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Stop Pretending You Know What an Abuser Looks Like

How the culture oversimplifies abuse to everyone's detriment.

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

If real life were more like a movie — which it isn’t — then all the bad guys would be wearing black hats and the good guys white ones, and the wicked witches would have green skin and a cackle, and the good witches would look like fairy princesses, just like in The Wizard of Oz. When it comes to abuse — both the physical type, and the under-discussed verbal and emotional kind — we often want our visions of what an abuser looks like to adhere to the stereotype in our heads. We want our thugs to look and act like thugs — not like handsome, well-educated, and widely respected men in expensive suits. We want the mother who belittles or mocks her children and makes them feel like nothing to wear her insides on the outside, rather than showing up with a smile on her face, enviable clothes, and the prettiest and best-tended garden in town. We want the bad guys and gals to look the part, and when they don’t, we end up being more ambivalent and less empathic than we should.

We don’t really like these stories of abuse, but when we hear them, we want clarity, which is basically the black-hat thing again.

What do we do? We mistrust the victim’s account. We ask for photos, proof, and chapter-and-verse, not so much because we disbelieve the victim, but because we want bad behavior to show in obvious ways that it doesn’t. We want the home in which the abuse occurs to look as squalid as it does in our imagination, because the décor and furnishings, perhaps even the fresh flowers in vases, belie what went on. We think we’re being fair and impartial, but we’re still scanning the horizon for those telltale black hats.

People who are being abused understand this, in part because they too want the world to operate in a more black-and-white fashion than it does, and they worry about being believed as well as believing themselves. These habits of mind can feed their denial, confuse them emotionally, and make them feel even more ashamed than they already do. The chances are good that person who’s abusing them, whether verbally or physically, has already told them it’s their fault — that no one would belittle them if they didn’t always disappoint, that they wouldn’t get hit if they didn’t deliberately goad the abuser into anger, and other variations on the theme.

What science knows about abusers (and we should, too)

They come from all walks of life, and they’re not confined to a single socio-economic or educational stratum. Living in a penthouse doesn’t render you immune to abuse, nor does living in a grimy walk-up guarantee it.

I have learned from many interviews with adult women who were emotionally abused by their mothers that these mothers actually tend their public personae very carefully, as my own mother did. Their public faces give them wide berth when the front door is closed and the curtains drawn, and permit them to deny or look away from their treatment of a child or children. That public façade also keeps the child silent, for who would believe her if she told?

Our own need to see abuse in black-and-white terms skews our understanding and empathy, especially when the person being abused is an adult who is theoretically capable of exiting the premises, as an underage child is not. We imagine a dungeon and oversimplify, asking why the person “doesn't just leave,” not knowing that abuse has a pernicious cycle of its own. It is a cycle that is hard to imagine if you haven’t been caught up in it yourself.

We want to see a photo of a blackened eye so that things are perfectly clear.

We can imagine the stick, but we fail to see the carrot.

The carousel of abuse

Again, our black-hat stereotypes rule: We not only require consistency and clarity, but also discount the degree to which the person abused is in love with, in thrall to, or otherwise dependent on the abuser. We think of abuse as a 24/7 thing, without understanding the extent of the abuser’s manipulations or how loving someone who hurts you perverts the most meaningful exchanges in life. Again, our blinders are set to judge without taking into account what research knows about the cycle. It’s important to remember that the person being abused still wants something from the abuser — usually love — and that makes the dynamic all the more confusing.

First identified and explored by Lenore Walker in 1979, the cycle has three stages in its simplest form. The first is tension building, during which the abuser begins to be subsumed by emotion, often anger, and the partner begins walking on eggshells, trying to avoid the fray, as communication between the two breaks down. The second stage is the incident, the moment at which the abuse actually takes place. Again, this could be physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse, or any combination of several which gives the abuser the rush of power and control he or she desires and needs.

Understanding the honeymoon phase

"When I found out the truth about all of his lies, he cried and literally got down on his knees, asking for forgiveness. He swore he’d never lie to me again. He said he would never drink again. He promised to go into therapy and join AA. And he did all of that, briefly. And then it started over. He excused his abuse by pointing to his alcoholism and excused his alcoholism by calling it a disease. He sat in on AA meetings, saying nothing, and paid his therapist to cheerlead."

The so-called honeymoon or reconciliation stage is the fulcrum on which the cycle rests, and its presence answers the often-asked question of why the abused person simply doesn’t leave. It doesn’t matter if you attribute the effect of this stage to hopefulness, denial, or the power of intermittent reinforcement on the human psyche; the bottom line is that, for a while at least, the honeymoon phase acts like superglue. The abuser may apologize or make promises at first and actually make good on some of them. He may buy gifts or do things that seem caring and loving and flatly contradict his previous abusive behavior. All of these behaviors work to convince the person being abused that the incident — the abuse itself — was an aberration, and that the conciliatory gestures reveal the partner’s “real” self. The honeymoon phase permits the couple’s relational history to disappear into thin air.

Keep in mind that the abuser wants his partner on the merry-go-round, and he will do what he can to keep it spinning. His tactics may, after initial contrition, segue into sharing the blame with the victim (“I wouldn’t have gotten angry if you hadn’t yelled at me so much” or “I didn’t so much lie as you didn’t ask me the right questions”), or suggesting that what happened wasn’t that bad (“You really are working every angle of this, aren’t you? I just lost my temper, that’s all”) or that the victim is exaggerating (“So I had too much to drink and said a bunch of things I shouldn’t have. Grow up, will you?”). All of these tactics are meant to have the victim doubt her perception of the abusive events. Please note that I’ve made this gender-specific to avoid a pile-up of pronouns, but women perpetrate abuse as well.

