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Lundy Bancroft 

“This fascinating investigation into what makes 
abusive men tick is alarming, but its candid 
handling of a difficult subject makes it a valuable 
resource for professionals and victims alike.... 
Jargon-free analysis is frequently broken up by 
interesting first-person accounts and boxes that 
distill in-depth information into simple checklists. 
Bancroft’s book promises to be a beacon of calm 
for many storm-tossed families.” 

—Publishers Weekly (starred review) 

“Most books about abuse in relationships focus on 
women—how they’re hurt, why they stay. As 
important as these questions are, they can also 
distract us from the heart of the problem. Bancroft 
boldly asks—and brilliantly answers—the most 
important questions of all: Why do so many men 
abuse women? What can be done about it? This 
book is desperately needed and long overdue.” 

Jackson Katz, creator of the award-winning 


Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in 

“Bancroft, a former codirector of Emerge, the first 
U.S. program for abusive men, and a fifteen-year 
veteran of work with abusive men, reminds 
readers that each year in this country, two to four 
million women are assaulted by their partners and 
that at least one out of three American women will 
be a victim of violence by a husband or boyfriend 
at some point in her life. His valuable resource 
covers early warning signs, ten abusive 
personality types, the abusive mentality, problems 
with getting help from the legal system, and the 
long, complex process of change... .This is 
essential reading for those in the helping 
professions and highly recommended.” 

-Library Journal (starred review) 

“At last—the straight scoop on men who abuse 
women. This is a book not just for abused women 
and domestic violence professionals, but for 
everyone who wonders why there’s so much 
violence in America. Read it.” 

—Anne Jones, author of When Love Goes Wrong 

and Next Time She ’ll Be Dead 

“Bancroft helps women who feel trapped in 
unhealthy relationships make sense out of what is 

—Sarah Buel, J.D., codirector, Domestic Violence 
Clinic, and lecturer, University of Texas Law 


“A compelling read about a tough topic. What you 

read here will come back to you long after you put 
the book down.” 

—Angela Browne, author of When Battered 

Women Kill 

“An informative and necessary read.” 

—Susan Weitzman, Ph.D., author of Not to 
People Like Us: Hidden Abuse in Upscale 




Why Does He Do That? 

Lundy Bancroft 



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The Library of Congress has catalogued the G. P. 
Putnam’s Sons hardcover edition as follows: 

Bancroft, Lundy. 

Why does he do that?: inside the minds of angry 
and controlling men / Lundy Bancroft. 

p. cm. 

Includes index. 

ISBN: 978-1-1012-2073-3 

1. Abusive men—United States—Psychology. 2. 
Wife abuse—United States. 3. Family 

violence—United States. 4. Victims of family 
violence—United States. I. Title. 

HV6626.2.B255 2002 2001048850 

3 62.82'92'0973—dc21 

For details, write: Special Markets, The Berkley 
Publishing Group, 375 Hudson Street, New York, 
New York 10014. 

To the thousands of courageous women, 

many of them survivors of abuse themselves, 

who have created and sustained the movement 

against the abuse of women, and to the many 

men who have joined this struggle as allies. 





The Nature of Abusive Thinking 






The Abusive Man in Relationships 









The Abusive Man in the World 






Changing the Abusive Man 







I HAVE HAD MANY, many teachers along my 
path to understanding the mentality and behavior 
of abusive men. Before I can name names, 
however, I need to thank above all the hundreds of 
female partners and ex-partners of my clients who 
have shared their stories with me and who have 
thereby shed light on the denial and distortions 
running through my clients’ accounts of events. 
The survivors of abuse have been my greatest 
educators; if we could hear their voices much 
more, and the voices of the abusers and their allies 
much less, the world would move rapidly to 
eliminate the chronic mistreatment that so many 
women currently face in their intimate 

My early colleagues at Emerge have a unique 
responsibility for setting me on the course that has 

brought me here: David Adams, Susan Cayouette, 
Ted German, Magueye Seek, Chuck Turner, 
Charlene Allen, and Jim Ptacek. In addition to 
being such a pleasure to work with, this group 
provided me with indispensable intellectual 
support and stimulation; I hope I was able to 
return some reasonable part of what they offered 

Equally important to the growth of my 
understanding of abusive men, and of their impact 
on their partners and children, was Carole Sousa, 
who simultaneously educated us at Emerge and 
kept us honest. Her criticisms of our blind spots 
were often annoying, mostly because of how right 
they were. No single person has contributed more 
to the understandings that I am now sharing. I 
need further to thank Carole for generously 
reviewing the manuscript for this book and 
marking her comments (important ones, as usual) 
with dozens of sticky tabs. Her suggestions have 
strengthened this book in critical ways. 

Other important influences on my insight into 
controlling and angry men and the destructive trail 
they leave behind them include Lonna Davis, Pam 
Whitney, Isa Woldeguiorguis, Susan Schechter, 
Sarah Buel, Jim Hardeman, Janet Fender, and 
Brenda Lopez. I would also like to express my 
appreciation to JefFEdleson, Claire Renzetti, 
Jackson Katz, Peter Jaffe, Barbara Hart, Bonnie 
Zimmer, Elaine Alpert, Joan Zorza, Je nni fer 
Juhler, Stephanie Eisenstat, Range Hutson, Scott 
Harshbarger, and Maureen Sheeran for their 
contributions to my learning about abuse and 
oppression and for their professional support and 
encouragement. Kate O’Kane contributed by 
providing me with a beautiful and relaxing place 
to write during the day. 

I also need to acknowledge how much I have 
learned from my clients themselves over the years, 
but it would not be appropriate for me to thank 
them, since without their abuse of women the 
writing of this book would be unnecessary. 

I am grateful to Gillian Andrews, Carlene 
Pavlos, Jay Silverman, Steve Holmes, Catherine 
Benedict, Gail Dines, Carrie Cuthbert, and Kim 
Slote for their combination of personal support 
and intellectual/professional stimulation and 
assistance over the years. Gillian and Gail in 
particular have both kept after me for years to 
write this book, and it is largely due to their 
continued prodding that it is finally here; Gillian 
also provided invaluable comments and 
suggestions on the manuscript. My family, too, 
has been loving and supportive (and tolerant) 
during the time-consuming and somet im es 
stressful writing process; I love you and thank you 
more than I can say for carrying me along. 

I owe tremendous gratitude to my agent, Wendy 
Sherman, who not only found a home for this book 
but also played a major role in forming the 
original concept and guiding its direction. A 
writer could not be in better hands. My 
appreciation also goes to Deb Futter at Doubleday, 

who led me to Wendy. My editor at Putnam, 
Jeremy Katz, has had unshakable faith in this 
proj ect from the beginning and has helped me 
through several moments of anxiety or hesitation. 
It fell to Jeremy to let my wagonloads of text 
dump down upon him so that he could stir it all 
around and figure out how to shape it into a 
presentable whole. I also wish to express 
appreciation to other people at Putnam who 
supported and worked on this book, including 
AnnMarie Harris, Denise Silvestro, Marilyn 
Ducks worth, and Brenda Goldberg. 

Finally, I want to express my deep gratitude to 
three people who don’t know me but whose work 
has inspired and sustained me for years: Bruce 
Cockbum, Mercedes Sosa, and Linda Hogan. 
Perhaps our paths will yet cross. 

Lundy Bancroft 

Winter 2002 

Note on Terminology 

IN REFERRING TO angry and controlling men in 
this book, I have chosen to use in most cases the 
shorter terms abusive man and abuser. I have 
used these terms for readability and not because I 
believe that every man who has problems with 
angry or controlling behaviors is abusive. I needed 
to select a simple word I could apply to any man 
who has recurring problems with disrespecting, 
controlling, insulting, or devaluing his partner, 
whether or not his behavior also involves more 
explicit verbal abuse, physical aggression, or 
sexual mistreatment. Any of these behaviors can 
have a serious impact on a woman’s life and can 
lead her to feel confused, depressed, anxious, or 
afraid. So even if your partner is not an abuser, 
you will find that much of what is described in the 
pages ahead can help to clarify for both of you the 

problems in your relationship and what steps you 
can take to head in a more satisfying, supportive, 
and intimate direction. If you are not sure whether 
your partner’s behavior should be called abuse or 
not, turn to Chapter 5, which will help you sort out 
the distinctions. 

At the same time, remember that even if your 
partner’s behavior doesn’t fit the definition of 
abuse, it may still have a serious effect on you. 

Any coercion or disrespect by a relationship 
partner is an important problem. Controlling men 
fall on a spectrum of behaviors, from those who 
exhibit only a few of the tactics I describe in this 
book to those who use almost all of them. 
Similarly, these men run a gamut in their 
attitudes, from those who are willing to accept 
confrontation about their behaviors and strive to 
change them, to those who won’t listen to the 
woman’s perspective at all, feel completely 
justified, and become highly retaliatory if she 
attempts to stand up for herself. (In fact, as we see 

in Chapter 5, one of the best ways to tell how deep 
a man’s control problem goes is by seeing how he 
reacts when you start demanding that he treat you 
better. If he accepts your grievances and actually 
takes steps to change what he does, the prospects 
for the future brighten somewhat.) The level of 
anger exhibited by a controlling man also shows 
wide variation, but unfortunately it doesn’t tell us 
much in itself about how psychologically 
destructive he may be or how likely he is to 
change, as we will see. 

In addition, I have chosen to use the terms he to 
refer to the abusive person and she to the abused 
partner. I selected these terms for convenience and 
because they correctly describe the great majority 
of relationships in which power is being abused. 
However, control and abuse are also a widespread 
problem in lesbian and gay male relationships, 
and the bulk of what I describe in this book is 
relevant to same-sex abusers. 

Why Does He Do That? 


controlling men for fifteen years as a counselor, 
evaluator, and investigator, and have accumulated 
a wealth of knowledge from the two thousand or 
more cases with which I have been involved. I 
have learned the warning signs of abuse and 
control that a woman can watch out for early in a 
relationship. I’ve come to know what a controlling 
man is really saying, the meaning that is hidden 
behind his words. I’ve seen clues to recognizing 
when verbal and emotional aggression are heading 
toward violence. Eve found ways to separate out 
abusive men who are faking change from those 
who are doing some genuine work on themselves. 
And I have learned that the problem of 
abusiveness has surprisingly little to do with how 
a man feels —my clients actually differ very little 

from nonabusive men in their emotional 
experiences—and everything to do with how he 
thinks. The answers are inside his mind. 

However, as delighted as I am to have had the 
opportunity to gain this insight, I am not one of 
the people who most needs it. The people who can 
best benefit from knowledge about abusers and 
how they think are women , who can use what I 
have learned to help themselves recognize when 
they are being controlled or devalued in a 
relationship, to find ways to get free of abuse if it 
is happening, and to know how to avoid getting 
involved with an abusive man—or a controller or 
a user—next time. The purpose of this book is to 
equip women with the ability to protect 
themselves, physically and psychologically, from 
angry and controlling men. 

To prepare for writing this book, I first 
generated a list of the twenty-one questions that 
women most often ask me about their abusive 
partners, questions such as: 

“Is he really sorry? ” 

“Why do so many of our friends side with 


“Is he going to hit me some day? ” 

and many others. I then built my explanations 
around these concerns, to make sure that women 
would be able to look here to find the information 
they urgently need. You will find these twenty-one 
questions highlighted as you go through this book; 
you might want to flip through the pages for a 
moment now just to grab a quick glimpse of 
where I have addressed the issues that are most 
pressing for you. 

Another central goal of mine is to offer 
assistance to each woman who is struggling with 
how she is being treated in a relationship, 
regardless of what label she may put on her 
partner’s behavior. Words like control and abuse 
can be loaded ones, and you may not feel that they 

fit your particular circumstances. I have chosen to 
use the term abusers to refer to men who use a 
wide range of controlling, devaluing, or 
intimidating behaviors. In some cases I am talking 
about physical batterers and at other times about 
men who use or insult their partners but never 
frighten or intimidate them. Some of the men I 
describe in the pages ahead change moods so 
drastically and so often that a woman could never 
feel sure what they are like, much less attach a 
label. Your partner may be arrogant, or may play 
mind games, or may act selfishly over and over 
again, but his better aspects may make you feel 
that he is miles away from being an “abuser.” 
Please don’t let my language put you off; I have 
simply chosen the word abuser as a shorthand 
way of saying “men who chronically make their 
partners feel mistreated or devalued.” You can 
adopt a different term if you know one that fits 
your partner better. But whatever style of 
mistreatment your partner uses, rest assured that 

you will find in these pages the answers to many 
questions that have perplexed you. 

If the person you are involved with is the same 
sex as you are, you have a place here too. Lesbians 
and gay men who abuse their partners exhibit 
much of the same thinking, and most of the same 
tactics and excuses, that abusive heterosexual men 
do. In this book I have used the term he for the 
abuser and she for the abused partner to keep my 
discussions simple and clear, but abused lesbians 
and gay men are very much in my thoughts, right 
alongside of abused straight women. Of course, 
you will need to change the gender language to fit 
your relationship, for which I apologize in 
advance. You will also find a section in Chapter 6 
where I speak specifically about the similarities 
and differences in same-sex abusers. 

Similarly, this book includes stories of men 
from a very wide range of racial and cultural 
backgrounds. Although the attitudes and 
behaviors of controlling and abusive men vary 

somewhat from culture to culture, I have found 
that their similarities greatly outweigh their 
differences. If your partner is a person of color or 
an immigrant, or if you are a member of one of 
these groups yourself, you will find that much of 
what this book discusses, or perhaps all of it, fits 
your experience quite well. While I have not 
specified race or ethnicity in the cases I describe in 
these pages, roughly one-third of the abusers 
whose stories I tell are men of color or men from 
nations outside of North America. I further discuss 
some specific racial and cultural issues in Chapter 
6 . 


I began counseling abusive men individually and 
in groups in 1987, while working for a program 
called Emerge, the first agency in the United 
States to offer specialized services for men who 

abuse women. For roughly the next five years I 
worked almost exclusively with clients who were 
coming to the program voluntarily. They generally 
attended under heavy pressure from their female 
partners, who were either talking about leaving 
the relationship or had already done so. In many 
cases, the woman had gone to court to seek a 
restraining order legally barring the man from the 
home and in many cases ordering him to stay 
away from the woman altogether. The men’s main 
motivation for seeking counseling was the hope of 
saving their relationships. It was common for 
them to feel some guilt or discomfort about their 
abusive behavior, but they simultaneously 
believed strongly in the validity of their excuses 
and justifications, so their feelings of remorse 
would not have been enough in themselves to have 
kept them in my program. In those early years, the 
clients I worked with were men who used far more 
verbal and emotional abuse than physical 
violence, although most of them had been 

physically intimidating or assaultive on at least a 
few occasions. 

During the 1990s the legal system became 
much more involved than it had been in the past in 
responding to domestic abuse, with the result that 
court-mandated clients started at first to trickle 
and then to pour in the doors of our program. 

These men often had a much greater propensity for 
physical violence than our earlier clients, 
sometimes involving the use of weapons or 
vicious beatings resulting in the hospitalization of 
their partners. Yet we observed that in other ways 
these men were generally not significantly 
different from our verbally abusive clients: their 
attitudes and excuses tended to be the same, and 
they used mental cruelty side by side with their 
physical assaults. Equally important was that the 
female partners of these battering men were 
largely describing the same distresses in their lives 
that we were hearing about from women who had 
been psychologically abused, showing us that 

different forms of abuse have similar destructive 
impacts on women. 

Throughout my years of working with 
controlling and abusive men, my colleagues and I 
have been strict about always speaking to the 
woman whom our client has mistreated, whether 
or not the couple is still together. (And if he has 
started a new relationship, we talk with his current 
partner as well, which is part of how we became 
aware of the ways in which abusive men continue 
their patterns from one relationship to the next.) It 
is through these interviews with women that we 
have received our greatest education about power 
and control in relationships. The women’s 
accounts also have taught us that abusive men 
present their own stories with tremendous denial, 
minimization, and distortion of the history of their 
behaviors and that it is therefore otherwise 
impossible for us to get an accurate picture of 
what is going on in an abusive relationship 
without listening carefully to the abused woman. 

Counseling abusive men is difficult work. They 
are usually very reluctant to face up to the damage 
that they have been causing women, and often 
children as well, and hold on tightly to their 
excuses and victim blaming. As you will see in 
the pages ahead, they become attached to the 
various privileges they earn through mistreating 
their partners, and they have habits of mind that 
make it difficult for them to imagine being in a 
respectful and equal relationship with a woman. 

I am sometimes asked: Why work with abusive 
men if it is so hard to get them to change? The 
reasons are several. First, if even one man out of a 
ten-person group makes substantial and lasting 
changes, then my time and energy have been 
invested well, because his partner and his children 
will experience a dramatic change in the quality of 
their lives. Second, I believe in holding abusers 
accountable for their actions. If they attend an 
abuser program they can at least be called to task 
for the harm they have done, and I have hope (and 

see the signs) that cultural values can change over 
time if people find that men who chronically 
mistreat and degrade women are being made 
answerable. Third, and probably most important, 
is that I consider the woman that my client has 
mistreated to be the person I am primarily serving, 
and I make contact with her at least every few 
weeks. My goal is to give her emotional support, 
help her learn about counseling and legal services 
that exist for her in her community (usually for 
free), and help her get her mind untangled from 
the knot that her abusive partner has tied. I can 
make it more difficult for him to manipulate her, 
and I may be able to warn her of underhanded 
maneuvers that he is planning or of escalation that 
I’m observing. As long as I stay focused on the 
woman and her children as those who are most 
deserving and in need of my assistance, I can 
almost always make a positive contribution, 
whether or not my abusive client decides to 
seriously face his own problem. (In Chapter 14,1 

describe what actually goes on inside a counseling 
program for abusive men, and I explain how a 
woman can determine whether or not a particular 
program is being run properly.) 

In recent years, through my work as a child 
abuse investigator and as a custody evaluator for 
various courts, I have come to interact in a new 
way with families affected by abusive men. I share 
some of the insights I have gained through these 
experiences in Chapter 10, which examines the 
experiences of children who are exposed to 
abusive men—usually their fathers or stepfathers 
—and the ways in which some abusers continue 
their patterns of controlling and intimidating 
behavior through custody actions in the family 


One of the prevalent features of life with an angry 
or controlling partner is that he frequently tells 

you what you should think and tries to get you to 
doubt or devalue your own perceptions and 
beliefs. I would not like to see your experience 
with this book re-create that unhealthy dynamic. 

So the primary point to bear in mind as you read 
the pages ahead is to listen carefully to what I am 
saying, but always to think for yourself. If any part 
of what I describe about abusers doesn’t match 
your experience, cast it aside and focus on the 
parts that do fit. You might even put the book 
down from time to time and ask yourself, “How 
does this apply to my relationship? What are my 
own examples of how a controlling or cruel man 
thinks and behaves?” If you come upon sections 
that don’t speak to you—because you don’t have 
children, for example, or because your partner is 
never physically frightening—-just skip ahead to 
the pieces that can help you more. 

Some women will find that being alone with 
this book is too difficult because it awakens 
feelings and realizations that are overwhelming. I 

encourage you to reach out for support from 
trusted friends and family as you go along. While 
reading this book is likely to be clarifying for you, 
it may also awaken an awareness that can be 
painful or distressing. 

If you can’t find someone whom you know to 
talk to—or even if you can—call the abuse hotline 
in your area. If you need a listing near where you 
live in the United States or Canada, call the 
National Abuse Hotline at (800) 799-7233, and 
they will give you your local program information 
(in almost any language imaginable). For many 
other options for assistance, look in the 
“Resources” section at the back of this book. 
Again, don’t be stymied by the word abuse; the 
hot line staff is there to listen to you and to help 
you think about any relationship in which you are 
being treated in a way that is making you feel bad. 

I understand how uncomfortable it can be to 
take the leap of talking with people you care about 
regarding the mistreatment you are experiencing 

in your relationship. You may feel ashamed of 
having a partner who sometimes behaves in 
unkind or bullying ways, and you may fear that 
people will be critical of you for not leaving him 
right away. Or you might have the opposite 
concern: that people around you are so fond of 
your partner that you question whether they will 
believe you when you describe how mean or 
abusive he can be. But, regardless of these 
anxieties, it is essential not to stay isolated with 
your distress or confusion about what is 
happening in your relationship. Find someone 
whom you can trust—it might even be a person 
you have never considered opening up to before— 
and unburden yourself. This is probably the single 
most critical step you can take toward building a 
life that is free from control or abuse. 

If your partner’s controlling or devaluing 
behavior is chronic, you no doubt find yourself 
thinking about him a great deal of the time, 
wondering how to please him, how to keep him 

from straying, or how to get him to change. As a 
result, you may find that you don’t get much time 
to think about yourself -—except about what is 
wrong with you in his eyes. One of my central 
reasons for writing this book is, ironically, to help 
you think about him less. I’m hoping that by 
answering as many questions as possible and 
clearing away the confusion that abusive behavior 
creates, I can make it possible for you to escape 
the trap of preoccupation with your partner, so that 
you can put yourself—and your children if you are 
a mother—back in the center of your life where 
you belong. An angry and controlling man can be 
like a vacuum cleaner that sucks up a woman’s 
mind and life, but there are ways to get your life 
back. The first step is to learn to identify what 
your partner is doing and why he does it, which is 
what the pages ahead will illuminate. But when 
you have finished diving deeply into the abuser’s 
mind, which this book will enable you to do, it is 
important to rise back to the surface and from then 

on try to stay out of the water as much as you 
can. I don’t mean that you should necessarily 
leave your partner—that is a complex and highly 
personal decision that only you can make. But 
whether you stay or go, the critical decision you 
can make is to stop letting your partner distort the 
lens of your life, always forcing his way into the 
center of the picture. You deserve to have your life 
be about you; you are worth it. 


The Nature of Abusive Thinking 


The Mystery 


He’s two different people. Ifeel like I’m 
living with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 

He really doesn’t mean to hurt me. He 
just loses control. 

Everyone else thinks he’s great. I don’t 
know what it is about me that sets him 


He’s fine when he’s sober. But when 
he’s drunk, watch out. 

Ifeel like he’s never happy with 
anything I do. 

He’s scared me a few times, but he 
never touches the children. He’s a great 

He calls me disgusting names, and then 
an hour later he wants sex. I don’t get 

He messes up my mind sometimes. 

The thing is, he really understands me. 
Why does he do that? 

THESE ARE THE WORDS of women who are 
describing their anxiety and inner conflict about 
their relationships. Each of these women knows 
that something is wrong—very wrong—but she 
can’t put her finger on what it is. Every time she 

thinks she’s got her partner figured out, that she 
finally understands what is bothering him, 
something new happens, something changes. The 
pieces refuse to fit together. 

Each of these women is trying to make sense 
out of the roller-coaster ride that her relationship 
has become. Consider Kristen’s account: 

When I first met Maury, he was the man I had 
dreamed of. It seemed too good to be true. He 
was charming, funny, and smart, and best of all, 
he was crazy about me. I opened up to him 
about hard things I’d been through over the 
previous few years, and he was so much on my 
side about it all. And he was so game for doing 
things—whatever I wanted to do, he was up for 
it. The first year or so that we were together was 

I can’t say exactly when things started to 
change. I think it was around the time we started 
living together. It started with him saying he 

needed more space. I felt confused, because 
before that it had always seemed like he was the 
one who wanted to be together every second. 

Then he began to have more and more 
criticisms and complaints. 

He would say that I talk on and on and that 
I’m self-centered. Maybe I am—it’s true that I 
talk a lot. But earlier it had seemed like he 
couldn’t hear enough about me. He started to say 
that I wasn’t doing anything with my life. I 
know he has big ambitions, and maybe he’s 
right that I should be more that way, but I’m 
happy with what I have. And then it was my 
weight. It started to seem like all the time he was 
saying that I needed to work out more, that I 
wasn’t watching what I ate. That hurt the most, 
to tell you the truth. He seemed to want sex less 
and less often, and if I ever tried to be the one to 
initiate lovemaking, forget it. 

We’re still together, but I have a feeling he’s 
going to leave me. I just can’t seem to live up to 
what he needs. I’m trying, but he doesn’t think 
so. And now when he’s really angry or 
frustrated, he says things that cut me down. A 
few days ago he said, “You’re a lazy bitch, just 
looking for a man to live off of like your 
mother.” I don’t get that; I’ve contributed a lot. I 
haven’t worked the last two years since our baby 
was bom, but I’m getting ready to go back to 
work soon. I don’t think he really meant it, but 

He says I’ve changed a lot, but I’m not 
always so sure it’s me. 

Sometimes for a few days he seems like the 
guy I fell in love with, and I get hopeful, but then 
he slips away again into being so unhappy with 
me. I set him off somehow, but I don’t know 
what I’m doing wrong. 

Kristen was troubled by several questions. 
What had happened to the man she had loved so 
much? Why was he always putting her down? 
What could she do to stop his explosions? Why 
did he think she was the one who had changed? 

Other women tell stories that are quite distinct 
from Kristen’s, but they feel just as confused as 
she does. Here is what Barbara describes: 

Fran is kind of quiet and shy. But he’s cute as a 
button, and I got a crush on him the day I met 
him. I had to really go after him; it was hard to 
draw him out. We would go out and have great 
talks, and I couldn’t wait to see him again. But 
three weeks would go by, and he’d say he 
hadn’t been feeling well, or his sister was in 
town, or whatever. A couple of times he forgot 
dates we had. 

Well, he finally opened up. It turned out he’d 
been really hurt before. He’d been cheated on a 
lot, and women had done some pretty mean 

things to him. He was afraid to get close again. 

Little by little, he came around, but I was 
definitely the pursuer. I tried to show him that I 
wasn’t like other women he’d been with. I’m not 
flirtatious. I don’t show my body off to other 
men; I’m just not that style. But Fran wouldn’t 
believe it. He would always say that I was 
making eyes at a man at the next table, or that I 
was checking someone out who walked past us. 

I feel bad for him, he’s so insecure. His mother 
cheated on his father when he was growing up, 
so I guess that’s made it even worse. 

I was eager to get married, because I thought 
then he’d feel secure that I was his, but he was 
very reluctant to commit. When we finally did tie 
the knot, he was more trusting for a while, but 
then the jealousy came back, and it’s never left. 
I’ve asked him off and on for years to go see a 
therapist, but he gets really mad and says there’s 
nothing wrong with him. 

A few days ago we went to a birthday party 
for a friend of his, and I had this great 
conversation with his friend’s brother. It was 
nothing but talking—I mean, the guy isn’t even 
cute. Well, suddenly Fran was saying that we 
had to go home because he had a bad headache. 
On the drive home, it turned out the real reason 
was jealousy. He started yelling at me, saying he 
was sick of me humiliating him in front of other 
people, “strutting your stuff,” and on and on. He 
was pounding his fist on the dashboard, and two 
or three times he shoved me up against the car 
door. Each time that I told him it wasn’t true he 
would go through the roof, so I stopped saying 
that. Our children were sitting in the backseat; it 
scared the daylights out of them. 

At my age, it’s hard to think about leaving 
him. Starting all over now seems so hard. I just 
wish he would get some help. 

Barbara was struggling with issues different 

from Kristen’s. Why couldn’t Fran trust her, and 
why was he isolating her from other people? Why 
couldn’t he see that he had a problem, and get 
help? Was he going to hurt her badly some day? 
Would her life ever get better? 

At first look, Maury and Fran sound nothing 
like each other: One is young, popular, energetic, 
and assertive; the other is socially awkward, 
passive, and easily hurt. Fran is physically violent 
sometimes, whereas Maury is not. But are they as 
different as they seem? Or do they both actually 
have the same set of issues under the surface, 
driving their behavior? These are some of the 
questions for which we will find answers in the 
chapters ahead. 

Consider one more account, from Laura: 

Paul is a great guy. We dated for about six 
months, and now we’ve been living together for 
several more. We’re engaged. I feel so bad for 
him. His ex-wife accused him of abusing her, 

and it’s a total lie. He made one mistake, which 
is that he cheated on her, and she is determined 
to get him back for that. She will stop at 
nothing. Now she is even saying that he was 
violent, claiming he slapped her a few times 
and broke her things. That’s ridiculous! I’ve 
been with him for over a year now, and I can 
tell you, he’s nothing like that. Paul has never 
even raised a hand to me. In fact, he’s tried to 
help me get my life together and has been really 
there for me. I was in a bad place when I met 
him, I was depressed and I was drinking too 
much, and I’m doing so much better now, 
because of him. I hate that bitch for accusing 
him of those things. We’re going to work 
together on getting custody of his kids, because 
she’s out of control. 

Laura wondered how Paul’s ex-wife could 
accuse such a delightful man of abuse. She was so 
angry about it that she didn’t notice several 

warning signs about her own relationship with 

If Kristen, Barbara, and Laura were to sit down 
together and compare notes, they might decide 
that their partners couldn’t be more different. The 
personalities of the three men seem miles apart, 
and their relationships follow very separate paths. 
Yet Maury, Fran, and Paul actually have far more 
in co mm on than meets the eye. Their moodiness, 
their excuses, their outlook, are all bubbling from 
the same source. And all three are abusive men. 


Abuse of women in relationships touches an 
unimaginable number of lives. Even if we leave 
aside cases of purely verbal and mental abuse and 
just look at physical violence, the statistics are 
shocking: 2 to 4 million women are assaulted by 
their partners per year in the United States. The 
U.S. Surgeon General has declared that attacks by 

male partners are the number one cause of injury 
to women between the ages of fifteen and forty- 
four. The American Medical Association reports 
that one woman out of three will be a victim of 
violence by a husband or boyfriend at some point 
in her life. The emotional effects of partner 
violence are a factor in more than one-fourth of 
female suicide attempts and are a leading cause of 
substance abuse in adult women. Government 
statistics indicate that 1,500 to 2,000 women are 
murdered by partners and ex-partners per year, 
comprising more than one-third of all female 
homicide victims, and that these homicides almost 
always follow a history of violence, threats, or 

The abuse of women sends shock waves 
through the lives of children as well. Experts 
estimate that 5 million children per year witness 
an assault on their mothers, an experience that can 
leave them traumatized. Children exposed to 
violence at home show higher rates of school 

behavior and attention problems, aggression, 
substance abuse, depression, and many other 
measures of childhood distress. Abuse of women 
has been found to be a cause of roughly one-third 
of divorces among couples with children and one- 
half of divorces where custody is disputed. 

As alarming as this picture is, we also know 
that physical assaults are just the beginning of the 
abuse that women may be subjected to. There are 
millions more women who have never been beaten 
but who live with repeated verbal assaults, 
humiliation, sexual coercion, and other forms of 
psychological abuse, often accompanied by 
economic exploitation. The scars from mental 
cruelty can be as deep and long-lasting as wounds 
from punches or slaps but are often not as 
obvious. In fact, even among women who have 
experienced violence from a partner, half or more 
report that the man \s emotional abuse is what is 
causing them the greatest harm. 

The differences between the verbally abusive 

man and the physical batterer are not as great as 
many people believe. The behavior of either style 
of abuser grows from the same roots and is driven 
by the same thinking. Men in either category 
follow similar processes of change in overcoming 
their abusiveness—if they do change, which 
unfortunately is not common. And the categories 
tend to blur. Physically assaultive men are also 
verbally abusive to their partners. Mentally cruel 
and manipulative men tend to gradually drift into 
using physical intimidation as well. In this book 
you will meet abusers on a spectrum, ranging 
from those who never use violence to those who 
are terrifying. The extent of their co mm on ground 
may startle you. 

One of the obstacles to recognizing chronic 
mistreatment in relationships is that most abusive 
men simply don’t seem like abusers. They have 
many good qualities, including times of kindness, 
warmth, and humor, especially in the early period 
of a relationship. An abuser’s friends may think 

the world of him. He may have a successful work 
life and have no problems with drugs or alcohol. 
He may simply not fit anyone’s image of a cruel or 
intimidating person. So when a woman feels her 
relationship spinning out of control, it is unlikely 
to occur to her that her partner is an abuser. 

The symptoms of abuse are there, and the 
woman usually sees them: the escalating 
frequency of put-downs. Early generosity turning 
more and more to selfishness. Verbal explosions 
when he is irritated or when he doesn’t get his 
way. Her grievances constantly turned around on 
her, so that everything is her own fault. His 
growing attitude that he knows what is good for 
her better than she does. And, in many 
relationships, a mounting sense of fear or 
intimidation. But the woman also sees that her 
partner is a human being who can be caring and 
affectionate at times, and she loves him. She 
wants to figure out why he gets so upset, so that 
she can help him break his pattern of ups and 

downs. She gets drawn into the complexities of 
his inner world, trying to uncover clues, moving 
pieces around in an attempt to solve an elaborate 

The abuser’s mood changes are especially 
perplexing. He can be a different person from day 
to day, or even from hour to hour. At times he is 
aggressive and intimidating, his tone harsh, 
insults spewing from his mouth, ridicule dripping 
from him like oil from a drum. When he’s in this 
mode, nothing she says seems to have any impact 
on him, except to make him even angrier. Her side 
of the argument counts for nothing in his eyes, and 
everything is her fault. He twists her words around 
so that she always ends up on the defensive. As so 
many partners of my clients have said to me, “I 
just can’t seem to do anything right.” 

At other moments, he sounds wounded and lost, 
hungering for love and for someone to take care of 
him. When this side of him emerges, he appears 
open and ready to heal. He seems to let down his 

guard, his hard exterior softens, and he may take 
on the quality of a hurt child, difficult and 
frustrating but lovable. Looking at him in this 
deflated state, his partner has trouble imagining 
that the abuser inside of him will ever be back. 

The beast that takes him over at other times looks 
completely unrelated to the tender person she now 

Sooner or later, though, the shadow comes back 
over him, as if it had a life of its own. Weeks of 
peace may go by, but eventually she finds herself 
under assault once again. Then her head spins 
with the arduous effort of untangling the many 
threads of his character, until she begins to 
wonder whether she is the one whose head isn’t 
quite right. 

To make matters worse, everyone she talks to 
has a different opinion about the nature of his 
problem and what she should do about it. Her 
clergyperson may tell her, “Love heals all 
difficulties. Give him your heart fully, and he will 

find the spirit of God.” Her therapist speaks a 
different language, saying, “He triggers strong 
reactions in you because he reminds you of your 
father, and you set things off in him because of his 
relationship with his mother. You each need to 
work on not pushing each other’s buttons.” A 
recovering alcoholic friend tells her, “He’s a rage 
addict. He controls you because he is terrified of 
his own fears. You need to get him into a twelve- 
step program.” Her brother may say to her, “He’s 
a good guy. I know he loses his temper with you 
sometimes—he does have a short fuse—but 
you’re no prize yourself with that mouth of yours. 
You two need to work it out, for the good of the 
children.” And then, to crown her increasing 
confusion, she may hear from her mother, or her 
child’s schoolteacher, or her best friend: “He’s 
mean and crazy, and he’ll never change. All he 
wants is to hurt you. Leave him now before he 
does something even worse.” 

All of these people are trying to help, and they 

are all talking about the same abuser. But he looks 
different from each angle of view. 

The woman knows from living with the abusive 
man that there are no simple answers. Friends say: 
“He’s mean.” But she knows many ways in which 
he has been good to her. Friends say: “He treats 
you that way because he can get away with it. I 
would never let someone treat me that way.” But 
she knows that the times when she puts her foot 
down the most firmly, he responds by becoming 
his angriest and most intimidating. When she 
stands up to him, he makes her pay for it—sooner 
or later. Friends say: “Leave him.” But she knows 
it won’t be that easy. He will promise to change. 
He’ll get friends and relatives to feel sorry for him 
and pressure her to give him another chance. He’ll 
get severely depressed, causing her to worry 
whether he’ll be all right. And, depending on what 
style of abuser he is, she may know that he will 
become dangerous when she tries to leave him. 

She may even be concerned that he will try to take 

her children away from her, as some abusers do. 

How is an abused woman to make a sensible 
picture out of this confusion? How can she gain 
enough insight into the causes of his problem to 
know what path to choose? The questions she 
faces are urgent ones. 


Professionals who specialize in working with 
abusive and controlling men have had to face 
these same perplexing issues at work. I was a 
codirector of the first counseling program in the 
United States—and perhaps in the world—for 
abusive men. When I began leading groups for 
abusers fifteen years ago, they were as much of a 
mystery to me as they are to the women they live 
with. My colleagues and I had to put a picture 
together from the same strange clues faced by 
Kristen, Barbara, and Laura. Several themes kept 
confronting us over and over again in our clients ’ 

stories, including: 


A man named Dale in his mid-thirties gave the 
following account when he entered my group for 
abusive men: 

My wife Maureen and I have been together for 
eleven years. The first ten years we had a good 
marriage, and there was no problem with abuse 
or violence or anything. She was a great girl. 
Then about a year ago she started hanging 
around with this bitch she met named Eleanor 
who really has it in for me. Some people just 
can’t stand to see anyone else happy. This girl 
was single and was obviously jealous that 
Maureen was in a good marriage, so she set out 
to wreck it. Nobody can get along with Eleanor, 
so of course she has no relationships that last. I 
just had the bad luck that she ran into my wife. 

So this bitch started planting a lot of bad stuff 
about me in Maureen’s head and turning her 
against me. She tells Maureen that I don’t care 
about her, that I’m sleeping with other girls, all 
kinds of lies. And she’s getting what she wants, 
because now Maureen and I have started having 
some wicked fights. This past year we haven’t 
gotten along at all. I tell Maureen I don’t want 
her hanging around with that girl, but she 
doesn’t listen to me. She sneaks around and sees 
her behind my back. And, look, I’m not here to 
hide anything. I’ll tell you straight out, it’s true 
that two or three times this year I finally couldn’t 
take all the accusations and yelling anymore, and 
I’ve hauled off and slapped her. I need help, I’m 
not denying it. I have to learn to deal with the 
stress better; I don’t want her to get me arrested. 
And maybe I can still figure out how to persuade 
Maureen not to throw a great thing away, 
because at the rate we’re going we'll be broken 
up in six months. 

I always interview the partner of each of my 
clients as soon as possible after he enrolls in the 
program. I reached Maureen by phone several 
days later, and heard her account: 

Dale was great when I first met him, but by the 
time we got married something was already 
wrong. He had gone from thinking I was perfect 
to constantly criticizing me, and he would get in 
such bad moods over the littlest things. I 
wouldn’t be able to figure out how to get him to 
feel better. Only a couple of months after the 
wedding he shoved me for the first time, and 
after that some explosion would happen about 
two or three times a year. Usually he would 
break something or raise a fist, but a few times 
he shoved me or slapped me. Some years he 
didn’t do it at all, and I would think it was all 
over, but then it would happen again—it sort of 
came in waves. And he was always, always, 
putting me down and telling me what to do. I 

couldn’t do anything right. 

Anyhow, about a year ago I made a new 
friend, Eleanor. She started telling me that what 
Dale was doing was abuse, even though he had 
never punched me or injured me, and that I 
hadn’t done anything to deserve it. At first I 
thought she was exaggerating, because I’ve 
known women that got it so much worse than 
me. And Dale can be really sweet and supportive 
when you least expect it. We’ve had a lot of good 
times, believe it or not. Anyhow, Eleanor kind of 
opened my eyes up. Sol started standing up to 
Dale about how he talks to me, and told him I 
was thinking of moving out for a while. And 
what’s happened is that he’s gone nuts. I swear, 
something has happened to him. He’s 
backhanded me twice in the last eight months, 
and another time he threw me over a chair and 
my back went out. So I finally moved out. For 
now I’m not planning to get back with him, but I 

guess it depends partly on what he does in the 
abuser program. 

Notice the striking contrasts. Dale describes the 
first ten years of his marriage as abuse-free, while 
Maureen remembers put-downs and even physical 
assaults during those years. Maureen says that 
Eleanor helps and supports her, while Dale sees 
her as corrupting Maureen and turning her against 
him. Dale says that they are still together, while 
Maureen reports that they have already broken up. 
Each one thinks the other has developed a 
problem. How can their perceptions clash so 
strongly? In the chapters ahead, we will explore 
the thinking of abusive men to answer the 
question of why Dale’s view contains such serious 



In a group session one day, a young client 
named Marshall was recounting a confrontation 
with his partner that had occurred in the previous 

My wife and I had plans to meet in the lobby of 
the building where she works to go out for 
lunch. I was waiting around near the elevators, 
and when she finally came out I saw that she’d 
been alone on the elevator with this good- 
looking guy. He had a look on his face, and she 
did too, I can’t really describe it, but I could tell 
something was up. I said, “What was that all 
about?,” and she pretended like she didn’t 
know what I was talking about. That really 
pissed me off, and I guess I kind of blew up at 
her. I may have gotten a little louder than I 
should have. I was mad, though, and I was 
saying, “You were making it with that guy on 
the elevator, weren’t you? Don’t lie to me, you 
slut, I’m not a fool.” But she kept on playing 

dumb, saying she doesn’t even know him, 
which is a crock. 

Marshall was extremely jealous, but I had 
worked with him long enough to know that he 
wasn’t crazy. He was lucid and logical in group, 
had a stable work history and normal friendships, 
and showed no signs of living in a world of 
fantasy or hallucination. He simply did not have 
symptoms of the type of serious mental illness that 
could convince a man that his wife could have sex 
in an elevator, frilly clothed and standing up, 
between floors of a busy office building. Marshall 
had to know that his accusation wasn’t true. And 
when I confronted him, he admitted it. 

Given that even very jealous abusers turn out to 
have a reasonable grasp on reality, why do they 
make these insane-seeming accusations? Is there 
something about acting crazy that they enjoy? 
What does this behavior accomplish for them? (I 
answer these questions in Chapter 3, where we 

consider the issue of possessiveness.) 


Martin, a man in his late twenties, joined my 
abuser group while also seeing an individual 
therapist. He told me the first day that he was 
confused about whether he had a problem or not, 
but that his long-time girlfriend Ginny was 
preparing to break up with him because she 
considered him abusive. He went on to describe 
incidents of insulting or ignoring Ginny and of 
deliberately causing her emotional pain “to show 
her how it feels when she hurts me.” He also 
admitted to times of humiliating her in front of 
other people, being flirtatious with women when 
he was mad at her, and ruining a couple of recent 
important events in her life by causing big scenes. 
He justified all of these behaviors because of ways 
he felt hurt by her. 

As a routine part of my assessment of Martin, I 
contacted his private therapist to compare 
impressions. The therapist turned out to have 
strong opinions about the case: 

iERAPIST: I think it’s a big mistake for Martin to 
be attending your abuser program. He has very 
low self-esteem; he believes anything bad that 
anyone says about him. If you tell him he’s 
abusive, that will just tear him down further. His 
partner slams him with the word abusive all the 
time, for reasons of her own. Ginny’s got huge 
control issues, and she has obsessive-compulsive 
disorder. She needs treatment. I think having 
Martin in your program just gets her what she 

VNCROFT: So you have been doing couples 
counseling with them? 

IERAPIST: No, I see him individually. 

kN CROFT: How many times have you met with 

IERAPIST: She hasn’t been in at all. 

kN CROFT: You must have had quite extensive 
phone contact with her, then. 

IERAPIST: No, I haven’t spoken to her. 

kN CROFT: You haven’t spoken to her? You have 
assigned Ginny a clinical diagnosis based only on 
Martin’s descriptions of her? 

IERAPIST: Yes, but you need to understand, 
we’re talking about an unusually insightful man. 
Martin has told me many details, and he is 
perceptive and sensitive. 

kNCROFT: But he admits to serious psychological 
abuse of Ginny, although he doesn’t call it that. 

An abusive man is not a reliable source of 

information about his partner. 

What Martin was getting from individual 
therapy, unfortunately, was an official seal of 
approval for his denial, and for his view that 
Ginny was mentally ill. How had he shaped his 
therapist’s view of his partner to get her to adopt 
this stance? How can abusers be so adept at 
recruiting team members in this way, including 
sometimes ones with considerable status or 
influence, and why do they want to? (These 
questions are the focus of Chapter 11, “Abusive 
Men and Their Allies.”) 


Several years ago, a young man named Mark 
came to one of my abuser groups. When a client 
joins the program, I set behavioral goals with him 

as soon as possible. I often begin by asking, 

“What are the top three or four complaints your 
partner has about you?” Mark’s response was: 

One of the things Eileen gets on me about the 
most is that she says I ignore her. She says I 
make her a low priority and always want to do 
other things instead of be with her, so she feels 
like she’s nothing. I like to have time to myself 
a lot, or to relax and watch television. I guess I 
kind of tune her out. 

Based on Mark’s account, I wrote near the top 
of his Behavior Plan: “Spend more time with 
Eileen. Make her a higher priority.” 

Eileen was very difficult to reach by phone, but 
three weeks later she finally called me, with a 
surprising story to tell: 

A few weeks before Mark started your program, 
I told him that I needed a total break from the 
relationship. I just couldn’t take it anymore, the 

yelling and the selfishness. He won’t even let 
me sleep. So I didn’t even want to talk to him 
for a while; I had to have time away to get 
myself together. I reassured him that the 
relationship wasn’t over, and we’d work on 
getting back together in a couple of months, 
after a breather. 

Then, a couple of weeks later, he called me 
and said that he had enrolled in an abuser 
program. He said that his counselor wants him to 
spend more time with me and had written it on 
his sheet, and that the program told him that 
being with me was part of how he needed to 
work on his issues. I wasn’t ready for that yet at 
all, but I also didn’t want to interfere with his 
program. So I started seeing him again. I want 
whatever is going to work best to help him 
change. I could have used a little more time 
apart, to tell you the truth, but if that’s what your 
program recommends... 

Mark had succeeded in twisting the abuser 
program to suit his own purposes. I explained to 
Eileen what had happened and apologized for the 
way my program had added to the many 
difficulties she already had with him. The high 
degree of manipulativeness that Mark used is not 
uncommon among abusive men, unfortunately. 
How can abusers be capable of such calculation 
yet at other times appear to be so out of control? 
What’s the connection? The answers can be found 
in Chapter 2, where we examine the excuses that 
abusive men use to justify their behavior. 


Carl was a twenty-six-year-old man who had 
been arrested repeatedly for domestic assaults and 
had finally served a few months in jail. He said to 
me in a group session: 

Going to jail was the last straw. I finally got it 

that I have to stop blaming my problems on 
everybody else and take a look at myself 
instead. People in jail said the same thing to 
me: If you don’t want to be back in here, get 
real with yourself I have a bad temper, and 
kind of a mean streak to tell you the truth, and I 
have to deal with it. I don’t want to be back 
inside for anything. 

At the end of each counseling session, Carl 
would make comments such as, “I can see that 
I’ve really got to work on my attitude” and “I 
learned a lot tonight about how excuses keep me 
from changing.” One night he looked at me and 
said, “I’m really glad I met you, because I think if 
I wasn’t hearing the things you are saying, I 
would be headed straight back to being locked up. 
You’re helping me get my head on straight.” 

I reached Carl’s girlfriend, Peggy, by telephone 
and began to ask her about the history of Carl’s 
problem with abusiveness. She sounded 

noticeably distracted and uncomfortable. I 
suspected strongly that Carl was listening to the 
conversation, so I made an excuse to wrap it up 
soon. However, when Carl was at my group the 
next week, I left my co-leader in charge of the 
session and slipped out to give Peggy another call, 
to see if she would feel freer to talk. This time she 
gave me an earful: 

Carl comes home from your program in a rage 
every week. I’m afraid to be around the house 
on Wednesday nights, which is when he has his 
group session. He says the program is total 
bullshit, and that he wouldn’t have to be sitting 
there getting insulted by you people if I hadn’t 
called the police on him, and he says that I 
know the fight that night was my fault anyhow. 
He says he especially hates that guy Lundy. A 
few nights ago I told him to stop blaming it on 
me that he has to go to counseling, and he 
slammed me up against the doorjamb and told 

me if I didn’t shut up he’d choke me. I should 
call the police, but he’d get sent away for two 
years this time because he’s on parole, and I’m 
afraid that would be enough to get him to kill 
me when he got out. 

Peggy then went on to describe the history of 
beatings she had suffered at Carl’s hands before 
he went to jail: the black eyes, the smashed 
furniture, the time he had held a knife to her 
throat. He invariably had blamed each attack on 
her, no matter how brutal his abuse or how serious 
her injuries. 

After speaking with Peggy, I returned to the 
group session, where Carl went through his usual 
routine of self-exploration and guilt. I of course 
said nothing; if he knew Peggy had told me the 
truth, she would be in extraordinary danger. Soon 
after this, I reported to his probation officer that he 
was not appropriate for our program, without 
giving the real reason. 

Carl created the appearance of learning a great 
deal at each session, and his comments suggested 
serious reflection on the issues, including the 
effects of his abuse on his partner. What was 
happening each week inside his mind before he 
got home? How can an abuser gain such insight 
into his feelings and still behave so destructively? 
And how does real change happen? (We’ll return 
to these questions in Chapter 14, “The Process of 

THESE ARE JUST a very few of the many 
confounding questions that face anyone—the 
partner of an abusive man, a friend, or a 
professional—who is looking for effective ways to 
respond to abusive behavior. I came to realize, 
through my experience with over two thousand 
abusers, that the abusive man wants to be a 
mystery. To get away with his behavior and to 
avoid having to face his problem, he needs to 
convince everyone around him—and himself— 

that his behavior makes no sense. He needs his 
partner to focus on everything except the real 
causes of his behavior. To see the abuser as he 
really is, it is necessary to strip away layer after 
layer of confusion, mixed messages, and 
deception. Like anyone with a serious problem, 
abusers work hard to keep their true selves hidden. 

Part of how the abuser escapes confronting 
himself is by convincing you that you are the 
cause of his behavior, or that you at least share the 
blame. But abuse is not a product of bad 
relationship dynamics, and you cannot make 
things better by changing your own behavior or by 
attempting to manage your partner better. Abuse 
is a problem that lies entirely within the abuser. 

Through years of direct work with abusers and 
their partners, I found that the realities behind the 
enigmatic abuser gradually came out into the 
bright light forming a picture that increasingly 
made sense to me. The pages ahead will take you 
through the pieces that I watched fall into place 

one by one, including: 

• Why abusers are charming early in 
relationships but don’t stay that way 

• What the early warning signs are that can 
tip you off that you may be involved with 
an abusive or controlling man 

• Why his moods change at the drop of a 

• What goes on inside his mind and how 
his thinking causes his behavior 

• What role alcohol and drugs play—and 
don’t play—in partner abuse 

• Why leaving an abusive man doesn’t 
always solve the problem 

• How to tell whether an abuser is really 
changing—and what to do if he isn’t 

• How friends, relatives, and other 
community members can help to stop 

• Why many abusive men seem to be 
mentally ill—and why they usually aren’t 

We will explore answers to these questions on 
three levels. The first level is the abuser’s thinking 
—his attitudes and beliefs—in daily interactions. 
The second is his learning process, through which 
his thinking began to develop early in his life. And 
the third involves the rewards he reaps from 
controlling his partner, which encourage him to 
use abusive behavior over and over again. As we 
clear away the abusive man’s smoke screen with 
these understandings, you will find that 
abusiveness turns out to be far less mysterious 
than it appears at first. 

Inside the abuser’s mind, there is a world of 
beliefs, perceptions, and responses that fits 
together in a surprisingly logical way. His 
behavior does make sense. Underneath the facade 
of irrationality and explosiveness, there is a 
human being with a comprehensible—and 

solvable—problem. But he doesn’t want you to 
figure him out. 

The abuser creates confusion because he has to. 
He can’t control and intimidate you, he can’t 
recruit people around him to take his side, he can’t 
keep escaping the consequences of his actions, 
unless he can throw everyone off the track. When 
the world catches on to the abuser, his power 
begins to melt away. So we are going to travel 
behind the abuser’s mask to the heart of his 
problem. This journey is critical to the health and 
healing of abused women and their children, for 
once you grasp how your partner’s mind works, 
you can begin reclaiming control of your own life. 
Unmasking the abuser also does him a favor, 
because he will not confront—and overcome—his 
highly destructive problem as long as he can 
remain hidden. 

The better we understand abusers, the more we 
can create homes and relationships that are havens 
of love and safety, as they should be. Peace really 

does begin at home. 


The Mythology 

He’s crazy. 

He feels so bad about himself. I just 
need to build up his self-image a little. 

He just loses it. 

He’s so insecure. 

His mother abused him, and now he has 
a grudge against women and he takes it 
out on me. 

I’m so confused. I don’t understand 
what’s going on with him. 

IN ONE IMPORTANT WAY, an abusive man 
works like a magician: His tricks largely rely on 
getting you to look off in the wrong direction, 
distracting your attention so that you won’t notice 
where the real action is. He draws you into 
focusing on the turbulent world of his feelings to 
keep your eyes turned away from the true cause of 
his abusiveness, which lies in how he thinks. He 
leads you into a convoluted maze, making your 
relationship with him a labyrinth of twists and 
turns. He wants you to puzzle over him, to try to 
figure him out, as though he were a wonderful but 
broken machine for which you need only to find 
and fix the malfunctioning parts to bring it roaring 
to its full potential. His desire, though he may not 
admit it even to himself, is that you wrack your 
brain in this way so that you won’t notice the 
patterns and logic of his behavior, the 
consciousness behind the craziness. 

To further divert your gaze, he may work to 
shape your view of his past partners to keep you 

from talking to them directly and to prepare you to 
disbelieve them should you happen to hear what 
they say. If you could follow the thread of his 
conduct over a series of relationships, you would 
find out that his behavior isn’t as erratic as it 
looks; in fact, it follows a fairly consistent pattern 
from woman to woman, except for brief 
relationships or ones he isn’t that serious about. 

Above all, the abusive man wants to avoid 
having you zero in on his abusiveness itself. So he 
tries to fill your head up with excuses and 
distortions and keep you weighed down with self¬ 
doubt and self-blame. And, unfortunately, much of 
the society tends to follow unsuspectingly along 
behind him, helping him to close your eyes, and 
his own, to his problem. 

The mythology about abusive men that runs 
through modem culture has been created largely 
by the abusers themselves. Abusive men concoct 
explanations for their actions which they give to 
their partners, therapists, clergypeople, relatives, 

and social researchers. But it is a serious error to 
allow abusers to analyze and account for their own 
problems. Would we ask an active alcoholic to tell 
us why he or she drinks, and then accept the 
explanation unquestioningly? This is what we 
would hear: 

“I drink because I have bad luck in life. ” 

“I actually don’t drink much at all — it’s just a 
rumor that some people have been spreading 
about me because they don’t like me. ” 

“I started to drink a lot because my self-esteem 
was ruined by all these unfair accusations that 
I’m alcoholic, which I’m not. ” 

When we hear these kinds of excuses from a 
drunk, we assume they are exactly that—excuses. 
We don’t consider an active alcoholic a reliable 
source of insight. So why should we let an angry 
and controlling man be the authority on partner 

abuse? Our first task, therefore, is to remove the 
abusive man’s smoke and mirrors, and then set 
about watching carefully to see what he is really 


In my public presentations on abuse, I often begin 
with a simple exercise. I ask the audience 
members to write down everything they have ever 
heard, or ever believed, about where an abuser’s 
problem comes from. I invite you to close this 
book for two or three minutes now and make a 
similar list for yourself, so that you can refer to it 
as we go along. 

I then ask people to call out items from their 
lists, and I write them on the blackboard, 
organizing them into three categories: one for 
myths, one for partial truths, and one for accurate 
statements. We usually end up with twenty or 
thirty myths, four or five half-truths, and perhaps 

one or two realities. The audience members squint 
at me and fidgit in their seats, surprised to 
discover that the common beliefs about the causes 
of abuse contain several dollops of fantasy and 
misconception for each ounce of truth. If you find 
as you go through this chapter that your own list 
turns out to contain mostly myths, you are not 

For the partner of an abusive or controlling 
man, having all of these mistaken theories pulled 
out from under you at once can be overwhelming. 
But for each stick that we pull out of the structure 
of misconception about abusive men, a brick is 
waiting to take its place. When we’re finished, 
your partner will find it much harder than before 
to throw you off balance and confuse you, and 
your relationship will make sense to you in a way 
that it hasn’t before. 


1. He was abused as a child. 

2. His previous partner hurt him. 

3. He abuses those he loves the 

4. He holds in his feelings too 

5. He has an aggressive 

6. He loses control. 

7. He is too angry. 

8. He is mentally ill. 

9. He hates women. 

10. He is afraid of intimacy and 

11. He has low self-esteem. 

12. His boss mistreats him. 

13. He has poor skills in 
communication and conflict 

14. There are as many abusive 
women as abusive men. 

15. His abusiveness is as bad for 
him as for his partner. 

16. He is a victim of racism. 

17. He abuses alcohol or drugs. 

MYTH #1: 

He was abused as a child, and he 
needs therapy for it. 

The partners of my clients commonly believe that 
the roots of the man’s abusiveness can be found in 
mistreatment that he suffered himself, and many 
professionals share the same misconception. I hear 
explanations along the lines of: 

“He calls me all those horrible things because 

that is what his mother used to do to him. ” 

“His father used to get angry at him and beat 
him with a belt, so now if I get angry at all, he 
just freaks out and starts throwing things 
around the house. He says it’s because deep 
down, he’s really scared of my anger. ” 

“His stepmother was a witch. I’ve met her; 
she’s vicious. So now he really has this thing 
against women. ” 



Multiple research studies have examined the 
question of whether men who abuse women tend 
to be survivors of childhood abuse, and the link 
has turned out to be weak; other predictors of 

which men are likely to abuse women have proven 
far more reliable, as we will see. Notably, men 
who are violent toward other men are often 
victims of child abuse—but the connection is 
much less clear for men who assault women. The 
one exception is that those abusers who are 
brutally physically violent or terrifying toward 
women often do have histories of having been 
abused as children. In other words, a bad 
childhood doesn’t cause a man to become an 
abuser, but it can contribute to making a man who 
is abusive especially dangerous. 

If abusiveness were the product of childhood 
emotional injury, abusers could overcome their 
problem through psychotherapy. But it is virtually 
unheard of for an abusive man to make substantial 
and lasting changes in his pattern of abusiveness 
as a result of therapy. (In Chapter 14, we’ll 
examine the differences between psychotherapy 
and a specialized abuser program, because the 
latter sometimes can bring good results.) He may 

work through other emotional difficulties, he may 
gain insight into himself, but his behavior 
continues. In fact it 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. 

For some abusive men, the blame-the-childhood 
approach has an additional reason for being 
appealing: By focusing on what his mother did 
wrong, he gets to blame a woman for his 
mistreatment of women. This explanation can also 
appeal to the abused woman herself, since it 
makes sense out of his behavior and gives her 
someone safe to be angry at—since getting angry 
at him always seems to blow up in her face. The 
wider society, and the field of psychology in 

particular, has often jumped on this bandwagon 
instead of confronting the hard questions that 
partner abuse raises. Abuse of women by men is 
so rampant that, unless people can somehow make 
it women’s own fault, they are forced to take on a 
number of uncomfortable questions about men 
and about much of male thinking. So it may seem 
easier to just lay the problem at the feet of the 
man’s mother? 

My clients who have participated extensively in 
therapy or substance-abuse recovery programs 
sometimes sound like therapists themselves—and 
a few actually have been—as they adopt the terms 
of popular psychology or textbook theory. One 
client used to try to lure me into intellectual 
debates with comments such as, “Well, your 
group follows a cognitive-behavioral model, 
which has been shown to have limitations for 
addressing a problem as deep as this one.” An 
abusive man who is adept in the language of 
feelings can make his partner feel crazy by turning 

each argument into a therapy session in which he 
puts her reactions under a microscope and assigns 
himself the role of “helping” her. He may, for 
example, “explain” to her the emotional issues she 
needs to work through, or analyze her reasons for 
“mistakenly” believing that he is mistreating her. 

An abusive man may embellish his childhood 
suffering once he discovers that it helps him 
escape responsibility. The National District 
Attorney’s Association Bulletin reported a 
revealing study that was conducted on another 
group of destructive men: child sexual abusers. 
The researcher asked each man whether he 
himself had been sexually victimized as a child. A 
hefty 67 percent of the subjects said yes. However, 
the researcher then informed the men that he was 
going to hook them up to a lie-detector test and 
ask them the same questions again. Affirmative 
answers suddenly dropped to only 29 percent. In 
other words, abusers of all varieties tend to realize 
the mileage they can get out of saying, “I’m 

abusive because the same thing was done to me.” 

Although the typical abusive man works to 
maintain a positive public image, it is true that 
some women have abusive partners who are nasty 
or intimidating to everyone. How about that man? 
Do his problems result from mistreatment by his 
parents? The answer is both yes and no; it depends 
on which problem we’re talking about. His 
hostility toward the human race may sprout from 
cruelty in his upbringing, but he abuses women 
because he has an abuse problem. The two 
problems are related but distinct. 

I am not saying that you should be 
unsympathetic to your partner’s childhood 
suffering. An abusive man deserves the same 
compassion that a nonabusive man does, neither 
more nor less. But a nonabusive man doesn’t use 
his past as an excuse to mistreat you. Feeling sorry 
for your partner can be a trap, making you feel 
guilty for standing up to his abusiveness. 

I have sometimes said to a client: “If you are so 

in touch with your feelings from your abusive 
childhood, then you should know what abuse feels 
like. You should be able to remember how 
miserable it was to be cut down to nothing, to be 
put in fear, to be told that the abuse is your own 
fault. You should be less likely to abuse a woman, 
not more so, from having been through it.” Once I 
make this point, he generally stops mentioning his 
terrible childhood; he only wants to draw 
attention to it if it’s an excuse to stay the same, 
not if it’s a reason to change. 

MYTH #2: 

He had a previous partner who 
mistreated him terribly, and now he 
has a problem with women as a 
result. He’s a wonderful man, and 
that bitch made him get like this. 

As we saw with Fran in Chapter 1, an abuser’s 
bitter tale of emotional destruction by a past wife 
or girlfriend can have a powerful impact on his 
current partner. In the most co mm on version of 
this story, the man recounts how his ex-partner 
broke his heart by cheating on him, perhaps with 
several different men. If you ask him how he 
found out, he answers that “everybody” knew 
about it or that his friends told him. He also may 
say, “I caught her cheating myself,” but when you 
press him on what he actually saw, it often turns 
out that he saw nothing, or that he saw her talking 
to some guy or riding in his car late at night, “so I 
could tell.” 

He may describe other wounds he received from 
a previous partner: She tried to control him; she 
wouldn’t let him have any freedom; she expected 
him to wait on her hand and foot; she turned their 
children against him; she even “had him arrested” 
out of vindictiveness. What he is describing 
usually are his own behaviors, but he attributes 

them to the woman so that he is the victim. He can 
gain sympathy from his new partner in this 
fashion, especially because so many women know 
what it is like to be abused—unfortunately—so 
they can connect with his distress. 

The abusive or controlling man can draw a rich 
set of excuses from his past relationships. For 
controlling his current partner’s friendships and 
for accusing her of cheating on him: “It’s because 
my ex-partner hurt me so badly by cheating on me 
so many times, and that’s why I’m so jealous and 
can’t trust you.” For throwing a tempter tantrum 
when she asks him to clean up after himself: “My 
ex-partner controlled my every move, and so now 
it makes me furious when I feel like you’re telling 
me what to do.” For having affairs of his own or 
keeping other love interests going on the side: “I 
got so hurt last time that now I am really afraid of 
committing, so I want to keep having 
involvements with other people.” He can craft an 
excuse to fit any of his controlling behaviors. 

I recommend applying the following principle 
to assertions that an angry or controlling man 
makes about past women in his life: 


A man who was genuinely mistreated in a 
relationship with a woman would not be using 
that experience to get away with hurting someone 

Consider the reverse situation for a moment: 
Have you ever heard a woman claim that the 
reason why she is chronically mistreating her male 
partner is because a previous man abused her? I 
have never run into this excuse in the fifteen years 
I have worked in the field of abuse. Certainly I 
have encountered cases where women had trouble 
trusting another man after leaving an abuser, but 
there is a critical distinction to be made: Her past 
experiences may explain how she feels, but they 

are not an excuse for how she behaves. And the 
same is true for a man. 

When a client of mine blames a past 
relationship for his cruel or controlling behavior in 
the present, I jump in with several questions: “Did 
your ex-partner ever say that she felt controlled or 
intimidated by you? What was her side of the 
story? Did you ever put your hands on her in 
anger, or did she ever get a restraining order?” By 
the time he has finished providing his answers, I 
usually can tell what happened: He abused that 
woman too. 

It is fine to commiserate with a man about his 
bad experience with a previous partner, but the 
instant he uses her as an excuse to mistreat you, 
stop believing anything he tells you about that 
relationship and instead recognize it as a sign that 
he has problems with relating to women. Track 
down his ex-partner and talk with her as soon as 
possible, even if you hate her. An abuser can 
mistreat partner after partner in relationships, each 

time believing that the problems are all the 
woman’s fault and that he is the real victim. 

Whether he presents himself as the victim of an 
ex-partner, or of his parents, the abuser’s aim— 
though perhaps unconscious—is to play on your 
compassion, so that he can avoid dealing with his 

MYTH #3: 

He’s abusive because he feels so 
strongly about me. 

People cause those they care about most 
deeply the most pain. 

Excuses along these lines crop up frequently in my 
groups for abusive men. My clients say to me, 

“No one else gets me upset like she does. I just go 
out of my head sometimes because I have such 

strong feelings for her. The things she does really 
hurt me, and nobody else can get under my skin 
like that.” Abusers can use this rationalization 
successfully with their partners, friends, and 
relatives. There is a grain of truth to it: People we 
love can cause us deeper pain than anyone else. 
But what does this have to do with abuse? 

The abuser would like us to accept the 
following simple but erroneous formula: 


“When people feel hurt, they lash out at 
someone else in retaliation. When they feel 
jealous, they become possessive and accusatory. 
When they feel controlled, they yell and threaten.” 

Wrong. Each human being deals with hurt or 
resentment in a unique way. When you feel 
insulted or bullied, you may reach for a chocolate 
bar. In the same circumstance, I might burst into 

tears. Another person may put his or her feelings 
quickly into words, confronting the mistreatment 
directly. Although our feelings can influence how 
we wish to act, our choices of how to behave are 
ultimately determined more by our attitudes and 
our habits. We respond to our emotional wounds 
based on what we believe about ourselves, how 
we think about the person who has hurt us, and 
how we perceive the world. Only in people who 
are severely traumatized or who have major 
mental illnesses is behavior governed by feelings. 
And only a tiny percentage of abusive men have 
these kinds of severe psychological problems. 

There are other reasons not to accept the “love 
causes abuse” excuse. First, many people reserve 
their best behavior and kindest treatment for their 
loved ones, including their partners. Should we 
accept the idea that these people feel love less 
strongly, or have less passion, than an abuser 
does? Nonsense. Outside of my professional life, I 
have known many couples over the years who had 

passion and electricity between them and who 
treated each other well. But unfortunately there is 
wide acceptance in our society of the unhealthy 
notion that passion and aggression are interwoven 
and that cruel verbal exchanges and bomblike 
explosions are the price you pay for a relationship 
that is exciting, deep, and sexy. Popular romantic 
movies and soap operas sometimes reinforce this 

Most abusive men have close relationships with 
people other than their wives or girlfriends. My 
clients may feel deep fondness for one or both of 
their parents, a sibling, a dear friend, an aunt or 
uncle. Do they abuse their other loved ones? 
Rarely. It isn’t the love or deep affection that 
causes his behavior problem. 

MYTH #4: 

He holds in his feelings too much, 
and they build up until he bursts. He 

needs to get in touch with his 
emotions and learn to express them to 
prevent those explosive episodes. 

My colleagues and I refer to this belief as “The 
Boiler Theory of Men.” The idea is that a person 
can only tolerate so much accumulated pain and 
frustration. If it doesn’t get vented periodically— 
kind of like a pressure cooker—then there’s bound 
to be a serious accident. This myth has the ring of 
truth to it because we are all aware of how many 
men keep too much emotion pent up inside. Since 
most abusers are male, it seems to add up. 

But it doesn’t, and here’s why: Most of my 
clients are not unusually repressed. In fact, many 
of them express their feelings more than some 
nonabusive men. Rather than trapping everything 
inside, they actually tend to do the opposite: They 
have an exaggerated idea of how important their 
feelings are, and they talk about their feelings— 
and act them out—all the time, until their partners 

and children are exhausted from hearing about it 
all. An abuser’s emotions are as likely to be too 
big as too small. They can fill up the whole house. 
When he feels bad, he thinks that life should stop 
for everyone else in the family until someone fixes 
his discomfort. His partner’s life crises, the 
children’s sicknesses, meals, birthdays—nothing 
else matters as much as his feelings. 

It is not his feelings the abuser is too distant 
from; it is his partner’s feelings and his 
children’s feelings. Those are the emotions that he 
knows so little about and that he needs to “get in 
touch with.” My job as an abuse counselor often 
involves steering the discussion away from how 
my clients feel and toward how they think 
(including their attitudes toward their partners ’ 
feelings). My clients keep trying to drive the ball 
back into the court that is familiar and comfortable 
to them, where their inner world is the only thing 
that matters. 

For decades, many therapists have been 

attempting to help abusive men change by guiding 
them in identifying and expressing feelings. Alas, 
this well-meaning but misguided approach 
actually feeds the abuser’s selfish focus on 
himself, which is an important force driving his 

Part of why you may be tempted to accept “The 
Boiler Theory of Men” is that you may observe 
that your partner follows a pattern where he 
becomes increasingly withdrawn, says less and 
less, seems to be bubbling gradually from a 
simmer to a boil, and then erupts in a geyser of 
yelling, put-downs, and ugliness. It looks like an 
emotional explosion, so naturally you assume that 
it is. But the mounting tension, the pressure- 
cooker buildup of his feelings, is actually being 
driven by his lack of empathy for your feelings, 
and by a set of attitudes that we will examine 
later. And he explodes when he gives himself 
permission to do so. 

MYTH #5: 

He has a violent, explosive 

He needs to learn to be less 

Does your partner usually get along reasonably 
well with everyone else except you? Is it unusual 
for him to verbally abuse other people or to get in 
physical fights with men? If he does get 
aggressive with men, is it usually related 
somehow to you—for example, getting up in the 
face of a man who he thinks is checking you out? 
The great majority of abusive men are fairly calm 
and reasonable in most of their dealings that are 
unrelated to their partners. In fact, the partners of 
my clients constantly complain to me: “How come 
he can be so nice to everyone else but he has to 
treat me like dirt?” If a man’s problem were that 

he had an “aggressive personality,” he wouldn’t 
be able to reserve that side of himself just for you. 
Many therapists have attempted over the years to 
lead abusive men toward their more sensitive, 
vulnerable side. But the sad reality is that plenty of 
gentle, sensitive men are viciously—and 
sometimes violently—abusive to their female 
partners. The two-sided nature of abusers is a 
central aspect of the mystery. 

The societal stereotype of the abuser as a 
relatively uneducated, blue-collar male adds to the 
confusion. The faulty equation goes: “Abusive 
equals muscle-bound caveman, which in turn 
equals lower class.” In addition to the fact that 
this image is an unfair stereotype of working-class 
men, it also overlooks the fact that a professional 
or college-educated man has roughly the same 
likelihood of abusing women as anyone else. A 
successful businessperson, a college professor, or 
a sailing instructor may be less likely to adopt a 
tough-guy image with tattoos all over his body but 

still may well be a nightmare partner. 

Class and racial stereotypes permit the more 
privileged members of society to duck the problem 
of abuse by pretending that it is someone else’s 
problem. Their thinking goes: “It’s those 
construction-worker guys who never went to 
college; it’s those Latinos; it’s those street toughs 
—they’re the abusers. Our town, our 
neighborhood, isn’t like that. We’re not macho 
men here.” 

But women who live with abuse know that 
abusers come in all styles and from all 
backgrounds. Sometimes the more educated an 
abuser, the more knots he knows how to tie in a 
woman’s brain, the better he is at getting her to 
blame herself, and the slicker is his ability to 
persuade other people that she is crazy. The more 
socially powerful an abuser, the more powerful his 
abuse can be—and the more difficult it can be to 
escape. Two of my early clients were Harvard 

Some women are attracted to the tough-guy 
image, and some can’t stand it. Take your pick. 
There are ways to tell whether a man is likely to 
turn abusive, as we will see in Chapter 5, but his 
gentle or macho personality style is not one of 
them. (But do beware of one thing: If a man 
routinely intimidates people, watch out. Sooner or 
later, he will turn his intimidation on you. At first 
it may make you feel safe to be with a man who 
frightens people, but not when your turn comes.) 

MYTH #6: 

He loses control of himself. He just 

goes wild. 

Many years ago, I was interviewing a woman 
named Sheila by telephone. She was describing 
the rages that my client Michael would 
periodically have: “He just goes absolutely 

berserk, and you never know when he’s going to 
go off like that. He’ll just start grabbing whatever 
is around and throwing it. He heaves stuff 
everywhere, against the walls, on the floor—it’s 
just a mess. And he smashes stuff, important 
things sometimes. Then it’s like the storm just 
passes; he calms down; and he leaves for a while. 
Later he seems kind of ashamed of himself.” 

I asked Sheila two questions. The first was, 
when things got broken, were they Michael’s, or 
hers, or things that belonged to both of them? She 
left a considerable silence while she thought. Then 
she said, “You know what? I’m amazed that I’ve 
never thought of this, but he only breaks my stuff. 

I can’t think of one thing he’s smashed that 
belonged to him.” Next, I asked her who cleans up 
the mess. She answered that she does. 

I commented, “See, Michael’s behavior isn’t 
nearly as berserk as it looks. And if he really felt 
so remorseful, he’d help clean up.” 



When a client of mine tells me that he became 
abusive because he lost control of himself, I ask 
him why he didn’t do something even worse. For 
example, I might say, “You called her a fucking 
whore, you grabbed the phone out of her hand and 
whipped it across the room, and then you gave her 
a shove and she fell down. There she was at your 
feet, where it would have been easy to kick her in 
the head. Now, you have just finished telling me 
that you were ‘totally out of control' at that time, 
but you didn’t kick her. What stopped you?” And 
the client can always give me a reason. Here are 
some co mm on explanations: 

“I wouldn’t want to cause her a serious 


“I realized one of the children was watching. ” 

“I was afraid someone would call the police. ” 

“I could kill her if I did that. ” 

“The fight was getting loud, and I was afraid 
neighbors would hear. ” 

And the most frequent response of all: 

“Jesus, I wouldn’t do that. I would never do 
something like that to her. ” 

The response that I almost never heard—I 
remember hearing it twice in fifteen years—was: 
“I don’t know.” 

These ready answers strip the cover off of my 
clients’ loss-of-control excuse. While a man is on 
an abusive rampage, verbally or physically, his 
mind maintains awareness of a number of 
questions: “Am I doing something that other 

people could find out about, so it could make me 
look bad? Am I doing anything that could get me 
in legal trouble? Could I get hurt myself? Am I 
doing anything that I myself consider too cruel, 
gross, or violent?” 

A critical insight seeped into me from working 
with my first few dozen clients: An abuser 
almost never does anything that he himself con 
siders morally unacceptable. He may hide what 
he does because he thinks other people would 
disagree with it, but he feels justified inside. I 
can’t remember a client ever having said to me: 
“There’s no way I can defend what I did. It was 
just totally wrong.” He invariably has a reason 
that he considers good enough. In short, an 
abuser’s core problem is that he has a distorted 
sense of right and wrong. 

I sometimes ask my clients the following 
question: “How many of you have ever felt angry 
enough at your mother to get the urge to call her a 
bitch?” Typically, half or more of the group 

members raise their hands. Then I ask, “How 
many of you have ever acted on that urge?” All the 
hands fly down, and the men cast appalled gazes 
on me, as if I had just asked whether they sell 
drugs outside elementary schools. So then I ask, 
“Well, why haven’t you?” The same answer 
shoots out from the men each time I do this 
exercise: “But you can’t treat your mother like 
that, no matter how angry you are! You just don’t 
do that!” 

The unspoken remainder of this statement, 
which we can fill in for my clients, is: “But you 
can treat your wife or girlfriend like that, as long 
as you have a good enough reason. That’s 
different.” In other words, the abuser’s problem 
lies above all in his belief that controlling or 
abusing his female partner is justifiable. This 
insight has tremendous implications for how 
counseling work with abusers has to be done, as 
we will see. 

When I was new to counseling abusive men, 

my own loss-of-control myth collided repeatedly 
with the realities contained in the stories of my 
early clients. Kenneth admitted that he used to 
dim the lights and then insist to Jennifer that 
nothing had changed, trying to make her feel 
crazy. (He also stands out in my mind for his 
outspoken criticisms of his group mates for their 
insensitivity toward their partners, despite his own 
actions.) James told me that he sometimes would 
hide something his partner was looking for, such 
as her pocketbook or car keys, wait for her to 
become frantic and frustrated looking for it, and 
then put it back out in plain view and insist that it 
had been there all along. Mario measured the 
distance from his house to the supermarket, and 
when his wife reported going out to shop during 
the day, he would check the odometer of her car to 
make sure she hadn’t gone anywhere else. 

One year my colleagues David and Carole were 
preparing a skit on abuse for a conference, and 
they decided to perform a rehearsal for their 

abuser group. Afterward, the group members 
rapid-fired their suggestions for improving the 
skit, directing them mostly at David: “No, no, you 
don’t make excuses for why you’re home late, that 
puts you on the defensive, you’ve got to turn it 
around on her, tell her you know she’s cheating on 
you... .You’re staying too far away from her, 
David. Take a couple of steps toward her, so she’ll 
know that you mean business... .You’re letting 
hersay too much. You’ve got to cut her off and 
stick to your points.” The counselors were struck 
by how aware the clients were of the kinds of 
tactics they use, and why they use them: In the 
excitement of giving feedback on the skit, the men 
let down their facade as “out-of-control abuser 
who doesn’t realize what he’s doing.” 

As we review the stories of my clients 
throughout this book, you will observe over and 
over the degree of consciousness that goes into 
their cruel and controlling actions. At the same 
time, I don’t want to make abusive men sound 

evil. They don’t calculate and plan out every move 
they make—though they use forethought more 
often than you would expect. It isn’t that each time 
an abuser sweeps a pile of newspapers onto the 
floor or throws a cup against the wall he has 
determined ahead of time to take that course. For a 
more accurate model, think of an abuser as an 
acrobat in a circus ring who does “go wild” to 
some extent but who never forgets where the 
limits are. 

When one of my clients says to me, “I 
exploded” or “I just lost it,” I ask him to go step 
by step in his mind through the moments leading 
up to his abusive behavior. I ask, “Did you really 
‘just explode,’ or did you actually decide at one 
point to give yourself the green light? Wasn’t there 
a moment when you decided you ‘had had 
enough’ or you ‘weren’t going to take it anymore,’ 
and at that instant you gave yourself permission, 
setting yourself free to do what you felt like 
doing?” Then I see a flicker of recognition cross 

my client’s eyes, and usually he admits that there 
is indeed a moment at which he turns himself 
loose to begin the horror show. 

Even the physically violent abuser shows self- 
control. The moment police pull up in front of the 
house, for example, he usually calms down 
immediately, and when the officers enter, he 
speaks to them in a friendly and reasonable tone. 
Police almost never find a fight in progress by the 
time they get in the door. Ty, a physical batterer 
who now counsels other men, describes in a 
training video how he would snap out of his rage 
when the police pulled up in front of the house and 
would sweet-talk the police, “telling them what 
she had done. Then they would look at her, and 
she’d be the one who was totally out of control, 
because I had just degraded her and put her in 
fear. I’d say to the police, ‘See, it isn’t me.’” Ty 
managed to escape arrest repeatedly with his calm 
demeanor and claims of self-defense. 

MYTH #7: 

He’s too angry. He needs to learn 
anger-management skills. 

A few years ago, the partner of one of my clients 
went through an ordeal where her twelve-year-old 
son (from a previous marriage) disappeared for 
more than forty-eight hours. For two days Mary 
Beth’s heart was beating faster and faster as she 
drove around town looking for her son, made 
panicked phone calls to everyone she knew, and 
dropped her son’s photograph at police 
departments, newspapers, and radio stations. She 
barely slept. Meanwhile her new husband, Ray, 
who was in one of my groups, was slowly 
building to a boil inside. Toward the end of the 
second day he finally burst out yelling at her, “I 
am so sick of being ignored by you! It’s like I 
don’t even exist! Go fuck yourself!” 

When people conclude that anger causes abuse, 

they are confusing cause and effect. Ray was not 
abusive because he was angry; he was angry 
because he was abusive. Abusers carry attitudes 
that produce fury. A nonabusive man would not 
expect his wife to be taking emotional care of him 
during a crisis of this gravity. In fact, he would be 
focused on what he could do for her and on trying 
to find the child. It would be futile to teach Ray to 
take a time-out to punch pillows, take a brisk 
walk, or concentrate on deep breathing, because 
his thinking process will soon get him enraged 
again. In Chapter 3, you will see how and why an 
abuser’s attitudes keep him furious. 

When a new client says to me, “I’m in your 
program because of my anger,” I respond, “No 
you’re not, you’re here because of your abuse.” 
Everybody gets angry. In fact, most people have at 
least occasional times when they are too angry, 
out of proportion to the actual event or beyond 
what is good for their health. Some give 
themselves ulcers and heart attacks and 

hypertension. But they don’t necessarily abuse 
their partners. In Chapter 3, we’ll take a look at 
why abusive men tend to be so angry—and why at 
the same time their anger isn’t really the main 

The abuser’s explosive anger can divert your 
attention from all the disrespect, irresponsibility, 
talking over you, lying, and other abusive and 
controlling behaviors that he exhibits even at 
times when he isn’t especially upset. Is it anger 
that causes such a high proportion of abusers to 
cheat on their partners? Does an abuser’s rage 
cause him to conceal for years the fact that a 
former girlfriend went into hiding to get away 
from him? Is it a form of explosiveness when your 
partner pressures you into dropping your 
friendships and spending less time with your 
siblings? No. Perhaps his loudest, most obvious, 
or most intimidating forms of abuse come out 
when he’s angry, but his deeper pattern is 
operating all the time. 

MYTH #8: 

He’s crazy. He’s got some mental 
illness that he should be medicated 


When a man’s face contorts in bitterness and 
hatred, he looks a little insane. When his mood 
changes from elated to assaultive in the time it 
takes to turn around, his mental stability seems 
open to question. When he accuses his partner of 
plotting to harm him, he seems paranoid. It is no 
wonder that the partner of an abusive man would 
come to suspect that he was mentally ill. 

Yet the great majority of my clients over the 
years have been psychologically “normal.” Their 
minds work logically; they understand cause and 
effect; they don’t hallucinate. Their perceptions of 
most life circumstances are reasonably accurate. 
They get good reports at work; they do well in 

school or training programs; and no one other than 
their partners—and children—thinks that there is 
anything wrong with them. Their value system is 
unhealthy, not their psychology. 

Much of what appears to be crazy behavior in 
an abuser actually works well for him. We already 
met Michael, who never broke his own stuff, and 
Marshall, who did not believe his own jealous 
accusations. In the pages ahead, you will 
encounter many more examples of the method 
behind the abuser’s madness. You will also leam 
how distorted his view of his partner is—which 
can make him appear emotionally disturbed—and 
where those distortions spring from. 

The most recent research shows that even in 
physically violent abusers the rate of mental 
illness is not high. Several of my brutal battering 
clients have had psychological evaluations, and 
only one of them was found to have a mental 
illness. At the same time, some of my clients 
whom I have believed to be truly insane have not 

necessarily been among the most violent. 

Research does indicate that the most extreme 
physical batterers—the ones who choke their 
partners to unconsciousness, who hold guns to 
their heads, who stalk and kill—have increased 
rates of mental illness. But there is no particular 
mental health condition that is typical of these 
severe batterers; they can have a range of 
diagnoses, including psychosis, borderline 
personality, manic depression, antisocial 
personality, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and 
others. (And, even among the most dangerous 
abusers, there are many who do not show clear 
psychiatric symptoms of any kind.) 

How can all these different mental illnesses 
cause such similar behavioral patterns? The 
answer is, they don’t. Mental illness doesn’t cause 
abusiveness anymore than alcohol does. What 
happens is rather that the man’s psychiatric 
problem interacts with his abusiveness to form a 
volatile combination. If he is severely depressed, 

for example, he may stop caring about the 
consequences his actions may cause him to suffer, 
which can increase the danger that he will decide 
to commit a serious attack against his partner or 
children. A mentally ill abuser has two separate— 
though interrelated—problems, just as the 
alcoholic or drug-addicted one does. 

The basic reference book for psychiatric 
conditions, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 
of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), includes no 
condition that fits abusive men well. Some 
clinicians will stretch one of the definitions to 
apply it to an abusive client—“intermittent 
explosive disorder,” for example—so that 
insurance will cover his therapy. However, this 
diagnosis is erroneous if it is made solely on the 
basis of his abusive behavior; a man whose 
destructive behaviors are confined primarily or 
entirely to intimate relationships is an abuser, not 
a psychiatric patient. 

Two final points about mental illness: First, I 

occasionally hear someone who is discussing a 
violent abuser say, “He must be delusional to 
think he can get away with this.” But, 
unfortunately, it often turns out that he can get 
away with it, as we discuss in Chapter 12, so his 
belief is not a delusion at all. Second, I have 
received just a few reports of cases in which an 
abuser’s behavior has improved for a while as a 
result of taking medication prescribed by a 
psychiatrist. His overall abusiveness hasn’t 
stopped, but the most devastating or terrifying 
behaviors have eased. Medication is not a long¬ 
term solution, however, for two important reasons 

1. Abusers don’t like to be medicated 
because they tend to be too selfish to put 
up with the side effects, no matter how 
much the improvement may benefit their 
partners, so they almost always quit the 
medication after a few months. 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. Or when he wants to strike 
out at her dramatically he may 
deliberately overdose himself, creating a 
medical crisis. 

