Why abuse isn’t an ‘anger’ issue

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.

Anger, acted out in an abusive relationship, can therefore be more usefully understood as a problem of entitlement 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 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.

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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.

 

Spotting a potentially abusive partner

Common characteristics of people who go on to become abusive to their partners

I have compiled a list of the common characteristics of people who go on to become abusive to their partners. It is not exhaustive; please do feel free to add your own experiences to your personal list. It is also worth noting that not everyone who displays these characteristics will become abusive.

Jealousy

Showing signs of early or severe possessiveness and jealousy. Questioning your motives for going out, trying to control what you wear, becoming suspicious of you talking to members of your preferred sexual preference. They may tell you that it’s only because they love you so much.

Going Fast

Speeding into a relationship, not giving you time to catch your breath. Wanting to move in quickly or making you feel bad if you don’t want to go as quickly as they do.

Charming

Are they charming? This is different from authentically kind; charm is superficial and can hide an underlying narcissism.

Love-bombing: this is a technique that cults use to recruit; you will feel special like you are their whole world.

Something similar happens in a healthy relationship too. When you fall in love it is normal to idealise your partner somewhat, the difference is the extent and the fall from grace. In an ordinary, loving relationship, your connection will deepen and strengthen as your relationship matures, however with an abusive relationship you will experience a confusing alternation between idealisation and devaluation.

Idealisation or denigration of previous partners

Obviously, most of us have been in relationships where we were unhappy, but do they have a string of ‘crazy’ exes? Are they critical, denigrative, and undermining? Or at the opposite extreme, are their ex-partner’s perfect; incredible, amazing individuals who can do no wrong and who you feel you can never live up to? A non-abusive person should have a coherent and balanced narrative that generally includes empathy for the other and also takes responsibility for themselves.

Controlling

Do they take charge of the decisions, seek to control your actions, where you go, what you do, and who you see? What you wear? What you eat? How you speak? Abuse is all about power and control.

Emotional and physical violence

  • Do they call you names in an argument?
  • Have they ever been accused of domestic violence in the past?
  • Have they hit you?
  • Have they broken your possessions or threatened to?
  • Have they been cruel or abusive to animals or children?

Blame

Do they take responsibility for themselves and their lives, or is everything everyone else’s fault?

Admitting fault

Can they admit their part? Can they see where they are at fault if you have a disagreement, and do they make appropriate amends?

It is common for people who are abusive to apologise, sometimes excessively, after they have been abusive. In a healthy relationship, you should expect someone to make an amend – they might change their behaviour to take into account your feelings, without expecting you to be excessively grateful, or they might suggest something else that they could to in order to rectify their mistake, or for you to both be able to reconnect.

Hearing your boundaries

Can they hear you say no without them undermining it with persuasion, force or with flattery? Do they make you feel bad when you do say no or express feelings that are different to theirs, maybe even framing it as something wrong with you?

Substance misuse

Do they abuse alcohol or other substances? Many people who do are not abusive, but alcohol and drugs can loosen inhibitions in people who have the potential to be abusive making it more likely that they will become abusive. Moreover, it is common for people who become abusive under the influence to blame the substance for the abuse. Don’t be taken in; if they cannot drink safely then they have a responsibility to either not drink or, if that is not possible, to get help with their drinking.

Isolating you

They might begin to speak badly about your friends and family, undermining your relationship with them in that way, or punish you (either subtly or overtly) for seeing them, or expecting to see you all the time. Do you feel under pressure not to work, or pursue education?

Coercive or forceful sex

Forceful or unwanted sex (maybe when you are ill, tired or asleep); manipulating you by sulking or anger if you don’t do what they want.

Where do I go from here?

You have some good tools at your disposal that will help to keep you safe:

Analyse the past

If you have been in an abusive relationship before, how did the abuse develop then? It can be useful to analyse what happened and what information you might have discounted about your ex that you would understand differently now (that’s not to say you could have done any differently at the time, it is just that it can be helpful to look again at our experience with the benefit of hindsight).

Do you feel uneasy?

Having looked at the above list, can you see any warning signs that he might become abusive? When did you notice them?

What rationalisations do you use after the abuse; e.g. he loves me, he’s not like that all the time, she said sorry and she’ll never do it again (note how close your story is to their version).

Your internal guidance system

The following are indicators that something might be amiss in your relationship and you would be wise to slow down and analyse where these feelings are coming from.

Do you feel:

  • Guilty without quite knowing why?
  • Like you can’t get anything right?
  • That you’re walking on eggshells?
  • As though your world is getting smaller?

Heal yourself

The stronger and more in touch you are with yourself, the more likely you are to trust your internal warning system and act on it. The more content you are with your life, the less likely you are to compromise and enter a relationship that is unhealthy or unsafe.

If you are still experiencing the after effects of an abusive relationship, or are struggling to heal, it can be a good idea to enlist some specialist support.

If you are currently in an abusive relationship and want help, please call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247. They will be able to direct you to your local services.