This book is a look at the traits and mindset of abusive men. Some of its insights are surprising and shed light on why domestic abuse is so hard to detect and treat.
Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men (2002) by Lundy Bancroft
I read this book a while ago on a whim after seeing a recommendation for it on a forum I go to. Why Does He Do That? was recommended as an eye-opening look at partner abuse, and the reccer, linking to a free PDF someone had uploaded online, stated that reading it could potentially save lives. Such a description seemed promising so I decided to take a look. And indeed, most of the information in this book was new to me, and it had the effect of upending views on abuse that I had previously held.
Even though this book is more focused on the self-help and psychology side of my interests than the political side, I’m summarizing it here because I think it provides an especially good background or counterpoint to a book I will summarize next (Conflict Is Not Abuse, which is pretty squarely at the intersection of my two interests).
The surprising (and most useful) parts of the book can be sorted into three categories: a profile of the abuser (what they look like, how they behave in public and private, etc.), the hidden mental models of abusers that need to be drawn out into the light and challenged in order to combat abuse, and how different types of treatment are better or worse in light of these insights (in particular, many types of therapy make abusive attitudes and behavior worse).
Profile of the abuser
What does an abuser and an abusive relationship look like? To be able to abuse someone for a long time and get away with it requires a certain degree of two-facedness from an abuser, which simultaneously makes sense and is very jarring. Part of this two-facedness involves very targeted abuse (abusing only one person at a time (their current partner) in private situations), which means that abusers can be pleasant, warm, generous, and caring 100% of the time to the vast majority of people, while being cruel and mean to a certain person (that is, their public face is very different from their private face). The two-facedness is also present in the private world itself, when an abuser can go from being kind and generous in a relationship to harsh and selfish, and from violent and domineering to distraught, repentant, and emotionally vulnerable.
The view from the outside
• Abusers look (and are) psychologically normal
Abusers can have many positive traits: they can be great friends, successful at work, generous, funny, caring, warm, emotionally mature, responsible, reasonable, etc.
• Abusers look the victim more than the victim
Because of all the above traits, abusers convincingly tell a story of victimization. When the partner (or previous partners) brings up abuse charges, the abuser portrays them as vindictive and trying to utilize the court system to retaliate against them or cow them into submission. When their partner criticizes them or their behavior, the abuser portrays his partner as controlling and totalitarian, unable to accept the abuser’s free will. When the partner tries to get children away from the abuser, the abuser accuses their partner of viewing their children as weapons to use in an ongoing campaign against the abuser, and now the abuser is distraught at not having the chance to have a relationship with their own children.
The view from inside
• Abusive relationships start out as idyllic and often return to that state for periods of time
This I knew before reading the book due to reading this article talking about how abusive relationships can have intensely romantic layers occurring simultaneously. The initial months/years of a relationship are pretty much always idyllic and the abuser shows many positive traits like being kind, warm, funny, generous, sweet, vulnerable, loving, sensitive/in tune with his emotions, caring, etc. Worse, those good parts of the relationship never go away entirely (i.e. reminders of those good parts come back from time to time to keep the partner hooked and invested in the relationship and fixing it1), but may show themselves less frequently over the run of the relationship.
• Abuser looks victimized and pathetic inside the relationship too
Privately, abusers may admit to feeling insecure, having low esteem, or being afraid of intimacy and abandonment; being abused as a child; cheated on, stalked, or abused by a previous partner; that their previous partner was controlling/vindictive and this messed them up in various ways, etc.
• Abuse from the inside
Abuse is a tactic used to control a person, and so I think the forms it can take can be divided into three categories:
(1) Using putdowns and derision to lower partners’ self esteem (rants, words that cut, choosing words for their punch: their cruelty and the amount they degrade, public humiliation (something where normally private abuse is made public, although people do not know the full context), sarcasm, eyerolls, disgusted sighs, interruptions, condescending tone)
(2) Using manipulation to disorient partner or change their mind (gaslighting (denying the obvious things you both know about), lying to partner or lying about partner to other people, abrupt mood changes, deflecting arguments/turning criticism back on partner, guilt-tripping)
(3) Using threats to physical safety to change people’s actions (intimidation, blocking people’s way/egress, driving recklessly, vague threats, punching walls or throwing objects, physically harming partner)2
The results of these actions on the abused partner can manifest as fear of their partner, distance from friends/family, declining energy/motivation, depression, anxiety, being unable to bring relationship issues up (it’s never the right way or time), etc. The third tactic is what people outside the relationship tend to take most seriously as it’s the most dangerous, but the constant cutting down (verbal abuse) is often seen as the most painful and cruel to the abused partner.