2. No medication yet discovered will turn 
an abuser into a loving, considerate, 
appropriate partner. It will just take the 
edge off his absolute worst behaviors— 
if it even does that. If your abusive 
partner is taking medication, be aware 
that you are only buying time. Take 
advantage of the (more) peaceful period 
to get support in your own healing. 
Begin by calling a program for abused 


MYTH #9 

He hates women. His mother, or 
some other woman, must have done 
something terrible to him. 

The notion that abusive men hate women was 
popularized by Susan Forward’s book Men Who 
Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. 

Dr. Forward’s descriptions of abusive men are the 
most accurate ones I have read, but she was 
mistaken on one point: Most abusers don’t hate 
women. They often have close relationships with 
their mothers, or sisters, or female friends. A fair 
number are able to work successfully with a 
female boss and respect her authority, at least 

Disrespect for women certainly is rampant 
among abusive men, with attitudes toward women 
that fall on a continuum from those who can 
interact fairly constructively with most women (as 

long as they are not intimately involved with 
them) to men who are misogynists and treat most 
women they encounter with superiority and 
contempt. In general, I find that my clients’ view 
that their partners should cater to their needs and 
are not worthy of being taken seriously does 
indeed carry over into how they view other 
females, including their own daughters. But, as 
we will see in Chapter 13, the disrespect that 
abusive men so often direct toward women in 
general tends to be bom of their cultural values 
and conditioning rather than personal experiences 
of being victimized by women. Some abusive men 
use the excuse that their behavior is a response to 
such victimization because they want to be able to 
make women responsible for men’s abuse. It is 
important to note that research has shown that 
men who have abusive mothers do not tend to 
develop especially negative attitudes toward 
females, but men who have abusive fathers do; 
the disrespect that abusive men show their female 

partners and their daughters is often absorbed by 
their sons. 

So while a small number of abusive men do 
hate women, the great majority exhibit a more 
subtle—though often quite pervasive—sense of 
superiority or contempt toward females, and some 
don’t show any obvious signs of problems with 
women at all until they are in a serious 

MYTH #10: 

He is afraid of intimacy and 

Abusive men are often jealous and possessive, and 
their coercive and destructive behaviors can 
escalate when their partners attempt to break up 
with them. Some psychologists have glanced 
quickly at this pattern and concluded that abusers 

have an extreme fear of abandonment. But many 
people, both male and female, are afraid of 
abandonment and may reel from panic, 
heartbreak, or desperation when being left by a 
partner. If a person’s panicked reaction to being 
left could cause threats, stalking, or murder, our 
entire society would be a war zone. But 
postseparation homicides of intimate partners are 
committed almost exclusively by men (and there is 
almost always a history of abuse before the 
breakup). If fear of abandonment causes 
postseparation abuse, why are the statistics so 
lopsided? Do women have a much easier time 
with abandonment than men do? No, of course 
not. (We’ll examine the real causes of the extreme 
behaviors some abusers use postseparation in 
Chapter 9.) 

A close cousin of the abandonment myth is the 
belief that abusive men “are afraid of intimacy,” 
which attempts to explain why most abusers 
mistreat only their partners and why most are 

male. According to this theory, the abuser uses his 
periodic cruelty to keep his partner from getting 
too close to him emotionally, a behavior which, in 
the language of psychologists, is called mediating 
the intimacy. 

But there are several holes in this theory. First, 
abusive men usually have their worst incidents 
after a period of mounting tension and distance, 
not at the moments of greatest closeness. Some 
keep their emotional distance all the time so the 
relationship never gets close enough to trigger any 
fears of intimacy they might have, yet the abuse 
continues. Wife abuse occurs just as severely in 
some cultures where there is no expectation of 
intimacy between husbands and wives, where 
marriage has nothing to do with real emotional 
connection. And, finally, there are plenty of men 
who have powerful fears of intimacy who don’t 
abuse or control their partners—because they 
don’t have an abusive mentality. 

MYTH #11: 

He suffers from low self-esteem. He 
needs his self-image shored up. 



An abused woman tends to pour precious 
energy into supporting her abusive partner and 
massaging his ego, hoping against hope that if he 
is kept well stroked his next explosion might be 
averted. How well does this strategy work? 
Unfortunately, not very. You can’t manage an 
abuser except for brief periods. Praising him and 
boosting his self-opinion may buy you some time, 
but sooner or later he’ll jump back into chewing 
pieces out of you. When you try to improve an 

abuser’s feelings about himself, his problem 
actually tends to get worse. An abusive man 
expects catering, and the more positive attention 
he receives, the more he demands. He never 
reaches a point where he is satisfied, where he has 
been given enough. Rather, he gets used to the 
luxurious treatment he is receiving and soon 
escalates his demands. 

My colleagues and I discovered this dynamic 
through a mistake we made in the early years of 
abuse work. A few times we asked clients who 
had made outstanding progress in our program to 
be interviewed on television or to speak to a group 
of high school students because we thought the 
public could benefit from hearing an abuser speak 
in his own words about his behaviors and his 
process of change. But we found that each time we 
gave a client public attention, he had a bad 
incident of mistreating his partner within a few 
days thereafter. Feeling like a star and a changed 
man, his head swelled from all the attention he 

had been given, he would go home and rip into his 
partner with accusations and put-downs. So we 
had to stop taking our clients to public 

The self-esteem myth is rewarding for an 
abuser, because it gets his partner, his therapist, 
and others to cater to him emotionally. Imagine 
the privileges an abusive man may acquire: 
getting his own way most of the time, having his 
partner bend over backward to keep him happy so 
he won’t explode, getting to behave as he pleases, 
and then on top of it all, he gets praise for what a 
good person he is, and everyone is trying to help 
him feel better about himself! 

Certainly an abuser can be remorseful or 
ashamed after being cruel or scary to his partner, 
especially if any outsider has seen what he did. 

But those feelings are a result of his abusive 
behavior, not a cause. And as a relationship 
progresses, the abusive man tends to get more 
comfortable with his own behavior and the 

remorse dies out, suffocated under the weight of 
his justifications. He may get nasty if he doesn’t 
receive the frequent compliments, reassurance, 
and deference he feels he deserves, but this 
reaction is not rooted in feelings of inferiority; in 
fact, the reality is almost the opposite, as we will 

Think for a just a moment about how your 
partner’s degrading and bullying behavior has 
hurt your self-esteem. Have you suddenly turned 
into a cruel and explosive person? If low self¬ 
esteem isn’t an excuse for you to become abusive, 
then it’s no excuse for him either. 

MYTH #12: 

His boss abuses him, so he feels 
powerless and unsuccessful. 

He comes home and takes it out on 
his family because that is the one 

place he can feel powerful. 

I call this myth “boss abuses man, man abuses 
woman, woman abuses children, children hit dog, 
dog bites cat.” The image it creates seems 
plausible, but too many pieces fail to fit. Hundreds 
of my clients have been popular, successful, good- 
looking men, not the downtrodden looking for a 
scapegoat for their inner torment. Some of the 
worst abusers I have worked with have been at the 
top of the management ladder—with no boss to 
blame. The more power these men have in their 
jobs, the more catering and submission they 
expect at home. Several of my clients have told 
me: “I have to order people around where I work, 
so I have trouble snapping out of that mode when 
I get home.” So while some abusers use the “mean 
boss” excuse, others use the opposite. 

The most important point is this one: In my 
fifteen years in the field of abuse, I have never 
once had a client whose behavior at home has 

improved because his job situation improved. 

MYTH #13: 

He has poor communication, 
conflict-resolution, and stress- 
management skills. He needs 


An abusive man is not unable to resolve conflicts 
nonabusively; he is unwilling to do so. The skill 
deficits of abusers have been the subject of a 
number of research studies, and the results lead to 
the following conclusion: Abusers have normal 
abilities in conflict resolution, communication, 
and assertiveness when they choose to use them. 
They typically get through tense situations at work 
without threatening anyone; they manage their 
stress without exploding when they spend 
Thanksgiving with their parents; they share openly 

with their siblings regarding their sadness over a 
grandparent’s death. But they don’t want to 
handle these kinds of issues nonabusively when it 
involves their partners. You can equip an abuser 
with the most innovative, New Age skills for 
expressing his deep emotions, listening actively, 
and using win-win bargaining, and then he will go 
home and continue abusing. In the coming 
chapter, we’ll see why. 

MYTH #14: 

There are just as many abusive 
women as abusive men. 

Abused men are invisible because 
they are ashamed to tell. 

There certainly are some women who treat their 
male partners badly, berating them, calling them 
names, attempting to control them. The negative 

impact on these men’s lives can be considerable. 
But do we see men whose self-esteem is gradually 
destroyed through this process? Do we see men 
whose progress in school or in their careers grinds 
to a halt because of the constant criticism and 
undermining? Where are the men whose partners 
are forcing them to have unwanted sex? Where are 
the men who are fleeing to shelters in fear for their 
lives? How about the ones who try to get to a 
phone to call for help, but the women block their 
way or cut the line? The reason we don’t generally 
see these men is simple: They’re rare. 

I don’t question how embarrassing it would be 
for a man to come forward and admit that a 
woman is abusing him. But don’t underestimate 
how humiliated a woman feels when she reveals 
abuse; women crave dignity just as much as men 
do. If shame stopped people from coming forward, 
no one would tell. 

Even if abused men didn’t want to come 
forward, they would have been discovered by now. 

Neighbors don’t turn a deaf ear to abuse the way 
they might have ten or twenty years ago. Now, 
when people hear screaming, objects smashing 
against walls, loud slaps landing on skin, they call 
the police. Among my physically abusive clients, 
nearly one-third have been arrested as a result of a 
call to the police that came from someone other 
than the abused woman. If there were millions of 
cowed, trembling men out there, the police would 
be finding them. Abusive men commonly like to 
play the role of victim, and most men who claim 
to be “battered men” are actually the perpetrators 
of violence, not the victims. 

In their efforts to adopt victim status, my clients 
try to exaggerate their partners’ verbal power: 
“Sure, I can win a physical fight, but she is much 
better with her mouth than I am, so I’d say it 
balances out.” (One very violent man said in his 
group session, “She stabs me through the heart 
with her words,” to justify the fact that he had 
stabbed his partner in the chest with a knife.) But 

abuse is not a battle that you win by being better 
at expressing yourself. You win it by being better 
at sarcasm, put-downs, twisting everything around 
backward, and using other tactics of control—an 
arena in which my clients win hands down over 
their partners, just as they do in a violent 
altercation. Who can beat an abuser at his own 

Men can be abused by other men, however, and 
women can be abused by women, sometimes 
through means that include physical intimidation 
or violence. If you are a gay man or lesbian who 
has been abused by a partner or who is facing 
abuse now, most of what I explain in this book 
will ring loud bells for you. The “he and she” 
language that I use obviously won’t fit your 
experience, but the underlying dynamics that I 
describe largely will. We’ll explore this issue 
further in Chapter 6. 

MYTH #15: 

Abuse is as bad for the man who is 
doing it as it is for his partner. They 

are both victims. 

My clients get over the pain of the abuse incidents 
far, far faster than their partners do. Recall Dale 
from Chapter 1, who insisted to me that the first 
ten years of his marriage had gone swimmingly, 
while Maureen recounted ten years of insults and 
cruelty? Certainly abusing one’s partner is not a 
healthy lifestyle, but the negative effects don’t 
hold a candle to the emotional and physical pain, 
loss of freedom, self-blame, and numerous other 
shadows that abuse casts over the life of its female 
target. Unlike alcoholics or addicts, abusive men 
don’t “hit bottom.” They can continue abusing for 
twenty or thirty years, and their careers remain 
successful, their health stays normal, their 
friendships endure. As we’ll see in Chapter 6, 
abusers actually tend to benefit in many ways 
from their controlling behaviors. An abuser can 

usually outperform his victim on psychological 
tests, such as the ones that are routinely required 
during custody disputes, because he isn’t the one 
who has been traumatized by years of 
psychological or physical assault. No one who 
listens carefully to the tragic accounts of abused 
women and then sees the abusers each week at a 
counseling group, as my colleagues and I have 
done, could be fooled into believing that life is 
equally hard for the men. 

MYTH #16: 

He is abusive because he has faced 
so much societal discrimination and 
disempowerment as a man of color, 
so at home he needs to feel powerful. 

I address this myth in detail in Chapter 6 under 
“Racial and Cultural Differences in Abuse,” so 

here I offer only a brief overview. First, a majority 
of abusive men are white, many of them well 
educated and economically privileged, so 
discrimination couldn’t be a central cause of 
partner abuse. Second, if a man has experienced 
oppression himself, it could just as easily make 
him more sympathetic to a woman’s distress as 
less so, as is true for childhood abuse (see Myth 
#1). And in fact there are men of color among the 
most visible leaders in the United States in the 
movement against the abuse of women. So while 
discrimination against people of color is a terribly 
serious problem today, it should not be accepted 
as an excuse for abusing women. 

MYTH #17: 

The alcohol is what makes him 
abusive. If I can get him to stay sober, 
our relationship will be fine. 

So many men hide their abusiveness under the 
cover of alcoholism or drug addiction that I have 
chosen to devote Chapter 8 to explore the issue of 
addiction in detail. The most important point to be 
aware of is this: Alcohol cannot create an abuser, 
and sobriety cannot cure one. The only way a man 
can overcome his abusiveness is by dealing with 
his abusiveness. And you are not “enabling” your 
partner to mistreat you; he is entirely responsible 
for his own actions. 

WE HAVE NOW COMPLETED our tour through 
a museum of myths about abusive men. You may 
find it difficult to leave these misconceptions 
behind. I was attached to my own myths years 
ago, but the abusers themselves kept forcing me to 
look at the realities, even as they stubbornly 
avoided doing so themselves. If you are involved 
with a man who bullies you or cuts you down, 
perhaps you feel even more confused than you did 
before reading this chapter. You may be thinking, 

“But if his problem doesn’t spring from these 
sources, where does it come from?” 

So our next step is to carefully weave back 
together the tangled strands we have just 
unraveled, to form a coherent picture. As we do 
so, you will gradually find yourself relieved to 
leave these eye-bending distortions behind. An 
energizing clarity can then take their place, and 
the mystery that abusers work so hard to create 
will vanish. 


• An abusive man’s emotional problems 
do not cause his abusiveness. You can’t 
change him by figuring out what is 
bothering him, helping him feel better, or 
improving the dynamics of your 

• Feelings do not govern abusive or 

controlling behavior; beliefs, values, and 
habits are the driving forces. 

The reasons that an abusive man gives 
for his behavior are simply excuses. 

There is no way to overcome a problem 
with abusiveness by focusing on tangents 
such as self-esteem, conflict resolution, 
anger management, or impulse control. 
Abusiveness is resolved by dealing with 

Abusers thrive on creating confusion, 
including confusion about the abuse 

There is nothing wrong with you. Your 
partner’s abuse problem is his own. 


The Abusive Mentality 

His attitude always seems to be: “You 
owe me. ” 

He manages to twist everything around 
so that it’s my fault. 

Ifeel suffocated by him. He’s trying to 
run my life. 

Everyone seems to think he’s the 
greatest guy in the world. I wish they 
could see the side of him that I have to 
live with. 

He says he loves me so much. So why 
does he treat me like this? 

doubt themselves. Children of abusive parents 
know that something is wrong, but they suspect 
the badness is inside of them. Employees of an 
abusive boss spend much of their time feeling that 
they are doing a lousy job, that they should be 
smarter and work harder. Boys who get bullied 
feel that they should be stronger or less afraid to 

When I work with an abused woman, my first 
goal is to help her to regain trust in herself; to get 
her to rely on her own perceptions, to listen to her 
own internal voices. You don’t really need an 
“expert” on abuse to explain your life to you; what 
you do need above all is some support and 
encouragement to hold on to your own truth. Your 
abusive partner wants to deny your experience. He 
wants to pluck your view of reality out of your 
head and replace it with his. When someone has 
invaded your identity in this way enough times, 
you naturally start to lose your balance. But you 

can find your way back to center. 

An abuser creates a host of misconceptions to 
get his partner to doubt herself and to make it 
possible for him to lead her down dead-end paths. 
Having dispelled those myths, we can now zero in 
on the roots of his steamrolling style. I believe you 
will recognize them. 

The insights I share in the pages ahead have 
been taught to me primarily by the abused women 
themselves who are the experts on abuse. My 
other teachers have been my abusive clients, who 
lead us toward clarity each time that they 
accidentally reveal their true thinking. 


He is controlling. 

My client Glenn arrived angry and agitated for his 
group session one night. His words spilled out 


Harriet started yelling at me on Friday afternoon 
and told me she is going to move out soon. 

Then she left for the whole weekend and took 
my two-year-old son with her. She really hurt 
me. So I decided to hurt her too, and I wanted to 
go after something that was really important to 
her, to show her what it’s like. She had been 
working for a week on this college paper that 
she had put a lot of hours into and was going to 
hand in on Monday. She left it sitting right on 
top of her dresser, just asking for it. So I tore it 
up into little pieces. Then I ripped up a bunch of 
pictures of the three of us, and I left it all in a 
nice pile on the bed for her to come home to. I 
think she learned something from that. 

Glenn was remarkably honest with me about 
his thought process and his motives, probably 
because of how justified he felt. He believed in his 
right to control his partner’s actions; he expected 

his word to be the last word; and he did not accept 
defiance. He considered it his right to punish 
Harriet—in the most severe way he could think of 
—if she took steps to recover ownership of her 
life. He talked proudly of how he had “allowed” 
her various freedoms while they were together, as 
if he were her parent, and defended his right to 
remove her privileges when he thought the time 
had come. 

Control comes in many different forms. A few 
of my clients have been so extremely controlling 
they could have passed for military commanders. 
Russell, for example, went so far as to require his 
children to do calisthenics each morning before 
school. His wife was not allowed to speak to 
anyone without his permission, and he would 
order her back to her room to change clothes in the 
morning if he didn’t approve of her outfit. At 
dinnertime, he would sit back and comment like a 
restaurant reviewer on the strengths and 
weaknesses of what she had prepared and would 

periodically instruct her to go to the kitchen to get 
things for the children, as if she were a waitress. 

Russell’s style was at one end of the spectrum 
of controlling behavior, however. Most of my 
clients stake out specific turf to control, like an 
explorer claiming land, rather than trying to run 
everything. One abuser may be fanatical about 
having to win every argument but leave his 
partner alone about what she wears. Another man 
may permit his partner to argue with him about 
the children, for example, but if she refuses to let 
him change the TV station when he wants, watch 
out. (Dozens of my clients have thrown or 
smashed remote controls; the television is tightly 
controlled by many abusers.) One abuser will have 
a curfew for his partner, while another will allow 
his partner to come and go as she pleases—as 
long as she makes his meals and does his laundry. 


An abusive man’s control generally falls into one 
or more of the following central spheres: 


An intimate relationship involves a steady flow of 
decisions to be made, conflicting needs to 
negotiate, tastes and desires to balance. Who is 
going to clean up the mess in the kitchen? How 
much time should we spend alone together and 
how much with other friends? Where do our other 
hobbies and interests fit into our priorities? How 
will we process and resolve annoyances or hurt 
feelings? What rules will we have for our 

The mind-set that an abuser brings to these 
choices and tensions can make him impossible to 
get along with. Consider how challenging it is to 
negotiate or compromise with a man who operates 
on the following tenets (whether or not he ever 
says them aloud): 

1. “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.” 

2. “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.” 

3. “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 

4. “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 last item on this list is the one that most 
distinguishes the abuser from other people: 

Perhaps any of us can slip into having feelings 
like the ones in numbers one through three, but the 

abuser gives himself permission to take action on 
the basis of his beliefs. With him, the foregoing 
statements aren’t feelings; they are closely held 
convictions that he uses to guide his actions. That 
is why they lead to so much bullying behavior. 


An abusive man often considers it his right to 
control where his partner goes, with whom she 
associates, what she wears, and when she needs to 
be back home. He therefore feels that she should 
be grateful for any freedoms that he does choose 
to grant her, and will say something in a 
counseling session like, “She’s all bent out of 
shape because there’s one sleazy girl I don’t let 
her hang out with, when all the rest of the time I 
allow her to be friends with anyone she wants.” 

He expects his partner to give him a medal for his 
generosity, not to criticize him for his 
oppressiveness. He sees himself as a reasonably 
permissive parent—toward his adult partner—and 
he does not want to meet with a lot of resistance 

on the occasions when he believes that he needs to 
put his foot down. 

Sometimes this control is exercised through 
wearing the woman down with constant low-level 
complaints, rather than through yelling or barking 
orders. The abuser may repeatedly make negative 
comments about one of his partner’s friends, for 
example, so that she gradually stops seeing her 
acquaintance to save herself the hassle. In fact, she 
might even believe it was her own decision, not 
noticing how her abuser pressured her into it. 

Is the abusive man’s thinking distorted? 
Certainly. A man’s partner is not his child, and 
the freedoms he “grants” her are not credits to be 
spent like chips when the urge to control her 
arises. But his rules make sense to him, and he 
will fight to hang on to them. 


If the couple has children, the abusive man 
typically considers himself the authority on 
parenting, even if he contributes little to the actual 

work of looking after them. He sees himself as a 
wise and benevolent head coach who watches 
passively from the sidelines during the easy times 
but steps in with the “correct” approach when his 
partner isn’t handling the children properly. His 
arrogance about the superiority of his parenting 
judgment may be matched only by how little he 
truly understands, or pays attention to, the 
children’s needs. No matter how good a mother 
his partner is, he thinks she needs to learn from 
him, not the other way around. 

THE ABUSIVE MAN CLAIMS that his control 
is in his partner’s best interest. This justification 
was captured by my client Vinnie: 

Olga and I were driving in a really bad 
neighborhood. We were arguing, and she got 
crazy the way she does and started trying to get 
out of the car. It was dark. This was the kind of 
place where anything could happen to her. I told 

her to stay in the car, that she wasn’t getting out 
in a place like this, but she kept trying to push 
the door open. I couldn’t get her to stop, so I 
finally had to slap her in the arm, and 
unfortunately she hit her head against the 
window. But at least that got her to settle down 
and stay in the car. 

Does Vinnie really believe that he is abusing 
his partner for her own good? Yes and no. To 
some extent he does, because he has convinced 
himself. But his real motivation is plain to see: 
Olga wants out of the car in order to escape 
Vinnie’s control, and he wants to make sure she 

Unfortunately, an abuser can sometimes 
succeed at convincing people that his partner is so 
irrational and out of control, that her judgment is 
so poor, that she has to be saved from herself. 
Never believe a man’s claim that he has to harm 
his partner in order to protect her; only abusers 

think this way. 

When a man starts my program, he often says, 
“I am here because I lose control of myself 
sometimes. I need to get a better grip.” I always 
correct him: “Your problem is not that you lose 
control of yourself, it’s that you take control of 
your partner. In order to change, you don’t 
need to gain control over yourself, you need to 
let go of control of her.” A large part of his 
abusiveness comes in the form of punishments 
used to retaliate against you for resisting his 
control. This is one of the single most important 
concepts to grasp about an abusive man. 


He feels entitled. 

Entitlement is the abuser’s belief that he has a 
special status and that it provides him with 

exclusive rights and privileges that do not apply to 
his partner. The attitudes that drive abuse can 
largely be summarized by this one word. 

To understand entitlement, we first need to look 
at how rights should properly be conceived of in a 
couple or family. 




The man’s rights and the woman’s rights are 
the same size. They have the right to have their 
opinions and desires respected, to have a 50 
percent say in decision making, to live free from 
verbal abuse and physical harm. Their children’s 
rights are somewhat smaller but substantial 
nonetheless; children can’t have an equal say in 
decisions because of their limited knowledge and 
experience, but they do have the right to live free 
from abuse and fear, to be treated with respect, 
and to have their voices heard on all issues that 
concern them. However, an abuser perceives the 

rights of the family like this: 




Not only are the rights of his partner and 
children diminished—with some abusers those 
little circles disappear altogether—but his rights 
are greatly inflated. My fundamental task as a 
counselor is to get the abusive man to expand his 
perception of his partner’s and children’s rights to 
their proper size and to shrink his view of his own 
rights down to where it belongs. The abusive man 
awards himself all kinds of “rights,” including: 

• Physical caretaking 

• Emotional caretaking 

• Sexual caretaking 

• Deference 

• Freedom from accountability 

Physical caretaking is the focus of the more 
traditionally minded abuser. He expects his 
partner to make dinner for him the way he likes it, 
look after the children, clean the house, and 
perform an endlessly continuing list of additional 
tasks. He sees her essentially as an unpaid servant. 
He grouches, “I work my butt off all day, and 
when I come home I expect a little peace and 
quiet. Is that too much to ask for?” He seems to 
expect a soft chair, a newspaper, and a footstool. 
On the weekends he expects everything in the 
home to be taken care of so that he can watch 
sports or tinker with his car, go golfing or bird 
watching, or sleep. If she doesn’t fulfill her myriad 
household responsibilities to his satisfaction, he 
feels entitled to dole out harsh criticism. 

Although this style of abuser may seem out of 
date, he is alive and well. He did learn to use some 
prettier packaging for his regal expectations 
during the ’80s and ’90s, but the change is 
superficial. Fewer abusers look me in the eye 

nowadays and say, “I expect a warm, tasty dinner 
on the table when I come home,” but they may 
still explode if it isn’t there. 

Interwoven with the abuser’s overvaluation of 
his own work is the devaluation of his partner’s 
labor. My clients grumble to me: “I don’t know 
what the hell she does all day. I come home and 
the house is a mess, the children haven’t been fed, 
and she’s talking on the telephone. She spends her 
time watching soap operas.” If she works outside 
the home—and few families can get by on one 
income—then he insists that her job is easy 
compared to his. Of course, if he attempts to do 
what she does—for example, if he is the primary 
parent for a while because he’s unemployed and 
she’s working—he does an abrupt about-face: 
Suddenly he declares that parenting and 
housekeeping are monumental and admirable 
tasks, requiring hours a day of rest for him to 

Emotional caretaking can be even more 

important than homemaking services to the 
modem abuser. Remember Ray, who swore at 
Mary Beth for “ignoring” him for two days while 
she looked for her missing son? His problem was 
that he believed that nothing—not even a missing 
child—should interfere with Mary Beth’s duty to 
meet his emotional needs. Just as common as the 
abuser who blows up because dinner is late is the 
one who explodes because his partner gets tired of 
listening to him talk endlessly about himself, or 
because she wants to spend a little time doing 
something alone that she enjoys, or because she 
didn’t drop everything to soothe him when he was 
feeling down, or because she failed to anticipate 
needs or desires he hadn’t even expressed. 

Abusive men often hide their high emotional 
demands by cloaking them as something else. My 
client Bert, for example, would be furious if his 
girlfriend Kirsten didn’t get off the phone as soon 
as he came in the door. His excuse to tear into her 
would be “all the money she’s wasting on the 

phone bill when she knows we can’t afford it,” but 
we noticed that the issue only arose when he 
wanted her attention. If she called England when 
he wasn’t around, or if he spent an hour on the 
phone to his parents every Saturday morning, the 
expense was no big deal. 

When I have new clients, I go to the board and 
draw a compass with the needle pointing straight 
up to a big N. “You want your partner to be this 
compass,” I say to them, “and you want to be 
North. No matter where the compass goes, it 
always points in the same direction. And no 
matter where she goes, or what she’s doing, or 
what’s on her mind, you expect her to always be 
focused on you.” My clients sometimes protest to 
me, “But that’s what being in a relationship is 
about. We’re supposed to focus on each other.” 
But I notice that when he focuses on her, most of 
what he thinks about is what she can do for him, 
not the other way around. And when he doesn’t 
feel like focusing on her at all, he doesn’t bother. 

An abuser can seem emotionally needy. You 
can get caught in a trap of catering to him, trying 
to fill a bottomless pit. But he’s not so much 
needy as entitled, so no matter how much you give 
him, it will never be enough. He will just keep 
coming up with more demands because he 
believes his needs are your responsibility, until 
you feel drained down to nothing. 

Sexual caretaking means that he considers it 
his partner’s duty to keep him sexually satisfied. 
He may not accept having his sexual advances 
rejected, yet turn her down whenever he feels like 
it. Even her pleasure exists for his benefit: If she 
doesn’t reach orgasm, for example, he may resent 
her for it because he wants the pleasure of seeing 
himself as a great lover. 

Not all abusive men have great interest in sex. 
Some are too busy with outside relationships or 
use substances that diminish their sex drive. A 
few are gay, using their female partners for 
window dressing. Some of my clients can feel 

attracted to a woman only as part of a domination 
fantasy. This style of abuser loses interest in sex if 
his partner starts to assert herself as an equal 
human being deserving of respect, or he begins to 
coerce or assault her sexually. In short, he wants 
sex on his terms or not at all. 

Deference refers to the abuser’s entitlement to 
have his tastes and opinions treated as edicts. 

Once he has made the pronouncement that a 
certain movie is shallow, or that Louise was trying 
to seduce Jay at the picnic, or that Republicans 
don’t know how to manage the economy, his 
partner is supposed to accept his view 
unquestioningly. It is especially important to him 
that she not disagree with him in front of other 
people; if she does, he may later yell at her, “You 
made me look like a fool, you’re always out to 
show me up,” and similar accusations. His 
unstated rule is that she is not to question his 

Freedom from accountability means that the 

abusive man considers himself above criticism. If 
his partner attempts to raise her grievances, she is 
“nagging” or “provoking” him. He believes he 
should be permitted to ignore the damage his 
behavior is causing, and he may become 
retaliatory if anyone tries to get him to look at it. I 
had the following exchange with a man who was 
new to my program: 

kN CROFT: Can you explain to me why you are 
joining this abuser group? 

kNK: Well, I slapped my girl a few weeks ago, 
and now she says I can’t come back in the house 
unless I get counseling. 

USfCROFT: What led up to your abuse? Were you 

VNK: Yes. And she accused me of having an 
affair! That really pissed me off! 

kN CROFT: Well, were you having an affair? 

VNK (Pause, a little startled by my question): 

Well, yeah.. .but she had no proof She shouldn’t 
go saying things like that when she has no proof! 

Hank reserved for himself the privilege of being 
critical of his partner, a privilege that he exercised 
a great deal. Complaints against him, including 
drawing any attention to how his behavior had 
hurt other people in the family, he was quick to 
stifle. In Hank’s case, the retaliation took the form 
of a physical assault. 

The abusive man’s high entitlement leads him 
to have unfair and unreasonable expectations, so 
that the relationship revolves around his demands. 
His attitude is: “You owe me.” For each ounce he 
gives, he wants a pound in return. He wants his 
partner to devote herself fully to catering to him, 
even if it means that her own needs—or her 
children’s—get neglected. You can pour all your 
energy into keeping your partner content, but if he 

has this mind-set, he’ll never be satisfied for long. 
And he will keep feeling that you are controlling 
him, because he doesn’t believe that you should 
set any limits on his conduct or insist that he meet 
his responsibilities. 

Many men feel specifically entitled to use 
violence. A recent study of college males studying 
psychology, published in 1997, found that 10 
percent believed that it was acceptable to hit a 
female partner for refusing to have sex, and 20 
percent believed that it was acceptable to do so if 
the man suspected her of cheating. Studies have 
found similar statistics regarding young men’s 
belief that they have the right to force a female to 
have sex if they have spent a substantial amount of 
money on the evening’s entertainment or if the 
woman started wanting sex but then changed her 
mind. These studies point to the importance of 
focusing on changing the entitled attitudes of 
abusers, rather than attempting to find something 
wrong in their individual psychology. 



The abusive man’s problem with anger is almost 
the opposite of what is commonly believed. The 
reality is: 




One of the basic human rights he takes away 
from you is the right to be angry with him. No 
matter how badly he treats you, he believes that 
your voice shouldn’t rise and your blood shouldn’t 
boil. The privilege of rage is reserved for him 
alone. When your anger does jump out of you—as 
will happen to any abused woman from time to 
time—he is likely to try to j am it back down your 
throat as quickly as he can. Then he uses your 
anger against you to prove what an irrational 

person you are. Abuse can make you feel 
straitj acketed. You may develop physical or 
emotional reactions to swallowing your anger, 
such as depression, nightmares, emotional 
numbing, or eating and sleeping problems, which 
your partner may use as an excuse to belittle you 
further or make you feel crazy. 

Why does your partner react so strongly to your 
anger? One reason may be that he considers 
himself above reproach, as I discussed above. The 
second is that on some level he senses—though 
not necessarily consciously—that there is power 
in your anger. If you have space to feel and 
express your rage, you will be better able to hold 
on to your identity and to resist his suffocation of 
you. He tries to take your anger away in order to 
snuff out your capacity to resist his will. Finally, 
he perceives your anger as a challenge to his 
authority, to which he responds by overpowering 
you with anger that is greater than your own. In 
this way he ensures that he retains the exclusive 

right to be the one who shows anger. 


Once you grasp the nature of entitlement, the 
following concept about the abusive man becomes 



The abuser’s unfair and unrealistic expectations 
ensure that his partner can never follow all of his 
rules or meet all of his demands. The result is that 
he is frequently angry or enraged. This dynamic 
was illustrated on a recent talk show by a young 
man who was discussing his abuse of his present 
wife. He said that his definition of a good 
relationship was: “Never arguing and saying you 
love each other every day.” He told the audience 
that his wife “deserved” his mistreatment because 

she wasn’t living up to this unrealistic image. It 
wouldn’t do any good to send this young man, or 
any other abuser, to an anger-management 
program, because his entitlements would just keep 
producing more anger. His attitudes are what need 
to change. 


He twists things into their opposites. 

Emile, a physically violent client with whom I 
worked, gave me the following account of his 
worst assault on his wife: “One day Tanya went 
way overboard with her mouth, and I got so pissed 
off that I grabbed her by the neck and put her up 
against the wall.” With his voice filled with 
indignation, he said, “Then she tried to knee me in 
the balls! How would you like it if a woman did 
that to you?? Of course I lashed out. And when I 

swung my hand down, my fingernails made a long 
cut across her face. What the hell did she expect?” 



The abuser’s highly entitled perceptual system 
causes him to mentally reverse aggression and 
self-defense. When Tanya attempted to defend 
herself against Emile’s life-threatening attack, he 
defined her actions as violence toward him. When 
he then injured her further, he claimed he was 
defending himself against her abuse. The lens of 
entitlement the abuser holds over his eye stands 
everything on its head, like the reflection in a 

Another client, Wendell, described an incident 
in which he stomped out of the house and 

slammed the door. “My wife Aysha nags at me for 
hours. I can only take so much of her complaining 
and telling me I’m no good. Yesterday she went 
on for a half hour, and I finally called her a bitch 
and took off.” I asked him what Aysha was upset 
about, and he said he didn’t know. “When she 
goes on like that I just tune her out.” A few days 
later I spoke with Aysha about the incident, and 
she told me that she had indeed been yelling at 
Wendell for five or ten minutes. However, he had 
failed to tell me that he had launched a verbal 
assault when she first woke up that morning and 
had continued berating her all day: “He totally 
dominates arguments; he repeats himself like a 
broken record; and I’m lucky if I can get a word 
in. And his language is awful—he must have 
called me a ‘bitch’ ten times that day.” She finally 
reached her limit and began standing up for 
herself forcefully, and that was when he stormed 
out for the evening. 

Why does Wendell think that Aysha is the one 

who has been doing all the yelling and 
complaining? Because in his mind she’s supposed 
to be listening, not talking. If she expresses 
herself at all, that’s too much. 

When I challenge my clients to stop bullying 
their partners, they twist my words around just as 
they do their partners’. They accuse me of having 
said things that have little connection to my actual 
words. An abuser says, “You’re saying I should 
lie down and let her walk all over me” because I 
told him that intimidating his partner is 
unacceptable no matter how angry he is. He says, 
“So you’re telling us that our partners can do 
anything they want to us, and we aren’t allowed to 
lift a finger to defend ourselves” because his 
partner told him that she was sick of his friends 
trashing the house and that he should “clean up 
his goddamned mess,” and I told him that was no 
excuse to call her a disgusting name. He says, 
“Your approach is that whatever she does is okay, 
because she’s a woman, but because I’m the man, 

there’s much stricter rules for me” because I 
pointed out his double standards and insisted that 
he should live by the same rules he applies to her. 

The abusive man has another reason to 
exaggerate and ridicule his partner’s statements 
(and mine): He wants to avoid having to think 
seriously about what she is saying and struggle to 
digest it. He feels entitled to swat her down like a 
fly instead. 


He disrespects his partner and 
considers himself superior to her. 

Sheldon’s relationship with Kelly was over. He 
was required to enter my program because he had 
violated a restraining order but denied that he had 
ever been violent or frightening to Kelly. Now he 
was attempting to get custody of their three-year- 

old daughter, Ashley. He claimed that Kelly had 
never looked after Ashley from the time of her 
birth and had “never bonded with her.” He added, 
“I don’t consider her Ashley’s mother. She’s just a 
vessel, just a channel that Ashley came through to 
get into this world.” 

Sheldon had reduced Kelly to an inanimate 
obj ect in his mind, a baby-producing machine. 
When he spoke of her, he twisted his face up in 
disgusted expressions of contempt. At the same 
time, he never sounded upset; he considered Kelly 
too far beneath him to raise his ire. He had the 
same attitude you might have if an annoying but 
harmless little dog were nipping at your heels. His 
tone of condescension indicated how certain he 
was of his superiority to Kelly. 

As memorable as Sheldon’s smug derision was, 
it was only a few notches worse than the common 
thinking of many abusive men. The abuser tends 
to see his partner as less intelligent, less 
competent, less logical, and even less sensitive 

than he is. He will tell me, for example, that she 
isn’t the compassionate person he is. He often has 
difficulty conceiving of her as a human being. 

This tendency in abusers is known as 
objectification or depersonalization. Most 
abusers verbally attack their partners in degrading, 
revolting ways. They reach for the words that they 
know are most disturbing to women, such as 
bitch, whore, and cunt, often preceded by the 
word fat. These words assault her humanity, 
reducing her to an animal, a nonliving obj ect, or a 
degraded sexual body part. The partners of my 
clients tell me that these disgusting words carry a 
force and an ugliness that feel like violence. 
Through these carefully chosen epithets—and my 
clients sometimes admit that they use the most 
degrading words they can think of—abusers make 
their partners feel both debased and unsafe. 

Objectification is a critical reason why an 
abuser tends to get worse over time. As his 
conscience adapts to one level of cruelty—or 

violence—he builds to the next. By 
depersonalizing his partner, the abuser protects 
himself from the natural human emotions of guilt 
and empathy, so that he can sleep at night with a 
clear conscience. He distances him self so far from 
her humanity that her feelings no longer count, or 
simply cease to exist. These walls tend to grow 
over time, so that after a few years in a 
relationship my clients can reach a point where 
they feel no more guilt over degrading or 
threatening their partners than you or I would feel 
after angrily kicking a stone in the driveway. 

Abuse and respect are diametric opposites: You 
do not respect someone whom you abuse, and you 
do not abuse someone whom you respect. 


He confuses love and abuse. 

Here are comments my clients commonly make to 

“The reason I abuse her is because I have such 
strong feelings for her. You hurt the ones you 
love the most. ” 

“No one can get me as upset as she can. ” 

“Yeah, I told her she’d better not ever try to 
leave me. You have no idea how much I love 
this girl!” 

I was sick of watching her ruining her life. I 
care too much to sit back and do nothing about 

• j >> 


An abusive man often tries to convince his 
partner that his mistreatment of her is proof of 
how deeply he cares, but the reality is that abuse is 
the opposite of love. The more a man abuses you, 
the more he is demonstrating that he cares only 

about himself. He may feel a powerful desire to 
receive your love and caretaking, but he only 
wants to give love when it’s convenient. 

So is he lying when he says he loves you? No, 
usually not. Most of my clients do feel a powerful 
sensation inside that they call love. For many of 
them it is the only kind of feeling toward a female 
partner that they have ever had, so they have no 
way of knowing that it isn’t love. When an 
abusive man feels the powerful stirring inside that 
other people call love, he is probably largely 

• The desire to have you devote your life to 
keeping him happy with no outside 

• The desire to have sexual access 

• The desire to impress others by having 
you be his partner 

• The desire to possess and control you 

These desires are important aspects of what 
romantic love means to him. He may well be 
capable of feeling genuine love for you, but first he 
will have to dramatically reorient his outlook in 
order to separate abusive and possessive desires 
from true caring, and become able to really see 

The confusion of love with abuse is what allows 
abusers who kill their partners to make the absurd 
claim that they were driven by the depths of their 
loving feelings. The news media regrettably often 
accept the aggressors’ view of these acts, 
describing them as “crimes of passion.” But what 
could more thoroughly prove that a man did not 
love his partner? If a mother were to kill one of her 
children, would we ever accept the claim that she 
did it because she was overwhelmed by how much 
she cared? Not for an instant. Nor should we. 
Genuine love means respecting the humanity of 
the other person, wanting what is best for him or 
her, and supporting the other person’s self-esteem 

and independence. This kind of love is 
incompatible with abuse and coercion. 


He is manipulative. 

Let’s examine the following interactions between 
an abusive man named David and his partner 

• David is yelling at Joanne, pointing his 
finger and turning red in the face. Joanne 
tells him he’s too angry and she doesn’t 
like it. He yells even louder, saying, “I’m 
not angry, I’m just trying to get my point 
across and you’re not listening! Don’t tell 
me what I’m feeling, I hate that! You’re 
not inside me!” 

• One day Joanne tells David that his 

outbursts are getting to her and she needs 
to take some time off from their 
relationship. David says, “What you are 
saying is that you don’t love me 
anymore. I’m not sure you ever loved me. 
You don’t understand how strong my 
feelings are for you,” and he looks close 
to tears. The conversation shifts to 
Joanne reassuring David that she isn’t 
abandoning him, and her complaints 
about his behavior get lost in the shuffle. 

On another occasion, Joanne brings up 
the fact that she would like to go back to 
school. David responds negatively, 
saying, “We can’t afford it,” and refuses 
to look after the children while she’s at 
class. Joanne proposes a number of 
strategies for dealing with both money 
and child care, all of which David finds 
something wrong with. Joanne finally 
decides it’s impossible to continue her 

education, but David then insists that he 
wasn’t trying to talk her out of it. She 
winds up feeling that the decision not to 
go back to school is her own. 

Few abusive men rely entirely on verbal abuse 
or intimidation to control their partners. Being a 
nonstop bully is too much work, and it makes the 
man look bad. If he is abusive all the time, his 
partner starts to recognize that she’s being abused, 
and the man may feel too guilty about his 
behavior. The abuser therefore tends to switch 
frequently to manipulating his partner to get what 
he wants. He may also sometimes use these tactics 
just to get her upset or confused. 

There are some signs of manipulation by 
abusers that you can watch for: 

• Changing his moods abruptly and 
frequently, so that you find it difficult to 
tell who he is or how he feels, keeping 
you constantly off balance. His feelings 

toward you are especially changeable. 

Denying the obvious about what he is 
doing or feeling. He’ll speak to you with 
his voice trembling with anger, or he’ll 
blame a difficulty on you, or he’ll sulk for 
two hours, and then deny it to your face. 

You know what he did—and so does he 
—but he refuses to admit it, which can 
drive you crazy with frustration. Then he 
may call you irrational for getting so 
upset by his denial. 

Convincing you that what he wants you 
to do is what is best for you. This way 
the abuser can make his selfishness look 
like generosity, which is a neat trick. A 
long time may pass before you realize 
what his real motives were. 

Getting you to feel sorry for him, so that 
you will be reluctant to push forward 
with your complaints about what he 


• Getting you to blame yourself, or blame 
other people, for what he does. 

• Using confusion tactics in arguments, 
subtly or overtly changing the subj ect, 
insisting that you are thinking or feeling 
things that you aren’t, twisting your 
words, and many other tactics that serve 
as glue to pour into your brain. You may 
leave arguments with him feeling like 
you are losing your mind. 

• Lying or misleading you about his 
actions, his desires, or his reasons for 
doing certain things, in order to guide 
you into doing what he wants you to do. 
One of the most frequent complaints I get 
from abused women is that their partners 
lie repeatedly, a form of psychological 
abuse that in itself can be highly 
destructive over time. 

• Getting you and the people you care 
about turned against each other by 
betraying confidences, being rude to your 
friends, telling people lies about what 
you supposedly said about them, 
charming your friends and then telling 
them bad things about you, and many 
other divisive tactics. 

In some ways manipulation is worse than overt 
abuse, especially when the two are mixed 
together. When a woman gets called “bitch,” or 
gets shoved or slapped, she at least knows what 
her partner did to her. But after a manipulative 
interaction she may have little idea what went 
wrong; she just knows that she feels terrible, or 
crazy, and that somehow it seems to be her own 


He strives to have a good public 


If you are involved with an abusive man, you may 
spend a lot of your time trying to figure out what 
is wrong with you, rather than what is wrong with 
him. If he gets along well with other people and 
impresses them with his generosity, sense of 
humor, and friendliness, you may wind up 
wondering, “What is it about me that sets him off? 
Other people seem to think he’s great.” 



Most abusive men put on a charming face for their 
communities, creating a sharp split between their 

public image and their private treatment of women 
and children. He may be: 

• Enraged at home but calm and smiling 

• Selfish and self-centered with you but 
generous and supportive with others 

• Domineering at home but willing to 
negotiate and compromise outside 

• Highly negative about females while on 
his own turf but a vocal supporter of 
equality when anyone else is listening 

• Assaultive toward his partner or children 
but nonviolent and nonthreatening with 
everyone else 

• Entitled at home but critical of other men 
who disrespect or assault women 

The pain of this contrast can eat away at a 
woman. In the morning her partner cuts her to the 

quick by calling her a “brainless fat cow,” but a 
few hours later she sees him laughing with the 
people next door and helping them fix their car. 
Later the neighbor says to her, “Your partner is so 
nice. You’re lucky to be with him—a lot of men 
wouldn’t do what he does.” She responds with a 
mumbled “Yeah,” feeling confused and tongue- 
tied. Back at home, she asks herself over and over 
again, “Why me? ” 


Not really. They are drawn to power and control, 
and part of how they get it is by looking good in 
public. The abusive man’s charm makes his 
partner reluctant to reach out for support or 
assistance because she feels that people will find 
her revelations hard to believe or will blame her. If 
friends overhear him say something abusive, or 
police arrest him for an assault, his previous 

people-pleasing lays the groundwork to get him 
off the hook. The observers think, He’s such a 
nice guy, he’s just not the type to be abusive. She 
must have really hurt him. 

The abuser’s nice-guy front helps him feel good 
about himself. My clients say to me, “I get along 
fine with everyone but her. You should ask around 
about what I’m like; you’ll see. I’m a calm, 
reasonable person. People can see that she’s the 
one who goes off.” Meanwhile, he uses the 
difficulties that she is having in her relationships 
with people—many of which may be caused by 
him—as further proof that she is the one with the 

One of the most important challenges facing a 
counselor of abusive men is to resist being drawn 
in by the men’s charming persona. As they sit 
chatting and joking in their group meeting, cruelty 
and selfishness seem faraway. I find myself 
wondering the same thing the neighbors do: Could 
this guy really get that mean? And even after he 

admits to what he does, it’s still hard to believe. 
This contrast is a key reason why abusers can get 
away with what they do. 

Among my clients I have had: numerous 
doctors, including two surgeons; many successful 
businesspeople, including owners and directors of 
large companies; about a dozen college professors; 
several lawyers; a prominent—and very mellow- 
sounding—radio personality; clergypeople; and 
two well-known professional athletes. One of my 
violent clients had spent every Thanksgiving for 
the past ten years volunteering at his local soup 
kitchen. Another was a publicly visible staff 
member of a major international human rights 
organization. The cruelty and destructiveness that 
these men were capable of would have stunned 
their communities had they known. 

Although these men usually keep their abusive 
side well hidden outside of the home, there is one 
situation in which it slips out: when someone 
confronts them about their abusiveness and sticks 

up for the abused woman, which happens to be 
my job. Suddenly, the attitudes and tactics they 
normally reserve for home come pouring out. The 
vast majority of women who say that they are 
being abused are telling the truth. I know this to 
be true because the abusers let their guard down 
with me, belying their denial. 


He feels justified. 

Several years ago, I had a client who began his 
first group session by declaring: “I am here 
because I’m a batterer.” I was impressed with his 
ownership of his problem. However, the next 
week he softened his words to, “I’m here because 
I’m abusive,” and the third week he stated, “I’m 
in the program because my wife thinks I’m 
abusive.” Within a few more weeks he had quit 

coming, having comfortably wrapped himself 
back up in his justifications. 

Abusers externalize responsibility for their 
actions, believing that their partners make them 
behave in abusive ways. Each of my clients 
predictably uses some variation of the following 

“She knows how to push my buttons. ” 

“She wanted me to go off, and she knows how 

to make it happen. ” 

“She pushed me too far. ” 

“There’s only so much a man can take. ” 

“You expect me to just let her walk all over me. 

What would you do? ” 

Many clients express guilt or remorse when 
they first begin attending counseling, but as soon 

as I start to press them to look at their histories of 
abusive behavior, they switch back to defending 
their actions. They don’t mind glibly saying, “I 
know what I did was wrong,” but when I ask 
them to describe their verbal or physical assaults 
in detail, they leap back to justifying. 

Abusive men are masters of excuse making. In 
this respect they are like substance abusers, who 
believe that everyone and everything except them 
is responsible for their actions. When they aren’t 
blaming their partners, they blame stress, alcohol, 
their childhood, their children, their bosses, or 
their insecurities. More important, they feel 
entitled to make these excuses; when I point out 
that other men under the same pressures choose 
not to be abusive, they tend to become irate or 

Does this mean that abusers are psychopaths 
who lack any conscience that could cause them to 
feel guilt or responsibility? Generally not, 
although I have had a small number (perhaps 5 

percent of my clients) who are. Most abusers do 
have a conscience about their behavior outside of 
the family. They may be willing to be answerable 
for their actions at work, at the club, or on the 
street. At home, however, their sense of 
entitlement takes over. 

The abusive man commonly believes he can 
blame his partner for anything that goes wrong, 
not just his abusiveness. Did he just suffer a 
disappointment? She caused it. Is he embarrassed 
by a mistake he made? She should have prevented 
it. Is one of the children in a difficult period? 

She’s a bad mother. Everything is someone else’s 
fault, and “someone else” is usually her. 


Abusers deny and minimize their 


One of my areas of specialization is court-related 
work involving abusers who are physically violent 
or who abuse their children. I frequently encounter 
court personnel who say: “Well, she accuses him 
of abusing her, but he denies it.” They then drop 
the matter, as if the man’s denial closes the case. 
They also tell me: “He says she does the same 
things to him, so I guess they abuse each other.” 
This kind of denial and cross-accusation tells us 
nothing about whether the woman is telling the 
truth. If the man is abusive, of course he is going 
to deny it, partly to protect himself and partly 
because his perceptions are distorted. If he were 
ready to accept responsibility for his actions in 
relationships, he wouldn’t be abusive. Breaking 
through denial and minimization is one of the 
main tasks facing an abuse counselor. Most of the 
men in my groups admit to some abusive behavior 
—although they don’t see it as abusive, of course 
—but they acknowledge only a small portion of 
what they have actually done, as I learn when I 

interview the abused partners. 

When an abuser denies an incident immediately 
after it happens, he can set his partner’s head 
spinning. Picture a woman who arises in the 
morning with her stomach still tied in a knot from 
an ugly blowout the night before. Her partner 
makes a face at her in the kitchen and says, “Why 
are you so grumpy today?” 

She replies, “Why the hell do you think? You 
called me ‘loser’ right in front of the children, and 
then you yanked my towel off so they would laugh 
at me. Am I supposed to come down the stairs 
whistling a happy tune?” 

“What are you talking about?” he gasps. 
“You’re a fucking drama junkie. I was clear 
across the room from you when your towel fell off. 
You’re going to blame that on me? You’re nuts.” 
And he walks off shaking his head. 

A woman can feel that she is losing her mind— 
or develop actual psychiatric symptoms—if the 
obvious realities of her life, including abuse, are 

denied repeatedly by her partner. The certainty and 
authority in his voice, with his eyes twisted up to 
show how baffled he is, leave her questioning 
herself. “Did that really happen? Maybe it didn’t. 
Maybe I do overreact to innocent things.” The 
more serious the incidents he denies, the more her 
grip on reality can start to slip. And if outsiders 
start to notice her instability, the abuser can use 
their observations to persuade them that her 
revelations of abuse by him are fantasies. 

The partners of this style of abuser ask me: 
“After an incident, it seems like he really believes 
the abuse didn’t happen. Is he consciously lying?” 
The answer in most cases is yes. Most abusers do 
not have severe memory problems. He probably 
remembers exactly what he did, especially when 
only a short time has passed. He denies his actions 
to close off discussion because he doesn’t want to 
answer for what he did, and perhaps he even 
wants you to feel frustrated and crazy. However, a 
small percentage of abusers—perhaps one in 

twelve—may have psychological conditions such 
as narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, 
in which they literally block any bad behavior 
from consciousness. One of the clues that your 
partner may have such a disturbance is if you 
notice him doing similar things to other people. If 
his denial and mind messing are restricted to you, 
or to situations that are related to you, he is 
probably simply abusive. 

Denial and minimization are part of most 
destructive behavior patterns, whether they be 
alcohol abuse, gambling, or child abuse. Partner 
abuse is no exception. 


Abusers are possessive. 

New clients in my program sometimes look 
bewildered, as if I were giving a seminar on edible 

plants and they had wandered into the wrong 
room. They can hardly wait to speak, rising out of 
their seats to sputter at me: “But these are our 
wives and girlfriends you are talking about. Do 
you really mean to say that someone else can 
dictate what we do in our relationships?” They 
smile as they speak or shake their heads lightly, as 
if they feel compassion for my dull wits. They 
assume I somehow have failed to realize that these 
women are theirs. 

The sense of ownership is one reason why 
abuse tends to get worse as relationships get more 
serious. The more history and commitment that 
develop in the couple, the more the abuser comes 
to think of his partner as a prized object. 
Possessiveness is at the core of the abuser’s mind¬ 
set, the spring from which all the other streams 
spout; on some level he feels that he owns you and 
therefore has the right to treat you as he sees fit. 



For many abusers, possessiveness takes the form 
of sexual jealousy. This style of man monitors his 
partner’s associations carefully, expects her to 
account for her whereabouts at all times, and 
periodically rips into her with jealous accusations, 
as Fran did in Chapter 1. Ironically, the most 
accusatory abusers are among the ones most likely 
to be cheating themselves; possessiveness and 
entitlement make the abuser feel that it is 
acceptable for him to have affairs, but not her. 

An equally important reason for the extreme 
jealousy exhibited by so many abusive men is the 
desire to isolate their partners. In Chapter 1 we 
met Marshall, who did not believe his own 
hysterical accusations of infidelity against his 
wife. So what was driving his behavior? An 
abusive man who isolates his partner does so 
primarily for two reasons: 

1. He wants her life to be focused entirely 
on his needs. He feels that other social 
contacts will allow her less time for 
him, and he doesn’t accept that she has 
that right. 

2. He doesn’t want her to develop sources 
of strength that could contribute to her 
independence. Although it is often 
largely unconscious, abusive men are 
aware on some level that a woman’s 
social contacts can bring her strength 
and support that could ultimately enable 
her to escape his control (as we saw 
with Dale and Maureen in Chapter 1). 
An abusive man commonly attempts to 
keep his partner completely dependent 
on him to increase his power. 

Because of this mind-set, an abusive man tends 
to perceive any relationships that his partner 
develops, whether with males or females, as 

threats to him. You may try to manage this 
problem by giving him lots of reassurance that you 
still love him and are not going to cheat on him. 
But you will find that his efforts to isolate you 
don’t lessen, because his fears that you might 
sleep with another man are actually only a small 
part of why he is trying to isolate you. 

At the same time, jealous accusations and 
isolation are only one form that ownership can 
take. There are abusive men who do not try to 
control their partners’ associations, but their 
underlying attitude of “You’re mine to do with as 
I see fit” reveals itself in other ways. If your 
partner’s sister criticizes him for bullying you, he 
may tell her: “What I do with my girl is none of 
your business.” If you have children, he may start 
to treat all family members as his belongings. His 
anger may escalate dangerously when you attempt 
to break away from him. Keep the word 
ownership in mind, and you may begin to notice 
that many of your partner’s behaviors are rooted in 

believing that you belong to him. 

ABUSIVE MEN COME in every personality type, 
arise from good childhoods and bad ones, are 
macho men or gentle, “liberated” men. No 
psychological test can distinguish an abusive man 
from a respectful one. Abusiveness is not a 
product of a man’s emotional injuries or of deficits 
in his skills. In reality, abuse springs from a man’s 
early cultural training, his key male role models, 
and his peer influences. In other words, abuse is a 
problem of values, not of psychology. When 
someone challenges an abuser’s attitudes and 
beliefs, he tends to reveal the contemptuous and 
insulting personality that normally stays hidden, 
reserved for private attacks on his partner. An 
abuser tries to keep everybody—his partner, his 
therapist, his friends and relatives—focused on 
how he feels, so that they won’t focus on how he 
thinks, perhaps because on some level he is aware 
that if you grasp the true nature of his problem, 

you will begin to escape his domination. 


• Abuse grows from attitudes and values, 
not feelings. The roots are ownership, the 
trunk is entitlement, and the branches are 

• Abuse and respect are opposites. Abusers 
cannot change unless they overcome their 
core of disrespect toward their partners. 

• Abusers are far more conscious of what 
they are doing than they appear to be. 
However, even their less-conscious 
behaviors are driven by their core 

• Abusers are unwilling to be nonabusive, 
not unable. They do not want to give up 
power and control. 

You are not crazy. Trust your perceptions 
of how your abusive partner treats you 
and thinks about you. 


The Types of Abusive Men 

Ifeel so bad for him; he’s had a really 
hard life. 

I’m lucky to be with him; he could get 
any woman he wants. 

I’m really scared of what he may do to 
me some day. 

I shouldn ’t argue with him, because I 
just come out feeling like an idiot. 

He’s very sensitive. I shouldn’t 
complain so much; he’s doing the best 
he can. 

He says the reason he cheats on me so 
much is that he’s a sex addict. 

man are like the ingredients in a recipe: The basics 
are always present, but the relative amounts vary 
greatly. One man may be so severely controlling 
that his partner can’t make a move without 
checking with him first, and yet, oddly, he 
contributes substantially to the domestic work and 
child care. Another man may allow his partner to 
come and go as she pleases, even accepting her 
friendships with men, but there is hell to pay if she 
fails to wait on him hand and foot, or if she makes 
the mistake of asking him to clean up after 
himself. Still other abusers are less overtly 
controlling and entitled than either of these men 
but mind-twisting in the severity of their 

The tactics and attitudes of abusers can vary 
from country to country, from ethnic group to 

ethnic group, from rich man to poor man. Abusers 
from each culture have their special areas of 
control or cruelty. Middleclass white abusers, for 
example, tend to have strict rules about how a 
woman is allowed to argue. If she talks back to 
him, shows anger, or doesn’t shut up when she is 
told to, he is likely to make her pay. My clients 
from Latin American cultures typically permit 
their partners to be more forceful and “mouthy” in 
a conflict than my white clients but can be highly 
retaliatory if their partners give any attention to 
another male. Abusers select the pieces of turf 
they wish to stake out, influenced in those choices 
by their particular culture and background. Each 
woman who is involved with an abusive or 
controlling man has to deal with his unique blend 
of tactics and attitudes, his particular rhythm of 
good times and bad times, and his specific way of 
presenting himself to the outside world. No one 
should ever tell an abused woman, “I know just 
what you’re going through,” because the 

experience of each woman is different. 

Viewed from another angle, however, abuse 
doesn’t vary that much. One man uses a little 
more of one ingredient and a little less of the 
other, but the overall flavor of the mistreatment 
has core similarities: assaults on the woman’s 
self-esteem, controlling behavior, undermining her 
independence, disrespect. Each abused woman 
has times of feeling that a riptide is dragging her 
under the sea, and she struggles for air. Confusion 
has been part of the experience of almost every 
one of the hundreds of abused women I have 
spoken with. Whether because of the abuser’s 
manipulativeness, his popularity, or simply the 
mind-bending contrast between his professions of 
love and his vicious psychological or physical 
assaults, every abused woman finds herself 
fighting to make sense out of what is happening. 

Recognizing the nature of the abusive man’s 
problem can be a first step out of the fog. In this 
chapter I introduce you to ten styles of abuse I 

have encountered among the two thousand men I 
have worked with. One—or more—of these 
profiles may jump out at you, so that you find 
yourself feeling: “There he is!” On the other hand, 
you might find instead that he does not fit neatly 
into any of these “types” but seems rather to draw 
bits of himself from each one. In that case, think 
of these profiles not as different men, but as the 
varying faces of one man. Either way, the 
descriptions can help you to put your finger on 
what your partner is up to. 

The sections below describe each style of man 
while he is being abusive. I don’t mean that he is 
like this all the time. In fact, men from any of the 
categories below can turn kind and loving at any 
moment and stay in that mode for days, weeks, or 
even months. 


The Demand Man is highly entitled. He expects 

his partner’s life to revolve around meeting his 
needs and is angry and blaming if anything gets in 
the way. He becomes enraged if he isn’t catered to 
or if he is inconvenienced in even a minor way. 
The partner of this man comes to feel that nothing 
she does is ever good enough and that it is 
impossible to make him happy. He criticizes her 
frequently, usually about things that he thinks she 
should have done—or done better—for him. 

Is every highly demanding partner an abuser? 
No. There are specific elements to the Demand 
Man’s style: 

1. He has little sense of give and take. His 
demands for emotional support, favors, 
caretaking, or sexual attention are well 
out of proportion to his contributions; he 
constantly feels that you owe him things 
that he has done nothing to earn. 

2. He exaggerates and overvalues his own 
contributions. If he was generous one 

day back in 1997, you are probably still 
hearing about it today as proof of how 
wonderfully he treats you and how 
ungrateful you are. He seems to keep a 
mental list of any favors or kindnesses 
he ever does and expects each one paid 
back at a heavy interest rate. He thinks 
you owe him tremendous gratitude for 
meeting the ordinary responsibilities of 
daily life—when he does—but takes 
your contributions for granted. 

3. When he doesn’t get what he feels is his 
due, he punishes you for letting him 

4. When he is generous or supportive, it’s 
because he feels like it. When he isn’t in 
the mood to give anything, he doesn’t. 
He is positive or loving toward you 
when he feels the need to prove to 
himself or to others that he is a good 
person, or when there is something that 

he is about to demand in return; in other 
words, it’s about him, not you. The 
longer you have been with him, the 
more his generous-seeming actions 
appear self-serving. 

5. If your needs ever conflict with his, he is 
furious. At these times he attacks you as 
self-centered or inflexible, turning 
reality on its head with statements such 
as, “All you care about is yourself!” He 
tends to work hard to convince outsiders 
of how selfish and ungrateful you are, 
speaking in a hurt voice about all the 
things he does for you. 

At the same time, the Demand Man is likely to 
be furious if anything is demanded of him. Not 
only are you not supposed to demand any favors, 
you aren’t even supposed to ask him to take care 
of his own obligations. If you ask him to clean up 
a mess he's left, he responds, “I’m not your 

fucking servant.” If you ask him to pay money he 
owes you or to work more hours to help out with 
the household expenses, he says, “You’re a typical 
woman, all you want from me is my money.” If 
you complain to him of how rarely he is there for 
you, he’ll say, “You are a needy, controlling 
bitch.” He keeps twisting things around backward 
in these ways, so that any effort you make to 
discuss your needs or his responsibilities switches 
abruptly to being about his needs and your 

The Demand Man is sometimes less controlling 
than other abusers as long as he is getting his 
needs met on his terms. He may allow you to have 
your own friendships or support you in pursuing 
your own career. But the effects on you of your 
partner’s extreme entitlement can be just as 
destructive as severe control. 

The central attitudes driving the 
Demand Man are: 

• It’s your job to do things for me, 
including taking care of my 
responsibilities if I drop the ball 
on them. If I’m unhappy about 
any aspect of my life, whether it 
has to do with our relationship 
or not, it’s your fault. 

• You should not place demands 
on me at all. You should be 
grateful for whatever I choose to 

• I am above criticism. 

• I am a very loving and giving 
partner. You’re lucky to have 


Mr. Right considers himself the ultimate authority 
on every subject under the sun; you might call him 

“Mr. Always Right.” He speaks with absolute 
certainty, brushing your opinions aside like 
annoying gnats. He seems to see the world as a 
huge classroom, in which he is the teacher and 
you are his student. He finds little of value in your 
thoughts or insights, so he seeks to empty out your 
head and fill it up with his jewels of brilliance. 
When Mr. Right sits in one of my groups for 
abusive men, he often speaks of his partner as if 
she were in danger from her own idiocy and he 
needs to save her from herself. Mr. Right has 
difficulty speaking to his partner—or about her— 
without a ring of condescension in his voice. And 
in a conflict his arrogance gets even worse. 

Mr. Right’s superiority is a convenient way for 
him to get what he wants. When he and his 
partner are arguing about their conflicting desires, 
he turns it into a clash between Right and Wrong 
or between Intelligence and Stupidity. He ridicules 
and discredits her perspective so that he can 
escape dealing with it. Here is a conversation I 

had with a Mr. Right whom I worked with in one 
of my abuser groups: 

kN CROFT: Pat, do you have any abusive 
behaviors to report from this past week? 

CT: Well, I did yell at Gwen once and called her 
“bitch.” We were fighting about money, as usual. 

kNCROFT: What was Gwen’s perspective in the 

CF She thinks money grows on trees. 

kNCROFT: Gwen said that money grows on 

CT: Well no, not just like that. But that’s how she 

kNCROFT: Let’s try again. What was she saying 
in the argument? 

: She thinks we have enough money to get both 
of the children whole new sets of clothes. But we 
just bought all new stuff for them only a few 
weeks ago. And we just don’t have it in the bank 
right now. 

FN CROFT: Does Gwen agree that the last round 
of shopping was only a few weeks ago? 

FT: No, she says it was four months ago, at the 
beginning of the summer, which is a crock. I can 
remember that the summer was more than half 

FNCROFT: So her memory is different from 
yours. Did she say why she thinks it was earlier? 

FT: Of course not, she’s.. .Well, maybe she said 
something about how she remembers she paid the 
credit card bill for those clothes while the children 
were still in school. But she’s wrong. 

FN CROFT: Now, you said that the money simply 
isn’t there. Gwen obviously thinks differently. 
Where does she think the money should come 

: I already told you, she wants me to be a 
magician who can just make it appear. 

FNCROFT: But she must have been making 
points about it. What was she saying? 

FT: Oh, I don’t know.. .She says we should sell 
our car and get a shit box, which would just end 
up costing us more in the long run, plus I don’t 
want to deal with it. 

FN CROFT: What do you drive now? 

FT: A Saab. 

FNCROFT: Let me guess. She would like to trade 
the Saab in on a reliable car that has lower 

monthly payments, cheaper parts, and fewer repair 

fT: Yeah, that’s what I said, a shit box. 

What Pat revealed in this exchange was that 
each time Gwen attempts to stand up for herself or 
put forth her views, he twists her statements to 
make them sound absurd. Notice how long it took 
me to drag out of him what Gwen’s opinions 
actually were. Gwen naturally came out feeling 
stifled by Pat, as there was nothing she could do to 
get her views heard and taken seriously. Part of 
why Pat is convinced that Gwen is stupid is that 
he is so exaggeratedly certain of his own wisdom 
and clarity. Since she continues to disagree with 
him, he takes that as proof of her foolishness. 

When Mr. Right decides to take control of a 
conversation, he switches into his Voice of Truth, 
giving the definitive pronouncement on what is 
the correct answer or the proper outlook. Abuse 
counselors call this tactic defining reality. Over 

time, his tone of authority can cause his partner to 
doubt her own judgment and come to see herself 
as not very bright. I notice how often I am 
speaking with the intelligent-sounding partner of 
one of my clients, only to have her say to me: “I’m 
not that smart.” The abuser wants her to doubt her 
mental abilities in this way, so that he can control 
her better. 

Besides knowing all about the world, Mr. Right 
is also an expert on your life and how you should 
live it. He has the answers to your conflicts at 
work, how you should spend your time, and how 
you should raise your children. He is especially 
knowledgeable about your faults, and he likes to 
inventory what is wrong with you, as if tearing 
you down were the way to improve you. He may 
seem to enjoy periodically straightening you out in 
front of other people to humiliate you, thereby 
establishing his unquestionable intellectual 

When Mr. Right’s partner refuses to defer to his 

sophisticated knowledge, he is likely to escalate to 
insulting her, calling her names, or mocking her 
with imitation. If he’s still not satisfied that he has 
brought her down low enough, he may reach for 
bigger guns, such as ruining evening plans, 
leaving places without her, or saying bad things 
about her to other people. If he is physically 
assaultive, then this is the time he may throw 
things, raise fists, or attack violently. In short, Mr. 
Right finds some way to ensure that his partner 
regrets her insistence on having her own mind. 

Mr. Right in some respects is a less violent and 
frightening version of the Drill Sergeant (see p. 
86), but Mr. Right’s control tends to be especially 
focused on telling his partner how to think. His 
partner feels suffocated by his control, as if he 
were watching her every move under a 

Mr. Right tries to sanitize his bullying by 
telling me, “I have strong opinions” or “I like 
debating ideas.” This is like a bank robber saying, 

“I’m interested in financial issues.” Mr. Right 
isn’t interested in debating ideas; he wants to 
impose his own. 

The central attitudes driving Mr. Right 

• You should be in awe of my 
intelligence and should look up 
to me intellectually. I know 
better than you do, even about 
what’s good for you. 

• Your opinions aren’t worth 
listening to carefully or taking 

• The fact that you sometimes 
disagree with me shows how 
sloppy your thinking is. 

• If you would just accept that I 
know what’s right, our 

relationship would go much 
better. Your own life would go 
better, too. 

• When you disagree with me 
about something, no matter how 
respectfully or meekly, that’s 
mistreatment of me. 

• If I put you down for long 
enough, some day you’ll see. 


The Water Torturer’s style proves that anger 
doesn’t cause abuse. He can assault his partner 
psychologically without even raising his voice. He 
tends to stay calm in arguments, using his own 
evenness as a weapon to push her over the edge. 
He often has a superior or contemptuous grin on 
his face, smug and self-assured. He uses a 
repertoire of aggressive conversational tactics at 

low volume, including sarcasm, derision—such as 
openly laughing at her—mimicking her voice, and 
cruel, cutting remarks. Like Mr. Right, he tends to 
take things she has said and twist them beyond 
recognition to make her appear absurd, perhaps 
especially in front of other people. He gets to his 
partner through a slow but steady stream of low- 
level emotional assaults, and perhaps occasional 
shoves or other “minor” acts of violence that don’t 
generally cause visible injury but may do great 
psychological harm. He is relentless in his quiet 
derision and meanness. 

The impact on a woman of all these subtle 
tactics is that either her blood temperature rises to 
a boil or she feels stupid and inferior, or some 
combination of the two. In an argument, she may 
end up yelling in frustration, leaving the room 
crying, or sinking into silence. The Water Torturer 
then says, “See, you’re the abusive one, not me. 
You’re the one who’s yelling and refusing to talk 
things out rationally. I wasn’t even raising my 

voice. It’s impossible to reason with you.” 

The psychological effects of living with the 
Water Torturer can be severe. His tactics can be 
difficult to identify, so they sink in deeply. Women 
can find it difficult not to blame themselves for 
their reactions to what their partner does if they 
don’t even know what to call it. When someone 
slaps you in the face, you know you’ve been 
slapped. But when a woman feels psychologically 
assaulted, with little idea why, after an argument 
with The Water Torturer, she may turn her 
frustration inward. How do you seek support from 
a friend, for example, when you don’t know how 
to describe what is going wrong? 

The Water Torturer tends to genuinely believe 
that there is nothing unusual about his behavior. 
When his partner starts to co nfr ont him with his 
abusiveness—which she usually does sooner or 
later—he looks at her as if she were crazy and 
says, “What the hell are you talking about? I’ve 
never done anything to you.” Friends and relatives 

who have witnessed the couple’s interactions may 
back him up. They shake their heads and say to 
each other, “I don’t know what goes on with her. 
She just explodes at him sometimes, and he’s so 
low-key.” Their children can develop the 
impression that Mom “blows up over nothing.” 
She herself may start to wonder if there is 
something psychologically wrong with her. 

The Water Torturer is payback-oriented like 
most abusive men, but he may hide it better. If he 
is physically abusive, his violence may take the 
form of cold-hearted slaps “for your own good” or 
“to get you to wake up” rather than explosive rage. 
His moves appear carefully thought out, and he 
rarely makes obvious mistakes—such as letting 
his abusiveness show in public—that could turn 
other people against him or get him in legal 

If you are involved with a Water Torturer, you 
may struggle for years trying to figure out what is 
happening. You may feel that you overreact to his 

behavior and that he isn’t really so bad. But the 
effects of his control and contempt have crept up 
on you over the years. If you finally leave him, you 
may experience intense periods of delayed rage, as 
you become conscious of how quietly but deathly 
oppressive he was. 

This style of man rarely lasts long in an abuser 
program unless he has a court order. He is so 
accustomed to having complete success with his 
tactics that he can’t tolerate an environment where 
the counselors recognize and name his maneuvers 
and don’t let him get away with them. He tends to 
rapidly decide that his group leaders are as crazy 
as his partner and heads for the door. 

The central attitudes driving the Water 
Torturer are: 

• You are crazy. You fly off the 
handle over nothing. 

• I can easily convince other 

people that you’re the one who 
is messed up. 

• As long as I’m calm, you can’t 
call anything I do abusive, no 
matter how cruel. 

• I know exactly how to get under 
your skin. 


The Drill Sergeant takes controlling behavior to its 
extreme, running his partner’s life in every way 
that he can. He criticizes her clothing, tells her 
whether she can go out or not, interferes with her 
work. He wants her to have no one close to her, so 
he ruins her relationships with friends and 
relatives or simply forbids her to see them. He 
may listen to her phone calls or read her mail, or 
require the children to report on her activities any 
time he is away. If she isn’t home by his 

appointed curfew at night, she is at risk for abuse. 
She feels like a little girl living with a tyrannical 
father, with no more freedom than an eight-year- 
old would have. 

The Drill Sergeant is often fanatically jealous. 
He verbally assaults his partner with accusations 
that she is cheating on him or checking out other 
men and tosses crass and disturbing sexual terms 
into his tirades. He may augment his hateful 
remarks about his partner with hideous comments 
about females in general, such as, “All women are 
whores.” The emotional experience of these verbal 
attacks can be similar to that of a sexual assault: 
The woman is left feeling violated, debased, and 
traumatized. At the same time, this style of abuser 
more often than not is out having affairs him self. 

It isn’t fidelity he cares about; it’s possession. 

The Drill Sergeant is, unfortunately, almost sure 
to be physically violent sooner or later, probably 
beginning with threats and then eventually 
escalating to assault. If his partner stands up to 

him, such as by attempting to preserve any of her 
rights to freedom, his violence and threats are 
likely to escalate until she is hurt or terrified 
enough that she submits to his control. He is a risk 
to beat his partner up to the point of severe injury. 

Getting away from the Drill Sergeant can be 
difficult. Since he monitors the woman’s 
movements so closely, it is a challenge for her to 
get to a support group for abused women or to 
seek other kinds of support. Since he isolates her 
from people, she has to draw entirely on her own 
strength, and many days she may feel like she 
doesn’t have much strength left. And since from 
time to time he is probably openly violent, she is 
forced to consider what the consequences of 
attempting to leave him could be, including 
whether he might try to kill her. 

If your partner is a Drill Sergeant, your situation 
is a dangerous one. You may have to use some 
courage—as well as careful vigilance—to even get 
the opportunity to read this book. Perhaps you are 

hiding it under a mattress or reading it at someone 
else’s house in quick bits. Don’t give up. Many 
women have gone through this kind of captivity 
and have found a way to escape, even if it takes 
some time. The single most important thing to do 
is to seek opportunities to phone a hotline for 
abused women (see “Resources” in the back of 
this book). Call them to speak for five minutes if 
that’s all you can safely do for now. Call every day 
if you can. The hot line is the beginning of the 
path to freedom. 

You may be sorely tempted to have a secret 
affair, since your partner shows you so little 
kindness or tenderness. A positive sexual 
co nn ection may be especially affirming for you, 
because of how sexually degrading the Drill 
Sergeant tends to be. But cheating on him can be 
deadly if he catches you. Consider holding off on 
seeing other men until you have gotten yourself 

The Drill Sergeant often has some 

psychological problems. Although mental health 
issues do not cause abusiveness, they can intensify 
a man’s violent tendencies. If he sometimes seems 
to become convinced of things that are obviously 
not true, has trouble getting along with people in 
general, was severely abused or neglected as a 
child, or has other indications of mental illness, 
you need to take even greater caution. 

To read more about dealing with dangerous 
abusers, see “The Terrorist” later in this chapter 
(p. 99) and “Leaving an Abuser Safely” in 
Chapter 9 (p. 225). 

The central attitudes driving the Drill 
Sergeant are: 

• I need to control your every 
move or you will do it wrong. 

• I know the exact way that 
everything should be done. 

• You shouldn’t have anyone else 
—or any thing else—in your life 
besides me. 

• I am going to watch you like a 
hawk to keep you from 
developing strength or 

• I love you more than anyone in 
the world, but you disgust me. 


Mr. Sensitive appears to be the diametric opposite 
of the Drill Sergeant. He is soft-spoken, gentle, 
and supportive—when he isn’t being abusive. He 
loves the language of feelings, openly sharing his 
insecurities, his fears, and his emotional injuries. 
He hugs other men. He may speak out about the 
absurdity of war or the need for men to “get in 

touch with their feminine side.” Perhaps he 
attends a men’s group or goes on men’s retreats. 
Often he has participated extensively in therapy or 
twelve-step programs, or reads all the big self-help 
books, so he speaks the language of popular 
psychology and introspection. His vocabulary is 
sprinkled with jargon like developing closeness, 
working out our issues, and facing up to hard 
things about myself. He presents himself to 
women as an ally in the struggle against sex-role 
limitations. To some women, he seems like a 
dream come true. 

So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing 
obvious yet. But this is exactly the problem: Mr. 
Sensitive wraps himself in one of the most 
persuasive covers a man can have. If you start to 
feel chronically mistreated by him, you are likely 
to assume that something is wrong with you, and 
if you complain about him to other people, they 
may think you must be spoiled: “You have the 
New Age man, what more do you want?” 

The following dynamics are typical of a 
relationship with Mr. Sensitive and may help 
explain your feeling that something has gone 

1. You seem to be hurting his feelings 
constantly, though you aren’t sure why, 
and he expects your attention to be 
focused endlessly on his emotional 
injuries. If you are in a bad mood one 
day and say something unfair or 
insensitive, it won’t be enough for you 
to give him a sincere apology and accept 
responsibility. He’ll go on and on about 
it, expecting you to grovel as if you had 
treated him with profound cruelty. 
(Notice the twist here: This is just what 
an abuser accuses his partner of doing to 
him, when all she is really looking for is 
a heartfelt “I’m sorry.”) 

2. When your feelings are hurt, on the 

other hand, he will insist on brushing 
over it quickly. He may give you a 
stream of pop-psychology language 
(“Just let the feelings go through you, 
don’t hold on to them so much,” or “It’s 
all in the attitude you take toward life,” 
or “No one can hurt you unless you let 
them”) to substitute for genuine support 
for your feelings, especially if you are 
upset about something he did. None of 
these philosophies applies when you 
upset him, however. 

3. With the passing of time, he 
increasingly casts the blame on to you 
for anything he is dissatisfied with in 
his own life; your burden of guilt keeps 

4. He starts to exhibit a mean side that no 
one else ever sees and may even become 
threatening or intimidating. 

Mr. Sensitive has the potential to turn 
physically frightening, as any style of abuser can, 
no matter how much he may preach nonviolence. 
After an aggressive incident, he will speak of his 
actions as “anger” rather than as “abuse,” as 
though there were no difference between the two. 
He blames his assaultive behavior on you or on his 
emotional “issues,” saying that his feelings were 
so deeply wounded that he had no other choice. 

Many people reject the possibility that Mr. 
Sensitive could be an abuser. I ran into this 
disbelief one weekend when I was leading a 
training course on emotional recovery, as I 
periodically do. My workshops focus partly on the 
healing effects of crying and so tend to be attended 
by more women than men. The males who do 
come have included many of the most wonderful 
men it has been my good fortune to know, as well 
as a handful of the biggest manipulators. A few 
years ago, a participant named Deanna 
approached me anxiously before a workshop. She 

explained that an ex-partner of hers named Brad 
had called her a few days ahead of the workshop 
to tell her he was attending the same weekend. 

She was uncomfortable and told him that if he 
showed up she would leave. He promised not to 
bother her, though, and said he would not bring up 
their relationship in any way. He was coming with 
his new girlfriend, which eased Deanna’s worries. 

I spent some time talking with Brad as the 
workshop was starting, without mentioning 
Deanna, and he seemed likeable, kind, and—what 
can I say?—sensitive. However, I observed within 
a few hours that he was in fact speaking to other 
people about his past with Deanna and getting 
them riled up about her “running away from” their 
unresolved issues. On Sunday morning, he finally 
provoked a scene about their relationship in front 
of the full workshop, which was humiliating to 

The story does not end there. I called a break, 
and took Brad aside. I told him that it was my 

understanding that he had agreed not to raise these 
issues and that it had become obvious to me that 
he had come for the weekend with the intention of 
doing precisely what he had promised not to. I 
went on to point out that he had taken Deanna’s 
weekend away from her and that I considered this 
kind of power move to be abuse, especially since it 
was directed at an ex-partner. 

Saying the word abuse to an abusive person can 
be like lighting a tinderbox: When you name the 
unmentionable secret, he goes wild. Brad got loud, 
rolled his eyes at what a hysterical exaggerator he 
considered me to be, and adopted a victim stance, 
saying, “I beg you to stop this.” Then came the 
most important part: He said in a screeching 
whine, “I have only put a hand on a partner once 
in my life, many years ago, and I just barely 
pushed her away from me like this "—and he 
shoved me hard by the shoulder—“after she called 
my mother a sick woman.” 

Well, why was Brad denying a history of 

assault (while actually admitting to one) when I 
hadn’t said anything about violence? The 
possibility that he might be physically abusive had 
never occurred to me before, but it certainly did 
now. The signs were all there: bullying Deanna 
that weekend and then insisting it was for her own 
good; feeling entitled to ignore an important 
agreement; blaming his earlier girlfriend for his 
assault of her and minimizing it—the strength of 
the shove he gave me would have shaken up most 
women. I now doubted that the assaultive incident 
he had described was his only occasion of 
physically intimidating a woman. 

At this point I required Brad to leave the 
workshop. I then had to deal with a mini¬ 
insurrection from some of the other workshop 
participants, who couldn’t believe I was ejecting 
this gentle man who was so in touch with his 
feelings. He cries after all; how could he be 

This “gentle man” style of abuser tends to be 

highly self-centered and demanding of emotional 
catering. He may not be the man who has a fit 
because dinner is late but rather erupts because of 
some way his partner failed to sacrifice her own 
needs or interests to keep him content. He plays up 
how fragile he is to divert attention from the swath 
of destruction he leaves behind him. 

The central attitudes driving Mr. 

Sensitive are: 

• I’m against the macho men, so I 
couldn’t be abusive. 

• As long as I use a lot of 
“psychobabble,” no one is going 
to believe that I am mistreating 

• I can control you by analyzing 
how your mind and emotions 
work, and what your issues are 

from childhood. 

• I can get inside your head 
whether you want me there or 

• Nothing in the world is more 
important than my feelings. 

• Women should be grateful to me 
for not being like those other 


The Player is usually good looking and often sexy. 
(But sometimes he just thinks he is.) In the early 
part of a relationship he seems head over heels in 
love and wants to spend as much time as possible 
in bed together. He is a pretty good lover. You 
may feel lucky that you have caught someone who 
knows how to turn you on and feel proud to be 
seen with him. Your self-opinion gets a nice 


After a while, though, a few things start to 
bother you. You notice that apart from sex his 
interest in you is waning, and even his sexual 
energy is dropping off a little. He seems to lock 
his eyes pretty hard onto women that walk by. He 
flirts with waitresses, clerks, or even friends of 
yours. Sexual undertones seem to run through 
most of his interactions with females, except for 
ones he finds completely unattractive. Rumors 
start to come back to you that he’s been seen with 
this woman, that he is sleeping with that one, that 
he is pursuing another one but she isn’t interested 
yet. At first you discount these rumors as hurtful 
gossip, but after a while you start to wonder. 

The Player often starts to stall on moving in 
together or agreeing to be exclusive, even though 
earlier he couldn’t wait to get serious. He may say 
that he’s been hurt or has a fear of co mm itment 
(“I’m just not ready”), but the real issue is that he 
doesn’t want restrictions on his freedom. Much of 

his satisfaction in life comes from exploiting 
women and feeling like a sexual animal. Women 
around the Player seem to get angry at each other 
a lot, rather than at him, and sometimes get into 
physical confrontations. These tensions work out 
well for him, diverting attention from his infidelity 
and dishonesty. He sets up this dynamic with 
some combination of the following tactics: 

1. He knows how to make each woman 
feel that she’s the special one and yet at 
the same time keep her off balance, so 
that she never feels quite sure of where 
she stands with him. 

