Does an abuser realize he* is being abusive? Does he know what he is doing? Author Lundy Bancroft says “Yes”.
Why would a husband, especially one who claims to be a Christian, be abusive? I spent many hours/days/weeks/years asking myself this question. I spent years trying to explain to my husband how he was making me feel. I thought if I could just explain it, he would understand what he was doing and he would want to change. But whenever I tried to explain myself to him, he would invalidate my feelings. He became very adept at this. He would tell me:
- What I remembered had never happened.
- I was crazy.
- I was “picking a fight.
- It was my fault that he acted that way; if I would just stop “provoking” him, everything would be fine.
- I wasn’t “submitting to” or “respecting” him.
- I didn’t understand men.
- I didn’t understand the Bible.
I used to spend hours every day wondering whether my husband was purposely behaving abusively, or was he unable to control his behavior? Maybe you are asking yourself the same question. In his book Why Does He DO That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men,[i] Lundy Bancroft asks the same question. Then he answers it better than any other author I’ve found.
Lundy says that he wrote the book so that women would spend less time wondering why their abuser is doing what he is doing. When we spend so much time wondering why, we put the abuser at the center of our life giving him more power to control us. Thinking about him, trying to fix ourselves for him, trying to make everything right for him becomes the all-consuming focus of our lives. According to the bible, who is supposed to be at the center of our lives? Deuteronomy 6:5 says,
“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
So, given that we are to focus our hearts and minds on the Lord, and not our abuser, let us look at why an abuser behaves the way he does. Here are some common myths:
- He can’t control himself.
- He doesn’t know how to handle his feelings.
- He was abused as a child, and this is the only way he knows how to behave.
- He is abusive because he faces so much discrimination outside of the home, (either at work, or in society).
- He has poor communication skills.
- He hates women.
- He has low self-esteem.
- He’s mentally ill.
- He is addicted to drugs and/or alcohol.
The reality may surprise you. While drugs and alcohol may make abuse worse, it is never the cause of the abuse. Most men who abuse only their intimate partners and children have complete control over when and why they behave abusively. They rarely lose control of themselves in other social situations. In general, they are able to keep control of their temper at their jobs and with their friends. They often have wonderful relationships with other women. They would rarely consider being abusive to their mothers. In fact, for the majority of abusers, the only time he behaves abusively is at home.
Why is that? In his mind, he abuses you because:
1. He likes being in control.
2. He has convinced himself that it is OK to act this way toward you, and mostly
3. He gets what he wants by his behavior.
It is a myth that abusers can’t control their behavior. They can, and their goal is to control YOU! (Tweet this)
Let’s look at an example scenario of an abusive man getting what he wants by his abusive behavior. In this family, the father was supposed to do the dinner dishes on Wednesday nights. One Wednesday after dinner, he gets up from the table and begins watching television. His son says, “Dad, it’s your turn to do the dishes.” The father stands up, and yells at the top of his voice, “You little piece of crap! Who are you to tell me what to do? Who made the money that bought that food? Your b____ of a mother must have taught you to be so disrespectful to me! I’m not doing anything but sit here and watch my favorite program!” He finishes by picking up a plate and throwing it against the wall. The mother and son quickly clean up the broken glass and scurry around the kitchen to get it cleaned up as soon as they can. When dinner is finished the next Wednesday evening, no one says anything about Dad doing any dishes. He just goes and sits in front of the TV while his wife and son do the dishes without him.
The main predictor for whether a man will be abusive is that he has a great feeling of entitlement. Entitlement means that he feels he has a special status that no one else in the family has. In his mind, he has the right to:
- Physical care-taking.
- Emotional care-taking.
- Sexual care-taking.
- Deference (“Everyone should respect me, but I owe no one else any respect”).
- Freedom from accountability (“No one should question my actions”). In contrast, the abuser’s partner and children have very few, if any rights.
Often, an abuser will try to hide the fact that he believes he is entitled to all of these things. For example, a husband might scream at his wife if she doesn’t make a “decent” dinner each night because it means she is a “terrible mother.” In reality, he probably doesn’t care at all what the children eat—he feels he is entitled to a hot meal in front of him each night. Or, he may become enraged if she is talking to her mother on the phone when he comes home from work, saying they “can’t afford” the phone bill. However, he may talk to his brother for an hour later that same evening.
What is really behind his anger? He feels that she owes him her full attention when he comes home from work; she owes him special care-taking.
Your partner’s feelings of entitlement mean that you are not allowed to ask him about his behavior; in other words, he is free from accountability. If you dare to question him, he may act in one of the following ways:
- Become angry,
- Blame his actions on you,
- Act hurt,
- Pretend that his abuse never occurred, or
- Say that you are “going crazy.”
Or, in some way show that he is not going to take ownership of his behavior.
Wow, that’s a lot of information! What now?
Knowing why he behaves as he does won’t change his behavior, but it can empower you. It can help you spend less of your life focusing on him and more of it focusing on the Lord, and what you need to do with your life.
As I always do in my blogs, I want to caution you if you are currently in a relationship with an abuser. It would not be wise tell your abuser that you now understand why he behaves the way he does. This will only anger him, and could possibly put you in more danger.
However, once you understand why he behaves this way, you can catch your breath and realize it has very little to do with you. He would probably treat any intimate partner the same way. Knowing this can free you from being self-judgmental. Once you realize this, you can look at your life and make some decisions about what you want to do about it. I don’t recommend that you make any quick decisions, but I do recommend that you become educated about domestic violence, and begin talking to people who understand what you are going through. Check out my Get Help page. It has phone numbers, websites and books that can help you.
Most of all, realize that the God who created the universe loves you like crazy. He would never treat you the way your partner does. He is watching over you the way a mother watches over her newborn child. In fact, in Isaiah 49:15-16a, God says to us:
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…”
I pray you will feel this crazy love from God.
*In this blog, the I use “he” and “husband” for the abuser. The same principles apply if the female is the abuser and the male the victim, or if the abuser and victim are the same gender, or if the couple is unmarried.[i] Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He DO That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men (New York, NY: Berkley Books, 2002).