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The Line Between Victims and Abusers

Who are the victims, and who are the abusers?

Victim identity is focus on damages suffered at the hands of other people. The desire to be identified as a victim creates a sense of entitlement and a motive to devalue anyone who does not offer special recognition and validation of victim status or compensation for it.

In our Age of Entitlement, it is often difficult for friends and therapists to detect abuse in intimate relationships and to discern who the primary abuser is. This is especially hard in cases of emotional abuse, with no objective evidence like police reports or medical records.

The following characteristics of primary abusers and victims are not foolproof, but I have found them to be highly reliable, based on the dramatic change of attitudes by the end of treatment.

Research and clinical experience clearly indicates that abusers are likely to:

  • Underreport, hide, minimize, or justify their abusive behavior
  • Describe themselves as victims
  • Feel abused when their partners disagree with them or don't do what they want
  • Label their partners' behavior as abusive
  • Attribute malevolent intent to their partners' positive behavior (manipulative, deceptive)
  • Pathologize their partners (emotional or personality disorder, incompetence)
  • Use negative labels (nag, irrational, hysterical, lazy, unreliable)
  • Have great difficulty describing their partners' perspectives
  • Show little or no compassion
  • Exhibit self-righteousness

Research and clinical evidence traditionally has shown that victims were likely to:

  • Underreport or hide their partners' abusive behavior
  • Not label obviously abusive behavior as abuse
  • Blame themselves in part for the abuse they reveal
  • Make excuses for the abuser's behavior
  • Bend over backward to see the abuser's perspective
  • Describe the abuser at least partially in sympathetic terms
  • Exhibit self-doubt

How the line got blurred: Emotional reactivity and the victim identity movement

Abuse victims, like anyone in relationships with high emotional reactivity, build automatic defense systems, which include preemptive strikes — if you expect to be criticized, stonewalled, or demeaned, you may well do it first. Victims can easily develop a reactive narcissism that makes them seem like abusers.

But emotional reactivity between intimate partners, although more frequent in the Age of Entitlement, is a small part of the story. A more potent variable in blurring the line between victim and abuser is the reactivity of a social movement.

The victim protection movement began as a noble attempt to counteract the most insidious aspect of the abusive dynamic — blaming the victim, which has the effect of making the victim feel ashamed of being abused.

But as is the case with all effective social movements, the pendulum has swung too far the other way. We now have a victim identity movement, fueled by an industry of self-help authors and advocates, that has conferred a certain status to being a victim and thereby blurred the line between victims and abusers.

For example, at the beginning of my career, I saw many male abuse victims who would become angry and verbally aggressive at the suggestion that their partners abused them. Now obvious victims, along with those who are not victims but who have identified with descriptions in self-help books, become angry and aggressive if they are not recognized as victims.

The primary mistake with abusers is to reinforce their victim identity by:

  • Emphasizing childhood or other experiences in which they were mistreated
  • Validating their resentment and anger as "appropriate," which validates the distorted perspectives that go with anger and resentment
  • Reinforcing their sense of entitlement — they should be respected, which, to them, means their partners must submit
  • Confronting them in shame-inducing ways, before they learn to regulate shame with compassion

The primary mistake with victims is urging them to think and sound like abusers.

Due to the victim identity movement, some genuine victims will now:

  • Minimize or justify their own aggressive behavior
  • Dismiss their partners' perspective
  • Attribute malevolent intent to their partners' positive behavior
  • Use negative labels (selfish, controlling, pig)
  • Pathologize their partners

Successful treatment and friendly support of victims

No treatment or support of victims can be successful by urging them to disown their compassionate nature and think more like abusers. Rather, treatment should attempt to build on their strengths, that is, expand the good things about their nature in a way that ensures safety and growth.

A deeper level of compassion helps them see the damage an abuser does to the self by harming loved ones. Then they can leave compassionately for the abuser's own good.

This is a far more empowering stance that will feel more authentic, avoid residual bitterness that adversely affects parenting, and be less likely to stir revenge from an abuser who feels humiliated by separation. And it will not create a pendulum of pain, in which victims leave out of anger and resentment only to return out of guilt and shame.

Successful treatment and friendly support of abusers

Abusers must access the natural state of compassion they first experienced as very young children and re-lived when they were falling in love. Most will then recognize that they have fundamental values that are more important to them than their egos, and that their egos were constructed in large part as a defense against the shame of violating or losing touch with those values.

Motivated by defense of ego, they violate their deepest values and devalue those they love. Motivated by their deepest values, their need to defend a fragile ego subsides, along with their need to control, criticize, dominate, and devalue others.

Notice that appeal to the deepest values of clients and friends makes the distinction between abusers and victims less important. A compassionate victim, knowing that the abuser cannot change without becoming more compassionate, will leave. An abuser who becomes more compassionate cannot continue to abuse.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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