Many of us, on reading the recent news about Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Ray McDonald, have thought, "How could anyone do that? What was he thinking?" It turns out the truth about what goes through an abusive man's head is not what you'd expect. Prepare to be surprised.
Myth #1: He abuses me because he was abused as a child.
Fact: He may have been abused, but that's not the reason he hits you.
To be sure, many men who hit or emotionally abuse their partners were themselves abused as kids, but many men have also risen above their brutal childhoods and broken that cycle. Being abused doesn't automatically make you an abuser.
Of course, be sympathetic and compassionate to a man who had a lousy childhood, but he cannot use it as an excuse to abuse you. If he does, he is taking advantage of you and your sympathy.
An abusive man who points to his abusive childhood as a justification for hitting you is, on the surface, giving you a "reason." However, it's a dangerous one. He wants you to understand why he hits you and therefore make it acceptable. Or he wants to make you feel guilty for standing up for yourself.
Bottom line: Blaming his unchangeable past grants him carte blanche to stay violent, rather than working to change.
Myth #2: He's jealous and controlling because he has low-self-esteem or is insecure.
Fact: On the contrary, he thinks he's special.
You might think that if you are there for him or support him enough, you can stop the abuse.
Ironically, this just makes things worse.
It's actually the opposite of insecurity -- he feels he is special, deserving, and entitled. He considers it a right to have you all to himself and to punish you if you don't do what he wants. He thinks you should be grateful for the freedom he allows you, the financial allowance he gives you, or the friends he lets you have. He wants a reward for his "generosity."
In fact, he feels justified. He'll rationalize the abuse. He'll tell you, "You know how to get to me." "You pushed me over the edge." Just like folks embedded in drug addiction or alcoholism, he'll blame everyone except himself and then make you feel sorry for him.
If that doesn't convince you, if you've been abused, think about what your partner's criticisms have done to your self-esteem. I'm guessing it hasn't turned you into an abuser.
Myth #3: He must be depressed, traumatized, or have some other kind of mental illness.
Fact: Mental illness and abuse are different.
Indeed, some abusers do have a mental illness, but that's a separate problem from the abuse. And mental illness doesn't cause abuse -- think of all the people in this world who are depressed, alcoholic, drug-addicted, or traumatized who wouldn't hurt a fly.
Think about it: His anger isn't driven by delusions or directed at random people. He's rational enough to comprehend you're not cheating when you smile politely at the waiter. He doesn't throw or break stuff he cares about. He can pull it together instantly when the police come to the house. In short, his crazy-appearing abuse is tightly controlled and totally rational.
Abusers do, however, have a problem allowing and acknowledging negative feelings in others. He's allowed to be angry, but if you're mad, he'll either mess with your head or let you have it. If you fight back, he'll claim that you're abusing him or that he's hitting you in self-defense: "I had to smack some sense into you."
Myth #4: He just needs to get therapy, or we need couples therapy. Then he'll stop.
Fact: The advantages that come with abuse are hard to give up. Abusers often twist therapists around their fingers.
As a psychologist, it pains me to call therapy for abusers a myth. But it's true. There are some exceptions, but individual therapy usually doesn't help abusive men.
Why? He just doesn't see what he's doing as abuse or he firmly believes he is the victim. When he presents this one-sided story to his therapist, he or she will likely believe him, simply because there is no information to the contrary.
He'll also do a really good job of convincing his therapist -- after all, he's convinced you it's your fault and that you're the crazy one, so imagine what he can do with a sympathetic individual whose job is to support him.
It's also important to note that couples therapy is not a good idea for physically violent relationships. Couples therapy focuses on the relationship, and therefore assumes that each partner contributes to the problem. It also allows therapy to focus on issues other than abuse. And of course, you might not be honest when you're answering questions with your abuser sitting in the next chair over, listening intently. Finally, the therapist can't keep you safe outside of session. Whatever happens in the therapist's office unfortunately won't stay in the therapist's office -- it'll come home.
Myth #5: But he loves me.
Fact: He thinks he owns you.
Finally, he says he loves you, and indeed he might. But he also might be mislabeling the desire to posses you, with no competition from the world, as "love." When he says "I love you," what he really means is, "I own you."
Look at his actions through the lens of ownership, not love, and suddenly things will make a lot more sense. This is why he gets mad when you show love and attention to others. This is why he gets so threatened when another man talks to you. This is why he discourages your pursuit of education, says "I bought that for you, it's mine," or tries to get you to second-guess your own thoughts and experiences.
A final note: There is nothing wrong with you. You are not crazy, responsible, guilty, or provoking. He holds the keys to the abuse -- no one else.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
For more information, check out the excellent book that inspired this article: Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft, a male counselor with 20 years' experience working with abusive men.