The terms victim and abuser are very imperfect, and I acknowledge that. You may also note that I tend to define the abuser as male and the victim as female. I use these terms for readability, but please do substitute your own language if this doesn’t fit with your preference or experience.
It is a common misunderstanding that abuse is an issue with anger, and if an abuser could gain control of their anger, they would no longer be abusive. However, this explanation misses something crucial;
Abusers have abusive expectations, and then they get angry when these expectations are not met. Abusers are coercively controlling, using anger as a means to gain and maintain power and control in their relationship.
Anger, acted out in an abusive relationship, can therefore be more usefully understood as a problem of entitlement and a need to be in control rather than a problem of anger.
Anger in this context can be displayed in two ways: passive aggressively, or aggressively. It is often easier to spot the more obvious displays of anger; violence, threats, destroying possessions and yelling, to name a few. Harder to spot are the subtler displays of anger; the criticism ‘for your own good’, the sulking, the mess left ‘accidentally on purpose’, and the kids who have not been put to bed yet, even though it’s well past your bedtime.
Aggressive or violent displays of anger
If my partner punches me because I have not done the washing up to his standards, it might seem that he lacks control of his anger (indeed, he may actively encourage me to think this), however:
- His anger arises from the ‘abusive expectation’ that he should be the one who decides how the washing up needs to be done.
- His belief (conscious or not) that he is entitled to use force / violence / coercive tactics to get me to do what he wants.
- A wider relational dynamic where he believes he is entitled to be in charge, or that I need to be controlled.
- That it is my responsibility to prioritise his feelings (in this instance, his wish to have a clean kitchen) at the expense of my needs and rights within the relationship (in this instance, my personal autonomy, and my human right to live a life free from violence and fear).
Passive aggressive / emotionally abusive displays of anger
They may display their anger in a variety of ways: sulking, manipulation (drawing on your empathy, making you feel sorry for them), pressure, love-bombing, stalking, harrassment, or punishing you in a variety of other ways.
If we take the example of a man who doesn’t want his partner to go out (jealousy is common in abusive relationships); he might tell her he’s fine with it, but his behaviour will demonstrate otherwise: he might tell you he doesn’t like your friends, they’re not good enough for you, come back in drunk the next night to punish you because he knows you don’t like it, ‘have’ to work late on the day when you share a car so you can’t go without him being home, text you incessantly when you finally get out, and then sulk for days afterwards but deny that he is sulking.
What makes it a problem of entitlement and control is the following:
- His ‘abusive expectation’ that he should be the one to decide where you go, who you see, and what you do
- The idea that he is entitled to use underhand & coercive tactics to achieve his aims
- A wider relational dynamic where he feels entitled to be in charge, and;
- That it is your responsibility to look after his feelings (in this instance, jealousy) at the expense of your needs and rights within the relationship (in this instance, personal freedom)
I use the example of an intimate partner relationship, but obviously abuse can take place in all sorts of other relationships too. For example, issue of entitlement can be complicated in the case of parent-to-child abuse where the parent’s ordinary responsibility for taking care of, ensuring the safety of, and disciplining their child can sometimes be hard to separate from coercive control and abusive expectations. However, at the heart of all abusive relationships is the issue of power and control; abusers try to dominate their victims using a variety of methods, including manipulation, violence, aggression, blackmail, criticism, gaslighting and (faux-)kindness. In contrast, to use a Winnicottian phrase, ‘Good enough’ parents try to take into account their children’s desires, needs and feelings and do their best to act from a place of empathy when they have to set boundaries, rather than use blame and criticism (although they certainly don’t always get it right).
Therefore, displays of anger can be both understood in the context of the wider use of abusive tactics, and also as arising out of inappropriate expectations of the other.
Some abusers really do have hair trigger tempers, and could usefully engage with anger management techniques, but this would need to be within the context of a specialist Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programme and not an anger management course. (Anger Management course can actually escalate abusers’ behaviour because of their emphasis on shared responsibility for conflict.)
Controlling, but not taking responsibility for their feelings
Interestingly, where abusers so often take control within relationships, they usually also don’t take responsibility for their abuse or their anger. A common justification that an abuser will use is ‘I just saw red’ or ‘I couldn’t help it, my jealously was so strong’. Or they will blame their victim ‘you shouldn’t have gone out / talked to that man / looked up from the floor’.
This reallocates the responsibility towards the victim for managing the abuser’s feelings, while keeping the locus of control firmly in the abuser’s hands. So, they have the control but none of the responsibility, and the victim is left looking to the abuser for how she should think, act, feel and behave.
In contrast, for an abuser to have a meaningful recovery from being abusive, there must be a consistent, repeated attempt to take responsibility for one’s own actions while letting go of their control over their victim’s thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviour. Most abusers are very good at saying sorry; meaning it, and undertaking a consistent and sustained change in their behaviour is usually another matter entirely.
If you are in an abusive relationship, as ever, focus on your safety first. The National Domestic Abuse Helpline can be contacted on 0808 2000 247, they should be able to point you in the direction of some suitable help if you are in an abusive relationship or struggling with the after effects.
Good luck, and take good care of yourself.
Please do note that violence does not need to be a part of an abusive relationship. Emotionally and psychologically abusive relationships can be extremely damaging in and of themselves. Seek appropriate help if you are struggling, therapy can be a useful resource, the internet can be a good source of information and enable you to find online and offline support networks.