How does the abuser operate in an abusive relationship?

Kanika Sharma

An abuser’s mind is a complex puzzle. It works 24×7, plans things viciously and creates a hostile situation for his victim. With a lot of mind games, controlling nature and psychological manipulation, the abuser can deftly craft situations in his favour. But have you ever thought what tendencies drive an abuser in a toxic relationship? What are his hidden motivations? What kind of satisfaction does this negative cycle bring to him? Before we move further in exploring these facets, let us first understand why an abuser initiates abuse.

Why does a husband abuse a wife?

Simply put, he wants to win the power game over his spouse (in case of marital abuse). He takes ‘man of the house’ term quite literally and wants things in the house to go his way. He thinks of his wife as a possession or an entity and wants full control over her. Whatever she eats or drinks, wherever she goes, who is part of her circle, the colleagues she is working with, her overall personality undergoes his scrutiny. He may resort to different degrees of abuse to assert his control over her.
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Unresolved past trauma or anger issues can also trigger the pattern of abuse. His inability to empathise with the victim could also trigger an abusive pattern in a relationship.

Characteristics of an abusive man

Every abusive man exhibits eerily similar characteristics or traits while causing abuse or harm to his partner. A proper awareness of such traits can help many women understand whether their partner exhibits abusive personality traits or not.

  1. Charmingly fits the ‘ideal’ image: Usually, the abusers are very cordial with the world outside the four walls of the house. He would wear the brightest smile, take care of the guests like his family, and help in-laws in their times of need. He would fit the image of an ideal husband in the eyes of the society
  2. Express variations in behaviour: An abuser reflects behaviour that goes to extremes, which is weird in a sense. He may be lovable one minute and lash out the next on his spouse. So, if an abuser switches mood and becomes aggressive or puts on a calm demeanour to confuse the spouse, then this is one red signal to watch out for
  3. No responsibility for their faults: In their eyes, abusers are an epitome of perfect partners. So, in their view, they cannot harm their partner in any way
  4. Expresses no true emotions: An abuser is a master of disguise. In an emotionally charged situation, he puts on silence and lets the victim reveal their vulnerabilities. Later, he may use the emotional outburst against his partner
  5. Limit ‘communication’, even with the spouse: He may talk about everyday life, but refrain from heartfelt conversations with the spouse. This way, he keeps his personality guarded
  6. Thinks a spouse exists for him only: He takes the entitlement of the spouse quite literally and feels that the wife’s world should revolve around him
  7. Refrain talking about the past: When their wife tries to ask them about the past, abusers often avoid such conversations. This happens in the case of abusers who have issues with their past

Once the signs of abuse start to be prominent in a marriage, the wife should accept the fact and plan how to deal with it. Women must not stay on in abusive relationships just for the sake of society, family, social status or children.

Do abusers know when they abuse?

Sometimes, an abusive man doesn’t know why he/she is exhibiting such patterns of abuse. Maybe he has witnessed such a toxic relationship between his parents. Maybe he is thinking this is how a normal ‘marriage’ works. If you think your husband harbours such contrasting thoughts in a relationship, yet are confident of his love, then this is the time to talk to him instead of suffering through the abuse. Tell him about the repetitive harm his narcissistic attitude is doing to your relationship. Don’t fear opening up the can of worms. This ‘open communication’ will sort out most of your troubles, provided he loves you and empathises with your perspective.

But often, abusers abuse in full awareness as a preferred ‘choice’. This abusive pattern can cause potential harm to their partners and relationship. To assert control over the spouse, they may exhibit love on the outside, but within, think to manipulate you the next moment and make you dance to their tunes.

He might sound too sweet, but within the garb of it, might initiate patterns like gaslighting to hamper your confidence. He may make you feel short in your professional achievements and may make fun of them as well. Or he will find potential reasons to turn you down by creating unwanted problems and issues in a relationship.

Psychology wise, abuse may sound complicated, but in reality, all abuses follow a complicated pattern. To help such victims of household abuse, our Bonobology counsellors have drawn up a pattern in the form of a cycle of abuse.

What is the ‘Cycle of Abuse’?

Every abusive relationship is different and is a unique case. However, there are certain patterns underlying in each case. In the 1970s, Lenore Walker developed the cycle of abuse, to better understand the behavioural patterns in an abusive relationship.

These are the simple phases that can help decode a complicated case of abuse. There can be three or four stages of the cycle of abuse. Your counsellor or therapist may use this theory to help determine the kind of treatment that is suitable in your specific case.

Cycle of Abusive Relationship

All abusive relationships keep going in cycles – the abuser never stops. Image:

1. Tensions Building of abuse phase

In this phase, the abuser is usually seen to withdraw affection, and begin to nitpick on small issues. He or she is also moody, makes hurtful comments or threatens with violence. It is marked by passive-aggressive behaviour from the abuser.

Communication begins to deteriorate, and tensions begin to mount palpably between the partners. The victim tries to soothe the abuser, fearing the oncoming anger outburst. In this stage, the victim will usually try to avoid things that he or she believes will trigger violence or abuse from the partner.

2. Explosion/Incident of abuse phase

Despite the best efforts of the victim, in this phase of the cycle of abuse, the abuser unleashes maximum physical or emotional abuse on the victim. There may be hitting, choking, and destruction of property. There is also severe emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial domination, and other forms of controlling behaviour.

The victim feels overwhelmed and helpless at this stage. He or she is left physically or mentally bruised, and will usually try to calm the partner down, ignore the outburst, or call the authorities in extreme cases. They will also try to shield their children from harm, and may also try to fight back when pushed too much.

3. The reconciliation/Honeymoon phase

“Have the courage to walk away, those that value you will want you back, and those that do won’t hold you back.” ― Trevor Driggers

It is this phase that makes many victims believe that the cycle of abuse has been broken. As the name suggests, in this phase, the abuser apologises for the outburst. He or she may become overly affectionate towards the victim, and their children.

In other cases, the abuser might simply ignore the incident. They may also put the blame on the victim, making him or her believe that the outburst was the victim’s fault. In this stage, the abuser will make the victim believe that the violence will not happen again, and show that he or she is deeply remorseful of their behaviour.

The abuser may also become overly sad or even threaten suicide to stop the victim from coming out of the relationship. In most cases, this phase of the cycle of abuse involves great affection being showed by the abuser towards the victims. They might buy them expensive gifts, or take them out to nice restaurants to try and win them back.

4. Repeating the cycle

The calm phase of reconciliation soon fades away into conflicts. This builds up an atmosphere of tension all over again. This begins the cycle of abuse all over again. The victim is subjected to the same treatment again and again, till they decide to break the cycle of abuse.

Can abusers change?

It all depends upon the degree of abuse an abuser is causing to your relationship. If the abuser is exhibiting the initial levels of abuse, or mild emotional tactics, then ‘open’ communication can introduce them to this personality flaw. If they look into the problem with an objective and empathic perspective and are repenting on their mild abusive patterns, then proper marriage counselling could be a right step in this direction.

But if the intensity of the abuse is deteriorating towards a lethal combination of emotional, financial, psychological and physical violence, then there is no hope for change.

Such abusers, in full awareness, are causing irreparable harm to you and nothing can change their toxic nature. They will employ every possible ploy to make sure things go their own way. So, in such circumstances, it is better to walk out from such a relationship or marriage than to suffer in silence for years and degrade your quality of life.

You can avail help from Bonobology’s online panel of experts for personalised guidance on your struggle against relationship abuse. Remember, you are not alone in this battle. We are there with you to identify, deal with and overcome toxic relationships for a better future.

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