The literature on supporting victims of domestic abuse is unequivocal about condemning abusers. E.g. this from Reducing the Risk’s “supporting friends and family” page:
Don’t focus on trying to work out reasons for the abuser’s behaviour – only they are responsible for this, and there is no valid or acceptable reason.
Apart from this being human instinct, I think there’s also a very good strategic reason for this stance: At the extreme end, victims of abuse are often in real mortal danger, and so the top priority is clearly for them to protect themselves, usually by escaping from the abuse. Couple this with the gaslighting that’s usually happened, meaning the victim doubts their own experience or ability to stand up for themselves or survive on their own, and it’s easy to see why it can be very helpful to cast the perpetrator as a heinous villain to convince the victim to escape.
If we step back a bit, though, this perspective doesn’t seem like it scales very well to all situations. In many cases, domestic abuse isn’t life-threatening. There may be other things tying the abused to their abuser - genuine, justifiable concerns, like children. Or the abused might simply have more sympathy and care for their abuser than the villain narrative allows for.
Often, anti-abuse literature will fall into a perspective I find quite unconvincing. The overall excellent video 10 Relationship Red Flags of Abuse by Psych2Go explains how physical violence is often an advanced stage in a cycle of abusive behaviours. A couple of things it says I want to highlight, which are pretty common in anti-abuse literature:
At 1:42: Number 4: Forces you to take responsibility for their feelings. The abuser will use this tactic as a form of manipulation.
At 2:58: Number 7: A bad temper. The abuser might have a short fuse or just blow up over something that doesn’t look like a big deal to anyone else. This isn’t just a symptom of having anger issues: It is also yet another form of manipulation. The goal of this is to scare the victim into being subservient and obedient by doing anything they can to stop their abuser from getting angry.
Now, these are controlling, abusive behaviours, and they are absolutely not acceptable. And as I say, if your goal is purely to convince a victim to protect themselves, the true motivations of the abuser aren’t relevant, only the fact of abuse is relevant.
However, the statements “use this tactic” and “this isn’t (just) … anger issues” paint a picture of a coldly calculating psychopath, strategising about the best way to control their victim. I feel that in all but a few cases, and in my personal experience, this is not the case at all.
I believe many abusers are scarcely more in control of themselves than are their victims. They are damaged, fragile people, usually with learned, instinctive behaviours in response to childhood trauma. As the adage goes: Hurt people hurt people.
When abusers push responsibility for their feelings onto their victims, it’s not a “tactic”, it’s because they’re too insecure and fragile to take responsibility for anything themselves. When they lose their temper in unreasonable ways, yes it has an undeniable controlling and abusive effect, but it’s not manipulation, it’s them losing control.
It’s important to understand that this in no way reduces how abusive this behaviour is. It is every bit as abusive, unacceptable and damaging, and victims still have every bit as much reason to escape. In which case, you might say, why bother pointing out that abusers aren’t necessarily scheming to abuse people? What difference does it make?
Well, I think it’s a very important distinction for a number of reasons:
- Abuse often goes unreported is because victims fear the consequences of reporting it. Their abusers are often people close to them that they care about, and they don’t necessarily want to see them punished. If they felt their abusive loved one might be treated with sympathy and offered help, they might be much more likely to report the abuse.
- Abused people often take a long time to realise they are being abused. This is because the narrative of abuse feels so far from their mundane-seeming daily experience. I therefore feel that the more extreme you make the narrative, the harder it is for abused people to apply it to themselves. And asking them to believe that their partner is deliberately scheming to imprison them is a pretty extreme narrative, where the actual truth might be easier to believe.
- What if the victim genuinely doesn’t want to or can’t leave the relationship? If you’re going to do anything other than escape entirely, it suddenly seems pretty important to understand the exact causes of your abuse. And simply using the line “it’s unforgiveable, there’s no acceptable reason” is likely to be of limited use. If instead, you can start to understand the psychological underpinnings of the abusive behaviour (while always unequivocally avoiding blaming the victim) then there may actually be a slow, painful path to improvement. And in some cases, this might be the only option.