2. He tells each one that the others are 
lying about their involvements with him 
because they are jealous of her, or 
because he turned them down, or 
because he used to be involved with 
them but isn’t anymore. 

3. He tells each one stories about how 

other women have mistreated him, or 
shares other bits of information—largely 
invented—to make previous, or current, 
women in his life sound conniving, 
vindictive, or addicted to substances. 

4. He breaks up with women and gets back 
together with them, so that no one can 
keep track of what’s going on. 

5. He includes one or two women in his 
circle who feel unattractive, because he 
knows he can have more power over 
them, and manipulates them into hating 
the women who are seen as more 

If this is your partner’s style, you won’t 
necessarily ever be sure whether he is really 
having sex with other women or if he just flirts 
because he enjoys the attention and likes you to 
feel threatened. He may hotly deny that he ever 
cheats and try to turn the tables by accusing you of 

being too suspicious. But even if he’s telling the 
truth—which he probably isn’t—his constant 
flirtatious behavior can be as damaging as actual 
affairs. Either way, he will damage your other 
relationships, because you will start to perceive 
any woman as a potential threat to you. If he has a 
history of hitting on women who are close to you, 
such as your sister or best friend, you can end up 
isolated from the women you care about most, 
because you’re afraid he will have affairs with 
them unless you keep them away. 

Chronic infidelity is abusive in itself, but the 
Player doesn’t stop there. He is irresponsible, 
callous in dealing with his partner’s feelings, and 
periodically verbally abusive. As the relationship 
progresses, he may start to go for long periods 
giving his partner next to no attention and barely 
speaking to her, so she feels shelved. He probably 
refuses to take responsibility for safe sex (such as 
using a condom), and he may have fathered 
children who he is not supporting. His 

abusiveness can escalate abruptly if he is 
confronted or caught in his infidelities, and he 
may turn physically frightening at this point. In a 
strange but dangerous twist, the Player sometimes 
hits his partner for catching him cheating rather 
than the reverse. 

The Player’s constant flirting and cheating help 
him to get away with other forms of mistreatment. 
His partner is likely to focus on her hurt feelings 
about his infidelities and pour effort into stopping 
him from straying and, in the process, lose sight of 
his pattern of abuse. When she asks me whether I 
think her partner will ever settle down and be 
faithful to her—if they get married, for example— 
I answer, “He may some day, but what you will 
have then is a faithful abuser.” His promiscuity is 
a symptom of a deeper problem: He is incapable 
of taking women seriously as human beings rather 
than as playthings. With that mind-set, heTl be a 
destructive partner whether he cheats or not. 

The Players I have worked with somet im es 

claim to suffer from “sex addiction,” and join Sex 
and Love Addicts Anonymous (which they may 
discover is a good place to pick up women). But 
sex addiction doesn’t cause dishonesty, verbal 
abusiveness, or intimidating behavior. The Player 
is not a sex addict at all. If he is addicted to 
anything, it’s to the thrill of using women without 
regard for the effects on them. 

The central attitudes driving the Player 

• Women were put on this earth to 
have sex with men—especially 

• Women who want sex are too 
loose, and women who refuse 
sex are too uptight. (!) 

• It’s not my fault that women 
find me irresistible. (This is a 

word-for-word quotation from a 
number of my clients.) It’s not 
fair to expect me to refuse 
temptation when it’s all around 
me; women seduce me 
sometimes, and I can’t help it. 

• If you act like you need anything 
from me, I am going to ignore 
you. I’m in this relationship 
when it’s convenient for me and 
when I feel like it. 

• Women who want the nonsexual 
aspects of themselves 
appreciated are bitches. 

• If you could meet my sexual 
needs, I wouldn’t have to turn to 
other women. 


Rambo is aggressive with everybody, not just his 
partner. He gets a thrill out of the sensation of 
intimidating people and strives to handle all life 
situations by subtly or overtly creating fear. He has 
an exaggerated, stereotypical view of what a man 
is supposed to be, which goes hand in hand with 
seeing women as delicate, inferior, and in need of 
protection. Rambo often comes from a home or 
neighborhood where he was the target of violence 
himself and learned that the only way to feel safe 
is to be stronger, tougher, and less caring than 
everybody else. He has little patience for 
weakness, fragility, or indecision. Often he has a 
criminal record for violence, theft, drunk driving, 
or drug dealing. 

Early in a relationship, Rambo is likely to be 
loving and kind to his partner, like most abusers. 
Because he lacks fear—or pretends to—he can 
make a woman feel safe and protected. This style 
of abuser can therefore be particularly appealing to 
a woman who comes from a violent home herself 

or to one who is in the process of leaving another 
abusive relationship. Rambo can make you feel as 
though his aggressiveness would never be directed 
toward you, because he loves you; he wishes to 
look after your safety as if you were his daughter. 
He enjoys the role of protector, feeling like a 
gallant knight. However, he lacks respect for 
women, and this disrespect, combined with his 
general violent tendencies, means that it is only a 
matter of time before he will be the one you need 
protection from. 

Many highly “masculine” men are not Rambo. 
The notion that all macho men are likely to abuse 
women is based largely on class and ethnic 
prejudices, the same misconceptions that allow 
Mr. Sensitive or Mr. Right to skate by undetected. 
There are plenty of “tough guys” out there who are 
friendly to everyone and avoid aggressive 
interactions whenever possible but enjoy lifting 
weights, playing rough sports, hunting, and other 
aspects of stereotypical masculinity. They may be 

good fighters, but only in self-defense. It isn’t 
macho that women need to watch out for. The 
danger signs are violence and intimidation toward 
anyone, and disrespect and superiority toward 

Sometimes Rambo is a psychopath or 
sociopath, which can make him all the more 
emotionally abusive and in some cases physically 
abusive as well. Later we will take a look at 
psychopaths and other mentally disordered 

The central attitudes driving Rambo are: 

• Strength and aggressiveness are 
good; compassion and conflict 
resolution are bad. 

• Anything that could be even 
remotely associated with 
homosexuality, including 
walking away from possible 

violence or showing any fear or 
grief, has to be avoided at any 

• Femaleness and femininity 
(which he associates with 
homosexuality) are inferior. 
Women are here to serve men 
and be protected by them. 

• Men should never hit women, 
because it is unmanly to do so. 
However, exceptions to this rule 
can be made for my own partner 
if her behavior is bad enough. 
Men need to keep their women 
in line. 

• You are a thing that belongs to 
me, akin to a trophy. 


Life has been hard and unfair for the Victim. To 
hear him tell it, his intelligence has been 
chronically underestimated; he has been burned by 
people he trusted; and his good intentions have 
been misunderstood. The Victim appeals to a 
woman’s compassion and desire to feel that she 
can make a difference in his life. He often tells 
persuasive and heart-rending stories about how he 
was abused by his former partner, sometimes 
adding the tragic element that she is now 
restricting or preventing his contact with his 
children. He maneuvers the woman into hating his 
ex-partner and may succeed in enlisting her in a 
campaign of harassment, rumor spreading, or 
battling for custody. 

As a counselor of abusive men, I have dozens of 
times been in the position of interviewing a man’s 
former partner and then speaking with the new 
one. The new partner usually speaks at length 
about what a wicked witch the woman before her 
was. I can’t tell her what I know, much as I wish I 

could, because of my responsibility to protect the 
confidentiality and safety of the former partner. 

All I can say is: “I always recommend, whenever 
there are claims of emotional or physical abuse, 
that women talk to each other directly and not just 
accept the man’s denial.” 

Women sometimes ask me: “But what if a man 
I am dating really was victimized by his former 
girlfriend? How can I tell the difference?” Here are 
some things to watch for: 

1. If you listen carefully, you often can 
hear the difference between anger 
toward an ex-partner, which would not 
be worrisome in itself, and disrespect or 
contempt, which should raise warning 
flags. A man who has left a relationship 
with bitterness should nonetheless be 
able to talk about his ex-partner as a 
human being, with some understanding 
of what her side of the conflicts was and 

some ways he might have contributed to 
what went wrong. If he speaks in 
degrading or superior ways about her, or 
makes everything that went wrong in 
the relationship her fault, be careful, 
because it is likely that he was the 
abusive one. 

2. Try to get him to talk about his own 
conduct in the relationship, especially 
around the time of the breakup. If he 
blames his own behavior on her, that’s a 
bad sign. 

3. Be particularly careful with a man who 
claims to have been the victim of 
physical violence by a previous female 
partner. The great maj ority of men who 
make such claims are physical abusers. 
Ask him for as much detail as you can 
about the violent incidents, and then try 
to talk to her or seek out anyone else 
who could give you a different 

perspective on what happened. Watch 
for warning signs of abusiveness (see 
Chapter 5). 

4. Pay attention to how he talks and thinks 
about abused women. A genuine male 
victim tends to feel sympathy for abused 
women and support their cause. The 
Victim, on the other hand, often says 
that women exaggerate or fabricate their 
claims of abuse or insists that men are 
abused just as much as women are. 

The Victim may adopt the language of abuse 
victims, claiming, for example, that his ex-partner 
was “focused on power and control,” disrespected 
him, and always had to have her own way. In a 
few years, he will be using similar reality- 
inversion language about you—unless, of course, 
you kowtow to him to his satisfaction. 

The Victim is highly self-centered in 
relationships. Everything seems to revolve around 

his wounds, and he keeps himself at the center of 
attention. If you have children, he tries to get them 
to feel sorry for him as well. He seems forever to 
be telling you: “You don’t understand me, you 
don’t appreciate me, you hold my mistakes over 
my head.” Yet you sense that the dynamic is 
actually the other way around. If you stand up to 
him about these distortions, he tells you that you 
are abusing him or says, “You just can’t tolerate 
my standing up to your bullying.” This recurring 
inversion of reality is similar to what happens 
with Mr. Sensitive, but without the introspective 
psychology, gentle man, or recovering alcoholic 
routines. If you leave him, you risk his seeking 
custody of your children, presenting himself to the 
court as the victim of your abuse and of your 
efforts to turn the children against him. 

Often the Victim claims to be victimized not 
only by you but also by his boss, his parents, the 
neighbors, his friends, and strangers on the street. 
Everyone is always wronging him, and he is 

always blameless. 

When the Victim joins an abuser group, his 
story tends to go like this: “I put up with my 
partner’s mistreatment of me for years, and I never 
fought back or even tried to defend myself. But I 
finally couldn’t take it anymore, and I started to 
give her back a little taste of what she was doing 
to me. So now I’ve been labeled abusive. Women 
are allowed to do those things and nobody cares, 
but as soon as a man does it he’s a pariah.” 

This line of reasoning many times develops into 
a discussion of how men are the victims of women 
overall in society, because women run the world. 
This is a startling distortion, given which gender 
actually dominates almost all legislatures, police 
departments, judgeships, businesses, and so on ad 
nauseam. When I point out this reality to the 
Victim, he describes a kind of paranoid fantasy in 
which women are behind the scenes secretly 
pulling the strings, largely by getting men to feel 
sorry for them. His capacity for turning things into 

their opposites in this way is a central cause of his 

If you are involved with the Victim and want to 
escape his abuse, you may find that you feel guilty 
toward him, despite his treatment of you, and have 
difficulty ending the relationship as a result. You 
may feel that because his life has been so hard, 
you are reluctant to add to his pain by abandoning 
him. You may worry that he won’t take care of 
himself if you leave, that he will wither away from 
depression, won’t eat or sleep, or might even try to 
kill himself. The Victim knows how to present 
himself as helpless and pathetic so that you will 
find it harder to take your own life back. 

The central attitudes driving the Victim 

• Everybody has done me wrong, 
especially the women 

• I’ve been involved with. Poor 


• When you accuse me of being 
abusive, you are joining the 
parade of people who have been 
cruel and unfair to me. It proves 
you’re just like the rest. 

• It’s justifiable for me to do to 
you whatever I feel you are 
doing to me, and even to make it 
quite a bit worse to make sure 
you get the message. 

• Women who complain of 
mistreatment by men, such as 
relationship abuse or sexual 
harassment, are anti-male and 
out for blood. 

• I’ve had it so hard that I’m not 
responsible for my actions. 


I worked for a few months with an abused woman 
named Gloria who was wondering how much 
longer she would be alive. Her husband, Gerald, 
would glare at her, drum his fingers methodically 
on the table, and say: “You have six months left. 
Things better shape up around here. Six months.” 
Her head would swim and her heart would race 
with fear, and she would plead with him to tell 
what exactly he planned to do to her at the end of 
that period. And he would answer, with maybe 
just a hint of a cold smile: “Just wait and see, just 
wait and see. Six months, Gloria.” Gerald had 
never laid a hand on Gloria in the five years they 
had been together, but she was terrified. She 
started working with me on making an escape 
plan to run away with their two-year-old son. 

The Terrorist tends to be both highly controlling 
and extremely demanding. His worst aspect, 
however, is that he frequently reminds his partner 
that he could physically rip her to pieces or even 
kill her. He doesn’t necessarily beat her, however; 

some abusers know how to terrorize their partners 
with threats, strange veiled statements, and bizarre 
behaviors. One of my violent clients cut an article 
out of the newspaper about a woman who had 
been murdered by her husband, and he taped it up 
on the refrigerator. Another man responded to his 
partner’s announcement that she was leaving him 
by spilling the blood of an animal in front of the 
house. Another client would take out his gun 
when he was angry at his partner but would insist 
that he was just going to clean it and that it had 
nothing to do with her. 

Unlike most other abusers, the Terrorist often 
seems to be sadistic: He gets enjoyment out of 
causing pain and fear and seems to find cruelty 
thrilling. He is likely to have been severely abused 
as a child, which generally is not true of other 
abusers. However, you cannot help him to heal. 
This may be difficult to accept, since the hope of 
helping him overcome his problems may be what 
gets you through the terror of living with him. The 

Terrorist’s problems are much too deep for a 
partner to solve, as they involve a complex weave 
of serious psychological problems with the typical 
destructive nature of an abuser. You need to focus 
instead on getting yourself safe. The Terrorist’s 
top goal is to paralyze you with fear so that you 
won’t dare think of leaving him or cheating on 
him. The great majority of abusers who make 
lethal threats against their partners never carry 
them out, but that still leaves many who do. The 
trauma of living with this kind of terror can be 
profound and can make it extremely difficult for 
you to think clearly about strategies for escaping 
to safety. However, most women do manage to get 
out. The critical first step is to seek confidential 
help as soon as possible. Begin by calling an 
abuse hotline as soon as you safely can (see 
“Resources”). There are more suggestions in 
Chapter 9. 

When a woman does leave the Terrorist, he may 
stalk or threaten her, and this dangerous 

harassment can continue for a long time. If the 
couple has children, he may attempt to get custody 
or unsupervised visitation, so that he can terrorize 
or control her through the children. He also may 
use information he has about her, such as where 
she works or where her parents live, to track her 
and to threaten her loved ones. It is essential that 
friends, relatives, courts, and communities 
understand the realities of these risks and give 
the woman the most complete support and 
protection possible, while simultaneously taking 
steps to hold the abuser accountable. It may be 
possible to stop the Terrorist from escalating to 
murder, but only if he gets a strong message that 
stalking and threatening an ex-partner is 
unacceptable, that he is responsible for his own 
actions, and that the community is prepared to jail 
him if his threatening behavior does not stop 
immediately. Actions short of these are often 

Chapter 10 contains more information for a 

woman who is involved in a custody or visitation 
battle with an abuser or for those who are 
concerned that one may start. 

i i 

The central attitudes driving the 
Terrorist are: 

• You have no right to defy me or 
leave me. Your life is in my 

• Women are evil and have to be 
kept terrorized to prevent that 
evil from coming forth. 

• I would rather die than accept 
your right to independence. 

• The children are one of the best 
tools I can use to make you 

• Seeing you terrified is exciting 
and satisfying. 



This last category is not actually separate from the 
others; an abusive man of any of the 
aforementioned styles can also have psychiatric or 
substance-abuse problems, although the majority 
do not. Even when mental illness or addiction is a 
factor, it is not the cause of a man’s abuse of his 
partner, but it can contribute to the severity of his 
problem and his resistance to change. When these 
additional problems are present, it is important to 
be aware of the following points: 

1. Certain mental illnesses can increase the 
chance that an abuser will be dangerous 
and use physical violence. These include 
paranoia, severe depression, delusions 
or hallucinations (psychosis), obsessive- 
compulsive disorder, and antisocial 
personality disorder known as 

psychopathy or sociopathy). These 
psychiatric conditions also make it next 
to impossible for an abuser to change, at 
least until the mental illness has been 
brought under control through therapy 
and/or medication, which can take 
years. Even if the mental illness is 
properly treated, his abusiveness won’t 
necessarily change. 

2. An abuser’s reactions to going on or off 
medication are unpredictable. A woman 
should take extra precautions for her 
safety at such a time. Abusers tend to go 
off medication before long—I have had 
few clients who were consistent and 
responsible about taking their meds in 
the long term. They don’t like the side 
effects, and they are too selfish to care 
about the implications of the mental 
illness for their partners or children. 

3. The potential danger of a mentally ill 

abuser has to be assessed by looking at 
the severity of his psychiatric symptoms 
in combination with the severity of his 
abuse characteristics. Looking at his 
psychiatric symptoms alone can lead to 
underestimating how dangerous he is. 

4. Antisocial personality disorder is 
present in only a small percentage of 
abusers but can be important. Those 
who suffer from this condition lack a 
conscience and thus are repeatedly 
involved in behaviors that are harmful to 
others. Some signs of this condition 
include: (a) He started getting into 
illegal behavior when he was still a 
teenager; (b) his dishonest or aggressive 
behavior involves situations unrelated to 
his partner, rather than being restricted 
to her; (c) he periodically gets into 
trouble at workplaces or in other 
contexts for stealing, threatening, or 

refusing to follow instructions and is 
likely to have a considerable criminal 
record by about age thirty, though the 
offenses may be largely minor ones; (d) 
he is severely and chronically 
irresponsible in a way that disrupts the 
lives of others or creates danger; and (e) 
he tends to cheat on women a lot, turn 
them against each other, and maintain 
shallow relationships with them. The 
psychopath’s physical violence is not 
necessarily severe, contrary to the 
popular image, but he may be very 
dangerous nonetheless. Antisocial 
personality disorder is very difficult to 
change through therapy, and there is no 
effective medication for treating it. It is 
highly compatible with abusiveness 
toward women. 

5. Those who suffer from narcissistic 
personality disorder have a highly 

distorted self-image. They are unable to 
accept that they might have faults and 
therefore are unable to imagine how 
other people perceive them. This 
condition is highly compatible with 
abusiveness, though it is present in only 
a small percentage of abusive men. 
Clues to the presence of this disorder 
include: (a) Your partner’s self- 
centeredness is severe, and it carries 
over into situations that don’t involve 
you; (b) he seems to relate everything 
back to himself; and (c) he is outraged 
whenever anyone criticizes him and is 
incapable of considering that he could 
ever be anything other than kind and 
generous. This disorder is highly 
resistant to therapy and is not treatable 
with medication. The abuser with this 
disorder is not able to change 
substantially through an abuser program 

either, although he sometimes makes 
some minor improvements. 

6. Many abusers who are not mentally ill 
want women to think that they are, in 
order to avoid responsibility for their 
attitudes and behavior. 

Substance abuse, like mental illness, does not 
cause partner abuse but can increase the risk of 
violence. Like the mentally ill abuser, the addicted 
abuser doesn’t change unless he deals with his 
addiction, and even that is only the first step. 
Chapter 8 examines the role that substances play 
in partner abuse. 

The attitudes driving the mentally ill or addicted 
batterer are the same as those of other abusers and 
will likely follow the pattern of one of the nine 
styles described above. In addition, the following 
attitudes tend to be present: 

I am not responsible for my 

actions because of my 
psychological or substance 

• If you challenge me about my 
abusiveness, you are being mean 
to me, considering these other 
problems I have. It also shows 
that you don’t understand my 
other problems. 

• I’m not abusive, I’m just- 

(alcoholic, drug addicted, 
manic-depressive, an adult child 
of alcoholics, or whatever his 
condition may be). 

• If you challenge me, it will 
trigger my addiction or mental 
illness, and you’ll be responsible 
for what I do. 

Although I have focused on the emotionally 

abusive styles of these different kinds of abusers, 
any of them may also use physical violence, 
including sexual assault. Although the Terrorist 
and the Drill Sergeant are especially likely to 
become dangerous, they are not the only ones who 
may do so. Many abusers occasionally use 
physical violence or threats as a way to intimidate 
you when they feel that their power or control over 
you is slipping; violence for them is a kind of 
“trump card” they use when their normal patterns 
of psychological abuse are not getting them the 
degree of control they feel entitled to. If you are 
concerned about how dangerous your partner may 
be, see “Is He Going to Get Violent?” in Chapter 6 
and “Leaving an Abuser Safely” in Chapter 9. 


Tremendous variation exists among 
abusive styles. Your abusive partner may 

be of a type I haven’t encountered yet, 
but that doesn’t make him any less real. 
Many men are mixtures of different 

An abuser may change so much from day 
to day that he couldn’t belong to any 
type. This style of abuser is so 
unpredictable that his partner can never 
make sense out of what she is living 

An abuser of any type can have days 
when he turns loving, attentive, and 
thoughtful. At these times, you may feel 
that his problem has finally gone away 
and that the relationship will return to its 
rosy beginning. However, abuse always 
comes back eventually unless the abuser 
has dealt with his abusiveness. 


The Abusive Man in Relationships 


How Abuse Begins 

I don ’t understand what’s gone wrong. 

We used to be so close. 

I don’t know if there’s something wrong 
with him or if it’s me. 

He really cares for me. He wants to 
spend every second together. 

My friends complain that they never see 
me anymore. 

“THE GARDEN OF EDEN”—that’s what I call 
the beginning of a relationship with an abuser. For 
the first few weeks or months, or longer, the 
woman is walking on air. Remember Kristen and 

Maury, whom we met in Chapter 1 ? Maury was 
dazzling—entertaining, interesting, energetic— 
and Kristen was smitten. One of the things she 
liked most about him was how crazy he was about 
her. He pursued her avidly, seemed to like 
everything about her, and couldn’t get enough. 

She felt as though she had stepped into a top-40 
love song, the kind where “Everything Is Perfect 
Now That I’ve Met You.” This pattern is co mm on 
in abusive relationships; an abusive man is often 
unusually good at expressing an intensity of caring 
early in a relationship and can make you feel so 
special and chosen—as if you were the only 
person who could ever matter so much to him. 

Not every abusive man falls head over heels so 
quickly the way Maury did. Fran, whom we also 
got to know in Chapter 1, was quiet and 
withdrawn early on, and Barbara was the pursuer. 
She was drawn powerfully to him because of his 
sweetness and sensitivity and for the challenge of 
drawing him out. What a triumph it was when she 

finally got him to open up and then won him over! 
Sadness and mistrust were gnawing at his heart, 
she could see that, but she saw herself healing 
him, like a tender nurse. She was excited by her 
confident belief that she could bring out the person 
he was capable of being. 

The idyllic opening is part of almost every 
abusive relationship. How else would an abuser 
ever have a partner? Women aren’t stupid. If you 
go out to a restaurant on a giddy first date and 
over dessert the man calls you a “selfish bitch” 
and sends your water glass flying across the room, 
you don’t say: “Hey, are you free again next 
weekend?” There has to be a hook. Very few 
women hate themselves so thoroughly that they 
will get involved with a man who is rotten from 
the very start—although they may feel terrible 
about themselves later, once the abuser has had 
time to destroy their self-image step by step. 



The partners of my clients have described to me 
the many ways in which the glowing beginning of 
a relationship with an abusive man can serve to 
entrap a woman, including: 

• Like any love-struck person, she runs 
around telling her friends and family 
what a terrific guy he is. After talking 
him up so much, she feels embarrassed 
to reveal his mistreatment when it 
begins, so she keeps it to herself for a 
long time. 

• She assumes that his abusiveness comes 
from something that has gone wrong 
inside of him—what else is she to 
conclude, given how wonderful he was at 
first?—so she pours herself into figuring 
out what happened. 

• She has a hard time letting go of her own 

dream, since she thought she had found a 
wonderful man. 

• She can’t help wondering if she did 
something wrong or has some great 
personal deficit that knocked down their 
castle in the sky, so she tries to find the 
key to the problem inside of herself. 



One of the questions about abuse that I am 
asked most frequently is: When an abusive man is 
being charming at the beginning of a relationship, 
is he already thinking ahead to abusing the 
woman? Does he have it all planned out? Is he 
deliberately hooking her emotionally so he can be 

cruel to her later? The answer is usually no. The 
abuser doesn’t picture himself yelling, degrading 
her, or hurling obj ects at her. As he falls in love, 
he dreams of a happy future of conjugal bliss, just 
as the woman does. 

So, if he isn’t laying plans to hurt her, what is 
going on in his mind? First, he is gazing longingly 
at the image he holds of the future, where the 
woman meets all of his needs, is beautiful and 
sexy at all times of the day and night, has no needs 
of her own, and is in awe of his brilliance and 
charm. He desires a woman who will cater to him 
and never complain about anything he does or 
darken his day with frustrations or unhappiness 
about her own life. 

The abusive man doesn’t expose these self- 
focused fantasies to his new partner. In fact, he is 
largely unaware of them himself. So she has no 
way of knowing that he is looking more for a 
personal caretaker than for a partner. In fact, 
abusers tend to use the language of mutuality 

during the dating period: 

We are going to be really good for each 
other. ” 

“I want to be with you all the time. ” 

“I really want to be there for you. ” 

“You can stop working for now so that you can 
finish school, and we can live off of my 
income. ” 

“I’ll help you study for that medical assistant 
exam, so that you can get that promotion. ” 

He may truly believe his own promises, because 
he wants to see himself as a generous and 
thoughtful partner, one who does not use or 
disrespect women. Later, when he begins to 
control the woman and take advantage of her, he 
will find ways to convince himself that it’s not 

happening or that it is her fault. Abuse is not his 
goal, but control is, and he finds himself using 
abuse to gain the control he feels he has a right to. 

On the other hand, a certain number of my 
clients are consciously manipulative from the 
outset. A man of this style smiles knowingly at 
me, assuming that every man uses the same ploys, 
and says, “Of course you have to charm the ladies 
and listen to them blabber on and on, they like 
that. You talk the nice talk a little, you take them 
dancing. You know how it is.” But even this man 
is generally not calculating to abuse the woman 
later. He creates the kind of relationship he wants 
through charm and dishonesty and expects to 
continue in that mode for good. Manipulation feels 
clean and satisfying to this style of abuser, while 
degrading language and physical intimidation do 
not. When he does start to tear her down or 
frighten her later, he will blame it on her, probably 
thinking of her as a “bitch” for not allowing him 
to lie and manipulate his way through life. And he 

doesn’t consider manipulation abusive. 



We arrive now at two of the most important 
concepts regarding abusive men. First: 


The common view of abusive men as evil, 
calculating brutes can make it difficult for a 
woman to recognize her partner’s problem. She 
tends to think: My partner really cares about me 
and has a good side to him. He has feelings; he’s 
not a sadist. He couldn’t be an abuser. She 
doesn’t realize that he can have all these positive 
qualities and still have an abuse problem. 

At the other end of the spectrum we find an 
equally common—and equally misleading—view 
of abusers: the abuser as a man whose gentle 
humanity is just barely hidden under his abusive 
surface and who can be transformed by love, 
compassion, and insight. One morning he will 
wake up to realize how hurtful he has been and 
will renounce his cruelty, particularly if he has the 
love of a good woman. This outlook is portrayed 
and supported in popular songs, movies, romantic 
novels, and soap operas. The painful reality is that 
bringing about change in abusers is difficult. An 
abusive man has to bury his compassion in a deep 
hole in order to escape the profound inherent 
aversion that human beings have to seeing others 
suffer. He has to adhere tightly to his excuses and 
rationalizations, develop a disturbing ability to 
insulate himself from the pain he is causing, and 
learn to enjoy power and control over his female 
partners. It is unrealistic to expect such a complex 
structure, one that takes fifteen or twenty years to 

form, to vanish like steam. Yet women are often 
pressured by friends, family, or professionals to 
“give him a chance to change” and “have a little 
faith in people.” 

The second critical understanding is: 



An abuser learns manipulative and controlling 
behavior from several sources, including key male 
role models, peers, and pervasive cultural 
messages (see Chapter 13). By the time he reaches 
adulthood, he has integrated manipulative 
behavior to such a deep level that he acts largely 

on automatic. He knows what he is doing but not 
necessarily why. Consider the following call I 
received from Kelsea, the partner of a client: 

Lance wanted me to go skiing with him this 
weekend, but I really didn’t feel like it because 
I’d had an exhausting week and wanted to 
spend time with my friends. When I said no, he 
dove into criticizing me. He said the reason why 
I’ve never become a good skier is that I won’t 
stick with it, that I’m not willing to give things 
a chance and work at them, that I’m lazy and 
that’s why I never get good at anything, and so 
forth. It felt awful.. .But, you know, I think in a 
way he’s right—maybe I should be more 
disciplined about learning to ski. 

Where was Lance’s stream of put-downs 
coming from? Was he really concerned that 
Kelsea was letting herself down? No. A man 
doesn’t tear down his partner’s self-esteem out of 
a desire to help her. The real issue concerned what 

Lance wanted for himself: He wanted Kelsea to 
keep him company for the weekend because he 
didn’t feel like going skiing alone. He resented her 
choice to make her friendships central in her life— 
a co mm on theme with abusive men—and believed 
that it was her duty to be by his side and focus on 
him. He was hammering her with whatever put- 
downs he could think of in order to bully her into 
going (and was having some success in getting 
her to doubt herself). When some members of his 
abuser group challenged him about his behaviors 
at his next session, his real motives and attitudes 
became apparent; much of my work as a counselor 
involves helping abusive men to become 
conscious of, and face up to, their real reasons for 
choosing to behave as they do. 


When women hear how charming abusers can be 
—or when they experience it directly—they feel at 

a loss. They ask, “Does this mean there is no way 
to avoid an abusive relationship? How can I tell 
whether I should worry about my new partner?” 
Fortunately, most abusers put out warning signals 
before their abuse goes into full gear. The signs to 
watch for should be part of every girl’s education 
before she starts dating. 




The following warning flags mean that abuse 
could be down the road, and perhaps not far: 

• He speaks disrespectfully about his former 

A certain amount of anger and resentment toward 
an ex-partner is normal, but beware of the man 

who is very focused on his bitterness or who tells 
you about it inappropriately early on in your 
dating. Be especially cautious of the man who 
talks about women from his past in degrading or 
condescending ways or who characterizes himself 
as a victim of abuse by women. Be alert if he says 
that his previous wife or girlfriend falsely accused 
him of being abusive; the great majority of reports 
of abuse are accurate. When you hear that another 
woman considers him abusive, always find a way 
to get her side of the story. Even if you end up not 
believing her, you will at least know the behaviors 
to watch out for in him, just in case. Be cautious 
also of the man who admits to abusing a former 
partner but claims that the circumstances were 
exceptional, blames it on her, or blames it on 
alcohol or immaturity. 

Be cautious of the man who says that you are 
nothing like the other women he has been 
involved with, that you are the first partner to treat 
him well, or that earlier women in his life have not 

understood him. You will be tempted to work 
doubly hard to prove that you aren’t like those 
other women, and one foot will already be in the 
trap. It won’t be long before he is telling you that 
you are “just like the rest of them.” His perceptual 
system ensures that no woman can be a good 
woman while she is involved with him. 

A few men have the opposite approach, which 
is to glorify and elevate their former partners so 
that you feel like you can never quite compete. If 
he starts to lament the fact that you aren’t as sexy, 
athletic, domestic, or successful as the women 
who went before you, I can assure you that you 
won’t measure up any better later, no matter how 
hard you try. He wants to feel one up on you so 
that he can have the upper hand. 

Notice whether he seems to accept any 
responsibility for what went wrong in his previous 
relationships. If everything was always the 
women’s fault, you will soon be to blame for all 
difficulties in this new relationship. 

• He is disrespectful toward you. 

Disrespect is the soil in which abuse grows. If a 
man puts you down or sneers at your opinions, if 
he is rude to you in front of other people, if he is 
cutting or sarcastic, he is communicating a lack of 
respect. If these kinds of behaviors are a recurring 
problem, or if he defends them when you 
complain about how they affect you, control and 
abuse are likely to be in the offing. Disrespect also 
can take the form of idealizing you and putting 
you on a pedestal as a perfect woman or goddess, 
perhaps treating you like a piece of fine china. The 
man who worships you in this way is not seeing 
you; he is seeing his fantasy, and when you fail to 
live up to that image he may turn nasty. So there 
may not be much difference between the man who 
talks down to you and the one who elevates you; 
both are displaying a failure to respect you as a 
real human being and bode ill. 

• He does favors for you that you don’t want or 
puts on such a show of generosity that it makes 

you uncomfortable. 

These can be signs of a man who is attempting to 
create a sense of indebtedness. My client Alan, for 
example, spent much of his first two years with 
Tory helping her brother fix his car, helping her 
sister paint her new apartment, and transporting 
her father to medical appointments. When Tory’s 
family started to become upset about how Alan 
was treating her, Alan was able to convince her 
that her relatives had taken advantage of him and 
were now turning against him unfairly. He said, 
“Now that they don’t need my help anymore they 
want to get me out of the way so they can have 
you to themselves.” Alan succeeded in getting 
Tory to feel sorry for him, thereby driving a wedge 
between her and her family that endured for years 
until she saw through Alan’s manipulation. 

A man named Robert combined these first two 
warning signs: He told Lana that his ex-wife had 
falsely accused him of violence in order to keep 
him from seeing his boys. He said, “If a woman 

tells the family court that she wants the father’s 
visits to be supervised, they give it to her 
automatically.” Lana’s heart naturally went out to 
him. But two things happened that made her 
uneasy. First, Robert called after a snowstorm and 
offered to shovel her driveway. She said, “Oh, 
please don’t,” because she wasn’t sure how 
serious she felt about him and didn’t want to lead 
him on. When she got off the train from work that 
afternoon, she found her driveway completely 
cleared. Second, Lana happened by coincidence to 
have a female friend who was divorcing an 
abuser, and she learned from her friend that the 
family court required extensive evidence of 
violence in order to consider imposing supervised 
visitation on the father. She found herself 
wondering what Robert’s ex-wife might have to 

• He is controlling. 

At first it can be exciting to be with a man who 
takes charge. Here’s a typical story from the 

partner of one of my clients: 

Our first few dates were exciting and fun. I 
remember him arriving at my house with our 
evening all planned out. He’d say, “We’re 
going to the Parker House for a drink, then 
we’re having a Chinese dinner, and then I’ve 
got tickets for a comedy club.” It would all have 
to go according to plan. At first I loved the way 
he would design what he wanted to do with me. 
But then I started to notice that he rarely 
considered what / might want to do. We kept 
going out to things that he enjoys, like hockey 
games. I enjoy the hockey games, too, but it’s 
not my top interest. And after a few months, he 
started to get annoyed if I wasn’t in the mood to 
do what he wanted. 

Control usually begins in subtle ways, far from 
anything you would call abuse. He drops 
comments about your clothes or your looks (too 
sexy or not sexy enough); is a little negative about 

your family or one of your good friends; starts to 
pressure you to spend more time with him or to 
quit your job or to get a better job that pays more; 
starts to give too much advice about how you 
should manage your own life and shows a hint of 
impatience when you resist his recommendations; 
or begins to act bothered that you don’t share all 
of his opinions about politics, personal 
relationships, music, or other tastes. 

• He is possessive. 

Jealous behavior is one of the surest signs that 
abuse is down the road. Possessiveness 
masquerades as love. A man may say: “I’m sorry I 
got so bent out of shape about you talking to your 
ex-boyfriend, but I’ve never been so crazy about a 
woman before. I just can’t stand thinking of you 
with another man.” He may call five times a day 
keeping track of what you are doing all the time or 
insist on spending every evening with you. His 
feelings for you probably are powerful, but that’s 
not why he wants constant contact; he is keeping 

tabs on you, essentially establishing that you are 
his domain. Depending on what kind of friends he 
has, he also may be trying to impress them with 
how well he has you under his thumb. All of these 
behaviors are about ownership, not love. 

Jealous feelings are not the same as behaviors. 
A man with some insecurities may naturally feel 
anxious about your associations with other men, 
especially ex-partners, and might want some 
reassurance. But if he indicates that he expects 
you to give up your freedom to accommodate his 
jealousy, control is creeping up. Your social life 
shouldn’t have to change because of his 

A man’s jealousy can be flattering. It feels great 
that he is wildly in love with you, that he wants 
you so badly. But a man can be crazy about you 
without being jealous. Possessiveness shows that 
he doesn’t love you as an independent human 
being but rather as a guarded treasure. After a 
while, you will feel suffocated by his constant 


• Nothing is ever his fault. 

He blames something or someone for anything 
that goes wrong. As time goes by, the target of his 
blame increasingly becomes you. This style of 
man also tends to make promises that he doesn’t 
keep, coming up with a steady stream of excuses 
for disappointing you or behaving irresponsibly, 
and perhaps taking serious economic advantage of 
you in the process. 

• He is self-centered. 

In the first few months of a relationship, the 
abuser’s self-centeredness is not always apparent, 
but there are symptoms you can watch for. Notice 
whether he does a lot more than his share of the 
talking, listens poorly when you speak, and 
chronically shifts the topic of conversation back to 
himself. Self-centeredness is a personality 
characteristic that is highly resistant to change, as 
it has deep roots in either profound entitlement (in 

abusers) or to severe early emotional injuries (in 
nonabusers), or both (in narcissistic abusers). 

• He abuses drugs or alcohol. 

Be especially careful if he pressures you to 
participate in substance use with him. Although 
substances do not cause partner abuse, they often 
go hand in hand. He may try to hook you into 
believing that you can help him get clean and 
sober; substance abusers are often “just about” to 

• He pressures you for sex. 

This warning sign is always important, but even 
more so for teenagers and young adult men. Not 
respecting your wishes or feelings regarding sex 
speaks of exploitativeness, which in turn goes 
with abuse. It also is a sign of seeing women as 
sex objects rather than human beings. If he says 
you need to have sex with him to prove that you 
truly love and care for him, give him his walking 

• He gets serious too quickly about the 

Because so many men are commitment-phobic, a 
woman can feel relieved to find a partner who 
isn’t afraid to talk about marriage and family. But 
watch out if he jumps too soon into planning your 
future together without taking enough time to get 
to know you and grow close, because it can mean 
that he’s trying to wrap you up tightly into a 
package that he can own. Take steps to slow 
things down a little. If he won’t respect your 
wishes in this regard, there is probably trouble 

• He intimidates you when he’s angry. 

Intimidation, even if it appears unintentional, is a 
sign that emotional abuse is on the way—or has 
already begun—and is a warning flag that 
physical violence may eventually follow. Any of 
the following behaviors should put you on alert: 

• He gets too close to you when he’s angry, 
puts a finger in your face, pokes you, 
pushes you, blocks your way, or restrains 

• He tells you that he is “just trying to 
make you listen.” 

• He raises a fist, towers over you, shouts 
you down, or behaves in any other way 
that makes you flinch or feel afraid. 

• He makes vaguely threatening 
comments, such as, “You don’t want to 
see me mad” or “You don’t know who 
you’re messing with.” 

• He drives recklessly or speeds up when 
he’s angry. 

• He punches walls or kicks doors. 

• He throws things around, even if they 
don’t hit you. 

The more deeply involved you become with an 

intimidating man, the more difficult it will be to 
get out of the relationship. Unfortunately, many 
women believe just the opposite: They think, Well, 
he does scare me a little sometimes, but I’ll wait 
and see if it gets worse, and I’ll leave him if it 
does. But getting away from someone who has 
become frightening is much more complicated 
than most people realize, and it gets harder with 
each day that passes. Don’t wait around to see. 

He has double standards. 

Beware of the man who has a different set of rules 
for his behavior than for yours. Double standards 
are an important aspect of life with an abuser, as 
we will see in Chapter 6. 

• He has negative attitudes toward women. 

A man may claim early in a relationship that he 
views you in a light different from that in which 
he sees women in general, but the distinction 
won’t last. If you are a woman, why be involved 
with someone who sees women as inferior, stupid, 

conniving, or only good for sex? He isn’t going to 
forget for long that you’re a woman. 

Stereotyped beliefs about women’s sex roles 
also contribute to the risk of abuse. His conviction 
that women should take care of the home, or that a 
man’s career is more important than a woman’s, 
can become a serious problem, because he may 
punish you when you start refusing to live in his 
box. Women sometimes find it challenging to 
meet men who don’t have restrictive beliefs about 
women’s roles, particularly within certain cultural 
or national groups, but the effort to meet such men 
is an important one. 

• He treats you differently around other people. 

Adult abusers tend to put on a show of treating 
their partners like gold when anyone is watching, 
reserving most of their abuse for times when no 
one else will see. In teenage abusers the opposite 
is often true. He may be rude and cold with her in 
front of other people to impress his friends with 
how “in control” and “cool” he is but be 

somewhat nicer when they are alone together. 

• He appears to be attracted to vulnerability. 

One way that this warning sign manifests itself is 
in cases of men who are attracted to women (or 
girls) who are much younger than they are. Why, 
for example, does a twenty-two-year-old man 
pursue a sixteen-year-old adolescent? Because he 
is stimulated and challenged by her? Obviously 
not. They are at completely different 
developmental points in life with a dramatic 
imbalance in their levels of knowledge and 
experience. He is attracted to power and seeks a 
partner who will look up to him with awe and 
allow him to lead her. Of course, he usually tells 
her the opposite, insisting that he wants to be with 
her because of how unusually mature and 
sophisticated she is for her age. He may even 
compliment her on her sexual prowess and say 
how much power she has over him, setting up the 
young victim so that she won’t recognize what is 
happening to her. Even without a chronological 

age difference, some abusive men are drawn to 
women who have less life experience, knowledge, 
or self-confidence, and who will look up to the 
man as a teacher or mentor. 

I have had quite a number of clients over the 
years who are attracted to women who are 
vulnerable because of recent traumatic experiences 
in their lives, including many who have started 
relationships by helping a woman break away 
from an abusive partner and then start to control or 
abuse her themselves. Some abusive men seek out 
a woman who comes from a troubled or abusive 
childhood, who has health problems, or who has 
suffered a recent severe loss, and present 
themselves as rescuers. Be alert for the man who 
seems to be attracted to power imbalances. 

At the same time, I have observed that there are 
plenty of abusive men who are not particularly 
attracted to vulnerability or neediness in women 
and who are more drawn to tougher or more 
successful women. This style of abuser appears to 

feel that he has caught a bigger fish if he can reel 
in an accomplished, self-confident woman to 


He speaks disrespectfully about his 

former partners. 

He is disrespectful toward you. 

He does favors for you that you don’t 
want or puts on such a show of 
generosity that it makes you 

He is controlling. 

He is possessive. 
Nothing is ever his fault. 
He is self-centered. 

He abuses drugs or alcohol. 

He pressures you for sex. 

He gets serious too quickly about the 


He intimidates you when he’s angry. 

He has double standards. 

He has negative attitudes toward 


He treats you differently around other 


He appears to be attracted to 

No single one of the warning signs above is a 
sure sign of an abusive man, with the exception of 
physical intimidation. Many nonabusive men may 
exhibit a number of these behaviors to a limited 
degree. What, then, should a woman do to protect 
herself from having a relationship turn abusive? 

Although there is no foolproof solution, the best 
plan is: 

1. Make it clear to him as soon as possible 
which behaviors or attitudes are 
unacceptable to you and that you cannot 
be in a relationship with him if they 

2. If it happens again, stop seeing him for 
a substantial period of time. Don’t keep 
seeing him with the warning that this 
time you “really mean it,” because he 
will probably interpret that to mean that 
you don’t. 

3. If it happens a third time, or if he 
switches to other behaviors that are 
warning flags, chances are great that he 
has an abuse problem. If you give him 
too many chances, you are likely to 
regret it later. For further suggestions, 
see “Leaving an Abuser as a Way to 

Promote Change” in Chapter 14. 

Finally, be aware that as an abuser begins his 
slide into abuse, he believes that you are the one 
who is changing. His perceptions work this way 
because he feels so justified in his actions that he 
can’t imagine the problem might be with him. All 
he notices is that you don’t seem to be living up to 
his image of the perfect, all-giving, deferential 


Since abuse can sneak up on a woman, beginning 
with subtle control or disrespect that gains 
intensity over time, some burning questions 
emerge: How do I know when my partner is being 
abusive? Is there a distinct line that I can keep my 
eye on, so that I know when he has crossed it? 
How much is too much? Since nobody’s perfect, 
how do I know the difference between a bad day 
when he’s just being a jerk and a pattern that adds 

up to something more serious? 

It’s true that almost everyone does yell at one 
point or another in a relationship, and most 
people, male or female, call their partners a name 
from time to time, interrupt, or act selfish or 
insensitive. These behaviors are hurtful and 
worthy of criticism, but they aren’t all abuse, and 
they don’t all have the same psychological effects 
that abuse does. At the same time, all of these 
behaviors are abusive when they are part of a 
pattern of abuse. Being yelled at by a respectful 
partner feels bad, but it doesn’t cause the same 
chilled, ugly atmosphere that an abuser’s yells do. 

The term abuse is about power .; it means that a 
person is taking advantage of a power imbalance 
to exploit or control someone else. Wherever 
power imbalances exist, such as between men and 
women, or adults and children, or between rich 
and poor, some people will take advantage of 
those circumstances for their own purposes. (As I 
discuss in Chapter 13, partner abuse has been 

found not to exist in societies where males and 
females have equal power.) Thus the defining 
point of abuse is when the man starts to exercise 
power over the woman in a way that causes harm 
to her and creates a privileged status for him. 




The lines where subtler kinds of mistreatment 
end and abuse begins include the following 

• He retaliates against you for complaining about 
his behavior. 

Let’s say your partner calls you a bitch one day. 

You are angry, and you let him know that you 
deeply dislike that word and don’t ever want to be 
called that again. However, he responds to your 

grievance by making a point of calling you a bitch 
more often. Maybe he even gets a certain look in 
his eye now when he does it because he knows it 
gets under your skin. Similarly, you may say to 
your partner in an argument, “Stop yelling at me, I 
hate being yelled at,” so he raises his voice louder 
and blames it on you. These are signs of abuse. 

Another way he can retaliate against you for 
resisting his control is to switch into the role of 
victim. Suppose that you complain about being 
silenced by his constant interruptions during 
arguments. He then gets a huffy, hostile tone in his 
voice as if your objection were unfair to him and 
says sarcastically, “All right, I’ll just listen and 
you talk,” and acts as if you are oppressing him by 
calling him on his behavior. This is an effort to 
make you feel guilty for resisting his control and is 
the beginning of abuse. 

And some men ridicule the woman when she 
complains of mistreatment, openly laughing at her 
or mimicking her. These behaviors remove all 

doubt about whether he is abusive. 

Retaliation may not always be as clear and 
immediate as it is in these examples. But you can 
tell when your partner’s behavior is designed to 
punish you for standing up to him, even if it 
doesn’t come out until a couple of days later. He 
doesn’t believe that you have the right to defy him, 
and he tries to hurt you so that next time you 

• He tells you that your objections to his 
mistreatment are your own problem. 

When a woman attempts to set limits on 
controlling or insensitive behavior, an abuser 
wants her to doubt her perceptions, so he says 
things such as: 

“You ’re too sensitive; every little thing bothers 

you. It shouldn’t be any big deal. ” 

“Not everyone is all nicey-nice when they ’re 
angry like you want them to be. ” 

“Don 7 start talking to me like I’m abusive just 
because your ex-boyfriend (or your parents) 
abused you. You think everyone is abusing 
you. ” 

“You ’re just angry because you aren 7 getting 
your way, so you ’re saying I’m mistreating 
you. ” 

Through comments like these, the abuser can 
try to persuade you that: (1) you have 
unreasonable expectations for his behavior, and 
you should be willing to live with the things he 
does; (2) you are actually reacting to something 
else in your life, not to what he did; and (3) you 
are using your grievances as a power move against 
him. All of these tactics are forms of discrediting 
your complaints of mistreatment, which is 
abusive. His discrediting maneuvers reveal a core 
attitude, which he never explicitly states and may 
not even be aware of consciously himself: “You 
have no right to object to how I treat you.” And 

you can’t be in a fair and healthy relationship if 
you can’t raise grievances. 

• He gives apologies that sound insincere or 
angry, and he demands that you accept them. 

The following exchange illustrates how this 
dynamic plays out: 

.AIRE: I still feel like you don’t understand why I 
was upset by what you did. You haven’t even 

kNNY (Angry and loud): All right, all right! I’m 
sorry, I’M SORRY!! 

.AIRE (Shaking her head): You don’t get it. 

kNNY: What the fuck do you want from me?? I 
apologized already! What, you won’t be satisfied 
until you have your pound of flesh?? 

.AIRE: Your apology doesn’t mean anything to 

me when you obviously aren’t sorry. 

\NNY: What do you mean I’m not sorry?? Don’t 
tell me what I’m feeling, Little Ms. Analyst! 
You’re not inside my head. 

This interaction only serves to make Claire feel 
worse, of course, as Danny adds insults and crazy¬ 
making denial to whatever she was already upset 
about. Danny feels that Claire should be grateful 
for his apology, even though his tone 
communicated the opposite of his words; he in 
fact feels entitled to forgiveness, and he demands 
it. (He also considers it his prerogative to insist 
that she accept his version of reality, no matter 
how much it collides with everything she sees and 
hears; in this sense, he apparently sees her mind as 
part of what he has the right to control.) 

• He blames you for the impact of his behavior. 

Abuse counselors say of the abusive client: “When 
he looks at himself in the morning and sees his 

dirty face, he sets about washing the mirror.” In 
other words, he becomes upset and accusatory 
when his partner exhibits the predictable effects of 
chronic mistreatment, and then he adds insult to 
injury by ridiculing her for feeling hurt by him. He 
even uses her emotional injuries as excuses to 
mistreat her further. If his verbal assaults cause 
her to lose interest in having sex with him, for 
example, he snarls accusingly, “You must be 
getting it somewhere else.” If she is increasingly 
mistrustful of him because of his mistreatment of 
her, he says that her lack of trust is causing her to 
perceive him as abusive, reversing cause and 
effect in a mind-twisting way. If she is depressed 
or weepy one morning because he tore her apart 
verbally the night before, he says, “If you’re going 
to be such a drag today, why don’t you just go 
back to bed so I won’t have to look at you?” 

If your partner criticizes or puts you down for 
being badly affected by his mistreatment, that’s 
abuse. Similarly, it’s abuse when he uses the 

effects of his cruelty as an excuse, like a client I 
had who drove his partner away with his verbal 
assaults and then told her that her emotional 
distancing was causing his abuse, thus reversing 
cause and effect. He is kicking you when you’re 
already down, and he knows it. Seek help for 
yourself quickly, as this kind of psychological 
assault can cause your emotional state to rapidly 

• It’s never the right time, or the right way, to 
bring things up. 

In any relationship, it makes sense to use some 
sensitivity in deciding when and how to tackle a 
difficult relationship issue. There are ways to word 
a grievance that avoid making it sound like a 
personal attack, and if you mix in some 
appreciation you increase the chance that your 
partner will hear you. But with an abuser, no way 
to bring up a complaint is the right way. You can 
wait until the calmest, most relaxed evening, 
prepare your partner with plenty of verbal 

stroking, express your grievance in mild language, 
but he still won’t be willing to take it in. 

Initial defensiveness or hostility toward a 
grievance is co mm on even in nonabusive people. 
Sometimes you have to leave an argument and 
come back to it in a couple of hours, or the next 
day, and then you find your partner more prepared 
to take in what is bothering you. With an abuser, 
however, the passage of time doesn’t help. He 
doesn’t spend the intervening period digesting 
your comments and struggling to face what he did, 
the way a nonabusive person might. In fact he 
does the opposite, appearing to mentally build up 
his case against your complaint as if he were 
preparing to go before a judge. 

• He undermines your progress in life. 

Interference with your freedom or independence is 
abuse. If he causes you to lose a job or to drop out 
of a school program; discourages you from 
pursuing your dreams; causes damage to your 
relationships with friends or relatives; takes 

advantage of you financially and damages your 
economic progress or security; or tells you that you 
are incompetent at something you enjoy, such as 
writing, artwork, or business, as a way to get you 
to give it up, he is trying to undermine your 

• He denies what he did. 

Some behaviors in a relationship can be matters of 
judgment; what one person calls a raised voice 
another might call yelling, and there is room for 
reasonable people to disagree. But other actions, 
such as calling someone a name or pounding a fist 
on the table, either happened or they didn’t. So 
while a nonabusive partner might argue with you 
about how you are interpreting his behavior, the 
abuser denies his actions altogether. 

• He justifies his hurtful or frightening acts or 
says that you “made him do it. ” 

When you tell your partner that his yelling 
frightens you, for example, and he responds that 

he has every right to yell “because you’re not 
listening to me,” that’s abuse. The abuser uses 
your behavior as an excuse for his own. He 
therefore refuses to commit unconditionally to stop 
using a degrading or intimidating behavior. 
Instead, he insists on setting up a quid pro quo, 
where he says he’ ll stop some form of abuse if you 
agree to give up something that bothers him, 
which often will be something that you have every 
right to do. 

• He touches you in anger or puts you in fear in 
other ways. 

Physical aggression by a man toward his partner 
is abuse, even if it happens only once. If he raises 
a fist; punches a hole in the wall; throws things at 
you; blocks your way; restrains you; grabs, 
pushes, or pokes you; or threatens to hurt you, 
that’s physical abuse. He is creating fear and 
using your need for physical freedom and safety as 
a way to control you. Call a hot line as soon as 
possible if any of these things happens to you. 

Sometimes a partner can frighten you 
inadvertently because he is unaware of how his 
actions affect you. For example, he might come 
from a family or culture where people yell loudly 
and wave their arms around during arguments, 
while those from your background are quiet and 
polite. The nonabusive man in these 
circumstances will be very concerned when you 
inform him that he is frightening you and will 
want to take steps to keep that from happening 

Physical abuse is dangerous. Once it starts in a 
relationship, it can escalate over time to more 
serious assaults such as slapping, punching, or 
choking. Even if it doesn’t, so-called “lower-level” 
physical abuse can frighten you, give your partner 
power over you, and start to affect your ability to 
manage your own life. Any form of physical 
intimidation is highly upsetting to children who 
are exposed to it. No assault in a relationship, 
however “minor,” should be taken lightly. 

I am often asked whether physical aggression 
by women toward men, such as a slap in the face, 
is abuse. The answer is: “It depends.” Men 
typically experience women’s shoves or slaps as 
annoying and infuriating rather than intimidating, 
so the long-term emotional effects are less 
damaging. It is rare to find a man who has 
gradually lost his freedom or self-esteem because 
of a woman’s aggressiveness. I object to any form 
of physical aggression in relationships except for 
what is truly essential for self-defense, but I 
reserve the word abuse for situations of control or 

A woman can intimidate another woman, 
however, and a man can be placed in fear by his 
male partner. Most of what I have described about 
the thinking and the tactics of heterosexual 
abusers is also true of abusive gay men and 
lesbians. We look more at this issue in Chapter 6. 

• He coerces you into having sex or sexually 
assaults you. 

I have had clients who raped or sexually coerced 
their partners repeatedly over the course of the 
relationship but never once hit them. Sexual 
coercion or force in a relationship is abuse. 

Studies indicate that women who are raped by 
intimate partners suffer even deeper and longer- 
lasting effects than those who are raped by 
strangers or nonintimate acquaintances. If you 
have experienced sexual assault or chronic sexual 
pressure in your relationship, call an abuse hotline 
or a rape hotline, even if you don’t feel that the 
term rape applies to what your partner did. 

• His controlling, disrespectful, or degrading 
behavior is a pattern. 

This item is as important as the others but requires 
the most judgment and ability to trust your 
instincts. When exactly does a behavior become a 
pattern? If it happens three times a year? If it 
happens once a week? There is no answer that 
applies to all actions or to all people. You will 
need to form your own conclusions about whether 

your partner’s mistreatment of you has become 

• You show signs of being abused. 

All of the other indicators of abuse discussed 
above involve examining what the man does and 
how he thinks. But it is equally important to look 
at yourself, examining such questions as: 

Are you afraid of him? 

Are you getting distant from friends or family 
because he makes those relationships difficult? 

Is your level of energy and motivation 
declining, or do you feel depressed? 

Is your self-opinion declining, so that you are 
always fighting to be good enough and to 
prove yourself? 

Do you find yourself constantly preoccupied 

with the relationship and how to fix it? 

Do you feel like you can’t do anything right? 

Do you feel like the problems in your 
relationship are all your fault? 

Do you repeatedly leave arguments feeling like 
you ve been messed with but can’t figure out 
exactly why? 

These are signs that you may be involved with an 
abusive partner. 

You may notice that the above distinguishing 
features of abuse include little mention of anger. 
While chronic anger can be one warning sign of 
abusiveness, the two are sometimes quite separate. 
There are cool, calculating abusers who rarely 
explode in ire, for example, and at the same time 
some nonabusive men feel or express anger often. 
You might decide that you don’t want to be with a 
partner who is angry all the time—I wouldn’t care 

for it—but it isn’t abuse in itself. 


Almost every time that I speak on abuse, hands go 
up with the following two questions: (1) When an 
abuser acts remorseful, is he really? and (2) If he’s 
really sorry, does that make him less likely to be 
abusive again? 



The good news is that remorse is often genuine; 
the bad news is that it rarely helps. To make sense 
out of this contradiction, we need to look first at a 
crucial aspect of what is going on inside an 
abuser: Abusers have numerous contradictory 
attitudes and beliefs operating simultaneously 
in their minds. A few examples of the typical 

contradictions include: 

“Women are fragile and in need ofprotection 
but they need to be intimidated from time to 
time or they get out of hand. ” 

“My partner and I should have equal say over 
things but my decisions should rule when it 
comes to issues that are important to me. ” 

“I feel terrible about how I treated her but I 
should never have to feel bad in a relationship, 
no matter what I did. ” 

“I shouldn’t raise my voice but I should have 
control over my partner, and sometimes I have 
to get loud to control her.” 

“ You should never hit a woman but sometimes 
a man has no other choice. ” 

When a man feels sorry for his abusive 

behavior, his regrets collide with his entitlement. 
The contradictory chatter inside his head sounds 
something like this: 

I feel bad that I said “fuck you” to her; that’s 
not a good thing to say, especially in front of the 
children. I lost it, and I want my family to have 
an image of me as always being strong and in 
charge. I don’t like for them to see me looking 
ugly the way I did in that argument; it hurts my 
self-esteem. But she called me “irresponsible”! 
How does she expect me to react when she says 
something like that? She can’t talk to me that 
way. Now the children are going to think I was 
the bad guy, when she was the cause of it. If 
they start siding with her, I’m going to let them 
know why I was mad. Now she’s made me look 
really bad. Fuck her. 

Let’s follow the path that this man’s internal 
dialogue takes. First, his remorse is not primarily 
focused on the way his verbal assault wounded his 

partner. What he feels bad about mostly is: (1) He 
damaged his image in other people’s eyes; (2) he 
offended his own sense of how he would like to 
be; and (3) he feels he should be able to control 
his partner without resorting to abuse. From those 
thoughts he slides into blaming his outburst on his 
partner, which he feels entitled to do, and in this 
way rids himself of his feelings of guilt. By the 
end of his self-talk, he is holding his partner 
responsible for everything, including the effects 
that he has just had on their children. The abuser’s 
self-focus and victim-blaming orientation tend to 
cause his remorse to fade in this way. 

An abuser’s show of emotion after early 
incidents of abuse can be dramatic: I have had 
clients who cry, beg their partners for forgiveness, 
and say, “You deserve so much better, I don’t 
know why you are even with a jerk like me.” His 
remorse can create the impression that he is 
reaching out for real intimacy, especially if you’ve 
never seen him looking so sad before. But in a day 

or two his guilt is vanquished, driven out by his 
internal excuse-making skills. The effects of the 
incident last much longer for the abused woman, 
of course, and pretty soon the abuser may be 
snapping at her: “What, aren’t you over that yeti 
Don’t dwell on it, for crying out loud. Let’s put it 
behind us and move forward.” His attitude is: 

“I’m over it, so why isn’t she?” 

Genuine remorse and theatricality are not 
mutually exclusive. Most abusers are truly sorry— 
though perhaps largely for themselves—while 
also playing up their emotions somewhat to win 
sympathy. A man’s dramatic remorse shifts the 
center of attention back to him; his partner may 
almost forget his earlier bullying as compassion 
for his guilt and self-reproach washes over her. 

She may soon find herself reassuring him that she 
won’t leave him, that she still loves him, that she 
doesn’t think he’s a terrible person. If they have 
children, she may find herself covering up what he 
did so that the children won’t blame him, because 

she doesn’t want him to feel even worse. He thus 
reaps soothing attention as a reward for his 
abusiveness, and his actions have the effect of 
keeping the family focused on his needs. 

Remorse usually tends to decline as abusive 
incidents pile up. The genuine aspect fades as the 
abusive man grows accustomed to acting 
abusively and tuning out his partner’s hurt 
feelings. The theatrical part fades as he becomes 
less concerned about losing the relationship, 
confident now that she is fully under his control 
and won’t leave him. 

The salient point about remorse, however, is 
that it matters little whether it is genuine or not. 
Clients who get very sorry after acts of abuse 
change at about the same rate as the ones who 
don’t. The most regretful are sometimes the most 
self-centered, lamenting above all the injury 
they’ve done to their own self-image. They feel 
ashamed of having behaved like cruel dictators 
and want to revert quickly to the role of benign 

dictators, as if that somehow makes them much 
better people. 


The following steps could help prevent his next 
incident of abuse, in a way that apologies cannot: 

• Giving you some extended room to be 
angry about what he did, rather than 
telling you that you’ve been angry too 
long or trying to stuff your angry feelings 
back down your throat 

• Listening well to your perspective 
without interrupting, making excuses, or 
blaming his actions on you 

• Making amends for anything he did, for 
example, by picking up anything that he 
threw, admitting to friends that he lied 
about you, or telling the children that his 
behavior was unacceptable and wasn’t 

your fault 

• Making unconditional agreements to 
immediately change behaviors 

• Going to get help without you having to 
put a lot of pressure on him to do it 

If he is willing to take all of these steps after an 
incident of mistreatment—and actually follow 
through on them—there’s some chance that he 
may not be deeply abusive. Without such clear 
action, however, the abuse will return. 



Many women take a “wait and see” attitude when 
signs of abuse appear in a partner’s behavior. 
They tell themselves: “It’s so hard to leave him 
right now because I still love him. But if he gets 
worse, that will lessen my feelings for him, and 
then breaking up will be easier.” This is a 

dangerous trap. The longer you are with an abuser, 
and the more destructive he becomes, the harder it 
can be to extricate yourself, for the following 

• The more time he has to tear down your 
self-opinion, the more difficult it will be 
for you to believe that you deserve better 

• The more time he has to hurt you 
emotionally, the more likely your energy 
and initiative are to diminish, so that it 
gets harder to muster the strength to get 

• The more damage he does to your 
relationships with friends and family, the 
less support you will have for the difficult 
process of ending the relationship. 

• The longer you have been living with his 
cycles of intermittent abuse and kind, 
loving treatment, the more attached you 

are likely to feel to him, through a 
process known as traumatic bonding 
(see Chapter 9). 

For all of these reasons, act sooner rather than 

At the same time, if you have already been in a 
relationship with an abuser for five years, or ten, 
or thirty, it is never too late to recover your rights 
and to get free. Help is available to you no matter 
how long your relationship has lasted and how 
deep the effects have been (see “Resources”). 

One final word of caution: If you do not have 
children with your abusive partner, keep it that 
way. Some women hope the arrival of a baby can 
cause an abuser to change his behaviors, but it 
can’t. It won’t make him settle down, become 
more responsible, or gain maturity. It won’t stop 
his jealous accusations by convincing him that you 
are committed to him, nor will it get him to stop 
cheating on you. The presence of children in the 

home won’t make him stop abusing you. Having 
children with an abusive partner will just make 
your life more stressful than it was before, as you 
begin to worry about the effects that his behavior 
is having on your children. And if you decide later 
that you do want to leave him, having children 
will make that choice much harder and will raise 
the possibility that he will threaten to seek custody 
of them (see Chapter 10). I have yet to encounter a 
case where the arrival of children solved a 
woman’s problems with an abusive man, or even 
lessened them. 


• The early warning signs of abuse are 
usually visible if you know what to look 

• If the warning signs are there, act quickly 
either to set limits or to get out of the 

relationship. The more deeply you 
become involved with an abuser, the 
harder it is to get out. 

You do not cause your partner’s slide 
into abusiveness, and you cannot stop it 
by figuring out what is bothering him or 
by increasing your ability to meet his 
needs. Emotional upset and unmet needs 
have little to do with abusiveness. 

Certain behaviors and attitudes are 
definitional of abuse, such as ridiculing 
your complaints of mistreatment, 
physically intimidating you, or sexually 
assaulting you. If any of these is present, 
abuse has already begun. 

Abused women aren’t “codependent.” It 
is abusers, not their partners, who create 
abusive relationships. 

Call a hotline for support, or use one of 
the resources listed in the back of this 

book, as soon as you start to have 
questions about abuse. Don’t wait until 
you’re certain. 


The Abusive Man in Everyday Life 

Ifeel like I’m going crazy. 

Sometimes I can just tell it’s one of 
those days; no matter what I do, I’m 
going to get it sooner or later. 

He’s a teddy bear underneath. 

I never know what to expect; he can just 
turn on me, out of the blue. 

Iwouldn ’t call him an abuser. I mean, 
he can be really nice for weeks at a 

I really love him. 

with abusive men, I have spent many hundreds of 
hours on the telephone listening to the partners of 
my clients describe their lives. My job is to see my 
client through the woman’s eyes, using my 
imagination to enter her home and absorb the 
atmosphere that he creates day in and day out. By 
assuming her perspective, I begin to see beneath 
my client’s exterior. 

At the same time, I don’t see exactly the same 
man the abused woman sees. The circumstances 
under which I see him have several unusual 

• It is safe for me to challenge and confront 
him, because I am sitting in a room full 
of witnesses, including my co-leader. In 
many cases, I have some power over the 
man because he is on probation, so a 
negative report from me could get him 
brought before a judge. 

• I have names and descriptions for his 
tactics. He finds it difficult to confuse or 
intimidate me, or to make me feel bad 
about myself, because I keep pointing out 
his maneuvers and his motives. Abuse 
loses some of its power when you have 
names for its weapons. 

• I don’t have to live with this man, so he 
has few opportunities to retaliate against 
me for standing up to him. 

• Some of the men in the group who are 
attempting to apply the concepts of the 
program may challenge the man on his 
attitudes and behaviors. These challenges 
from other abusers make it harder for 
him to blame everything on his partner, 
or on women in general. 

I also learn about a man from seeing his 
reactions to discussions in his group. For example, 
he tends to express disapproval of other clients 

whose abuse is different from his—because he 
considers anything he wouldn’t do to be “real” 
abuse—and while tending to express sympathy for 
and support of any fellow abuser who employs the 
same tactics or justifications that he does, turns to 
me to say: “But what do you expect the poor man 
to do given his circumstances?” 

The abused woman and I thus try to form a 
team so that we can share our observations about 
the man and help each other to recognize patterns 
or dynamics. I am eager to learn from her about 
my client and at the same time eager to share with 
her any observations I have that might help her to 
protect herself or unravel what he is doing to her 

One of the earliest lessons I learned from 
abused women is that to understand abuse you 
can’t look just at the explosions; you have to 
examine with equal care the spaces between the 
explosions. The dynamics of these periods tell us 
as much about the abuse as the rages or the 

thrown objects, as the disgusting name-calling or 
the jealous accusations. The abuser’s thinking and 
behavior during the calmer periods are what cause 
his big eruptions that wound or frighten. In this 
chapter, we enter the mind of the abuser at various 
points in daily life to better understand what 
sparks his abusive actions. 


I will begin by examining in detail an argument 
between an abusive man and his partner, the kind 
that I hear about routinely from my clients and 
their partners. Jesse and Bea are walking along in 
their town. Jesse is sullen and clearly annoyed. 

iA: What’s going on with you? I don’t understand 
what you’re upset about. 

SSE: I’m not upset; I just don’t feel like talking 
right now. Why do you always have to read 
something into it? Can’t I just be a little quiet 

sometimes? Not everybody likes to talk, talk, talk 
all the time just because you do. 

lA: I don’t talk, talk, talk all the time. What do 
you mean by that? I just want to know what’s 
bothering you. 

SSE: I just finished telling you, nothing's 
bothering me.. .and give me a break that you don’t 
talk all the time. When we were having dinner 
with my brother and his wife, I couldn’t believe 
how you went on and on about your stupid 
journalism class. You’re forty years old, for Christ 
sake; the world isn’t excited about your fantasies 
of being famous. Grow up a little. 

iA: Fantasies of being famous? I’m trying to get a 
job, Jesse, because the travel agency jobs have all 
moved downtown. And I wasn’t going on about it. 
They were interested ; they were asking me a lot of 
questions about it—that’s why we were on that 
subj ect for a while. 

SSE: Oh, yeah, they were real interested. They 
were being polite to you because you’re so full of 
yourself. You’re so naive you can’t even tell when 
you’re being patronized. 

iA: I don’t believe this. That dinner was almost 
two weeks ago. Have you been brewing about it 
all this time? 

SSE: I don’t brew, Bea, you’re the one that brews. 
You love to get us confused. I’ll see you later. I’m 
really not in the mood for this shit. 

iA: In the mood for what shit?? I haven’t done 
anything! You’ve had it in for me since I arrived 
to meet you! 

SSE: You’re yelling at me, Bea. You know I hate 
being yelled at. You need to get help; your 
emotions just fly off the handle. I’ll see you later. 

iA: Where are you going? 

SSE: I’ll walk home, thank you. You can take the 
car. I’d rather be alone. 

iA: It’s going to take you more than a half hour to 
walk home, and it’s freezing today. 

SSE: Oh, now suddenly you care about me so 
much. Up yours. Bye. Walks off.) 

The lives of abused women are full of these 
kinds of exchanges. Jesse didn’t call Bea any 
degrading names; he didn’t yell; he didn’t hit her 
or threaten her. Bea will be in a tough spot when 
the time comes to explain to a friend how upset 
she is, because Jesse’s behavior is hard to 
describe. What can she say? That he’s sarcastic? 
That he holds on to things? That he’s overly 
critical? A friend would respond: “Well, that 
sounds hard, but I wouldn’t call it abuse.” Yet, as 
Jesse walks away, Bea feels as if she has been 
slapped in the face. 


We will look first at what Jesse is doing and then 
examine how his thinking works. The first point to 
illuminate is: 



Therapists often try to work with an abuser by 
analyzing his responses to disagreements and 
trying to get him to handle conflicts differently. 

But such an approach misses the point: His 
abusiveness was what caused the tension to begin 

Jesse uses an array of conversational control 

tactics, as most abusers do: 

• He denies being angry, although he 
obviously is, and instead of dealing with 
what is bothering him, he channels his 
energy into criticizing Bea about 
something else. 

• He insults, belittles, and patronizes Bea 
in multiple ways, including saying that 
she likes to talk all the time and has 
fantasies of becoming famous, stating 
that she should “grow up,” and telling 
her that she accuses him of stewing over 
things when it’s actually her. 

• He tells her that she is unaware that other 
people look down on her and don’t take 
her seriously and calls her “naive.” 

• He criticizes her for raising her voice in 
response to his stream of insults. 

• He tells her that she is mistreating him. 

• He stomps off and plays the victim by 
putting himself in the position of having 
to take a long, cold walk home. 

Bea is now left miserable—feeling like a 
scratching post that a cat has just sharpened its 
claws on. Part of why she is so shaken up by this 
experience is that she never knows when one of 
these verbal assaults is going to happen or what 
sets it off. On a different day she might have met 
Jesse to take him home and had a pleasant 
conversation with him about his workday. Thus 
she is left imagining that something bad must 
have happened to him at work and that he is 
taking it out on her—which may be true in a way 
but actually has little to do with what is 

So, what is going on? The story began two 
weeks earlier, when Jesse and Bea were out to 
dinner with Jesse’s relatives. What we have just 
learned from their argument is that Jesse does not 

like Bea to be the center of attention for any length 
of time. Why not? There are a few reasons: 

1. He considers it her job to play a 
supporting role to him. This is the same 
as the attitude that “behind every great 
man standsa woman.” So if either of 
them is going to be the center of 
attention, it should be him, and if he is 
feeling like being quiet she should be, 
too, remaining in his shadow. 

2. He is constantly focused on her faults, 
so he assumes everyone else is, too. 

3. He doesn’t like having her appear in 
public as smart, capable, and 
interesting, because that collides with 
his deeply held belief that she is 
irrational, incompetent, and worthy of 
being ignored—a view of her that he 
may want others to share with him. 

4. He is afraid on some level that if she 

gets enough support for her strengths, 
she will leave him—and he’s quite 
likely right. 

Notice that numbers two and three are almost 
opposites: He assumes that she comes off badly, 
which embarrasses him, but he is also concerned 
that she may have come off very well, because 
then other people might see her as a capable 
person. He reacts strongly to both possibilities. 

We also see the signs that Jesse finds Bea’s 
journalism class threatening to his control over 
her. In fact, this is probably what he has been 
dwelling on most over the past two weeks, 
causing his grumpy mood. Abusive men are 
uncomfortable when they see signs of budding 
independence in their partners and often look for 
ways to undermine the woman’s progress in the 
days ahead. 

Returning now to the day of the argument, we 
can see that Jesse launches into attributing many 

of his own characteristics to Bea, saying that she 
is full of herself, that she dwells on grievances, 
that she yells, that she doesn’t care about him. 
This behavior in abusers is sometimes mistakenly 
referred to as projection, a psychological process 
through which people attribute their own fears or 
flaws to those around them. But as we saw in 
Chapter 3, the process through which an abuser 
turns reality on its head is not quite the same as 
projection. Jesse perceives Bea to be yelling 
because one of his core values is that she’s not 
supposed to get angry at him, no matter what he 
does. He thinks she doesn’t care about him 
because in his mind she can’t care about him 
unless she cares only about him, and not at all 
about herself or other people. He thinks she is full 
of herself because she sometimes gets excited 
about her own goals or activities, when he 
believes she should be most excited about what 
he’s doing. He thinks she dwells on her 
grievances because she sometimes attempts to 

hold him accountable rather than letting him stick 
her with cleaning up his messes—literally and 

Jesse is also using projection as a control tactic. 
Part of why Jesse accuses Bea of doing all the 
selfish or abusive things that he does is to make it 
hard for her to get anywhere with her grievances. I 
have had many clients tell me: “Oh, I knew what I 
was saying about her wasn’t true, but it’s a way to 
really get to her.” (It is surprising how common it 
is for abusers to admit—if they are caught off 
guard—to deliberate use of abusive and 
controlling behaviors.) For all of these reasons, 
saying simply that “he’s projecting” doesn’t 
adequately capture the reasons for an abuser’s 
distorted accusations. 

The final behavior we need to examine is 
Jesse’s decision to take a long, cold walk home by 
himself. Why does he make himself a victim? 

• He is drawn to making Bea feel sorry for 

him so that his feelings can remain the 
center of attention, crowding hers out. 

She will feel as though she shouldn’t 
pursue her complaints about the ways in 
which he has just assaulted her verbally, 
because he is suffering so much. 

He also wants other people to feel sorry 
for him. He can describe to friends or 
relatives how the argument led to a 
miserable walk for him, and they will 
think: “The poor man.” And he will 
probably adjust the story to his advantage 
—abusers usually spruce up their 
accounts—perhaps saying that she was 
furious and drove off without him, and he 
was left to walk shivering all the way 
home. He doesn’t consciously plan these 
maneuvers ahead of time, but experience 
has taught him on a deeper level that 
playing the victim increases the 
sympathy he receives. 

• He may want her to worry about what 
other people will think. She won’t want 
to come out looking like the mean one, so 
she’ll take steps to smooth over the fight. 

• On some level he enjoys walking alone 
for half an hour, wallowing in self-pity, 
because it helps him feel more justified 
about his recurring pattern of cruelty and 
undermining toward Bea. It’s a way of 
reassuring himself that she’s the bad one, 
not him. An abuser is a human being, 
and somewhere inside him, buried under 
thick layers of entitlement and disrespect, 
there is a heart that knows that what he is 
doing is wrong. This heart periodically 
tries to send a few beats up through the 
layers, so the abuser has to stomp them 
back down. 

Each verbal battle with an abuser is a walk 
through a minefield, and each field is different. 

Jesse appears to be a mixture of the Water 
Torturer and the Victim, with a sprinkling of Mr. 
Right. Perhaps an argument on the same subject 
with the Drill Segreant or the Player would go 
quite differently. But, regardless of specific style, 
very little of what an abuser does in an argument 
is as irrational or emotional as it seems. 


You may find that each disagreement with your 
partner is unique and can start in any of a 
thousand ways, yet it can only arrive at four or five 
different endings—all of them bad. Your gnawing 
sensation of futility and inevitably is actually 
coming from the abusive man’s thinking about 
verbal conflict. His outlook makes it impossible 
for an argument to proceed toward anything other 
than the fulfillment of his wishes—or toward 
nowhere at all. Four features stand out: 

1. The abuser sees an argument as war. 

His goal in a verbal conflict is not to negotiate 
different desires, understand each other’s 
experiences, or think of mutually beneficial 
solutions. He wants only to win. Winning is 
measured by who talks the most, who makes the 
most devastating or “humorous” insults (none of 
which is funny to his partner), and who controls 
the final decision that comes out of the debate. He 
won’t settle for anything other than victory. If he 
feels he has lost the argument, he may respond by 
making a tactical retreat and gathering his forces 
to strike again later. 

Under this layer there is an even deeper stratum 
in many abusive men where we unearth his 
attitude that the whole relationship is a war. To 
this mind-set, relationships are dichotomous, and 
you’re on either one end or the other: the 
dominator or the submitter, the champ or the 
chump, the cool man or the loser. He can imagine 
no other way. 

2. She is always wrong in his eyes. 

It is frustrating, and ultimately pointless, to argue 
with someone who is certain beyond the shadow 
of a doubt that his perspective is accurate and 
complete and that yours is wrong and stupid. 
Where can the conversation possibly go? 

The question isn’t whether he argues forcefully 
or not. Many nonabusive people express their 
opinions with tremendous conviction and emotion 
yet still allow themselves to be influenced by the 
other person’s point of view. On the other hand, it 
isn’t hard to tell when someone is refusing to 
grapple in good faith with your ideas and instead 
is just reaching for whatever stick he thinks will 
deal the heaviest blow to your side. When your 
partner says to you disparagingly, “Oh, the real 
reason why you complain about how I argue is 
that you can’t deal with my having strong 
opinions,” he’s diverting attention from the tactics 
he uses. He is also reversing reality, which is that 
he can’t accept your differences of opinion and 

doesn’t want to let his thinking be influenced by 
yours. (And on the rare occasions when he does 
adopt your ideas, he may claim they were his to 
begin with.) 

3. He has an array of control tactics in conflicts. 

My clients have so many ways to bully their way 
through arguments that I couldn’t possibly name 
them all, but the abuser’s most common tactics 
are listed in the box below: 



Distorting what you say 

Distorting what happened in an earlier 



Accusing you of doing what he does, or 
thinking the way he thinks 

Using a tone of absolute certainty and 

final authority—“defining reality” 


Not listening, refusing to respond 

Laughing out loud at your opinion or 


Turning your grievances around to use 

against you 

Changing the subject to his grievances 

Criticism that is harsh, undeserved, or 


Provoking guilt 

Playing the victim 

Smirking, rolling his eyes, 
contemptuous facial expressions 

Yelling, out-shouting 


Name-calling, insults, put-downs 

Walking out 
Towering over you 

Walking toward you in an intimidating 


Blocking a doorway 

Other forms of physical intimidation, 
such as getting too close while he’s 


Threatening to leave you 
Threatening to harm you 

Conversational control tactics are aggravating 
no matter who uses them, but they are especially 
coercive and upsetting when used by an abusive 
man because of the surrounding context of 
emotional or physical intimidation. I have rarely 
met an abuser who didn’t use a wide array of the 
above tactics in conflicts; if you consider an 
argument with a partner to be a war, why not use 

every weapon you can think of? The underlying 
mind-set makes the behaviors almost inevitable. 

The abusive man wants particularly to discredit 
your perspective, especially your grievances. He 
may tell you, for example, that the “real” reasons 
why you complain about the way he treats you are: 

• You don’t want him to feel good about 

• You can’t handle it if he has an opinion 
that differs from yours, if he is angry, or 
if he is right. 

• You are too sensitive, you read too much 
into things, or you take things the wrong 

• You were abused as a child or by a 
former partner, so you think everything is 

These are all strategies he uses to avoid having 
to think seriously about your grievances, because 

then he might be obligated to change his 
behaviors or attitudes. 

The abusive man’s goal in a heated argument is 
in essence to get you to stop thinking for yourself 
and to silence you, because to him your opinions 
and complaints are obstacles to the imposition of 
his will as well as an affront to his sense of 
entitlement. If you watch closely, you will begin 
to notice how many of his controlling behaviors 
are aimed ultimately at discrediting and 
silencing you. 

4. He makes sure to get his way—by one means 
or another. 

The bottom line with an abuser in an argument is 
that he wants what he wants—today, tomorrow, 
and always—and he feels he has a right to it. 


Life with an abuser can be a dizzying wave of 
exciting good times and painful periods of verbal, 

physical, or sexual assault. The longer the 
relationship lasts, the shorter and farther apart the 
positive periods tend to become. If you have been 
involved with an abusive partner for many years, 
the good periods may have stopped happening 
altogether, so that he is an unvarying source of 

Periods of relative calm are followed by a few 
days or weeks in which the abuser becomes 
increasingly irritable. As his tension builds, it 
takes less and less to set him off on a tirade of 
insults. His excuses for not carrying his weight 
mount up, and his criticism and displeasure seem 
constant. Many women tell me that they learn to 
read their partner’s moods during this buildup and 
can sense when he is nearing an eruption. One day 
he finally hits his limit, often over the most trivial 
issue, and he bursts out with screaming, 
disgusting and hurtful put-downs, or frightening 
aggression. If he is a violent abuser, he turns 
himself loose to knock over chairs, hurl objects, 

punch holes in walls, or assault his partner 
directly, leaving her scared to death. 

After he has purged himself, he typically acts 
ashamed or regretful about his cruelty or violence, 
at least in the early years of a relationship. Then he 
may enter a period when he reminds you of the 
man you fell in love with—charming, attentive, 
funny, kind. His actions have the effect of drawing 
you into a repetitive traumatic cycle in which you 
hope each time that he is finally going to change 
for good. You then begin to see the signs of his 
next slow slide back into abuse, and your anxiety 
and confusion rise again. 

Women commonly ask me: “What is going on 
inside his mind during this cycle? Why can’t he 
just stay in the good period, what can I do to keep 
him there?” To answer these questions, let’s look 
through his eyes during each phase: 

• The tension-building phase 

During this period, your partner is collecting 
negative points about you and squirreling them 

away for safekeeping. Every little thing that you 
have done wrong, each disappointment he has 
experienced, any way in which you have failed to 
live up to his image of the perfect selfless woman 
—all goes down as a black mark against your 

Abusers nurse their grievances. One of my 
former colleagues referred to this habit as The 
Garden of Resentments, a process through which 
an abuser plants a minor complaint and then 
cultivates it carefully while it grows to tremendous 
dimensions, worthy of outrage and abuse. Jesse, 
for example, planted the dinner-table conversation 
in his Garden of Resentments and then harvested 
it two weeks later to throw in Bea’s face, lumping 
it together with several other issues into one big 
ugly ball. 

To defend against any complaints you attempt 
to express, the abuser stockpiles his collected 
grievances like weapons to protect his precious 
terrain of selfishness and irresponsibility. And 

some of his negativity about you is just plain 
habit. An abuser falls into a routine of walking 
around dwelling on his partner’s purported faults. 
Since he considers you responsible for fixing 
everything for him, he logically chooses you as his 
dumping ground for all of life’s normal 
frustrations and disappointments. 

• The eruption 

The abusive man tends to mentally collect 
resentments toward you until he feels that you 
deserve a punishment. Once he’s ready to blow, 
the tiniest spark will ignite him. Occasionally an 
abused woman may decide to touch her partner off 
herself at this point, as scary as that is, because 
the fear of waiting to see what he will do and 
when he will do it is worse. The explosion of 
verbal or physical assault that results is horrible, 
but at least it’s over. 