The abuser in total
The author, an abuse counselor, has access to both the inner and outer worlds of abusers. What arises through his anecdotes is very much a picture of someone who is two-faced. For example:
• Abusers lie
This is the most surprising part of the book (although maybe it shouldn’t be?). It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that abusers will straight up (and without difficulty) deny the existence of their abuse when asked a direct question about it, and will confidently counter-accuse their accusers of false accusations. Such a strategy is necessary to not face the consequences of their abusive behavior. But sometimes the abuser’s lying and minimization is SO straight-faced and confident and earnest that people begin to wonder if the abuser is engaging in self-delusion or has legitimate memory problems.
Because of the abuser’s positive points, potentially being emotionally vulnerable, sensitive, empathetic, etc., plus their readiness to lie, it can be incredibly easy to think “Abusive? Them? They’re just not the type” and “They have never treated me with an ounce of disrespect. Their partner must be lying in order to extort something from a decent person.”
The most uncomfortable part of the book for me is that the author’s description of abusers’ common victimization stories — in particular unhinged-woman-as-unchecked-extortionist — match up so well with the narrative of men’s rights activists. At one point, the author mentions an accusation that he has never found corroborated: the abuser claims that their partner, during an argument, threatened to call the police and say that the abuser hit her. This is a fear and an anecdote that one can commonly find in MRA spaces, as is this story:
Faulty mental models
This book argues that a lot of the view of abusers has been obscured by myths that abusers themselves often deploy, such as the cause of abuse being difficulty controlling emotions or actions, or that abusers have unresolved psychological issues from previous abuse. The author argues that what actually causes abuse is that the abuser has a sophisticated justification system that renders their abuse of their partner reasonable and justified.
Rather than being a lack of emotional control, what is faulty with abusers is that they view their behavior as justified before and after the fact, even though they might show contrition or view their behavior as regrettable. This inner belief of justification will sometimes slip out at unguarded moments, for example: “I’m not like one of those guys who comes home and beats his wife for no reason.” This reveals that the abuser accepts that under certain circumstances, a person is justified in hitting their wife.
Part of understanding the abuser’s mentality is realizing that the abuser has a lot to gain from abusing their partner, and knows this on an instinctual level even if not consciously. Abuse allows a person to control the actions of their partner INCLUDING to discourage them from leaving, which has benefits for the abuser such as:
– Getting out of work (ability to avoid chores or avoid listening when they don’t feel like it)
– Leisure time
– Getting their way, esp. in areas they care about (i.e. they can satisfy their preferences without having to compromise)
– Having a punching bag for life’s frustrations
– Appeasement, accommodation, attention
– Money, financial support, ownership of property, etc.
– Having their life goals prioritized over their partners
In other words, the abuser gets a pretty sweet setup and it is entirely dependent on being able to employ abusive tactics with impunity in order to maintain it.
• “I just lost control”
Underpinning much of abusive thinking and rationalization is that the abuser “lost control.” However, there are indications that they do have control. They regularly do not act on anger or rude urges they experience in other contexts. When breaking things, they don’t break things that are important to them. And when the author asks people, when they were “totally out of control” what stopped them from going even further (kicking her when she was on the floor, etc.) “the client can always give me a reason” (e.g. child was watching, didn’t want to kill her, would never do that, didn’t want to leave bruises that would show, etc.) — indicating they did actually have control and never went beyond what they were willing to do. When pressed to think about their thought process during an event, abusers can often pinpoint a moment where they gave themselves permission to go crazy or let loose.
The mental model here that another person’s actions create an unavoidable reaction (the philosophy espoused by Nonviolent Communication continues to be relevant) also underpins a tactic that abusers use, where they try to negotiate a trade-off or conditionally stop their abuse by saying “If you didn’t do X, then I wouldn’t (have to) do Y” or “I’m willing to work on X about myself, but you need to be willing to work on Y about yourself.” When people view these kinds of quid pro quos as reasonable to make, then they (1) validate the abuser’s thinking that their abuse is a reasonable reaction to their partner’s behavior, and (2) help the abuser attain their objective of using abuse to control their partner’s behavior.
• The abuser has distorted views on how to handle collective decision-making and conflict
While abusers can be generous some or most of the time, when it comes to an issue that is important to them, they do not believe that they should have to compromise. As such, their generosity comes about because they are already happy to do something nice for someone else of their own accord, but if they truly don’t want to do something, they view compromise as oppressive and unacceptable. They generally do not explicitly declare these beliefs, but when pressed will have attitudes like the following:
- “An argument should only last as long as my patience does. Once I’ve had enough, the discussion is over and it’s time for you to shut up.”