Once again, the white-hat/black-hat thing factors in here, even for the victim; it’s much easier to believe in the honeymoon phase if your partner is well thought of in the world, a decent provider, and looks good on paper. And, of course, it’s easier to doubt your own perceptions.

Round and round again

The calm of the honeymoon period inevitably gives way to the tension-building phase in a truly abusive relationship; it may be triggered by tension between the couple or from the outside world, like the abuser’s being thwarted in a business deal or venture, getting passed over for a promotion, being involved in a fender bender or altercation, or whatever else might possibly make him angry, frustrated, or both. The cycles may get shorter or longer, depending on the abuser’s own inability to manage emotions.

Why abuse can be so hard to see when someone is in the relationship

Abusers have a plan, and the truth is that they tend to be attracted to those they can manipulate. Having someone walk out at the first sign of rage doesn’t work for them, because control is what they relish; they’re likely to hone in on someone who will hesitate and reconsider before heading out. Women who’ve grown up around verbal abuse are much more likely to normalize emotional and verbal abuse from a partner, because they’re likely to have normalized their childhood experiences and may not be able to identify what abusive behavior is. (This sounds counterintuitive, but it’s a subject I discuss in detail in Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.) Women who are anxiously attached — quick to doubt themselves, hungry for love and support, afraid of making mistakes, and dependent — are more likely find themselves in an abusive relationship.

Culturally, thanks in part to the black-hat thing, we focus on physical abuse and skim over the effects of emotional and verbal abuse, which is a terrible mistake. Science is very clear about the effects of verbal abuse on children and adults.

Does the cultural vision of an abuser connect to #MeToo?

As a woman of a certain age, politely put, it seems to me that our societal views of abusers and abuse are still works-in-progress. It’s only been 40 years or so since the traditional reasons for why women stayed in abusive relationships — variously parsed as a masochistic impulse or even “an unconscious need for punishment” (!!!!) — were countered by feminist theory, which pointed a finger at the institutionalized sexism of the patriarchy that kept women stuck, as Deborah K. Anderson and Daniel Sanders point out in their 2003 review of the literature called “Leaving an Abusive Partner.” They note that despite the cultural view of leaving — which includes a clean break and a slamming door — there are indeed phases to leaving, which often include returns to the relationship. Perhaps even more surprisingly, they note, some studies show that some abuse survivors actually suffer increased trauma and depression when they leave, compared to those who stay in the relationship. And economic factors and income variables were stronger predictors of leaving than psychological ones.

Again, our need for black hats oversimplifies a complicated truth.

When abuse steps into the limelight

In 2014, when NFL player Ray Rice assaulted his fiancée Janay Palmer, and the video was there for all to see, social media erupted, most particularly after she went on to marry him anyway. Researchers Jacelyn Crave, Jason Whiting, and Rola Aamar saw a research opportunity as the larger dialogue blamed Janay for staying, and people took to Twitter with the hashtags #whyIstayed and #whyIleft to share their personal stories. By analyzing these tweets, the researchers discovered common themes that are noteworthy.

For those who chose to stay, the researchers found these common themes:

  • Self-deception and distortion: This included rationalizing the abuse, seeing it as deserved, and minimizing it
  • Lack of self-worth: Believing that she wasn’t worthy of different treatment
  • Fear: Believing that leaving could trigger something worse, including harm or death for herself, children, and close others
  • The need to save the partner: Many stayed because they felt they could change or save the abuser, and could thus keep the family intact.
  • Saving the children: Numerous women felt that by taking the hit, they were sparing their kids from abuse.
  • Family expectations: These ranged from believing in the sanctity of marriage and the need to make it work to distorted expectations raised by childhood experiences
  • Finances: Yes, the lack of money once again was seen as significant for influencing choices.
  • Isolation and lack of social support

Whatever else, these themes make it clear that the decision to leave — which may be obvious to those sitting in judgment — is considerably more complicated to someone who’s been abused.

In contrast, the themes that emerged from those who’d left all have in common a sense of a turning point in which the cycle is finally broken. They were:

  • Personal growth: Being clear about the nature of the abuse and having a vision of what a healthy relationship looks like
  • Having social support: Respondents referred to a wide range of support, including family and friends, therapists and social workers, pastors and a belief in God, etc. The larger point is that they didn’t feel isolated, as those women who stayed did.
  • The need to protect their children: This wasn’t just about protecting the children per se, but making sure that they weren’t shaped by witnessing abuse.
  • Fear of escalation: Again, the perception of a tipping point becomes the motivation for saving the self.

If nothing else, these tweets paint a picture of abuse which is more complicated than our current dialogue suggests.

The bottom line? Abuse is abuse. It need not always leave marks or a black eye.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2018


Finzi-Dottan, Ricky and Toby Karu, “From Emotional Abuse in Childhood to Psychopathology in Adulthood,” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (August 2006), vol. `94, no.8, 616-622.

Goldsmith, Rachel K. and Jennifer J. Freyd,” Effects of Emotional Abuse in Family and Work Environments: Awareness for Emotional Abuse,” Journal of Emotional Abuse (2005), vol. 5 (1),95-123

Anderson, Deborah K, and Daniel G. Sanders, “Leaving an Abusive Partner: An Empirical Review of Predictors, the Process of Leaving, and Psychological Well-Being,” Trauma, Violence and Abuse (2003), vol. 4 (2), 163-191.

Cravens, Jaclyn D., Jason B. Whiting and Rola O. Aamar, “Why I Stayed/Left: An Analysis of Voices of Intimate Partner Violence on Social Media,” Contemporary Family Therapy (2015), vol. 37 (4), 372-385

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