After he blows, the abuser absolves himself of 
guilt by thinking of himself as having lost control, 
the victim of his partner’s provocations or his own 

intolerable pain. Whereas at other times he may 
say that men are stronger and less emotional than 
women, he now switches, saying, “There is only 
so much a man can take,” or “She really hurt my 
feelings, and I couldn’t help going off.” He may 
consider women’s emotional reactions—such as 
breaking into tears—contemptible, even when 
they hurt no one, but when a man has powerful 
emotions, even violence may be excusable. Some 
of my most tough-guy clients unabashedly use 
their painful feelings to excuse their cruel 

• The “hearts and flowers ’’ stage 

After the apologies are over, the abuser may enter 
a period of relative calm. He appears to have 
achieved a catharsis from opening up the bomb 
bays and raining abuse down on his partner. He 
feels rejuvenated and may speak the language of a 
fresh start, of steering the relationship in a new 
direction. Of course, there is nothing cathartic for 
his partner about being the target of his abuse (she 

feels worse with each cycle), but in the abuser’s 
self-centered way he thinks she should feel better 
now because he feels better. 

During this period, an abuser works to rebuild 
the bridge that his abusiveness just burned down. 
He wants to be back in his partner’s good graces; 
he may want sex; and he seeks reassurance that 
she isn’t going to leave him—or expose him. 
Cards and gifts are common in this phase; hence 
the name “hearts and flowers.” The abusive man 
does not, however, want to look seriously at 
himself; he is merely looking to paste up some 
wallpaper to cover the holes he has made— 
figuratively or literally—and return to business as 
usual. The good period can’t last because nothing 
has changed. His coercive habits, his double 
standards, his contempt, are all still there. The 
cycle is repeated because there is no reason why it 
wouldn’t be. 

Some abusive men don’t follow a discemable 
cycle like the one I have just described. Your 

partner’s abusive incidents may follow no pattern, 
so you can never guess what will happen next. I 
have had clients who seemed almost to get a thrill 
out of their own unpredictability, which further 
increased their power. Random abuse can be 
particularly deleterious psychologically to you and 
to your children. 



When an alcohol abuser goes a month or two 
without a drink, we say the person is “on the 
wagon.” The dry period is a break from the pattern 
and inspires some hope of a positive trend. But, 
with partner abuse, the periods when the man is 
being good—or at least not at his worst—are not 
really outside of his pattern. They are generally an 
integral aspect of his abusiveness, woven into the 
fabric of his thinking and behavior. 

What functions do the good periods play? They 

perform several, including the following: 

• His spurts of kindness and generosity 
help him to feel good about himself He 
can persuade himself that you are the one 
who is messed up, “because look at me, 
I’m a great guy.” 

• You gradually feel warmer and more 
trusting toward him. The good periods 
are critical to hooking you back into the 
relationship, especially if he doesn’t have 
another way to keep you from leaving, 
such as financial control or the threat of 
taking the children. 

• While you are feeling more trusting, you 
expose more of your true feelings about 
different issues in your life and you show 
him more caring, which creates 
vulnerability that he can use later to 
control you (though he probably doesn’t 
consciously plan to do this). During one 

of Jesse’s bad periods, for example, Bea 
would probably protect herself by telling 
him that she was taking a journalism 
class “just to get the English credits 
toward my college degree.” But during a 
more intimate period, she might open up 
about her dream of pursuing a career in 
journalism, and he would say it was a 
great idea. And still later, when he was 
back in abuse mode, he would be armed 
with knowledge about her inner life with 
which to hurt her, as we saw in their 

• He uses the good periods to shape his 
public image, making it harder for you to 
get people to believe that he’s abusive. 

I have not encountered any case, out of the 
roughly two thousand men I have worked with, in 
which one of an abuser’s good periods has lasted 
into the long term, unless the man has also done 

deep work on his abusive attitudes. Being kind 
and loving usually just becomes a different 
approach to control and manipulation and 
gradually blends back into more overt abuse. I 
recognize how painful or frightening it can be for 
an abused woman to accept this reality, because 
those times of kindness, and the hope that comes 
with them, can feel like all you have left to hold on 
to, given how much he has taken away from you. 
But illusions of change also keep you trapped and 
can increase your feelings of helplessness or 
disappointment when he returns to his old ways. 
Real change looks very different from a typical 
good period—so different that you could scarcely 
mistake the two, as we will see in Chapter 14. 


To answer the question “Why Does He Do That?” 
we have to examine the foundation on which 
abusive behaviors are based. On the first level are 

the abuser’s attitudes, beliefs, and habits—the 
thinking that drives his behavior day in and day 
out, which we have been looking at. On the 
second level is the learning process by which 
some boys develop into abusive men or, in other 
words, where abusive values come from, which is 
the topic of Chapter 13. 

There is also a third level, which is rarely 
mentioned in discussions of abuse but which is 
actually one of the most important dynamics: the 
benefits that an abuser gets that make his behavior 
desirable to him. In what ways is abusiveness 
rewarding? How does this destructive pattern get 

Consider the following scenario: Mom, Dad, 
and their children are having dinner on a 
Wednesday night. Dad is snappy and irritable, 
criticizing everybody during the meal, spreading 
his tension around like electricity. When he 
finishes eating, he leaves the table abruptly and 
heads out of the room. His ten-year-old daughter 

says, “Dad, where are you going? Wednesday is 
your night to wash the dishes.” Upon hearing 
these words, Dad bursts into flames, screaming, 
“You upstart little shit, don’t you dare try to tell 
me what to do! You’ll be wearing a dish on your 
face!” He grabs a plate off the table, makes like he 
is going to throw it at her, and then turns away 
and smashes it on the floor. He knocks a chair 
over with his hand and storms out of the room. 
Mom and the children are left trembling; the 
daughter bursts into tears. Dad reappears in the 
doorway and yells that she’d better shut up, so she 
chokes off her tears, which causes her to shake 
even more violently. Without touching a soul, Dad 
has sent painful shock waves through the entire 

We move ahead now to the following 
Wednesday. Dinner passes fairly normally, 
without the previous week’s tension, but Dad still 
strolls out of the kitchen when he finishes eating. 
Does a family member remind him that it’s his 

turn to wash the dishes? Of course not. It will be 
many, many months before anyone makes that 
mistake again. They quietly attend to the cleanup, 
or they squabble among themselves about who 
should do it, taking out their frustrations over 
Dad’s unfairness and volatility on each other. 
Dad’s scary behavior has created a context in 
which he won’t have to do the dishes anytime he 
doesn’t feel like it, and no one will dare take him 
to task for it. 

Any incident of abusive behavior brings the 
abuser benefits just as this one did. Over time, 
the man grows attached to his ballooning 
collection of comforts and privileges. Here are 
some of the reasons why he may appear so 
determined not to stop bullying: 

1. The intrinsic satisfaction of power and control 

The abusive man gains power through his coercive 
and intimidating behaviors—a sensation that can 
create a potent, thrilling rush. The wielder of 
power feels important and effective and finds a 

momentary relief from life’s normal distresses. It 
isn’t the woman’s pain that appeals to him; most 
abusers are not sadists. In fact, he has to go to 
some lengths to shield himself from his own 
natural tendency to empathize with her. The 
feeling that he rules is where the pleasure lies. 

Yet the heady rush of power is the bare 
beginning of what the abuser gains through his 
mistreatment of his partner. If the rewards stopped 
here, I would find it much easier than I do to 
prevail upon my clients to change. 

2. Getting his way, especially when it matters to 
him the most 

A romantic partnership involves a never-ending 
series of negotiations between two people’s 
differing needs, desires, and preferences. Many of 
the differences that have to be worked out are 
matters of tremendous importance to the 
emotional life of each partner, such as: 

• Are we spending Christmas (or whatever 

holidays are most important to a 
particular couple) with my relatives, 
whom I enjoy, or with your relatives, 
who get on my nerves and don’t seem to 
like me? 

• Are we eating dinner tonight at my 
favorite restaurant, or at a place that I’m 
tired of and where the children seem to 
get wound up and irritating? 

• Am I going to have to go alone to my 
office party, which makes me feel 
terrible, or are you going to come with 
me even though you would rather spend 
your evening doing almost anything else 
on earth? 

It is important not to underestimate the impact 
of these kinds of day-to-day decisions. Your 
happiness in a relationship depends greatly on 
your ability to get your needs heard and taken 
seriously. If these decisions are taken over by an 

abusive or controlling partner, you experience 
disappointment after disappointment, the constant 
sacrificing of your needs. He, on the other hand, 
enjoys the luxury of a relationship where he rarely 
has to compromise, gets to do the things he 
enjoys, and skips the rest. He shows off his 
generosity when the stakes are low, so that friends 
will see what a swell guy he is. 

The abuser ends up with the benefits of being in 
an intimate relationship without the sacrifices that 
normally come with the territory. That’s a pretty 
privileged lifestyle. 

3. Someone to take his problems out on 

Have you ever suffered a sharp disappointment or 
a painful loss and found yourself looking for 
someone to blame? Have you, for example, ever 
been nasty to a store clerk when you were really 
upset about your job? Most people have an 
impulse to dump bad feelings on some 
undeserving person, as a way to relieve— 
temporarily—sadness or frustration. Certain days 

you may know that you just have to keep an eye 
on yourself so as not to bite someone’s head off. 

The abusive man doesn’t bother to keep an eye 
on himself, however. In fact, he considers h im self 
entitled to use his partner as a kind of human 
garbage dump where he can litter the ordinary 
pains and frustrations that life brings us. She is 
always an available target, she is easy to blame— 
since no partner is perfect—and she can’t prevent 
him from dumping because he will get even worse 
if she tries. His excuse when he jettisons his 
distresses on to her is that his life is unusually 
painful—an unacceptable rationalization even if it 
were true, which it generally isn’t. 

4. Free labor from her; leisure and freedom for 

No abusive man does his share of the work in a 
relationship. He may take advantage of his 
partner’s hard work keeping the house, preparing 
the meals, caring for the children, and managing 
the myriad details of life. Or, if he is one of the 

few abusers who carries his weight in these areas, 
then he exploits her emotionally instead, sucking 
her dry of attention, nurturing, and support, and 
returning only a trickle. 

All this uncompensated labor from her means 
leisure for him. During the hours he spends 
talking about himself he is relieved of the work of 
listening. The long weekend days when she cares 
for the children are his opportunity to watch 
sports, go rock climbing, or write his novel. My 
clients don’t make the connection that someone 
takes care of the work; they think of it as just 
mysteriously getting done and refer to women as 
“lazy.” Yet on a deeper level the abuser seems to 
realize how hard his partner works, because he 
fights like hell not to have to share that burden. He 
is accustomed to his luxury and often talks 
exaggeratedly about his exhaustion to excuse 
staying on his rear end. 

Studies have shown that a majority of women 
feel that their male partners don’t contribute fairly 

to household responsibilities. However, a woman 
whose partner is not abusive at least has the 
option to put her foot down about her workload 
and insist that the man pick up the slack. With an 
abusive man, however, if you put your foot down 
he either ignores you or makes you pay. 

The abuser comes and goes as he pleases, meets 
or ignores his responsibilities at his whim, and 
skips anything he finds too unpleasant. In fact, 
some abusers are rarely home at all, using the 
house only as a base for periodic refueling. 

5. Being the center of attention, with priority 
given to his needs 

When a woman’s partner chronically mistreats 
her, what fills up her thoughts? Him, of course. 

She ponders how to soothe him so that he won’t 
explode, how to improve herself in his eyes, how 
she might delicately raise a touchy issue with him. 
Little space remains for her to think about her own 
life, which suits the abuser; he wants her to be 
thinking about him. The abuser reaps cooperation 

and catering to his physical, emotional, and sexual 
needs. And if the couple has children, the entire 
family strives to enhance his good moods and fix 
his bad ones, in the hope that he won’t start 
tearing pieces out of anyone. Consistently at the 
center of attention and getting his own way, the 
abuser can ensure that his emotional needs get met 
on his terms—a luxury he is loath to part with. 

6. Financial control 

Money is a leading cause of tension in modem 
relationships, at least in families with children. 
Financial choices have huge quality-of-life 
implications, including: Who gets to make the 
purchases that matter most to him or her; what 
kinds of preparations are made for the future, 
including retirement; what types of leisure 
activities and travel are engaged in; who gets to 
work; who gets to not work if he or she doesn’t 
want to; and how the children’s needs are met. To 
have your voice in these decisions taken away is a 
monumental denial of your rights and has long- 

term implications. On the flip side, the abuser who 
dominates these kinds of decisions extorts 
important benefits for himself, whether the family 
is low income or wealthy. One of the most 
common tactics I hear about, for example, is that 
the abuser manages to finagle dealings so that his 
name is on his partner’s belongings—such as her 
house or her car—along with, or instead of, her 
name. In fact, I have had clients whose abuse was 
almost entirely economically based and who 
managed to take many thousands of dollars away 
from their partners, either openly or through 
playing financial tricks. 

An abuser’s history of economic exploitation 
tends to put him in a much better financial 
position than his partner if the relationship splits 
up. This imbalance makes it harder for her to 
leave him, especially if she has to find a way to 
support her children. He may also threaten to use 
his economic advantage to hire a lawyer and 
pursue custody, one of the single most terrifying 

prospects that can face an abused woman. 

7. Ensuring that his career, education, or other 
goals are prioritized 

Closely interwoven with financial control is the 
question of whose personal goals receive priority. 
If the abuser needs to be out several evenings 
studying for a certificate that will improve his job 
advancement potential, he’s going to do it. If a 
career opportunity for him involves moving to a 
new state, he is likely to ignore the impact of his 
decision on his partner. Her own goals may also 
advance at times, but only as long as they don’t 
interfere with his. 

8. Public status ofpartner and/or father without 
the sacrifices 

With his strong people-pleasing skills and his 
lively energy when under the public gaze, the 
abusive man is often thought of as an unusually 
fun and loving partner and a sweet, committed 
dad. He soaks up the smiles and appreciation he 

receives from relatives, neighbors, and people in 
the street who are unaware of his behavior in 

9. The approval of his friends and relatives 

An abuser often chooses friends who are 
supportive of abusive attitudes. On top of that, he 
may come from an abusive family; in fact, his 
father or stepfather may have been his key role 
model for how to treat female partners. If these are 
his social surroundings, he gets strokes for 
knowing how to control his partner, for “putting 
her in her place” from time to time, and for 
ridiculing her complaints about him. His friends 
and relatives may even bond with him on the basis 
of his view of women in general as being 
irrational, vindictive, or avaricious. For this man 
to renounce abuse, he would have to give up his 
cheerleading squad as well. 

10. Double standards 

An abusive man subtly or overtly imposes a 

system in which he is exempt from the rules and 
standards that he applies to you. He may allow 
himself to have occasional affairs, “because men 
have their needs,” but if you so much as gaze at 
another man, you’re a “whore.” He may scream in 
arguments, but if you raise your voice, you’re 
“hysterical.” He may pick up one of your children 
by the ear, but if you grab your son and put him in 
time-out for punching you in the leg, you’re a 
“child abuser.” He can leave his schedule open 
and flexible while you have to account for your 
time. He can point out your faults, while setting 
himself above criticism, so that he doesn’t have to 
deal with your complaints or be confronted with 
the effects of his selfish and destructive actions. 
The abusive man has the privilege of living by a 
special set of criteria that were designed just for 

GLANCE BACK QUICKLY over this impressive 
collection of privileges. Is it any wonder that 

abusive men are reluctant to change? The benefits 
of abuse are a major social secret, rarely 
mentioned anywhere. Why? Largely because 
abusers are specialists in distracting our attention. 
They don’t want anyone to notice how well this 
system is working for them (and usually don’t 
even want to admit it to themselves). If we caught 
on, we would stop feeling sorry for them and 
instead start holding them accountable for their 
actions. As long as we see abusers as victims, or 
as out-of-control monsters, they will continue 
getting away with ruining lives. If we want 
abusers to change, we will have to require them 
to give up the luxury of exploitation. 

When you are left feeling hurt or confused after 
a confrontation with your controlling partner, ask 
yourself: What was he trying to get out of what he 
just did? What is the ultimate benefit to him? 
Thinking through these questions can help you 
clear your head and identify his tactics. 

Certainly the abusive man also loses a great 

deal through his abusiveness. He loses the 
potential for genuine intimacy in his relationship, 
for example, and his capacity for compassion and 
empathy. But these are often not things that he 
values, so he may not feel their absence. And even 
if he would like greater intimacy, that wish is 
outweighed by his attachment to the benefits of 


An abusive man can be scary. Even if he never 
raises a hand or makes a threat, his partner may 
find herself wondering what he is capable of. She 
sees how ugly he can turn, sometimes out of the 
blue. His desire to crush her emotionally is 
palpable at times. He sometimes tears into her 
verbally with a cruelty that she could never have 
imagined earlier in their relationship. When a man 
shows himself capable of viciousness, it is natural, 
and in fact wise, to wonder if he will go even 

further. Abused women ask me over and over 
again: “Do you think my partner could get 
violent? Am I overreacting? I mean, he’s not a 
batterer or something.” 

Before I take you through a list of points to 
consider in examining this issue, make a mental 
note of the following: 


So listen closely to your inner voices above all. 
When a woman tells me of her concerns about 
her partner’s potential for violence, I first 
encourage her to pay close attention to her 
feelings. If he is scaring her, she should take her 

intuitive sense seriously, even if she doesn’t 
believe his frightening behavior is intentional. 
Next, I want to learn more about what has already 

Has he ever trapped you in a room and not let 
you out? 

Has he ever raised a fist as if he were going to 
hit you? 

Has he ever thrown an object that hit you or 
nearly did? 

Has he ever held you down or grabbed you to 
restrain you? 

Has he ever shoved, poked, or grabbed you? 
Has he ever threatened to hurt you? 

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then 

we can stop wondering whether he’ll ever be 
violent; he already has been. In more than half of 
cases in which a woman tells me that her partner 
is verbally abusive, I discover that he is physically 
assaultive as well. 

It is critical to use common-sense—and legal — 
definitions of what constitute violence, not the 
abuser’s definition. An abuser minimizes his 
behavior by comparing himself to men who are 
worse than he is, whom he thinks of as “real” 
abusers. If he never threatens his partner, then to 
him threats define real abuse. If he only threatens 
but never actually hits, then real abusers are those 
who hit. Any abuser hides behind this mental 
process: If he hits her but never punches her with 
a closed fist.. .If he punches her but she has never 
had broken bones or been hospitalized.. .If he 
beats her up badly but afterward he apologizes 
and drives her to the hospital himself (as several 
clients of mine have done).. .In the abuser’s mind, 
his behavior is never truly violent. 

A related mental process reveals itself when a 
client says to me, as many do: “I’m not like one of 
those guys who comes home and beats his wife 
for no reason .” In other words, if he had adequate 
justification, then it isn’t violence. The abuser’s 
thinking tends to wend its way inside of the 
woman, too, like a tapeworm. The partners of my 
clients say things to me, such as “I really pushed 
him too far,” or “He’s never hit me; he just shoves 
me sometimes,” that almost certainly come from 
the abuser’s indoctrination. 

To steer clear of these distortions, we need to 
wrestle the definition of violence out of the hands 
of the abusers and implement a proper one of our 
own. Violence is behavior that does any of the 

• Physically hurts or frightens you, or uses 
contact with your body to control or 
intimidate you 

• Takes away your freedom of movement, 

such as by locking you in a room or 
refusing to let you out of a car 

• Causes you to believe that you will be 
physically harmed 

• Forces you to have sexual contact or 
other unwanted physical intimacy 

Drawing on the above definition, we can 
answer important questions that arise: 

Is it violence if he tells me he will “kick the crap 
out of me but he never does it? 

Yes. Threats of bodily harm are physical abuse. 
The woman ducks or cowers, she runs out of the 
room, she goes into hiding with her children. 
There are emotional effects as well, of course, as 
physical abuse is by nature psychologically 

Is it violence if he pokes me? 

Probably. Noncoercive men don’t poke their 
partners in my experience. If it frightens you, 
causes you pain, controls you, or makes you start 
wondering what he will do next time, it’s 
violence. Whether it will have these effects partly 
depends on what his history of past intimidation 
has been and on what his motives appeared to be 
in the specific incident. If he is repeatedly 
emotionally abusive, then a poke is definitely 
violent. In other words, context matters. 

The abuser will of course deny that he meant to 
intimidate his partner; he just “lost his cool” or 
“couldn’t take it anymore.” He may ridicule her 
for being so upset: “You call a poke violent ?? 
That’s abusell You’re the most hysterical, 
melodramatic person in the world!” To me, this 
bullying response makes clear that he did indeed 
have power motives. 

I slapped him in the face, and he punched me and 
gave me a black eye. He says what he did was 

self-defense. Is he right? 

No, it was revenge. My clients often report having 
hit their partners back “so that she’ll see what it’s 
like” or “to show her that she can’t do that to me.” 
That isn’t self-defense, which means using the 
minimal amount of force needed to protect oneself. 
He uses her hitting him as an opening to let his 
violence show, thereby putting her on notice about 
what might happen in the future if she isn’t 
careful. His payback is usually many times more 
injurious and intimidating than what she did to 
him, making his claims of self-defense even 
weaker; he believes that when he feels hurt by 
you, emotionally or physically, that gives him the 
right to do something far worse to you. 

He says that I’m violent, because I’ve slapped 
him or shoved him a couple of times. Is he right? 

If your actions did not harm, frighten, or control 
him, they wouldn’t fit my definition of violence. 

He labels you as violent in order to shift the focus 
to what you do wrong, which will just lock you 
more tightly in his grip. However, I do recommend 
that you not assault him again, as he might seize 
on it as an excuse to injure you seriously. Some 
women persuade themselves that they are holding 
their own by using violence too, saying, “I can 
take it, but I can also dish it out.” But over time 
you will find that you are the one being controlled, 
hurt, and frightened. Besides, hitting a partner is 
just plain wrong, except in self-defense. Use your 
own behavior as a warning sign that you can’t 
manage your abusive partner, and call an abuse 
hot line now. 




If your partner has not used any physical 
violence yet, how can you tell if he is likely to 
head in that direction? These are some of the 
rumblings that can tip you off that a violent storm 
may come some day: 

• When he is mad at you, does he react by 
throwing things, punching doors, or 
kicking the car? Does he use violent 
gestures such as gnashing teeth, ripping 
at his clothes, or swinging his arms 
around in the air to show his rage? Have 
you been frightened when he does those 

• Is he willing to take responsibility for 
those behaviors and agree to stop them, 
or does he justify them angrily? 

• Can he hear you when you say that those 
behaviors frighten you, or does he throw 
the subject back on you, saying that you 
cause his behaviors, so it’s your own 

problem if you’re scared? 

• Does he attempt to use his scary 
behaviors as bargaining chips, such as by 
saying that he won’t punch walls if you 
will stop going out with your friends? 

• Does he deny that he even engaged in the 
scary behaviors, such as claiming that a 
broken door was caused by somebody 
else or that you are making up or 
exaggerating what happened? 

• Does he ever make veiled threats, such as 
“You don’t want to see me mad,” or 
“You don’t know who you’re messing 

• Is he severely verbally abusive? 

(Research studies indicate that the best 
behavioral predictor of which men will 
become violent to their partners is their 
level of verbal abuse.) 

Although these questions can help you 
determine the degree of your partner’s tendency to 
violence, it is important to contact a program for 
abused women regardless of your answers; the 
fact that you are even considering his potential for 
violence means that something is seriously wrong. 

If your partner is hurting or scaring you, 
consider seeking legal protection. In many states, 
for example, you can seek a restraining order even 
if your partner has never hit or sexually assaulted 
you, as long as he has put you in fear. Some states 
offer a woman the option of obtaining an order 
that allows the man to continue residing in the 
home but that forbids him from behaving in 
frightening ways. 

Some approaches to assessing how dangerous 
your partner may be are covered in “Leaving an 
Abuser Safely” in Chapter 9. The advantages and 
disadvantages of taking legal steps are discussed 
in “Should I Get a Restraining Order?” in Chapter 
12 . 


I find that the fundamental thinking and behavior 
of abusive men cut across racial and ethnic lines. 
The underlying goal of these abusers, whether 
conscious or not, is to control their female 
partners. They consider themselves entitled to 
demand service and to impose punishments when 
they feel that their needs are not being met. They 
look down on their partners as inferior to them, a 
view that often extends to their outlook on women 
in general. 

At the same time, the particular shape that 
abusiveness takes can vary considerably among 
races and cultures. Abusers rely heavily on the 
forms of abuse that are most acceptable among 
men of their background. My white American 
clients, for example, tend to be extremely rigid 
about how their partners are allowed to argue or 
express anger. If the partner of one of these clients 

raises her voice, or swears, or refuses to shut up 
when told to do so, abuse is likely to follow. 
Clients from certain other cultures are more 
focused on precisely how their partners care for 
the house and prepare meals. Their social lives 
revolve around food, so they expect to be waited 
on like royalty with a warm, creative, and tasty 
dinner every night. If the man shows up two hours 
late without calling, the meal is still expected to be 
warm somehow, or else. I find that clients from 
certain countries stand out for their fanatical 
jealousy, which can lead verbally to ripping into 
their partners for speaking to a stranger on the 
street for ten minutes or for dancing one number 
with another man at a party. Abusive men from 
one region of the world commonly hit their 
children with belts, a behavior that meets with 
stem disapproval from abusers from other parts of 
the world, who in turn may horrify the first group 
by taking custody of their children away from the 

Not only abusive behaviors but also the excuses 
and justifications that accompany them are formed 
partly by an abusive man’s background. Men of 
one group may rely more on the excuse of having 
lost control of themselves, for example, whereas 
others admit that their behavior is a choice but 
justify it by saying that they have to resort to abuse 
to keep the family from spinning out of control. 

As we will see in Chapter 13, abusiveness in 
relationships is a problem that is transmitted from 
generation to generation by cultural training and 
therefore takes a unique shape within each society. 
But for the women (and often children) who are 
the targets of this cruelty, the cultural variations 
don’t necessarily change the quality of life very 
much. Abusiveness can be thought of as a recipe 
that involves a consistent set of ingredients: 
control, entitlement, disrespect, excuses, and 
justifications (including victim blaming)— 
elements that are always present, often 
accompanied by physical intimidation or violence. 

Abusive men tend to use a little more of one 
ingredient and a little less of another, substituting 
different tactics and excuses depending on their 
culture, allowing their partners certain rights and 
taking away others. But, despite the variations, the 
flavor of abuse remains pretty much the same. 
Abusers—and therefore their abused partners— 
have a tremendous amount in common across 
national and racial lines. 


I commonly run into the misconception that men 
from some national or ethnic groups behave much 
more abusively toward women than those in the 
mainstream of the United States and Canada. 
Social workers sometimes say to me, for example, 
“The family I am working with right now comes 
from one of those cultures where domestic 
violence is considered normal and acceptable.” 
The reality, however, is that cultural approval for 
partner abuse is disturbingly high in our society, 

even among the privileged and educated (see 
Chapter 13), and our domestic-violence statistics, 
while not the worst in the world, are on the high 
end. The United States is the only industrialized 
nation that has failed to ratify the UN convention 
on eliminating discrimination against women, 
which specifically refers to violence against 
women as a form of discrimination. Pointing 
fingers at other countries can be a way to ignore 
the serious problems in our own. 

In reality, abuse of women—and societal 
approval of it—is a widespread problem in the 
great majority of modem cultures. The only places 
where it has been found not to exist are among 
some tribal peoples who are highly disapproving 
of all forms of aggression and who give women 
and men equal or nearly equal power. 

Abusive men from some national backgrounds 
are very explicit and direct about their cultural or 
religious mles, which can make their attitudes 
appear to be unusually bad. A man might say, for 

example, “God ordained that the man chastise the 
woman,” or he might say threateningly to this 
partner, “Part of a wife’s job is to give the man 
sex when he wants it.” Do white American 
abusers think in these ways less than abusers of 
other cultures do? No. They do often hide their 
beliefs better and, by doing so, can create the 
impression of being more “enlightened.” But the 
directness of a cultural message is not the same 
thing as its strength. I have worked with hundreds 
of nonwhite abusers from a spectrum of cultures 
and religions, with more than twenty different 
countries of origin among them, and I can assure 
you that my white, middle-class clients feel every 
bit as justified as the others and have attitudes 
toward women that are just as superior and 
disrespectful. As a product of white Anglo-Saxon 
Protestant culture, I am familiar with its centuries- 
old tradition of hiding its abuse of women under 
pretty packaging. Unwrapped, it doesn’t look very 


Certain culturally specific rationalizations used by 
abusive men can be particularly confusing to 
women. For example, I find it fairly common for 
an abusive man of color to believe that the racial 
discrimination he has faced in his life excuses his 
mistreatment of his partner. If you complain to 
him that he is abusing you, he may accuse you of 
betraying him as a man of color, saying that you 
are siding with the white culture that has already 
tom him down so much. Because racism does 
remain a harsh reality, he may succeed in making 
you feel guilty for criticizing him or for trying to 
leave him. If your background is the same as his, 
he applies a double standard of racial solidarity; in 
his mind he isn’t betraying his racial group even 
though he is abusing a woman of color, yet he 
considers you disloyal when you complain of his 
treatment or denounce him. He’s got reality turned 
around backward: The one who is betraying 

solidarity is him. 

I have also had a few dozen clients over the 
years who belong to fundamentalist religious 
groups, usually Christian or Islamic 
fundamentalist or Orthodox Judaic. Abusive men 
from these groups tend to openly espouse a system 
in which women have next to no rights and a man 
is entitled to be the unquestioned ruler of the 
home. To make matters worse, these religious 
sects have greatly increased their political power 
around the globe over the past two decades. As a 
case in point, consider the growing influence of 
Christian fundamentalism in the United States. 
Women who live within these religious groups 
may feel especially trapped by abuse, since their 
resistance to domination is likely to be viewed as 
evil and the surrounding community may support 
or even revere the abuser. (Christian women living 
with abuse can find excellent guidance in Keeping 
the Faith by Marie Fortune. See “Resources.”) 

Some of my African-American clients claim 

that black women are too tough to abuse, and they 
may even claim to be victims of the women’s 
violence. This claim is sometimes accompanied by 
descriptions of the black family as “matriarchal” 
or “female dominated.” These exaggerations of 
cultural differences serve to cover up the fact that, 
according to the latest U.S. statistics, African- 
American woman are abused at roughly the same 
rate as white women. It is true, in my experience, 
that black women sometimes fight back more than 
white women against a physically violent abuser 
(though many white women fight back also), but 
they don’t come out any less injured, frightened, 
or controlled. 

Finally, men of some tribal cultures develop 
abusive behaviors toward women after they have 
had extensive contact with modem societies for 
the first time. Tribal women have sometimes 
reported, for example, that when television came 
to their geographic areas, domestic violence came 
with it, as their men began to leam the violent and 

male-dominant attitudes that characterize so much 
of modem culture. The tribal man thus may justify 
his abusiveness in terms of progress and moving 
into the mainstream, linking his ridicule of his 
partner to disparaging the overall tribal way of 
life, though some do the opposite, falsely claiming 
that tradition supports their oppressive behaviors. 

WHILE I HAVE FOCUSED here on cultural 
differences and similarities among abusive men, 
there is another situation in which race and culture 
are very important to abuse: when the abuser is 
white American (or Canadian) but his partner is a 
woman of color or an immigrant. The abuser in 
such a relationship tends to use racism as an 
additional tactic to insult and control his partner. 
Women of color who have white abusers can face 
considerable bias from police, courts, or child 
protective services. Some specific resources for 
abused women of color—regardless of the race of 
the abusive man—are listed in the back of this 



Although most abusers are male and most abused 
partners are female, the reasons for this lopsided 
picture are social, not biological. Women 
sometimes abuse their lesbian partners, and men 
may be abused by their gay partners. The thinking 
that drives the behavior of lesbian and gay male 
abusers largely follows the patterns we have been 
examining. While it is true that some justifications 
used by heterosexual male abusers are not 
available to the gay or lesbian abuser—such as “I 
have the right to rule over you because I’m the 
man and you’re the woman”—the same-sex 
abuser replaces these with others that can be as 
powerful. The abused lesbian or gay man therefore 
can get as badly ensnarled as the straight woman. 

First, let’s look at some of the things the same- 
sex abuser can’t do as easily (I am going to call 

the abuser “she”): 

• She won’t be able to use sex-role 
expectations that are based on cultural or 
religious rules as easily as the straight 
male abuser can. 

• She doesn’t have as many social power 
advantages as a man who is involved 
with a woman does. (The straight male 
abuser can take advantage in multiple 
ways of the fact that we still live in “a 
man’s world,” despite recent societal 

• She may not be able to use size and 
strength to intimidate as easily as most 
straight male abusers do. In fact, she may 
be smaller or appear to be less “tough” 
than her partner. 

The same-sex abuser compensates for these 
gaps in several ways. I will offer just a few 


1. She may have an even deeper conviction 
than the straight male abuser that she 
couldn’t possibly be abusive, no matter 
how cruel or even violent she gets, 
because abuse “doesn’t happen” in 
same-sex relationships. She may sound 
so sure of herself on this point that she 
is able to convince her abused partner 
that what is happening is just normal 
relationship conflict. 

2. She uses her partner’s homosexuality 
against her. When she is angry, she may 
threaten to tell her partner’s parents 
about their relationship or to call up her 
place of employment and “out” her, 
which could cause her to lose her job. If 
she is a violent abuser, she may tell her 
partner: “You think the police or the 
courts are going to help you when they 

know you’re lesbian?” The gay male 
abuser may tell his partner: “The police 
are just going to laugh at you when you 
tell them you are afraid. They’ 11 tell you 
to act like a man.” 

The lesbian or gay male who is involved 
with a violent or threatening abuser does 
genuinely face discrimination from the 
police and courts, and the abuser knows 
this. In many states, for example, an 
abused person cannot obtain a 
restraining order to keep the abuser 
away if that person is of the same sex. 

3. The same-sex abuser may get even more 
mileage out of playing the victim than 
the straight male abuser does. When a 
straight male goes around claiming that 
a woman is abusing him, he often meets 
with considerable skepticism—as well 
he should. But when we look at two 
people of the same sex, how are we to 

tell which one is abusing power? A 
quick glance won’t give us the answer. 
The result is that a same-sex abuser can 
often convince people around her, and 
sometimes even her own partner, that 
she is the one being abused. When 
lesbians or gay men go to agencies for 
help with relationship abuse, it is not 
unheard of for the abuser to say that she 
is the victim and for the victim to say 
that she is the abuser! Sometimes the 
abuser succeeds in getting support and 
sympathy for quite a while before 
service providers catch on to the fact 
that they are assisting the wrong person. 

4. The abuser can sometimes get her wider 
community to be silent about the abuse, 
because everyone is already struggling 
with the negative social image of 
homosexuality. Many lesbians and gay 
men feel, quite understandably, that 

awareness of abuse in same-sex 
relationships will be used by bigoted 
people as an excuse for further 
stereotyping and discrimination. And 
there’s really no question that bigots 
will do exactly that. But silence is not 
the answer either, since it isolates and 
abandons abused lesbians and gay men 
and allows the abusers to go 
steamrolling forward over the lives of 
their partners. 

The same-sex abuser may have had an 
extremely difficult life, and she may feel that 
anyone who labels her “abusive” is being unfair to 
her, given what she has gone through. She may 
have been banished from her family because of her 
homosexuality, barred from progressing in her 
career, or filled with secret shame during her 
adolescence. People in her social circle may have 
gone through similar trials and thus feel an instant 

sympathy for her excuses. But nonabusive 
lesbians and gay men have also endured 
oppressive experiences because of their sexuality. 
Same-sex abusers, like straight male abusers, 
seize any excuse they can to absolve themselves of 
responsibility for their actions and to elicit 

Ultimately, the thinking and actions of lesbian 
and gay male abusers are more similar to than 
different from those of other abusers. Later on, 
when we explore the social roots of abusiveness, it 
will become clear why all abusers follow more or 
less the same template. 


• For the most part, an abusive man uses 
verbally aggressive tactics in an 
argument to discredit your statements 
and silence you. In short, he wants to 

avoid having to deal seriously with your 
perspective in the conflict. 

Arguments that seem to spin out of 
control “for no reason” actually are 
usually being used by the abusive man to 
achieve certain goals, although he may 
not always be conscious of his own 
motives. His actions and statements 
make far more sense than they appear to. 

An abusive man’s good periods are an 
important and integrated aspect of his 
abuse, not something separate from it. 

Abusive men find abusiveness 
rewarding. The privileged position they 
gain is a central reason for their 
reluctance to change. 

Abusive men tend to be happy only when 
everything in the relationship is 
proceeding on their terms. This is a 
major reason for the severe mood swings 

that they so often exhibit from day to day. 

Violence is not just punches and slaps; it 
is anything that puts you in physical fear 
or that uses your body to control you. 

The styles of abusers vary by race, 
nationality, and sexual orientation. 
However, their co mm onalities far 
outweigh their differences. 

The turbulence, insecurity, and fear that 
your partner causes in daily life can make 
it hard to recognize his pattern of 
attitudes and behaviors. By taking a 
mental step back, you may begin to see 
recurring themes. 

Be cautious, and seek out assistance. 

You don’t deserve to live like this, and 
you don’t have to. Try to block his words 
out of your mind and believe in yourself. 
You can do it. 


Abusive Men and Sex 

He’s not attracted to me anymore, 
which really hurts me. 

It’s easier sometimes to just give in. 

He never hits me, but he did force me to 
have sex once. 

We both have an infection now, and he 
says it must have come from me, but I 
haven’t had any affairs, so I know it’s 

It seems like the only time we feel close 
is when we ’re making love. 

LIBBY SCOWLED, the muscles in her face and 
neck tightening, as she described an abusive 
boyfriend she had left three years earlier. “Arnaldo 
never hit me, but he seemed to get a thrill out of 
being mysterious and terrifying. One day he 
described in graphic detail how he was going to 
torture and kill my cat, because he knew how 
precious my pets are to me. Another time he was 
giving me a massage, talking in this hypnotic, 
faraway tone, and he said, ‘When I was in Green 
Beret training, I learned about a certain spot in a 
person’s neck where, if you poke them hard and 
fast, you can paralyze them permanently.’” Libby 
found out later that Arnaldo had never been in the 
military. He had told other lies, too, like the one 
about his terminally ill grandmother who was 
going to leave him thirty thousand dollars. But his 
stories had all sounded so convincing. “He got me 
to support him for a year and to lend him a lot of 
money besides. I’m out five or six thousand 
dollars because of him.” Resentment rang through 

her voice as she gained momentum. “I would be 
in such a different financial position right now if it 
hadn’t been for him. And I bought it when he 
promised to pay me back any day, always saying 
that the money was just about to arrive. What a 
con artist!” And she told me how Amaldo would 
harangue her about being too skinny, so that she 
became shameful of her body. I couldn’t tell 
which was more potent inside of her, rage or grief. 

Then, abruptly, Libby’s face softened. A hint of 
a smile formed at the comers of her mouth, and 
her eyes shined lightly as she focused on an image 
inside her mind. “But there was one thing that 
wasn’t like the rest with Amaldo. Sex. 
Lovemaking with him was great. He was so 
completely into it. He would light candles and 
build the mood for a while. It would last a long 
time. He was so intense, and passionate. There 
was this drama around it that was so transporting. 
I have never experienced anything like it before. 

Or since, really. I wish I could capture just that 

one part of the relationship. The rest was awful.” 

Libby’s story is not as unusual as you might 
think. When I interview partners of my clients, I 
always ask whether there has been any sexual 
mistreatment. It is not uncommon for me to hear 
the woman’s voice lose its tension, as Libby’s 
facial expression had, and hear her say with a 
certain lilt, “Oh, well, we’ve never had any 
problem in that area,” followed by a contented and 
slightly embarrassed chuckle. In fact, memories of 
the better aspects of their sexual relationship can 
be part of why a woman who has left an abusive 
partner feels so tempted to give him another 

But there is also the other extreme. I have had 
clients whose only interest in sex was for 
domination and degradation. For the woman, 
being in bed with this style of abuser can be a 
nightmare. He wants sex when he wants it, the 
way he likes it, and with little attention to how she 
may feel or what her needs might be. Sexual 

episodes with him may feel like sexual assaults to 
her. As the partner of one of my clients said to me, 
“I don’t even want to go into it. It’s just ugly.” 

The sexually abusive man won’t necessarily 
rape his partner in the literal sense of using 
physical force or threats of harm—though some 
do. Instead he may insult her when she declines 
his advances, call her names like “frigid” or 
“lesbian,” or snarl accusingly, “You must be 
getting it somewhere else, since you never want to 
make it with me anymore.” He may make her feel 
guilty about his sexual frustration, tell her that he 
feels like she doesn’t love him anymore, or say 
that a man must have his needs met. He may 
threaten infidelity: “Well, if you won’t have sex 
with me, I can find plenty of women who will.” 
And he may carry that threat out; many clients of 
mine have used affairs to punish their partners. 

A woman named Cynthia recounted how her 
partner coerced her by using relentlessness: “If I 
don’t want to have sex with Ernie, he just goes on 

and on, and he won’t stop until I change my mind. 
He’ll beg me, then he’ll get crude and say I’m 
fucking someone else. Then it’s nonstop insults. If 
I go to sleep, he wakes me up. Some nights I’m 
just exhausted after a while. So what do I do? 
Usually I finally give in. I can’t stand to go 
through it. It ends up being better to just get it 
over with, even though it’s awful, because then at 
least he lets me sleep.” 

When people think about forced sex, they 
picture physical assault. So when an abuser forces 
sex through pressure or manipulation or sleep 
deprivation, a woman doesn’t know what to call it 
and may blame herself. Dozens of partners of my 
clients, including Cynthia, have said: “It’s my 
own fault. I shouldn’t give in to him.” A woman 
can need some time and distance before she can 
come to realize that she was not responsibile for 
her partner’s sexual mistreatment of her, before 
she can even name what he did. An ex-partner of 
one of my clients said to me, about two years after 

she and the abuser divorced, “Looking back on it 
now, I can see that I was raped over and over 
again for more than ten years.” And she was 
realizing how destructive his actions had been to 
her soul. Studies show that women whose 
partners abuse them sexually can have some of 
the greatest emotional difficulties, including 
depression, of any abused women. 



Amaldo, the sexually amazing abuser, and Ernie, 
the sexually degrading abuser, are not as different 
as they may seem. Their underlying orientation 
toward sex is similar. One style of abusive man 
may behave in a sexually appropriate manner for 
the early period of a relationship, and then one 
night from hell he may broadside his partner with 
aggressive, degrading sex or even force her 
outright. The woman is left in shock, heartbroken 

and betrayed, feeling that her life has been turned 
upside down. A few of the women I’ve worked 
with have even told me of the anguish of being 
sexually assaulted on the night of their wedding or 
within a few days thereafter. With other abusive 
men the change may be gradual rather than 
abrupt, the early months of exciting and loving 
sexuality blending slowly into arm-twisting and 
ugliness. When we look inside the abuser’s mind, 
we often find that dazzling lovemaking and spirit- 
murdering sexual aggression can actually be two 
aspects of the same mind-set. 

Before I take you through the details and 
subtleties of how abusive men typically approach 
a range of sexual issues, I want to emphasize the 
underpinnings of the sexual mentality of many 
abusers, the foundation that often supports the rest 
of the structure. 


The abuser’s orientation toward sex is likely to 
be self-involved. Sex to him is primarily about 
meeting his needs. He may put some effort into 
creating pleasure for his partner, but probably not 
because her satisfaction, or sharing a mutual 
experience, is important to him. He is invested in 
having her reach orgasm so that he can see 
himself as a great lover. He wants to be erotic 
because he believes that his sexual prowess will 
enable him to dominate women. Of course, any 
lover gets some pride out of bringing pleasure to a 
partner. But to many abusive men, that’s the only 
reason why the woman’s satisfaction matters. 
Everything refers back to him. 

An abusive man commonly rolls all of his 
emotional needs into one tremendous bundle, 
which he expects sex to be able to carry. He tends 
to have little real heart-to-heart connection with 
his partner, since a man cannot be truly close to a 
woman he is abusing. (Although his partner may 
feel very attached to him through traumatic 

bonding, and he may feel very attached to having 
her meet his various needs, attachment and 
closeness are two different things.) So he 
compensates for the lack of genuine intimacy by 
elevating sex to the highest plane, burdening it 
with the responsibility of providing for him all the 
emotional satisfaction that he is not receiving 
elsewhere in his relationship. 


My clients commonly believe that a woman 
gives up her right to decline sex once she becomes 
seriously involved with a man. It’s her 
responsibility to have sex with him to make him 
feel loved, to meet his sexual needs, or simply 
because that’s her job. The specific point at which 
she loses her right to say no varies from abuser to 
abuser. For some, the gateway to sexual 
domination is the first time they have sex. In other 
words, she has the right to say no as long as she 

always says no, but the first time they actually 
make love, she forfeits her option to turn him 
down from that day forward. I find this 
particularly true of my younger clients. To other 
abusers, marriage is the moment when her body is 
transferred to his ownership. To still others, 
moving in together is the demarcation line. 

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. The definition of how many days 
without sex is too many differs for each abuser, 
but he watches his internal clock and expects 
access when the alarm goes off. Her decision not 
to have sex may be respected up to that moment, 
but then his entitlement tends to take over. 

In a typical abusive inversion, my clients often 
attempt to convince me that they are the sexual 
victims in their relationships. As one man said: 
“My partner uses sex to control me, that’s how 
women jerk men around. Women are the ones that 

really have the power over men because they know 
they have what we want the most, and they have 
the power to shut us out. My wife wants me to be 
her little puppy dog, begging and drooling and 
wagging my tail, that’s the only way I’ll get sex.” 
The underlying attitude comes bursting out of his 
words: He believes his wife is keeping something 
of his away from him when she doesn’t want 
intimate contact. He sees sexual rights to a woman 
as akin to mineral rights to land—and he owns 


We have been looking at the abusive attitude 
that says: “We have sex because I have power 
over you.” On the flip side of that outlook is an 
equally prevalent aspect of abusive thinking: “I 
have power over you because we have sex.” In this 
respect his sexual actions are like those of a 

tomcat marking territory. Once he has “gone all 
the way” with a woman, he feels that he owns her, 
or at least owns a piece of her. Both the kinder and 
more cruel aspects of the sexuality of abusive men 
can spring from the use of sex to establish 

One quarter or more of my clients cheat on their 
partners repeatedly. These men seem to get 
excitement from establishing their power over 
women in general, by demonstrating their ability 
to get sexual access. An abuser may get all this 
sex by creating an image of himself as a 
stupendous lover; by telling woman after woman 
that he is in love with her and that he is planning 
to leave his partner for her “as soon as I can break 
the news to her, but I just need a little time to let 
her down easy”; by using drugs or alcohol to 
impair a woman’s ability to resist, or by force and 
intimidation. This man is heavily focused on 
“scoring,” and the actual effect he has on the lives 
of these women, from broken promises to sexually 

transmitted infections, never seems to hit home for 

Sexual access to lots of different women may 
not only make him feel powerful vis-a-vis women 
but also in relation to other men. If he feels 
competitive with men, he can demonstrate his 
superiority by having more notches in his belt, 
“bagging” women like deer. He may surround 
himself with men who share his view that high 
status in the pecking order accrues to those who 
can control or exploit the most women. (See “The 
Player” in Chapter 4.) 

For those abusers who are not chronically 
unfaithful to their partners, this competition with 
men may still exist, perhaps taking the form of 
desiring to have the most beautiful or sexy partner 
and wanting other men to see how he owns and 
controls her. His partner may be flattered by his 
pride in her at first, but gradually she comes to 
feel that she is being used as a showpiece, with 
her humanity ignored. 


An abuser who exhibits any one of the sexual 
attitudes described above—or all three—has to 
distance himself from his partner’s thoughts and 
feelings in order to avoid guilty feelings about 
how he is using and wounding her sexually. One 
way he may do this is by seeing his partner as a 
sex object, as if she were a pornographic photo 
rather than a person, devoid of emotions or 
ambitions, free of any need for personal integrity 
or safety. This style of abusive man looks at his 
partner as a machine to be used for his sexual use. 
This depersonalizing of his partner can, in the 
long term, be as psychologically injurious to her 
as any of his other abusive behaviors. Partners of 
my clients sometimes tell me: 

“He just makes me feel gross. ” 

“Ifeel dirty and slimed on. ” 

“He makes me feel cheap. ” 

“The sexual stuff he does is what has really 
ruined my self-esteem. ” 

“It’s been years since I’ve had sex that really 
felt loving or voluntary. With him it seems 
more like he thinks he’s winning a war or 
something. It’s like an invasion. I hate it. ” 

Dehumanization can be a sickening, horrible 
experience for the person at whom it is directed. If 
you are involved with a sexually exploitative 
partner, you may find that sex is sometimes, or 
perhaps always, a nightmare. Exploitative, rough, 
coercive, uncaring sex is similar to physical 
violence in its effects, and can be worse in many 
ways. And part of why it feels so degrading is that 
a woman can sense the fact that in her partner’s 
mind she has ceased to exist as a human being. 

Abusive men who have these kinds of attitudes 
of sexual ownership sometimes refuse to use birth 

control or to practice safe sex. I have had 
numerous clients, for example, who have 
conceived children through sexual assaults on 
their partners. The implications of these kinds of 
sexual abuse for a woman—and for her children— 
are very serious. 


Having laid out the worst aspects of the sexual 
mind-set of many abusive men, we now can go 
back to reexamine Amaldo, the sexually exciting 
and engaging abuser. Ironically, part of why he is 
so sexually dynamic is that he is profoundly self- 
involved. He can create a vibrantly sensual 
lovemaking experience because of how engrossed 
he is in seeing himself as an awe-inspiring person. 
(This is connected to why severely self-centered 
people in general, not just abusive men, can often 
be charismatic and seductive.) When Mr. 

Amazing is lighting the candles, choosing the 

music, and using his soft, smooth voice to conjure 
the sexual mood, you may be thinking, “Wow, 
this is so amazingly deep, and here we are going 
through this together.” But in reality the abuser is 
secretly off in a world by himself, engaged more 
with his fantasy than with you. 

Mr. Amazing is enraptured for another reason: 
He finds possession enthralling. He feels like he is 
entering a magical realm where you belong to him 
totally, where he can be the ultimate master and 
you his unquestioning and contented slave. He 
craves, in short, a sexual partner with no mind or 
will of her own. 

Finally, on some level he hopes that his ability 
to transport you sexually will tie you to him, so 
that he can have power over you in other, 
nonsexual ways. And, in some relationships, the 
abuser’s belief in the power of his sexuality is self- 
fulfilling: if much of the rest of the time he acts 
cold or mean, the episodes of lovemaking can 
become the only experience you have of loving 

attention from him, and their addictive pull thus 
becomes greater. In this way he can draw you into 
being as dependent on sex as he is, although for a 
very different reason. 


Not every abusive man is pressuring or 
demanding with respect to sex. In fact, a 
substantial number of the partners of my clients 
complain of the opposite problem: The man has 
lost sexual interest almost completely, and the 
woman is feeling rejected and hungry for sex and 
affection. His drop in sexual energy can be 
propelled by several forces, including: 

• A substantial proportion of abusive men 
are sexually shallow and so are only 
attracted to women with whom they have 
not had sex or to those they have been 
with only a few times. Your partner may 

not be interested in the kind of deep 
connection needed to sustain a lively 
sexual relationship over time and instead 
is off pursuing his latest fantasy of a 
great sexual relationship. His body may 
not be cheating yet, but his mind is. 

Similarly, he may be incapable of 
sustained sexual attraction to any woman 
who doesn’t meet his exaggerated ideal. 
He may want a woman with perfect 
features and a flawless body, like the 
airbrushed models in magazines. He may 
lose interest rapidly in a real-life woman 
whose body changes over time (from 
childbearing, for example, or simply from 
age) or one who, on close examination, is 
revealed to have blemishes or 
imperfections, as any real human being 
does. He’ll never find his dream girl 
because she doesn’t exist, but he may 
pour a lot of his time and mental energy 

into the search—and into punishing you 
for not being her. 

He may be attracted primarily to sex 
involving domination, referred to by 
some researchers as the sexualization of 
subordination. As your relationship 
progresses, he may feel disappointed to 
discover that you don’t fit his fantasy of a 
concubine—submissive and servile. 
There may be ways in which you stand 
up to him, refusing to relinquish certain 
aspects of your life or thoughts to his 
control. Some abusive men unfortunately 
have difficulty in achieving sexual 
arousal once they discover that a woman 
is determined to be her own person. 

He may be punishing you for some way 
you have challenged him, or for times 
when you have not felt like having sex 
with him. It is common for abusive men 
to withhold sex as a control tactic. 

If he is indeed having an affair, his 
energy for sex at home is bound to be 
siphoned off some. The chances that he is 
carrying a dangerous infection are also 
rising. If you have any concerns that your 
partner may be cheating on you, be sure 
to insist on safer sex practices. If 
requiring him to use safe sex feels 
dangerous to you because of how he may 
react, call a hotline for help right away. 

He may be addicted to drugs or alcohol. 
Some substance abusers lose their sex 

He may be gay. A small number of my 
clients have eventually admitted to their 
partners, or to me, that they are primarily 
attracted to men. In a slightly larger but 
still small number of cases, the man 
never admits that he is gay, but the 
woman either catches him with a man or 
realizes that he spends most of his time 

at gay hangouts or with gay friends. Just 
because a man is gay doesn’t mean that 
he can’t be abusive to women. He may, 
for example, use a female partner as a 
window dressing to give him social 
respectability, diverting attention from 
his homosexuality. This is simply another 
example of how abusive men, straight or 
gay, tend to use women for selfish 

• He may ration out sex as a way to gain 
power, sensing that you will try extra 
hard to keep him happy in hopes of 
getting him interested in lovemaking. 

As I have discussed, abusive men tend to move 
between extremes, from loving and attentive to 
hateful and intimidating, from being overly 
involved in the minute details of your life to 
expressing no interest, from showing exclusive 
concern with what is good for you to being 

unboundedly selfish. The swing from electric 
sexual charge to loss of all sexual desire can 
increase his power just as the other highs and 
lows do. 


A baffling question arises over and over again 
among the female partners of my clients: “Why 
does he want to have sex right after an incident in 
which he has been horrible to me? Sex is the last 
thing on my mind at that moment.” 



Contrary to what some abusive men seem to 
believe, women do not find abuse sexy. When a 
woman’s partner calls her “bitch” or “whore,” 

mocks her, or physically intimidates her, the 
image of entwining herself intimately with him 
recedes far from her mind. How can you “make 
love” after someone has just treated you in a way 
that feels more like hatred? Abusive men do not 
grasp how ugly they appear when acting cruel. 

So why are his feelings so different? Does 
abuse turn him on? Perhaps. Some men do appear 
to find abuse arousing, probably because they 
associate sexuality with domination. But other 
reasons why he might want sex after mistreating 
you are more common, including: 

• He is seeking a quick-fix for his abusive 
behavior. He feels that if you have sex 
together, it proves that his verbal 
degradation or his violence is not that 
serious, that you aren’t hurt by what he 
did, and that everything is forgiven and 

• He wants to reassure himself that his 

abuse isn’t going to cause you to pull 
away from him emotionally or sexually. 

In fact, pursuing sex after abuse can be 
an expression of the man’s entitlement, 
as if to say, “Even if I’m mean to you, I 
should still get to have sexual access.” 

An incident of abuse leaves the abusive man 
with a bad taste in his mouth, which he wants to 
chase away quickly, and sex helps him do that. 
But the woman can’t drive her anguish off so 
easily, as it runs much too deep. Unfortunately, 
the abuser’s self-focus makes him unwilling to 
understand that difference. 



Some of my clients are the focal points of swirling 
wars among females who hate each other 
passionately. The man creates and feeds these 
battles by being sexually unfaithful, making 

promises to various women that he’s going to 
pursue a long-term relationship with each one of 
them, bad-mouthing women to each other, getting 
women pregnant, and making them feel sorry for 
him. (See “The Player” in Chapter 4.) By getting 
women to cha nn el their energy into fighting with 
each other, he escapes confrontation or 
accountability for his own actions and gets women 
to focus on meeting his needs and keeping him 
happy. Here are a couple of the approaches that 
clients of mine have used: 

Chris and Donna 

Chris makes his partner, Donna, insecure by 
frequently looking hard at other women or 
speaking flirtatiously with them and by spending a 
lot of time on phone calls for which he has odd 
explanations. He likes Donna to be aware that a 
lot of women are interested in him, so he drops 
suggestive co mm ents from time to time. He 
pretends that he feels hostile toward these women, 
whom he accuses of “trying to tear us apart 

because they want to be with me.” When Donna 
starts to hear rumors that he is sleeping around, 
and when one woman finally tells her outright that 
she has been having an affair with Chris, he tells 
Donna that these are lies designed to drive wedges 
between them. Donna spends a lot of time 
wondering whether Chris is really telling the truth 
and hating the women who are trying to take her 
man away from her. 

Sam and Nancy 

A few years into his relationship with Nancy, Sam 
has a secret affair for a couple of months with a 
woman named Zoe. He finally cuts off the affair 
and confesses to Nancy. He claims that Zoe 
seduced him and that he knew all along they 
shouldn’t have been seeing each other, but he was 
afraid of hurting her because she seemed deeply 
depressed, so he kept postponing the decision to 
end it. “Zoe kept saying that she and I are right for 
each other, but I always knew it was just a fling 
and that I belong with you. She just wouldn’t 

listen, though.” He says that what finally 
prompted him to break things off with Zoe was 
her unkind comments about Nancy, which he 
quotes to her. Nancy becomes furious at Zoe upon 
hearing about her insults. 

A year or so later, Nancy senses that Sam is 
drifting from her, including losing interest in sex. 
She snoops around a little and discovers that he is 
involved with Zoe again. She demands that Sam 
stop seeing her and he reluctantly agrees, but two 
months later he is involved with her again. “I 
don’t know how to explain it,” Sam says, 
“because I don’t have feelings for her like I have 
for you. She just has some hold over me. It’s a 
sexual thing I guess. I just can’t seem to say no.” 
Nancy comes increasingly to hate Zoe for ruining 
her relationship. 

Meanwhile, Sam uses his tortured feelings 
about being “caught between two women” as an 
excuse for mounting abuse. For example, Nancy 
co nfr onts him one day about lying to her and 

stealing her money. Sam responds by apologizing 
and explaining that he feels guilty and tom about 
his relationship with Zoe. He says that he stole the 
money to buy something for Zoe because she was 
so depressed that he was afraid she might try to 
hurt herself Years go by, and he is still putting off 
making a clear choice between the two women, so 
their mutual bitterness is deep. 

Over this period Sam’s treatment of Nancy gets 
progressively worse, including one incident in 
which he knocks a table over onto her leg. He 
doesn’t show any signs of using his abusive 
behaviors with Zoe, which makes Nancy hate her 
all the more. Zoe, meanwhile, goes around telling 
people: “Nancy treats Sam so badly; he is so hurt 
by her. He’s told me all about how mean she is to 
him, and that’s why he wants to be with me. The 
reason he has trouble divorcing her is that they go 
back a lot of years together and their families are 
friends of each other, but he’s almost ready.” 

Both of the above scenarios involve an abusive 

man who keeps getting women to focus on each 
other’s behavior rather than his. He relies partly 
on popular negative stereotypes of women, from 
which women themselves are not immune. 

Women are conditioned, for example, to see one 
another as catty, conniving, and eager to steal men 
from other women. Meanwhile he gets to remain a 
player, which is what he wants. On a couple of 
occasions, my colleagues and I have overheard 
clients in the waiting area joking and laughing 
about ways in which women fall for these 
machinations, as if their ability to get away with it 
reinforced their masculinity. 


Women can interfere with these manipulations if 
they keep the following principles in mind: 

1. An abusive man lies a lot. Don’t believe 
what he tells you about what is 
happening in his relationships with 
other women, including what those 

women have supposedly said about you. 

2. Communicate directly with other 
women as much as possible to compare 
stories about what he is saying and 
doing, so that he can’t play you off 
against each other. 

3. If a man cheats, that is 100 percent his 
own responsibility. Don’t let him 
channel your anger toward the other 
woman as if he were the helpless victim 
of a seduction. Abusive men love to 
portray themselves as unable to control 
their hormonal urges, which is 

4. Apply the principle of “no third 
chances.” When a man, especially an 
abusive one, cheats for the second time, 
that means that more affairs will follow, 
no matter what promises he may make. 

5. Many women want to have a sexually 

intense partner, which is fine; men don’t 
have to cheat to be sexy. Abusive men 
love to create the impression that their 
sexual wandering is a product of how 
passionate they are. But the reality is 
that sexual passion and faithfulness are 
entirely compatible. The reason he 
cheats is because he is a manipulator, 
not because he’s sexy. 


In pornography that is geared toward heterosexual 
men, women are portrayed as very simple. They 
are always in the mood for sex, and they never say 
no. They have no sexual needs—or needs of any 
kind—of their own; all they seem to care about is 
the man’s pleasure. They require no commitment, 
no sacrifice, and little money. When a man is 
finished with them, he turns off the video or closes 
the magazine, and they’re gone. What could be 


Most pornographic images regrettably fit well 
with the abusive mind-set. The woman is 
available and submissive. Reduced to a body, and 
usually further reduced to just her sexual organs, 
she is depersonalized. The man owns her, literally, 
because he owns the video or magazine or 
computer image. The woman is sometimes even 
depicted as being sexually excited by verbal 
abuse, roughness, violence, or even torture. 
Cartoons and jokes in pornography often insult or 
degrade women and their anatomy, or even make 
rape appear funny, feeding anti-female ways of 

For many abusive men, pornography has 
shaped their sexuality since they were teenagers or 
even younger. It has helped to form their view of 
what women are like and what they ought to be. 
When a graduate of what I call “The Pornography 
School of Sexuality” discovers, for example, that 
his partner does not find a slap in the face 

arousing, he thinks that’s evidence of something 
wrong with her sexually, not him. His mind-set is: 
The women in the magazines and videos all like 
it, so why don’t you? A large percentage of abused 
women report that they have been pressured one or 
more times to behave like the women in 
pornography, often to the point of acting out a 
specific scenario that the man finds enticing but 
that she experiences as repulsive, frightening, or 
violent. Abusers thus sometimes directly model 
their sexual interests on stories or images from 

Partners of my clients report to me on their 
efforts to set limits regarding the presence of 
pornography in the house, especially where 
children might get access to it. These women have 
good instincts. Abusive men absolutely need to be 
kept away from pornography, as it feeds the 
precise thinking that drives their abusiveness. 
Women who like to use pornography themselves 
should try to avoid doing so with an abusive 


I have received numerous reports over the years 
from women who have told me that they were 
being pressured or required by their abusive 
partners to watch pornography. This seems largely 
to be a strategy to break down the woman’s 
resistance to performing certain sexual acts the 
man wants, although the actual effect is often to 
increase her repulsion rather than to create desire. 
Pornography tends to be filled with abuse of 
women, so his drive to make her watch it can also 
come from wanting to prove to her that his 
degrading treatment is normal. 


Is all sex play that involves adopting roles of 
domination or force abusive, even if it’s 
consensual? This is a highly controversial 
question among heterosexuals as well as lesbians 

and gay men. My opinion is that the answer is no. 
The key words, however, are consensual and play. 
For example, couples who play sex games 
involving force need to have a mutually 
established signal that means “I want you to stop 
for real,” and that signal must be respected. If one 
partner gives the “stop” signal and the force 
doesn’t immediately cease, what is occurring is 
sexual assault, not lovemaking. 

Here is another critical point: The meaning of 
what happens during sexual play is determined 
by the context of the relationship. If partners are 
consistently kind to and respectful of each other in 
daily life, they can probably share kinky 
lovemaking without making either person feel 
unsafe or degraded. But in an abusive relationship 
these lines are too blurry. It’s a stretch to call any 
sexual contact fully consensual when it takes place 
in an atmosphere of abuse; the woman is always 
having to gauge whether her partner will react 
abusively if she says no to a particular sex act, so 

her choices rarely feel truly free. Many abusers get 
a thrill out of taking sex play too far, to where it 
isn’t play any more and causes genuine pain or 
fear. When the woman tells him later that she felt 
assaulted or raped, he may respond disparagingly, 
“We always play games like that. Come off it.” 
When she tries to explain why the sex felt so bad, 
he isn’t willing to listen, mostly because he knows 
it was not consensual this time, and he got a 
charge out of that. 

When you are being mistreated in a 
relationship, stay away from force scenarios 
during lovemaking, even if the times when your 
partner does stay within appropriate limits are fun. 
Other times it isn’t going to be fun at all. If you 
can say no to those games without running the 
risk of being attacked, do so. These kinds of 
games can only be played safely in a nonabusive 


The double standards that are endemic to abusers 
can stand out sharply in the sexual arena. The 
most obvious one involves outside relationships. 
The abuser who has frequent affairs is often the 
same one who interrogates his partner about her 
movements and social contacts and goes ballistic 
when he has the slightest suspicion that she is 
developing any kind of connection—sexual or 
otherwise—to another man. He may enjoy looking 
over other women from head to toe as he and his 
partner walk down the street, but if she gives so 
much as a sidelong glance at a male, he screams 
at her and calls her a “slut.” 

A popular justification for this double standard 
is that men have an inherent need to be with many 
different women, whereas women want to be 
monogamous. Over the years I have had many 
clients use such sociobiological arguments with 
me, saying that from a genetics standpoint males 
have reason to desire sex with as many different 
females as possible, while females succeed best— 

in evolutionary terms—if they choose their 
partners carefully. You might call this the “human 
beings are basically baboons” argument. In 
reality, there are plenty of examples of stable 
monogamy in nature. But these arguments are 
ultimately beside the point; there is simply no 
excuse for double standards or for any other aspect 
of abuse. (I sometimes ask my clients, when they 
attempt to lead me into this theoretical quagmire, 
“Do you cook your meat before you eat it?” When 
they answer that of course they do, I say, “Isn’t 
that awfully unnatural? I’ve never seen any other 
animal doing such a peculiar thing.” Human 
behavior can only be measured by human 

My clients somet im es pressure their partners 
with the myth that men can suffer physical pain or 
damage if they become sexually aroused and are 
not satisfied. Of course, I have never heard them 
claim that this risk applies to unsatisfied women. 

A fair number of my clients have imposed an 

additional double standard, according to which the 
woman is expected to consent to sex any time the 
man is in the mood, but she is never supposed to 
initiate sex herself. As one partner of a client said 
to me: “If I’m in the mood, I have to make sure 
not to let it show too much, because he shuts it off 
real fast if it’s coming from me.” Nothing could 
better illustrate the way in which an abuser’s 
approach to sex reflects his overall orientation 
toward power and control. He wants to run the 
couple’s sex life, and he doesn’t want her needs 
interfering with his fantasy in any way. He prefers 
the two-dimensional women in the magazines, 
who never come to him asking for anything. 


For most women (and perhaps for most 
nonabusive men as well) sex is an area of 
emotional vulnerability. An abuser’s charm during 
the better periods of a relationship can lead his 

partner to open up to him about deeply personal 
and potentially painful issues. Sexual relations 
then add an additional layer of vulnerability, as the 
abuser learns about the woman’s sexual likes and 
dislikes and about her previous sexual 
experiences. She may confide in him about some 
sexual victimization she suffered earlier in life, or 
about a period of promiscuity she went through, or 
about “hang-ups” or sexual difficulties that she 
has. The abusive man tends to make mental note 
of the highly personal knowledge he gains. At 
another phase in the relationship, when things turn 
ugly, his partner may find that her vulnerabilities 
are being thrown back on her. If she revealed to 
him earlier that she sometimes has difficulty 
reaching orgasm, he now may be throwing words 
like frigid and cold fish in her face. If she shared 
any discomfort regarding sex, he now will call her 
uptight and repressed, especially when she 
doesn’t happen to like what he likes. (To the 
abuser, sexual liberation means the freedom to do 

whatever he wants.) If she told him about 
suffering child sexual abuse or previous 
experiences of rape, he now will characterize her 
as being permanently damaged by those violations 
or use her past to discredit her current grievances: 
“That’s why you think I don’t treat you well, 
because you were abused before. It’s not me.” In 
some of my cases the abuser has even spread 
private sexual information about his partner in 
public, including her sources of shame, thereby 
humiliating her and making it difficult for her to 
continue being around other people. Other clients 
of mine have been careless or insensitive 
regarding the risk of pregnancy or of 
communicating sexually transmitted diseases, 
increasing the woman’s sense of violation. 

The shock to a woman of having her deepest 
vulnerabilities thrown back in her face by 
someone she has loved and trusted can cause a 
burning pain unlike any other. This is intimate 
psychological cruelty in one of its worst forms. 


Over the years I occasionally have had clients who 
do not punch, slap, or physically hurt their 
partners but have repeatedly forced them to have 
sex through threats, intimidation, or physical 
force, including holding the woman down. The 
partner of this style of abuser sometimes says, “He 
was never violent to me,” despite describing a 
degrading and debilitating history of coerced sex. 
But sexual assault is violence. An abuser who 
forces his partner to have any form of sexual 
relations against her will is physically battering 
her. There is a societal tendency not to recognize 
the violence present in sexual assault, which can 
make it more difficult for a woman to understand 
her own reactions and reach out for help. If you 
feel like you have been sexually violated by your 
abusive partner, trust your own perceptions and 
call an abuse or rape hotline (see “Resources”). 

Repeated studies have demonstrated that men 

who embrace certain key myths about rape are 
more likely to carry out a sexual assault. The 
misconceptions include the belief that women find 
rape arousing, that they provoke sexual assault 
with their style of dress or behavior, and that 
rapists lose control of themselves. These myths are 
easy for many abusive men to accept, because they 
are consistent with the other characteristics of an 
abusive outlook on female partners. It is not 
surprising, then, that the risk to an abused woman 
of being sexually assaulted by her partner is high. 

I also have had clients who use sexual assault to 
punish their partners, sometimes because of anger 
directly related to sex and sometimes not, 
including some who have raped their ex-partners 
for leaving them. The impact of such assaults can 
be devastating. 

SEXUALITY IS a central arena in which the 
abuser’s relationship to power is played out, 
including power over his partner’s reproductive 

process. Although he may appear to keep his 
abusiveness separate from your sex life, closer 
examination of the dynamics of his conduct may 
persuade you that he carries his core attitude 
problems right into the bedroom with him. The 
subtle undercurrent of “sexualization of 
subordination” can take some time to identify. It is 
rare, unfortunately, for any aspect of an abuser’s 
relationship with his partner to remain untouched 
by his entitlement and disrespect. 


• The abuser often believes that the 
ultimate decision-making authority 
regarding sex rests with him. He may see 
his partner as his sexual possession. 

• Sex with an abuser can be especially 
good, but it can also be a horror show. 
The two extremes actually result from 

similar attitudes in the abuser’s mind-set 
regarding sex. 

The majority of abusers sexualize power, 
including some who find violence 
sexually exciting. 

Since sexuality is an area of particular 
vulnerability for most women, an abuser 
may use any of your sensitivities against 

If you feel uncomfortable about sexual 
interactions with your partner, listen 
carefully to your inner voice regarding 
what is good for you. An abusive man 
will try to tell you that your discomfort is 
your own problem rather than a product 
of his coercive, disrespectful, or 
humiliating sexual behavior. 

Women (and men) can heal from 
injurious sexual experiences, but healing 
is not likely to happen while abuse 

continues in the present. Attaining an 
abuse-free life is thus the first step to 
sexual wellness. 


Abusive Men and Addiction 

If I could just get him to stop drinking 
and smoking pot, the abuse would stop. 

He’s completely different when he’s 
drinking—he turns mean. 

He has stopped drinking, and now he 
says that I have a problem with alcohol. 

I try really hard not to upset him, 
because when he gets mad he drinks. 

He can be a terror when he doesn’t 
have pot. He’s a lot easier to deal with 
when he’s stoned. 

THE ROLE THAT ALCOHOL, drugs, and other 
addictions play in abusiveness has been greatly 
misunderstood. A majority of abusers are not 
addicts, and even those who do abuse substances 
mistreat their partners even when they are not 
under the influence. Abusive men who succeed in 
recovering from an addiction continue to abuse 
their partners, although sometimes there is a short 
break in their worst behaviors. Physically violent 
abusers sometimes refrain from violence for a 
substantial period of time when they get sober, but 
their psychologically abusive treatment continues 
or even worsens. Addiction does not cause 
partner abuse, and recovery from addiction does 
not “cure”partner abuse. 

At the same time, a man’s addictions can 
contribute in important ways to his cruelty or 
volatility. A drunk or drugged abuser tends to 
make his partner’s life even more miserable than a 
sober one does. The trick is to separate fact from 
fiction, including the myths perpetrated by abusers 

themselves, regarding how addiction affects the 
abusive man and his partner. 



Part of how we know that partner abuse is not 
caused by substances is that many alcoholics and 
drug addicts are neither mean to nor controlling of 
their partners. Some alcoholics drink only late at 
night, or they drink away from home and return 
only to pass out. Some become passive and 
pathetic, not belligerent or domineering. A certain 
number even provide fairly responsibly for their 
families and take good care of their children, at 
least during the early years of their addiction. In 
such cases the man’s substance abuse certainly 
causes serious problems for his partner and 
children, but the atmosphere differs sharply from 
that of a home where a partner abuser lives. And 
while substance abusers can be male or female, 

abusive partners are overwhelmingly male. 


We can further uncouple addiction from partner 
abuse by observing that a clear majority of partner 
abusers do not abuse alcohol or drugs or show 
other signs of addiction. Even if we restrict our 
discussion to physically violent abusers, I still find 
addiction present less than half of the time, and 
most researchers report similar observations. 

In short, partner abuse and substance abuse are 
two separate problems. Both are rampant in the 
world today, so it is no surprise that they often 
turn up in the same person, along with dandruff, 
acne, college degrees, and various other noncausal 



No. Partner abuse has its own causes and 
dynamics that are unrelated to addiction, although 
it also shares some features. In recent years some 
counseling programs have sprung up that claim to 
address substance addiction and partner abuse at 
the same time, but they are selling false hopes. A 
doctor theoretically may be able to develop 
specialties in both brain surgery and pelvic 
reconstruction—although it would be very 
difficult, given the complexities involved—but if 
he or she claims to perform one procedure that can 
solve a problem in both areas, you shouldn’t buy 
it. The differences between abusing women and 
abusing substances are great enough that they 
have to be addressed in separate ways. 


The ways in which partner abuse resembles 
addiction include the following: 

• Escalation 

Alcoholics tend to find that they are drinking 
increasing amounts, or with increasing frequency, 
or both. This escalation is caused partly by 
tolerance, which means that the body adapts to 
the substance, so that more is required to have the 
same effect. “I can handle my alcohol” is 
essentially a short form for saying, “I have been 
drinking too much for a long time now, so it takes 
a lot to get me drunk.” (Some addicts experience 
the opposite effect, so that smaller and smaller 
amounts can intoxicate them over time.) 
Substance abuse also escalates for other reasons, 
including the addict’s increasing fear of facing 
reality the more time he or she has spent escaping 
it, and the mounting life problems that the 
addiction itself is creating, which gives the addict 
more things to need to escape from. 

Partner abuse also tends to escalate, at least for 
the first few years of a relationship. One of the 
causes of mounting abuse is that the abuser gets 
frustrated by the effects of his own abusiveness, 

which he then uses as an excuse for more abuse. 
For example, you as the partner of an abuser may 
have become increasingly depressed over time 
(because chronic mistreatment is depressing), and 
now he gets angry about the ways in which your 
decreased energy make you cater to him less 
enthusiastically. Similarly, abuse may diminish 
your drive for sex, and then he is hurt and enraged 
about your lack of desire for him. 

The concept of tolerance can also be applied to 
partner abuse, but with different implications. As 
an abusive man adapts to a certain degree of 
mistreatment of his partner, his feelings of guilt 
nag at him less and less, so he is then able to 
graduate to more serious acts. He becomes 
accustomed to a level of cruelty or aggression that 
would have been out of the question for him a few 
years earlier. In some cases the concept of 
tolerance also applies to the abused woman, when 
she becomes inured to his abusiveness and starts 
to stand up to him more. He then increases his 

abusiveness because he sees that it takes more to 
frighten or control her than it used to. This 
escalation is similar to the style of crowd control 
used by a military dictatorship, which shoots 
rubber bullets as long as they are adequate to 
disperse protestors but switches to live 
ammunition when the crowds stop running away 
from the rubber bullets. 

However, many women (and their children) 
respond to the trauma of abuse by becoming easier 
to frighten rather than harder. A recent study of 
physical batterers found, for example, that about 
one-third of the men decreased their violence over 
time, because the women had become so 
frightened that the men could control them with 
scary words and glances, making actual assaults 

• Denial, minimization, and blaming 

Addicts and partner abusers share a capacity for 
convincing themselves that they don’t have any 
problem and for hotly denying the problem to 

other people. An alcoholic may say that he drank 
“a couple of frosties” on a night when he had three 
forty-ounce beers and two shots, or insist that 
alcohol is not a problem for him because he never 
drinks liquor, although he throws back two cases 
of beer each weekend. The addict also follows the 
partner abuser’s pattern in externalizing 
responsibility. In the world of substance abuse 
treatment, the expression people, places, and 
things is used to describe the addict’s way of 
always finding someone or something to blame for 
drinking or drugging. 

• Choosing approving peers 

Substance abusers prefer to spend their time with 
other people who abuse substances or with those 
who at least accept the addiction without making 
an issue of it, and who will listen sympathetically 
to the addict’s excuses for his behavior. Partner 
abusers make similar choices regarding their 
social circle. Their male friends tend to either 
abuse their own wives or girlfriends or else make 

comments about abuse that buy into excuse 
making and victim blaming. (In research 
terminology this is called providing informational 
support for abuse. ) Their female friends may be 
mostly people who will accept their poor-me 
stories about being the victims of hysterical or 
mentally ill women. 

• Lying and manipulating 

Both partner abusers and addicts can have chronic 
problems with lying to cover up their problem, 
escape accountability, and get other people to 
clean up the messes they make. Partner abusers, 
however, use dishonesty and manipulation for the 
additional purpose of gaining power and control 
over their partners, which is a separate dynamic. 

• Lack of predictability 

Both partner abusers and substance abusers tend 
to keep their partners and children walking on 
eggshells, never knowing what is going to happen 
next. This dynamic helps to hook family members 

into hoping that he will change. 

• Defining roles for family members 

Both abusive men and addicts can set up family 
members to be cast in roles that serve the abuse 
scenario. One person may become the confronter, 
another the protector, and another the family 
scapegoat, whom the abuser uses as a place to lay 
all the blame for the problems that he himself is 
actually causing in the family. 

• High rates of returning to abuse after periods 
of apparent change 

Both groups have rampant problems with 
dropping out of treatment programs or with 
continuing to abuse even after “successful” 
completion of a program. Deep and lasting change 
comes only through an extended and painstaking 
series of steps, although the process of change for 
substance abusers is quite different from that for 
partner abusers. 



The ways in which partner abuse differs from 
addiction include the following: 

• Partner abusers don’t “hit bottom. ’’ 

Substance abuse is self-destructive. Over time, the 
addict’s life becomes increasingly unmanageable. 
He tends to have difficulty keeping jobs; his 
finances slide into disarray (partly due to the 
expense of his habit); his friendships decline. He 
may alienate himself from his relatives unless they 
are substance abusers themselves. This downward 
spiral can lead the addict to reach a nadir where 
his life is finally such a mess that he can no longer 
deny his problem. Alcoholics commonly attribute 
their entrance into recovery to such an experience 
of “hitting bottom.” 

Partner abuse, on the other hand, is not 
especially self-destructive, although it is 
profoundly destructive to others. A man can abuse 
women for twenty or thirty years and still have a 

stable job or professional career, keep his finances 
in good order, and remain popular with his friends 
and relatives. His self-esteem, his ability to sleep 
at night, his self-confidence, his physical health, 
all tend to hold just as steady as they would for a 
nonabusive man. One of the great sources of pain 
in the life of an abused woman is her sense of 
isolation and frustration because no one else 
seems to notice that anything is awry in her 
partner. Her life and her freedom may slide down 
the tubes because of what he is doing to her mind, 
but his life usually doesn’t. 

It is true that partner abusers lose intimacy 
because of their abuse, since true closeness and 
abuse are mutually exclusive. However, they 
rarely experience this as much of a loss. Either 
they find their intimacy through close emotional 
connections with friends or relatives, as many of 
my clients do, or they are people for whom 
intimacy is neither a goal nor a value (as is also 
true of many nonabusers). You can’t miss 

something that you aren’t interested in having. 

In recent years, physically assaultive abusers 
are for the first time hitting bottom in one sense: 
They are occasionally experiencing unpleasant 
legal consequences for their actions. 

Unfortunately, most court systems still treat 
domestic abusers with special leniency (see 
Chapter 12), so the bottom seems to be a long way 

• Short-term versus long-term rewards 

Substance abuse can be highly rewarding. It 
brings quick, easy pleasure and relief from 
emotional distresses. It often provides camaraderie 
through entrance to a circle of friends whose social 
life revolves around seeking and enjoying 
intoxication. However, these rewards are usually 
short-lived. Over time, substance abuse causes the 
addict emotional distresses that are as great as the 
ones he or she was attempting to escape in the 
first place. Friendships based on substance abuse 
are shallow and are prone to tensions and ruptures 

due to financial resentments, paranoia, mutual 
irresponsibility, and many other factors. An 
alcoholic tends to drink more and more, not 
because of how well it is working but because of 
how poorly. 

Partner abuse, on the other hand, can be 
rewarding to the abuser for many years, and 
potentially for a lifetime. In Chapter 6, we 
examined the multiple benefits that abusers gain 
through their behavior, none of which necessarily 
decreases over time. It is impossible to get partner 
abusers to change by trying to persuade them to 
look at the damage they are doing to their own 
lives (as I tried to do in my early years as an abuse 
counselor) because they perceive the gains as 
vastly outweighing the losses. Change in an 
abuser is primarily brought about when society 
succeeds in pressuring him into caring about the 
damage he is doing to others. 

• Societal approval for partner abuse is greater. 

Social supports for both substance abuse and 

partner abuse are regrettably high, but they are 
even stronger for the latter, as discussed in 
Chapter 13. Substance abuse receives the active 
promotion of alcohol advertising, which domestic 
abuse does not. But there is an array of writers and 
organizations that actively opposes improvements 
in legal and institutional responses to domestic 
abuse, whereas there are no parallel organized 
efforts to defend substance abuse. Television, 
movies, music videos, and other cultural outlets 
are replete with messages condoning partner 

Because of these critical distinctions between 
partner abuse and addiction, programs and books 
that have attempted to address abusiveness based 
on an addiction model have failed badly. Batterers 
Anonymous groups, for example, are notorious for 
acting as support circles for abusers’ excuses and 
justifications rather than as launching pads for 
change. Recovery programs generally address few 
or none of the central attitudes and habits that 

cause partner abuse. 




Over the years, dozens of my clients have gone 
into recovery from addiction while they were 
participating in my program, sometimes because 
of pressure from me. No significant improvement 
has occurred as a result, except in those men who 
also worked seriously on their partner abuse 
issues. During the first several months of recovery, 
a man’s harsh daily criticism and control 
sometimes soften, and any physical violence he 
was using may lessen or cease for a period, raising 

the hopes of the abused woman. She interprets this 
respite as confirmation that the addiction did 
indeed cause his abusiveness, but his behavior 
toward her gradually, or abruptly, reverts to being 
as destructive as it was while he was drinking, or 
nearly so. 

Ironically, the man’s backsliding tends to begin 
precisely as his recovery from addiction starts to 
take solid hold. The early period of recovery is all- 
consuming: The compulsion to drink is intense, so 
the alcoholic fights a daily internal battle, often 
holding on by a thread. He may be attending one 
or more substance abuse meetings per day, which 
occupy his time and maintain his focus. One result 
of this Herculean effort is that the man has little 
time, energy, or mental space to devote to 
controlling or manipulating his partner. He is 
entirely self-focused and absorbed. But when he 
starts to come out the other end of this white- 
knuckle process of early recovery, his energy and 
attention are redirected toward his partner, and his 

desire to bully her reemerges. 

It is not uncommon for abusers to actually get 
worse when they are in recovery, partly because 
they may become irritable from not drinking and 
take it out on family members. Other abusers 
become more controlling when sober than they 
were while drunk, standing guard with eyes that 
are no longer clouded by alcohol. 

Perhaps even more important is that an abuser’s 
recovery program tends itself to become a weapon 
to use against his partner. Once he stops drinking, 
for example, he may turn around and insist that 
she is alcoholic too, even if she actually drinks 
moderately. He starts to criticize her for being “in 
denial” about her own drinking, a concept he has 
learned at his meetings and about which he now 
considers himself an expert. Insulting co mm ents 
about her drinking habits and pressure on her to 
give up alcohol and join AA are likely to follow. 

