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With Domestic Abusers, Dangerous Traits Can Look Desirable

Why victims are drawn to perilous partners.

Key points

  • Once daters trade in reading glasses for rose colored glasses, warning signs become muted.
  • Defensive storytelling involves mischaracterizing a partner's faults as virtues.
  • Victims may view a perpetrator's behavior or abuse as an expression of love.

“What does she see in him?” we ask ourselves when an acquaintance becomes involved with someone we consider to be a troubling choice. In reality, as I explain in a previous article,[i] to potential victims, red flags can look red hot. And when they realize their partner has problems, it may be too late. At that point, there are many reasons domestic violence victims don’t “just leave” an abusive relationship.[ii] Part of the reluctance involves mischaracterizing negative qualities as positive, and viewing danger as desire. Research explains.

Image by Pana Koutloumpasis from Pixabay
Image by Pana Koutloumpasis from Pixabay

The Seduction of Storytelling

Singles looking for romance are never as objective as they are on a first date, where situational awareness allows them to perceive traits, behaviors, and language in order to size up prospective paramours. But that objectivity doesn’t last.

Lisa Ann Haeseler (2013) examined how women cope within the spectrum of domestic abuse.[iii] She notes that women cognitively reconstruct abusive behavior through “defensive storytelling,” which involves mischaracterizing a partner's faults as virtues. She give the example of a woman rationalizing “raging jealously” as love.

Haeseler identifies defensive storytelling as a detrimental method of coping, which contributes to a victim’s decision to stay with an abusive partner. She explains that a victim may change the way she views the abuse, attributing it to the abuser’s love for her, or blames herself for the toxic dynamic, telling herself that the abuse was due to her serving dinner late, for example. Haeseler notes that this distorted cognition contributes to learned helplessness, which sustains the decision to stay with the abuser.

Haeseler also notes that some survivors who have left an abusive partner actually grieve the loss, imagining what the relationship could have been like without the abuse. She notes that adjusting to singlehood can be difficult because the survivor may feel that although she was with an abusive partner, at least she was not alone.

Falling for a Domestic Abuser

Practical experience is consistent with the research; abusive relationships often involve mischaracterization of negative traits. Here are a few I have seen in the course of my career prosecuting domestic abusers:

  • Possessive looks protective.
  • Controlling looks comforting.
  • Aggressive looks assertive.
  • Violent looks passionate.
  • Condescending looks confident.
  • Paranoid looks careful.
  • Rude looks direct.
  • Disrespectful looks truthful.
  • Jealous looks smitten.
  • Dangerous looks powerful.

These mischaracterizations allow a victim to tolerate and even treasure aspects of a relationship that appear helpful but are harmful both emotionally and physically. The goal is to perceive warnings sign before passion becomes preoccupation, focus becomes fixation, or attention turns into anger.

With the help of attentive friends, family, colleagues and coworkers, objective signs of toxic traits can be spotted sooner rather than later, facilitating early intervention in order to break the cycle of violence before it starts.




[iii] Haeseler, Lisa Ann. “Women’s Coping Experiences in the Spectrum of Domestic Violence Abuse.” Journal of evidence-based social work 10, no. 1 (2013): 33–43.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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