Profile of an Assailant

Information on the abusers in domestic violence cases is difficult to get. This is because the abusers don’t often go for help where people can get the information. This paper is based on data gathered in marriage counseling with individuals and couples from a small number of men who have assaulted their wives.

One major characteristic of abusers is their ability to fool themselves and others. They are artists in their ability to find ways to blame other people or events for their inappropriate behavior. A life-long pattern of avoiding taking the blame for their own behavior makes it very difficult for them to accept any responsibility for their own actions and limits their willingness to change.

While some abusers appear to have some good social relationships in which they are polite and charming, these relationships are maintained with distance and control. Some abusers are violent outside their homes; others assault only their wives and appear well adjusted to casual observers. Their main (maybe their only) emotional involvement is with their wife.

The abuser has an intense desire to control his partner. She helps the abuser continue to feel that his problems are outside himself and he continues to fool himself into believing his problems are not inside himself. When the wife is not available, the abuser often gets upset and experiences guilt and depression. Because of these things, the abuser is likely to become most violent if his wife threatens or attempts to leave him.

It is important to look at how the abuser’s personality causes the wife’s personality to change. It is particularly important to understand that when the victim tries to change her own behavior in order to lessen the violence, or to try to maintain the relationship, she may actually be maintaining the violence. The abuser wishes to put blame on his partner in order to avoid the pain of admitting his own responsibility for the abuse. At the same time, his partner may accept this blame to survive. One of the most powerful reasons a woman may blame herself is the fantasy that if she actually has the power to “make” a beating happen, then she must have the power to “make” it stop by being “good.”

Unfortunately, although this shift in responsibility does help reassure both people for awhile, it also makes further assaults likely. As long as the abuser blames the victim for his problems, he will continue to abuse. Actually, the violence is caused by the abuser’s personality and doesn’t have much to do with the victim’s behavior. The problems of violence cannot be solved unless the abuser takes responsibility for his own behavior. Otherwise, the violence will continue.

Another area to look at is the way each party reacts to a possible separation. When severe beatings and threats of murdering the partner and/or the children or other loved ones have not kept the woman from leaving, the abuser may become very depressed. His feeling of guilt, loss and anxiety may interfere with his ability to function effectively in other areas of his life. Often this is seen by the woman and others, as proof of his “love” for her and his regret over his violence.

Actually, while the emotional attachment of the abuser to his victim is a powerful bond, it is far from love. It represents an unhealthy dependency on his partner. In a very real sense he does need her: he needs her in a way that would be emotionally destructive for both of them, even if the violence were not occurring. This is because he needs her and their conflicts to help him believe it is her fault, so he does not have to accept responsibility for his own behavior and his predicament.

At the same time the woman, whose self-esteem has been hurt by the assaults, is very open to the pleading of her abuser that he desperately needs her. It boosts her shattered sense of worth. One woman from an abusive situation who understood all this said that she wished he’d go need someone else for a change. Many victims have been repeatedly persuaded to return to a relationship by an abuser who is depressed, guilty or suicidal.

Some reasons women return to an abuser are that she feels sorry for his unhappiness, she has a need to be needed, or she believes that now that he is so unhappy with her gone he will treat her better when she returns.

Unfortunately, this belief is exactly opposite of what is true. While there may be a “honeymoon” phase immediately after an assault, the more distressed he is, the unhealthier his dependency is, and so there is really a higher risk of more assaults. The abuser’s pain is real. However, he uses it to control and manipulate his victim, rather than learning from the pain that he needs to make changes in himself. When his manipulation fails, he returns to intimidation or assaults, or he gets into a relationship that features the same patterns with another woman.

Violent behavior has enormous payoffs. A violent person usually gets less negative feedback about his or her actions… one simply does not tell the truth to someone who is holding a gun. In addition, the abuser generally gets a good response from his violence. His partner becomes submissive and tries to take as much frustration out of his life as possible, so she won’t be beaten again. While her behavior is caused by her wanting to be beaten less often, it actually serves as a powerful reason for him to maintain it, as she shows him that beating helps him get what he wants. Of course, if the victim does stand up to him, she will be beaten.

This is the dilemma for the woman. Giving in to him maintains the violence and the relationship, but if she doesn’t give in she is even more likely to be beaten.

In the abuser’s life, there are few things that will help him control his behavior besides action by society. To make the relationship healthy, the woman must stop accommodating her abuser. But to stop without help from society is self-destructive. Her only option is to leave the relationship, which is risky for her. Even if she does successfully leave, the abuser will probably just establish another violent relationship with another woman. Society could help to force the abuser to change by holding him responsible for his behavior. This would make his violence less rewarding for him.

One of the unhealthiest parts of violent relationships is the shifting of the responsibility for the violence from the abuser to the victim. Our society breeds this sickness by blaming the victim instead of making the abuser responsible for his criminal behavior. We call the victim masochistic, or say she asks for it and we ignore the abuser. These attitudes are all through society: in families, police, the legal system, etc., and thus they actually help create the violence.

There must be an effective intervention by society if the violent person is ever to change. These interventions must make it clear that the abuser is personally responsible for his violence. There is only one legal justification for hitting another person: self-defense. There can be no other excuses in domestic violence cases. If we are to make changes, we must clearly say that if a person is unhappy with a partner he or she has every right to leave, but has no right to ever brutalize that partner.

Written by: Camella S. Serum, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist, Midland Mental Health Center. Revised by: Safe Haven Shelter, Duluth, Minnesota.