The abuser also can use specific concepts from 
AA against his partner. For example, AA 

encourages participants to review their own faults 
and misdeeds and make an inventory of them and 
discourages criticizing or focusing on the 
shortcomings of others, which is known as 
“taking someone else’s inventory.” The abuser 
turns this concept against his partner, so that any 
time she attempts to complain about his abusive 
behavior and how it affects her, he says to her, 
“You should work on your own issues instead of 
taking my inventory.” Similarly, he uses the 
danger that he might drink as an excuse to control 
her. For example, when he is bothered by 
something she does, such as confront him about 
his bullying, he says, “You’re getting me stressed, 
and you know I might drink if I get under too 
much stress.” The accusation “You’re threatening 
my sobriety!” becomes a new tool that the abuser 
uses to hammer and silence his partner. Abusers 
thus develop new excuses for abuse to make up for 
the fact that they no longer can blame it on being 

The philosophy of twelve-step programs 
includes elements that could be valuable to 
abusers, but I find that my clients tend to ignore 
the principles that could help. For example, 
according to AA the alcoholic has a responsibility 
to make amends for all the damage he has done to 
other people while he was drinking. Abusers 
choose instead to take an almost opposite view, 
arguing that their partners should not raise 
grievances about past abuse, “because that was 
when I was drinking and I’m not like that 
anymore, so she should let go of the past.” They 
think of recovery from addiction as a gigantic, 
self-awarded amnesty program that should cause 
their partners’ resentments and mistrust to simply 

Abusers in recovery can be just as committed to 
blaming their behavior on alcohol as they were 
while drinking. They choose to misinterpret the 
AA philosophy to mean that they were not 
responsible for their actions while they were 

drinking—which is not what AA proposes—and 
that therefore alcohol is a full and adequate 
explanation for all the cruelty and selfishness to 
which they have subjected women. Some of my 
clients use their recovery to try to escape their 
responsibilities, saying that they can’t help with 
the children, get a job, or contribute in other ways, 
“because the program says I need to keep my 
focus on myself.” In this way recovery can feed an 
abusive man’s self-centeredness and excuse 
making. A woman who hears the abuser express 
these attitudes may find herself doubting that he is 
really changing, and her skepticism is well 
advised. Her partner may tell her, “You just have 
no faith in people” or “You don’t believe anyone 
can change” (as if putting her down were the way 
to persuade her that he is no longer abusive!), but 
her instincts are correctly telling her that he is very 
much the same. 

I have had clients who made significant 
changes from a combination of recovery from 

alcoholism and working seriously on taking 
responsibility for their abusiveness. Only then 
does an abuser’s recovery from addiction become 
a significant step. 


Alcohol does not directly make people belligerent, 
aggressive, or violent. There is evidence that 
certain chemicals can cause violent behavior— 
anabolic steroids, for example, or crack cocaine— 
but alcohol is not among them. In the human 
body, alcohol is actually a depressant, a substance 
that rarely causes aggression. Marijuana similarly 
has no biological action connected to abusiveness. 

Alcohol and other substances thus contribute to 
partner abuse in two ways: 

1. A man’s beliefs about the effects of the 
substance will largely be borne out. If he 
believes that alcohol can make him 

aggressive, it will, as research has 
shown. On the other hand, if he doesn’t 
attribute violence-causing powers to 
substances, he is unlikely to become 
aggressive even when severely 

2. Alcohol provides an abuser with an 
excuse to freely act on his desires. After 
a few drinks, he turns himself loose to 
be as insulting or intimidating as he 
feels inclined to be, knowing that the 
next day he can say, “Hey, sorry about 
last night, I was really trashed,” or even 
claim to have completely forgotten the 
incident, and his partner, his family, or 
even a judge will let him off the hook. 
(Courts tend to be especially lenient 
with abusers who blame their violence 
on a drinking problem.) And the alcohol 
is an excuse that he accepts, so he isn’t 
kept awake at night with gnawing guilt 

about having hurt his partner. 

I have had several physically violent clients 
admit that they made the decision to assault their 
partners before they had any alcohol in their 
systems. They went out, as a few of the men have 
put it, “to grease the wheels,” drinking for a 
couple of hours before coming home to start a 
vicious, scary fight. The alcohol arms the abuser 
with an excuse and helps him to overcome any 
shame or embarrassment that might hold him 
back. Beware of the man who believes that 
drugging or drinking makes him violent. If he 
thinks it will, he'll be right. 


I could count on one hand the number of clients I 
have had whose abusiveness is entirely restricted 
to times of intoxication. However, I have worked 
with dozens of men whose worst incidents are 

accompanied by alcohol use but whose controlling 
and disrespectful behaviors are a pattern even 
when they are sober. These abusers tend to fit into 
one of the following categories: 

1. The verbally abusive man who 
escalates to physical violence or 
threats only when intoxicated: When I 
ask the partner of such a man to 
describe his day-to-day behavior, she 
usually reports that he gets meaner and 
scarier when he’s drinking but that his 
name-calling, disrespect, and 
selfishness are the same, whether he is 
drunk or sober. She tends to feel that his 
physically scary behaviors would stop if 
she could get him into recovery and that 
she could manage the rest of his abusive 
behaviors. This soothing hope is a false 
one for two reasons: (a) When this style 
of abuser gets sober, he gradually 

accustoms himself to using violence 
without the assistance of alcohol, 
usually over a period of one or two 
years; and (b) even if he is among the 
small number of exceptions to this rule, 
the woman usually discovers that his 
psychological abuse can be as 
destructive to her as his violence was, 
which tosses her back into having to 
figure out what to do. 

2. T he verbal abuser who becomes even 
more cruel and degrading when 
drinking but doesn’t escalate to 
violence: He is doing the same thing 
that the physically assaultive abuser 
does: using alcohol as an excuse. If he 
gets sober, he gradually comes up with 
new excuses, including learning to use 
his recovery as an excuse, and life goes 
on more or less as before. 

3. The assaultive abuser who becomes 

even more violent when intoxicated: I 
find this style the most common among 
substance-addicted partner abusers. 

When this abuser is not intoxicated, he 
mostly retrains from his scariest forms 
of violence, like punching, kicking, 
choking, or threatening to kill her. His 
partner may say, “He is only violent 
when he drinks,” but she then goes on 
to tell me that he shoves or grabs her, 
walks toward her in menacing ways, is 
sexually rough, or uses other forms of 
physical intimidation or assault even 
when sober—behaviors that the abuser 
has succeeded in convincing her not to 
define as violence. 

If your partner’s behavior becomes much worse 
when he’s intoxicated, you may tend to focus your 
attention on trying to manage his drinking, so that 
you never fully realize how abusive he is when 

he’s sober. His substance-abuse problem can 
thereby create a huge diversion from critical 

Alcohol does not a change a person’s 
fundamental value system. People’s personalities 
when intoxicated, even though somewhat altered, 
still bear some relationship to who they are when 
sober. When you are drunk you may behave in 
ways that are silly or embarrassing; you might be 
overly familiar or tactlessly honest, or perhaps 
careless or forgetful. But do you knock over little 
old ladies for a laugh? Probably not. Do you 
sexually assault the clerk at the convenience store? 
Unlikely. People’s conduct while intoxicated 
continues to be governed by their core foundation 
of beliefs and attitudes, even though there is some 
loosening of the structure. Alcohol encourages 
people to let loose what they have simmering 
below the surface. 



One of my first abusive clients, almost fifteen 
years ago now, was a physically assaultive 
husband named Max who worked for a utility 
company. He had gone out drinking after work 
one evening, and by the time he arrived at his front 
door he was “trashed.” He told me that as soon as 
he came in the house, his wife, Lynn, began 
“nagging” him. He “saw red” and started to 
scream at her and soon was tearing into her with 
his fists. Max sheepishly recounted this event to 
me, going on to admit that he had tom off some of 
Lynn’s clothes and had “partly” tied her to a chair. 
(I’m not sure how you “partly” tie someone to a 
chair; they are either tied or they’re not.) As Max 
sat in my office, he seemed to be a likable, mild- 
mannered line worker. It was not easy to imagine 
what he must have looked like through Lynn’s 
eyes that night. 

I asked him to describe Lynn’s injuries, and he 

told me that she had black-and-blue marks and 
welts up and down both of her legs. I inquired 
about any other injuries, and he said there were 
none. I was surprised, given the brutality of the 
attack. “Lynn had no bruises on her arms, or on 
her face? Why not?” Max’s face changed shape, 
suddenly peering at me as if I must not be very 
bright, and he sputtered, “Oh, well, of course I 
wasn’t going to do anything that would show.” 

Lynn confirmed to me later that Max had 
indeed been stumbling drunk that night. But had 
his inebriation caused him to lose control? Clearly 
not. He had remained focused on his desire to 
protect his own reputation and to avoid putting 
himself at risk of arrest, and so he had restricted 
Lynn’s injuries to places where they would be 
covered by clothing the next day. He could 
scarcely be termed “out of control.” 

I could provide countless similar examples of 
the consciousness and decision making that my 
clients exhibit while drunk or on drugs. They may 

not choose their words quite as carefully, and they 
may not have perfect coordination of their 
movements, but they protect their self-interest: 
They avoid damaging their own prized belongings 
and usually don’t let their friends and relatives see 
their most overt and cruel forms of verbal or 
physical abuse or anything that they feel wouldn’t 
be adequately covered by the “I was drunk” 

When I criticize my clients about their drunken 
abusiveness, they sometimes respond: “But I was 
in a blackout.” However, a blackout is a memory 
disconnection that happens after a drunk person 
passes out, causing the person to no longer know 
what occurred upon awakening. The person was 
still conscious during the event. If you ask an 
extremely drunk but still-awake person what 
happened earlier that evening, he or she can tell 
you. Thus there is no such thing as being “in” a 
blackout; the loss of memory happens later. 

Finally, even if substances could cause people 

to “lose control,” the abusive man would still be 
responsible for his actions while intoxicated 
because he made the choice to impair himself 
with alcohol or drugs. A man’s claim that he is 
not fully responsible for his mistreatment of his 
partner because he was drunk is simply another 
manifestation of the abusive mentality. 


Oscar and Ellen 

Oscar and Ellen were dining in a restaurant. 
Tension was mounting during the meal because of 
several relationship issues, mostly related to 
Ellen’s complaints of mistreatment by Oscar. 
Oscar, on the other hand, insisted that Ellen’s 
complaints were all caused by her own 
hypersensitivity and desire to control him. Ellen 
was pinning her hopes for their relationship on 
persuading Oscar to deal with his alcohol 
problem. He had agreed at one point earlier in 

their relationship that he was indeed drinking too 
much, and he had maintained sobriety for nine 
months. His abusiveness toward her actually 
hadn’t improved during that time, but she didn’t 
see any other strategy to get him to change. 

The argument at dinner that night focused on 
his economic abuse of her. Specifically, he had 
withdrawn $4,000—virtually the entirety of their 
savings—from their joint bank account and had 
bought an old BMW “for her.” Ellen was angry 
that she hadn’t been consulted, all the more so 
because she was pregnant with their first child and 
wanted the security of having some savings. Oscar 
responded by outdoing her anger, snapping 
through clenched teeth, “You never appreciate 
anything I do for you! Nothing is ever good 
enough for you! You just bitch, bitch, bitch!” He 
immediately proceeded to order a cocktail, which 
he knew would bother her. As soon as the 
waitress brought his drink, he looked Ellen in the 
eye, downed it in three gulps, and quickly ordered 

another. He set out to make himself rapidly drunk, 
and did. Ellen was then afraid to leave the 
restaurant with him, because she had been through 
numerous occasions on which he had combined 
alcohol and rage in a volatile mix that led to raised 
fists, pounded walls, thrown objects, and threats, 
leaving her cowering and trembling. 

Among my clients, I have encountered 
numerous other ways that they have used 
substances as weapons, including: 

• Stomping out to go driving while drunk, 
because he knows it will cause her to be 
upset and worried. This type of maneuver 
is particularly powerful if the couple has 
children and the family is dependent on 
the man’s income for survival. 

• Forcing her to assist him in running or 
dealing drugs, thereby putting her at risk 
of serious legal consequences, which he 
can use to control her further. (A large 

percentage of women who are in prison 
for drug- or alcohol-related charges, or 
for minor economic crimes such as 
forging checks, are serving time for 
crimes that either directly or indirectly 
were instigated by their abusive 

During periods when he is sober or clean, 
threatening to return to alcohol or drug 
use if she does not meet his demands or 
obey his orders, or claiming that her 
challenges of him are “threatening his 

Blaming her for problems in his life that 
are really caused by his addiction. 

Pressuring and manipulating his partner 
into becoming substance-involved 
herself. He then uses her addiction to 
increase his power over her and to get 
other people to disbelieve her reports that 

he is abusive. This tactic is particularly 
co mm on when the abuser has a 
substance-abuse problem himself, since 
he doesn’t want his partner to be able to 
hold anything over him. But I have also 
had clients who kept their partners 
substance-involved while staying sober 
or using substances only moderately 

Shane and Amanda 

In one of my cases, an alcoholic woman named 
Amanda had entered sobriety several times, but 
her husband, Shane, would sabotage her progress 
each time by ridiculing her for being “dependent” 
on AA, telling her she was weak for not being 
able to stay away from alcohol on her own, 
“without a crutch.” He would also go out and buy 
beer, telling her, “I just want to have a few on 
hand in case friends come over,” but he never 
seemed to drink them. They would just sit in the 

refrigerator and in cabinets tempting her, and 
finally she would succumb. 

Amanda eventually went into a detox center and 
didn’t tell Shane where she was going, knowing 
that if she spoke with him she was likely to give in 
to the temptation to get back together with him. 
Shane left no stone unturned in his efforts to find 
out where she was and get a message to her. As of 
my last contact with the case, she had succeeded 
in staying away from him and as a result had 
regained custody of her children, which his abuse 
and her drinking had caused her to lose. 


Notice that when a man uses substances as a 
weapon, he ends up contributing to his own 
problem with substances. Thus partner abuse can 
feed the problem of addiction, and not just vice 
versa. They are two separate issues, neither of 

which causes the other but which do help to keep 
each other stuck. A man’s abusiveness 
strengthens his denial of his substance-abuse 
problem, as he can blame all of his life difficulties 
on his partner. His negative attitudes toward her 
allow him to easily dismiss concerns that she 
raises about his addiction. At the same time, the 
addiction fortifies his denial of his abusiveness, as 
he uses the substance as an excuse and as a 


I have worked with clients who have been 
addicted to gambling, cocaine, heroin, and 
prescription medications. Several have also 
claimed to be “sex addicts,” but I don’t buy this 
self-diagnosis from abusive men (for reasons that I 
covered in Chapter 4, under “The Player”). Any 
addiction can be a financial drain on a couple, 
contribute to the man’s secretiveness, and 

encourage him to use his partner as a scapegoat. 
An abuser’s addiction doesn’t cause his abuse, but 
it does make his partner’s life even more painful 
and complicated. 


An abusive man typically believes that his use or 
abuse of substances is none of his partner’s 
business. No matter how his addiction may lead 
him to abuse his partner economically (because he 
pours money into the substance and/or has trouble 
holding down a j ob) no matter how burdened she 
is with household responsibilities because he is 
out partying, no matter how much worse he may 
treat her while intoxicated, he nonetheless feels 
entitled to use substances as he chooses. If she 
criticizes him for his selfishness or confronts him 
with the effects that his partying has on her life, he 
feels justified in calling her a “nag” or a “bitch” or 
labeling her “controlling.” In short, irresponsible 

use of alcohol or drugs is another one of the 
privileges that the abusive man may award 
himself, and he may use psychological or physical 
assaults to punish his partner for challenging it. 



While substance addiction does not cause a man 
to become abusive, it does ensure that the 
abusiveness remains. I have yet to see a 
substance-abusing client make significant and 
lasting improvements in his treatment of his 
partner unless he simultaneously deals with his 
addiction. In fact, I only give an alcoholic or drug 
addict about two months to get himself into 
recovery, and if he doesn’t, I dismiss him from the 
abuser program; I don’t want to give his partner 
false hopes, nor do I want to waste my program’s 
time. Facing up to a problem with partner abuse, 
and changing it, is a profoundly complex and 

uncomfortable process that requires consistent 
commitment over a long period of time. It takes 
tremendous courage for a man to be honest with 
himself, to reevaluate his ways of thinking about 
his partner, and to accept how much emotional 
injury he has caused her. No active substance 
abuser is willing or able to take on this task. 

Thus, although recovery from addiction is not 
sufficient to bring about change in a man’s 
abusiveness, it is a necessary prerequisite. Only if 
he is willing to address both problems—and I 
have had a number of clients who have gotten 
serious about becoming both sober and respectful 
—can he stop being a source of pain and distress 
to his partner. 


Alcohol or drugs cannot make an abuser 
out of a man who is not abusive. 

Even while intoxicated, abusers continue 
to make choices about their actions based 
on their habits, attitudes, and self- 

The primary role that addiction plays in 
partner abuse is as an excuse. 

Abusiveness and addiction are two 
distinct problems requiring separate 


The Abusive Man and Breaking Up 

Friends tell me that he’s really not 
doing well since we split up. 

Fm worried about him. 

Last time I tried to leave him he scared 
me half to death. 

Sometimes it seems like he could kill 

I don’t want to take the children away 
from him; he’s their father. 

He was okay with our breakup until he 
found out I was dating somebody. 

VAN SPOKE WITH A RASPY, modulated voice 

that complemented his sadly expressive blue eyes. 
His reddish-blond hair was always wrapped in a 
bandanna which, combined with his thick neck 
and upper arms, created a biker image. But his 
language did not fit the tough-guy stereotype. He 
spoke of his pain, of the need to face up to oneself, 
of the process of denial and acceptance. He 
appeared to be his own harshest critic, referring 
frequently to his own selfishness, immaturity, and 
other “character flaws.” He stated openly that he 
was alcoholic and was attending at least one AA 
meeting per day. He had not had a drink in almost 
eight months. 

Van had, by his own description, nearly killed 
his partner Gail in a beating nine months earlier. 
He would gaze at the floor and speak slowly as he 
recalled this assault, the picture of remorse. “It 
was bad,” he would say. “Real bad. I’m lucky 
she’s alive.” He was arrested and spent that night 
in jail, before his mother and brother bailed him 
out the next day. “I drank nonstop for three weeks 

afterward, trying to blot out what I had done, and 
then I woke up one morning with bruises all over 
me from some fight I had been in, I don’t even 
know where, and I haven’t had a drink since. I 
finally accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to be 
able to run from myself forever, and I was going to 
have to deal with what I had done to Gail.” He did 
not join an abuser program until several months 
later, however, when he was required to do so by 
the court. 

For weeks, Van was my star group member. He 
would challenge other men about their denial, 
about their efforts to blame their own behavior on 
their partners, about their need to take an honest 
and painful look at themselves. I pushed him a 
few times to stop using his alcoholism as an 
excuse for abusiveness and to examine more 
seriously his history of bullying of and violence 
toward Gail. He would react to my challenges 
with momentary irritation but then would soften 
and say, “I know I still have a lot of work left to 

do.” In short, he seemed like an abusive man who 
was interested in doing the hard work involved in 
making real changes. 

Van and Gail had been separated since the 
severe beating. They were speaking from time to 
time but not sleeping together. Van said he 
thought it would be a long time before Gail would 
trust him again, and he would have to give her 

However, over a period of three or four months, 
Van began to realize that Gail was not taking a 
break from their relationship in order to rebuild 
her trust in him, as he had believed. She was 
getting herself unhooked. As it dawned on him 
that she was thinking seriously about closing the 
door permanently, he started a rapid backslide 
before my eyes. First, he surprised me one day by 
saying that Gail “should really give our 
relationship another chance.” I was stunned. 
“Why on earth should a woman stay with a 
partner who gave her a beating that nearly killed 

her? I certainly wouldn’t want to do it.” 

Van said, “The pain in our relationship wasn’t 
all hers, you know. She hurt me a lot too.” I asked 
if that somehow justified battering her. “No,” he 
answered, “I’m not justifying it. I’m just saying it 
isn’t like I was all bad and she was all good.” 

“And so that means she owes you another 
chance? How many times do you get to beat a 
woman up before she stops owing you?” To this, 
Van just muttered under his breath and lightly 
shook his head. 

At the next session I focused more time on Van, 
because separation is a time when abusers can be 
particularly destructive. Since the previous 
session, he had received the definitive word from 
Gail that their relationship was over and that she 
was going to start dating, making it particularly 
important for us to try to influence his thought 
process. He plunged quickly into a homily about 
how hard he was working on himself in contrast 
to Gail, “who is going nowhere and who isn’t 

dealing with her issues at all.” I asked how Gail’s 
progress was going to be assisted by getting back 
together with an abusive man. “Hey,” he said, 
“I’m a lot better for her than those losers she’s 
hanging around with now. Most of them are still 
drinking and acting totally immature.” 

Van’s group was alarmed by his reversion, and 
members raced to try to get him back on track, 
pointing out to him that (1) he was claiming to 
have made great changes, but his entitled 
insistence that Gail owed him loyalty was 
evidence of an abuser who wasn’t changing; (2) 
he was slipping back into minimizing how 
destructive his abusiveness and violence had been 
to Gail, to an extreme where he was convincing 
himself that he was a more constructive presence 
in her life than other people were; and(3) he was 
failing to accept the reality that a woman does not 
have to be “all good” in order to have the right to 
live free of abuse. I kept an additional thought to 
myself, which was that based on my conversation 

with her I was confident that Gail ’ s life was not 
“going nowhere” and that her primary goal at that 
point was to heal from what he had done to her. 
When he made disparaging references to “her 
issues,” he was ignoring the reality that her issues 
were 90 percent him. I remained silent on this 
point because I was concerned, given the state of 
mind he was in, that the better he understood her 
healing process, the more effectively he would 
take steps to sabotage it. 

Van was not open to his group’s feedback the 
way he had been in earlier months. His heels were 
dug in, as we could see in the digusted shaking of 
his head and the dismissive curl of his lip. The 
group had stumbled upon a core aspect of Van’s 
entitlement—as tends to happen with each client 
sooner or later—and we weren’t going to take it 
apart in a few short weeks. We hoped that we 
could reach him eventually though, for Van still 
had six months to go of the eleven the court had 
ordered him to spend in our program. 

He never gave us the chance, unfortunately. 

Less than three weeks later, overwhelmed by his 
outraged entitlement, he approached Gail in a 
restaurant in front of numerous witnesses, called 
her a “fucking bitch,” and walked off flashing her 
the finger. His verbal assault violated a restraining 
order barring him from approaching her, and since 
he was already on probation for his grave attack 
on her, he was jailed for a minimum of six 
months. Gail had little desire to see Van behind 
bars, but in this case his incarceration was a 
blessing, as it gave her an uninterrupted 
opportunity to move on with her life, which she 
did. (Later in this chapter we will look at 
strategies for getting away from a frightening 
relationship safely.) 



Breaking up with an abuser can be very hard to 

do. In fact, leaving a nonabusive partner is 
generally easier, contrary to what many people 
believe. Few abusers readily allow themselves to 
be left. When they feel a partner starting to get 
stronger, beginning to think for herself more, 
slipping out from under domination, abusers move 
to their endgame. Some of their more co mm on 
maneuvers include: 


Promising to change 

Entering therapy or an abuser program 

Not drinking, attending A A 

Making apologies 

Telling you that you will be lost without 


Telling you that no one else will want to 

be with you 

Threatening suicide 

Saying that you are abandoning him, 
making you feel guilty 

Threatening to kidnap or take custody of 

the children 

Threatening to leave you homeless or 


no financial resources 

Turning very nice 

Getting other people to pressure you into 

giving him another chance 

Taking care of things that you have been 


about for a long time (e.g., finally fixing 
a hazardous 

situation in the house, getting a job, 
agreeing that you 

can go out with your friends) 

Behaving in self-destructive ways so 
that you will worry 

or feel sorry for him (e.g., not eating, 
drinking heavily, 

skipping work, never talking to his 

Spreading rumors about you, trying to 


your friendships or reputation 

Starting a new relationship/affair to 

make you 

j ealous or angry 

Insisting that he already has changed 
Spreading confidential information 

about you to humiliate you 

Threatening or assaulting anyone you 

try to start a new 

relationship with, or anyone who is 
helping you 

Getting you pregnant 
Stalking you 

Physically or sexually assaulting you 
Trashing your house or car 
Threatening to harm you or kill you 

Each abuser uses a different mix of the above 
tactics, and some let go somewhat more easily 
than others. Strategies of control that appear 

contradictory may go hand in hand. For example, 
he may insist adamantly one day, “You should be 
able to tell that Fve changed,” and then call the 
next night to say, “If you don’t give this 
relationship another chance, you’re going to find 
out what I’m really capable of.” One day on the 
phone he may tell you that his love for you will 
never die, but when his poetic language doesn’t 
succeed in persuading you to meet him for a drink, 
he will abruptly switch to yelling: “I don’t give a 
shit about you anyhow, so just let your life 
continue down the stinking hole it’s in!” He 
doesn’t care that these pieces don’t fit together, 
because he is intently focused on a single desire: 
to get you back under his control. 

He knows he used to be able to control you with 
charm, affection, and promises. He also 
remembers how well intimidation or aggression 
worked at other times. Now both of these tools are 
losing their effectiveness, so he tries to increase 
the voltages. He may switch erratically back and 

forth between the two like a doctor who cycles a 
patient through a range of antibiotics, trying to 
find the one that will get the infection under 
control. And the analogy is an apt one, because an 
abuser sees his (ex-) partner’s growing strength 
and independence as a sickness rather than as the 
harbinger of health that it actually is. 

Promises that an abuser makes during this 
period can be persuasive, especially if they are 
combined with sincere-sounding apologies or if he 
takes some concrete initiative such as quitting 
drinking, locating a therapist, or joining an abuser 
program. However, once he succeeds in getting 
you to reunite with him, he gradually plows his 
way back into the usual ruts, dropping counseling 
because he “can’t afford it,” saying he will go 
back to “a little” drinking because he can “handle 
it,” and so forth. Before long, daily life has 
returned to its former contours. 

My clients make flip-flopping statements 
during breakups about who is responsible for the 

dissolution of the relationship, bouncing between 
blaming everything on themselves and casting all 
fault on to the woman. Making it her fault is 
closer to their real thinking; the blaming of 
themselves is largely a way to win sympathy from 
other people, including abuse counselors, who can 
get drawn in by a theatrical show of pained guilt. 
And in an ironic twist, the more he says that the 
separation is his own fault, the more friends and 
relatives are tempted to pressure the woman to 
believe that he will change. 

When one of my clients takes this meet culpa 
stance, I ask him to describe in detail how exactly 
his behavior drove his partner away. Eight times 
out of ten the man can give me only two or three 
examples, or none. In other words, he doesn’t 
really believe that he is abusive, and my request 
for extensive specifics smokes him out. If he does 
manage to list a few things he did wrong, they 
often are far afield from the core of his 
destructiveness, as in comments like “I should 

have made her a higher priority; we didn’t do 
things together enough,” or they are actually 
backhanded remarks to get more digs in against 
her, such as, “I used to walk away from her 
because of the insane rages she goes into, but I 
should have realized that my leaving just made her 
feel even worse.” 

The volatile, abusive, and sometimes dangerous 
reactions that abusers can have when relationships 
draw to a close have often been considered, 
especially by psychologists, to be evidence of the 
man’s “fear of abandonment.” But women have 
fears of abandonment that are just as great as 
men’s, yet they rarely stalk or kill their partners 
after a breakup. Not only that, but many abusers 
are vicious to their ex-partners even when they do 
not desire a reunion or when they initiated the 
breakup themselves. The clue to how an abuser 
handles separation lies in the same thinking that 
has been causing his controlling and abusive 
behavior throughout the relationship and that has 

driven his partner away from him. 


Van’s internal process, and the destructive 
behavior it led him to, captures the essence of how 
an abusive man perceives the ending of a 
relationship. Let’s look at the central elements of 
his outlook: 


Van was unwilling to accept that his brutal 
mistreatment of Gail was adequate reason for her 
to leave him. Why? First, he believed that the pain 
Gail sometimes caused him during their 
relationship outweighed his abuse of her. If Van 
can convince himself that he has an even balance 
sheet, despite his severe physical assault, imagine 
how easily a purely psychological abuser can do 
so (even though the reality is that emotional abuse 

can do just as much damage). 

Second, Van believed that it was unreasonable 
to expect a man to be nonabusive unless his 
partner never hurt his feelings or failed to cater to 
him. He felt that we were being unfair and 
unrealistic about a man’s inherent nature, as if we 
were asking a tiger to be vegetarian. Without 
saying so directly, he revealed his attitude that a 
woman needs to accept the fact that a certain 
amount of abuse just comes with the territory of 
being involved with a man, unless she can be 



No matter how many times in the past Van had 
broken his promises to change, he still believed 
that this time Gail should see that he really meant 
it and should give him another chance. There was 

no limit in his mind to how many “other chances” 
he should get; he felt entitled to an endless series. 

To make matters worse, Van felt that Gail was 
supposed to accept his rose-colored vision of the 
future even though he was simultaneously blaring 
loud warning signals that he hadn’t changed. My 
clients demand forgiveness while continuing to 
insult, threaten, demand immediate responses, 
attend only to their own needs, and more. 
According to his mind-set, she should believe that 
his abuse has stopped when he says it has 
stopped, regardless of what she sees in front of her 
own eyes. 


The abuser feels entitled to end a relationship 
any time he feels like it, but he assigns no such 
privilege to his partner. Around breakup time, my 

clients grouse bitterly to me along the lines of: 

“Nowadays, people just throw relationships in 
the trash as soon as it gets difficult. There’s no 
commitment anymore to sticking it out and 
making it work. ” 

“I guess our marriage vows didn ’t mean 
anything to her. ” 

“She says she cares so much about our 
children, but it’s no big deal to her if they have 
a broken home. ” 

“She’s prepared to just throw away everything 
we had because she’s found some other guy. ” 

No woman in any of my cases has ever left a 
man the first time he behaved abusively (not that 
doing so would be wrong). By the time she moves 
to end her relationship, she has usually lived with 
years of verbal abuse and control and has 

requested uncountable numbers of times that her 
partner stop cutting her down or frightening her. 

In most cases she has also requested that he stop 
drinking, or go to counseling, or talk to a 
clergyperson, or take some other step to get help. 
She has usually left him a few times, or at least 
started to leave, and then gotten back together 
with him. Don’t any of these actions on her part 
count as demonstrating her commitment? Has she 
ever done enough, and gained the right to protect 
herself? In the abuser’s mind, the answer is no. 

Once again, the abuser’s double standards rule 
the day. He doesn’t consider his chronic verbal 
abuse, or even violence, to constitute a failure to 
“love and cherish,” but her decision to move away 
for safety does. His affairs automatically deserve 
forgiveness, whereas any affairs she may have he 
considers proof of her low moral character and 
lack of caring. And his exposure of the children to 
his degrading and bullying of their mother doesn’t 
keep him from awarding himself the title of 

Children’s Protector, the one who wants to give 
them a “stable family life” while their “selfish” 
mother tries to split them apart. 


In the abusive man’s self-serving value system, 
the woman may be responsible for his needs and 
feelings even after she declares that she isn’t his 
partner anymore. So if he loses his job, or his new 
fling doesn’t work out, or his mother gets ill, he 
still feels entitled to have her take care of him 
emotionally. In particular, he tends to make her 
endlessly responsible for his hurt feelings from 
their relationship or from their breakup. 



I repeatedly run into the following scenario: A 
new client in the abuse program is describing his 

most serious incident of abuse, as all participants 
are required to do, and he excuses his actions by 
saying, “It happened because I found out she was 
cheating on me.” When I contact the woman, 
however, I find out that, although he may be right 
about her seeing another man, she and my client 
were broken up at the time. In other words, in the 
abuser’s mind any relationship that she has is “an 
affair” if it happens during a period when he still 
wishes they were back together, because he feels 
entitled to determine when she can be free to see 
other people. 


The abuser’s dehumanizing view of his partner 
as a personal possession can grow even uglier as a 
relationship draws to a close. I sometimes find it 
extraordinarily difficult to get a client to remember 
at this point that his partner is a human being with 
rights and feelings rather than an offending object 

to destroy. At worst, his efforts to reestablish his 
ownership may include following her and 
monitoring her movements, scaring people who 
try to assist her, threatening men she is interested 
in dating, kidnapping the children, and physically 
attacking her or people close to her. For abused 
women separation is a time of particularly high 
risk of homicide or attempted homicide, which can 
sometimes involve murderous assaults on her new 
boyfriend, her children, or on other people she 
cares about. 

Numerous studies have found that mistreatment 
of women by abusers tends to continue for a 
substantial period after separation and commonly 
escalates to levels worse than those when the 
couple was together. Particularly common in 
postseparation is rape or other forms of sexual 
assault, which conveys a powerful message of 
ownership: “You continue to be mine, and I retain 
my rights to your body until I decide otherwise. ” 

If you are concerned that your partner may be 

capable of extreme violence—even if he has not 
been violent in the past—take careful safety 
precautions (see “Leaving an Abuser Safely,” 
page 225). 


One of the great tragedies of all forms of abuse is 
that the abused person can become emotionally 
dependent on the perpetrator through a process 
called traumatic bonding. The assaults that an 
abuser makes on the woman’s self-opinion, his 
undermining of her progress in life, the wedges he 
drives between her and other people, the 
psychological effects left on her when he turns 
scary—all can combine to cause her to need him 
more and more. This is a bitter psychological 
irony. Child abuse works in the same way; in fact, 
children can become more strongly attached to 
abusive parents than to nonabusive ones. 

Survivors of hostage-taking situations or of torture 

can exhibit similar effects, attempting to protect 
their tormentors from legal consequences, 
insisting that the hostage takers actually had their 
best interests at heart or even describing them as 
kind and caring individuals—a phenomenon 
known as the Stockholm syndrome. I saw these 
dynamics illustrated by a young boy who got a 
shock from touching an electric fence and was so 
frightened by it that he grabbed on to the fence for 
security—and wouldn’t let go as each successive 
shock increased his panic, until his sister was able 
to reach him and pull him off. 

Almost no abuser is mean or frightening all the 
time. At least occasionally he is loving, gentle, 
and humorous and perhaps even capable of 
compassion and empathy. This intermittent, and 
usually unpredictable, kindness is critical to 
forming traumatic attachments. When a person, 
male or female, has suffered harsh, painful 
treatment over an extended period of time, he or 
she naturally feels a flood of love and gratitude 

toward anyone who brings relief, like the surge of 
affection one might feel for the hand that offers a 
glass of water on a scorching day. But in 
situations of abuse, the rescuer and the tormentor 
are the very same person. When a man stops 
screaming at his partner and calling her a “useless 
piece of shit,” and instead offers to take her on a 
vacation, the typical emotional response is to feel 
grateful to him. When he keeps her awake 
badgering her for sex in the middle of the night 
and then finally quiets down and allows her to get 
some of the sleep that she so desperately craves, 
she feels a soothing peace from the relief of being 
left alone. 

Your abusive partner’s cycles of moving in and 
out of periods of cruelty can cause you to feel very 
close to him during those times when he is finally 
kind and loving. You can end up feeling that the 
nightmare of his abusiveness is an experience the 
two of you have shared and are escaping from 
together, a dangerous illusion that trauma can 

cause. I commonly hear an abused woman say 
about her partner, “He really knows me,” or “No 
one understands me the way he does.” This may 
be true, but the reason he seems to understand you 
well is that he has studied ways to manipulate 
your emotions and control your reactions. At times 
he may seem to grasp how badly he has hurt you, 
which can make you feel close to him, but it’s 
another illusion; if he could really be empathic 
about the pain he has caused, he would stop 
abusing you for good. 

Society has tended to label a woman 
“masochistic” or “joining with him in his 
sickness” for feeling grateful or attached to an 
abusive man. But, in fact, studies have shown that 
there is little gender difference in the traumatic 
bonding process and that males become as 
attached to their captors as women do. 

The trauma of chronic abuse can also make a 
woman develop fears of being alone at night, 
anxiety about her competence to manage her life 

on her own, and feelings of isolation from other 
people, especially if the abuser has driven her 
apart from her friends or family. All of these 
effects of abuse can make it much more difficult to 
separate from an abusive partner than from a 
nonabusive one. The pull to reunify can therefore 
be great. Researchers have found that most abused 
women leave the abuser multiple times before 
finally being able to stay away for good. This 
prolonged process is largely due to the abuser’s 
ongoing coercion and manipulation but also is 
caused by the trauma bonds he has engendered in 
his partner. 

One exercise that can help you address this trap 
involves making a list of all the ways, including 
emotional ones, in which you feel dependent on 
your partner, then making another list of big or 
small steps you might take to begin to become 
more independent. These lists can guide you in 
focusing your energy in the directions you need to 



Have you ever attempted to take a brief period of 
separation from your partner? Perhaps you had 
been considering getting out of your relationship 
but were afraid of your partner’s reaction, so you 
asked for “a little time apart” instead of breaking 
up outright. Or maybe you weren’t sure what you 
wanted to do and just craved some time away to 
consider where to go from here without having to 
deal daily with his bullying, criticism, and 
watching over you. You may have attempted to 
reassure him that the relationship wasn’t ending, 
that you still wanted to “work on getting back 
together,” but that you just needed a break. You 
probably requested that the two of you stay in 
separate places for a period of a few weeks or 
months and that you see each other little or not at 
all. You may have made other specific requests, 
such as not to speak at all, even by telephone, so 

that you could get a complete break. You may 
have asked for an agreement that you could each 
see other people during this period, or specifically 
requested the opposite. The great majority of the 
abused women I work with try at some point to 
get time out of the pressure cooker. 

My clients, however, rarely honor their 
partners’ requests. At the beginning the man 
presents himself as supporting the plan, saying, “I 
agree with her that we need some time apart to 
just let everything cool off, and then talk it over 
with level heads.” But he doesn’t think so for 
long. He soon starts cutting around the edges of 
the agreement. If she asked that he not call for a 
while, he sends a card. Then he calls on some 
pretext, perhaps a bill that has to be paid or an 
invitation for her from his sister, and throws in 
offhandedly, “So, how are you?” to try to get a 
conversation started. He may keep showing up “by 
coincidence” at places where she happens to be. 

He keeps chipping away at her resolve as much as 

he can, until she cracks and sees him. Once they 
are face-to-face, he pours on the sweetness and 
charm, reminiscent of his romantic persona in the 
early, glory days of the relationship, and sees if he 
can cajole or manipulate her into bed; he may 
sense that once they’ve had sex, she ll be hooked 
in again, a strategy that I have often seen my 
clients succeed with. One way or another, the 
woman never seems to end up getting the 
decompression time that she knew was 
indispensable to her well-being. 

Why doesn’t he allow the break to happen? On 
a conscious level he may simply miss her, but 
down deep he has other interests. He experiences 
the separation as a declaration by his partner that 
she is capable of surviving without him, that she 
is the best judge of what is good for her, that her 
needs shouldn’t always take a backseat to his, that 
her will has force. These messages represent a 
powerful summary of everything that he does not 
want in his relationship, and he feels driven to 

move quickly to prove them false. 

The abuser is afraid of what his partner may 
discover if she succeeds in getting a respite from 
his control. She may see how good it feels to live 
without put-downs and pressure. She may notice 
that there are other people in the world, both 
women and men, who respect her and treat her 
well, and may even observe that some of her 
female friends are treated as equals by their 
partners. She may start to think her own thoughts, 
without him there to monitor her reflections and 
channel them toward the views he wants her to 
have. Above all, she might discover how much 
better off she is without him. In short, he doesn’t 
tolerate the break because on some level he senses 
that it is too healthy and healing for the woman. 
He wants her to hear his voice and see his face, 
because he believes he can destroy her resolve. 

Does he think carefully through these concerns? 
Probably not entirely. He reacts largely on 
automatic, based on ruts in his thinking and 

behavior that have been deepening for years. And 
yet, I also keep observing how much more aware 
my clients are of their own strategies than you 
might expect; when they are upset with me, as 
they so often are, they often forget to keep their 
masks on, and they blurt out their honest thoughts 
and plans. 


What if your partner is the one who breaks off the 
relationship, or what if he’s in complete 
agreement that you two don’t belong together? 
The good news is that, if you don’t have children 
with him, he may stay largely out of your hair. 
Perhaps he is interested in another woman or just 
wants to return to pursuing his fantasy of the 
dream girl who does everything for him and never 
challenges him. Or maybe something else 
altogether is occupying his mind. 

I regret to say that even then peace is not an 
entirely sure thing (although I have not often heard 
of physical assaults by an abuser postseparation if 
he accepts the breakup, except in cases of ongoing 
conflicts over the children). Even the abusive man 
who is ready to be single again may still crave 
retaliation for all the ways he feels you hurt him, 
which in his distorted perceptual system may 
include all the times you defended yourself, 
questioned the superiority of his knowledge and 
judgment, or refused to simply be a carbon copy of 
him. So he may spread distorted stories about the 
history of your relationship or tell outright lies to 
try to turn people against you. Since he has to see 
himself as the more powerful one, he may declare 
that he broke things off while you “begged” him 
for another chance and that you “promised to 
change.” These kinds of aftershocks of abusive 
behavior can be painful. 

An abuser who accepts the end of the 
relationship, or even desires it, may nonetheless 

continue to try to settle old scores with you 
through the children, a matter we explore further 
in Chapter 10. 

There are cases, of course, where the woman 
genuinely wants to continue the relationship and 
the abuser does not. My clients sometimes leave a 
woman to punish her. Women in this position can 
experience the abuser’s departure as one final slap 
in the face following a long line of previous ones 
—figuratively or literally—that leaves her feeling 
even more humiliated and unlovable. Therefore it 
does not help an abused woman when people say 
to her: “What are you upset about? You’re lucky 
to be rid of him.” Anyone who wants to support 
an abused woman’s recovery and empowerment 
needs to have room for both her sadness and her 
outrage about being left and to understand that his 
exit was just one more way she was walked on. 

Abusers who take off often leave other damage 
in their wake besides the emotional or physical 
injuries to the woman. Debts, destroyed 

belongings, pregnancy, or traumatized children 
may be dumped in her lap. Communities that 
want to support abused women need to recognize 
that the abuser can create difficulties that endure 
long beyond his departure. 


Attempting to determine the level of risk that a 
particular abuser will become physically violent is 
a complex and imprecise process. If you are 
concerned that your partner may react 
destructively or violently to being left, listen 
carefully to your intuitions even if he has not been 
violent, or not extremely so, in the past. A recent 
study found that women’s own predictions 
regarding future violence by their abusive partners 
were far more accurate than assessments based on 
any other factor. 

Separation can be an especially risky time. I 
was close to a case recently in which a woman left 

a psychological abuser who became increasingly 
threatening and scary over the months after she 
left him, to the point where she went as far as 
making arrangements with relatives regarding 
who should care for her two children in the event 
of her death. And although he had never hit her 
during their relationship, he tragically did in fact 
kill her, hiding a block away from the courthouse 
to ambush her as she was leaving a hearing where 
she had obtained a restraining order against him, 
after which he committed suicide. (As a result of a 
brief speech I gave about this homicide death, I 
have come to know her heartbroken parents 


The danger signs below can be useful whether or 
not you are currently thinking of leaving your 
partner. Some combination of these elements has 
been found to be present frequently—though not 
always—in cases where abusers have committed 

the most seriously violent acts. Pay attention to 
your own inner voice as you consider these 



• He is extremely jealous and 

• His violent behavior and threats 
have been escalating. 

• He follows you, monitors your 
whereabouts, or stalks you in 
other ways. 

• You are taking steps to end the 
relationship or have already 
done so. 

• He was violent toward you 
during one or more of your 

He has been sexually violent 
toward you. 

He has threatened to kill you or 
hurt you badly, has choked you, 
or has threatened you with a 

He has access to weapons and is 
familiar with their use. 

He seems obsessed with you. 

He is depressed, suicidal, or 
shows signs of not caring what 
happens to him. 

He isn’t close to anyone. 

He has a significant criminal 

He uses or threatens violence 
against other people. 

He abuses substances heavily. 

He has been abusive to children. 

• His past violence toward you, or 
toward other partners, has been 
frequent or severe. 

• He has killed or abused pets, or 
has used other terror tactics. 

• He uses pornography. 

• He exhibited extreme behaviors 
when you made previous 
attempts to leave. 

• He is familiar with your 
routines, the addresses of your 
friends and relatives, the 
location of your workplace, or 
other personal information he 
can use to locate you. 

There is, regrettably, no science to using these 
indicators. It would be misleading for me to say, 
for example, “Three to five ‘yes’ answers reflect 
moderate danger, six and up mean ‘severe 

danger,”’ or offer a similar interpretation, because 
the reality is not that simple. Some guides to 
assessing the risk of violence from abusers have 
created such “low-, moderate-, and high-risk” 
categories and by so doing can encourage women 
to underestimate the danger they are in by causing 
them to ignore their intuition. A small number of 
abusers who kill or severely injure their partners 
do so with few or none of the above elements 
known to be present, which is all the more reason 
to rely ultimately on your own “gut” feelings of 
how dangerous he is. 


The fact that you are even wondering how far your 
partner’s abuse might go suggests to me that you 
have already seen aspects of him that are 
disquietingly mysterious or frightening. I urge you 
to seek assistance from a program for abused 
women (see “Resources”) and to create a strategic 
safety plan with an abuse specialist through that 
program. Safety plans can involve two different 

sets of steps, one for increasing your safety while 
living with your partner and another for if and 
when you decide to leave him. Bear in mind that 
the process of leaving an abusive man can be 
risky, so if you are preparing for a breakup put 
some extra thought into the kinds of precautions 
that you can take. Specialists who work with 
abused women report that those women who 
succeed in leaving and staying away almost 
always have a plan before they go. 

A safety plan while you are living with your 
abusive partner can include the following 
elements, among many others: 

• Plan different escape routes from your 
house in case your partner becomes 
violent, and plan where you would go if 
you needed to stay away overnight. 

• Hide spare car keys and important 
documents (birth certificates, health 
cards, bank cards) in places where they 

are safe and where you could grab them 
and leave quickly. 

Try to get out of dangerous places during 
arguments, such as leaving the kitchen 
where there are knives and other sharp 
objects the abuser could use to assault 

Obtain a private post office box or some 
other address you can use to receive 
confidential mail. 

Set code words with friends or relatives 
and with your children that indicate an 
emergency, and plan how they are to 
respond if you say the code word in 
person or over the telephone. 

Open a secret bank account so that you 
will have access to funds should you 
need to flee. 

Keep a working phone in a room with a 
door that locks so that you will be able to 

call for help in an emergency. 

• Carry a cell phone. 

• Obtain a firearm permit so that you can 
carry pepper spray. 

• Stay away from drugs or alcohol yourself 
to make sure that your judgment is never 
impaired, and seek substance-abuse 
treatment for yourself if necessary. 

• Call the abused women’s hotline if you 
are afraid, and call the police if the 
danger is immediate. 

After you leave your abusive partner, there are 
additional items you can add to your safety plan, 
few of which include: 

• Change the locks on your home. 

• Inform neighbors of the danger and give 
them descriptions or photographs of the 
abuser and his car. 

Inform people at your workplace of the 
potential danger to you. 

Tell your children not to talk to the 
abuser and to seek assistance 
immediately if they see him. 

Advise the local police department of the 
risk to you, including any past threats or 
violence by your ex-partner, and ask 
what special services or protections 
might be available. 

Inform the children’s schoolteachers and 
administrators of the risk, and provide 
them with a photograph of the abuser and 
other information, including a copy of 
your restraining order if you have one. 

Teach your children how to dial 911 from 
home and cell phones. 

Vary the routes that you and your 
children travel. 

If you plan to involve the court, such as 

by seeking a restraining order, contact a 
court advocate if one is available, and 
develop an additional safety plan with 
the advocate that specifically addresses 
how you can most safely use the court 
process. If you do obtain a restraining 
order, keep a copy on your person at all 
times and leave additional copies in your 
home, vehicles, and workplace. 

These are selected examples of plans you can 
make, ideally with the assistance of an abuse 
specialist, to increase your safety and protect your 
children. You can call an abuse hotline and 
develop a safety plan without even providing your 
name or telephone number, ensuring your 
complete privacy. If you can go to the abused 
women’s program and meet with an advocate 
face-to-face, all the better. I also strongly 
recommend the books When Love Goes Wrong 
and It’s My Life Now, both listed in the 

“Resources” section, for any woman who is 
struggling to get safe from a frightening partner. 

If you are afraid of your abusive partner it is 
important to make a safety plan even if you do not 
plan to leave him at this point. If he has 
demonstrated that he has a capacity for violence, 
or you suspect that he does, there is every reason 
to start planning now for how you will keep 
yourself and your children safe should a dangerous 
situation arise in the future. 

Some psychologically abused women feel 
confident that their partners would never escalate 
to violence or threats. However, my experience is 
that most abusive men—though not all—do 
become physically frightening sooner or later, 
even if they never follow through with using 
violence. It makes sense for every abused woman 
to spend some time considering how she will 
respond if the unexpected happens. 

If you are prepared to leave your relationship, 
safety planning becomes even more important. If 

you are afraid of your partner, don’t tell him that 
you are breaking up with him until you have a 
clear plan and feel that you can inform him in a 
safe way. Then break all contact with him. Staying 
out of touch with an abusive ex-partner can be 
very difficult. The more afraid you are of him, the 
more tempted you may feel to check up on how he 
is doing, because in the past your safety may have 
depended on your constant awareness of his 
moods and readiness to respond to them. But 
making contact with him can be very dangerous as 
he may sound friendly and say that he just wants 
to see you for one final talk or to say good-bye, 
and then use that opportunity to attack you 
physically or sexually. I have been aware of a few 
cases where the man made an innocent-sounding 
excuse to get together “just once” and then 
murdered the woman for having left him. It is 
natural to have the hope of staying friends with an 
ex-partner, but this is rarely possible with an 
abusive man and is absolutely impossible with 

one who is physically dangerous to you. And if he 
doesn’t choose to hurt you, he may lure you into 
becoming reinvolved with him instead. 


Ending a relationship with an abusive man can be 
considerably more complicated for a woman with 
children, especially if the abuser is the children’s 
legal father (biological or adoptive). The risk that 
the abuser will try to harm the children, turn them 
against you, or attempt to win custody of them 
through the legal system requires an additional 
strategic planning process. These issues are 
examined in detail in the next chapter. 

If you do decide to flee abruptly, take your 
children with you if you possibly can and take 
their birth certificates, social security cards, and 
passports. Some women are in so much danger 
that they are forced to leave their children behind, 
but the abuser then may go to court for custody, 

saying that she “abandoned” them. 


• When a breakup happens against an 
abuser’s will, he may define his ex¬ 
partner’s decision as a provocative 
declaration of independence and may go 
to war to prove that she belongs to him. 

• Leaving an abuser is hard to do, but with 
time and planning you can succeed. 

• Asa relationship dissolves, and for a 
long while thereafter, an abused woman 
should be especially alert to her own 
safety and take steps to protect herself. 

• After breaking up with an abusive man, 
wait at least a few months before 
becoming involved with a new partner. 
Taking time to heal emotionally from the 
abuse you have endured can be critical to 
helping you choose a nonabusive partner 

next time. 

• Read It’s My Life Now (see 

• Your life belongs to no one but you. 


The Abusive Man in the World 


Abusive Men as Parents 

He’s terrible to me, but he’s a really 
good father. 

He took no interest in the children until 
I left him, and then right away he filed 
for custody. 

My children are freaked out and don’t 
want to go on visitation with him, but 
the court won’t listen to me. 

I couldn ’t manage without him, because 
the children don’t listen to me. 

excitement is high in the Turner family. Randy, 

who is eleven, and his big sister, Alex, thirteen, 
are getting ready to go with their parents to a big 
birthday bash for their twin cousins. Their mother, 
Helen, is helping them get their presents wrapped 
and choose what to wear, and periodically 
intervening to sort out quarrels between the two of 
them, which seem to erupt every few minutes. 
Tom, the father, is in the garage trying to fix 
Randy’s dirt bike and is covered with grease. 
Helen’s anxiety is mounting as the hour gets later, 
because Tom is doing nothing about getting ready 
to leave and keeps saying, “Get off my fucking 
back, I already told you I’d be ready on time. I 
can’t drop this in the middle.” Tensions between 
Randy and Alex are also escalating, and Randy 
finally jumps on Alex and starts punching her. 
Helen hears Alex screaming, goes running in to 
pull Randy off her, and in the process gets 
punched twice by Alex herself. Randy yells at her, 
“You always side with Alex, you bitch,” and goes 
into his room and slams the door. Alex is crying 

hard and says to her mother, “You have to do 
something about him; I can’t take it anymore. I 
swear, if he hits me one more time I’m going to 
kill him. He’s out of control!” 

Helen stays with Alex for a few minutes, then 
starts to put things into the car. The time to leave 
has passed. Tom finally comes in from the garage 
and starts to scrub his hands in a leisurely fashion. 
He then starts to look at the newspaper, and Helen 
snaps at him, “What are you doing ? We need to 
go.” Tom cuts her with a glare that makes her 
heart stop and says, “I was just seeing what time 
the game is on tonight. But since you mention it, 
maybe I should check out what else might be 
interesting.” Then, with a cold sneer on his face, 
he takes the newspaper to the couch, puts up his 
feet, and begins to peruse the pages in earnest. 
Helen storms furiously upstairs. Ten minutes later 
Tom is still sitting on the couch. Helen calls to 
him, “We’re already going to be nearly a half hour 
late; the children are afraid of missing the games.” 

Tom’s lips form an icy smile, and he answers, 
“I guess you should have thought of that before 
deciding to give me a ration of your shit.” 

Helen yells, “Oh, you asshole!” 

At this point Randy emerges from his room and 
starts down the stairs. “I see you’re hysterical, as 
usual,” he tosses flippantly at his mother as he 
goes. When he gets downstairs, he sees that his 
father is nowhere near ready to go, and he looks at 
the clock. He considers saying something but 
thinks better of it; he recognizes the signs of his 
father’s anger, even when they are not outwardly 
obvious, and he doesn’t want to make himself the 
target. So he goes back upstairs, tells Alex what is 
happening, and they both go looking for Helen, 
who is sitting crying on her bed. 

Alex says urgently, “Come on, Mom, let’s just 
go without Dad. The party’s already started, we’re 
missing it.” Helen shakes her head no. Alex 
pleads, “Why not? Why can’t we just go?” 

Helen responds simply, “We’re not going 

without him,” not wanting to explain to the 
children how their father would make her pay if 
they did. 

Randy then says, “Please go and apologize to 
him, Mom. You know that’s all he’s looking for, 
and then he’ll get up and we can go.” 

Helen’s tears stop, and her voice gets a hard 
edge. “I didn’t do anything to him, Randy. Why 
don’t you go ask him to apologize to mel What 
did / do?” 

Randy’s voice turns condescending, as if his 
mother is being stupid. “Right, Mom. When has 
Dad ever apologized for anything? Don’t be 
ridiculous. I guess we can forget going to the party 
—that’s basically what you’re saying.” 

Then their father calls from downstairs, “Come 
on, let’s get going.” He has quietly put away his 
paper and cleaned himself up. Randy and Alex 
brighten and run off to grab their things. Helen 
can barely lift herself to her feet, feeling 
psychologically assaulted from all sides. She looks 

ashen for an hour or more afterward. 

When they are almost out the door, Tom sees 
for the first time Alex’s outfit, which he considers 
too sexy, and he barks at her, “You go right back 
upstairs, young lady, and put on something 
decent. You aren’t going to the party looking like 
a prostitute.” 

Alex is on the verge of tears again, because she 
had been excited about what she was going to 
wear. “But Mom and I picked my clothes out 
together,” she protests, a helpless whine in her 
voice. “She said I looked fine.” 

Tom glares at Helen, and his voice lays down 
the law: “If you aren’t changed in two minutes, 
we’re leaving and you’re staying here!” Alex runs 
crying upstairs to throw on a different outfit. 

In the car on the way to the party, Tom snaps 
out of his grumpiness, joking with the children. 
His humor includes cutting references to Helen’s 
emotional outbursts and overanxiety, which are 
cleverly funny in their viciousness. The children 

can’t help laughing, although Alex feels resentful 
toward both parents and guilty toward her mother 
even as she giggles. Helen is silent. 

At the party, Tom acts as if nothing is wrong. 
Helen makes an excuse about being sick, since it 
is obvious to people that she is not herself. Tom is 
entertaining to both the adults and the children at 
the party, to the extent of giving each child a twirl 
around in the yard. Helen can see the impression 
that Tom makes on people and feels that it would 
be futile to attempt to describe to anyone what 
transpired before the party. 

There are a few unfamiliar people at the party, 
to whom Tom introduces Alex as his “girlfriend,” 
which he considers a charming joke. At one point 
he co mm ents to some relatives on Alex’s 
appearance, saying, “She’s developing into quite 
an attractive young lady, isn’t she?” Alex is 
nearby and feels humiliated. Tom sees her 
discomfort and says, “What, can’t you take a 
compliment?” and there is laughter all around. He 

then gives her a hug, kisses her on the head, and 
tells his amused audience, “She’s a great kid.” 
Alex forces a smile. 

When they get home from the party and the 
children are upstairs, Helen mentions to Tom that 
Randy hit Alex again that afternoon and that this 
time he hurt her. Tom responds, “Helen, welcome 
to the world. Siblings fight, okay? Or maybe you 
haven’t heard, maybe that hasn’t been on Oprah 
yet. Alex is two years older than Randy, and she’s 
bigger. She loves to really play up being hurt, 
because she knows Mo mm y will come running 
and feel sorry for her, and it will be Big Bad 
Randy who’s to blame, while Alex is all 
innocence. You’re so naive.” 

Helen smarts from the series of barbs but forces 
herself to answer calmly, “I think we should talk 
to the school psychologist about it and get some 

Tom rises rapidly to his feet, instantly 
transformed as if he had just caught fire. He takes 

two steps toward Helen, pointing his finger and 
yelling, causing her heart to race. “You get those 
people in our business and you’ll be sorry! You 
have no fucking idea what you are doing. You 
should use some damned judgment, you stupid 
idiot!” He stomps out to the garage, turns on the 
light, and goes back to work on Randy’s bike, 
listening to the game on the radio. He does not 
come back in until after Helen has fallen asleep. 
LIFE WITH AN ABUSER in the home can be as 
stressful and confusing for the children as it is for 
their mother. They watch the arguments; they feel 
the tension. When they hear screaming and name¬ 
calling, they worry about their parents’ feelings. 
They have visions of the family splitting up; if the 
abuser is their father or a father figure, the 
prospect of separation is a dreaded one. If the 
abuser is physically scary, sometimes punching 
walls, knocking over chairs, or striking their 
mother, then a sharper kind of fear grips the 
children and may preoccupy them even during the 

calm periods in the home. Following incidents of 
abuse they may be wracked with guilt, feeling that 
they either caused their mother to be abused or 
should have found some way to have prevented it. 

Witnessing incidents of abuse is just the 
beginning of what the children endure, however. 
Abuse sends out shock waves that touch every 
aspect of family functioning. Hostility creeps into 
mothers ’ relationships with their children, and 
siblings find themselves pitted against one other. 
Factions form and shift. Children’s feelings about 
each parent can swing to extremes, from times of 
hating the abuser to periods of idealizing him and 
blaming the mother for the fighting. Mothers 
struggle to keep their relationships with their 
children strong in the face of the wedges driven in 
by the abuser, and siblings find ways to support 
one another and offer protection. These wild cross¬ 
currents make family life turbulent. 

(For simplicity, I refer in this chapter to the 
abuser as the children’s “father,” but most of the 

themes I describe can apply equally to a stepfather 
or to a mother’s live-in partner.) 




Although I have worked with some clients who 
draw sharp lines around their mistreatment of 
their partners, so that their children neither see the 
abusive dynamics nor get pulled into them, most 
abusers exhibit aspects of their abusive mentality 
in their role as parents. There are various reasons 
why a man’s abusiveness tends to affect his 
parenting choices, including the following: 

1. Each important decision that parents 

make has an impact on everyone in the 
family. Consider, for example, the 
decision that many parents grapple with 
concerning whether a six-year-old is 
ready to start first grade or should wait a 
year. Delaying a year may mean another 
year during which the mother can’t 
work many hours outside the home, 
which affects the family finances. The 
child may have to be up and out early to 
catch the bus, which affects how much 
sleep the parents get. A younger sibling 
may suddenly not have the first-grader 
at home as a playmate anymore and so 
may be moody and demanding of 
attention during the day. How is an 
abuser likely to respond to this complex 
picture? He is likely to continue his 
usual tendency to consider his own 
judgment superior to his partner’s and 
to be selfishly focused on how any 

changes will affect him, rather than on 
what works best for the family as a 
whole. Just because there are children 
involved, is his entire approach to 
decision making going to suddenly 
change? Not likely. 

2. At the core of the abusive mind-set is 
the man’s view of his partner as a 
personal possession. And if he sees her 
as his fiefdom, how likely is he to also 
see the children as being subject to his 
ultimate reign? Quite. If he is the 
children’s legal father, he sees them as 
extensions of himself; otherwise he 
tends to see them as extensions of her. 
Either way, his mentality of ownership 
is likely to shape his parental actions. 

3. It is next to impossible for the abuser to 
keep his treatment of the mother a 
complete secret from the children the 
way he does with other people, because 

they are almost always around. So he 
chooses instead to hook them into the 
patterns and dynamics of the abuse, 
manipulating their perceptions and 
trying to win their loyalty. 

4. Children are a tempting weapon for an 
abuser to use against the mother. 
Nothing inflicts more pain on a caring 
parent, male or female, than hurting one 
of his or her children or causing damage 
to the parent-child relationship. Many 
abusers sense that they can gain more 
power by using the children against 
their partners than by any method other 
than the most overtly terrorizing assaults 
or threats. To their destructive mind-set, 
the children are just too tempting a tool 
of abuse to pass up. 


I return now to the Turners, whom we met at the 
opening of this chapter, to look piece by piece at 
the dynamics that are being played out. The 
central elements of the abusive mind-set act as our 


From observing Tom’s behavior, we learn one 
of his unspoken rules: 







Tom is not about to abandon his system of rules 
and punishments—which are fundamental to an 
abusive behavior pattern—just because the 
children are bearing the brunt of it. In fact, he is 
somewhat pleased that the punishment falls 
largely on them, because he knows that makes 

Helen feel even worse. 

We also see Tom control Alex directly, ruling 
dictatorially over her clothing and overruling 
Helen’s decision, thereby undermining her 
parental authority. He also seizes power over a 
process to which he has contributed nothing; if he 
wanted the right to have a say in what the children 
wore, he should have involved himself in the work 
of getting the family ready to go. The abuser does 
not believe, however, that his level of authority 
over the children should be in any way connected 
to his actual level of effort or sacrifice on their 
behalf, or to how much knowledge he actually has 
about who they are or what is going on in their 
lives. He considers it his right to make the 
ultimate determination of what is good for them 
even if he doesn’t attend to their needs or even if 
he only contributes to those aspects of child care 
that he enj oys or that make him look like a great 
dad in public. 

Like Tom, abusers tend to be authoritarian 

parents. They may not be involved that much of 
the time, but when they do step in, it’s their way 
or the highway. My clients defend authoritarian 
parenting even though a large collection of 
psychological studies demonstrates that it’s 
destructive: Children do best when parents are 
neither overly strict nor overly permissive, 
providing firm structure but also allowing for 
dialogue, respectful conflict, and compromise. 

The abuser’s coerciveness thus comes into his 
treatment of the children and his behavior 
regarding the children, including his bullying of 
decisions in which the mother should have an 
equal voice. 


Tom doesn’t accept that a couple’s choice to have 
children requires major lifestyle changes and 
sacrifices. He’ll work on Randy’s dirt bike 
because he enjoys it, but whatever else needs to be 
done for the children is not his problem. Yet at the 
party he goes to great lengths to present himself as 

Mr. Dad, because he likes the image and status of 

The selfishness and self-centeredness that his 
entitlement produces cause role reversal in his 
relationships with his children, in that he 
considers it their responsibility to meet his needs. 
Tom behaves flirtatiously with his teenage 
daughter at the birthday party, introducing her as 
his “girlfriend,” commenting obliquely on her 
sexual development and kissing her in the midst 
of her embarrassment. The discomfort he causes 
Alex is obvious, but he can’t be bothered to pay 
attention to that fact. He meets his own needs 
through the fantasy of having an attractive young 
partner while simultaneously taking pride as a 
parent in her attractiveness. 

Children of abusers often find their father’s 
attention and approval hard to come by. This 
scarcity has the effect of increasing his value in 
their eyes, as any attention from him feels special 
and exciting. Ironically, their mother can come to 

seem less important to them because they know 
they can count on her. 

The abuser’s entitled attitude that he should be 
above criticism makes it hard for his partner to 
intervene with him on her children’s behalf. When 
Helen tries to get Tom to hurry up for the 
children’s sake, he considers her efforts “a ration 
of shit” and punishes them all by deliberately 
taking even longer. Alex and Randy don’t realize 
the price that their mother pays, and that they 
themselves pay, when she tries to stand up for 
them against him, so they wind up feeling that she 
doesn’t care. 


Tom makes the children late for their party but 
then tells Helen it’s her own fault. He also says 
that her overly sympathetic responses to Alex are 
the reason why the children’s fights become a big 
deal. It never enters his mind that Randy’s 
behavior toward females might be related to what 

he himself has modeled. Everything that goes 
wrong in the family is someone else’s fault, 
usually Helen’s. 

Children who are exposed to the abuse of their 
mother often have trouble paying attention in 
school, get along poorly with their peers, or act out 
aggressively. In fact, they have been found to 
exhibit virtually every symptom that appears in 
children who are being abused directly. The 
abuser attributes all of these effects to the 
mother’s poor parenting or to inherent weaknesses 
in the children. 

When a family affected by partner abuse splits 
up, some children discover how much more 
pleasant life is without their father in the home 
and may choose to distance themselves from him. 
This can be a sign of emotional health and 
recovery. The abuser then often claims, 
predictably, that the mother is turning the children 
against him; in his mind, what else could it be? 


As the Turner family drives off toward the party, 
Tom abruptly shifts into good humor, joking with 
the children and inducing them to bond with him 
against their mother. It is hard to stay angry at him 
when he is being playful. The children are 
ashamed of laughing at their mother—consciously 
for Alex, less so for Randy—but they are also 
drawn into an alliance with their father. 

In certain ways children actually have an easier 
time living with an abusive parent who is mean all 
the time—at least then they know what they are 
dealing with and who is at fault. But the typical 
abuser is constantly changing faces, leaving his 
children confused and ambivalent and increasing 
the likelihood that they will identify with him in 
hopes of staying on his good side. 

One critical category of manipulation involves 
the various tactics an abusive man may use to 
keep children from revealing to outsiders that their 
mother is being abused. Your partner may reward 
the children for maintaining secrecy or may make 

them feel that they would bring shame on the 
family, including themselves, if anyone were to 
find out. In some cases the man uses more overt 
pressure, including threats to enforce secret¬ 
keeping. Children who do disclose the abuse 
going on at home sometimes suffer emotional or 
physical retaliation by the abuser. (Some children 
are also pressured by their mother not to tell, 
because she is afraid of what her partner will do to 
her or to them if word leaks out.) It is important to 
take steps to relieve any burden of secrecy that 
your children may be carrying, as I discuss at the 
end of this chapter. 


Tom openly ridicules Helen for being concerned 
with Randy’s assaultiveness toward Alex. Her 
parenting is thus one of the things about which he 
abuses her. Children growing up in this 
atmosphere can gradually come to look down on 
their mother as a parent, having absorbed the 
abuser’s messages that she is immature, irrational, 

illogical, and incompetent. Even those children 
who take their mother’s side in most conflicts, as 
many daughters and some sons of abused women 
do, nonetheless can come to see her as inferior to 
other people and to themselves. Randy’s behavior 
reveals this dynamic when he remarks 
condescendingly to his mother: “I see you’re 
hysterical as usual.” He has learned to see his 
mother through Tom’s eyes. 


Tom treats Alex like an object that belongs to him. 
When he makes her change before the party, we 
might think, “He doesn’t want his daughter to get 
sexualized at such a young age, which is good.” 
But what we discover at the party is that he 
doesn’t object to her sexualization, he just wants 
to be in control of it, and he wants it oriented 
toward his gratification. His demand that she not 
show off her body is not based on the viewpoint of 
a responsible parent but rather is more like the 
attitude of a jealous boyfriend. 

Not all abusers perceive their children as owned 
objects, but many do. A man who already 
considers his partner a possession can find it easy 
to see his children the same way. But children are 
not things, and parents who see their children in 
an objectified way are likely to cause 
psychological harm because they don’t perceive 
children as having rights. 


It is confusing for children to see people 
responding to their abusive father as if he were a 
charming and entertaining person. What are Alex 
and Randy to make of how popular Tom is at the 
party? They are left to assume that his behavior at 
home is normal, which in turn means that they, 
and their mother, must be at fault. 


Multiple studies have demonstrated that men who 
abuse their partners are far more likely than other 

men to abuse children. The extent of the risk to 
children from a particular abuser largely depends 
on the nature of his pattern of mistreatment toward 
their mother, although other factors such as his 
own childhood also can play an important role. 

The increased risks include the following. 


The abuser who is most likely to hit children is the 
one who is quite physically assaultive or 
threatening toward the mother. A battering partner 
is seven times more likely than a nonbattering 
man to physically abuse children, and the risk 
increases with the frequency of his violence 
toward the mother. However, there are also some 
abusers who hit the children but not the mother. 
The man in this category tends to be: (a) a 
particularly harsh and authoritarian parent, (b) a 
controlling and dictatorial partner, and, (c) a man 
who was physically abused by his own parents 
while he was growing up. 


Incest perpetrators are similar to partner abusers 
in both their mentality and their tactics. They tend 
to be highly entitled, self-centered, and 
manipulative men who use children to meet their 
own emotional needs. Like Tom, they are often 
controlling toward their daughters (or sons) and 
view them as owned objects and tend to use 
seduction and sweetness to lure their victims in. In 
fact, Tom exhibits many of the warning signs of a 
sexually abusive father, including his apparent 
j ealousy toward Alex and his penchant for giving 
a romantic and sexual tone to his interactions with 

As in cases of physical abuse of children, 
multiple research studies have found that men 
who abuse their partners perpetrate incest at a 
much higher rate than do nonabusive men. These 
studies suggest that the incest perpetrator is not 
necessarily severely violent to the mother, but 
some degree of assault on her is common. The 

mentality and tactics of the incest perpetrator are 
very similar to those of the partner abuser, 
including self-centeredness and demands that his 
needs be catered to, manipulation, cultivation of a 
charming public persona, requiring the victim to 
keep the abuse secret, and others. Although the 
percentage of outright sexual abuse appears to be 
fairly low, even among abusive men, partners of 
my clients frequently raise concerns about subtler 
kinds of boundary violations and other sexually 
inappropriate behaviors along the lines of those 
exhibited by Tom at the party. A man who 
perceives his child as an owned object, as Tom 
did, is likely to disregard her rights to privacy or to 
integrity in her own body. 

Boys are at some risk of being violated by 
abusive men as well, although most incest 
perpetrators choose to offend against a girl if one 
is available. Boys appear to be at particular risk 
when they are very young, while the vulnerability 
of girls remains steady and may even increase 

during adolescence. 


Partners of my clients frequently share their 
distress with me over the mental cruelty the abuser 
visits upon the children. Name-calling, belittling, 
attacking their self-confidence, humiliating them 
in front of other people, shaming boys with regard 
to their masculinity, and insulting—or 
inappropriately complimenting—girls on the basis 
of their physical development and appearance are 
all co mm on parenting behaviors among the 
abusive men in my groups. They tend to hurt their 
children’s feelings further by failing to show up 
for important events, not following through on 
promises to take them on outings, or by showing 
no interest. Watching their children get rej ected by 
their fathers in these ways is a source of pain for 
many of the abused women I speak with. 


What are Randy and Alex learning from Tom’s 
treatment of Helen and from the messages he 
gives them about her? Parents ’ statements and 
behaviors are probably the single greatest 
influence on the development of children’s values 
and on how they perceive other people and 
themselves—at least as powerful as their parents’ 
words (which sometimes convey opposite 
messages). Children exposed to partner abuse 
learn the following lessons from the dynamics 
they are caught in the middle of: 



Tom makes it clear to his children that Helen 
brings abuse upon herself by being too emotional, 
by questioning his decisions, or by being overly 
angry. Randy (and perhaps Alex as well) is likely 
to exhibit problems in how he treats other people, 
because he has been taught how to blame others, 

especially females, for his actions. Alex may 
believe that other people, especially males, have 
the right to mistreat her and that it is her own fault 
if they do. 


Tom’s behavior communicates to his children 
that having power over other people is a desirable 
goal. The possibility that sharing, equality, 
cooperation, and mutual respect can lead to a 
fulfilling life may be beyond their conceptual 
reach. When the sons of abusers reach 
adolescence, for example, they commonly begin 
manipulating girls into relationships that are 
sexually or emotionally exploitative. They may 
lack empathy for their victims, having been 
conditioned by their fathers to shut themselves off 
to caring about the feelings of females. 


Unless they can find strong counter-examples 
among their friends or relatives, Alex and Randy 
run the risk of internalizing a rigid, abuse-prone 
view of what men and women inherently are. 
Children’s parents are their first and most 
important source of sex-role definition and 



Tom is teaching his children—whether 
intentionally or not—to perceive women in the 
same degrading light that he casts on Helen. He 
reinforces these messages by treating Alex 
disrespectfully in public. Daughters of abusive 
men often have profound self-esteem problems. 
Why wouldn’t they? Look at what the abuser is 

teaching them about how valuable and worthy of 
respect females are. Sons of abusive men in turn 
tend to be disparaging of and superior to girls and 
women, especially when the boys become old 
enough to begin dating. 


Alex and Randy are led to regard their mother 
as the brawn of the family operation and their 
father as the brains. They associate Helen with 
routine and structure, whereas they connect Tom 
with times that are special and exciting. Despite 
how grumpy he often is, Dad still comes out 
seeming like the fun parent; they notice how 
entertaining he is at the party, for example, while 
their mother is sullen and withdrawn. 



Children who grow up exposed to an abusive 
man’s behavior learn that abuse is the price people 
pay if they want to receive love. This training can 
make it harder for children to recognize when they 
are being mistreated and to stand up for 

As an abuser passes on his thinking to the next 
generation, he, in effect recruits his sons to the 
ranks of abusive men. He does not literally want 
his son to mistreat women—he doesn’t believe he 
does so himself, after all—but he wants his son to 
think as he thinks, including adopting his same 
excuses and justifications, so the outcome is the 
same. And to a lesser extent he also recruits his 
daughters to join the ranks of abused women. 




Tom’s behavior drives wedges between the 
members of his family that expand over time. 
Many of the divisions he has sown are already 
bearing their poisonous fruit. How is he affecting 
Helen’s relationships with her children? And how 
is he shaping—and distorting—how they view 


It isn’t hard for Alex and Randy to figure out 
where primary parental authority is vested in their 
family, because they see that Helen’s decisions 
can be overruled. Children who detect such an 
imbalance learn to play one parent against the 
other and try to curry favor with the one who has 

the ultimate say. They also learn to defy the 
authority of the abused parent. Some abusive men 
further undermine the mother’s authority by 
speaking badly about the mother to the children, 
characterizing her as crazy, alcoholic, or uncaring. 

Even when a man does not directly undercut the 
mother’s parenting as Tom does, his abuse 
undermines her authority by its very nature. 
Children who see or hear their father belittle their 
mother, silence her, walk away and ignore her, or 
physically intimidate her, learn that such 
behaviors toward her are both acceptable and 
effective. Most children of abused women are 
aware that their father does these things—even if 
the parents don’t think they know—and they 
experiment with imitating his behaviors to see if it 
will help them get their way. 

Children may also hope to win their father’s 
approval by joining him in the abuse of their 
mother. This effort succeeds in some cases, but 
other abusers lay down the law quickly to 

establish that the privilege of disrespecting Mom 
belongs only to Dad. In this case the children may 
repress what they are learning until Mom and Dad 
split up; then, with the abuser out of the house, 
they let loose, re-creating his put-downs and 
intimidation of her, sometimes rapidly making 
themselves unmanageable. 

Children of abusers absorb his expectations of 
constant catering from the mother. The son of an 
abused woman tends, for example, to become 
enraged at her for not waiting on him hand and 
foot, for pressing him to meet his responsibilities, 
or for challenging his inappropriate behaviors. His 
father is a direct model for his angry, verbally 
abusive responses in these particular 


The evening after the birthday party, Tom forbids 
Helen to involve the school psychologist in 
addressing Randy’s assaults on his sister. He 
doesn’t say exactly what her punishment will be if 

she defies him, but she knows him well enough to 
not want to find out. She is thus forbidden to 
parent her children. 

Dozens of abused women have complained to 
me of my clients ’ direct interference with their 
parenting. The most co mm on complaint is that of 
being prevented from comforting a crying or 
frightened baby or young child. The men 
sometimes admit the interference openly. A recent 
client of mine, Jacob, told me that he was sick of 
the way his partner, Patricia, would pick up their 
eleven-month-old baby Willy when he cried and 
“fawn over him,” and he blocked her from going 
into the baby’s room. That was just the beginning. 
An older daughter of theirs was hospitalized for 
weeks in a city that was nearly two hours away 
with severe hepatitis. Patricia would rush to the 
hospital each night as soon as she got off work, 
visit briefly with her daughter, and then rush back 
home in hopes of seeing Willy before he fell 
asleep. However, if Patricia didn’t make it back 

home by the nightly deadline that Jacob had set, 
Jacob would not permit her to go into Willy’s 
room to see him, even if Willy was still awake. On 
at least one occasion the boy realized that Patricia 
was home and started yelling, “Mommy, 
Mommy!” and Jacob still blocked her from 
entering. His excuse to me? “I didn’t set that 
deadline,” he said. “We agreed to it mutually.” 
(This would have been an unacceptable excuse 
even if it were true, but Patricia told me she never 
agreed to such a deadline.) 

I think it is important to mention that Jacob 
never hit Patricia in their ten years together and 
that he was a college professor living in an 
unusually luxurious neighborhood. He provides a 
powerful illustration of the depth of the 
psychological cruelty an abuser can perpetrate 
with little or no physical violence and keep hidden 
behind the most impressive facade. 

I SPEAK WITH some mothers who have 

developed psychiatric symptoms from being 
abused, such as nightmares, severe anxiety, or 
depression. Research studies have found that these 
conditions and related ones, including 
posttraumatic stress disorder, are not uncommon 
in women who have been abused by their partners. 
The abuser may have indoctrinated his children to 
perceive their abused mother as emotionally 
troubled, but he also may have actually caused 
her to become somewhat unstable. In either case, 
his behavior damages mother-child relationships, 
and it can take both time and outside assistance 
for mothers and children to reestablish a strong 
and trusting connection. 


One of my clients many years ago was a mousy 
and mild-mannered young father named Wayne 
who characterized himself as a feminist. He was 
upset one morning about some things his wife, 
Nancy, had said to him before leaving the home, 

and he stormed around itching to make her really 
regret her words. He was looking in the 
refrigerator for milk for their ten-month-old baby 
when he came across a bottle from a few days 
earlier that had spoiled. He recognized the bottle 
immediately as the ultimate weapon and 
proceeded to give the baby the spoiled milk to 
drink, making him violently ill. Few other acts 
could have had an impact on Nancy as devastating 
as this one. The controlling effect was potent: 
Nancy was terrified for a long time after to defy 
Wayne or upset him in any way. She was also 
filled with anxiety as she left for work each 

Another client of mine described how he had 
told his wife during an argument, “If you don’t 
shut up, you’re going to be really sorry,” and when 
she continued yelling at him, he went into their 
teenage daughter’s closet and cut her prom dress 
to ribbons with a pair of scissors. The daughter’s 
pain, I learned from the mother, was 

indescribable. Fueling this type of cruelty to 
children is the abuser’s awareness that the 
mother’s empathy for her children’s emotional 
pain will hurt her more than anything he could do 
to her directly. 


Many of my clients are skilled spin doctors, able 
to distract children’s attention from what is before 
them and get them confused about the obvious. 
Consider the following scenario. A nasty 
argument breaks out between a mother and a 
father, with yelling and name-calling on both 
sides. Their children can barely follow what the 
fighting is about, partly because their stomachs 
are tied in knots from the tension. For the rest of 
the day, their mother is distant and depressed, 
snapping at them over trivial frustrations. Their 
father disappears for two or three hours, but when 
he turns up again he is in a good mood, joking and 
laughing with the children as if nothing had 

happened. (An abuser can naturally snap out of 
the bad effects of an abusive incident much more 
quickly than the abused woman can.) So which 
parent will seem to these children to have been 
responsible for shattering the calm of their home 
earlier? Probably the grouchy one. It is therefore 
not surprising that abusers are sometimes able to 
reverse their children’s perceptions so that they 
see Mom as the volatile or unreasonable one 
despite the abuse they witness. 


When Tom punishes Helen by deliberately making 
the children late, Randy and Alex become upset 
with her for not capitulating. They feel that if she 
would just cater to their father and manage his 
emotions they would get what they need, so they 
see her as the one who is hurting them. They know 
it’s out of the question for him to do anything 
different. The abuser gets rewarded for his 
bullying behavior because the children give up on 

influencing his side of the equation and pour their 
energy into getting their mother to fix what’s 

Yet this is only half of the problem. On some 
other issue, Helen may give in to Tom precisely to 
avoid the kind of abuse and retaliation that 
resulted this time, and then the children will feel 
critical of her for that. They may say: “Why do 
you let Dad push you around like that? Why do 
you put up with that?” They may grumble: “When 
Dad is being mean to us, Mom doesn’t do 
anything about it.” Children of abused women 
thus feel angry and upset with their mother for 
standing up to the abuser and for not standing up 
to him. Their reactions in this regard are entirely 
understandable, but the mother can find herself in 
an impossible bind that leads to more distance and 
tension between her and her children. 

Child protective services sometimes accuse an 
abused woman of “failing to protect” her children 
from exposure to an abusive man, without 

understanding the many efforts she may have 
made to keep them safe and the many tactics the 
abuser may have used to interfere with her 



Randy and Alex are bitter adversaries one minute 
and loyal allies the next. They are like pebbles at 
the edge of the sea, with each wave of abuse 
toward their mother washing over them and 
changing their position in relation to each other. 
Randy’s violence toward Alex is no surprise; boys 
who are exposed to the abuse of their mother are 
often disrespectful of and aggressive toward their 
peers, targeting females in particular for their 
hostility. Sons of abusers learn to look down on 
females, so they feel superior to their sisters and 
mothers and thus expect catering from them. 
Violence among siblings occurs at much higher 

rates in homes where there is partner abuse. 

Abuse is inherently divisive; family members 
blame each other for the abuser’s behavior 
because it is unsafe to blame him. If an incident of 
abuse began with an argument over one child’s 
misbehavior, then an older sibling might say, 
“Daddy screamed at Mom and made her cry 
because he was mad that you were making so 
much noise. You should have listened to me when 
I told you to quiet down.” 

Tom contributes further to divisiveness through 
his favoritism : He treats Randy like a buddy and 
fixes his dirt bike, while ignoring Alex except 
when showing her off in public. Favoritism is 
rampant in the parenting of abusive men. They 
may favor boys over girls because of their own 
negative attitudes toward females. They favor 
children whom they see as siding with them and 
are rejecting of those who are sympathetic or 
protective of the mother. Children experience 
powerful emotional rewards from the abuser for 

distancing themselves from their mother and from 
any siblings who are allied with her. 

My clients exhibit a range of other divisive 
tactics, including openly shaming children— 
especially boys—for being close to their mother, 
telling family members lies about each other, and 
making children feel like members of a special 
and superior club when they are part of his team. 
Finally, they use collective punishment, requiring 
all the children to pay a price for one child’s 
behavior, which can be devastating in its ability to 
turn children against each other. 

Why does an abuser sow divisions in these 
ways? One reason is that his power is decreased if 
the family remains unified. I have had a number of 
clients whose partners and children have 
consistently supported each other, and the client is 
always bitter about it, griping, “They’ve all turned 
against me,” or, even more commonly, “She’s 
brainwashed the children to be on her side.” Many 
abusers take steps to avoid this outcome, using the 

principle of “divide and conquer”: If people in the 
family are busy fighting with each other, attention 
is diverted from the man’s cruelty or control. 


Almost miraculously, some family members of 
abusers manage to stay close to each other and 
unified. Several factors play a role in helping 
family relationships rebound from the effects of 
the abuser’s behavior and grow strong: 

1. Access to good information about 
abuse: When a mother receives 
assistance from a program for abused 
women, for example, she has an easier 
time unraveling the convoluted 
dynamics of abuse, and then can assist 
her children to achieve greater clarity. It 
also helps her not blame her children for 
how they’ve been affected by the abuse. 

2. Access to children’s services: Many 
programs for abused women now offer 
free counseling for their children as 
well, and specialized counseling for 
children who have witnessed abuse is 
sometimes available through other 
sources such as hospitals or mental 
health centers. Family relationships 
benefit greatly when children get an 
opportunity to work through some of the 
dynamics we have been examining. 

3. Safety from the abuser: Family 
members are more likely to stay by each 
other if their community stays by them, 
helping them to either leave the abuser 
or demand that he change. For the 
violent abuser, the police and courts can 
play a critical role in supporting the 
family, or they can drop the ball. The 
actions taken by family and juvenile 
courts can also be pivotal in protecting 

children from the effects of an abuser’s 

4. Access to supportive community 
resources: I have observed, for 
example, that children tend to do better 
simply by having the good fortune to 
live in a neighborhood where there are 
plenty of children to play with. If 
children have the opportunity to 
participate in sports, drama, or other 
activities that give them pleasure and 
help them feel good about themselves, 
they are less likely to channel their 
distress into hurting their siblings and 
their mother. Adults outside the family 
who devote attention to the children and 
engage them in activities can help them 
unhook themselves psychologically 
from the abuser, even without any direct 
mention of the abuse. 

Support for the mother is as important 

as support for the children. Seek out a 
trustworthy friend or relative, and take 
the leap of talking about how you are 
being mistreated in your relationship. 
Breaking your isolation is critical to 
healing both you and your children. 

