For the purposes of ease of language I will be referring to perpetrators with male gendered pronouns, and victims/survivors with female gendered pronouns. This is not to deny the fact that not all abusers are male and that not all victims and survivors are female. But, simply to make things flow semantically.
As a therapist working with trauma, I sit across from clients every week who are straining to make sense of abuse. One of their most complicated questions is, “Was the abuse intentional, and what does this mean about the perpetrator of that abuse?” They tell me about positive traits he possesses. He is an activist, a good friend, he has a great sense of humor, goes out of his way for others, he has some really great qualities. Which side of him is real? What box should he be put in and how should the relationship be categorized? Society says he must be a monster, and her friends tell her to, “Forget about that asshole.” But is this narrow view actually helpful to victims?
It perpetuates denial about abusers.
As long as we continue to dehumanize abusers, we continue to be in denial. When we pretend that only a monster could do those things, we ignore the reality that a person perpetrated abuse. When we relegate abuse to the realm of monsters and demons, we begin to falsely believe that no one we care for could ever be abusive. We ignore red flags as we fall for someone or deny that our family member is abusive because, well, only monsters perpetrate abuse. We ignore allegations as our imaginations fail to see the person we think we know and love carrying out violence.
We categorize abuse as something not done by kind, thoughtful, charming, well-liked, curious, and confident people. Something much more ambiguous is true. The truth is that people who perpetrate abuse can also have a multitude of positive traits, and they often have a genuine loving side. It does us no favors to ignore this conflicting truth. Do not meet someone and assume they must be safe because they are smart, well liked, and charming. Do not dismiss allegations of abuse because you see someone’s good side.
It takes away our space to grieve.
After an abusive relationship ends, survivors feel the same things that people do after the end of a non-violent relationship. She misses him, she worries if it was the right choice, she grieves the future they will never have together, and she wishes it could have been different. Victims of abuse feel these things whether they are invited to talk about it or not.
Many clients tell me that they have no space, besides in the therapy room, where they can discuss these complicated feelings. Their family and friends would never understand. Their family and friends might say, “How could you miss someone who did that to you? He’s a monster. Forget about him.” But, that is not how the human heart works. We need space to grieve relationships, even those that are abusive and toxic.
In fact, we may need more space for healing from toxic relationships. When we fail to heal from these relationships we continue repeating unhealthy patterns. It is important to acknowledge when we’ve been in an abusive relationship and to make sense of it. We can’t do that if we are only given a narrow space to talk about it.
It creates shame.
When society categorizes someone as a monster it makes admitting you loved them or are in grief over the end of the relationship pretty difficult. When a survivor of a violent relationship does find herself feeling mournful over the relationship, she often has the very thoughts about herself that others have been mirroring back to her: she wonders what is wrong with her, why she didn’t see it sooner, and if she did something to invite it in some way. She suppresses her sadness and grief because of the shame over these feelings.
If we did less victim blaming, had more conversations about the tactics perpetrators of abuse use at the beginning of a relationship to hide their violent tendencies, and even if we humanized these people more, then survivors might not have as much of the added damage of shame and guilt. Falling in love with someone who turns out to be abusive says nothing about her. The thoughts of, “Why me? Is it something about me that made him pick me?” are shame-based thoughts. Those thoughts say, “There is something wrong with me.” There isn’t anything wrong with survivors. There is something wrong with how we discuss intimate partner violence and the lack of support we offer victims.
It gives us misinformation.
Perpetrators of abuse can be charming, fun, and interesting. The beginning of these relationships can be intense and exciting. They do not always start out as overtly controlling and manipulative. The control and manipulation is often insidious and is easily hidden by our culture’s mislabeling of what is considered romantic.
Showing up at someone’s work unannounced, making huge declarations of love and commitment early on, being intensely jealous, and pushing big, unreturnable favors onto someone are not romantic gestures. They are red-flags in the beginning of toxic relationships. Culturally though, we tend to see these things as a sign that the relationship is off to a good start. He seems like a really nice guy. He does favors for her, he is romantic, and he loves her so much that he can’t even stand the thought of someone else looking at her.
This narrative opposes the one we have about abusers. That narrative says they are bad people who punch their wives, who nobody likes, and who are constant rage-aholics. These are not two different people. These narratives are two sides of one person. He can be sweet and thoughtful, but also pushes boundaries and uses romance as a cover up for his control tactics. It does not make them evil, but it is important to know what that looks like. We need to be able to imagine it.
