When asked by her therapist, “Have you ever been abused,” Nicole said, “No”. But then, for a split second, she looked downwards and frowned. Instinctively her therapist knew something was off. A few more minutes of probing revealed a boyfriend with anger problems. During fits of rage, he would destroy her personal property, grab her and not let her go, and call her obscene names. One time, he dragged her out of the car and came within inches of running her over. Yet, Nicole still did not see his behavior as abusive.
In a different therapy session, Nate was asked the same question. His first answer was also, “No”. But when he was asked to describe his relationship with his brother, he said it was non-existent. Further inquiries revealed that his older brother physically and verbally beat him up as a child. On one occasion, Nate was held underwater by his brother until he passed out and needed to be revived. Yet, again, Nate did not see this behavior as abusive.
For Nicole and Nate, abusive behavior became acceptable. While neither of them would tolerate a friend being abused in similar manners, it had become OK for them. Even after being confronted, they defended their abuser, took responsibly for their abuser’s behavior, and minimized the impact. How does this happen?
Abuse Tolerance. Once the abuser has utilized an abusive method for a long period of time, the victim develops a tolerance to the abuse so it no longer has the same effect. In this way, abuse is like an addiction. The more you have, the more tolerant a person becomes to its effects. To have the same fear response, the abuser needs to escalate or intensify the type of abuse. The problem is that this escalation can become deadly.
Types of Abuse. The other problem Nate and Nicole experienced is that they had a limited view of abusive behavior. There are seven primary ways a partner can be abused: physically (restraining, hitting), verbally (name calling, threats), mentally (twisting the truth, gaslighting), emotionally (anger rages, guilt-tripping), financially (sabotaging work, withholding money), sexually (coercion, rape) and spiritually (dichotomous beliefs, excommunicating). When their abusers would change the type of abuse, Nate and Nicole did not immediately see it as abusive. This further set both of them up for deadly encounters.
The abuser. There are many reasons why a person might abuse another. But the predominant one is that they were abused at some point. While the intensity and type of abuse might vary, most abusers take their frustrations from their own abuse out on other victims. Because their abuser might not be present, might be an authority figure, or might still be a threat, they find new victims to release their rage. This can be done at a conscious and subconscious level.
The victims. Most victims of abuse have similar characteristics. They assume the other person has the best intentions, they ignore red flags of dangerous behavior, they take on excessive responsibility, they are generally nice, and they are quick to forgive. This sets the stage for abuse to occur. Abusers actively seek out victims that will easily comply, won’t say, “No”, are naïve, and unaware of their surroundings and/or potential threats.
The cycle. The abuse cycle has four main stages: tension building, incident, reconciliation, and calm. During tension building, the abuser is looking for opportunities to unleash, while the victim begins to walk on eggshells in anticipation. This leads to an incident where the abuser acts out on the victim. Then, as if the pressure value has been released, the abuser feels relieved. Seeing the devastation on the victim, they reconcile, saying or doing whatever it takes to appease. Finally, there is a period of calm or the honeymoon phase where things seem stable until it happens again. And it does.
The danger. For Nate and Nicole, their abuse tolerance resulted in an almost deadly encounter. Both missed the warning signs that their abuser was escalating and could become deadly. Here are some of the red flags:
- Intuitive feelings of being at risk.
- Conflict is resolved with intimidation, bullying, and violence.
- Threats to physically harm, defame, embarrass, restrict freedom, disclose secrets, cut off support, abandon, and commit suicide are made to control the victim’s behavior.
- History of battery in other relationships, destroying relationship memorabilia, and/or breaking things.
- Substance use such as alcohol or drugs increases and becomes an excuse for abusive behavior.
- Jealous rages of anyone or anything that takes the victim’s time away.
- A refusal to accept rejection, whether real or imagined.
- Paranoid thoughts that turn into behaviors: everyone is out to get me, no one can be trusted, I have to watch/follow you.
- Compares themselves to violent people in films, news stories, fiction, or history and says the violence of others is justified.
- Blames others for their own problems, says that the victim needs to be punished.
- Refers to weapons as instruments of power, control, or revenge.
- Talks openly about using weapons to threaten, harm, or kill.
Nate had cut off the relationship with his brother for a different reason but now that he was aware of the abuse he suffered, this added to his conviction. It took a few months for Nicole to break off the relationship with her boyfriend because even after becoming aware of the abuse, she believed he could change. That false reality was shattered during his next abusive attack.
To stop the cycle, an abuser needs professional help. They can do this but it is better for them to do it alone. And then, after a substantial period of awareness, healing, and restitution, they can enter into another relationship.