5. A mother who works hard at her 
parenting and gets help with it: It is 
important for an abused mother to get 
community support and not to try to be a 
superhero. At the same time, there are 
helpful steps you can take. Try as hard 
as you can not to take your rage and 
frustration out on your children. Look 
for books or lectures about parenting 
and discipline strategies. Seek support 
for your parenting from friends and 
relatives, and try to be open to 
suggestions or constructive criticism 
from others. These are all extraordinary 
challenges for an abused mother; no one 

should blame you if you can’t do all of 
these things, especially all at once. But I 
find that many abused women discover 
ways to be the best mothers they can 
under the circumstances, and their 
children feel the difference in the long 

6. An abuser who is a poor manipulator: 
Some abusive men simply aren’t as 
clever or persuasive in shaping the 
children’s outlook, with the result that 
the children don’t become as confused 
and ambivalent and cast less blame on 
to their mothers, their siblings, and 


In his children’s eyes, the abuser is 
simultaneously hated and revered. They resent his 

bullying and selfishness but are attracted to his 
charm and power. They soak up the delicious 
moments when he is kind and attentive, partly 
because they may be so few. They may have an 
active fantasy life about getting big enough to 
stand up to him, and often dream of hurting him. 
If he is depressed or alcoholic, they worry about 
him. They observe that when their father is happy 
peace reigns in the family and that when he is 
unhappy he makes everyone else miserable, too, 
so they invest themselves in keeping him content. 
These many powerful mixed feelings are 
confusing and uncomfortable for children. 

Children also are subject to traumatic bonding 
with the abuser, just as their mothers are, even if 
he does not abuse them directly. When child 
protective workers or custody evaluators assess a 
family in which there is partner abuse, they 
commonly conclude that the children are highly 
bonded to their father—as I find in their written 
reports—without examining whether or not that 

attachment is the result of trauma and 
manipulation rather than of extensive positive time 
spent together. 

The abuser shapes how the children and the 
mother see him as a parent. It is common for a 
partner of one of my clients to say: “He treats me 
terribly, but he’s a good father.” But when I then 
ask detailed questions about the kinds of 
behaviors I have reviewed in this chapter, three 
times out of four the woman reports multiple 
important problems; she just hadn’t been able to 
sort them out. You therefore may be finding that 
uncomfortable questions are arising for you about 
your own partner’s parenting as you read along. 
When you are already struggling with how you are 
being treated yourself, it can be painful to consider 
that your children may be at risk of mistreatment 
as well. In the pages ahead, you will find 
suggestions for helping your children meet their 
own challenges. 


What happens to the parenting of abusers when 
couples split up? Some abusive men simply 
vanish from their children’s lives, taking the 
attitude, “The children are her problem. If she 
wanted help with them, she should have treated 
me better. I don’t want restrictions on my 
freedom.” He thinks of having children as a 
reversible process, reminiscent of jokes about 
recovering one’s virginity. He may pay little or no 
child support, and the children may not even 
receive birthday cards from him. 

Children may actually fare better in the long 
term from having the abuser drop out of their lives 
rather than having him continue his manipulations 
and divisiveness for years, but these are both poor 
choices. When an abusive father disappears, 
children feel rej ected and abandoned. In one of my 
current cases, the child keeps insisting that the 

reason for the disappearance of the father is 
“because he didn’t like me,” although the mother 
tells him that isn’t so. Depending on their 
neighborhood or community, children also may 
suffer from the stigma of having a father who “ran 

When abusive fathers stay involved, a different 
set of problems typically arise. First, the mother is 
generally the one who ended the relationship, and 
abusers do not take well to being left. They may 
use the children as weapons to retaliate against the 
mother or as pawns to try to get her back. I had a 
client named Nate, for example, who moved into 
an apartment when he and his wife separated and 
kept his new place as dingy and depressing as 
possible. He threw a bare mattress on the floor, 
put no pictures on the walls or rugs on the floors, 
and acquired little other furniture, although he 
could have afforded to make the place look decent. 
When the children came to visit him on weekends, 
they were shocked by his living conditions. He 

cried in front of them about how much he missed 
them and their mother and how bad it felt to be 
alone and outside of the family. He dressed 
sloppily, barely combed his hair, and rarely 
shaved, giving himself a pathetic mien. The 
children were crushed and could think of nothing 
other than their father’s pain and loneliness. 
Naturally they began pressuring their mother to let 
him come back home. 

Children can be used even more directly as 
weapons. A partner of one of my clients told me 
that she had left him about a year earlier but then 
got back together with him, “because he told me if 
I didn’t let him back in the house he was going to 
sexually abuse our daughter.” She had not 
reported this threat to a family court, because she 
assumed she would not be believed—family 
courts are widely reputed to treat women’s sexual 
abuse allegations with strong disbelief. 

Abused women have reported to me countless 
ways in which their ex-partners try to hurt or 

control them through the children, including: 

• Pumping them for information about the 
mother’s life, especially about new 

• Returning them from visits dirty, unfed, 
or sleep-deprived 

• Discussing with them the possibility of 
coming to live with him instead 

• Continuing to drive wedges between 
them and their mother 

• Undermining her authority by making his 
house a place where there are no rules or 
limits, permitting the children to eat 
whatever junk food they want, watch 
movies that are inappropriately violent or 
sexual, and ignore their homework, so 
that they chafe against normal discipline 
when they get back to her house 

• Hurting the children psychologically, 

physically, or sexually in order to upset 
the mother 

• Threatening to take the children away 
from her 

• Seeking custody or increased visitation 
through the courts 

• Insisting on taking the children for 
visitation only to leave them most of the 
time in someone else’s care, usually his 
mother’s or new partner’s 


What is going on in the abuser’s mind as he hurts 
his ex-partner through the children? 

1. He wants her to fail. 

The last thing an abuser wants is for his partner to 
thrive after they split up, since that would prove 
that he was the problem. So he tries to make her 
parenting life as difficult as possible so that her 

life will stay stuck. She ends up feeling like she 
was never really permitted to leave him, feeling 
his presence around her all the time through his 
maneuvers involving the children. Many abusers 
cause more damage to mother-child relationships 
after separation than they did before. 

2. He is losing most of his other avenues for 
getting at her. 

Separation means that the abuser doesn’t get his 
daily opportunities to control the woman and cut 
her down. He may still be able to get at her 
through various financial dealings, and he can 
stalk or assault her if he is willing to risk arrest. 
But the children become one of his only vehicles 
to keep a hook into her for the long term. 

3. He considers the children his personal 

While the abuser may believe that the work of 
raising children is his partner’s responsibility, he 
assigns the rights regarding them to himself. He 

feels outraged postseparation that he is losing 
control not only of his ex-partner but of the 
children as well. This ownership mentality was 
illustrated neatly by a client of mine who went to 
court seeking sole legal custody but requesting 
that the mother retain physical custody; in other 
words, he wanted her to look after the child, but 
the right to make the decisions would be his. 
(Fortunately, his request was denied.) 

An abusive father may go ballistic if his ex¬ 
partner begins a new relationship because, as 
clients often say to me: “I don’t want another man 
around my children.” In my experience, abused 
women often get involved with a more respectful 
man on the next go round, because their painful 
experience has taught them some signs of abuse to 
watch out for. Her children may then gravitate to 
the new man as if toward a magnet, thrilled to 
discover that they can get caring and appropriate 
male attention, a situation to which an abusive 
man may have a hostile reaction. 

4. His perceptions of his ex-partner are highly 

Many of my clients genuinely believe that they are 
doing what is best for their children by driving 
them away from their mother, because they have 
swallowed their own propaganda about how bad 
she is. An abuser strives to prove that his ex¬ 
partner is a poor mother by pointing to symptoms 
that are actually the effects that his cruelty has had 
on her: her depression, her emotional volatility, 
her difficulty managing the children’s disrespect 
of her. He feels that he needs to save them from 
her, a stark and disturbing distortion. 


Fortunately not. I have worked with abusers who 
have substantially more compassion for the 
children than they have for their partners and who 

do not use them as weapons postseparation. These 
men tend to be: 

1. The ones who behaved the most 

responsibly toward the children prior 
to separation: The divorced or 
separated abuser who is kind to the 
children, cares for them responsibly, and 
does not try to damage their 
relationships with their mother is a man 
who was also operating this way while 
the couple was together. He generally 
didn’t degrade her right in front of the 
children and didn’t abuse her during a 
pregnancy. He is usually less selfish and 
self-centered than the average abuser. 

The parenting of abusive men rarely 
improves postseparation, unlike that of 
some nonabusive fathers. I have had 
clients who put on a big show of being 
nicer to their children and spending 

more time with them because they were 
seeking custody, or because they were 
trying to turn the children against their 
mother. These are not genuine 
improvements in parenting; once their 
campaign is over, win or lose, they 
revert to their old ways. The only 
question about an abuser’s treatment of 
his children postseparation is “Will it 
stay the same or will it get worse?” 

2. The ones who are not intent upon 
settling old scores: If he is willing to 
move on with life without having to 
punish you—or get back together with 
you—the picture for the children can 
brighten somewhat. 

3. The ones who do not use the legal 
system to pursue custody or increased 
visitation: For a variety of reasons, 
many abusive men do not choose to use 
family courts as a venue for taking 

power over the woman and her children. 
Once the court becomes involved, the 
road to peace can be a long and painful 


I have frequently served as a custody evaluator, or 
guardian ad litem. A custody evaluator is 
appointed by a court to investigate the children’s 
circumstances in cases of divorce or separation 
and to make recommendations to the judge 
regarding custody and visitation. In my first case 
of this kind several years ago, a man named Kent 
was seeking to win custody of his three-year-old 
daughter from his ex-partner, Renee. Kent was in 
the military, so he did not have “flex-time” 
options; he told me that if he gained custody, his 
parenting plan was to put Tracy in day care forty 
hours a week. Tracy was currently in the full-time 
care of her mother. Kent was not critical of 

Renee’s parenting; he said simply that he wanted 
Tracy to live with him because he could care for 
her even better. More important, he was offering 
to allow Renee liberal visitation, whereas Renee 
was restricting his contact with Tracy to a set 
schedule. “That way Tracy could have both 
parents,” he said. 

Kent informed me with audible outrage that 
Renee was accusing him of having been abusive, 
“but she has never provided one shred of evidence 
of her laughable allegations.” He then went on, in 
response to my detailed questions, to describe 
thirteen different occasions on which he had 
physically assaulted Renee, including repeated 
incidents of pushing her down and one time when 
he kneed her so hard in the pelvic area that she got 
a large dark bruise. He claimed never to have 
punched or slapped her; apparently this is why he 
considered her reports of abuse such a joke. 

That isn’t all. Kent went on to tell me that he 
had participated only minimally in Tracy’s care 

during her first year of life and not dramatically 
more during the subsequent two years. (Most 
abusers in custody disputes are craftier than Kent 
was. His entitlement was so severe that he didn’t 
think I would see anything wrong with this 

Why did Kent want to take a little girl out of the 
full-time care of a competent mother in order to 
put her into full-time day care? I was forced to 
conclude that he craved power over Renee, wanted 
contact with her and saw winning custody as the 
way to put the cards back in his hands. 

Unfortunately, few custody evaluators or judges 
understand the nature of an abusive man’s 
problem. If they find him likable, they assume the 
abuse allegations must be greatly exaggerated. 

And once they adopt that stance, it can become 
extraordinarily difficult to get them to listen 
carefully to what has gone on or to investigate the 

The world of family courts, where legal 

struggles over custody and visitation take place, is 
a nightmare in the lives of many thousands of 
abused women across the United States and 
Canada. A woman who has overcome so many 
obstacles to finally free herself from abuse can 
suddenly find herself jerked back into the abuser’s 
grip, because he is the legal father of her children 
and chooses to continue his abuse through the 
legal system. 

The typical abusive man enters the court with 
self-assurance, assuming that court personnel will 
be malleable in his charming and manipulative 
hands. He typically tells lies chronically and 
comfortably. He looks and acts nothing like the 
social stereotype of an abuser and plays on the 
prevailing myths and prejudices concerning abuse. 
Imagine how Tom, the father in the scenario that 
opened this chapter, would appear in the 
courthouse; would anyone believe that he could be 
an abuser? 



Here are just a few of the strategies an abuser 
tends to use in custody and visitation disputes: 

Taking Advantage of His Financial Position 

Most men are in a better economic position than 
their ex-partners for at least the first few years 
following separation. This imbalance is greater for 
abusers because they may control and manipulate 
the finances while the couple is together and 
sometimes make dramatic attempts to destroy 
their partner economically as the relationship 
dissolves. An abuser can often afford to spend a 
great deal more than the woman on legal 
expenses, or he can get himself into a nice house 
to sway both the children and the custody 
evaluator. He may be able to completely ruin his 
ex-partner’s financial position by dragging her 
back into court over and over again. 

Asking for Psychological Evaluations 

Most abusers do not show significant 

psychopathology on psychological tests, but their 
partners often do as a result of enduring years of 
abuse. The evaluating psychologist may report 
that the woman is depressed, hysterical, or 
vindictive; few evaluators take the abused 
woman’s actual past experience or current 
circumstances into account. If she reports that she 
is being followed, for example, because the abuser 
is stalking her, she is likely to be labeled 
“paranoid” and her reports of abuse discredited on 
that basis. A psychologist’s report on the abusive 
man may be based on a related set of 
misconceptions. I have read several evaluations 
that state that the man is unlikely to have 
perpetrated the reported acts of abuse because he 
is not mentally ill or because he doesn’t show 
signs of aggressiveness in the evaluator’s office. 
(On this erroneous basis, most abusive men could 
be declared to be victims of false accusations.) 
Unfortunately, many psychologists who take court 
appointments have been slow to accept that their 

standard array of theories and tests can lead to 
serious errors when applied to domestic-abuse 

Playing the Role of Peacemaker 

A great number of my clients use a routine that 
goes like this: “There was a lot of fighting and bad 
feeling in our relationship, and I can understand 
that she is bitter about some things, but we need to 
put that all behind us for the good of the children. 
She is so focused on getting revenge against me 
that she is forgetting about the children’s needs. 
That’s why I’m asking for joint custody, so that 
the children would get lots of time with each of us, 
while she’s asking for me to have only every other 

This piece of acting seeks to take advantage of 
the myth that women are more vindictive than 
men when relationships end (in the case of abuse, 
however, the reality is very much the opposite) 
and that men are frequently victims of false 
accusations of abuse by women who want to keep 

them away from their children. The abuser’s goal 
with this and all other strategies is to get court 
personnel to disbelieve his ex-partner and ignore 
any evidence she presents. 

Feigning Remorse over the Abuse 

A surprising number of judges and custody 
evaluators consider a man’s abuse of his partner 
irrelevant to custody and visitation decisions. They 
are either unaware or uninterested in the role that 
an abusive man plays as a role model for his 
children, the damage he can do to mother-child 
relationships, and the way he may use the children 
as weapons. So if an abuser says he regrets his 
verbal or physical assaults on the mother, that can 
be enough to manipulate court personnel into 
saying, “Let’s leave all that in the past.” 

Confusing the Court with Cross accusations 

Most of my clients can lie persuasively, with 
soulful facial expressions, good eye contact, and 
colorful details. Court personnel have trouble 

believing that such a pleasant-seeming man could 
simply be inventing most or all of his accusations 
against the abused woman. In various cases of 
mine, court personnel have told me, “He accuses 
her of the same things, so I guess they abuse each 
other.” In such cases, the court may accept his 
counteraccusations at face value, rather than look 
closely at the evidence. 

Accusing Her of Trying to Turn the Children 
Against Him 

Some abusive men do not succeed in turning 
children against their mother, and some don’t even 
try. Children sometimes see the abuse for what it 
is and take whatever steps they can to protect 
themselves, each other, and their mother, 
including perhaps disclosing the abuser’s 
treatment of her (or of them) to outsiders. The 
abusive man’s typical response to this is to claim 
that the mother is turning the children against him. 
Some prominent psychologists have, 
unfortunately, contributed through their writings 

to the myth that it is unhealthy for children to 
distance themselves from an abusive father and 
that the mother is probably the cause of their 
desire to do so. Family courts tend to be unaware 
of how important it is to children not to be 
exposed to the negative role modeling of their 
abusive father and to his hostility and contempt 
toward their mother. Regrettably, a growing 
number of abusive men succeed in using such 
claims of “parental alienation” to win custody or 
ample unsupervised visitation, even in cases 
where there is extensive evidence that the man has 
abused not only the mother but the children as 

The reality is that a mother who attempts to 
restrict her children’s contact with the man who 
abused her is generally acting as an appropriate 
protective parent. She is also supporting healthy 
self-protective instincts in her children; children 
who are not supported or encouraged in this way 
to protect themselves from exposure to abuse will 

be at greater risk for accommodating abuse by 
others as they go through life. 

I have noticed that charges of “parental 
alienation” are sometimes leveled against the most 
competent mothers, because of their strong and 
supportive bonds with their children—which the 
abuser terms enmeshment or overdependence — 
and because the children have learned to see 
through the abuser’s facade and therefore choose 
to try to keep away from him. 

Appealing to Popular Misconceptions 

Several misleading arguments appear repeatedly 
in statements that abusers make during family 
court litigation. First is the claim that fathers are 
widely discriminated against by family courts in 
custody disputes. The research actually shows the 
opposite, that in fact fathers have been at a distinct 
advantage in custody battles in the United States 
since the late 1970s, when the maternal preference 
went out of vogue. Next often comes the myth that 
children of divorce fare better in joint custody, 

when the research shows overwhelmingly that 
they in fact do worse, except in those cases where 
their parents remain on good terms after the 
divorce and can co-parent cooperatively—which is 
almost impossible for a woman to do with an 
abusive ex-partner. Abusive men also assert 
falsely that there is a rampant problem of 
women’s false allegations of abuse, that child 
support obligations are unfairly high, that 
domestic abuse is irrelevant to custody decisions, 
and that men are abused in relationships just as 
much as women. 

THE SUCCESS OF these strategies relies heavily 
on the ignorance, and sometimes gender bias, of 
court personnel regarding women who disclose 
histories of partner abuse and on their stereotypes 
regarding men who are “just not the type” to be 
abusers. Prejudicial attitudes often take the place 
of careful investigation and consideration of the 
evidence. Unfortunately, family courts have 

generally not made the kinds of progress in 
recognizing and responding to domestic abuse that 
many other social institutions, such as the police 
and criminal courts, have (though serious work 
remains to be done in those arenas as well, as we 
see in Chapter 12). 



What should a mother’s role be in protecting her 
children from exposure to their father’s 
abusiveness? Abused women can get caught in the 
profound societal ambivalence that exists 
regarding this question. While couples are 
together, professionals and other community 
members are highly critical of a mother who 
continues to live with an abusive man. They say 
things to her such as, “You are choosing your 
partner over your children,” or “You must not care 
about what things are like for them.” Child 

protection officials sometimes threaten to take a 
mother’s children away from her for “failure to 
protect” if she won’t leave a man who is abusing 
her. If she believes that the man has the potential 
to change, they are likely to say she is “in denial” 
or “unrealistic” for harboring such fantasies. 

These critics ignore the huge challenges she faces 
as a parent and how difficult it is to leave an 

But when an abused mother does break up the 
relationship, society tends to do an abrupt about- 
face. Suddenly she hears from court officials and 
from other people: 

“Well, maybe he abused you, but that’s no 
reason to keep the children away from him. He 
is their father, after all. ” 

“Don’t you think your own resentments are 
clouding your judgment about your children? ” 

“Don ’tyou believe that people ever change? 

Why don ’tyou give him the benefit of the 

doubt? ” 

In other words, a woman can be punished for 
exposing children to a man in one situation but 
then punished for refusing to expose them to the 
same man in another situation. And the second 
case is potentially even more dangerous than the 
first, because she is no longer able to keep an eye 
on what he does with the children or to prevent the 
postseparation escalation that is so common in 
abusive fathers. 

Abused mothers are typically required by family 
courts across the United States and Canada to 
send their children on unsupervised visitation—or 
into custody—with their abusive fathers. When 
the children then begin to show predictable 
symptoms such as school behavior and attention 
problems, sleep disorders, unwillingness to 
respect their mother’s authority, or emotional 
deterioration, court personnel and court-appointed 

evaluators commonly declare that these are normal 
reactions to divorce or that the children are 
actually responding to their mother’s emotions 
rather than to their own. I have been involved in 
several cases where the abuser has physically or 
sexually abused the children in addition to 
abusing the mother, and the court still forced the 
mother to allow visitation with no professional 
supervision. Abused women across the continent 
report that it can become extraordinarily difficult 
to persuade the court to examine the evidence 
objectively once the mother has been labeled 
“vindictive” or “overemotional” or has been 
accused (however baselessly) of having influenced 
her children’s statements. 

The treatment that protective mothers so often 
receive at the hands of family courts is among the 
most shameful secrets of modern jurisprudence. 
This is the only social institution that I am aware 
of that so frequently forbids mothers to protect 
their children from abuse. Fortunately, over the 

past few years, women and men (including many 
nonabusive fathers) across the United States and 
Canada have been waking up to the severity of 
this problem with the result that there are multiple 
initiatives currently in motion to demand family 
court reform. I have been part of one such effort, 
assisting a well-funded organization that is 
preparing a human rights report for the 
international community on the revictimization of 
abused women and their children through custody 
and visitation litigation. (For more information, 
see “Battered Mothers Testimony Project” in the 
“Resources” section in the back of this book.) 


If you have not experienced custody litigation, or 
at least not yet, please bear the following points in 

It is important to keep records of your 
partner’s abusive behaviors toward you 

or the children. If he writes scary or 
twisted letters to you, keep them. If 
friends or neighbors see him mistreat you 
or the children, ask them to describe in 
writing what they witnessed. If you have 
ever called the police, try to get a record 
of the call, whether they came or not. If 
he leaves abusive or threatening 
messages on your answering machine, 
keep a copy on tape. 

Seek legal representation if you can 
possibly afford it. If you have no 
resources, apply for a legal services 
attorney. In choosing an attorney, try to 
find one who is experienced in domestic 
abuse and who treats abused women 
with patience and respect. The fact that a 
lawyer is well known does not mean that 
he or she necessarily understands the 
issues involved in disputing custody or 
visitation with an abuser. 

Move cautiously. Avoid abruptly denying 
him visitation, for example, even if you 
have concerns about how your children 
are being affected. Courts can be quick to 
accuse women of trying to cut the 
children’s father out of their lives even if 
she has good reason to be worried. 

Involve your children with a therapist if 
you can find a good one in your 
community. It is important to have 
professionals involved so that you are not 
the only one reporting the distress that 
your children’s relationship with their 
father is causing them. In situations 
where it is just your word against his, he 
may be able to charm court personnel 
with his skillful lying and winning 

If one of your children discloses to you 
sexual abuse by their father—which is an 
extraordinarily upsetting experience—it 

is especially important that you approach 
the court and your local child protection 
agency with as calm an appearance as 
you possibly can. If you get labeled as 
“hysterical about sexual abuse,” no 
matter how justified your reactions, your 
reports may be discredited. If you are in 
this situation, read the excellent book A 
Mother’s Nightmare — Incest, listed in 
“Resources,” for further guidance on 
managing the legal system. 

Most abused women do succeed in 
keeping custody of their children. But the 
better you plan, the more likely you are to 
avoid a horrible surprise. For a free 
packet of information for abused women 
and their attorneys regarding custody and 
visitation litigation, call the Resource 
Center on Domestic Violence: Child 
Protection and Custody at 1-800-527- 

THE SUBJECT OF abusive men as parents, 
including their behavior in custody and visitation 
disputes, is a complex one; I have only touched 
the surface here. Readers who wish to pursue a 
more in-depth discussion should see my book The 
Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of 
Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics (written 
with Dr. Jay Silverman), which addresses the full 
range of issues touched on in this chapter. 
Although that book focuses on the physically 
violent abuser, you will find that most of what we 
say applies to psychologically abusive men as 

The more you are aware of how your children 
may be affected by their exposure to your partner’s 
abuse of you, and to the problems in his style as a 
parent, the better able you will be to protect them 
from emotional harm. They need to know that you 
are a parent they can count on to be consistently 
kind and safe, since the abuser is unpredictable 
and at times intimidating. If they are giving you 

difficult behavioral challenges, are having some 
problems focusing their attention, or are prone to 
withdrawal or depression, bear in mind that these 
are all normal responses in children whose 
mothers are abused. Your patience and 
understanding are critical to them, including your 
ability to show them that you do not believe they 
are bad. Remember that growing up around an 
abusive father or stepfather is very confusing and 
anxiety producing for children even if he does not 
mistreat them directly. 

Make your own healing—as well as your 
emotional and physical safety—a priority. 
Children of an abused woman can feel the 
difference when their mother starts to get help for 
herself and becomes more able to recognize abuse 
for what it is, blaming neither herself nor her 
children for the abusive man’s behavior. 

Here are some other actions you can take: 

Insist on complete respect from your children. 
Children can absorb your partner’s rude or 

bullying approach to you and begin to exhibit 
behaviors toward you that they have learned from 
him. Try to put a stop to this behavior as quickly 
as possible before it gets a chance to snowball. 

You may not be able to be firm with the children 
in front of your partner if he actively undermines 
you, but put your foot down as much as you can, 
especially when he isn’t around. 

Insist on respect for females in general. Y our 
partner’s control or abuse toward you creates an 
atmosphere in which negative attitudes toward 
females can grow like mold. Interrupt these 
whenever you see them appearing in your sons or 

Confront your partner’s undermining of your 
parenting. Unless you are afraid of how your 
partner will retaliate, name his undermining for 
what it is and demand that it stop. 

Don’t lie on your partner’s behalf or cover for 
his behavior. You may feel that you should protect 
your children’s image of your partner by making 

excuses for him, telling them what happened was 
your fault, or lying about what he did. Your 
relationships with your children will be damaged 
in the long run if your cover for him, however, and 
that is the outcome you most want to avoid. In 
addition, you increase their vulnerability to him if 
you encourage them to deny their own self- 
protective instincts. (However, you may need to lie 
to him to protect them sometimes.) 

Be the best parent you can. As unfair as it is, 
the reality is that an abused woman has to be an 
outstanding parent in order to help her children 
process and heal from the abuse they have been 
exposed to. Draw on every resource you can, 
including parenting books and training courses, 
parent support groups, and play groups that may 
exist in your area. (For specific suggestions, see 
the “Resources” section in the back of this book.) 

Consider leaving your relationship, at least for 
a while, if you can do so safely. One of the best 
ways to help children heal is for them to be free 

from witnessing abuse. As I discussed earlier, 
however, it is important to plan carefully in order 
to make it harder for your abusive partner to hurt 
the children through his visitation with them or 
through legal actions for custody. 

If your partner has already succeeded in causing 
some distance in your relationships with your 
children, or has turned them against each other, it 
is still possible to heal those divisions and rebuild 
healthy connections. Make your relationships a 
priority and draw on counseling services in your 
community to help you work through the barriers 
that your abusive partner has erected. Encourage 
your children to talk about the upsetting 
interactions they have witnessed in the home, with 
the help of counselors if necessary; it is especially 
important to relieve any burden the children have 
felt to keep the abuse secret. Some abused 
women’s programs have group counseling for 
children, which is an excellent environment in 

which they can break the secret about the abuse, 
gain insight into their own emotional reactions, 
and learn that the abusive man’s behavior is 
neither their mother’s fault nor their own. 

Above all, don’t give up. Healing ruptured 
relationships takes time and perseverance. In a 
case I am involved in currently in which the 
parents are divorced, the mother was on the verge 
of losing hope that she would ever be on good 
terms again with her teenage boy, who was allied 
with his abusive father and imitating his attitudes 
and behaviors—including threats of violence— 
toward the mother. But she persevered, despite 
many moments of despair over a three-year period, 
and now the boy has finally begun to recognize his 
father’s bullying and manipulation and is 
gradually repairing his connection to his mother. 


An abuser in the home affects everybody. 

A good father does not abuse his 
children’s mother. 

Abusers drive wedges between people, 
by accident or by design. Abused 
mothers and their children should seek 
support to heal as individuals and to heal 
their relationships with each other (see 
“About General Parenting Issues” in 
“Resources” in the back of this book). 

If you are preparing to leave an abuser 
with whom you have children, seek out 
legal advice regarding custody issues as 
soon as you can. 


Abusive Men and Their Allies 

I used to feel close to his mom, but now 
she seems to hate me. 

I can’t even call up our friends 
anymore, because they don’t want to get 
in the middle. 

Sometimes Ifeel like I must be the one 
who’s messed up, because my own 
family sides with him. 

I don’t bother to call the police when he 
gets scary, because he’s got buddies on 
the force who help him out. 

The custody evaluator reported to the 

court that I’m hysterical and that the 
children should live with him. 

IN EACH OF the following examples, all of 
which come from cases I have been involved in, 
something is happening that is very difficult to 
account for: 

• A woman flees into hiding because she is 
terrified of her abusive husband. He 
looks everywhere for her and cannot 
track her down. When all else fails, he 
pays a visit to her parents. He tells them 
how sorry he is about how he treated 
their daughter and says he misses her 
terribly and is going to change. He cries 
and begs for her address, “just so that I 
can send her a letter and tell her how I 
feel,” and her parents give it to him. 

• A man joins an abuser program that has 
been denied certification by his state’s 

Department of Public Health because it 
violates state regulations. While in the 
program, the man complains that his 
girlfriend sometimes hits him, too, and 
the counselor, who is a licensed 
psychologist, responds by encouraging 
the abuser to get a restraining order 
against the abused woman. The 
psychologist admits this openly to me. 

The daughter of a divorced abused 
woman discloses in explicit detail that 
she is being sexually abused by her father 
during visitation. The mother goes to 
court to request a professional evaluation 
of her daughter. The mother’s sister 
arrives at court that day with the abuser, 
with whom she has now become friends 
despite the fact that she hated him before 
the divorce. The sister not only tells the 
judge that the sexual abuse allegations 
are lies but actually asks the judge to 

take custody of the girl away from the 
mother and give it to her. (Fortunately, 
the judge doesn’t allow the sister to take 
the girl. The evaluation goes forward and 
winds up confirming the sexual abuse.) 

An abusive man’s therapist assigns a 
psychological diagnosis to the abused 
woman without having met her or even 
talked to her, relying entirely on the 
man’s descriptions of his partner, despite 
knowing that he is accused of abusing 

A mother flees with her children to a 
shelter for abused women because her 
house is vandalized. She can tell it was 
her physically abusive ex-husband who 
did it, and she takes the damage as a 
clear threat. Within several days of 
fleeing, she contacts the court-appointed 
custody evaluator to let him know where 
she is. The custody evaluator, however, 

shoots off a report to the court stating 
that the woman has no reason to be 
afraid of her husband, although she has 
told him of her partner’s history of 
violence and threats, and recommends 
that the children be taken away from the 
mother and given to the father. He does 
not mention the woman’s phone call to 
him from the shelter in his report. On the 
basis of the custody evaluator’s report, all 
three children, including a girl who is 
only three years old, are sent to live at the 
abuser’s home, and the mother is 
permitted only brief supervised visits, 
because she is now labeled a “flight 

How are abusive men able to attract allies to 
their cause? And why do some people become 
such enthusiastic, and at times vicious, agents of 
the abuser? To answer these questions we need to 

look not only at the mind-set of abusive men but 
also at the socially acceptable attitudes and styles 
of interaction that an abusive man can use to 
prevail upon other people to do his dirty work. 



Controlling and intimidating a partner is not that 
easy. A man has a better chance of dominating a 
woman than vice versa, but it is still a challenge. 
Very few people willingly consent to having their 
rights systematically denied. The abusive man 
thus is faced repeatedly with the problem—from 
his perspective—of his partner’s continued 
resistance to his control. Over time he gets tired of 
bullying her all by himself. 

Certain other impediments can trip up the 
abuser. Changes in societal attitudes toward 
abuse, including improvements in some important 
laws and policies, are making it harder to get 

away with. The physically frightening or sexually 
assaultive abuser, for example, is much more 
likely to be arrested than he would have been ten 
or fifteen years ago. His partner now has the 
option of seeking a court order to keep him away 
from her. 

Perhaps most important is that the silence 
surrounding abuse is being broken. In a current 
case of mine involving a psychological abuser, 
close friends of the woman sat her down one day 
and staged an “intervention,” in which they 
supportively pressed her to recognize the impact 
her husband’s abuse was having on her. Unlike 
the situation years ago, there are now various 
ways in which an abused woman can find 
assistance—or assistance can find her, as it did in 
this case. 

In this context, an abuser has to work harder 
than ever to keep his partner blaming herself and 
to fend off helping hands that might reach her. 
One great way to keep people off of her side is to 

win them over to his side first. Besides, he feels 
that he deserves allies, because he considers 
himself the victim. 

You may wonder why, if abusive men feel so 
justified in their actions, they distort their stories 
so much when seeking support. First, an abuser 
doesn’t want to have to explain his worst 
behaviors—his outright cruelty, for example, or 
his violence—to people who might find those acts 
distasteful, and he may not feel confident that his 
justifications will be accepted. Second, he may 
carry some guilt or shame about his worst acts, as 
most abusers do; his desire to escape those 
feelings is part of why he looks for validation from 
other people, which relieves any nagging self¬ 
doubt. He considers his guilt feelings a weakness 
to be overcome. And, last, he may lie because he 
has convinced himself of his own distortions. The 
narcissistic abuser, for example, considers his 
fabrications real, which is one of the reasons why 
lie-detector tests are unreliable in cases of abuse 

(including child sexual abuse). 



The list of people an abuser can potentially 
persuade to act as his agents is a long one: friends, 
relatives, teachers, psychologists, clergypeople, 
police and judges, her relatives, and, following a 
breakup, his new partner. Let’s take a look at 
several of these people from the abused woman’s 
perspective, examining both how the abuser 
recruits them and why they are willing to be his 
front people. 


“Sometimes he and his father rip into me 
together, putting me down and making fun of 

me. His dad is just like him. ” 

“His uncle abuses his aunt and everybody in 
his family can tell, but they never say a word 
about it. ’’ 

“He was arrested for pounding on my door 
when I had a restraining order against him, 
but his sister testified that he’d been over at 
her house that whole night, so he got off. ” 

“His mother and I were good friends, but ever 
since he got arrested for hitting me she won’t 
talk to me, as if I were the bad one. ” 

As these statements by partners of my clients 
illustrate, one fundamental dynamic has changed 
little despite three decades of progress in social 
attitudes toward abuse: No one wants to believe 
that his or her own son or brother is an abusive 
man. Parents don’t want the finger pointed at 
them, so they say: “Our child wouldn’t abuse his 

partner. We brought him up right.” Allegations of 
abuse by the son can draw uncomfortable attention 
to the dynamics of the previous generation; 
abusive men are three times more likely than 
nonabusers to come from homes in which their 
father or stepfather abused their mother. And if the 
father or stepfather is abusive, he shares the son’s 
entitled attitudes and victim-blaming tendencies. 

Family loyalty and collective denial of family 
problems are powerful binding agents. The abuser 
shapes his relatives’ views of his partner over a 
period of years. They have perhaps seen with their 
own eyes how she “overreacts” to certain things 
he does in public, because with no idea of what he 
has been doing to her behind closed doors, they 
can’t accurately judge her behavior. So they 
oppose abuse in the abstract, but they fight fiercely 
for the abuser when he is their own. 



As if the support an abuser receives from his own 
relatives weren’t bad enough, I keep encountering 
cases where the woman’s relatives also come to 
his aid. At a conference I spoke at recently, a 
lawyer stood up to ask: “Why do some of my 
clients find themselves in situations where their 
own families are helping the abusers win 

Every family has tensions within it, and abusers 
use their manipulative skills to take advantage of 
those rifts. In one case, for example, an abuser 
named Ian heard that his ex-wife Tina had fallen 
out with her parents because they were upset that 
she had stopped attending church. Ian made a 
point of starting to make a regular appearance at 
Sunday services and one day found his way to 
“coincidentally” sit near Tina’s relatives. He 
engaged them in a conversation about his 
“concerns” about her loss of faith and how bad he 
felt that Tina wasn’t giving their children the 
benefits of consistent church attendance. He also 

slipped in a few assertions that he knew would 
bring to mind the kind of person who skips 
services, saying, “Our children tell me she’s been 
drinking heavily and bringing a lot of different 
men around the house.” Pretty soon a minor tiff 
had turned into a gigantic one. 

It is uncomfortable for a woman to tell her 
family the details of her partner’s abuse of her. 

She feels ashamed and wants to avoid having 
them ask: “Well, then, why are you with him?” 

But the abuser can take advantage of how much 
her family doesn’t know. He is careful not to 
create the impression he’s bad-mouthing her, 
while subtly planting his poisonous seeds. He 
might say, for example: “She’s telling people now 
that I was abusive to her, and that really hurts me. 
It’s gotten so I don’t want to show my face places 
’cause of what she’s saying. I’m not keeping any 
secrets; I’ll tell you right out that I did slap her one 
day, which I know is wrong. She has this thing 
about saying that my mother is a ‘whore’ ’cause 

she’s been divorced twice, and that really gets to 
me, but I know I should have handled it 

When he leaves, her parents find themselves 
ruminating: “Gee, she didn’t mention anything 
about insulting his mother in that incident. That 
makes it a little different. She can have quite a 
mouth on her, I’ve noticed that myself. He 
shouldn’t slap her, but he’s obviously feeling 
guilty about it now. And he’s willing to admit that 
it’s partly his fault, while she blames it all on him. 
She does that in conflicts with us sometimes; she 
doesn’t realize it takes two to tango.” 

The part about the woman calling his mother a 
degrading name may never have even happened; 
my clients smoothly make up stories to cover their 
worst incidents. But whether or not he is telling 
the truth is almost beside the point; he is playing 
to the societal value, still widely held, that a man’s 
abuse toward a woman is significantly less serious 
if she has behaved rudely herself. 

There continues to be social pressure on women 
to “make the relationship work” and “find a way 
to hold the family together,” regardless of abuse. 
Since so many people accept the misconception 
that abuse comes from bad relationship dynamics, 
they see the woman as sharing responsibility 
equally for “getting things to go better.” Into this 
context steps the abuser, telling his partner’s 
friends, “I still really want to work things out, but 
she isn’t willing to try. I guess it isn’t worth the 
effort to her. And she’s refusing to look at her part 
in what went wrong; she puts it all on me.” 

What her family and friends may not know is 
that when an abused woman refuses to “look at 
her part” in the abuse, she has actually taken a 
powerful step out of self-blame and toward 
emotional recovery. She doesn ’t have any 
responsibility for his actions. Anyone who tries to 
get her to share responsibility is adopting the 
abuser’s perspective. 

Despite the challenges, many, many friends and 

relatives of abused women stay by them. Their 
presence is critical, for it is the level of loyalty, 
respect, patience, and support that an abused 
woman receives from her own friends and family 
that largely determines her ability to recover from 
abuse and stay free. (People wishing to support or 
assist an abused woman they care about should 
read To Be an Anchor in the Storm by Susan 
Brewster. See “Resources.”) 


We need to take a large step back in time for a 
moment, to the early part of Freud’s era, when 
modem psychology was bom. In the 1890s, when 
Freud was in the dawn of his career, he was stmck 
by how many of his female patients were revealing 
childhood incest victimization to him. Freud 
concluded that child sexual abuse was one of the 
major causes of emotional disturbances in adult 
women and wrote a brilliant and humane paper 

called “The Aetiology of Hysteria.” However, 
rather than receiving acclaim from his colleagues 
for his ground-breaking insights, Freud met with 
scorn. He was ridiculed for believing that men of 
excellent reputation (most of his patients came 
from upstanding homes) could be perpetrators of 

Within a few years, Freud buckled under this 
heavy pressure and recanted his conclusions. In 
their place he proposed the “Oedipus complex,” 
which became the foundation of modem 
psychology. According to this theory any young 
girl actually desires sexual contact with her father, 
because she wants to compete with her mother to 
be the most special person in his life. Freud used 
this constmct to conclude that the episodes of 
incestuous abuse his clients had revealed to him 
had never taken place\ they were simply fantasies 
of events the women had wished for when they 
were children and that the women had come to 
believe were real. This constmct started a 

hundred-year history in the mental health field of 
blaming victims for the abuse perpetrated on them 
and outright discrediting of women’s and 
children’s reports of mistreatment by men. 

Once abuse was denied in this way, the stage 
was set for some psychologists to take the view 
that any violent or sexually exploitative behaviors 
that couldn’t be denied—because they were 
simply too obvious—should be considered 
mutually caused. Psychological literature is thus 
full of descriptions of young children who 
“seduce” adults into sexual encounters and of 
women whose “provocative” behavior causes men 
to become violent or sexually assaultive toward 

I wish I could say that these theories have long 
since lost their influence, but I can’t. A 
psychologist who is currently one of the most 
influential professionals nationally in the field of 
custody disputes writes that women provoke 
men’s violence by “resisting their control” or by 

“attempting to leave.” She promotes the Oedipus 
complex theory, including the claim that girls 
wish for sexual contact with their fathers. In her 
writing she makes the observation that young girls 
are often involved in “mutually seductive” 
relationships with their violent fathers, and it is on 
the basis of such “research” that some courts have 
set their protocols. The Freudian legacy thus 
remains strong. 

Hoping to find that the mental health field was 
changing for the better, I recently reviewed the 
current catalogues for various graduate 
professional training programs in clinical and 
counseling psychology, including those from 
programs considered to be on the cutting edge. I 
was unable not only to locate a single course on 
any form of abuse, whether toward partners or 
children, but to locate any reference to abuse in 
the descriptions of courses on any other subject. I 
proceeded to call one of the schools that trains 
clinical psychologists and asked whether they ever 

offer any classes on abuse, and was told: “Well, if 
there is a particular interest in that subject among 
the students, they sometimes organize a student- 
led seminar.” 

The influence of the history of psychological 
thinking remains particularly potent in the field of 
custody evaluation, where mental health 
professionals routinely ignore or minimize 
allegations of partner abuse and child abuse, 
assume that women are hysterical and vindictive, 
and treat all problems as mutual in origin. 

Custody evaluators sometimes become fervent 
advocates for abusive men, joining them in 
accusing the women of alienating children from 
their fathers and refusing to consider the evidence 
of abuse. 

Similar kinds of errors abound in the work of 
many individual and couples therapists. I’ve had 
couples counselors say to me, for example: “He 
just isn’t the type to be abusive; he’s so pleasant 
and insightful, and she’s so angry.” Women speak 

to me with shocked voices of betrayal as they tell 
me how their couples therapist, or the abuser’s 
individual therapist, or a therapist for one of their 
children, has become a vocal advocate for him and 
a harsh and superior critic of her. I have saved for 
years a letter that a psychologist wrote about one 
of my clients, a man who admitted to me that his 
wife was covered with blood and had broken 
bones when he was done beating her and that she 
could have died. The psychologist’s letter 
ridiculed the system for labeling this man a 
“batterer,” saying that he was too reasonable and 
insightful and should not be participating in my 
abuser program any further. The content of the 
letter indicated to me that the psychologist had 
neglected to ever ask the client to describe the 
brutal beating that he had been convicted of. 

Outside the mainstream of psychological 
thinking there are many, many excellent 
practitioners and theorists, ones who take the 
impact of trauma and abuse seriously and who 

believe that most victims are telling the truth. The 
writings of theorists and practitioners such as 
Judith Herman, Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Jaffe, 
Angela Browne, John Myers, Susan Schechter, 
Anna Salter, Beverly James, and countless others 
serve to counter the hostility toward the oppressed 
of the prevailing professional atmosphere. I have 
come to know dozens of therapists who treat 
female clients with respect and play an 
empowering role in women’s recovery from abuse. 
But psychologists who are trained in the area of 
trauma remain exceptional, and the battle to 
reform psychological thinking has just begun. 
Before selecting a therapist for yourself or for your 
child, be sure to interview possible choices 
carefully, exploring their knowledge of and values 
concerning trauma and abuse. As for conjoint 
counseling for you and your abusive partner, I 
recommend that you strictly avoid it, for reasons 
that we will see further ahead. 



Back in the first chapter, we met a man named 
Paul who had divorced his wife and was now 
seeing Laura. Laura felt terrible for Paul because 
he was such a sweet man and his ex-wife was 
accusing him of having abused her. Laura was 
determined to “be there” for Paul, and even 
hoping to help him win custody because his ex- 
wife was “out of control.” Dozens of ex-partners 
of my clients have described how the abusive 
man’s new partner takes on a role similar to 
Laura’s: “His girlfriend is worse than he is. She 
talks to me like I’m dirt and she spreads bad 
things about me. I’d almost rather deal with him. I 
think she puts him up to some of the stuff he does. 
She’s a bitch.” 

Perhaps his new partner really is a mean, 
hostile woman, but there is an equally good 
chance that she isn’t. Look through her eyes for a 

moment. The abuser is re-creating the same 
dynamic he set up with you, beginning with 
loving, attentive treatment in the early months of 
dating. He speaks to her with downcast eyes that 
well up with tears as he recounts how mean and 
unreasonable you were and how you called him 
abusive whenever he refused to bow to your 
control. If you have children with him, his 
girlfriend’s heart is bleeding because he cries in 
front of her about how much he misses them and 
says that you are keeping them away from him out 
of pure vindictiveness or out of a desire to turn 
them over to another man to be their dad. I 
currently have a case, for example, where the 
abusive father decided not to see his son for six 
months—he even put his decision in writing, in a 
document that I read—and then complained 
publicly that he was being denied visits. Paul has 
probably misled Laura in some similar ways. His 
girlfriend sees a kind, loving parent whose desire 
to maintain a relationship with his children is 

being thwarted; how could she not hate you? 

He may remain on good behavior with his new 
girlfriend even longer than he did with you 
because he is motivated by his campaign against 
you. Of course, his other side will slip out sooner 
or later, but by that time he can blame it all on 
how badly you have hurt him. His girlfriend thus 
gets sucked into breaking her back trying to prove 
that she’s a good woman—unlike you. She hopes 
that if she demonstrates her loyalty to him, he’ll 
become loving and available to her once again, as 
he was at the beginning. So she wants to show 
him she is really there for him by joining with—or 
even outdoing—his hostility toward and blaming 
of you. 

By the time his selfish and abusive side finally 
gets so bad that his new girlfriend can’t rationalize 
it away any more, she’s in pretty deep. She may 
even have married him by that time. For her to 
accept that he is an abuser, she would have to face 
what a terrible wrong she did to you, and that 

would be quite a bitter pill to swallow. So what 
tends to happen instead is that his new partner 
becomes angrier and angrier at you for the way 
she is being treated by him, believing that you 
“made him this way” by hurting him so badly. 

A couple of years ago I worked with a woman 
who said to me, “I really hated his ex-girlfriend, 
but now I’m realizing he must have done the same 
stuff to her he’s doing to me.” Her guilt weighed 
heavily upon her. Women tend to need a long time 
before they can accept having been used in this 

In the story of Paul and Laura we never meet 
Paul’s ex-wife, but I have talked to two dozen or 
more women in her position among the ex¬ 
partners of my clients. It is difficult to capture the 
pain I hear in the voices of women whose abusive 
ex-partners are attempting to take their children 
away from them through the legal system, and the 
fact that they have a female ally helping them 
carry out that nefarious plan is almost too much to 

bear. The mothers ask me: “Does she realize what 
she is doing? Has she bothered to think about 
what it’s like for a mother to be threatened with 
losing her children? What if he turns around years 
from now and does the same thing to her?” 

At the same time, I believe it’s important not to 
judge the new partner too harshly. I sometimes say 
to women, “You know how manipulative he can 
be, and he is sure to be feeding her carefully 
crafted distortions. I’m not saying you should 
excuse her actions, I’m just reminding you that the 
one behind it all is him, not her. If you pour 
energy into hating her, you are inadvertently 
serving his interests.” We do, however, need to 
create a social ethic that makes it clear that anyone 
who chooses to go to bat for a man accused of 
abuse has a responsibility to get all the facts and 
not just the view that he promotes. The abuse of 
women is simply too rampant for anyone to 
assume that an allegation is false or exaggerated 
without checking it out very, very carefully. 

Finally, I have had several cases in which the 
abuser’s new partner was a man who became a 
gunner for the abuser against the abused woman 
just as a new female partner sometimes does. 
Some peer groups of gay men have negative 
attitudes toward women and become cheerleaders 
for abuse just as straight male peers can. 


You have undoubtedly come in contact at some 
point in your life with a person driven by a deep 
attraction to exercising power over others. Partner 
abusers have no monopoly on the desire to 
intimidate or manipulate, or on the skills for 
accumulating power and using it for selfish 
purposes or emotional gratification. Among 
professionals, for example—including those who 
are expected to respond constructively to abusers 
and their partners—there are some individuals 

who are motivated not by caring and respect but 
by hunger for control. Not everyone who enters 
police work wishes to be a public servant; there 
are those who look forward primarily to carrying a 
gun, pushing their weight around, and being 
above the law. I know many humane judges who 
take an interest in the challenges that people face 
and seek fair and practical responses. But I watch 
others who appear to get satisfaction out of 
insulting those who come before them, dismissing 
their concerns and perspectives, and acting with 
impunity. Among therapists there are plenty 
whose goal is teamwork, while others look down 
on their clients and speak condescendingly, 
making pronouncements about what each person 
“really” thinks, feels, and needs to do. There are 
custody evaluators who are eager to lend a hand 
through the painful process of divorce, but a 
tragically large number appears to be enamored 
with the power over the lives of men, women, and 
children that their custody recommendations give 


People who are attracted to power and tend to 
abuse it have important common ground with a 
man who abuses women. For example, a 
dictatorial boss is bound to encounter some 
occasions when an employee finally gets fed up 
enough to swear at her, stomp out of the office, 
and quit. A manager who coerces his female 
subordinates into sexual contact with him may get 
reported for sexual harassment sooner or later. The 
abuser of power feels outraged when his or her 
victims attempt to defend themselves in these 
ways and considers them to be the unreasonable or 
aggressive ones. So it is not surprising that such a 
person, when looking at a woman who is 
complaining of abuse by a man, might have the 
following thoughts: “This woman is another one 
of those people who likes the role of victim. I 
know what they’re like because I have to deal with 
them myself: They are never grateful no matter 
how much you do for them; they don’t know their 

place; and everything turns into an accusation of 
mistreatment.” The abuser of power thus may 
personalize the woman’s resistance to oppression 
and feel a strong desire to retaliate on behalf of the 
abusive man, and in fact I have often observed this 
disturbing eagerness among some professionals to 
jump on abused women with both feet. Their 
statements have sometimes confirmed to me that 
they do indeed have the kind of thought process I 
have just described—coupled of course with the 
usual myths regarding women’s hysterical 
exaggerations and their provocation of men’s 

A professional who is drawn to abusing power 
seems to have particularly strong reactions if the 
woman challenges his or her actions in any way or 
attempts to explain the effects the abuser has had 
on her. The underlying attitude sometimes appears 
to be: “How dare you continue to attempt to think 
for yourself when I am here before you with my 
obviously superior knowledge, status, judgment, 

and insight?” An abused woman can walk away 
from an interaction with such a professional 
feeling like she has just been beaten up, re¬ 
creating the ugliness of the verbal or physical 
abuse she has suffered from her partner. A number 
of abused women have said to me, for example, 
“The police came to my house one time after he 
pushed me around, but they were angry and 
insulting to me and kind of buddied up to him, 
and when I complained about how they were 
treating me they told me if I didn’t shut up they 
would arrest me.” I have been involved in cases 
where some judges and custody evaluators—both 
male and female—go out of their way to discredit 
and demean women who report abuse and request 
protection for themselves or their children, and if 
the woman protests the professional response they 
explode into verbally abusing her or retaliating 
against her. In this way the mentality and tactics 
of certain professionals can closely parallel those 
of abusers, and the result is revictimization of the 


In some institutions whose own power 
dynamics have tended to fall badly on abused 
women in these ways, such as police departments, 
courts, and child protective services, social 
pressure has brought about the creation of 
positions for abused women’s advocates or 
domestic-violence specialists whose job it is to 
make sure that the abused woman is not 
revictimized by the system that should be there to 
protect her rights. If you are involved with one of 
these systems, find out whether an abuse specialist 
is on staff and, if so, request to bring that person 
into your case. 


Some attorneys for abusers are in a class by 
themselves. I have rarely seen anyone become as 
vicious and unprincipled in the role of coabuser of 
a man’s partner as certain lawyers do. Woman 

after woman has described to me the way her heart 
begins to race when she sees the abuser’s attorney 
at court or the jolt she feels when court papers 
prepared by the attorney arrive at her home. 

An abuser or accused abuser of course has the 
right to legal representation, as anyone does. But 
does offering proper legal counsel mean that the 
attorney needs to insult and deride the woman, 
make far-fetched accusations against her, treat 
every allegation made by the man as gospel truth, 
and even lie at times to promote his goals? Of 
course not. However, such conduct is disturbingly 
widespread among certain defense attorneys who 
represent accused abusers as well as among some 
family law attorneys handling custody and 
visitation cases. Some of this behavior appears to 
be motivated by economics: Attorneys can build a 
successful practice if word gets around that they 
specialize in representing accused abusers. 

Abusers love it when they hear that a certain 
attorney has a reputation for “really going for the 

woman’s jugular,” since that ruthless orientation 
is in keeping with their own. Women are 
sometimes as traumatized by their ex-partner’s 
attorney as they were by him. 

There is an urgent need for the creation of legal 
standards for attorneys who represent accused 
abusers, so that a sharp line is drawn between 
giving a man a proper chance to have his side 
heard in court, which is his legal right, and acting 
as a weapon of the man’s abuse, allowing him to 
cause financial and psychological damage that 
would have been impossible for him without the 
lawyer’s assistance. 


It is not possible to be truly balanced in one’s 
views of an abuser and an abused woman. As Dr. 
Judith Herman explains eloquently in her 
masterwork Trauma and Recovery, “neutrality” 
actually serves the interests of the perpetrator 

much more than those of the victim and so is not 
neutral. 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 
problems as partly her fault and partly his fault, 
which means it isn’t abuse. 

I was speaking with a person one day who was 
describing the abusive relationship of a man and 
woman, both of whom were friends of hers. “They 
each want me to side with them,” she explained to 
me, “but I refuse to take sides. They have to work 
out their own dynamics. I have let both of them 
know that I’m there for them. If I openly 
supported her, he would just dig his heels in 
harder.” She added, “People need to avoid the 
temptation to choose up teams” in a tone that 
indicated that she considered herself to be of 
superior maturity because of her neutrality. 

In reality, to remain neutral is to collude with 
the abusive man, whether or not that is your goal. 

If you are aware of chronic or severe mistreatment 
and do not speak out against it, your silence 
communicates implicitly that you see nothing 
unacceptable taking place. Abusers interpret 
silence as approval, or at least as forgiveness. To 
abused women, meanwhile, the silence means that 
no one will help—just what her partner wants her 
to believe. Anyone who chooses to quietly look the 
other way therefore unwittingly becomes the 
abuser’s ally. 

Breaking the silence does not necessarily mean 
criticizing or confronting the abuser regarding his 
behavior. It certainly doesn’t mean going to him 
with anything you have learned from her, because 
the abuser will retaliate against her for talking 
about his behavior to other people. It does mean 
telling the abused woman privately that you don’t 
like the way he is treating her and that she doesn’t 
deserve it, no matter what she has done. And if 
you see or hear violence or threats, it means 
calling the police. 



Almost anyone can become an ally of an abusive 
man by inadvertently adopting his perspective. 
People usually don’t even notice that they are 
supporting abusive thinking, or they wouldn’t do 
it. Let’s examine some of the most co mm on forms 
of accidental support: 

• The person who says to the abused woman: 

“You should show him some compassion even if 
he has done bad things. Don’t forget that he’s a 
human being too. ” 

I have almost never worked with an abused 
woman who overlooked her partner’s humanity. 
The problem is the reverse: He forgets her 
humanity. Acknowledging his abusiveness and 
speaking forcefully and honestly about how he has 
hurt her is indispensable to her recovery. It is the 
abuser’s perspective that she is being mean to him 
by speaking bluntly about the damage he has 

done. To suggest to her that his need for 
compassion should come before her right to live 
free from abuse is consistent with the abuser’s 
outlook. I have repeatedly seen the tendency 
among friends and acquaintances of an abused 
woman to feel that it is their responsibility to 
make sure that she realizes what a good person he 
really is inside —in other words, to stay focused 
on his needs rather than on her own, which is a 
mistake. People who wish to help an abused 
woman should instead be telling her what a good 
person she is. 

• The person who says to her: “But he’s the 
father of your children. ” 

The abusive man uses the children to entrap the 
woman in the relationship, saying that she is 
depriving them of a father by splitting up the 
family. But he is the one who is keeping those 
children from having the father they need, by 
forcing them to grow up with a father who abuses 
their mother. Children need an abuse-free home. 

• The person who says to her: “You made a 
commitment, and now you need to stick with it 
through hard times. ’’ 

The abusive man believes that chronic 
mistreatment, overt disrespect, intimidation, and 
even violence are not good enough reasons for a 
woman to want to stay away from a man. When 
people say to her, “You made your bed; now lie in 
it,” they are supporting the abuser’s value system. 

• The person who says to her: “You are claiming 
to be a helpless victim. ” 

If the abuser could hear these words being spoken 
to his partner, he would jump for joy. He may 
have said the very same thing to her. The abuser’s 
perspective is that the woman exaggerates the 
hurtfulness of his conduct because she wants the 
status of victim, attributing to her the maneuvers 
that he is actually fond of using himself. When an 
abused woman tries to tell you how bad things 
are, listen. 

• The person who says: “These abuse activists 
are anti-male. ” 

How is it anti-male to be against abuse? Are we 
supposed to pretend we don’t notice that the 
overwhelming majority of abusers are male? This 
accusation parallels the abuser’s words to his 
partner: “The reason you think I’m abusive is 
because you have a problem with men!” One of 
the best counters to this piece of side-tracking is to 
point out how many men are active in combating 
the abuse of women. Remember also that abused 
women are the sisters, daughters, mothers, and 
friends of men; men’s lives are affected by abuse, 
because it happens to women we know and care 

I HAVE GIVEN just a few of the dozens of 
examples I have encountered of how people take 
on the abuser’s view of his abuse. When you hear 
these kinds of statements, draw the speaker’s 

attention to the fact that he or she is making the 
abuser’s arguments for him. Most people don’t 
want to carry his banner and will drop it quickly 
once you show them what is in their hands. 

It is impossible for a community to stop abuse 
while continuing to assist or ignore abusers at the 
same time. Protecting or enabling an abuser is as 
morally repugnant as the abuse itself. This 
critical concept needs to become firmly embedded 
in our culture. Colluding with abuse abandons the 
abused woman and her children, and ultimately 
abandons the abuser as well, since it keeps him 
from ever dealing with his problem. In particular 
we have to bring to light the actions of those 
powerful, well-trained professionals who choose 
to join the abuser in his goals and tactics. If we 
can erode the ability of abusers to gain allies, they 
will stand alone, and alone they are easier to stop. 

It often falls to the abused woman herself, 
unfortunately, to try to educate the people around 
her whose help and support she needs, so that they 

will understand the dynamics of abuse and stop 
supporting the abusive man. Much of why an 
abuser is so able to recruit allies, besides his own 
manipulativeness and charm, is his skill in 
playing on people’s ignorance and misconceptions 
and often on their negative attitudes toward 
women. As difficult as it is to take on, you will 
often find yourself having to be your own best 
advocate, arguing forcefully against the range of 
ways in which your society’s values may buy into 
the abusive man’s outlook, in order to gain the 
kind of strong backing that you deserve from all 
those around you. 


• When people take a neutral stand 
between you and your abusive partner, 
they are in effect supporting him and 
abandoning you, no matter how much 

they may claim otherwise. 

People cannot claim to be opposed to 
partner abuse while assisting their own 
son, brother, friend, or partner in his 
abusiveness toward a woman. 

Everyone should be very, very cautious in 
accepting a man’s claim that he has been 
wrongly accused of abuse or violence. 

The great majority of allegations of abuse 
—though not all—are substantially 
accurate. And an abuser almost never 
“seems like the type.” 

The argument that “he is a human being, 
too, and he deserves emotional support” 
should not be used as an excuse to 
support a man’s abusiveness. Our society 
should not buy into the abusive man’s 
claim that holding him accountable is an 
act of cruelty. 


The Abusive Man and the Legal System 

He’s on probation for hitting me, but he 
acts like it’s a big joke. 

He’s been arrested four times, but he 
always gets off 

I called the police and reported that he 
violated the restraining order, but they 
said since he didn’t get violent or 
threatening this time, the violation is too 
minor for them to do anything about it. 

The D.A. wants me to testify, but there’s 
no way I’m going in that courthouse 
again. Last time his defense attorney 
humiliated me; it’s just not worth it. 

The judge told me that we should go to 
couples counseling to work on our 
relationship issues. 

He’s been sending me scary letters from 
jail. What should I do? 

women’s experience of abuse is fear, fear of what 
he will do if you stand up to him; fear of how he 
will react if he finds out you’ve been spending 
time with your friends, whom he hates; fear of 
what he might do to one of your children; fear that 
he will get you pregnant again; fear of how he 
may retaliate if you try to leave him. 

Sometimes a woman can describe to me what 
she is afraid of, because her partner’s bullying and 
cruelty follow a pattern. You may dread his insults 
and his rage or his contempt and disgust. If he is 
violent, you may get shaky when images go 
through your mind of his twisted, hate-filled face 
as he slams his fists. At times it may seem like he 

could kill you—and he may threaten to. 

In other cases, the fear is unnameable. You 
might find yourself saying to a friend: “I don’t 
know what he’ll do; there’s no way to tell with 
him, but he’ll do something, and it’s going to be 
bad.” Waiting for the punishment can be even 
harder when you don’t know what it will be. Even 
the abuser who has never used violence knows 
that there can always be a first time—and he may 
well be aware that you know that too. So he looks 
for ways, perhaps explicit or perhaps enigmatic, to 
remind you not to “push him too far,” because you 
won’t want to see what happens. 

The impact of fear accumulates over time. The 
twentieth time a loved one scares you is not the 
same as the first. You become enraged, or 
paralyzed, or numb, or all of those at the same 
time. You feel like it’s harder and harder to figure 
out what to do. 

If your partner is physically frightening or 
sexually assaultive, one option you can consider to 

gain protection for your rights and safety is to use 
the legal system. You can call the police to report 
an assault or a threat, or go to a court and ask for a 
restraining order (which also may be known as a 
“protective order” or “peace bond”). The 
restraining order may require the abuser to move 
out of the house, even if it is in his name; to stay 
away from you; or to have no contact with you of 
any kind, depending on what arrangement you feel 
you need. 

The first time a woman considers involving the 
police or courts in her relationship, something 
inside her rebels. This is a man she loves, or at 
least once loved, with whom she has a history, 
with whom she has shared the highs and lows of 
moments of physical or emotional intimacy, with 
whom she may have children. She thinks to 
herself incredulously, I am going to get a court 
order against this man? Iam going to call the 
police and let them arrest him? Iam going to 
cause him to have a criminal record, or perhaps 

even go to jail?? She shuts these preposterous- 
seeming possibilities out of her mind. 

Relationship problems are solved by talking, or 
by seeking counseling, or by taking some time 
apart, she tells herself, not by using laws and 
judges and police departments. 

But if the woman’s partner continues to frighten 
her—and it is unusual for scary behavior to stop 
once it rears its head—sooner or later she finds 
herself feeling that the situation has gone beyond 
what she can handle herself The step of reaching 
out for legal help then stops seeming so farfetched. 

Or she may become involved with the legal 
system without making the choice. Neighbors, 
bystanders, or her own children may call the 
police during a scary incident. Neighbors are 
much less likely nowadays to put their hands over 
their ears and pretend that nothing is happening; 
the traditional belief that domestic violence is a 
“private matter” is rapidly fading. Schools now 
teach children how to use 911 and sometimes even 

explain to children that they have a right to safety 
inside their homes, not just outside. 

A woman who faces purely verbal or economic 
abuse from her partner, without the elements of 
physical assault, sexual assault, or physical 
intimidation, generally does not have recourse to 
the police or courts under current laws. The 
impact on her of her partner’s behavior may be 
severe nonetheless, but she will need to seek other 
sources of support, beginning with the nearest 
program for abused women. 





A call to the police or a visit to the court to seek a 
restraining order is a courageous and potentially 
empowering step. But an abused woman can also 
encounter some nasty surprises. Although the 
legal system is supposed to be her friend and 
protector, sometimes public officials seem to 
forget their job. Legal responses to abuse involve 
many players, each of whom has the potential to 
help the woman—or to drop the ball. When police 
are called to your home, they have a responsibility 
to make sure that you and your children are safe 
and to arrest the abuser if he has been violent or 
threatening. If he has violated a restraining order, 
the police should take him away even if he “only 
committed a technical violation” of the order or 
has some “good reason” for being there, such as 
asserting that you called him up and asked him to 
come over, or that he just wanted to drop off gifts 
for the children. 

If the police do not arrest the abuser, or were 
never called, responsibility next falls to the court 

to file a charge. If you report to the court that you 
were assaulted or threatened, or that your partner 
broke a restraining order, your word is evidence. 
Courts can, and do, file charges on the basis of 
victim reports alone, but tragically they can be 
reluctant to do so in cases of domestic abuse or 
sexual assault. Courts reserve a special skepticism 
toward women who complain of abuse by a 
partner, and disparaging biases against females 
are still the rule of the day in some courts—even 
among female employees. 

If the court does file a charge, the baton then 
passes to the district attorney. His or her job is to 
take the crime just as seriously as if it had been 
committed by a stranger and to pursue a 
conviction just as assiduously. The fact that the 
accused is your partner should make no difference 
or should actually lead the prosecutor to consider 
the offense more dangerous. Negotiations between 
the prosecutor and the abuser that fail to address 
the central issue of abuse—such as agreeing to 

reduce the charges if the abuser sees a therapist, or 
dropping the charges because the couple has split 
up “so it’s not an issue anymore”—have no place 
here. But they sometimes creep in. 

Next comes the judge, who not only makes 
sentencing decisions but, unless there is a jury 
trial, also is the one ruling on the man’s guilt or 
innocence. Will the judge apply the same 
standards of proof used for other cases, or will he 
or she require a higher standard for domestic 
violence or sexual assault cases? Studies have 
shown that it is harder to convince judges and 
juries to convict in abuse cases, because of 
prejudices against the complainants as well as 
misconceptions about what “type” of man would 
commit such a crime. 

A judge is also the one who grants or denies a 
restraining order to protect the woman. Some 
judges listen carefully to plaintiffs’ concerns, 
whereas others assume that women are lying and 
exaggerating. A remarkable number of judges 

grant restraining orders to abusers to use against 
their victims or grant mutual orders, which 
validate the abuser’s claim that his partner shares 
responsibility for causing his scary behavior. 

And finally comes the probation department at 
the court. It is rare for an abuser to spend time in 
jail unless he is on his third or fourth conviction, 
which typically would mean five or ten or more 
arrests. So his probation officer becomes the 
person who determines whether or not the abuser 
feels the bite of consequences or is left to coast. I 
have worked with probation officers who send 
abusers an unequivocal message: “Domestic 
abuse is a serious offense. I will not permit you to 
get away with blaming your victim in any way, 
and it is up to you to do some serious work on 
yourself.” But I have also worked with many 
others who buddy up to the abuser with a wink 
and a nod, who bond with him in the belief that 
there exists an anti-male bias in the court system 
and who signal him that he needn’t take the 

abuser program seriously by saying things such 
as: “Just show up to your required number of 
group meetings and we’ll get you right olf 

The front doors of police departments and 
courthouses sometimes open into cold and 
adversarial worlds. Police and courts may have 
little training in how to respond to a person who 
has suffered chronic or terrifying abuse. Even if 
they don’t say or do anything unkind, their 
brusque, businesslike manner can feel like an icy 
slap in the face to a woman who seeks relief from 
psychological assault and intimidation at home. 
And too often, regrettably, they share the abuser’s 
attitudes. I could not possibly count the number of 
women who have said to me: “I wish those people 
down at the court could live my life for a day and 
see what it’s like.” 

On the other hand a kind word, a useful 
pamphlet, some patient listening can touch an 
abused woman deeply. Increasingly I hear women 

say: “The police who came were so nice to me: 
They talked to me in private and asked me what 
happened, and they told me about programs where 
I could get help,” or “The judge said not to 
hesitate to come back if there were more problems 
or if I needed additional protection.” When an 
abused woman encounters humane, intelligent 
responses from officials who are informed on the 
subject of abuse, not only is her external freedom 
promoted but her inner feelings are validated, 
helping to keep her spirit alive. She walks away 
thinking, Maybe everything isn’t the way he says 
it is. Maybe some people do care. Maybe I’m not 
so bad as to deserve being torn down all the time. 
Maybe he can’t fool everybody.” And the budding 
belief that life can be filled with something other 
than cruelty and superiority grows a little stronger 
inside her. 

In the pages ahead, we will look at how the 
abuser views and maneuvers through the legal 
system, trying to prevent his partner from 

receiving empowering assistance and striving to 
avoid accountability. Armed with this awareness, 
both individuals and communities are in a better 
position to press the police, courts, and 
prosecutors to do their jobs properly and become 
part of the solution rather than part of the problem 
of abuse. 


My clients support laws that prohibit domestic 
abuse—as long as they are applied only to other 
men. Each one has a mental image of what a “real 
abuser” is like, and it isn’t him. In his mind, the 
“real abuser” is more violent and scary than he is 
and has a partner who is “a nice lady” who 
doesn’t deserve abuse. Dozens of my clients have 
said to me: “I’m not like those guys who come 
home and abuse their partners for no reason, you 
know.” A man who minimizes and excuses his 

abuse in these ways is shocked when the police 
arrest him or when a court orders him to vacate his 
home. He feels outraged at the unfairness of the 
system. He thinks, With all those horrible 
batterers out there, why are they coming after 
me? This is ridiculous! 

Since he can’t accept the idea that he is abusive, 
he has to find something wrong with everyone else 
—another example of the abuser seeing his dirty 
face and washing the mirror. His thinking is rife 
with distortions, including the following: 

• “She really exaggerated what I did. ” 

His first line of mental defense is to impugn her 
honesty and accuse her of being calculating: “She 
told the police I punched her in the face, because 
she knew that would make me look like a real bad 
guy. I only slapped her, and no harder than she 
slaps me.” My response to such statements is to 
say that just because she remembers the incident 
differently doesn’t mean her version is wrong and 
his is right; in fact, abused women typically have 

memories of what occurred that are clearer and 
more accurate than those of the abuser, because of 
the hyperalert manner in which people react to any 
danger. And even if this time he is technically 
right that his hand was open, what difference does 
it make? He obviously hit her hard enough to 
make her think that she was punched, so he is not 
a candidate for my sympathy. Besides, even if it 
was a slap, that’s enough to hurt a woman and put 
her in fear. 

• “The judge didn’t even want to hear about what 
she did. In court the man is automatically wrong, 
so the woman can do whatever she wants. ” 

The abuser feels justified in using intimidation 
“when it’s really called for,” so he gets frustrated 
if he finds that court officials do not find his 
excuses about her behavior compelling or don’t 
even want to hear them. He feels that if the court 
is going to take action against him for 
intimidating her, then it should simultaneously 
crack down on her for hanging around with 

friends of hers whom he dislikes, talking back to 
him when he tells her to shut up, fighting back 
physically when he is assaulting or threatening 
her, or whatever his grievances may be. 

• “The system is controlled by women. ” 

Every aspect of the multipronged legal system 
even today is dominated by males: police, 
prosecutors, judges, probation officers. In 
addition, the state legislatures that make the laws 
are still disproportionately male. So how does the 
abuser come to the far-fetched conclusion that 
women are somehow lurking in the shadows, 
pulling strings to cause him to suffer 
consequences for his actions when he thinks there 
shouldn’t be any? This absurd leap occurs for two 
reasons. One is that he already has well- 
entrenched habits of blaming women for his own 
behavior. So when society sends him the message 
that he is responsible for what he does, he just 
widens the scope of his blame-projecting machine 
to target all women. The second is that if he didn’t 

blame women, he would have to accept the fact 
that a large proportion of men are opposed to what 
he is doing. Cultural values are changing, slowly 
but surely, and abusers cannot always count on 
other men to back them up anymore—a fact that 
makes them feel betrayed so they close their eyes 
to it. 

• “I’ve never experienced any consequences for 
my abuse before. It isn 7 going to suddenly 
happen now. ” 

Once the abuser recovers from his initial shock at 
legal intrusion into his private domain, he falls 
back on one of his core assumptions, which is that 
he can get away with it. He starts manipulating 
court officials the same way he manipulates his 
partner and the people around her. Unfortunately, 
his sense of invulnerability is not as deluded as it 
may seem; abusers slide by in ways that can be 
startling to watch. And the abuser who coasts 
through court is often worse than he would have 
been had he never been arrested; he feels that his 

belief that nothing can stick to him has been 
confirmed, and he feels vindicated before the 
world, with the result that his abusive behavior 
may escalate. 

• “Nothing is going to stop me. ” 

This last attitude is less pervasive, belonging to 
that minority of abusers who are unimpressed by 
legal consequences and who will stop at nothing 
to maintain their control of their partners. This 
style of man finds ways to be abusive and 
controlling even from jail, either sending letters or 
relaying messages through friends to keep her 
frightened. Jail doesn’t convince him that he has 
done anything wrong; it just sharpens his appetite 
for revenge. Abused women, and the communities 
that support them, need to be alert to the need to 
take additional steps to prepare for the eventual 
release of the hell-bent abuser. 

Keep the above attitudes in mind as we observe 
the abuser’s approach to the various legal 
situations he faces; his moves follow predictably 

from this thinking. 



Anyone who believes that abusers lose control of 
themselves should peer through the window when 
the police enter a home. Hundreds of women have 
told me: “It’s as if he could flick a switch. The 
police arrive, and he’s suddenly cool as a 
cucumber. Meanwhile, I’m freaking out, so of 
course they think something is wrong with me. 
They don’t believe he could settle down that fast.” 
If abusers truly had tremendous problems 
managing their anger, if they were as emotionally 
vulnerable or deeply injured from childhood as 
they often maintain, they wouldn’t be able to shut 
themselves off like a faucet as soon as a cop 
knocks on the door. 

Abusers tell stories to the police of hard luck 
and misunderstanding, of unstable or drunk 

women and helpless, well-intentioned men who 
are trying to fend off disaster. The most co mm on 
routines are variations on the following themes: 

• “It was just a verbal argument, there was no 
hitting. ” 

He hopes that the police will ignore any signs of 
chairs knocked over, plates smashed, or scratches 
on her arms (or his). He assumes his partner will 
be too scared to tell the truth or that she’ll feel 
responsible for protecting him. 

• “She was hitting me over and over again while I 
tried to get out of the apartment, and all I did was 
push her out of my way so I could get out. ” 

How many women want to keep an enraged man 
trapped indoors? Not many, unless perhaps the 
man is threatening to commit suicide or to attack 
one of her friends or relatives. In the rare cases 
where a client of mine is telling the truth that his 
egress was blocked, he still had other options 
besides assault, including going out the back door. 

I’ve never yet had a man tell me that he was 
unable to get to the phone to call for assistance, for 
example, in the way that has happened to 
hundreds of the female partners of my clients. 

Countless clients of mine claim self-defense as 
an excuse, but then they admit that they were not 
frightened or injured by their partners nor was the 
woman able to successfully control their 
movements or keep them from saying whatever 
they wanted. It’s payback, not self-defense. 

Among the two thousand clients I have had, I can 
think of only one who genuinely had a problem 
with serious violence on his wife’s part that was 
not a reaction to violence, and even he was not 
especially afraid of her. 

• “She was drunk and was going out to drive, and 
I was just trying to get the keys away from her. ” 

This excuse is a tricky one, because abused 
women sometimes do develop alcohol or drug 
problems, usually because of the abuser’s 
behavior. However, her addiction is no excuse to 

abuse her further. Unfortunately, if a woman is 
visibly intoxicated when the police come, they 
may feel inclined to believe the abuser and 
discredit her. If I ask a few questions, though, I 
usually find out that the reason she was trying to 
leave the house was that he had been on a 
mounting verbal rampage that day, and she was 
trying to get away from a physical assault that she 
could tell was coming soon. 

• “She said that if I didn’t give her more money, 
she’d call the police and say that I hit her. ” 

I have heard this story from so many of my clients 
that I find myself wondering if they are all 
graduates of the same Abuse Academy. I have yet 
to encounter a case in which there turned out to be 
any truth to this claim, even when the man was 
asserting at first that he had witnesses. 

• “Ijust stepped in to protect our child from her 
abuse. ” 

Again, a situation in which a nonabusive man had 

to take physical steps to protect a child from an 
assaultive mother could truly arise, but he would 
do so by removing the child, not by assaulting the 

Carrying false allegations of domestic violence 
all the way through to a conviction is 
extraordinarily hard to do. If a vindictive woman 
really wants to stick it to a man, there are ways to 
do it that are more satisfying, less time 
consuming, and far less prone to failure. There 
isn’t the slightest evidence that rates of false 
allegations for domestic abuse are higher than for 
any other kind of crime. In fact, research suggests 
that they may be lower. 

When an abuser is accused of violating a 
restraining order, he has another set of 
explanations ready, including: 

• “It’s just a coincidence that we were there at 
the same time. I had no idea she would be 
present. ” 

In determining the legitimacy of this excuse, I 

have noticed that men who are determined to obey 
their restraining orders always seem to find ways 
to stay away from the woman, whereas other 
abusers seem to “just by accident” keep violating 
the order over and over again. 

• “I didn 7 realize I wasn 7 allowed to even send a 
letter. ” 

Even when this excuse is true, it shows the man’s 
contempt for both his partner and for the court, 
since it means he didn’t bother to read the order. 
And he doesn’t need an attorney to analyze the 
statement “Do not contact the plaintiff.” 

• “Ijust called to speak to the children because I 
miss them terribly. 

I haven 7 had visitation with them in two 
months. ” 

No excuse pulls heartstrings down at the police 
department and courthouse quite the way this one 
does. Several of my clients who have used this 
excuse actually did have visitation rights but were 

choosing not to use them because they didn’t like 
the terms. They stated: “If I can only see them one 
afternoon a week, or if I have to see them with a 
supervisor, I’m not going to see them at all.” So 
much for the devoted fathers they claim to be. 

Even in cases where the mother or the court has 
indeed denied the abuser visitation, he knows 
perfectly well what he is doing when he calls the 
home and the feelings of fear and invasion it will 
cause the mother. If his concern for his children is 
as profound as he claims, he can prove it by doing 
what his children need from him the most—deal 
seriously with his abuse problem. 

WHEN THE POLICE go to a home on a 
domestic-abuse call, the woman sometimes 
scrambles to cover for her abusive partner. 
Consider her position: She knows that in a few 
minutes the police will leave her house and she 
will remain there alone, either with the abuser or 
without him. If the police do arrest him, it is only 

a matter of time until he is released—and angrier 
than ever. She calculates that her safest position is 
beside her partner; if she teams up with him, he 
might not rip her to pieces when the police car 
disappears up the street. Even if she called for 
help herself, she wasn’t necessarily looking for an 
arrest; most women call to get a scary experience 
to stop. They want the police to calm the man 
down and typically would like him removed from 
the home for the night. But jail, even just for a day 
or two? Few women would want to see that 
happen unless they have suffered a long history of 
abuse by him. 

At the same time, women are noticeably more 
likely to tell the truth to the police than they were 
fifteen years ago. Although the abuser may say, 
“You put me in jail!”, the reality is that he put 
himself there, and an increasing number of people 
are beginning to understand this crucial point. 
Why should you have to suffer abuse to protect 
him from the pain or humiliation of being locked 

up? He knows what he needs to change in order to 
keep the police from being called the next time. 

It’s on him. 

I am not recommending that you stand by idly 
while the police arrest your partner if you fear that 
he may kill you when he gets out. Every woman 
has to make her own decisions based on what she 
knows about the status of her own safety; you are 
the expert on your own partner. You may know 
from your experience that the legal system is not 
going to be able to control his behavior and that 
you will have to seek alternate strategies for 
safety, such as planning an escape. 



Throughout almost all of the United States and 
Canada, a woman who is being physically abused, 
sexually assaulted, or physically threatened by an 
intimate partner or ex-partner has the option to 

seek an order of protection from a court to keep 
the abuser away from her. (Purely psychological 
abuse without these elements of threat or assault is 
generally not covered under the laws governing 
protective orders.) In some areas there are 
important gaps in eligibility, however, such as 
states where a woman cannot get an order against 
a lesbian partner who is abusing her or cannot get 
an order if she has never lived with or been 
married to the abuser. There are also places where, 
regrettably, the woman is required to pay a 
substantial fee in order to obtain the order. Call 
either the courthouse or your local program for 
abused women to find out whether you are eligible 
to seek an order and what the process is for 
obtaining one. 

The question of whether and when to obtain a 
restraining order is a complex one that no one can 
answer for you. Consider the following points in 
making your decision: 

1. Is he afraid of the police, courts, or jail? 
If he is, the restraining order may keep 
him away from you. But if he has no 
fear, the order may incite him to get 
scarier than ever. I have had clients who 
responded to a restraining order as a red 
flag waved in front of a bull. 

2. Is your main concern that he will 
intimidate you, attempt to hit you, or 
hassle you verbally, or are you afraid he 
will do something even more serious, 
such as attempt to kill you? Restraining 
orders can be helpful for stopping 
harassment and nonlethal assault but 
may not be worth a great deal in 
stopping an abuser whose intentions are 
murderous. If you fear the worst, it is 
important to take multiple steps to 
protect your safety (see “Safety 
Planning” in Chapter 9), which can 
include a restraining order as one aspect 

of a larger plan, and even then only if 
you think it will contribute to your 

3. Are the police and courts in your area 
supportive? Are they likely to take 
serious action if he violates the order? 

Will they believe you if you report a 
violation to them? A restraining order 
can do more harm than good if the legal 
system is not prepared to back you up. 

I have seen cases where restraining orders have 
contributed greatly to women’s safety and peace of 
mind and have helped immeasurably in women’s 
efforts to move on with their lives and be free. But 
each abusive man is different. I have been 
involved in cases where the woman regretted 
getting the order because it made her life even 
scarier. If possible, speak with an advocate for 
abused women before making a decision about 
seeking an order. And whether or not you choose 

to request a restraining order, also make sure to 
take other steps to protect your safety. A 
restraining order should be one part of a larger 
safety plan (see “Leaving an Abuser Safely” in 
Chapter 9). 



Once an abuser is released from jail following 
arraignment, he typically devotes his efforts to 
achieving the following goals: (1) persuading the 
woman to drop the charges and not to testify if 
charges do proceed; and(2) receiving the lightest 
possible consequence from the court. 

One of my early clients, a large biker named 
Phil, introduced me to many of the tactics that 
predominate during this period. He joined my 
abuser group voluntarily following an arrest for 
assaulting his girlfriend, Betty. He was fairly 
unpleasant in the early weeks of his participation, 

because of his arrogance and his “I don’t give a 
damn about anything” posture. But he softened as 
the weeks went by and began to make appropriate 
co mm ents to other group members about their 
abuse. Betty reported that she was seeing a side of 
Phil that had disappeared for several years: He 
was calmer, he was listening to her more when 
she talked, and he was walking away from 
arguments instead of frightening her. Even more 
important to her was that he had stopped by her 
sister’s house one afternoon and made an effort to 
begin mending fences after two years of refusing 
to talk to her and insisting that she was a “bitch.” 
And Betty was happy to hear that his attendance 
at and participation in our program were good. 

Two things had happened, however, that left 
Betty confused. One day they had gotten into a 
tense argument, which had been uncommon lately, 
and he had yelled at her: “I have all these court 
hassles now because you decided to go and call 
the fucking police on me.” This jab didn’t seem to 

be consistent with the remorse he was showing on 
other days. However, he apologized the next day 
and referred to his own behavior as “backsliding.” 
A couple of weeks later, in another tense 
exchange, he said to Betty in a low growl, “If you 
go forward with testifying against me, you are 
going to be really sorry.” Later he insisted that he 
had just meant that she would feel guilty for 
treating him “like a criminal,” but Betty continued 
to feel that he had meant something more. 

By the date of his hearing, Phil had put more 
than three good months together in a row. Betty 
reported this change in him to the judge, and Phil 
described his involvement in our program, saying 
that he had accepted that he had a problem he 
needed to work on. The judge was impressed that 
Phil had gotten into counseling on his own 
initiative without waiting for the court to mandate 
his attendance. The charges were dismissed. 

Phil and Betty walked down the courthouse 
steps together before heading off toward their 

separate cars. As they parted, Phil gave a smile 
that looked more like a sneer and said, “Well, I 
guess that’s it for Mr. Nice Guy.” And he meant 
it. He never set foot in his abuser group again and 
overnight reverted to his habitual mistreatment of 

After watching a steady trickle of clients in our 
program follow in Phil’s footsteps, we finally 
adopted a policy of not allowing men to join our 
program between an arrest and the date of the 
court disposition. We didn’t want to be another 
tool used by abusers to manipulate their partners 
and escape legal consequences. 