It falsely correlates abuser with psychopath/narcissist.
Not every perpetrator of abuse is a sociopath. Some are. Some aren’t. Some have personality disorders, co-occurring mental health disorders, or substance abuse problems. These things do not make them abusers. And, while treating any of these co-occurring issues may go a long way in improving their lives, relationships, and behaviors, it will not automatically change them from an abuser to a non-abuser. The only thing that will do that is if they take responsibility for their behavior and for changing it.
It leads us to believe people are just born that way — removing society’s responsibility for raising well-adjusted individuals.
Abuse is, at least partly, a learned behavior. Some people may be genetically or neuropathologically leaning towards more violent tendencies. But it is abuse that will turn that on in someone.
The example of James Fallon highlights this concept. He is a neuroscientist who was conducting a study on the correlation between brain scans and sociopathic behavior. He happened to use his own brain scan as a control, and found out that his brain scan actually more closely matched those of the sociopaths in his study than of the neurotypical brain scans. But he is not a violent person. He admits to being hyper competitive and “kind of an asshole,” but he is not violent or abusive. His brain scan looks like those of convicted murderers, so how is he a functioning member of society? He attributes his lack of violence (as do I) to his abuse-free upbringing.
At the end of the day, abuse is the fault of the abuser, not their childhood. But I recognize that if we teach children to manage their emotions through violence and controlling others, then they are going to rely on those maladaptive coping mechanisms as adults.
It gives the abuser an excuse.
Calling someone a monster assumes that they can only behave one way. I do believe that abusive people can change. Of course, they have to want to change and put in a lot of tedious work. It has to be difficult to admit they’ve been hurting their partners and children. To own up to the behavior and commit to making changes in the direction of more equal relationships is quite an undertaking. But, people can make those changes.
When we simply write a person off as a monster, we allow them to stay the same and never demand that they change.
It leads us to write them off as a lost cause.
People are people, not monsters. I don’t like this term because I think that every time we dehumanize someone, we add to the lower level collective unconscious. That is the kind of consciousness that breeds hate and abuse. There is a way to reject someone’s behavior without rejecting them as inhuman or beyond all intervention. I’m not making a case that any of us have to personally make friends with perpetrators of abuse, but I do believe that healing this problem takes a more dynamic viewpoint.
We believe that abuse is uncommon.
We talk about perpetrators of abuse like we talk about serial killers. We see this person as an almost mythical being. Abuse is not uncommon. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states that, “1 in 3 women have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner at some time in their lives” and that more than 20,000 calls to domestic violence helplines are placed daily in the United States. In fact, most violence against women is perpetrated by an intimate partner.
It happens every single day, in every neighborhood, and if you haven’t been a victim of abuse yourself, you know several people who have. Abuse is not inflicted by the rare, horrible person. Abuse is inflicted by men that you would never suspect unless you were his partner.
Abuse is rampant in our society. That is why it is important to acknowledge it and stop pretending like it is rare. We can’t pretend we don’t know who these “monsters” are. Perpetrators of abuse are our fathers, brothers, and partners.
This shift in how we discuss perpetrators goes a long way to demystify the prevalence and dynamic of intimate partner violence.
It erases queer people’s experiences.
Woman on woman abuse and man on man abuse is just as common as man on woman. Again, the statistic remains the same when the people being polled are part of the LGBT community. One out of 3 people have experienced intimate partner violence. This, of course, includes trans people.
Members of the LGBT community have added stressors when it comes to intimate partner violence like being outed, less legal protection, and internalized homophobia or shame about their sexuality or gender identity. Every victim faces the fear and the reality of not being believed, but for women in lesbian relationships, they face the societal stereotypes that women cannot be violent. Male victims of male partners face the normalization of violence between males and the threat that their abuse will be labeled as “mutual” (which is never true).
The way we talk about perpetrators of abuse only acknowledges a very small population of perpetrators. When we fail to acknowledge perpetrators from other backgrounds we fail to recognize their victims.
Why Does He Do That? (2002) by Lundy Bancroft
“Love is respect heart org.” Last accessed July 17, 2018. http://www.loveisrespect.org/
“The National Domestic Violence Hotline.” Last accessed July 17, 2018. http://www.thehotline.org/
World Health Organization. Last accessed July 17, 2018.
Stromberg, Joseph. “The Neuroscientist Who Discovered He Was a Psychopath.” November 22,