- “If the issue we’re struggling over is important to me, I should get what I want. If you don’t back off, you’re wronging me.”
- “I know what is best for you and for our relationship. If you continue disagreeing with me after I’ve made it clear which path is the right one, you’re acting stupid.”
- “If my control and authority seem to be slipping, I have the right to take steps to reestablish the rule of my will, including abuse if necessary.”
- “The relationship is over when I say it’s over; abuse in not a good reason to end a relationship”
- “Arguments are like wars, and I must win them”
This view of conflict extends to having sex as well, which is an activity that requires both people to agree to it. “A majority of my clients seem to believe that the woman loses her right to refuse him if the man determines that it has been ‘too long’ since they have had sex.” Rather than viewing sex as something that requires mutual agreement, they view the act of declining sex as an exertion of power and control, and believe in (or at least appeal to) biological myths where denying sex constitutes bodily harm. This ties into a general point that the author makes multiple times throughout the book: reversals in the abuser-victim relationship happen all the time in abusers’ minds. Displays of free will are often interpreted as oppressive, manipulative, controlling, and malicious; calls to respect partners’ right to live free of abuse are seen as equivalent to calling for unilateral capitulation (“letting her walk all over me”).
• Diminished empathy/respect for partner / view of partner’s rights
Although relationships are supposed to be loving and respectful, the abuser’s true attitudes toward their partner are particularly low: inwardly, they view their partner as less intelligent, competent, logical, compassionate, etc. than themselves.
This low opinion of their partner not only justifies abuse in their mind but is reinforced/created by abuse. The abuser looks down on their partner for being unreasonable and crazy; lethargic and unmotivated; having a stalled career or “never amounting to anything” in life; or having bad parenting skills. But the abuser is constantly disorienting their partner by changing the topic of conversations and gaslighting them; causing their partner’s dejection and depression that makes finding energy difficult; undermining their partner’s career, success, and independence; and undermining their partner’s parenting, thus creating the traits they find so annoying and worthy of contempt. Abuse and disrespect mutually reinforce each other.
The author says the main goal of abuser treatment is to undo this process of declining empathy and respect: to shrink the self-centeredness of abusers and the importance they place on their opinions and feelings, and to grow the respect and consideration they give to their partner’s opinions and feelings.
• “A partner must be all good to live free from abuse”
Abusers will often say, in response to confrontations about their abuse, “Well, you’re [my partner’s] no saint either.” The implication here is that a person who is flawed cannot expect their partner not to abuse them.
You can view all of these cognitive distortions as faulty thought processes that reinforce, strengthen, or create abusive behavior. Or you can think of them as desperate attempts to convince people to allow the abuser to continue abusing so that they can continue to extract money, leisure time, favors, attention, sense of superiority, and labor at the expense of their partner’s well-being. In any case, the distorted thinking has to be unearthed, reckoned with, and debunked in order to get an abuser to own up to the fact that they are mistreating someone and that no one “deserves” to be mistreated.
In light of the view on abusiveness and where it stems from, the book’s take on how to treat abusers is both surprising and surprisingly pessimistic.
• Need for external motivation
Because of the benefits that abusers gain from maintaining an abusive relationship, (1) they rarely find treatment a worthwhile use of their time — why go through treatment so that you can settle for a lower standard of living (having to do more housework and chores, not being able to control their partner and use them like a servant)? They do a cost-benefit calculation, and becoming less abusive is not worth it. (2) Abusers never hit “rock bottom” in the way drug addicts might. Abusing their partners sends the partner’s life spiraling down, but it doesn’t affect the abuser’s ability to maintain friendships, hold down a job, or have high self-esteem. Even when abusers go to jail (because they were caught assaulting their partner) or their partner leaves them, which are things the abuser actively doesn’t want to happen, they will still strongly believe that they were wronged and nothing about them needs to change. In other words, denial and minimization of abusive behavior continues even after consequences start to catch up with them.
The conclusion of the author is that the best way to encourage abusers to reform is to punish abuse with a short jail sentence plus a long period of probation with mandatory participation in an abuser program. Threats of future punishment don’t deter behavior. For the partner, there is not much they can do to motivate the abuser to get help — the most they can do is set a “no abuse” boundary within the relationship and take increasingly long breaks from the relationship whenever a violent incident occurs. Friends and family of the abuser can also apply pressure by refusing to accept the abuse as justified and supporting the abused partner.