Women often berate themselves for not 
following through with prosecution. A woman 
may say to me: “What an idiot I was. I don’t know 
why the hell I believed his promises. I should have 
gone ahead and testified. Now look at the mess 
I’m in.” If you have had occasion to dump on 
yourself in this fashion, stop for a moment and 
consider: Why is it your fault that he is so 

persuasive, that he knows so well how to muddle 
your mind, that he has collected information over 
the years about your vulnerabilities and knows 
how to play them? How are you to blame for how 
manipulative he is? The reason it takes so long to 
figure out an abuser is that he knows how to keep 
himself hidden in constantly shifting shadows. If 
abusers were so easy to figure out, there would be 
no abused women. 

In counties where abused women find a court 
system that is well trained in abuse and sensitive 
to their circumstances, and where victim 
advocates are actively involved, 80 percent or 
more go forward with testifying. If you can’t stand 
dealing with a system that doesn’t understand 
your needs, that isn’t a shortcoming of yours. 

Also, remember that your decision to drop a 
restraining order or criminal charges doesn’t mean 
you can’t try again to use legal protections in the 
future (although you may encounter prejudice 
against you from the police or the courts if you 

have started actions and dropped them in the 



My physically violent clients seem to have nine 
lives when it comes to staying out of jail. Through 
dozens of interactions I have had over the years 
with probation officers, magistrates, prosecutors, 
and judges, it has become clear to me that courts 
have been regrettably slow to free themselves of 
the beliefs that any man is “bound to lose it sooner 
or later if his wife pushes him far enough,” that 
“alcohol is what really causes partner abuse,” or 
that “women frequently exaggerate partner abuse 
out of hysteria or vindictiveness.” These persistent 
attitudes can dovetail with the abusive man’s 
native ability to lie convincingly and elicit 

Sentences for the violence that men do to their 

wives or girlfriends are shorter on average than 
those they receive for assaults on strangers, even 
though partner violence causes more serious 
injuries and deaths than male-on-male fights do. 
Courts don’t want to send abusers to jail, because 
they consider them a special class of offenders 
who deserve unusual compassion and because 
they often accept victim-blaming justifications for 
men’s violence. 

Old attitudes die hard. A few years ago, a judge 
approached me after a judicial training session I 
had given and said, “All right, I understand about 
these men who beat their partners black and blue, 
who punch them in the face and put them in the 
hospital. But how about the guy who just gives his 
wife a push or a shove once in a while? I can’t 
treat him like he’s a batterer. You didn’t explain 
what judges should do in those cases.” I attempted 
to explain how shocking and intimidating a man’s 
shove can be to a woman, but I could tell his mind 
was already closed. 

I’ve seen judges who were worse than this one, 
who seem angrier at the woman for reporting the 
violence than they are at the man for perpetrating 
it. But I have worked with others who look 
carefully at the evidence, listen respectfully to all 
parties, and make a decision based on fact instead 
of prejudice. In cases where the man is found 
guilty, they speak to him in strong terms about the 
seriousness of his offense, reject his excuses, and 
impose a punishment that fits the crime. 

I have spoken with judges who like to give an 
abuser a strong verbal admonition instead of 
imposing some sanctions, in the belief that a stem 
warning from a judge can make an abuser realize 
that he has to stop. But in reality, the man 
considers the judge’s lecture a joke if no sentence 
comes with it. He puts on a chastised expression 
for the court but then smiles all the way home, 
smug and empowered. I see the emboldening 
effects of such court dates on my clients. 

I am not an advocate of long sentences for 

abusers, however. Abusers spend much of their 
time in j ail brooding over their grievances against 
the abused women and plotting their revenge. 
Men’s jails do not help them to overcome their 
oppressive attitudes toward women; in fact, they 
are among the more anti-female environments on 
the planet. Yet courts are going to have to 
overcome their reluctance to send abusers to jail if 
they ever want them to sit up and take notice. A 
short jail sentence, combined with a long postjail 
period of probation and participation in an abuser 
program, can provide powerful motivation for an 
abuser to deal with his problem. Jail time 
involving at least a few weekends—so that the 
man can continue bringing in income for his 
family—should be imposed on his first conviction 
for any offense related to domestic abuse. Each 
subsequent offense should lead to a longer 
sentence and a higher fine than the previous one, 
following the principle of “staircased” sentencing 
that is often applied to drunk driving. 

Unfortunately, this type of approach is rare at 

An important part of the sentence for any man 
convicted of domestic abuse should be an 
extended period—not less than a year—of 
participation in a specialized abuser program. The 
abuser program cannot be replaced by 
psychotherapy or anger management, as those 
services are not designed to address the range of 
behaviors that make up abuse and the core 
attitudes that drive them (see Chapter 3). In 
Chapter 14, we will examine how a competent 
abuser program works and how to evaluate the 
strengths and weaknesses of a particular program 
in your area. 


I used to supervise an excellent young abuse 
counselor named Patrick. He was fiery and 
courageous, but both he and the group clients 

were always aware of his youth—he was twenty- 
three and looked about nineteen—and his small 
size. We assumed that sooner or later one of the 
more violent abusers would try to intimidate him. 
Sure enough, one day when Patrick was laying 
down the law with a client about his disruptive 
behavior in the group, the man demanded that 
Patrick “step outside” so that they could fight. His 
body posture demonstrated how much he relished 
the opportunity to use his fists. Patrick politely 
declined the offer, however, and told the abuser to 
leave the room. The client considered his options 
and decided to storm out without hitting anyone. 

We reported the incident to the court and waited 
to see how quickly this man would be jailed for 
threatening the counselor at his court-mandated 
abuse program. Imagine our astonishment when 
we heard from the chief probation officer two 
weeks later that she had called the man in to give 
him “some strong talk” and then had instructed 
him to enroll in another abuser program. In other 

words, his “consequence” was that he got out of 
completing our program. I had a similar 
experience with the same court in a case where we 
suspected that one of our clients was abusing his 
prescription pain medication. We requested 
permission to speak to the prescribing doctor, but 
the client refused. His probation officer was soon 
ringing my telephone and sputtering angrily that a 
client’s prescription medication was none of our 
business. The probation officer then proceeded to 
declare to me unabashedly that h is pain 
medication was prescribed by the same doctor. 
(No wonder he didn’t want us examining the 
matter too closely.) 

My clients have no problem figuring out 
whether or not their probation officers consider 
domestic abuse a serious crime. Each man tries 
out his excuses and justifications to see how fertile 
the ground is; the more space the probation officer 
gives him for whining and victim blaming, the 
less strict he knows the supervision will be. The 

probation officer’s attitude regarding domestic 
violence is, in turn, largely a reflection of the tone 
set by the chief probation officer, just as I have 
observed to be true in police departments. When I 
work with courts that have pro-victim probation 
departments, the majority of men they refer 
cooperate with my program and complete all the 
requirements. But when the sympathies of the 
probation department lie primarily with the abuser 
—as seemed to be true in the court described 
above—the men present recurring behavior, 
attitude, and attendance problems, and I have to 
keep kicking guys out of the program for 
noncooperation. Why? Because they have already 
figured out that getting terminated isn’t likely to 
lead to serious consequences at that court, so they 
would rather not put up with an abuser program 
that challenges them. 

When an abuser finds that he can manipulate or 
bond with his probation officer, he not only paints 
a twisted picture of the abused woman but also 

employs his divide-and-conquer strategy with 
respect to the abuser program. “I know what I did 
was wrong,” he says, “and I really want to work 
on myself. But over at the abuse group they don’t 
help us change; they just tell us that we’re terrible 
people and everythi ng we say is wrong. They just 
hate men over there, and they take it out on us.” 
The probation officer then calls me to relay the 
man’s complaint. My response has always been: 
“Come over some night and sit in on two or three 
of our groups. You’ll see for yourself what we 
offer.” One probation officer did in fact visit a few 
groups and then started attending regularly once 
per month. He caught on quickly to what a patient 
and educational approach we actually take with 
abusers, and he became impossible to manipulate 
after that. 

The abuser’s distortions regarding the abuser 
program follow the same lines of his thinking 
about his partner. If I tell a loquacious client that 
he can’t dominate the entire group discussion and 

needs to be quiet for a while, he tells his probation 
officer, “The counselors say we can only listen and 
we’re not allowed to talk at all.” If I set limits on a 
man’s disruptiveness in the group, he turns in his 
seat, drops his head like a victim, and says 
sarcastically, “Right, I get it: We’re always 
wrong, and the women are always right.” If I 
terminate a man from the program after three 
warnings for inappropriate behavior, he says, “If 
we don’t tell you exactly what you want to hear, 
you kick us out, and you don’t give anyone a 
second chance.” His twisted reports on our 
statements provide important glimpses into how 
he discredits his partner at home—and why she 
may feel so angry, frustrated, and ready to scream. 


As the abuser encounters each new player in the 
legal system, he tries to make a personal 
connection. With men he relies on “male 

bonding,” making jokes about women or seeking 
sympathy based on anti-female stereotypes. With 
women he experiments with flattery and 
flirtatiousness, or tries to learn private details of 
people’s lives so that he can show concern with 
statements such as: “I heard your daughter has 
been sick. How is she doing?” The unspoken 
message running through these efforts is: “See, 

I’m not an abuser, I’m just a likable, ordinary 
person like you, and I want to be your friend.” My 
clients attempt to run the same routines at the 
abuser program, so I come to know them well. 



Over the fifteen years I have worked with abusive 
men, I have seen my clients become increasingly 
shrewd at getting the police and the courts to work 
on their behalf. Abused women are arrested much 
more commonly than when I began, as abusers 

have learned to use their own injuries from a fight 
to support claims of victimization. I find that the 
more violent an abusive man is, the more likely he 
is to come out of a fight with some injuries of his 
own, as his terrified partner kicks, swings her 
arms, and scratches in her efforts to get away from 
him. But some police take a look at the abuser’s 
injuries and say: “Well, we’re going to arrest her, 
because he’s got scratches.” 

Abusers have also learned to rush to the court 
for restraining orders before their partners get a 
chance to do so and sometimes scoop up custody 
of their children in the process. It would be 
difficult to find anyone more self-satisfied than the 
man who repeatedly assaults his partner verbally 
or physically and then has the pleasure of handing 
her a court order that bars her from the residence. 
And of course the shock to the woman of 
discovering that the court has kicked her when she 
was already down can propel her several more 
yards in the direction of resignation and bitterness. 

But, fortunately, the story need not end there for 
the abused woman. 


Despite the confidence and superiority of abusers 
and the regressive attitudes of some police and 
court officials that still persist, tremendous 
progress has been made in the legal system’s 
response to domestic abuse. Hundreds of 
thousands of women per year succeed in obtaining 
orders of protection from courts, and a large 
proportion of those orders accomplish what the 
woman is seeking: restoration of her safety and a 
desperately needed break from the abuser. Many 
states now mandate the police to arrest abusers in 
domestic-abuse cases, and district attorneys often 
are diligent in pursuing convictions. 

If you choose to use the police or courts for 
protection—or if you are cast into the legal system 
because of a call made by a neighbor or relative— 

here are some principles to tuck away in your 
survival kit: 

• Ask for help, ask for help, ask for help. 

I can’t say it enough. Dealing with the police and 
courts can leave you feeling isolated, afraid, and 
disempowered. Some women decide, after getting 
a taste of this cold and sometimes hostile system, 
that they will never reach out for official 
assistance again. One antidote is to draw upon 
every resource available to you. Is there a program 
for abused women near you that provides 
advocates to accompany women to court? Does 
the county employ victim/witness advocates, and 
are they available at the courthouse? Is there a 
friend or relative who could accompany you to 
request a restraining order? Does your police 
department have a specially trained domestic- 
violence officer with whom you could discuss your 
case? Remember, anyone who specializes in 
“domestic violence” is there to help you deal with 
a scary or intimidating partner, even if he has 

never hit you. Involve as many of these people in 
your case as possible; emotional and logistical 
support can make an immense difference. 

• Cooperate with the prosecution unless it is too 
dangerous for you to do so. 

Multiple studies have demonstrated that abusers 
who are prosecuted are more likely to stop their 
violence than those who are not. If your partner 
suddenly seems serious about changing, it is not a 
reason to drop legal action; on the contrary, it is 
another reason to continue it. Court involvement 
will help give him the structure and incentives he 
needs to carry through with his good intentions. 
Without that extra push, an abuser’s thoughts of 
change almost always fade with time. 

Some women say to me: “But if I go forward 
with testifying, he is going to be furious, and then 
he’ll never be willing to look at his problem.” This 
is a co mm on misconception: You cannot get an 
abuser to change by begging or pleading. The only 
abusers who change are the ones who become 

willing to accept the consequences of their actions; 
if he is unrelentingly angry about prosecution, you 
can be 100 percent sure that he wouldn’t have 
worked on himself anyhow. You also may be 
concerned that a criminal conviction will burden 
him with a humiliating stigma and make it harder 
for him to find j obs in the future. However, few 
employers do criminal record checks, and even 
fewer turn down a man because of an offense 
related to domestic abuse. As for the stigma, he 
needs it; he may seem to have snapped out of his 
denial for the moment, but you will be surprised 
by how quickly he leaps back into it once the 
threat of court action has passed. 

• Avoid dropping a restraining order. 

Stay away from your partner until the court order 
expires, even if you are missing him very much 
and he seems like a completely different person. 
Courts unfortunately often develop prejudices 
against women who seek restraining orders and 
then drop them, just as police and prosecutors can 

look negatively upon a woman who does not want 
to go through with testifying. I understand the fear 
you may have that he will do something extreme if 
you don’t back off, the challenge of surviving 
without his financial support (especially if you 
have children), the pressure you may be getting 
from other people to give him another chance, and 
numerous other weights on your shoulders. But 
courts sometimes do not consider these issues and 
can be reluctant to assist a woman the next time 
she reaches out for help. Stick with it through the 
whole period unless your situation becomes too 

• Don’t give up prematurely. 

Most police departments have some officers who 
handle domestic abuse cases well and some who 
don’t, just as most courts have judges who hold 
abusers accountable and others who let them 
skate. Just because things went badly this time 
doesn’t mean they always will. Some abusers get 
sick of dealing with the legal system after awhile, 

and some public officials decide to finally take 
action if a case erupts in front of them enough 

There are exceptions to what I have just said, 
however. You may know for a fact that in your 
community legal recourse is stacked against you. 
If the abuser is on the police force or has close 
buddies who are, calling 911 can make things 
worse rather than better. If the abuser is a judge— 
and I have talked to a few women who were in 
this sad circumstance—relief may not be available 
at the courthouse. There is a point at which it does 
make sense to scrap the legal system and start 
considering what other strategies you might try. 
Begin always with a call to an abuse hotline. 

• Advocate for yourself. 

If the abuser is on probation, ask for a face-to-face 
meeting with the probation officer; it will make it 
harder for your partner to paint a distorted picture 
of you and may make the probation officer feel 
responsible for your safety. If the prosecutor is 

considering a plea bargain, demand to be included 
in the process of negotiation, so that your needs 
are considered before any deal is made. If the 
abuser is mandated to attend an abuser program, 
communicate frequently with the abuser program 
and make sure that they are on your side, not his. 
(Chapter 14 offers guidelines for determining 
whether or not a particular abuser program is a 
good one.) 

THE LEGAL SYSTEM cannot solve the problem 
of abuse by itself, but, when it is working properly 
it can be an important ally in defending your 
rights. The better that you and anyone attempting 
to help you understand the abuser’s tricks for 
turning the legal process to his advantage, the 
better you can pressure the system to hold him 


Abusers rarely change if they aren’t 
forced to suffer any consequences. A man 
should be required to complete an abuser 
program in conjunction with, not instead 
of, legal consequences. 

Many abusers see the legal system as 
another opportunity for manipulation. 
Whether or not he succeeds in that 
approach will depend largely on how 
well trained the crucial public officials 
are on the subject of abuse—and on how 
many of them think as he does. 

A woman who wants the legal system to 
help protect her rights needs to seek out 
assistance for herself and to be prepared 
to advocate for her own needs and 
interests. Her first call should be to a 
program for abused women. 

The legal system will tend not to 
contribute well to your safety unless you 

use it in conjunction with other self- 
protective steps (see “Safety Planning” in 
Chapter 9). 

Any form of physical aggression, 
including a push, poke, shove, or threat, 
is illegal in most states and provinces. 

You do not need to wait until you are 
severely injured to seek police assistance. 

There is no such thing as a “minor” 
violation of a law or a court order by an 
abusive man. If the legal system does not 
hold him accountable, he will escalate to 
more serious violations under the 
assumption that the system does not 
mean what it says. 


Changing the Abusive Man 


The Making of an Abusive Man 

We pass a magazine rack, and he points 
at the cover of Cosmo and says, “Why 
don ’tyou look like that? ” 

His favorite song is that Guns N’ Roses 
one: “I used to love her, but I had to kill 
her. ” He puts it on all the time. 

His dad treats his mom the same way he 
treats me. 

You should see the way he and his 
buddies talk about women, like they ’re 
pieces of meat. 

Once upon a time, there was a boy who grew 

up with a happy dream. He was told when he 
was very young—as soon as he was old 
enough to understand anything, really—that 
a beautiful piece of land out on the edge of 
town was in trust for him. When he was 
grown up, it would be his very own and was 
sure to bring him great contentment. His 
family and other relatives often described the 
land to him in terms that made it sound like a 
fairy world, paradise on earth. They did not 
tell him precisely when it would be his but 
implied that it would be when he was around 
age sixteen or twenty. 

In his mid-teens, the boy began to visit the 
property and take walks on it, dreaming of 
owning it. Two or three years later, he felt the 
time had come to take it on. However, by 
then he had noticed some disturbing things: 
From time to time, he would observe people 
hiking or picnicking on his acres, and when 
he told them not to come there without his 

permission, they refused to leave and insisted 
that the land was public! When he questioned 
his relatives about this, they reassured him 
that there was no claim to the land but his. 

In his late adolescence and early twenties, 
he became increasingly frustrated about the 
failure of the townspeople to respect his 
ownership. He first tried to manage the 
problem through compromise. He set aside a 
small section of the property as a public 
picnic area and even spent his own money to 
put up some tables. On the remainder of the 
land he put up “No Trespassing” signs and 
expected people to stay off. But, to his 
amazement, town residents showed no signs 
of gratitude for his concession; instead they 
continued to help themselves to the 
enjoyment of the full area. 

The boy finally could tolerate the intrusions 
on his birthright no longer. He began 
screaming and swearing at people who 

trespassed and in this way succeeded in 
driving many of them away. The few who 
were not cowed by him became targets of his 
physical assaults. And when even his 
aggression did not completely clear the area, 
he bought a gun and began firing at people 
just to frighten them, not actually to shoot 
them. The townspeople came to the 
conclusion that the young man was insane. 

One particularly courageous local resident 
decided to spend a day searching through the 
town real estate records and was able to 
establish what a number of people had 
suspected all along: The property was indeed 
public. The claim made by the boy’s family 
on his behalf was the product of legend and 
misconception, without any basis in the 
documentary record. 

When the boy was confronted with this 
evidence, his ire only grew. He was 
convinced that the townspeople had 

conspired to alter the records and that they 
were out to deprive him of his most cherished 
dream. For several years after, his behavior 
remained erratic; at times it seemed that he 
had accepted having been misled during his 
childhood, but then he would erupt again in 
efforts to regain control of the land through 
lawsuits, creating booby traps on the land to 
injure visitors and employing any other 
strategy he could think of. His relatives 
encouraged him to maintain his belligerence, 
telling him, “Don’t let them take away what 
is yours.” Years went by before he was able 
to accept the fact that his dream would never 
be realized and that he would have to learn to 
share the land. Over that period he went 
through a painful, though ultimately freeing, 
process of gradually accepting how badly 
misled he had been and how destructive his 
behavior had been as a result. 

IN ORDER TO know how to foster change in 
abusive men, individuals and communities need to 
understand not only how abusive thinking works, 
which has been my focus so far, but also where it 
comes from. Overcoming the scourge of 
relationship abuse demands attention to the root 
causes of the problem. 

The story I have just told is a metaphor for the 
childhood social process that produces an abuser. 
As I have explained in earlier chapters, 
abusiveness has little to do with psychological 
problems and everything to do with values and 
beliefs. Where do a boy’s values about partner 
relationships come from? The sources are many. 
The most important ones include the family he 
grows up in, his neighborhood, the television he 
watches and books he reads, jokes he hears, 
messages that he receives from the toys he is 
given, and his most influential adult role models. 
His role models are important not just for which 
behaviors they exhibit to the boy but also for 

which values they teach him in words and what 
expectations they instill in him for the future. In 
sum, a boy’s values develop from the full range of 
his experiences within his culture. 

Each boy’s socialization is unique. Even two 
siblings close in age do not learn identical values. 
Culture is thus transmitted on a continuum. In a 
culture that is fairly religious, for example, some 
children will grow up to be devout believers; 
others will reject the faith completely; and most 
will fall in with the average level of religious 
observance for their community. Where a child 
will land on this continuum partly depends on 
how strong a set of messages he or she receives 
from the social environment and partly on his or 
her personal predispositions. The family rebel, for 
example, might become an atheist, while the child 
who is most focused on pleasing the parents might 
become even more religious than they are. 


Children begin at a very young age—certainly by 
the time they are three and probably sooner—to 
absorb the rules and traditions of their culture. 

This learning continues throughout their childhood 
and adolescence. The family in which children 
grow up is usually the strongest influence, at least 
for their first few years, but it is only one among 
many. Children’s sense of proper and improper 
ways to behave, their moral perceptions of right 
and wrong, and their beliefs about sex roles are 
brought to them by television and videos, popular 
songs, children’s books, and jokes. They observe 
behaviors that are modeled by friends and 
relatives, including adults to whom they are close. 
They watch to see which behaviors get rewarded 
—by making people popular, for example—as 
opposed to those that are condemned. By age four 
or five they start to express curiosity about laws 
and police, both of which play an important role in 
shaping their moral sense. During their 
adolescence, young people have increasing access 

to the wider culture, with less and less filtering by 
adults, and are subject to the rapidly growing 
influence of their peers. Even after reaching 
adulthood, people continue to read the social 
messages that surround them in the culture and to 
adjust their values and beliefs in response to what 
is socially acceptable. 



Let’s look now at how society influences the 
development of a boy or a young man’s attitude 
toward abuse. Some of what I describe here dates 
back many hundreds of years, while other 
messages are more recent arrivals on the cultural 
scene. I give examples from child-oriented culture, 
such as children’s books and movies, and others 

from adult culture, which trickle down to children 
from the models they observe of adult behavior 
and from what adults tell them directly about right 
and wrong. 

• Laws and the legal system have colluded with 
the abuse of women. 

Until well into the 1800s, it was expressly legal 
for a man in the English-speaking world to 
physically abuse his wife. She had no recourse to 
the police or the courts, and, if she chose to 
divorce him because of his abusiveness, he was 
legally entitled to custody of their children. In the 
late nineteenth century some legal consequences 
were finally legislated for some of the most 
extreme beatings of women, but they were rarely 
enforced until the 1970s and were not enforced 
consistently at all until the 1990s! For hundreds 
and perhaps thousands of years the domestic 
assault of women has been considered a necessary 
tool for a man to maintain order and discipline in 
his home, to make sure that his superior 

intelligence rules, and to avoid the mushrooming 
of the hysterical, short-sighted, and naive qualities 
that men widely attribute to women. It was only 
with the women’s movement of the 1960s and 
1970s, and especially with the work of those 
activists focusing specifically on battering and 
sexual assault, that the intimate oppression of 
women began to be taken seriously as a crime. 

This legal history plays an important role in 
shaping today’s cultural views among males—and 
females—about the abuse of women. It is likely to 
take a number of generations to overcome the 
accumulated impact of hundreds of years of 
destructive social attitudes. The culture that 
shaped these laws, and was in turn shaped by 
them, is reflected in people’s continued 
willingness to blame women for “provoking” 
abuse, to feel sorry for men who face legal 
consequences for intimate violence, and to be 
highly skeptical of women’s reports of abuse. 
These are all attitudes that children can absorb 

from the behaviors and comments of the adults 
around them. 

Children also notice responses by the legal 
system. A boy who grows up in a home where his 
father assaults his mother may observe over the 
years that his father never seems to get in any 
serious trouble, indicating to him that his father’s 
behavior is not viewed as wrong by the 
community. (In fact, any male who is older than 
ten or fifteen years of age today is unlikely to have 
ever seen his father prosecuted for domestic 
violence, since such prosecution was uncommon 
before 1990). When a woman asks me, “Why 
does a physically abusive man believe he can get 
away with it?”, I have to answer that until very 
recently he could, and even now legal 
consequences are less serious for men who assault 
partners than for those who assault strangers. This 
historical condoning of the physical abuse of 
women has also played a critical role in making it 
difficult to address and overcome emotional abuse, 

as it has created an atmosphere of impunity 
regarding men’s conduct in partner relationships. 

• Religious beliefs have often condoned the abuse 
of women. 

The most influential religious scriptures in the 
world today, including the Bible, the Torah, the 
Koran, and major Buddhist and Hindu writings, 
explicitly instruct women to submit to male 
domination. Genesis, for example, includes the 
following passage: “Unto the woman He said, I 
will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy 
conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth 
children: and thy desire shall be to thy husband, 
and he shall rule over thee.” I have had numerous 
clients over the years who explicitly rely on 
quotations from scripture to justify their abuse of 
their partners. Similarly, religious prohibitions 
against divorce have entrapped women in abusive 
marriages. The book When Love Goes Wrong (see 
“Resources”), published in 1985, describes a 
study of conservative Protestant clergy that 

reported that 21 percent said that no amount of 
abuse would justify a woman’s leaving her 
husband, and 26 percent agreed with the statement 
“a wife should submit to her husband and trust 
that God would honor her action by either 
stopping the abuse or giving her the strength to 
endure it.” 

Children who are raised in a faith tradition are 
commonly taught that the rules of their religion 
are the ultimate guide to right and wrong, superior 
even to civil law. A boy’s early religious training 
can be formative in the development of his image 
of appropriate behaviors in intimate relationships, 
the status of women, and the entitlements of men. 
If the more destructive aspects of his religious 
background are the ones that are given the most 
emphasis in his family or community, some 
dangerous seeds may have been sown. 

• Popular performers both reflect and shape 
social attitudes. 

The white rapper Eminem won a Grammy Award 

while I was writing this book. At the time of his 
award, one of his newest popular songs was 
“Kim,” the name of Eminem’s wife. The song 
begins with the singer putting his baby daughter 
to bed and then preparing to murder his wife for 
being with another man. He tells his wife, “If you 
move I’ll beat the shit out of you,” and informs her 
that he has already murdered their four-year-old 
son. He then tells his wife he is going to drive 
away with her in the car, leaving the baby at home 
alone, and then will bring her home dead in the 
trunk. Kim’s voice (as performed by Eminem) is 
audible off and on throughout the song, screaming 
with terror. At times she pleads with him not to 
hurt her. He describes to her how he is going to 
make it look as if she is the one who killed their 
son and that he killed her in self-defense, so that 
he’ll get away with it. Kim screams for help, then 
is audibly choked to death, as Eminem screams, 
“Bleed, bitch, bleed! Bleed!” The murder is 
followed by the sound of a body being dragged 

across dry leaves, thrown into the trunk of a car, 
and closed in. 

Even more horrible than Eminem’s decision to 
record this song glorifying the murder of a woman 
and child is the fact that it did not stop him from 
receiving a Grammy. What is a teen boy or a 
young man to conclude about our culture from this 
award? I believe I can safely say that a singer who 
openly promoted the killing of Jews, or blacks, or 
people in wheelchairs would be considered 
ineligible for a Grammy. But not so, unfortunately, 
for encouraging the brutal and premeditated 
murder of one’s wife and child, complete with a 
plan for how to escape consequences for it. 

And, unfortunately, Eminem has plenty of 
company. The extremely popular Guns ’n’ Roses 
recorded a song that goes: “I used to love her / But 
I had to kill her /1 had to put her six feet under / 
And I can still hear her complain.” The singer 
(Axl Rose) goes on to sing that he knew he would 
miss her so he buried her in the backyard. This 

song supports a common attitude among physical 
abusers that women’s complaints are what 
provoke men to violence. Another outstanding 
example is the comedian Andrew Dice Clay, 
whose repertoire of “jokes” about the beating and 
sexual assault of females has filled performance 
halls across the country. Fans of these kinds of 
performers have been known to state defensively, 
“Come on, it’s just humor.” But humor is actually 
one of the powerful ways a culture passes on its 
values. If a man is already inclined toward abuse 
because of his earlier training or experience, he 
can find validation in such performances and 
distance himself even further from empathy for his 
partners. In one abuse case that I was involved in, 
the man used to play the above Guns ’n’ Roses 
song on the stereo repeatedly and tell his wife that 
this was what was going to happen to her, 
laughing about it. But in the context of verbal 
assault and physical fear that he created, what was 
a joke to him was a blood-curdling threat to his 


• Popular plays and movies romanticize abuse of 

Several years ago I saw the play Frankie and 
Johnny Got Married in Boston. The story line 
goes like this: Johnny is in love with Frankie and 
knows that she is the right woman for him. One 
evening he comes to her apartment to express his 
love and convince her to get involved with him. 
She is not interested, and tells him so. Johnny then 
begins a relentless pressure campaign that lasts 
for the remainder of the play. He criticizes her and 
puts her down, telling her that her fears of 
intimacy and commitment are the reasons why she 
avoids being with him. He lets her know that, 
whatever knowledge she may have about who she 
is and what she needs, his judgment is better. 
Frankie remains unimpressed. 

So Johnny’s coercion escalates. At one point 
Frankie, who is exhausted after hours of this 
pressure, attempts to go to sleep, but Johnny 

blocks her path to the bedroom, grabbing her 
arms. She then goes to the kitchen and makes 
herself a sandwich, figuring that if she can’t sleep 
she might at least eat. It is not to be, however, 
because Johnny grabs the plate away from her and 
heaves it into the sink, sandwich and all. 

Exasperated, Frankie orders Johnny to leave her 
apartment. He refuses. She threatens to call the 
police to remove him, to which he replies with 
words to the effect of: “Go ahead, bring them over. 
In an hour they will have released me, and I’ll be 
back on your fire escape. Sooner or later you’re 
going to have to deal with me.” 

So now that Frankie has discovered that she 
can’t succeed in having any of her rights respected 
at all, what happens next? Fo and behold, she has 
an epiphany! A life-changing breakthrough! In a 
flash, she overcomes her fear of deep connection 
—it turns out Johnny was right about her fear of 
intimacy as well as everything else—and she falls 
enraptured into his arms. Frankie and Johnny are 

in love. The curtain falls. (Presumably Frankie is 
now permitted to eat and sleep, though we have no 
way to say for sure.) 

The most astounding part of the evening was 
still to come, however. To my amazement, the 
roughly two hundred and fifty well-educated, 
economically privileged adults who were packed 
into their Huntington Theater Company seats rose 
in a roar of delighted applause, smiling from ear to 
ear. Not a person in the auditorium remained 
seated—except me. I had been working with 
abusers for over five years at this point and knew 
perfectly well what we had been witnessing. No 
one else seemed to notice anything amiss in the 
physical grabbing, sleep and food deprivation, 
threats, superiority, and other forms of coercion 
we had just watched. Was Frankie reluctant to be 
with Johnny because she feared intimacy? Or 
could it perhaps have been because he was 
arrogant, coercive, and physically violent? Who 
wouldn’t fear intimacy with this bully? One ought 


The messages to young men, intentional or not, 
are that coercion and even a degree of physical 
violence and intimidation are compatible with 
deep love and that a man can know better than a 
woman what is good for her. The attitudes that 
drive the behavior of many of my clients were 
woven throughout this play. And if a young boy 
doesn’t see this play—most of the audience was 
adult—he nonetheless is influenced by the 
attitudes that his parents bring home with them 
from the theater. 

• A boy’s early training about sex roles and about 
relationships can feed abuse. 

At least until quite recently, a boy has tended to 
learn from the most tender age that when he 
reaches young adulthood he will have a wife or 
girlfriend who will do everything for him and 
make him a happy man. His partner will belong to 
him. Her top responsibility will be to provide love 
and nurturing, while his key contribution will be 

to fill the role of “the brains of the operation,” 
using his wisdom and strength to guide the family. 
Tightly interwoven with these expectations are 
other messages he is likely to receive about 
females. He may learn that boys are superior to 
girls, particularly if he grows up around men who 
exhibit that attitude. (In many families, there is no 
worse insult you can give to a boy than to say, 
“You’re acting like a girl.”) When he is old 
enough to know about sex, he may learn that the 
most valuable thing about females is their capacity 
to give sexual pleasure to males. Depending on 
what his father or stepfather is like, what kinds of 
peers he chooses in his teen years, or what kinds 
of music he listens to, he may learn that, when a 
female partner does not defer to him, he can use 
verbal degradation or even physical intimidation 
to punish her and ensure better cooperation in the 

Studies have found that nearly half of abusive 
men grow up in homes where their father or 

stepfather is an abuser. Home is a critical learning 
ground for values and sex-role expectations. Boys 
are at risk to absorb the abuser’s attitude through 
his words and actions (see Chapter 10). Even if 
the dad never explicitly says that females are 
inferior, for example, or that the man should have 
the last word in an argument, his behavior can get 
the message across. 

The sex-role expectations to which boys and 
men have historically been subjected are captured 
powerfully by an article called “The Good Wife’s 
Guide,” from a 1955 issue of Housekeeping 
Monthly that includes such instructions as “Don’t 
ask him questions about his actions or question 
his judgment or integrity. Remember, he is the 
master of the house and as such will always 
exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness,” 
and “Don’t complain if he’s late home for dinner 
or even if he stays out all night. Count this minor 
compared to what he might have gone through 
that day.” The wife is further encouraged to make 

sure the children are quiet when he gets home, to 
keep the house perfectly orderly and clean, and not 
to complain if her husband goes out for evening 
entertainment without her, because she needs to 
“understand his world of strain and pressure.” Our 
society’s sex-role attitudes have certainly 
progressed greatly over the past fifty years, yet the 
expectations laid out in this article are precisely 
the ones I find in many of my abusive clients to 
this day; cultural values that run this deep take 
generations to unearth and dispose of 

• Some messages in media oriented toward 
children and teens support abuse by men. 

In a book in the popular Berenstain Bears series 
for children called Trouble with Homework, both 
the mother and the children cower when Father 
becomes angry. (It’s on the cover.) At one point he 
knocks over a chair and clenches his fists above 
his head. At the end of the story, the children have 
pleased Dad by doing what he wanted, and Mom 
smiles happily to see them cuddled up with Dad 

on the couch. In Bedtime for Francis, by Russel 
Hoban, the father threatens Francis that he will 
spank her if she does not stop asking for help with 
her fear of the dark, and she falls asleep alone 
with the fear of how the spanking would hurt. 

Fairy tales also sometimes support the abusive 
mentality. In Beauty and the Beast, for example, 
the beast is cruel to the woman and isolates her 
from the world, but she loves him anyhow, and 
her love ultimately transforms him into a good 
man—the precise myth that keeps some women 
entrapped in their abusive relationships. In The 
Little Mermaid, Ariel chooses to give up her 
voice —literally—in order to live on land so that 
she can marry the man she loves. A woman with 
no voice is the dream girl of many abusive men. 

Even movies that are aimed at children and 
teens commonly include messages that condone 
abuse of females. In a recent Jim Carrey film, for 
example, a man sits down in a park next to a 
strange woman who is nursing her baby and then 

suddenly pushes the baby away from the woman 
and begins to suck her breast himself. This sexual 
assault is presented as humorous. 

Music videos and computer games have 
become the predominant sources of cultural 
training for children and teenagers. In the world of 
MTV and VH1, many of the sex-role messages are 
worse than ever, with males aggressive and in 
control and the value of females restricted to their 
sexual allure. As was exposed in a recent 
documentary broadcast on MTV, pomographers 
are frequently being hired to make music videos, 
which predictably leads to portrayals of women 
that make them look like they exist for men to use. 

Some music videos show abuse explicitly. In 
one, for example, a man stalks a woman 
throughout the song as she repeatedly tries to 
escape him, including one part in which she dives 
into a car to get away and he pulls open another 
door and jumps in after her. At the end of the 
video, she gives up and falls in love with him. The 

message thus is not only that stalking proves how 
much he loves her but also that the stalker was 
actually doing what was best for her. Women in 
music videos never mean “no” when they say it, 
and when they run away, they really want to be 
chased and caught. What could more perfectly 
capture the abusive mentality? 

• Pornographic videos, magazines, and web sites 
are learning grounds. 

As a boy enters his teen years, he is likely to 
encounter another powerful shaper of his outlook 
on females and how to treat them: pornography. 
Most pornographic movies, magazines, and web 
sites can function as training manuals for abusers, 
whether they intend to or not, teaching that 
women are unworthy of respect and valuable only 
as sex objects for men. The Internet has made 
access to pornography much easier—and free—for 
teenage boys; a recent study found, for example, 
that one in four teenage boys has experienced 
exposure to unwanted sexual material, most 

commonly through Internet solicitations. A great 
deal of mainstream pornographic material—not 
just so-called “hard core”—contains stories and 
images showing the abuse of both women and 
children as sexy, sometimes including 
presentations of rape as erotic. The harm to teens 
from looking at pornography has little to do with 
its sexual explicitness and everything to do with 
the attitudes it teaches toward women, 
relationships, sexual assault, and abuse. Spend 
some time looking at pornography yourself—if 
you can stand it—and think about the messages it 
is sending to young people and especially to boys. 

I learned of a recent case in an upper-class 
suburb involving a group of middle school-aged 
boys who were in the habit of spending hours each 
day after school watching pornography on their 
computers. One day they went from this activity to 
a party where they succeeded in pressuring several 
girls—with an average age of twelve—into 
performing group oral sex on them, inspired by 

something they had watched at a web site. Parents 
found out about what happened and a scandal 
ensued, but the community still did not seem to 
recognize the critical influence of the images to 
which the boys were being exposed. 

Boys often learn that they are not responsible for 
their actions. 

Boys’ aggressiveness is increasingly being treated 
as a medical problem, particularly in schools, a 
trend that has led to the diagnosing and 
medicating of boys whose problem may really be 
that they have been traumatized and influenced by 
exposure to violence and abuse at home. Treating 
these boys as though they have a chemical 
problem not only overlooks the distress they are in 
but also reinforces their belief that they are “out of 
control” or “sick,” rather than helping them to 
recognize that they are making bad choices based 
on destructive values. I have sometimes heard 
adults telling girls that they should be flattered by 
boys’ invasive or aggressive behavior “because it 

means they really like you,” an approach that 
prepares both boys and girls to confuse love with 
abuse and socializes girls to feel helpless. 

In most media coverage of bullying and school 
violence, including highly publicized school 
murders such as Columbine, reporters have 
overlooked the gender issues. Headlines have 
described these events as “kids killing kids,” 
when close to 100 percent of them have involved 
boys killing kids. In some cases it has been 
revealed that the killings were related to boys’ 
hostility toward females, including one case in 
which the two boys who went on a murderous 
rampage said afterward that they had done it 
because they were angry that their girlfriends had 
broken up with them. But the urgent need to 
confront the anti-female attitudes among these 
boys was never mentioned as a strategy for 
preventing future school violence. 

• When culture and home experience dovetail, 
each reinforces the other. 

If a boy grows up in a home where his mother is 
abused, hearing a song like Eminem’s “Kim” 
could leave a deep imprint on him. He may well 
feel that society is giving its public stamp of 
approval to the mistreatment of women he has 
witnessed at home. The likelihood that he will 
blame his mother for what happens to her and 
begin to copy the abuser’s behavior increases with 
each pro-abuse message he absorbs from his 
surroundings. My counseling experience 
persuades me that the men who are most likely to 
grow up to abuse women are probably those who 
grow up with an abuser as an important role 
model and who also get especially heavy doses of 
destructive cultural training. But also be aware: 
Half or more of my clients do not come from 
homes in which a man modeled abuse of women. 
The cultural influences I have discussed above are 
sufficient in themselves to prepare a boy to 
become an abusive man. It is therefore essential to 
teach boys to respect women and think critically 

about the societal messages to which they are 

Many sons of abused women whom I have 
known, including police officers, writers, 
therapists, and activists, have dedicated their lives 
to opposing the abuse of women. The example set 
by these men shows that a boy’s family influences 
are only the beginning of the story and that he can 
make the choice to channel his childhood distress 
into constructive action—if he learns about 
alternative ways of thinking and acting. 

LET’S RETURN NOW to our growing boy. From 
a combination of different cultural influences, he 
develops an image of his future, which he carries 
within him. Tie pictures a woman who is 
beautiful, alluring, and focused entirely on 
meeting his needs—one who has no needs of her 
own that might require sacrifice or effort on his 
part. She will belong to him and cater to him, and 
he will be free to disrespect her when he sees fit. 

In his mind this picture may illustrate the word 
partner, but a more accurate word for the image 
he is developing might be servant. 

When this boy gets involved in actual—as 
opposed to imagined—dating, especially as he 
reaches an age where his relationships become 
more serious, his childhood fantasy life collides 
with the real-life young woman he is seeing. She 
defies him on occasion. She has other people in 
her life who are important to her rather than 
making him her exclusive focus. She demands 
from time to time that he take an interest in her as 
a person. She doesn’t always accept his opinions 
as accurate and superior to hers. She may even 
attempt at some point to break up with him, as if 
she were not his personal possession. The boy 
doesn’t believe that he is demanding anything 
unreasonable; he seeks only what he considers his 
due. In fact, our young man feels like he gives his 
girlfriend more freedom than a lot of other guys 
do, just as the boy in our opening story felt 

generous for providing a public picnic area on 
“his” land. And, like that boy’s reaction to the 
“trespassers,” he becomes increasingly frustrated, 
erratic, and coercive as he tries to regain control 
over his partner. His first sexual experiences are 
likely to be a result of his pressuring a girl steadily 
until she gives in, so that sexual coercion becomes 
one of his earliest relationship habits. He may 
even start to appear mentally ill, as did the young 
man who began firing at hikers, but in fact his 
behavior is largely logical and rational, given what 
his key social influences have led him to believe. 
Above all, he feels that his rights are the ones 
being denied—which is precisely the attitude of 
almost all of my clients when they begin my 
program. The abusive man feels cheated, ripped 
off, and wronged, because his sense of entitlement 
is so badly distorting his perceptions of right and 

In sum, an abuser can be thought of not as a 
man who is a “deviant,” but rather as one who 

learned his society’s lessons too well, swallowing 
them whole. He followed too carefully the 
signposts his culture put out for him marking the 
path to manhood—at least with respect to 
relationships with women. 


My abusive clients sometimes become aware of 
these ways in which society has shaped their 
values and, sticking closely to their long-standing 
abusive habits, seize this insight as a new excuse. 
Instead of saying “I was drunk “or “I was abused 
as a child,” they rise to a new level of 
sophistication in escaping responsibility, 
declaring, “I did it because I learned entitled 
expectations and the devaluing of females.” I 
respond by telling the client that he is putting old 
wine in a new bottle. “The number-one lesson you 
seem to have learned,” I say, “is how to make 
excuses for abusing women. And I see that you’re 

still practicing it.” Abusive men do need to learn 
about social influences, but not in a way that gives 
them yet another means of letting themselves off 
the hook. 


A home where a woman is abused is a small-scale 
model of much larger oppressive systems that 
work in remarkably similar ways. Many of the 
excuses an abusive man uses for verbally tearing 
his partner to shreds are the same ones that a 
power-mad boss uses for humiliating his or her 
employees. The abusive man’s ability to convince 
himself that his domination of you is for your own 
good is paralleled by the dictator who says, 
“People in this country are too primitive for 
democracy.” The divide-and-conquer strategies 
used by abusers are reminiscent of a corporate 
head who tries to break the labor union by giving 
certain groups of workers favored treatment. The 

making of an abuser is thus not necessarily 
restricted to the specific values his society teaches 
him about men’s relationships with women; 
without realizing it he may also apply attitudes 
and tactics from other forms of oppression that he 
has been exposed to as a boy or as a young adult 
and that he has learned to justify or even admire. 

If you look at any oppressive organization or 
system, from a racist country club up to a military 
government, you will find most of the same 
behaviors and justifications by the powerful that I 
have described in this book. The tactics of control, 
the intimidation of victims who try to protest, the 
undermining of efforts at independence, the 
negative distortions about the victims in order to 
cast blame upon them, the careful cultivation of 
the public image of the oppressors—all are 
present, along with many other parallels. The 
people in power generally tell lies while 
simultaneously working hard to silence the voices 
of the people who are being dominated and to stop 

them from thinking, just as the abusive man 
strives to do. And the bottom line is the same: 
Oppressive systems stay in existence because the 
people in power enjoy the luxury of their position 
and become unwilling to give up the privileges 
they win through taking advantage of other people 
and keeping them down. In short, the abusive 
mentality is the mentality of oppression. 

The connection among different kinds of power 
abuses can add greatly to the stress experienced by 
an abused woman. If you already face 
discrimination as a woman of color or if you are a 
low-income woman or a lesbian, you may feel 
overwhelmed at times by how similar the control 
and abuse from your partner feel to other forms of 
oppression you have endured. Some abusive men 
even deliberately take advantage of their partner’s 
social vulnerabilities. I have had several clients, 
for example, whose partners are undocumented 
immigrants whom they have threatened to have 
deported if the women ever disclose the abuse. In 

some geographical areas you can find supportive 
services for specific groups of abused women, 
such as immigrants or lesbians, or locate agencies 
where there are staff people from your background 
who understand the additional challenges you 
face. (See “Resources.”) 

WHEN WE STEP BACK and gaze upon the 
broad panorama of social influences on a boy’s 
development, we can see that it’s really no great 
wonder that he may learn the patterns of abuse. 
What he isn’t taught by the cultural messages 
around him that specifically support the abuse of 
women he can learn from the tactics of other 
abusers of power and from the blaming of other 
victims. In fact, the greater surprise is that so 
many boys do not grow up to abuse women. There 
must not be anything inherently abusive or power- 
hungry about men, or it would be impossible for 
so many to refuse to follow the path where their 
cultural training is propelling them. One of the 

best-known male crusaders against the abuse of 
women, a man with whom I have had the good 
fortune to work, grew up in a home where his 
mother was physically beaten. He could have 
modeled himself after his father, but he didn’t. He 
chose instead to think critically about his 
experience and take the opposite road. Many of 
the influential leaders of the movement against the 
abuse of women in the United States, Canada, and 
other countries are male, including men who have 
mentored me in my work. 

The oppressive mentality can be taken apart and 
replaced with a new consciousness. The composer 
of “Amazing Grace,” you may have heard, was a 
slave trader who repented of his cruelty and 
became an abolitionist. Abusive men can learn 
respect and equality—if we insist that they do so. 
But they won’t make those changes unless they 
are subjected to tremendous pressure, because 
their cultural values as well as their privileges are 
pushing them so hard to stay the same. 

There has never been a better time than the 
present to apply that pressure, to demand that 
abusers accept responsibility for the destruction 
they cause. We live in a period of mounting 
international pressure for the respect of human 
rights for everyone, of insistence on the 
recognition of the worth and dignity of each 
person, male or female, young or old, wealthy or 
poor, and of whatever color. The current context is 
probably the most hopeful one there has ever been 
for putting an end to the abuse of women, and to 
the range of abuses of power that follow its 
pattern. Resistance never disappears; it waits in 
the shadows, sometimes for many years, and then 
eventually sprouts again. You may have gone 
through dark times when you felt, “I just can’t 
fight this anymore, I give up,” yet you rebound 
after a while to try again to recover your rights. 
And one day you will succeed. 


• An abuser is not bom; he is made. 

• In order to bring about change in an 
abuser, we have to reshape his attitude 
toward power and exploitation. 

• Abusive behavior is reinforced by 
multiple societal messages, some of 
which are specific to the abuse of women 
and some of which reflect the overall 
culture of oppression. 

• Your courageous resistance to partner 
abuse—and you have stood up for 
yourself (and your children) in many 
ways, whether you realize it or not—is a 
gift to everyone, because all forms of 
abuse are intertwined. 


The Process of Change 

Since he started going to therapy, he’s 
gotten more self-centered than ever. 

I think this time he’s really sorry. 

He’s usually very closed off to his 
feelings, so it gives me hope that he’s 
finally opening up a little. 

Our couples counselor says we both 
have to be willing to change. 

Do you think he can change? I’m not 
sure how long I should wait around to 
see whether he will or not. 

and day out with abusive men have left me certain 
of one thing: There are no shortcuts to change, no 
magical overnight transformations, no easy ways 
out. Change is difficult, uncomfortable work. My 
job as a counselor is to dive into the elaborate 
tangle that makes up an abuser’s thinking and 
assist the man to untie the knots. The project is not 
hopeless—if the man is willing to work hard—but 
it is complex and painstaking. For him, remaining 
abusive is in many ways easier than stepping out 
of his pattern. Yet there are some men who decide 
to dig down inside of themselves, root out the 
values that drive their abusive behavior, and 
develop a truly new way of interacting with a 
female partner. The challenge for an abused 
woman is to learn how to tell whether her partner 
is serious about overcoming his abusiveness. 

The first challenge with an abusive man is to 
motivate him to work on himself. Because he 
becomes attached to the many rewards that his 

controlling and intimidating behaviors bring him, 
he is highly reluctant to make significant changes 
in his way of operating in a relationship. This 
reluctance cannot be overcome through gentle 
persuasion, pleading, or cajoling by the woman. I 
am sorry to say that I have never once seen such 
approaches succeed. The men who make 
significant progress in my program are the ones 
who know that their partners will definitely leave 
them unless they change, and the ones on 
probation who have a tough probation officer who 
demands that they really confront their 
abusiveness. In other words, the initial impetus to 
change is always extrinsic rather than self- 
motivated. Even when a man does feel genuinely 
sorry for the ways his behavior has hurt his 
partner, I have never seen his remorse alone 
suffice to get him to become a serious client. After 
a few months of deep work in the program, some 
men do start to develop intrinsic reasons for 
change, such as starting to feel real empathy for 

their partners’ feelings, developing awareness of 
how their behavior has been harming their 
children, or even sometimes realizing that they 
themselves enjoy life more when they aren’t 
abusive, despite all the privileges of abuse they 
have to give up. But it takes a long time for an 
abusive man to get to that point. 

As I discussed in the Introduction, the majority 
of abusive men do not make deep and lasting 
changes even in a high-quality abuser program. 
However, if even a minority become nonabusive, 
or at least significantly less abusive, the job is 
worth doing. At least as important is that the 
program can help the abused woman develop 
clarity about her abuser’s patterns and 
manipulations and can share insights with her. For 
example, an abusive man’s underlying attitudes 
tend to leap out of him in the heat of debates and 
confrontations in his group, and the counselor can 
then assist the woman in identifying the thinking 
that is driving his behavior. Follow-up surveys by 

abuser programs have found that the support that 
the counselors give to her tends to be the aspect of 
the program that the woman finds most valuable. 
(These surveys indicate that an abuser program 
that is not focused on supporting the abused 
woman and that does not consider serving her to 
be its primary responsibility is severely limiting 
what it can accomplish and may even be 
contributing to her difficulties.) 

For an abusive man to make genuine progress 
he needs to go through a complex and critical set 
of steps. To give my clients a road map of the 
process of change, I tell them the following story: 
There once was a man whose neighbors had a 
large and beautiful maple tree growing behind 
their house. It gave shade in the hot summers, 
turned stunning colors of fire in the fall as it 
dropped its leaves, and stood against the winter 
snow as a magnificent wooden sculpture. But the 
man hated his neighbors’ tree, because the shade 
that it cast into his yard made his grass grow 

poorly and stunted his vegetable garden, which 
was his passion. He pressured the neighbors 
repeatedly to either cut the tree down or prune it 
drastically, and their response was always the 
same: “You are free to cut any branches that stick 
out over your property, but beyond that we are 
going to leave the tree alone, because it is 
beautiful and we love it. We are sorry about the 
shade it casts on your side, but that is what trees 

One summer the neighbors went away on 
vacation for a week, and the man decided to rid 
himself of his aggravation. He took a chainsaw 
and cut their tree to the ground, making careful 
cuts so that the tree would not fall on the 
neighbor’s house and destroy it but also directing 
it away from his own yard, so he wouldn’t have to 
clean it up. Then he walked home, fully satisfied if 
perhaps a little afraid. The next day he took his 
chainsaw, threw it in the dump, and prepared 
himself to deny having any idea who had brought 

the giant down, even though the truth would be 

There was only one hole in his plan: He didn’t 
realize how popular his neighbors were, and he 
didn’t know how unbearable it would be to have 
the entire local population turn against him, to the 
point where no one would even look at him or talk 
to him. So the day finally came when the man 
realized his life would be wrecked for good unless 
he dealt with his destructive and selfish act. What 
steps did he have to take in order to set things 


1. He had to admit, and admit fully, that he 
cut down the tree. He dreaded looking at 
people and saying, “Yeah, it was me”— 
even though they already knew—but he 
had to do it. He had to stop claiming 

that the neighbors had cut the tree down 
themselves so that they could blame him 
and turn everyone against him. And 
when he did admit his act, he also had 
to acknowledge what an old and 
impressive tree he had killed, rather 
than try to save face by insisting that it 
had been small and ugly. 

2. He had to admit that he had cut it down 
on purpose, that his actions were a 
choice. He couldn’t claim that he had 
been so drunk or enraged that he didn’t 
know what he was doing. He couldn’t 
say, “Well, I just meant to put a little 
cut into the trunk as a warning to them, 
but I accidentally cut too far and the tree 
fell down.” In short, he had to stop 
making excuses. Furthermore, he had to 
admit that he had goals that he tried to 
further through his destructive behavior; 
he needed to be honest about his 


3. He had to acknowledge that what he did 
was wrong. This meant that he had to 
stop blaming the neighbors and playing 
up how victimized he had been by the 
shade. He had to make a sincere, 
heartfelt apology. 

4. He had to accept the neighbors ’ right to 
be angry about what he did, which 
meant that he had to be willing to truly 
acknowledge the effects of his actions. 
He had to take in the anguish he had 
caused. He had to stop asserting that 
they were “making too big a deal over 
one stupid tree” and that “it happened a 
long time ago and they should be over it 
by now.” Although apologizing was 
important, he also had to accept that 
saying he was sorry was only the 
beginning and that it meant nothing 
unless he also looked seriously at the 

damage he had done. 

5. He had to accept the consequences of 
his actions. First, he had to provide 
reasonable monetary damage for the 
value of the destroyed tree. He then 
needed to plead guilty to the criminal 
charges, so that the neighbors would not 
have to go through the ordeal of 
testifying against him. He had to stop 
seeking sympathy from people for the 
problems he himself had caused, along 
the lines of: “Poor me, I had to pay out 
all this money that I can’t afford 
because of their tree when the only 
reason I cut it down was because they 
were wrecking my yard with it.” 

6. He had to devote long-term and serious 
effort toward setting right what he had 
done. No amount of money can replace 
a mature tree; there’s no way to erase 
the effects of such a destructive act. The 

man therefore had to make amends. He 
needed to buy as large and healthy a 
young tree as he could find in a nursery 
and to plant it carefully behind the 
neighbors’ house. What’s more, he had 
to water the tree, protect it from deer, 
watch it for diseases, and fertilize it as 
necessary for years. A young tree takes 
a long time to securely establish itself. 

7. He had to lay aside demands for 
forgiveness. He had to recognize that 
even if he sincerely were to take all of 
the steps I have described, the neighbors 
might still be left with pain, hurt, and 
bitterness, and the man had no right to 
tell them how long their bad feelings 
should last, especially since he was the 
cause. People might be nicer to him now 
that he had stopped denying what he 
did, but they wouldn’t necessarily ever 
like him. The neighbors might never 

want to be his friends—and why should 
they be? If they did decide to be friendly 
with him at some point, he should see 
their forgiveness as an act of kindness 
and not as his due for replacing the tree. 

8. He had to treat the neighbors 
consistently well from that point 
forward. He couldn’t decide to stick it to 
them five years later by cutting down a 
rosebush, for example, and then say, 
“Okay, I messed up, but shouldn’t I get 
credit for the five years that I’ve been 
good? You can’t expect me to be 
perfect.” Asking someone not to cut 
down the neighbors ’ flowers is not the 
same thing as expecting perfection. 

9. He had to relinquish his negative view 
of his neighbors. He had to stop 
speaking badly about them to other 
people and accept that most—perhaps 
even all—of what he disliked about 

them actually had to do with their 
responses to the damage he had done 
and their refusal to be bullied by him. 

He had been the creator of their hostility 
toward him. 

As I go over each of these responsibilities with 
my clients, I ask them if they have any 
disagreements. They concur that each of the above 
steps is fair and necessary—as long as we are 
talking about trees and neighbors. However, as 
soon as I start to go back through the story, 
reviewing how each piece applies to a man who 
has abused his partner, my clients begin 
backpedaling. They are reluctant to do the serious 
work of change, feeling that it would be easier to 
throw a new blanket over the moldy mattress and 
carry on with life as usual. 


The box below summarizes how the steps in the 
tree story apply to an abusive man’s process of 



1. Admit fully to his history of 
psychological, sexual, and 
physical abusiveness toward 
any current or past partners 
whom he has abused. Denial 
and minimizing need to stop, 
including discrediting your 
memory of what happened. He 
can’t change if he is continuing 
to cover up, to others or to 
himself, important parts of 
what he has done. 

2. Acknowledge that the abuse 
was wrong, unconditionally. 

He needs to identify the 
justifications he has tended to 
use, including the various ways 

that he may have blamed you, 
and to talk in detail about why 
his behaviors were 
unacceptable without slipping 
back into defending them. 

3. Acknowledge that his behavior 
was a choice, not a loss of 
control. For example, he needs 
to recognize that there is a 
moment during each incident at 
which he gives him self 
permission to become abusive 
and that he chooses how far to 
let himself go. 

4. Recognize the effects his abuse 
has had on you and on your 
children, and show empathy 
for those. He needs to talk in 
detail about the short-and long¬ 
term impact that his abuse has 
had, including fear, loss of 

trust, anger, and loss of 
freedom and other rights. And 
he needs to do this without 
reverting to feeling sorry for 
himself or talking about how 
hard the experience has been 
for him. 

5. Identify in detail his pattern of 
controlling behaviors and 
entitled attitudes. He needs to 
speak in detail about the day- 
to-day tactics of abuse he has 
used. Equally important, he 
must be able to identify his 
underlying beliefs and values 
that have driven those 
behaviors, such as considering 
himself entitled to constant 
attention, looking down on you 
as inferior, or believing that 
men aren’t responsible for their 

actions if “provoked” by a 

6. Develop respectful behaviors 
and attitudes to replace the 
abusive ones he is stopping. 

You can look for examples 
such as improving how well he 
listens to you during conflicts 
and at other times, carrying his 
weight of household 
responsibilities and child care, 
and supporting your 
independence. He has to 
demonstrate that he has come 
to accept the fact that you have 
rights and that they are equal to 

7. Reevaluate his distorted image 
of you, replacing it with a more 
positive and empathic view. He 
has to recognize that he has had 

mental habits of focusing on 
and exaggerating his grievances 
against you and his perceptions 
of your weaknesses and to 
begin instead to compliment 
you and pay attention to your 
strengths and abilities. 

8. Make amends for the damage 
he has done. He has to develop 
a sense that he has a debt to 
you and to your children as a 
result of his abusiveness. He 
can start to make up somewhat 
for his actions by being 
consistently kind and 
supportive, putting his own 
needs on the back burner for a 
couple of years, talking with 
people whom he has misled in 
regard to the abuse and 
admitting to them that he lied, 

paying for objects that he has 
damaged, and many other steps 
related to cleaning up the 
emotional and literal messes 
that his behaviors have caused. 
(At the same time, he needs to 
accept that he may never be 
able to fully compensate you.) 

9. Accept the consequences of his 
actions. He should stop 
whining about, or blaming you 
for, problems that are the result 
of his abuse, such as your loss 
of desire to be sexual with him, 
the children’s tendency to 
prefer you, or the fact that he is 
on probation. 

10. Commit to not repeating his 
abusive behaviors and honor 
that commitment. He should 
not place any conditions on his 

improvement, such as saying 
that he won’t call you names as 
long as you don’t raise your 
voice to him. If he does 
backslide, he cannot justify his 
abusive behaviors by saying, 
“But I’ve done great for five 
months; you can’t expect me to 
be perfect,” as if a good period 
earned him chips to spend on 
occasional abuse. 

11. Accept the need to give up his 
privileges and do so. This 
means saying good-bye to 
double standards, to flirting 
with other women, to taking off 
with his friends all weekend 
while you look after the 
children, and to being allowed 
to express anger while you are 

12. Accept that overcoming 
abusiveness is likely to be a 
lifelong process. He at no time 
can claim that his work is done 
by saying to you, “I’ve changed 
but you haven’t,” or complain 
that he is sick of hearing about 
his abuse and control and that 
“it’s time to get past all that.” 
He needs to come to terms with 
the fact that he will probably 
need to be working on his 
issues for good and that you 
may feel the effects of what he 
has done for many years. 

13. Be willing to be accountable 
for his actions, both past and 
future. His attitude that he is 
above reproach has to be 
replaced by a willingness to 
accept feedback and criticism, 

to be honest about any 
backsliding, and to be 
answerable for what he does 
and how it affects you and your 

Abusive men don’t make lasting changes if they 
skip any of the above steps, and some are easier 
than others. Most of my clients find it fairly easy 
to apologize, for example. In fact, an abuser may 
weave apologies into his pattern of abuse, so that 
when he says “I’m sorry,” it becomes another 
weapon in his hand. His unspoken rule may be 
that once he has apologized, no matter how 
cursorily or devoid of sincerity, his partner must 
be satisfied; she is not to make any further effort to 
show her feelings about his mistreatment, nor may 
she demand that he fix anything. If she tries to say 
anything more about the incident, he jumps right 
back into abuse mode, yelling such things as, “I 
already told you I was sorry! Now shut up about 


But even a genuine and sincere apology is only 
a starting point. Many of my clients make it 
through the first three steps: They admit to a 
substantial portion of their abuse; they agree that 
their actions resulted from choice rather than loss 
of control; and they apologize. Then they dig in 
their heels at that point. An abuser’s sense of 
entitlement is like a rude, arrogant voice 
screaming inside his head. It yells at him: 

“You’ve given up too much already; don’t budge 
another inch. They already talked you into saying 
your abuse is all your own fault when you know 
she’s at least half to blame because of the shit that 
she does. She should be grateful to you for 
apologizing; that wasn’t easy to do. She’s lucky 
you’ve gone this far; a lot of guys would tell her to 
go screw, you know.” And the voice drags him 
back into the mud that he had finally taken a 
couple of baby steps out of. 

Step number four, for example, demands that 

the abusive man accept his partner’s right to be 
angry. He actually has to take seriously the furious 
things that she says and think about them rather 
than using her emotional pitch as an excuse to 
stuff her opinions back down her throat as he has 
normally done. When I explain this step, my 
clients at first look at me as though I had an eye in 
the middle of my forehead. “I should do what?? 
When she is yelling at me, I’m supposed to just sit 
there and take it??” To which I reply, “More than 
that, actually. You should reflect on the points she 
is making and respond to them in a thoughtful 
way.” And then we begin practicing exactly that 
in the group; I ask them for examples of their 
partners’ angry statements and then guide them 
through understanding why their partners are 
furious and accepting their right to feel that way. 

The steps go on. Steps six and seven require 
that he make up for what he has done, that he 
actually has incurred a debt because of his abuse. 
Step eight says that he has to change his behavior 

in the future, not just say he’s sorry for the past, 
and he has to stop his abusiveness completely and 
for good. In other words, he is truly going to have 
to deal with the attitudes that are driving his 
bullying and disrespect of his partner. Step eleven 
requires him to give up the privileges that his 
abusiveness has won him. As we go through each 
of these steps, some clients choose to struggle 
through, as hard as the process is, while others 
throw in the towel and resume their abusive 


To guide my clients through the work of 
overcoming abusiveness, I have to keep in mind 
the fact that they bring their usual habits, 
attitudes, and manipulations to the process of 
change itself. This is why a woman finds herself 
feeling like she is riding a roller coaster while her 
partner claims to have changed. Here are some of 

the attitudes that abusers commonly exhibit when 
their partners, or a court, or an abuse program 
begin demanding that they stop: 

• “The change game is just like the rest of the 
routine. ” 

Abusers can turn their manipulative skills to 
creating an appearance of change. This was the 
style we saw in Chapter 1 with Carl, who put on 
such a show of developing insights at his abuser 
group but whose treatment of Peggy was as 
verbally cruel as ever and was rapidly heading 
back toward physical violence. I couldn’t count 
the number of clients who come into groups of 
mine when they are separated from their partners 
and hoping for a reconciliation, or barred from the 
house with a restraining order and trying to get 
permission to return, who then vanish from the 
abuser program the moment they get what they 
want. A man may say to his partner, “I am 
learning so much from the abuse groups, and if 
you let me move back in I’ll work even harder at 

the program,” but as soon as his bags are 
unpacked, the excuses begin: The program is too 
expensive; he doesn’t need it anymore; he doesn’t 
feel comfortable being in a room with “real 
abusers” because he’s not like them, “you and I 
have just had a few little problems.” 

• “I can stop abuse by learning nonabusive ways 
to control and manipulate my partner. ” 

I hear this (mostly unconscious) attitude in the 
voice of the client who says to me: “I thought you 
were going to be giving me tools to help me 
manage my partner’s crazy behavior. But you 
aren’t helping me with that at all.” His expression 
crazy behavior is a code phrase for any way in 
which she stands up to him, expresses anger, or 
insists on maintaining a separate identity rather 
than just conforming to exactly what he wants her 
to be. A large percentage of men who join abuser 
programs quit within the first few weeks. They 
make various excuses at home, but the true reason 
is that they discover that the program expects them 

to start treating their partners with respect when 
they were hoping to just learn kinder, gentler 
approaches to running the show. 

• “Change is a bargaining chip. ” 

An abuser often tries to use the promise of change 
to cut deals, since he believes that his partner’s 
behaviors are just as wrong as his: “I’ll agree not 
to call you ‘bitch’ anymore if you don’t bug me to 
help clean up the children’s mess when I’m trying 
to watch the game. I won’t call you ‘slut’ or 
‘whore’ if you give up talking to your male 
friends. I won’t push you up against the wall if 
you drop your side of an argument whenever you 
see that I’m really upset.” To him, these seem like 
fair deals, but in reality they require a woman to 
sacrifice her rights and freedom in return for not 
being abused—a coercive bargain that is in itself 

• “I don’t mind changing some of what I do as 
long as I don’t have to give up the attitudes and 

behaviors that are most precious to me. ” 

At some point during the first few months that a 
man is in my program, I usually stumble upon the 
core of his privilege, like a rear bunker on his 
terrain. He may abandon a few of his forward 
positions, but this fortification is where he 
surrounds himself with sandbags and settles in for 
protracted war. A client may agree to stop 
constantly interrupting his partner and dominating 
arguments, for example, but when I tell him that 
he needs to be doing his share of child care, even 
during football season, he draws the line. If being 
a respectful partner requires actually rising off of 
his behind, he’d rather be abusive. Another client 
may consent to stop spending all of his family’s 
money on himself, but if I tell him that he also has 
to give up his chronic pattern of having affairs, he 
decides the losses have become too great, and he 

An abuser who does not relinquish his core 
entitlements will not remain nonabusive. This 

may be the single most-overlooked point 
regarding abusers and change. The progress that 
such a man appears to be making is an illusion. If 
he reserves the right to bully his partner to protect 
even one specific privilege, he is keeping the 
abuse option open. And if he keeps it open, he will 
gradually revert to using it more and more, until 
his prior range of controlling behaviors has been 
restored to its full glory. 

Abusers attach themselves tightly to their 
privileges and come to find the prospect of having 
equal rights and responsibilities, living on the 
same plane as their partners, almost unbearable. 
They resent women who require them to change 
and persuade themselves that they are victims of 
unfair treatment because they are losing their 
lopsided luxuries. But they can’t change unless 
they are willing to relinquish that special status— 
one of the key pieces of work they have to do in an 
abuser program. 

FOR ME TO BE ABLE TO help an abusive man 
change, I have to guide him past the points where 
he gets stuck. I explain to him that he is going to 
feel some guilt, for example, and that his sense of 
entitlement will make him want to backslide when 
the guilty feelings come up. I have to alert him 
when he starts trying to cut deals to preserve 
aspects of his abusive behavior and when he 
reverts to blaming his partner or feeling sorry for 
himself. I have to help him become aware of his 
real motives for abusive behavior. Above all, I 
have to confront his lack of empathy for his 
partner and children, pressing him to get in touch 
with the feelings of those he has harmed; it is my 
job to take away the abusive man’s privilege of 
turning his eyes away from the damage he has 
done. If the man is willing to persist through this 
long and difficult process, the potential for real 
change begins. 





No one is in a better position than the abused 
woman herself to distinguish genuine progress 
from window dressing. A woman may call me 
after her partner has been in my program for a few 
weeks, her voice edged with anxiety and hope, to 
ask: “So, how is he doing? Do you think the 
program is working?” She’s counting on the abuse 
expert to look deeply into her partner’s eyes and 
read his potential. But I can’t do it. I have to push 
the umpiring back to her. 

You are the only one who can judge your 
partner’s change. There are men who join my 
group and become model clients, getting the right 

answers and showing the appropriate emotions, 
yet when I talk to their partners I find out that life 
at home is business as usual or maybe has gotten 
a little worse. And I work with other men who are 
cantankerous during meetings, but the report I 
receive from the front lines is that their treatment 
of their partners is noticeably improved. What the 
client shows me matters little. 

There are two main principles to keep in mind 
when deciding how much potential an abuser has 
to become a kind, respectful partner in the long 

1. He cannot change unless he deals 
deeply with his entitled and superior 
attitudes. No superficial changes that he 
may make offer any real hope for the 

2. It makes no difference how nice he is 
being to you, since almost all abusers 
have nice periods. What matters is how 

respectful and noncoercive he chooses 
to become. 

Holding on to these fundamental points, you 
can use the following guide to help you identify 
changes that show promise of being genuine. We 
are looking for “yes” answers to these questions: 

Has he learned to treat your opinions with 
respect, even when they differ strongly from 


Is he accepting your right to express anger to 
him, especially when it involves his history of 
mistreating you? 


Is he respecting your right to freedom and 
independence? Does that include refraining 

from all interference with your friendships and 
giving up the demand to always know where 
you are and whom you are with? 


Has he stopped making excuses for his 
treatment of you, including not using your 
behavior as an excuse for his? 


Is he being respectful about sex, applying no 
pressure and engaging in no guilt trips? 


Has he stopped cheating or flirting with other 
women, or using other behaviors that keep you 
anxious that he will stray? 



Does he listen to your side in arguments 
without interrupting, and then make a serious 
effort to respond thoughtfully to your points, 
even if he doesn’t like them? 


Have you been free to raise your grievances, 
new or old, without retaliation from him? 


Has he stopped talking about his abuse as if it 
were an accident and begun to acknowledge 
that he used it to control you? 


Is he actually responding to your grievances 
and doing something about them (for example, 
changing the way he behaves toward your 


Has he greatly reduced or eliminated his use 
of controlling behaviors (such as sarcasm, 
rolling his eyes, loud disgusted sighs, talking 
over you, using the voice of ultimate authority, 
and other demonstrations of disrespect or 
superiority) during conversations and 


When he does slip back into controlling 
behavior, does he take you seriously when you 
complain about it and keep working on 


Is he being consistent and responsible in his 
behavior, taking into account how his actions 
affect you without having to be constantly 



Is he acting noticeably less demanding, selfish, 
and self-centered? 


Is he being fair and responsible about money, 
including allowing you to keep your own assets 
in your own name? 


Has he stopped any behaviors that you find 
threatening or intimidating? 


Has he significantly expanded his contribution 
to household and child-rearing responsibilities 
and stopped taking your domestic work for 

granted or treating you like a servant? 


Has he begun supporting your strengths rather 
than striving to undermine them? 


Have you had any major angry arguments with 
him in which he has shown a new willingness 
to conduct himself nonabusively? 


“No” answers to any of the above questions are 
signs of work that your partner still needs to do. If 
he is committed to changing, he will take you 
seriously when you voice your continued concerns 
and he will acknowledge that he needs to continue 
working on his attitudes and habits. On the other 
hand, if he is impatient with or critical of you for 

not being satisfied with the gestures of change he 
has already made, that is a sign that his overt 
abusive behaviors will be coming back before 
long. My experience with abusive men is that 
small or even medium-level improvements 
generally slip away over time; the man who 
actually maintains his progress is usually the one 
who changes completely even though that process 
tends to take considerable time. Thus, when you 
are attempting to preserve a relationship with a 
man who has abused you, you need to some extent 
to hold him to an even higher standard than you 
would a nonabusive partner. 

Sometimes when a woman reports to me that 
her abusive partner has been doing better, it turns 
out that he hasn’t been doing anything at all. He 
isn’t swearing at her or scaring her, but he also 
isn’t spending time with her, talking to her, or 
showing her any affection. He’s avoiding 
abusiveness simply by disconnecting from the 
relationship. As a partner of one of my clients said 

to me: “It’s like he’s got two gears: angry and 

Distancing himself can be worse than 
avoidance; it can be a way to punish you for 
putting your foot down about the way he treats 
you. A certain number of my clients leave their 
partners once they realize that their abuse really 
isn’t going to be tolerated anymore. But the more 
typical approach is to remain physically present 
but to retool the machinery to chum out passive 
aggression instead of open hostility. He leams 
how to hurt her through what he doesn ’t do 
instead of through what he does. 

The previous questions can help you to 
distinguish between genuine change and an 
abusive man’s usual pattern of going through a 
“good” period. If your partner is tmly on the road 
to renouncing abuse, you will notice a dramatic 
difference in him. Partners of my successful 
clients say that they feel almost as though they 
were living with a different person and that now 

they sense a deeper change that involves a real 
shift in attitudes rather than just his usual use of 
superficial sweetness to smooth things over. 



Your partner can make several statements or 
behave in several ways that clearly indicate he 
isn ’t making progress: 

• He says he can change only if you change 

• He says he can change only if you “help” 
him change, by giving him emotional 
support, reassurance, and forgiveness, 
and by spending a lot of time with him. 
This often means that he wants you to 
abandon any plans you had to take a 
break from seeing him. 

• He criticizes you for not realizing how 

much he has changed. 

He criticizes you for not trusting that his 
change will last. 

He criticizes you for considering him 
capable of behaving abusively even 
though he in fact has done so in the past 
(or has threatened to) as if you should 
know that he “would never do something 
like that,” even though he has. 

He reminds you about the bad things he 
would have done in the past but isn’t 
doing anymore, which amounts to a 
subtle threat. 

He tells you that you are taking too long 
to make up your mind, that he can’t 
“wait forever,” as a way to pressure you 
not to take the time you need to collect 
yourself and to assess how much he’s 
really willing to change. 

He says, “I’m changing, I’m changing,” 

but you don’t feel it. 


To use good judgment and make wise decisions 
about the prospects for change in your abusive 
partner, you need to be honest with yourself. 
Because you love him, or you have children with 
him, or leaving him would be difficult for other 
reasons, you may be sorely tempted to get overly 
hopeful about small concessions that he finally 
makes. If he doesn’t budge for five years, or 
twenty years, and then he finally moves an inch, 
your exhaustion can make you think, Hey! An 
inch! That’s progress! You may wish to overlook 
all the glaring signs indicating that his basic 
attitudes and strategies remain intact. Beware of 
his deception and your own self-deception. I have 
heard such heart-rending sadness in the voices of 
many dozens of abused women who have said to 
me: “I wish I could somehow recover all those 

years I wasted waiting around for him to deal with 
his issues.” Save yourself that sadness if you can, 
by insisting on nothing less than complete respect. 


Attempting to address abuse through couples 
therapy is like wrenching a nut the wrong way; it 
just gets even harder to undo than it was before. 
Couples therapy is designed to tackle issues that 
are mutual. It can be effective for overcoming 
barriers to communication, for untangling the 
childhood issues that each partner brings to a 
relationship, or for building intimacy. But you 
can’t accomplish any of these goals in the context 
of abuse. There can be no positive communication 
when one person doesn’t respect the other and 
strives to avoid equality. You can’t take the leaps 
of vulnerability involved in working through early 
emotional injuries while you are feeling 
emotionally unsafe—because you are emotionally 

unsafe. And if you succeed in achieving greater 
intimacy with your abusive partner, you will soon 
get hurt even worse than before because greater 
closeness means greater vulnerability for you. 

Couples counseling sends both the abuser and 
the abused woman the wrong message. The 
abuser learns that his partner is “pushing his 
buttons” and “touching him off’ and that she 
needs to adjust her behavior to avoid getting him 
so upset. This is precisely what he has been 
claiming all along. Change in abusers comes only 
from the reverse process, from completely 
stepping out of the notion that his partner plays 
any role in causing his abuse of her. An abuser 
also has to stop focusing on his feelings and his 
partner’s behavior, and look instead at her 
feelings and his behavior. Couples counseling 
allows him to stay stuck in the former. In fact, to 
some therapists, feelings are all that matters, and 
reality is more or less irrelevant. In this context, a 
therapist may turn to you and say, “But he feels 

abused by you, too.” Unfortunately, the more an 
abusive man is convinced that his grievances are 
more or less equal to yours, the less the chance 
that he will ever overcome his attitudes. 

The message to you from couples counseling is: 
“You can make your abusive partner behave better 
toward you by changing how you behave toward 
him.” Such a message is, frankly, fraudulent. 
Abuse is not caused by bad relationship 
dynamics. You can’t manage your partner’s 
abusiveness by changing your behavior, but he 
wants you to think that you can. He says, or leads 
you to believe, that “if you stop doing the things 
that upset me, and take better care of my needs, I 
will become a nonabusive partner.” It never 
materializes. And even if it worked, even if you 
could stop his abusiveness by catering to his every 
whim, is that a healthy way to live? If the way you 
behave in the relationship is a response to the 
threat of abuse, are you a voluntary participant? If 
you have issues you would like to work on with a 

couples counselor, wait until your partner has 
been completely abuse-free for two years. Then 
you might be able to work on some of the 
problems that truly are mutual ones. 

A professional book I recently read offers a 
powerful example of how couples therapy works 
with an abuser. The therapist made an agreement 
with the couple that the man would avoid his 
scary behaviors and in return the woman would 
stop making her friends such an important part of 
her life “because her friendships were causing so 
much tension in the marriage.” The therapist had, 
in effect, assisted the man in using the threat of 
violence to get his way, cutting his partner off 
from social connections and sources of support 
that were important to her. What the therapist 
portrayed as a voluntary agreement was actually 
coercion, although the authors of the book showed 
no signs of realizing this. 

Couples counseling can end up being a big 
setback for the abused woman. The more she 

insists that her partner’s cruelty or intimidation 
needs to be addressed, the more she may find the 
therapist looking down at her, saying, “It seems 
like you are determined to put all the blame on 
him and are refusing to look at your part in this.” 
The therapist thereby inadvertently echoes the 
abuser’s attitude, and the woman is forced to deal 
with yet another context in which she has to 
defend herself, which is the last thing she needs. I 
have been involved in many cases where the 
therapist and the abuser ended up as a sort of tag 
team, and the abused woman limped away from 
yet another psychological assault. Most therapists 
in such circumstances are well intentioned but fail 
to understand the dynamics of abuse and allow the 
abuser to shape their perceptions. 

The therapist’s reassuring presence in the room 
can give you the courage to open up to your 
partner in ways that you wouldn’t normally feel 
safe to do. But this isn’t necessarily positive; an 
abuser can retaliate for a woman’s frank 

statements during couples sessions. Later, when 
he is screaming at you, “You humiliated me in 
front of the therapist, you made me look like the 
bad guy, you told things that were too private!” 
and delivering a nonstop diatribe, you may regret 
your decision to open up. 

Irene, an abused woman who tells her own 
story in public and has appeared on several panels 
with me, shares the following account: She had 
been in couples counseling for about six months 
with her husband, Quentin, when one day the 
therapist decided it was time to get the ball 
rolling. He said, “These session have gradually 
stopped going anywhere, and I think I know why. 
Irene, you’re not opening up very much, and I 
think you need to take more emotional risks.” 

Irene felt that the therapist was right; she had been 
exposing very little week to week. So she decided 
to take the plunge. She told the therapist about 
Quentin’s abuse of her, which included 
considerable physical violence and the downward 

emotional spiral she had been in as a result. 
Quentin appeared moved and shaken, his eyes 
reddening as if he might cry at any moment. “I 
have really been in denial about my violence,” he 
told the therapist, “and I haven’t been facing how 
badly it has been affecting Irene.” The therapist 
felt that a crucial barrier to progress had been 
overcome. “Now,” he declared, “I think your 
couples work can begin to yield results for you.” 

On the drive home from the session, Quentin 
kept one hand on the steering wheel. In the other 
hand he clutched a large handful of Irene’s hair as 
he repeatedly slammed her head into the 
dashboard, screaming, “I told you to never fucking 
talk to anyone about that, you bitch! You promised 
me! You’re a fucking liar!” and similar insults in a 
nonstop rant. After hearing Irene’s account, I was 
careful to never again underestimate the risk to an 
abused woman of conjoint therapy. 

If couples counseling is the only type of help 
your partner is willing to get—because he wants 

to make sure that he can blame the problem on 
you—you may think, Well, it’s better than not 
getting any counseling at all. And maybe the 
therapist will see the things he does and convince 
him to get help. But even if the therapist were to 
co nfr ont him, which is uncommon, he would just 
say: “You turned the therapist against me”—the 
same way he handles any other challenges. 

Some couples therapists have said to me: 
“Before I work with a couple whose relationship 
has involved abuse, I insist on clear agreements 
that there won’t be any abuse while they are in 
therapy with me and no paybacks for anything that 
gets said in a session.” Such agreements are 
meaningless, unfortunately, because abusers feel 
no obligation to honor them; virtually every 
abuser I’ve ever worked with feels entitled to 
break his word if he has “good enough reason 
which includes any time that he is really upset by 
his partner. Increasingly, therapists across the 
United States and Canada are refusing to engage 

in couples or family sessions with an abuser, 
which is the responsible course of action. 



The more psychotherapy a client of mine has 
participated in, the more impossible I usually find 
it is to work with him. The highly “therapized” 
abuser tends to be slick, condescending, and 
manipulative. He uses the psychological concepts 
he has learned to dissect his partner’s flaws and 
dismiss her perceptions of abuse. He takes 
responsibility for nothing that he does; he moves 
in a world where there are only unfortunate 
dynamics, mis communications, symbolic acts. He 
expects to be rewarded for his emotional 
openness, handled gingerly because of his 
“vulnerability,” colluded with in skirting the 
damage he has done, and congratulated for his 
insight. Many years ago, a violent abuser in my 

program shared the following with us: “From 
working in therapy on my issues about anger 
toward my mother, I realized that when I punched 
my wife, it wasn’t really her I was hitting. It was 
my mother!” He sat back, ready for us to express 
our approval of his self-awareness. My colleague 
peered through his glasses at the man, 
unimpressed by this revelation. “No,” he said, 
“you were hitting your wife.” 

I have yet to meet an abuser who has made any 
meaningful and lasting changes in his behavior 
toward female partners through therapy, 
regardless of how much “insight”—most of it 
false—that he may have gained. 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. Psychotherapy can 
be very valuable for the issues it is devised to 
address, but partner abuse is not one of them; an 

abusive man needs to be in a specialized program, 
as we will see. 


Bringing about change in an abuser generally 
requires four elements:(l) consequences, (2) 
education, (3) confrontation, and (4) 
accountability. Consequences, the first item on the 
list, are manifested primarily through the abuser’s 
experience of losing his relationship (at least 
temporarily if not permanently), or through the 
legal system if he has committed any abuse- 
related crimes, such as threats or assaults. He may 
also experience consequences in the form of 
ciriticism or disapproval from other people in his 

The abuser program has responsibility for items 
two and three, providing the abusive man with 
education about abuse and confronting him with 
his attitudes and excuses. A high-quality abuser 

program is entirely different from therapy. The 
critical distinctions include: 

• Therapy focuses on the man’s feelings 
and gives him empathy and support, no 
matter how unreasonable the attitudes 
that are giving rise to those feelings. An 
abuser program, on the other hand, 
focuses on his thinking. The feelings that 
the abuser program discusses are 
primarily his partner’s and his children’s, 
not his. 

• Therapy involves few rules, or none, 
governing what the man is allowed to do 
during the period he is in therapy. The 
abuser program requires the man to 
refrain from all physical violence and 
threats and to work seriously on reducing 
his verbal aggression and other forms of 
psychological abuse, or he can’t stay in 
the program. 

• An abusive man’s therapist usually will 
not speak to the abused woman, whereas 
the counselor of a high-quality abuser 
program always does. 

• Therapy typically will not address any of 
the central causes of abusiveness, 
including entitlement, coercive control, 
disrespect, superiority, selfishness, or 
victim blaming. An abuser program is 
expected to cover all of these issues and 
in fact to make them its primary focus. 

• An abuser program is expected to 
provide the man with education about 
abuse, to counsel him on how to apply 
those concepts to his own life, and to 
confront his abusive attitudes and 
excuses. It is rare for therapy to do any of 
these things. 

At the same time, an abuser program possesses 
no more magic than anyone else. The man who 

makes maj or life changes as a result of attending 
an abuser program is the one who chooses to 
work the program, not the one who sits back and 
waits for the program to “help” him, expecting 
service as he usually does. The successful client 
neither fights his counselors every step of the way, 
telling them what ignorant idiots they are, nor 
kisses up to them unctuously while claiming that 
the program has caused him to see the light. 
Rather, he comes weekly with a seriousness of 
purpose, practices what he is told, and tries to face 
up to the damage he has done. 

