intervened with teachers, soothed and placated him, all the while encouraging, cajoling and praising him, because he was mostly a good kid and things were mostly going well. When Joe made the high school basketball team but found himself with a tough coach, Joe quit. Joe never learned what to do with feelings like disappointment, hurt, and shame. He learned to expect that he should be protected from discomfort because he was such a nice guy.
Joe is not in this alone. Many men never develop this skill. Most boys learn early that if someone hurts or embarrasses them, you have to hurt them back. If you get hurt, don’t show it. Don’t cry. Don’t look scared or sad or anxious. Being able to tolerate injuries without punishing the other person is one of the most important skills for partnership because inevitably, your partner will hurt your feelings or disappoint you. Most of our clients don’t have a problem with anger management. Most of the people we work with have a problem tolerating being hurt.
2. Entitlement. If I think that I have a right to not be hurt or embarrassed, than I’m likely to punish you when my entitlement has been violated.
Joe walks around thinking that he’s a nice guy — everyone says so — but then he goes home to his wife and she says that he’s hurtful and Joe knows that she’s right, but it hurts when she says so and he’s been taught that he’s entitled to have his feelings protected.
3. Lack of empathy. We talk about "putting ourselves in other people’s shoes" all the time. Abusive people do put themselves in their partner’s shoes, but they don’t necessarily do it with generosity. They imagine that the other person wants to cause harm. The kind of empathy that helps us to be decent, requires generosity and a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt.
Susan is scared of Joe’s rage and he interprets her fearfulness as coldness and because of that, he continues to punish her. If Joe wants to change things with Susan, he’s going to have to more generously interpret Susan's actions.
4. Lack of accountability
Abuse happens in the context of a world that says that it’s okay to hurt others when we are hurt. Abusive partners behave abusively, to some extent, because they can.
5. Unaddressed trauma
Many abusive partners have histories of complex childhood trauma, living in homes where they witnessed or were themselves abused and a history of unresolved trauma can result in high reactivity to injury. For people who grow up in high conflict families, abusive behavior can seem normative. While this isn’t the case for Joe, it’s important to know that many of the people we work with struggle with the aftermath of traumatic histories.
Now that we know some of what is behind Joe’s abusive behavior, stay tuned to learn how he and other abusive partners can change.