• Pretty much every form of therapy other than specialized abuser therapy makes abuse worse
Psychotherapy: “In fact it [his behavior] typically gets worse, as he uses therapy to develop new excuses for his behavior, more sophisticated arguments to prove that his partner is mentally unstable, and more creative ways to make her feel responsible for his emotional distress. Abusive men are sometimes masters of the hard-luck story, and may find that accounts of childhood abuse are one of the best ways to pull heartstrings.” “The fact is that if an abuser finds a particularly skilled therapist and if the therapy is especially successful, when he is finished he will be a happy, well-adjusted abuser — good news for him, perhaps, but not such good news for his partner.” Abusers are good at turning therapists against their partners; the author recalls therapists even diagnosing the partner with a disorder without having ever talked to her or treated her, based only on the account given by the abuser.
Medication: Even though medication can be successful at making the abuser less abusive, it won’t last: abusers are too selfish to tolerate side effects, so will quit. “The medication then can become another tool to be used in psychological abuse. For example, the abuser can stop taking his pills when he is upset with her, knowing that this will make her anxious and afraid.”
Addiction programs like AA: These programs have some principles that would be good for abusers to internalize (such as making amends for past misdeeds or not blaming misdeeds on alcohol) but abusers tend to ignore the advice. When domestic abusers also have substance addiction, an addiction program without also an abuse program will not solve the domestic abuse problem and can be used as leverage in the abusive relationship.
Couples therapy: The “mutual work” nature of couples therapy upholds the abuser’s view of the world — that he should not have to give up abuse unless the partner changes. The author gives an example of a therapist talking in a published book that they had helped a couple come to an agreement that the man would avoid scary behaviors in exchange for the woman making her friends a lower priority in her life, viewing it as a success rather than essentially helping the man more effectively abuse the woman. Also, like with psychotherapy, the abuser is often able to turn the therapist against their partner.
The difficulty distinguishing between the abuser and the abused
One final point: if you’ve been following the information I’ve summarized here, one thing that begins to be clear is that it is hard to actually know who is being abused in a relationship.
Because of the easy lying, confident counter-accusations of false accusations makes the abuser look like the one being mistreated and maligned by their partner. The abuser presents their honest view that they are controlled and henpecked by their partner, who takes advantage of them knowing people will take her side.
During confrontations, despite what they claim, abusers are never out of control in the first place. As such, they calm down rapidly when e.g. the police are called. By the time police arrive, it is the abuser who is calm, collected, and level-headed, and the abused who is an emotional wreck because they’ve just been degraded and intimidated. For same-sex couples, police frequently arrest the wrong person, and increasingly it is the abuser who will request a restraining order against and custody of children away from their victim. These are things that will come up again in Conflict Is Not Abuse.
Because of this difficulty in determining which partner is mistreating whom, it may be tempting to take a neutral stance. The author strongly recommends against this: “Although an abuser prefers to have you wholeheartedly on his side, he will settle contentedly for your decision to take a middle stance. To him, that means you see the couple’s problem as partly her fault and partly his fault, which means it isn’t abuse.”
Instead, the best way to understand what is happening in a relationship is to also talk to the partner, and also to the person’s previous partners. When someone accuses someone of mistreatment, don’t take their side at face value. Ask questions about their actions that the partner finds objectionable, what their partner’s view is, and what their partner is asking for. An abuser will make the accusations sound ridiculous and baseless and have difficulty portraying their partner as having a reasonable point. Then follow up with the other party.
This book is the only in-depth examination of domestic violence (and the people who perpetuate it) that I’ve read, but it’s a doozy — completely changing my view of what abusers look like and how they operate. In particular, it presents a picture of abusers as surprisingly two-faced, which makes it hard to believe that they abuse their partners, and it dispels a lot of the myths that allow abusers to avoid being held responsible for their actions. It seems to be a really helpful resource for women who have found themselves in these kinds of relationships. I very much recommend it.
↑ 1 For example, after an incident of abuse, the abuser might become incredibly repentant, put effort into doing nice things for their partner, commit to working on themselves, etc. It is unclear how intentional this change of tack is — is it completely calculated to get the partner to forgive the abuse and stay in the relationship? Or is it an earnest expression of regret and fear of losing their partner? The author suggests abusers have at least an instinctive awareness of what behavior will get the results they want, even if they may not be consciously manipulative. In any case, whether sincere or cynical, abuse can always recur if underlying attitudes are not changed.
↑ 2 Another tactic in this category that I’m aware of through friends — which the book doesn’t mention — is threatening to commit suicide if a partner leaves the relationship or doesn’t break off friendships. Some controlling people are aware that their partners will leave the relationship if hit, but that they can still control them by preying on their partner’s unwillingness to cause harm to other people.