I regret to say that a majority of abusers choose 
not to do the work. It isn’t that they can’t change 
(any abuser who doesn’t have a major mental 
illness can change) but that they decide they don’t 
wish to. They run a sort of cost-benefit analysis in 
their heads and decide that the rewards of 
remaining in control of their partners outweigh the 
costs. They decide that to consider seriously the 
perspective their counselors are presenting to them 

is just too uncomfortable and difficult and offends 
their arrogant sense of certainty about everything 
—at least, about everything having to do with 
relationships and the particular women they are 

Later in this chapter I offer some suggestions on 
how you can increase the likelihood that your 
partner will be among those who do overcome 
their abusiveness. Bear in mind, though, that the 
ultimate choice is his; the saying “You can lead a 
horse to water but you can’t make him drink” 
applies particularly well here. 


The first test of the quality of an abuser program is 
whether the main goal of the staff members 
appears to be helping you or helping him. In a 
responsible program the abused woman is 
considered the primary client. The only 

“assistance” they should be offering to the man is 
to educate and challenge him about his abusive 
attitudes and behaviors. He, on the other hand, 
may have numerous other goals—to get back 
together with you, to get more visitation with the 
children or reduce his child support payments, to 
escape criminal charges—but the program has no 
business assisting him with any of these; the last 
thing an abused woman needs is more people 
helping her abuser to work against her. 

Those in charge of an abuser program should 
do the following: 

• Contact you quickly after your partner 
enters the program. In this call, they 
should ask you to give a history of his 
abusive behavior and of any substance 
abuse, and tell you where to go for 
abused women’s services. 

• Warn you that only a minority of abusers 
make lasting changes and that a few 

actually get worse from participating in 
an abuser program. 

Tell you the rules he has to follow to be 
in the program. 

Describe to you the topics that will be 
covered in his group meetings and give 
you as much detail about those sessions 
as you request. 

Give you any information you request 
about his attendance and the attitudes he 
expresses in the program, and about any 
specific statements he makes in group 
that you would like to know. They should 
not be promising him any confidentiality 
with respect to you. 

Devote most sessions at the program to 
discussing the core attitudinal and 
behavioral issues of abuse (as covered in 
Chapter 3). 

Furthermore, you should be given a copy of any 
written reports generated by the program about the 
abuser, such as court reports. These reports should 

• A full description of all the abuse that 
your partner has admitted to while in the 
program, including psychological abuse, 
sexual coercion, or violence 

• Any steps toward change that he has 
failed to make (see the box earlier in this 

There are various signs you can watch for that 
indicate an abuser program is ineffective : 

• Counselors fail to contact you or to tell 
you the limitations of what counseling is 
likely to accomplish. 

• They tell you that they think he is really 
changing and that he is doing very well 

in the program. (They should know that 
what you see is what matters, not what 
they see; lots of abusers put on a good 
show at the abuser program.) 

They try to involve you in couples 
counseling, suggest that you drop your 
restraining order, encourage you to 
communicate with your partner, or 
advocate for his interests in any way. 

They relay messages to you from him. 

Their group meetings seem to spend too 
much time teaching him to identify his 
feelings, to apply conflict-resolution 
skills, to manage his anger better, or to 
deal with other issues that do not affect 
his underlying beliefs. 

Their written reports are vague, do not 
address the steps to change (see the box 
earlier in this chapter), or give an overly 
rosy image of his prospects for change 

without describing the steps he still has 
left to take. 

I know how hard it is for a woman to get her 
partner to attend an abuser program. After she’s 
finally succeeded in that campaign, I wish I could 
tell her that a cure is sure to follow, but it isn’t. A 
large proportion of abusers would rather stay stuck 
in their old ruts. I consider myself an excellent 
counselor for abusive men; I am patient with 
them, approaching them as an educator rather than 
as a harsh critic. At the same time, I can detect 
manipulation; I know what their issues are, and I 
don’t allow them to fool me. I have worked with 
colleagues whom I believe to be even more skilled 
than I, and from whom I have learned volumes. 
But even the very best counselors give the same 
report: It is more common for abusers to stay the 
same or get worse than it is for them to make the 
kinds of changes that bring qualitative 
improvements in the lives of their partners and 

children. A responsible abuser program 
encourages clients who are doing serious work but 
always mixes caution with its optimism. 

If your partner or ex-partner joins an abuser 
program, I recommend that you examine the 
program’s literature carefully, ask lots of 
questions, and advocate for yourself to make sure 
the program does the kind of work with the man 
that you know needs to be done. At the same time, 
keep your own life moving forward, focusing on 
your own healing process, not on the man’s 
process of change. Waiting around for him to get 
serious about developing respect for you could be 
a long stall in your own growth and development. 
Don’t sell yourself short. 


An abuser doesn’t change because he feels guilty 
or gets sober or finds God. He doesn’t change after 
seeing the fear in his children’s eyes or feeling 

them drift away from him. It doesn’t suddenly 
dawn on him that his partner deserves better 
treatment. Because of his self-focus, combined 
with the many rewards he gets from controlling 
you, an abuser changes only when he feels he has 
to, so the most important element in creating a 
context for change in an abuser is placing him in a 
situation where he has no other choice. Otherwise, 
it is highly unlikely that he will ever change his 
abusive behavior. 

Once an abuser has made substantial 
improvements, his motivation to sustain those 
changes sometimes does become more internal. 
But the initial impetus is always external. Either 
his partner demands change and threatens to leave 
him or a court demands change and threatens to 
jail him. I have never seen a client make a serious 
effort to confront his abusiveness unless somebody 
required him to do the work. The abuser who truly 
enters counseling voluntarily, with no one holding 
anything over his head, quits within a few 

sessions, unless he finds a counselor he can 



Creating a context for change also involves these 

1. Establishing consequences for him for 
continued abusiveness. You maybe able 
to use the legal system to impose 
sanctions if your partner’s style of abuse 
is physically violent or threatening, or 
involves sexual assaults. Leaving him is 
another good consequence for him, 
perhaps even better than legal 
intervention, depending on who he is 
and how well the police and courts work 

where you live. To get an abuser to 
change, you have to either prepare to 
leave him—if you can do so safely—or 
use the police and courts, or both. 

2. Making clear to him what your 
expectations are for his treatment of 
you, including specifically what you are 
willing to live with and what you are 

3. Focusing on your own healing and 
strength, so that he senses that he if he 
doesn’t change, you are ready to move 

You cannot, I am sorry to say, get an abuser to 
work on himself by pleading, soothing, gently 
leading, getting friends to persuade him, or using 
any other nonconfrontational method. I have 
watched hundreds of women attempt such an 
approach without success. The way you can help 
him change is to demand that he do so, and settle 

for nothing less. 

It is also impossible to persuade an abusive 
man to change by convincing him that he would 
benefit, because he perceives the benefits of 
controlling his partner as vastly outweighing the 
losses. This is part of why so many men initially 
take steps to change their abusive behavior but 
then return to their old ways. There is another 
reason why appealing to his self-interest doesn’t 
work: The abusive man’s belief that his own 
needs should come ahead of his partner’s is at the 
core of his problem. Therefore when anyone, 
including therapists, tells an abusive man that he 
should change because that’s what’s best for him, 
they are inadvertently feeding his selfish focus on 
himself: You can’t simultaneously contribute to a 
problem and solve it. Those abusive men who 
make lasting changes are the ones who do so 
because they realize how badly they are hurting 
their partners and children—in other words, 
because they learn to care about what is good for 

others in the family and develop empathy, instead 
of caring only about themselves. 


Breaking up with an abusive man, or even 
deciding to take some time apart, needs to be done 
with caution, as I discussed in “Leaving an 
Abuser Safely” in Chapter 9. But if you feel you 
can leave, doing so may help provide the impetus 
your partner needs to look at his behavior. If you 
are separating with the hope that you might get 
back together in the future, consider the following 

• Be very clear about what kind of contact 
you want to have with your partner 
during the separation, if any. It is 
generally best to have none at all. If you 
keep talking to him or seeing him from 
time to time, you will find it much harder 

to keep your own thinking clear, because 
you will tend to miss him even more 
intensely, feel sorry for him, and get 
drawn in by his promises and his charm. 
Occasional contact is bad for him, too, 
not just for you; it feeds his denial of his 
problem, encouraging him to assume that 
he can use his usual manipulations to 
avoid dealing with himself. 

If you feel that you do want to permit 
some contact, consider the specifics. Can 
he call you, or do you want to be the only 
one to initiate contact? Can he send 
letters? If you are going to see each other 
in person, where, when, and how often? 

Once you make up your mind about the 
above questions, be explicit with your 
partner about your wishes for contact and 
let him know that you expect your 
wishes to be respected. Tell him that if 
he is serious about changing, the first 

way he can demonstrate that to you is by 
giving you the space you are asking for. 

Stay away from him for as long as you 
can stand it. Get support during this 
period from friends, relatives, your 
religious community, or anyone else you 
can trust to help you stay strong. Attend 
counseling or a support group at a 
program for abused women if there is one 
in your area, even if your partner has 
never been violent. Give yourself as 
much time as possible to heal 
emotionally and to clear your mind. 

The separation needs to be long enough 
to make him really uncomfortable— 
enough to motivate him to change. Part 
of what creates discomfort for him is the 
dawning realization that maybe you 
really could live without him. A 
separation that is too short, on the other 
hand, will serve in his mind as proof that 

you can 7 stand to be on your own, so he 
will think he can get away with anything. 
Try to prepare yourself for the possibility 
that he will start to date someone else 
during your separation. This is a common 
move, used to test your strength and get 
you to lose your resolve and start seeing 
him again. His new relationship is not 
very likely to last, so just try to sweat it 

If you decide to get back together with 
him, be clear with yourself and with him 
about what the rules are for his behavior. 
The first time he violates one of those 
rules—and it is likely that he will—it is 
of critical importance to take another 
period of separation. Y our partner does 
not believe that you will go through with 
setting limits on his conduct. You need to 
prove him wrong. He may test you the 
first day you move back in together, or he 

may wait two years. But the day will 
probably come, so have your response 

The next separation should be longer 
than the first in order to give your partner 
a clear message and to motivate him to 
change. If during the first break you 
spoke to him occasionally, this time 
permit no contact at all for a few months. 
As always, focus on making yourself 
stronger. Pursue new friendships, get 
exercise, do artwork, or engage in 
whatever activity you love the most and 
that helps you feel that your life is 
moving forward. If you are drinking too 
much or have developed other problems, 
seek out the help you need and deserve. 
The more space you get from abuse, the 
less willing you will be to endure it and 
the harder it will be for your (ex-)partner 
to con you. 

Have you ever noticed that people 
sometimes quit a job soon after returning 
from a vacation? We all have a higher 
tolerance for frustrating or unhealthy 
situations in our lives when they are 
constant, but when we get a little time 
away and then come back, that taste of 
freedom changes our perspective. What 
had been a dull ache turns into a sharp 
pain and becomes unbearable. The same 
can happen to an abused woman. If you 
give yourself a long enough taste of life 
without being cut down all the time, you 
may reach a point where you find 
yourself thinking, Go back to that? For 
what? Maybe I’ll never stop loving him, 
but at least I can love him from a 
distance where he can’t hurt me. 

If he doesn’t get serious about stopping 
his mistreatment of you, you will come to 
a day when you feel ready to end the 

relationship for good. This may seem 
inconceivable to you now, however, so 
just keep moving forward with your life. 
Focus on yourself as much as possible, 
pursuing your own goals and filling your 
life with the activities you enjoy and find 
satisfying. Trying too hard to get your 
partner to change is a dead-end street. To 
do so keeps you wrapped up in the 
dynamics of abuse, because an abuser 
wants you to be preoccupied with him. 

Only permit him to occupy your thoughts 
for a portion of the day and then reserve 
the lion’s share of your mental space for 

The only time an abusive man will deal with his 
issues enough to become someone you can live 
with is when you prove to him, and to yourself, 
that you are capable of living without him. And 
once you succeed in doing so, you may very well 

decide that living without him is what you would 
rather do. Keep an open mind, and make sure you 
are not clipping your own wings on top of the 
clipping that he has given them. Sometimes I 
work with a woman who is among the fortunate 
ones whose partners do make deep changes, but 
she finds that his change has ceased to matter, 
because she has simply outgrown him. The 
fundamental principle, then, is to do what is best 
for you. 



Prediction is difficult. I have had clients who were 
stellar participants in group and whose partners 
reported good progress in the early months, but 
who dive-bombed later on, rushing back to their 
worst behaviors as if reuniting with dear old 
friends. On the other hand, I have worked with 
men who were ornery during group meetings, who 

were slow and stubborn about taking in the 
concepts, yet who months later stood out for 
having done some of the most serious work on 
themselves of anyone in the program. 

I have noticed some recurring themes among 
those abusers whose changes go the deepest and 
last the longest, however: 

• His close friends and relatives recognize 
that he is abusive and tell him that he 
needs to deal with it. They support the 
abused woman instead of supporting 
him. I have a much more difficult time 
with the abuser whose friends and family 
back up his excuses and encourage his 
disrespect for the woman. 

• He is lower than others on the scale of 
self-centeredness. He tends to show signs 
early on of having more empathy than 
other clients do for the pain he has 
caused his partner, and his empathy 

seems more genuine and less theatrical. 
The highly self-referential, arrogant 
abuser, on the other hand, believes that 
he is above criticism and considers his 
own opinions and insights to be the last 
word on the planet. So who is going to be 
able to persuade him that he has been 
cruel and selfish? 

His partner gets the most unreserved, 
unequivocal support from her friends and 
relatives, her religious community, and 
from the legal system if she needs it. The 
more consistently she receives the 
message that the abuse is in no way her 
fault and that her community intends to 
stand behind her 100 percent, the 
stronger and safer she feels to settle for 
nothing less than fully respectful 
treatment from her partner or ex-partner. 

He joins a high-quality abuser program 
and stays for a long time—about two 


But, even in cases where all of these conditions 
are met, his progress still depends on whether or 
not he decides to carefully and seriously take each 
of the steps to change. 


• You can’t make or even help an abusive 
man change. All you can do is create the 
context for change, and the rest is up to 

• You are the best judge of whether or not 
he is truly developing respect for you and 
for your rights. Don’t put anyone else’s 
opinions ahead of your own. 

• Change in an abusive man is not vague; 
it is highly specific. Use the information 
in this chapter to measure for yourself 

whether he is getting down to the real 
work of change or whether he is trying to 
fly by with the usual nods and winks. 

An abusive man won’t change by 
“working on his anger,” unless he also 
does the more difficult work of changing 
his entitled attitudes. 

Make your own recovery, and that of 
your children, your top priority. 

Abusiveness is like poison ivy, with its 
extensive and entrenched root system. 
You can’t eradicate it by lopping off the 
superficial signs. It has to come out by 
the roots, which are the man’s attitudes 
and beliefs regarding partner 


Creating an Abuse-free World 

I’ve joined a support group. It feels so 
good to talk to people who get it. 

I met this guy at work who said that my 
partner’s behavior is abuse. 

I’m so grateful for my friends and 
family; they really have been there for 

I told my son that the next time he calls 
a girl “bitch, ” he ’s grounded. 

My daughter’s teacher asked me if 
everything is okay at home. I lied and 
said, “Yes, ” but it’s actually really nice 

that somebody noticed. 

PARTNER ABUSE is a cyclone that leaves a 
swath of destruction behind it as it rips through 
the lives of women and children: destroyed self- 
confidence, loss of freedom, stalled progress, fear, 
bitterness, economic ruin, humiliation, heartbreak, 
physical injury, ugly custody battles, isolation, 
wedges driven between mothers and their 
children, confusion, mistrust between siblings, 
secrets, lies. 

No woman should have to live this way. 

Neither should her children. But there are other 
lives that are also affected, because for every 
abused woman, there are friends and relatives who 
suffer, too, from their worry and pain over what 
they see happening to her. Some of those who 
approach me to share their anguish are men who 
are groping desperately for clues to how they can 
assist their daughters and sisters and mothers who 
they see being sliced to ribbons a day at a time. In 

fact, it is unusual for me to talk to anyone, male or 
female, whose life has not been saddened at some 
point by an abusive man. 

In recent years, in my public presentations, I 
have increasingly addressed the effects on children 
who are exposed to partner abuse. While writing 
this book I spoke at a training session for police 
officers, where a young cop who was built to 
intimidate—about as wide as he was tall—came 
up to me privately during a break and said, “All 
this stuff you are talking about went on in my 
family growing up. My old man was just like 
what you describe, always controlling, scaring 
everybody. And he drove me and my mom apart, 
just like you said. But we all saw through him 
when we got older, and me and my mom are close 
now.” I told him how happy I was that he had 
become a police officer, so that when a family 
calls for help, they might be sent a cop who can 
see through the children’s eyes and remember that 
they are victims too. 

We all have a stake in ending abuse, if not for 
ourselves, then for our loved ones who may be 
targets or bystanders or who may find themselves 
mired in an abusive relationship someday. Anyone 
who chooses to can play an important role in 
chasing this scourge out of our homes, our 
communities, and our nations. 

Abuse is a solvable problem. We know where 
it comes from; we know why abusers are reluctant 
to change; and we know what it takes to make 
abuse stop. Abusers specialize in creating mystery 
and intrigue, but when we clear the smoke away 
we are left with an obvious moral wrong and a 
straightforward task to set it right. All that is 
required is the clarity of our minds and the will of 
our communities. 

Throughout this book, I have been putting forth 
my suggestions to abused women about steps that 
they can take to make sense out of what is 
occurring, to seek safety, and to set their own 
healing in motion. I have a few more words of 

advice for them, but most of this chapter is 
directed at everyone —male or female, survivor of 
abuse or not, young or old—who is interested in 
helping to end abuse. 


My primary message to you is this: An abuser 
distorts the life and mind of his abused partner, so 
that she becomes focused on him. The main way 
out of the abuse vortex, therefore, is to reorient 
your thinking so that you devote your attention to 
yourself and to your children. I hope this book has 
helped to solve some puzzles for you about what is 
going on in your partner’s mind. Now see if you 
can stop puzzling about him and turn your energy 
toward moving yourself forward on your chosen 

Most of this chapter talks about the ways in 
which people can transform the attitudes toward 
abuse that prevail in their communities. Please 

don’t concern yourself with these suggestions 
unless you are sure you are ready for them. If you 
jump from trying to take care of your own abusive 
relationship to trying to take care of other abused 
women, you may forget that you deserve 
caretaking for yourself Let other people take on 
the world for now and just be the “hero of your 
own life,” as one book refers to abused women. 
Taking action in your community against the 
abuse of women may be an empowering and 
healing activity for you, but not if you take it on 
too soon. You’ll know when you’re ready. 

I have woven practical ideas through all of the 
previous chapters. I would like to leave you with 
just a few more thoughts: 

• Get support for yourself no matter how. 
Find someone somewhere who can 
understand what you are going through, 
who can be trusted with confidences, and 
who can help you hold on to your sense 

of reality. Reach out. 

Keep a journal to document your 
experience, so that when your partner is 
making you crazy with mind games or 
with sudden “good” behavior, you can 
look back through your writings and 
remember who you really are and what 
he really does. 

Stay away from people who aren’t good 
for you, who don’t understand, who say 
things that push you down into self¬ 

Do anything you can think of that’s good 
for you, that nurtures your soul. Even 
women who have extraordinarily 
controlling partners often can find some 
ruse that will free them long enough to 
work out, take a class, go for a walk, or 
just get some time alone to think. 

Keep your abusive partner out of your 

head as much as you can. Use this book 
to help you understand what he is doing; 
naming and understanding is power. If 
you can understand how he thinks, you 
can avoid absorbing his thinking yourself 
and prevent him from crawling inside 
your head. 

• Don’t blame yourself when you don’t 
reach your goals right away, when, for 
instance, you break down and get back 
together with him. Just pull yourself 
together and try again. You will succeed 
eventually, perhaps even on your very 
next attempt. 





If you would like to make a significant difference 
in the life of an abused woman you care about, 
keep the following principle fresh in your mind: 
Your goal is to be the complete opposite of what 
the abuser is. 

IE ABUSER: Pressures her severely 

) YOU SHOULD: Be patient. Remember that it 
takes time for an abused woman to sort out her 
confusion and figure out how to handle her 
situation. It is not helpful for her to try to follow 
your timetable for when she should stand up to 
her partner, leave him, call the police, or whatever 
step you want her to take. You need to respect her 
judgment regarding when she is ready to take 

action—something the abuser never does. 
IE ABUSER: Talks down to her 

) YOU SHOULD: Address her as an equal. Avoid 
all traces of condescension or superior knowledge 
in your voice. This caution applies just as much or 
more to professionals. If you speak to an abused 
woman as if you are smarter or wiser than she is, 
or as if she is going through something that could 
never happen to you, then you inadvertently 
confirm exactly what the abuser has been telling 
her, which is that she is beneath him. Remember, 
your actions speak louder than your words. 

IE ABUSER: Thinks he knows what is good for 
her better than she does 

) YOU SHOULD: Treat her as the expert on her 
own life. Don’t assume that you know what she 
needs to do. I have sometimes given abused 
women suggestions that I thought were exactly 

right but turned out to be terrible for that particular 
situation. Ask her what she thinks might work 
and, without pressuring her, offer suggestions, 
respecting her explanations for why certain 
courses of action would not be helpful. Don’t tell 
her what to do. 

IE ABUSER: Dominates conversations 

) YOU SHOULD: Listen more and talk less. The 
temptation may be great to convince her what a 
“jerk” he is, to analyze his motives, to give 
speeches covering entire chapters of this book. But 
talking too much inadvertently communicates to 
her that your thoughts are more important than 
hers, which is exactly how the abuser treats her. If 
you want her to value her own feelings and 
opinions, then you have to show her that you value 

IE ABUSER: Believes he has the right to control 
her life 

) YOU SHOULD: Respect her right to self- 
determination. She is entitled to make decisions 
that are not exactly what you would choose, 
including the decision to stay with her abusive 
partner or to return to him after a separation. You 
can’t convince a woman that her life belongs to 
her if you are simultaneously acting like it belongs 
to you. Stay by her even when she makes choices 
that you don’t like. 

IE ABUSER: Assumes he understands her 
children and their needs better than she does 

) YOU SHOULD: Assume that she is a 
competent, caring mother. Remember that there is 
no simple way to determine what is best for the 
children of an abused woman. Even if she leaves 
the abuser, the children’s problems are not 
necessarily over, and sometimes abusers actually 
create worse difficulties for the children 
postseparation than before. You cannot help her to 
find the best path for her children unless you have 

a realistic grasp of the complicated set of choices 
that face her. 

IE ABUSER: Thinks for her 

) YOU SHOULD: Think with her. Don’t assume 
the role of teacher or rescuer. Instead, join forces 
with her as a respectful and equal team member. 

Notice that being the opposite of the abuser 
does not simply mean saying the opposite of what 
he says. If he beseeches her with, “Don’t leave 
me, don’t leave me,” and you stand on the other 
side badgering her with, “Leave him, leave him,” 
she will feel that you’re much like him; you are 
both pressuring her to accept your judgment of 
what she should do. Neither of you is asking the 
empowering question, “What do you want to do?” 


Because empowerment and recovery for an abused 
woman can be a long process, people who want to 
be there for her tend to go through periods when 
their patience wears thin. They are tempted to aim 
their frustration at the woman herself, saying, 
“Well, if you put such a low value on yourself as 
to choose to be abused, I can’t keep hanging 
around,” or “If you care about him more than you 
care about your children, you’re as sick as he is.” I 
understand why you feel irritated, but it doesn’t 
make sense to put her down. The message you 
send with such an outburst is that you think she is 
causing herself to be abused, which is just what 
the abuser is telling her. And the last thing you 
want to do is support his message. 

One of the biggest mistakes made by people 
who wish to help an abused woman is to measure 
success by whether or not she leaves her abusive 
partner. If the woman feels unable or unready to 
end her relationship, or if she does separate for a 
period but then goes back to him, people who 

have attempted to help tend to feel that their effort 
failed and often channel this frustration into 
blaming the abused woman. A better measure of 
success for the person helping is how well you 
have respected the woman’s right to run her own 
life—which the abusive man does not do—and 
how well you have helped her to think of 
strategies to increase her safety. If you stay 
focused on these goals you will feel less frustrated 
as a helper and will be a more valuable resource 
for the woman. 

Here is a mental exercise you can do to help you 
through your impatience. Think about your own 
life for a moment, and consider some problem that 
has been difficult for you to solve. Perhaps you 
have had difficulty finding a job you really like; 
perhaps you have a weight problem or some other 
health problem; perhaps you wish to quit 
smoking; perhaps you are unhappy in your current 
relationship or unhappy being single. Now think 
about a time when friends or relatives were 

jumping in to tell you what you should do about 
the challenge facing you. How much did that 
help? Did they gloss over the complexities, 
making solutions sound simpler than they really 
are? Did they become impatient when you were 
reluctant to take the steps that they proposed? 

How did their impatience feel to you? 

Other people’s problems almost always appear 
simpler than our own. Sentences that start with “If 
I were you, I would...” rarely help. When people 
start to impose their solutions on me, for example, 

I feel the desire to respond: “If you are such an 
expert on how I should wend my way through 
life’s obstacles, why are there still important 
sources of unhappiness in your life? Why haven’t 
you made everything perfect for yourself?” No life 
situation is as simple as it may appear from the 

When your frustration is about to get the best of 
you, seek support for yourself. Talk to someone 
you care about. Share how painful it is to be 

unable to instantly pluck the abused woman from 
her thorny trap, which of course is what you wish 
you could do, as do I. Tell about the rage you feel 
toward the man who is abusing her. Then prepare 
yourself to go back and be patient and loving with 
the woman you are trying to help. Abused women 
tell me over and over again that nothing has 
mattered more to their progress toward safety and 
recovery than the love and support of friends, 
relatives, and respectful professionals. 

One more word of caution: I observe that many 
people are eager to find something wrong with an 
abused woman, because if they can’t, they are 
co nfr onted with the uncomfortable reality that any 
woman can be abused. The urge to find fault in 
her interferes with your ability to help her—and 
ultimately colludes with the abusive man. 



Family and friends of an abused woman 
sometimes ask me how they can get her to realize 
that her partner is an abuser. They complain: “She 
always makes excuses for him. She has these 
ideas about how to make him get better, like by 
helping him find a less stressful job, that 
obviously aren’t going to work. And she blames 
herself, saying that she’s the one who sets him off 
a lot of times. She’s in a lot of denial.” 

She may actually be more aware of the abuse 
than she is willing to say. Her shame, and her fear 
that other people will pressure or criticize her, may 
make her pretend she doesn’t see. If she has been 
with her partner for a long time, or if he is 
especially scary or crazy-making, she may be 
experiencing traumatic bonding (see Chapter 9). 

Or she may believe that her partner is right—that 
her behavior really is the root of their difficulties, 
not his. In any event, you will not be able to 
“make her” see her partner’s abusiveness any 
more than she can “make him” see it. I wish I 

could say otherwise, because I know how difficult 
it is for an abused woman’s loved ones to accept 
the limits on what they can do. 

Here are a few steps you can take, however: 

• Tell her that you don’t like the way she is 
being treated and that you don’t think she 
deserves it. 

• Tell her you love her and that you think 
she is a good person. 

• Ask her to read this book. You also 
might hand her one of the other books 
listed under “Resources” in the back of 
this one. 

• Ask her if she would be willing to make 
plans with you for ways to respond to 
specific situations of abuse as they arise. 
See, for example, if she would agree to 
call you the next time her partner starts to 
yell at her. Offer to pay for her to spend 
the night at a hotel the next time he gets 

scary. Ask whether she could make an 
excuse to come and visit you on her own 
for a week over the summer, so that she 
might get a chance to clear her head a bit. 
You may think of other alternatives of 
your own. 

If you ever think she is in danger at a 
particular moment—if, for example, she 
calls you in the midst of violence or 
threats—call the police in her area and 
tell them what is happening. 

Call her or write her often, even if she 
never seems to return calls, unless she 
asks you not to (which would indicate 
that he punishes her for being in contact 
with people). 

Treat her consistently well. She ll feel the 
difference between what you do and what 
he does. 

Encourage her to call a program for 

abused women “just to talk.” She does 
not need to give them her name or her 
telephone number, and she doesn’t even 
have to believe that she is being abused. 

She can call for support and reality 
checks and just to describe her struggles 
in her relationship. The first call to a 
women’s program sometimes breaks the 
ice so that it gets easier for her to reach 
out for help again. 

You may wonder why I stated earlier that abuse 
is a solvable problem, yet now I am saying that 
you sometimes will have to watch and wait. To 
say that we can end abuse in our communities 
does not mean that we can rescue each individual 
abused woman right this minute. To help your 
friend or relative achieve an abuse-free life may 
take some time. To achieve an abuse-free society 
will take a lot of effort on many levels, as we will 

Finally, do yourself one great favor: Read To Be 
an Anchor in the Storm, a wonderful book that 
has been written precisely for the loved ones of 
abused women (see “Resources”) and is filled 
with wisdom from cover to cover. 


If I were asked to select one salient characteristic 
of my abusive clients, an aspect of their nature that 
stands out above all the others, I would choose 
this one: They feel profoundly justified. Every 
effort to reach an abuser must be based on the 
antidote to this attitude: Abuse is wrong; you are 
responsible for your own actions; no excuse is 
acceptable; the damage you are doing is 
incalculable; your problem is yours alone to 

Who has the opportunity to have an impact on 
an abuser’s thinking, and what can they do? 


You are the front line. You have a better chance of 
turning around an abuser’s attitude than everyone 
else—the abused woman, a therapist, an abuser 
program, the courts—put together. You are the 
hardest ones to discredit. He dismisses the others 
on the list with a wave of his hand, because they 
are “crazy” or “liars” or “hysterical” or “anti¬ 
male.” But when his loved ones criticize him, he 
is likely to experience some uncertainty for the 
first time. 

Here are some guidelines to follow: 

1. When someone you care about is 

accused of abuse, don’t tell yourself that 
it can’t possibly be true. Unfortunately, 
when an abuser complains to his 
relatives in an outraged voice, “My 
partner accuses me of being abusive 
they generally jump blindly to his side. 
They shake their head in disgust and 
outrage, and respond: “How could she 

say that about you? What a bitch!” 
Nobody asks any questions. 

Instead of falling prey to this knee-j erk 
reaction, begin by finding out all you 
can. What exactly does he do that she 
finds abusive? How does she say she is 
affected by him? What does she want 
him to do differently? He will respond to 
these questions by making her sound 
ridiculous. He may say, for example, 
“She says that if I’m ever grouchy or in 
a bad mood, that’s abuse. Every time 
she doesn’t get her way, she labels me 
an abuser.” Keep pressing him about 
what her perspective is. Ask him to give 
examples of specific interactions. 

Refuse to jump on his bandwagon. 

Show him that you are reserving 

Next, have a private conversation with 
his partner. Tell her that he has revealed 

that she feels abused and that you would 
like to know what her concerns are. She 
may tell you very little, depending on 
how much she feels she can trust you. 
But if she does open up, you are likely 
to find that she doesn’t come out 
sounding like a crazy bully the way he 
would like you to believe her to be. 
When a woman complains of abuse, the 
great maj ority of the time she has valid 
and important complaints about how her 
partner is treating her. 

2. Don’t repeat to him confidences she has 
shared with you unless she gives you 
clear permission. You may be persuaded 
that he isn’t the type to retaliate, but she 
knows better. Ask her which issues or 
events are safe for you to bring up with 
him and which ones are not. To the 
extent that she gives you the go-ahead, 
press him to think carefully about her 

complaints and to make the 
improvements in his behavior that she is 

3. Don’t ignore events you witness 
directly. It is awkward to address a 
loved one’s conduct toward his partner, 
but silence implies acceptance. Talk to 
each of them separately, raising your 
concerns about his behavior. 

4. Follow up, especially with her. Find a 
moment to ask her privately whether or 
not the problem is persistent, and what 
kind of help she could use. 

I understand and value the loyalty of family 
members to each other. There is a natural 
temptation to speak out forcefully against abuse 
until the man whose behavior is under the 
microscope is one of our own, and then we switch 
sides. But we can’t have it both ways. Abuse 
won’t stop until people stop making exceptions for 

their own brothers and sons and friends. 

Supporting a woman against a man’s 
abusiveness does not necessarily mean taking her 
side in every conflict in their relationship. They 
may have huge issues between them that are a 
tangled mess—collisions about finances or child 
rearing or choices of friends—in addition to the 
abuse. When you challenge a loved one about 
mistreating his partner, he will say: “You are 
siding with her; she’s turned you against me.” 
Respond to these distortions by saying: “I am not 
against you; I am against your hurtful behavior. 
I’m not saying that she’s right about every issue 
between you. What I am saying is that you won’t 
be able to work out any of those other differences 
unless you first deal with your abuse problem. As 
long as you keep bullying her, you are the 
number-one problem.” 

Nothing would work faster to end the abuse of 
women than having the friends and family of 
abusive men stop enabling them. And that begins, 

in turn, with making sure that you listen carefully 
and respectfully to her side of the story— 
something the abusive man never does. 


While an abused woman may sometimes 
approach a counselor and describe her struggle 
straightforwardly, an abuser speaks in terms that 
are less direct. He seeks help not because he 
senses that he is abusive but because he is tired of 
the tension in his home or is afraid that his 
relationship is going to split up. He will not 
typically volunteer the fact that he swears, tears 
his partner down, or frightens her. If he is 
physically violent, he will almost certainly make 
no spontaneous mention of that fact. However, he 
may give various hints. Some co mm on ones 

“I have a bad temper, and I lose my cool 

sometimes. ” 

“My girlfriend claims that I don’t treat her 
right. ” 

“My partner is always making eyes at other 
men. ” 

“My wife attacked me, so I had to defend 
myself and she got hurt. ” 

None of these statements is proof of abuse in 
itself, but each one is adequate cause for serious 
concern and should be treated as an indication that 
the counselor needs to ask many questions about 
the man’s behavior and his partner’s perspective. 

I recommend that counselors use tremendous 
caution in accepting a man’s claim that he has 
been falsely accused of abuse or that he is the 
victim of a violent or controlling woman. You 
could easily become an unwitting source of 
support and justification for his psychological—or 
physical—assaults on his partner. Remain neutral 
until you have learned a great deal about his 

circumstances and attitudes. 

When you are concerned that a man might have 
an abuse problem, ask him to talk in detail about 
his partner’s perspective and feelings about 
various aspects of her life, including her view of 
conflicts with him. The abuser will typically have 
difficulty looking through her eyes with sympathy 
and detail, especially with respect to her 
grievances against him. The more he ridicules and 
trivializes her point of view, the greater reason you 
have to believe that the problem lies with him. At 
the same time, if you keep asking what she would 
say, you will find that you often get critical clues 
to what his behavior and attitude problems are. 

Whether or not you suspect abuse, it is always 
valuable to provide some basic education to any 
male about partner abuse. Give some examples of 
abusive behaviors, describe their destructive 
impact on women and children, and explain that a 
man is entirely responsible for his own actions. If 
you hear him use other people’s behavior as an 

excuse for his own or if he blames stress or 
alcohol, point out that he is rationalizing his 
mistreatment of his partner. If he admits to abuse 
at any point, encourage him to contact an abuser 


Various guidelines for law enforcement personnel 
are included in Chapter 12.1 will review just three 
critical points here: (1) Abusers need to suffer 
consequences for their actions now, not just 
receive warnings of future sanctions, which have 
little impact on abusers. (2) He can’t overcome his 
abuse problem by dealing with anything other 
than the abuse. Working on stress or anger 
management, alcoholism, or relationship 
dynamics will have little or no impact on a man’s 
abusiveness. (3) Criticism from people in 
positions of authority can sometimes have the 
greatest impact of any fallout that abusers 
experience. On the other hand, language from 

professionals that excuses or minimizes abuse, or 
that attributes responsibility partly to the victim— 
as in the case of a probation officer who says to a 
man: “You and your wife really need to work out 
your issues and stop abusing each other”—makes 
an important contribution to enabling the abuser. 


Any community group or agency can help reach 
abusive men by prominently displaying posters 
against abuse and disseminating brochures and 
other literature. Bear in mind that materials that 
prominently feature words such as abuse or 
violence can be useful in getting the attention of 
abused women, but abusers tend to think, That 
isn’t me they ’re talking to. Instead, use simple 
questions and descriptions, such as: 

“Do you have a problem with your temper? ” 

“Has your wife or girlfriend ever complained 
of being afraid ofyou? ” 

“Do you sometimes swear or call her names? ” 

“Do you ever blame your behavior on your 

partner? ” 

The smaller print should explain that there is no 
excuse for a man to insult, frighten, isolate, or lie 
to his partner, even if he feels that she does the 
same things. Descriptions of laws and potential 
legal consequences are helpful, including the fact 
that he can be arrested for pushing, poking, 
restraining, or threatening his partner, even if he 
does not hit her. Few men are aware of this 
possibility, and abusers are shocked when they get 
arrested for such ‘Tower-level” violence. If your 
area has a high-quality abuser program include the 
telephone number, but remember that few abusers 
follow through on counseling unless someone 
demands it of them. The main purpose of your 
posters and pamphlets is to educate abusers and 
potential abusers about community values. 

An abuser rejects at first what he hears from 

any of these sources. But when positive social 
messages begin to line up, that’s another matter. I 
have occasionally had physically abusive clients, 
for example, who have been criticized by the 
arresting officer, then prosecuted fully, then 
criticized by the judge—in addition to having a 
sentence imposed—then criticized by the 
probation officer, and then finally confronted in an 
abuser program. This man may also see a program 
on television about abuse or read a pamphlet in 
the waiting room of a doctor’s office. His own 
mother or brother may tell him that he needs to 
stop bullying his partner. If all these different 
voices reinforce each other, saying that he is 
responsible for his own actions, refusing to let him 
blame the victim, breaking the silence about the 
pain he is causing, and insisting that the 
responsibility to change rests on his shoulders 
alone, the abuser’s vast sense of entitlement starts 
to shrink. I have watched it happen. Here is where 
change can begin. 


Amid the screaming and insults, behind the 
cascade of accusations and counteraccusations, 
lost in our panic as we see a woman being 
repeatedly psychologically hammered or 
physically beaten, we can forget that the abuser 
has other victims too. The children can become 
invisible. The police who go on a domestic abuse 
call sometimes have been known to forget to even 
ask whether there are children in the home. These 
children recede into the comers, trying to keep 
themselves safe, and may remain unnoticed until 
they are old enough to try to jump in to protect 
their mothers. 

As is tme with almost every approach to abuse, 
we have to begin by breaking the silence. Ask the 
mother privately how she feels her children are 
being affected by the man’s behavior and by the 
tension it creates. Does he abuse her in front of 
them? How do they react? What are her concerns 

about them? What does she feel they need? 
(Remember, think with her, not for her.) 

Break secrecy with the children as well. Let 
them know that you are aware of what is 
happening and that you care about their feelings. 

“How are things going at home for you? ” 

“Is it hard for you when your parents argue? ” 

“What happens when they get mad at each 
other? ” 

“Does anyone at your house ever hurt any one 
else’s feelings, or frighten anyone? ” 

“Wouldyou like to tell me about that? ” 

Even if the child answers no to all of your 
inquiries, you have demonstrated that he or she 
matters to you and that you understand that the 

abuse—without calling it that—can be hurtful or 
frightening. Then leave the door open to future 
communication by saying: “You can tell me about 
your life at home any time you want. It’s okay to 
talk about it. Children can get upset sometimes 
when their parents argue.” 

Notice that I recommend using soft terms that 
neither name abuse nor assign responsibility for it 
until you find out how much the child knows. This 
language is important to avoid alerting children to 
painful dynamics of which they may not be aware. 
This guideline should be reversed, however, if the 
child does disclose abuse directly to you or if you 
know that he or she has directly witnessed explicit 
verbal or physical abuse toward the mother. Then 
it becomes important not to use neutral terms; 
children of abused women already feel that they 
themselves and their mothers are at least partly at 
fault, and you do not want to reinforce those 
hurtful misconceptions. So once the secret is out, 
avoid evenhanded language such as the problems 

between your parents or the mean things they 
sometimes do to each other. 

Children do need to hear the following 

• “It’s not your fault if someone in the 
family says mean things or hurts 
someone. ” 

• “It’s not your mother’s fault if someone 
treats her badly. ” 

• “No one should ever blame you for 
being mean to you or hurting you. ’’ 

• “A child can’t really protect his or her 
mother, and it isn’t the child’s job. ” 

The term abuse doesn’t mean anything to 
children younger than ten or twelve but may be 
useful in speaking with teenagers. In general, 
descriptions work better than labels. 

If the abuser is the children’s father or father 
figure, take particular caution not to speak badly 

of him as a person but only to name and criticize 
his actions. Children do not want to hear that their 
dad is mean, selfish, or bad. In cases where the 
abuser is dangerous, it is helpful to discuss the 
risks with the children, both to help them protect 
themselves and to validate their reality. However, 
even a violent, dangerous abuser is a human 
being, and children tend to be acutely tuned in to 
the humanity of anyone they know well. Don’t 
talk about him as if he were a monster. You can 
say, for example, “Your dad has a problem that 
makes him unsafe sometimes, doesn’t he?” These 
are terms that make sense to children. 

Those community members who work with the 
children of abused women in a professional 
capacity, such as teachers, police officers, 
therapists, or court employees, can increase their 
effectiveness by being sensitive to the family 
dynamics that partner abuse creates and by 
remembering how manipulative abusers can be. 
Too many children of abused women are labeled 

“ADD” or “ADHD” and given medication instead 
of receiving the assistance they need. Children 
need us to take an interest in their predicament, 
help them to leam positive values, and support 
their crucial connection to their mothers. 


One-on-one approaches to overcoming abuse work 
well only when the wider community pulls 
together to create an environment in which the 
victims are supported and the abusers held 
accountable. You can play a role in making your 
community an abuse-free zone, a haven where 
abused women know that they can count on 
complete support and where abusers know that 
they will not succeed in gaining sympathy for their 
excuses or in avoiding the consequences of their 

Here are just a few of the many steps you can 

Offer to help your local program for 
abused women as a volunteer, fund¬ 
raiser, public speaker, or board member. 
These programs are always short of both 
help and funds, because the number of 
abused women needing assistance is so 
tragically high. Many programs offer free 
or low-cost training for volunteers. 

Get involved with an abuser program if 
there is one in your area. You can be 
trained to be a counselor for abusers or to 
be an advocate for abused women within 
the abuser program. Use your influence 
to guide the program to keep improving 
the support it offers abused women and 
their children and the quality of 
education and counseling it provides the 
abusers. If no local program exists, 
contact one of the abuser programs listed 

in “Resources” in the back of this book 
for guidance in starting one up. 

Join or start an organization devoted to 
education and activism regarding the 
abuse of women. Such groups distribute 
literature, hold protests, promote more 
effective laws, sponsor artistic projects 
related to domestic abuse, and take 
many, many other forms of courageous 
and creative action to end abuse. Your 
local program for abused women may 
have a “social action” or similarly named 
committee, but efforts to promote social 
change are sometimes more effective 
when they come out of a separate 
organization that is not trying 
simultaneously to provide services. 

Bring programs into your school system 
that teach respect and equality for 
females and that make children aware of 
relationship abuse. 

Join your local domestic abuse task force, 
or start one if none exists. An effective 
task force (or “roundtable”) includes 
representatives from as many community 
institutions as possible that deal with 
families affected by abuse. Invite 
therapists, clergypeople, school 
personnel, police, personnel from the 
district attorney’s office, and court 
personnel as well as staff from programs 
for abused women and for abusers. Such 
task forces have been multiplying rapidly 
over the past ten years, with countless 
laudable accomplishments in 
coordinating services, launching new 
programs, and educating the public. 

Help to get services going in your area 
for children of abused women, especially 
counseling groups. Press therapists who 
work with children to educate themselves 
on the issue of partner abuse and its 

effects on children who are exposed to it. 
Participate in public education efforts 
regarding the reinjuring of abused 
women and their children through 
custody and visitation litigation. For 
more information on all of these 
suggestions, see “Resources” at the back 
of this book. 

Join educational efforts in secondary 
schools regarding abuse in teen dating 
relationships, in order to stop abuse 
before it starts. See the section on teen 
issues in “Resources”.) 

Advocate for expanded welfare benefits 
and other forms of public economic 
support for abused women. The cuts in 
public assistance over the past decade 
have often made it much more difficult 
for abused women to leave their partners, 
especially if they have children. Women 
can’t leave abusive men if they are 

economically trapped. 

Protest TV and print media portrayals 
that glorify abuse and sexual assault or 
that blame victims, including news 

If you are a former abused woman who is 
no longer with her abuser, consider 
telling your story in public. There is a 
tremendous need for women who have 
had personal experience with abuse to go 
to social service agencies, schools, police 
departments, and other groups and help 
people to grasp more deeply what abuse 
looks like and what tremors it sends 
through so many lives. I have often seen 
professionals and other community 
members transformed by hearing the 
account of a real-life woman who has 
lived with psychological or physical 

• Support women who are survivors of 
abuse to take leadership in your 
community, and make sure that they are 
represented on all task forces and policy¬ 
making bodies addressing domestic 


Abuse is the product of a mentality that excuses 
and condones bullying and exploitation, that 
promotes superiority and disrespect, and that casts 
responsibility on to the oppressed. All efforts to 
end the abuse of women ultimately have to return 
to this question: How do we change societal 
values so that women’s right to live free of insults, 
invasion, disempowerment, and intimidation is 

One way is simply to declare out loud to people 
in your life that women have these rights 
unconditionally. Much of modem society remains 

regrettably unclear on this point. I still hear: 

“Well, he shouldn’t have called her a ‘slut,’ but 
she did dance all night with another man.” I hear: 
“He did keep hassling her at her job even when 
she told him to stay away, but he was heartbroken 
over their breakup.” I hear: “He did use some 
force in having sex with her, but she had really led 
him on to believe that they were going all the way 
that night.” You can influence your friends, your 
religious group, your bowling club, your relatives 
by having the courage to stand up and say: 

“Abuse of a woman is wrong—period.” 

Next, put on pressure against songs, videos, 
“humor,” and other media that aid and abet 
abusers. The flood of complaints regarding 
Eminem’s Grammy award succeeded in 
pressuring CBS to run a public-service 
announcement about domestic abuse during the 
broadcast and led the Grammy’s president to read 
an antiviolence statement from the podium. A 
stream of complaints flowed into Simon & 

Schuster for distributing a video game in which 
the obj ect was for the male character to 
successfully rape a female, who was a tied-up 
Native American woman. When the public decries 
the cultural agents that teach or excuse abuse, the 
culture receives another strong push in the right 

Refuse to go along with jokes that insult or 
degrade women. If you are a man, your refusal to 
fall in step with destructive jokes and comments 
can be especially powerful. When someone tells 
you, “It’s just a joke,” answer by asking, “How do 
you think an abuser reacts when he hears this 
joke? Do you think it helps him realize the harm 
he is doing? Or do you think that his sense of 
justification gets even more solid than it was?” 

Encourage the women in your life—your 
friends, sisters, mothers, daughters—to insist on 
dignity and respect, to have faith in themselves, to 
be proud. Expect boys and men to be respectful, 
kind, and responsible, and don’t settle for less. 

Again, men have a particularly important role to 
play in cultural change. When a father tells his 
son, “I don’t want to hear you saying bad things 
about girls,” or “No, I’m not going to let you have 
a ‘boys only’ birthday party, that’s prejudiced,” 
the boy sits up and takes notice. The “Resources” 
section includes some organizations that are 
particularly involved in helping men take 
leadership against the abuse of women. Vocal 
leadership by men makes it much more difficult 
for abusers to claim that the battle over abuse is 
one between men and women rather than between 
abusers and everyone else. 

Finally, promote alternatives to abuse and 
oppression by recognizing how intertwined 
different forms of abuse and mistreatment are. The 
opposite of arrogantly defining reality is listening 
respectfully to each person’s perspective. The 
opposite of placing yourself above other people is 
seeing them as equals. The opposite of 
establishing a hierarchy in which the top few 

people lounge comfortably while everyone else 
gets squashed is sharing resources. The opposite 
of madly scrambling to the top, whether it’s the 
top of the corporate ladder, the top of the softball 
league, or the top of the household pecking order, 
is building communities devoted to cooperation 
and support, where everyone wins. To consider a 
world without relationship abuse is to open up to 
even more profound possibilities, to the potential 
for human beings to live in harmony with each 
other and with their natural environment. 

Anger and conflict are not the problem; they are 
normal aspects of life. Abuse doesn’t come from 
people’s inability to resolve conflicts but from one 
person’s decision to claim a higher status than 
another. So while it is valuable, for example, to 
teach nonviolent conflict-resolution skills to 
elementary school students—a popular initiative 
nowadays—such efforts contribute little by 
themselves to ending abuse. Teaching equality, 
teaching a deep respect for all human beings— 

these are more complicated undertakings, but they 
are the ones that count. 

Some people may feel that I am unrealistic to 
believe in a world that is free of abuse. But words 
like unrealistic, naive, and impractical come from 
voices of superiority who use them as put-downs 
to get people to stop thinking for themselves. 
Abuse does affect us all. If you haven’t been 
involved with an abusive partner yourself, even if 
no woman that you love has ever suffered chronic 
mistreatment, the quality of your life is still 
dragged down, your horizons still circumscribed, 
by the existence of abuse and the culture that 
drives it. The voice of abuse takes so many 
different forms. You can hear it each time a 
child’s dreams are shot down by an adult who 
thinks he or she knows it all. It rings in the ears of 
anyone who has ever been ridiculed for crying. It 
echoes through the mind of each person who has 
dared to put a name to his or her own 
mistreatment, or to the cruelty directed toward 

someone else, and then has been derided with 
stinging words such as sissy or mama’s boy or 
hysterical or thousands of others. 

If you choose to believe that your life could be 
free of abuse, or that the whole world could be, 
you will be taunted by similar voices, some 
originating inside your own head. Some people 
feel threatened by the concept that abuse is a 
solvable problem, because if it is, there’s no 
excuse for not solving it. Abusers and their allies 
are reluctant to face up to the damage they have 
done, make amends, and live differently in the 
future, so they may choose to insult those who 
address the problem of abuse. But the taunts and 
invalidation will not stop you, nor will they stop 
the rest of us, because the world has come too far 
to go back. There are millions of people who have 
taken stands against partner abuse across the 
globe and are now unwilling to retreat, just like 
the woman who gets a taste of life without the 
abuser and then can’t live under his control 

anymore, because the taste of freedom and 
equality is too sweet. 


• Once we tear the cover of excuses, 
distortions, and manipulations off of 
abusers, they suddenly find abuse much 
harder to get away with. 

• If Mothers Against Drunk Driving can 
change the culture’s indifference to 
alcohol-related automotive deaths, we 
can change the culture’s attitude toward 
partner abuse. 

• Everyone has a role to play in ending 

• If you are trying to assist an abused 
woman, get help and support for yourself 
as well (see “Resources”). 

All forms of chronic mistreatment in the 
world are interwoven. When we take one 
apart, all the rest start to unravel as well. 


BELOW YOU WILL FIND a wide collection of 
books, videos, websites, and organizations. These 
resources offer support, guidance, and inspiration 
to abused women, to loved ones wishing to help 
them, and to community members interested in 
addressing the wider problem of abuse and 
violence in our society. Many of the resources 
listed below refer to physical violence in their 
titles or descriptions, but they are nonetheless all 
relevant to women who have experienced verbal, 
economic, or sexual coercion by a partner, 
regardless of whether actual assaults or threats 
have been involved. If you do not have Web 
access and are interested in pursuing some of the 
Internet resources listed here, try your public 
library—many libraries offer free time on 
computers connected to the Internet. 


• National Domestic Violence Hotline for 
the United States and Canada: 1-800- 

Call this number to receive a referral to the 
closest hotline in your area for abused women. 

The use of this number is not restricted to women 
who have experienced physical violence: Women 
and teens are welcome to call with any issue 
regarding verbal abuse or control in a relationship, 
or just because something is happening in their 
relationship that is making them uncomfortable. 

• Rape, Abuse, and Incest National 
Network Hotline (Rain): 1-800-656- 

Call this number if you have been sexually 
assaulted or sexually abused by your partner or ex¬ 
partner (or by anyone else), and you will be 

connected immediately to the sexual assault 
hotline closest to you. 

• When Love Goes Wrong: What to Do 
When You Can V Do Anything Right, by 
Ann Jones and Susan Schechter 

This is the essential book for women who are 
seeking guidance on how to cope with a 
controlling partner and how to move toward 
freedom and recovery. It is practical, down-to- 
earth, and accurate, and it covers in detail a wide 
range of issues that women face. 

• It’sMyLife Now: Starting Over After an 
Abusive Relationship or Domestic 
Violence, by Meg Kennedy Dugan and 
Roger Hock (Routledge). 

Despite the title, this book is equally valuable 
for women who are still involved with an angry or 

controlling partner and for those who have left. 
This is a wonderful, warm, compassionate book 
by authors who deeply understand both emotional 
and physical abuse. 

• The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How 
to Recognize It and How to Respond, by 
Patricia Evans (Bob Adams). 

Evans ’ s book takes the reader through the 
details of verbally abusive tactics in relationships, 
and it explains how to understand their effects on 
you. The author offers terrific insight and practical 
advice. (The book contains a couple of the 
common misconceptions about the psychology of 
abusers, but this is a very minor drawback 
compared to its many strengths.) 

• Into the Light: A Guide for Battered 
Women, by Leslie Cantrelli (Chas. 

Franklin Press). 

This booklet is short and simple, with accurate 
information and good advice. This is a great 
resource for a woman who does not have the time 
or energy for the longer books listed above, or who 
wants to have quick inspiration handy. 

• Not to People Like Us: Hidden Abuse in 
Upscale Marriages, by Susan Weitzman 
(Basic Books). 

A valuable expose of abuse among the wealthy, 
with important guidance for abused women. 
Weitzman’s descriptions of abusive men are 
accurate and helpful (though a couple of the myths 
slip in). I recommend this book highly. 


• What Parents Need to Know About 
Dating Violence, by Barrie Levy and 
Patricia Occhiuzzo Giggam (Seal Press). 

The essential book for parents who are 
concerned that their daughters or sons may be 
involved in abusive dating relationships. 
Compassionate, insightful, and highly practical, 
written by people who grasp the wide range of 
anxieties and challenges that parents face. 

• In Love and Danger—A Teen’s Guide to 
Breaking Free of Abusive Relationships, 
by Barrie Levy (Seal Press). 

A guide for the teenager herself in responding 
to an abusive or controlling partner, written in just 
the right tone and language to reach adolescents— 
an excellent book. It’s out of print, so look for it 
used or at the library, or try to find it online. 


• Chain Chain Change: For Black Women 
in Abusive Relationships, by Evelyn C. 
White (Seal Press). 

This excellent book remains the key reading 
resource for any African American woman who is 
involved with a controlling or abusive partner. It 
provides general information combined with 
guidance that is specific to the black woman’s 
experience, and it includes a section that speaks to 
abused black lesbians. 

• Mejor Sola Que Mai Acompanada: For 
the Latina in an Abusive Relationship, 
by Myma Zambrano (Seal Press). 

Zambrano’s book for Latina women in abusive 
relationships is available in a bilingual edition, 
making it readable for women who use either 
Spanish or English as their primary language. 

This excellent resource speaks to the cultural 
context in which Latinas live, and it offers specific 
validation and recommendations. 

• Black Eyes All of the Time: Intimate 
Violence, Aboriginal Women, and the 

Justice System, by Anne McGillivray and 
Brenda Comaskey (University of 

The experience of abused indigenous (native) 
women is told largely in their own voices in this 
wonderful and groundbreaking volume. Although 
there are a few portions where the writers use 
some difficult academic language, the great 
majority of the book is highly accessible and 

• Mending the Sacred Hoop 
202 E. Superior St. 

Duluth MN 55802 

(218) 722-2781, 
then select “Mending the Sacred Hoop” 

This project of Minnesota Program 
Development focuses on addressing the abuse of 
women in tribal cultures. 

• Institute on Domestic Violence in the 
African American Community 
University of Minnesota School of Social 

290 Peters Hall 
1404 Gortner Ave. 

St. Paul MN 55108-6142 

(877) 643-8222 

This organization’s website includes resources 
for abused women themselves, while also 
reaching out to policy makers, researchers, and 
other concerned community members. 

• National Latino Alliance for the 
Elimination of Domestic Violence 
P.O. Box 22086 

Ft. Washington Station 

New York NY 10032 

(646) 672-1404 

Mostly oriented toward research and policy. 

Extensive listings. 

• Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on 
Domestic Violence 

942 Market St., Suite 200 
San Francisco CA 94102 
(415) 954-9964, then select “Programs,” 
then select the Institute. 


• Naming the Violence: Speaking Out 
About Lesbian Battering, edited by Kerry 
Lobel (Seal Press). 

Regrettably, this 1986 book is out of print, but 
you can find it through a library, a used-book 
store, or online. The personal stories of many 
abused lesbians are shared here to help you to 
identify the problem and know that you are not 

• Woman-to-Woman Sexual Violence: 

Does She Call It Rape?, by Lori Girshick 
Northeastern University Press). 

With the stories of survivors of sexual assaults 
by same-sex partners woven through, this book 
reports on an important survey and helps bring to 
light a seldom-examined aspect of intimate partner 

• Lesbians Talk: Violent Relationships, by 
Joelle Taylor and Tracy Chandler (Scarlet 

This is a short book that draws from the voices 
of women themselves to describe the problem of 
abuse in lesbian relationships and offers solutions. 

• Same-Sex Domestic Violence: Strategies 
for Change, by Beth Leventhal and 
Sandra Lundy (Sage Publications). 

This well-written and insightful book offers 
guidance to community members who want to 
address the needs of abused lesbians and gay men, 
explaining the structuring of service provision and 
the overcoming of institutional barriers. 

• On the Web, try going to Gayscape and 
doing a search for “domestic violence”— 
many listings are available for 
organizations, publications, and 



• Family Violence Prevention Fund 
383 Rhode Island St., Suite 304 
San Francisco CA 94103-5133 
(415) 252-8900, then select 
“Immigrant Women,” then select “Help 


FVPF helps abused immigrant women to get 
information about their rights and options and to 
find referrals to programs in their area. 

• NOW Legal Defense and Education 

Immigrant Women’s Project 
1522 K St., NW, Suite 550 
Washington DC 20005 
(202) 326-0040, then select “Issues,” 
then select “Immigrant Women” 

• National Lawyers Guild 
National Immigration Project 
14 Beacon St., Suite 602 
Boston MA 02108 617) 227-9727, then select “National 
Immigration Project,” then select 
“Domestic Violence” 



• Childhood Experiences of Domestic 
Violence, by Caroline McGee (Jessica 

Although this is a professional book, it is very 
readable and compassionate. McGee understands 
the challenges an abused mother faces. Told 
largely in the words of mothers and children 
themselves, this is the single best introduction I 
have found to the experiences of children exposed 
to an abusive man, with extensive guidance for 
how to effectively assist them to safety and 

• The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the 
Impact of Domestic Violence on Family 
Dynamics, by Lundy Bancroft and Jay 
Silverman (Sage Publications). 

Although this professional book focuses on 
physically abusive men, the great majority of what 
we cover applies to verbally abusive and 
controlling men as well. We explain how an 
abusive man can affect the relationships between a 
mother and her children and between siblings, and 
how abusers may try to continue their control 
through the children postseparation. Abused 
mothers, including those involved in the family 
court system, report finding this book both 
validating and helpful. 

• Children Who See Too Much: Lessons 
From the Child Witness to Violence 
Project, by Betsy McAlister Groves 
(Beacon Press). 

This book is for parents or professionals who 
are assisting children who have been exposed to 
serious physical violence, including domestic 
violence, to help them understand children’s 
emotional reactions and their recovery needs. It is 

brief but very clear and helpful. 


• Resource Center on Domestic Violence: 
Child Protection and Custody, operated 
by the National Council of Juvenile and 
Family Court Judges. 1-800-527-3223. 

The Resource Center offers a free packet of 
information for abused women in custody and 
visitation litigation. It does not become involved 
in specific cases or provide legal advice. The 
Center also offers a book called Managing Your 
Divorce that helps women prepare for the process 
of resolving child custody, visitation, and child 

• Women and Children Last: Custody 
Disputes and the Family “Justice ” 

System, by Georgina Taylor, Jan 

Barnsley, and Penny Goldsmith of the 
Vancouver (BC) Custody and Access 
Support and Advocacy Association. 

This excellent book prepares abused mothers 
for the difficult emotional and legal challenges of 
family court litigation, to help increase their ability 
to keep their children safe and maintain custody. 
Advocates and concerned community members 
can also benefit from the explanations of how the 
family court system works and why abused 
women can find the environment so hostile. (For 
ordering information, call Vancouver Status of 
Women at (604) 255-6554.) 

• The Battered Mothers Testimony Project: 

A Human Rights Report on Child 
Custody and Domestic Violence. 

This activist project interviewed forty abused 
women about their experiences of being 
revictimized by family courts through the abuser’s 

use of custody and visitation litigation, and also 
interviewed numerous judges, custody evaluators, 
and advocates. The project report, which exposes 
these systemic abuses as violations of women’s 
internationally recognized human rights, is 
available from: Publication Office, Wellesley 
Centers for Women, Wellesley College, (781) 
283-2510, or at 

• Small Justice: Little Justice in America’s 
Family Courts,” a video by Garland 
Waller of Boston University. 

This one-hour video documents three cases in 
which abused women faced systematic 
mistreatment by family courts as they attempted to 
protect their children from domestic violence and 
sexual abuse. This well-made and carefully 
researched film is an important resource for 
community members working for court reforms. 
(Available from Intermedia, 1-800-553-8336) 

• Divorced from Justice: The Abuse of 
Women and Children by Divorce 
Lawyers and Judges, by Karen Winner 
(Regan Books). 

This is another book that is out of print, but you 
can find it at libraries, used-book stores, or online. 
The stories are painful ones, and this makes the 
book heavy reading, but Winner offers crucial 
advice to women and to anyone who is trying to 
help them, and she also gives important 
suggestions to people interested in working for 
court reform. 

• The Hostage Child: Sex Abuse 
Allegations in Custody Disputes, by 
Leora Rosen and Michelle Etlin (Indiana 
University Press). 

An eye-opening education for people interested 
in working toward family court reform, this book 
documents the obstacles that abused women can 

encounter while attempting to protect their 
children from abuse, even in cases where 
extensive evidence exists. (I don’t recommend this 
book for abused women to read themselves if they 
are currently involved in litigation—it’s very 
frightening, and most cases don’t go as badly as 
the ones presented here.) 

• National Child Support Enforcement 

444 North Capitol St., Suite 414 
Washington DC 20001-1512 
(202) 624-8180 

NCSEA provides information on child support 
collection, with links to specific child support 
resources in your geographical area. 



A Mother’s Nightmare — Incest: A 

Practical Legal Guide for Parents and 
Professionals, by John E. B. Myers 
(Sage Publications). 

Written by a smart and compassionate attorney, 
this is a critical book for any woman who has 
reason to suspect that her child has been sexually 
abused by the child’s father or stepfather, whether 
or not the child has explicitly disclosed. 


The books listed in this section are general 
parenting guides, full of tremendous practical help 
and insight. I have found all of these titles to be 
terrific. However, two words of caution: First, 
these books tend not to address the impact on 
children of exposure to a man who abuses their 
mother, including the role that abuse plays in as 
much as half of divorces. Second, with the 
exception of Real Boys, these books do not offer 
detailed guidance to parents who have a gay or 

lesbian teen (though Reviving Ophelia touches on 
the issue briefly). 

You can also find additional parenting 
resources in your phone book, such as parental 
stress hotline numbers, Parent’s Anonymous, and 
various kinds of parent education classes, or do an 
Internet search for “Parent Education.” 

• How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and 
Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber 
and Elaine Mazlish (Avon). 

• Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber 
and Elaine Mazlish (Avon). 

• The Courage to Raise Good Men, by 
Olga Silverstein and Beth Rashbaum 
(Penguin). Consider this book a must 
read for any parent of a son, especially if 
that son has been exposed to a man who 
mistreats the son’s mother. 

• Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of 
Adolescent Girls, by Mary Pipher 

(Gros s et/Putnam). 

• Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the 
Myths of Boyhood, by William Pollack 
(Random House). 

• How to Mother a Successful Daughter, 
by Nicky Marone (Three Rivers). 

• How to Father a Successful Daughter, 
by Nicky Marone (Fawcett Crest). 


• Spouse Abuse by Law Enforcement 

Life Span 

P.O. Box 445 

Des Plaines IL 60016 

(847) 824-0382 

SABLE offers a booklet called Police Domestic 
Violence: A Handbook for Victims for $5 

(including shipping) from the above address. 


• Minnesota Center Against Violence and 
Abuse, then select 
“Faith Response” 

This website offers many readings and 
resources regarding the abuse of Christian, 

Jewish, and Islamic women, and a collection of 
interfaith writings and organizations. A terrific 
resource for women whose spiritual or religious 
involvement is an important part of their lives. 

• Keeping the Faith: Guidance for 
Christian Women Facing Abuse, by 
Marie Fortune (Harper San Francisco). 

Fortune offers clarity, advice, and validation, 
along with new interpretations of scriptural texts, 

to help abused Christian women escape 
entrapment and draw strength from their spiritual 
beliefs. (I am not currently aware of similar books 
for women of other faiths, but you may find one, 
as new resources on abuse appear every day.) 


The organizations listed here offer literature, 
videos, and training for people interested in 
starting or improving counseling programs for 
men who abuse women. 

• Emerge: Counseling and Education to 
End Domestic Violence 

2380 Massachusetts Ave., Suite 101 
Cambridge MA 02140 
(617) 547-9879 
www. emergedv. com 

• Domestic Abuse Intervention Project 
206 West Fourth St. 

Duluth MN 55806 
(218) 722-2781 
www. duluth-model. org 



• To Be an Anchor in the Storm: A Guide 
for Families and Friends of Abused 
Women, by Susan Brewster (Ballantine 

An outstandingly caring, practical, and wise 
book for the loved ones of an abused woman. If 
you are trying to assist a woman who is in a bad 
relationship, read this book. It will help you to 
feel better and make you a much more effective 
helper. (However, one word of caution: A section 
at the end of the book on reporting child abuse 
contains information that I find ill-advised. Before 
you involve child protective services with a mother 
you care about, call a program for abused women 

in your area and seek advice about whether and 
how to make a child-abuse report.) 

• Safety Planning with Battered Women, 
by Jill Davies, Eleanor Lyon, and Diane 
Monti-Catania (Sage Publications). 

This is a professional book, but it is very 
readable and helpful for anyone who wants to 
understand what is really involved when a woman 
is considering leaving an abusive partner, and it 
provides guidance for how to help a woman be 
safer even if she can’t leave or doesn’t want to. 
The authors talk about much more than just safety 
planning—they address the full range of practical 
realities that abused women face in a way that I 
have found in no other book. 

• Trauma and Recovery, by Judith 
Herman (Basic Books). 

Dr. Herman’s book is the bible of trauma, 

especially for those kinds of traumatic experiences 
for which the society tends to blame the victim or 
deny the reality of her/his experience. An 
outstandingly brilliant work. 


• National Coalition Against Domestic 

1532 16th St., NW 
Washington DC 20036 
(202) 745-1211 

Join this organization to support policy and 
service development to benefit abused women and 
their children NCADV also has various resources 
that you can order (at a discount if you are a 
member) and listings of other sources of 

• Next Time She ’ll Be Dead: Battering 
and How to Stop It, by Ann Jones 
(Beacon Press). 

This terrific work elucidates the cultural 
influences and institutional actions that support 
abuse and gives to-the-point suggestions for 
concerned community members on how to end the 
abuse of women. 

• Rural Woman Battering and the Justice 
System: An Ethnography, by Neil Webs- 
dale (Sage Publications). 

This excellent book describes the special 
challenges faced by abused women who live far 
from large population centers, who may be very 
isolated and may face local communities that are 
not supportive of escaping abuse. Groundbreaking 
and insightful, with concrete strategies for how 
agencies and institutions can better serve abused 
women in rural areas. 

• Coordinating Community Responses to 
Domestic Violence: Lessons from the 
Duluth Model, edited by Melanie 
Shepard and Ellen Pence (Sage 

Detailed guidance on how to draw from the 
United States ’s premier model of collaborative 
work in communities to assist abused women, 
hold abusers accountable, and change community 
values about partner abuse. 

• Pornography: The Production and 
Consumption of Inequality, by Gail 
Dines, Robert Jensen, and Ann Russo 

This highly readable book provides the most 
reasonable and persuasive explanations that I have 
encountered of how pornography can shape men’s 
ways of perceiving and interacting with women, 
and of the various excuses that groups and 

individuals use to avoid looking at the damage 
that pornography can do. 

• Dream Worlds II,” a video by the Media 
Education Foundation. 

This powerful and disturbing video reveals the 
attitudes toward women that are taught by today’s 
music videos. Available from MEF, 26 Center St., 
Northampton MA 01060, 1-800-897-0089, 
www. mediaed. org. 

• “Tough Guise,” a video by the Media 
Education Foundation. 

This widely acclaimed video created by Jackson 
Katz shows how popular portrayals of masculinity 
force boys and men into unhealthy roles and teach 
males to be abusive toward females. (See ordering 
information under previous listing.) 

Transforming Communities 

734 A St. 

San Rafael CA 94901-3923 (415) 457- 

www. trans formcommunities. org 

Transforming Communities has a tremendous 
collection of resources and ideas for how to 
combat the abuse of women and children. 


Many opportunities exist for men who want to 
be active in stopping the abuse of women, and 
more appear every day. Below are just a few 

• Men Overcoming Violence 
1385 Mission St., Suite 300 
San Francisco CA 94103 
(415) 626-MOVE [6683] 
www. menovercomingviolence. org 

Public speakers, counseling groups, and 
opportunities for activism. 

• Men Can Stop Rape 
P.0. Box 57144 
Washington DC 20037 
(202) 265-6530 

MCSR describes its mission as being “to 
promote gender equity and build men’s capacity to 
be strong without being violent.” Many programs, 
including outreach to youth and education on teen¬ 
dating violence. 

• Family Violence Prevention Fund 

Information is available on the FVPF website 
about their program “Coaching Boys Into Men” 
(with a brochure that you can download), and a 
new initiative for reaching out to boys called 

“Teach Early” has recently been launched. (The 
FVPF website is also full of information and 
resources on many aspects of partner abuse, 
including guidebooks for health-care providers 
and many other materials.) 

• Men’s Initiative for Jane Doe 
14 Beacon St., Suite 507 
Boston MA 02108 
(617) 248-0922 

A new project that offers various ideas for how 
men can get involved as allies to abused women. 

You can also visit the Campus Outreach 
Services website at go to 
“Resources,” and then select “Men Against 
Violence Against Women Organizations,” and 
you will be provided with descriptions and links 
for twenty different men’s groups around the 
country that are focused on stopping the abuse of 



Abandonment, fear of 
Abused women 

and abuser’s change of behavior 
arrest of 
counselors and 
denial of abuse 
social views of 
support for 
See also Women 
Abuse-free environment 
Abuse of women 

and addiction 
allies of 

and arguments 
arrest of 
tactics after 
breaking up with 
brief separations 
change of behavior 
child abuse by 
counseling of 

ending of relationship 
leaving safely 
and legal system 
as parents 
and pornography 
as role models 
and sex 

traumatic bonding with 
types of 

Demand Man 
Drill Sergeants 
mentally ill or addicted 

Mr. Right 

Mr. Sensitive 





Water Torturer 

See also Abused women; Abusive behavior 
Abusive behavior 
addiction and 
benefits of 
conciousness of 
development of 
ending of 
respect and 

See also Change of behavior 
Abusive men. See Abusers 
Accountability for actions 
Accounts of abuse, differing 
Accusations, distorted 


of abused women 
as excuse for abuse 
to sex 

Admission of abuse 
Advocates for abused women 
self as 

reversal into self-defense 
Aggressive personality, as excuse 
Alcohol, and abusive behavior 
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 

recovery from, and partner abuse 
See also Addiction 
Allies of abusive men 

at counseling program 
denial of 
of women 
abusive men and 

Anti-abuse movement, men in 
Anti-female attitudes of boys 
Antisocial personality disorder 

Arrests of abusers, tactics after 
Attachment, intimacy and 
Attention, abusive men and 

change of 
negative, toward women 
Attorneys, abuse of power by 
Authoritarian behavior 
Authoritarian parents 

challenge to, anger seen as 

Batterers Anonymous groups 

Battering men 

and child abuse 

See also Abusers; Physical violence 
Bedtime for Francis, Hoban 
Behavior, feelings and 

See also Abusive behavior; Change of 


Benefits of abusive behavior 
Blame, shifting of 

abusers as role models 
for breakup of relationship 
among family members 
to mother of abuser 
“The Boiler Theory of Men,” 

Boss, abusive 

employees of 
Boys, socialization of 
Breaking up with abusers 
Brewster, Susan, To Be an Anchor in the Storm 

Brief separations, abusers and 
Bullying behavior 

Caretaking, sense of entitlement to 
Carrey, Jim 
Change of behavior 

abuser’s outlook on 
assessment of 
and benefits of abuse 
context for 
illusions of 
predictions of 
psychotherapy and 
steps to 

substance abuse and 
Child abuse 

Childhood abuse of abuser, myth of 

of abused women 
fathers as role models 
and parents ’ breakup 

services for 
abuse of women and 
abusive fathers viewed by 
of abusive parents 
control of mother through 
rights of 
Chronic abuse 
Chronic anger 
Chronic infidelity 
Clay, Andrew Dice 
Clergypeople, and change of abusers 
Collective punishment 
Color, women of, abuse of 
Commitment to change 

and abusive behavior 
and change of abusers 
support for abused women 
Complaints, discrediting of 
Computer games, and abuse of women 
Conflict, abusive men and 

between women 

Confrontation, abuser programs and 

Confusion tactics 


Consequences of actions 
and change of behavior 
Contempt for women 
Contrasting behaviors, public and private 

loss of 

as excuse for abuse 
of partner’s thinking 
sexual relationships and 
tactics of 
in arguments 
vulnerability and 
Controlling behavior 

abusers as role models 
excuses for 

parenting and 
Conversational control 
of abusers 
for children 
Couples therapy 

and abused women 
and abusers 
abusers and 

Cultural differences in abuse 

and abuse of women 
change of 
Custody disputes 
Custody evaluators 
abuse of power 
Cycles of behavior 

Daily life, abusive men in 
Danger signs of violence 
Daughters of abusers 
See also Children 

Decision-making, abusive control of 
Deference, entitlement to 
Defining reality 

Degradation of women, pornographic 
Demanding men 
Denial of abuse 
by victim 

Denial of the obvious 
Depersonalization of women 
pornography as 

Devaluation of partner’s labor 
Discrediting of partner 

violence against women as 
Disrespect of women 
Distorted thinking 

District attorneys 
Divisive tactics 
Divorce, abuse of women and 
Domestic abuse: 

family courts and 
social support for 

See also Abused women; Abusers; Abusive 

Domestic abuse task forces 
Domestic-violence specialists 
Domination, sexual 
Double bind, abused mothers in 
Double standards 
Doubt of self 

Early warnings of abusive behavior 
Economic abuse, addiction as 
Economic exploitation of women 
Education about abuse 
Emerge program 

Emotional abuse 
of children 

Emotional caretaking, entitlement to 
Emotional problems 

as excuse for abuse 
suppression of 
lack of 

Employees, of abusive boss 
Employers, abuse of power by 
Entertainment industry, and abuse of women 

addiction and 
arguments and 
and breaking up 
and change of behavior 
conscience and 
fathers as role models 
to forgiveness 
and jealousy 

parenting and 
remorse and 
sexual relationships and 
Environment, abuse-free 
Escalation of abuse 
Escape from abusive relationships 

See also Breaking up with abusers 
Ethnic differences in abuse 
Excuses for abuse 

aggressive personality 



cultural differences in 
cultural influences as 

fear of intimacy and abandonment 
hatred of women 
interpersonal skill deficits 
job stresses 
loss of control 

low self-esteem 

mental illness 
strong feelings 
victim status 
Expectations, unrealistic 
Explanations for abuse, mythology of 
abused men 
abuser as victim 
aggressive personality 

childhood abuse of abuser 
depth of feeling 
fear of intimacy 
hatred of women 
job stresses 
loss of control 

low self-esteem 
mental illness 

mistreatment by previous partner 

skill deficits 
suppression of emotions 
Exploitation of women, economic, sexual 
Extemalization of responsibility, parenting and 

Fairy tales, and abuse of women 
False allegations of domestic violence 
Families of abusive men 
and change of behavior 
decisions in 
divisions in 

Family court, abusive men and 
Fantasies, romantic, of abusive men 
Fathers, abusers as 

children’s views of 
and disrespect for women 
F avoritism 
Favors, excessive 
Fear, abused women and 
F eelings 

as excuse for abuse 

Financial control 

Financial imbalance in custody disputes 

Flirtatious behavior 

Forgiveness, demands for 

Former partners, warning signs 

Forward, Susan, Men Who Hate Women and the 

Women Who Love Them 

Freedom, personal, interference with 

Freud, Sigmund 


of abused women 
and change of behavior 
Frustrations, taken out on partners 
Fundamentalist religious groups 

Games, sexual 
Gay men 

negative attitudes toward women 
Generosity, excessive 
“Gentle man” style of abuser 
Girls, socialization of 

Good times between abusive episodes 
Grievances, cultivation of 
Group counseling, for children 
Guilt feelings, abusers and 
Guns ’n’ Roses 

Hatred of women, as excuse for abuse 
Help for abused women 

See also Hotlines for abused women 
Herman, Judith, Trauma and Recovery 
Hoban, Russel, Bedtime for Francis 
Home, abusive attitudes learned in 

breakup and 
Hotlines for abused women 
when to call 

Household responsibilities 
Human rights 

Immigrant women, resources 

Indebtedness, creation of 
Independence, interference with 
Ineffective abuser programs 

Informational support for abuse 
Internet, and pornography 
Interpersonal skill deficit 
Interpretations, twisted 
fear of 

as excuse for abuse 
loss of 

Jail sentences for abusers 




Job stresses, as excuse for abuse 
Joint custody, myth of 

and change of behavior 

cultural differences 
for double standards 

Kindness, unpredictable, by abusers 

Labor, uncompensated, by partner 
Laws, and abuse of women 
Learning of abusive behavior 
Legal representation 
Legal system 

abusive men and 

Leisure gained by abusive behavior 

Lesbians, resources for 

Lie-detector tests 

Losses, abusive behavior and 

Loss of control 


abuse and 
Lying by abusers 
after breakup 
in custody disputes 
denial of abusive behavior 
to police 

Male domination of legal system 
Manipulative behavior 

abusers as role models 
and change 
and child abuse 
legal system and 
parenting and 

responses to possible breakup 
substance abuse and 
with woman’s relatives 

Marijuana, and abusive behavior 
Media, and abuse of women 
Mediating the intimacy 
Medication, abusive men and 

abused by women, myth of 
abusive. See Abusers 

Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love 
Them, Forward 

Mental cruelty. See Psychological abuse 

Mental illness 

Mentality, abusive 

Mind of partner, control of 

Minimization of abuse 

Misdirection of attention 

Mistreatment by previous partner, myth of 

Money, problems of 

Mood changes 

Morality, and loss of control 

Mother, blaming of, by abusive men 

Mother-child relationships 

See also Children, of abused mothers 
Mothers, abused, social views 
See also Abused women; Women 
Motivation for behavior change 
Movies, and abuse of women 
Murder of women by partners 

Music videos, and abuse of women 
Mythology, of abusers 

Narcissistic personality disorder 
Needs, emotional, entitlement and 
Negative attitudes toward women 
Neutrality, myth of 
New partners of abusive men 
Non-abusive men 

of children, of women 
Obvious situations 
denial of 

Oedipus complex 
Oppression, abuse as 
Ownership, ideas of: 
of children 
of partner 
breaking up and 

Parental alienation claims 

See also Children 
Partners of abusive men 

See also Abused women; Former 
partners Passive aggression 
Patterns of behavior 
Peace bonds. See Restraining orders 
Peer influences, and abusive behavior 
reversal of facts 
taught to children 

by women, manipulation of 
Performers, and abuse of women 
Personal freedom, controlling behavior and 
Personal goals 
Physical abuse 
of children 

Physical caretaking, entitlement to 
Physical violence, and mental illness 

See also Abusive behavior; Violence 
Play, sexual 
Player (type of abuser) 


and abused women 
and change of behavior 
of children 

Postseparation homicides 

family divisions and 
oppression and 

other abusers of 
sexual relationships and 
Powerlessness, feelings of, as excuse for abuse 
Predictability, lack of 
Probation officers 

and change of abusive men, Probation 

Problems, dumping of 

abuse of power 
support for abused women 

for abused women 
for abusers 

See also Counseling, of abusers 
Proj ection 
Promises, unkept 
Prosecution of abusers 
Prosecutors, and change of behavior 
Protective orders. See Restraining orders 
Psychiatric problems 

Psychological abuse 
addiction and 
of children 

manipulative behavior 
medications and 
and physical violence 

Psychological evaluations, in custody disputes 

Psychological problems 


and abusive behavior 
and breaking up 
and children of abusive fathers 
and fear of intimacy 

abuser programs and 
and abusive behavior 
and conflict management 
Public image of abuser 
parenting and 
Punishment, collective 

Racial differences in abuse 

Racial discrimination, as excuse for abuse 

Racism, and abuse of women 

Random abuse 


Reality, inversion of 
Recognition of abusive behavior 
Recording of abusive behavior 
Recovery from addiction, and partner abuse 
early stages 

benefits of abusive behavior in 
early training 

of abused women 
of abusers 

Religions, and abuse of women 

Remorse for abuse 

feigned, in custody disputes 
Resistance to abuse 
Respect for women 

change of behavior and 
children and 
love and 

Responsibility for actions 
acceptance of 
avoidance of 
extemalization of 
Restraining orders 
dropping of 
judges and 
violations of 

Retaliation for complaints 
Reversal of facts 
Rewards of abusive behavior 

Right and wrong, distorted sense of 


to anger 
by women 
of children 

in family, abusers and 
Role models 
abusers as 

Role reversal, in parenting 
Roles in marriage, abusers and 

Sadistic behavior 
Safety from abuse 

in breakup situation 
Same-sex relationships, abuse in 

Schools, and violent behavior by boys 
Secrecy about abuse, children and 

advocacy for 
doubt of 

chronic mistreatment and 

and signs of abuse 
trust of 


and change of behavior 
and child abuse 
parenting and 

recovery from addiction and 

and sexual relations 
of Victim types 

Self-defense, as excuse for abuse 
Self-destructive behavior 
Self-esteem, low, as excuse for abuse 
Self-examination, substance abuse and 

Self-protection against abuse 
Sentences for violent abuse 
Separation from abusers 
and change of behavior 
Sex object, partner as 

Sex roles 

early training 
Sexual abuse 
of children 

Sexual caretaking, entitlement to 
Sexual promiscuity 
Sexual relations 

loss of interest in 
pressure for 
Shaming of children 
Sibling relationships 
Siblings of abused women 
Silence about observed abuse 
Silencing of partner 
Social class, and abusiveness 
Socialization of boys 

and abused mothers 
attitudes toward abuse 


of abused women, opposition to abuse 
of abusers 

relationship with mother 
See also Children 

Steps to change of behavior 
Stereotype of abusive men 
Stockholm syndrome 
Strategic safety plans 
Subordination, sexualization of 
Substance abuse 

and partner abuse 
as excuse 

by women, partner violence and 
Suicide of women, partner violence and 
Superiority, sense of 
parenting and 
Support for abused women 

and change of abuser’s behavior 
difficulties obtaining 

Suppression of anger, by women 
Suppression of feelings, as excuse for abuse 
Symptoms of abuse 

Tension, building of 


Terror, control by 

Theater, and abuse of women 


abuse of power 
Therapy. See Psychotherapy 

of partner, control of 
Thinking patterns of abusers 

confusion of love with abuse 

disrespect of partner 



maintenance of public image 
origins of 
as parents 
reversal of facts 
social class and 
views of separation 

To Be an Anchor in the Storm , Brewster 
Tolerance, adaptation to abuse 
Trauma and Recovery , Herman 
Traumatic bonding 
Tribal cultures, and abuse 
Trouble with Homework 
Trust, of self 
Twelve-step programs 
Unreasonable behavior 
Unsupervised visitation 

V alues 

and abusive behavior 
of abusive men, breaking up and 
alcohol and 

of children, development of 

societal, change of 
Verbal abuse 

and violence 

Verbal conflict, abusers and 
Versions of abuse, differing 

abusers as 

in same-sex relationship 
blaming of 
Video games 
alcohol and 
by boys 

breaking up and 
against children 
entitlement to 

mental illness and 
predictions of 
sexual assault 
among siblings 
See also Abusive behavior 
sex and 

War, relationship as 

Waming signs of abusive behavior 


children as 
substance abuse as 
Winning of arguments 

abuse of 

abusers’ views of 
taught to sons 

conflicts between, abusers and 
hatred of, as excuse for abuse 
labor of 

male attitudes toward 
physical aggression by 
religious fundamentalists and 
See also Abused women 
World, abuse-free