For purposes of simplicity I will be using “he” throughout this post to designate the abuser and “she” to designate the abuse victim. We can all agree that males are also abused in relationships by females.
One of the insidious (and enabling) aspects of abuse is that the abuse victim often lacks a credible witness to the abuse that is occurring (or has occurred).
“Witnessing” is the act of validating, of believing, the victim’s presentation of her trauma. It is the willingness to face, not turn away from, the victim’s experience of her experience.
The abuse victim often lacks a mature, credible witness to validate the abuse as existing as a real problem—a real problem that is called “abuse,” and not a watered-down euphemism.
Lacking this validation, she is less empowered to confront the abuse, while the abuser’s leverage is simultaneously strengthened.
One can’t confront, after all, something that isn’t identified, recognized as real.
When we speak of abuse, we are referring to the intentional use of one’s power to control, frighten, cow, shame, restrict, degrade, dismiss, humiliate, suppress, inhibit, isolate, invalidate and/or damage and destroy another person.
I routinely work cases in which abuse is occurring but has yet to be labeled “abuse.” Sometimes the euphemisms, the minimization, or the mis-identification of the abuse begin at the bureaucratic level.
For instance, I recently got a referral through an insurer who described “anger” as the presenting issue. With a little further information, I asked the referrer if “abuse” wasn’t the more relevant concern? A half-minute later, with a little more information, I suggested,“So this is about domestic violence?”
The referring agent, who probably had some mental health training, surprised me with how relieved, almost enthusiastic, she was that I’d apparently called the situation for what it was—abuse.
And so the insurance company, in seeking a provider for the client, could not “witness” for her, at this early stage of her help-seeking, the true predicament (and trauma) she was dealing with.
The culture of secrecy, shame, euphemistic language, and sometimes ignorance surrounding relationship abuse enable and sustain its subterrean status and persistence.
Abuse always is a form of exploitation. But it’s also a tactic; the tactical aim of abuse is to control, restrict, or otherwise subjugate someone. The pattern of abusive behavior defines the abuser, which shouldn’t surprise us, as the aims of abuse speak directly, and indictingly, to character.
The abusive individual chronically uses a variety of defenses—like rationalization, contempt, devaluation, denial, minimization—to support his abusive attitudes and behaviors.
The more, for instance, we devalue someone—the more contempt we feel towards someone—the more we are de-humanizing that person. And the more we de-humanize someone, the more dangerously we expand our latitude to treat (and mistreat) that person as an “object.”
A major aspect of the abuser’s mentality is an inflated sense of entitlement. The abuser feels entitled to what he wants. He doesn’t just want what he wants; he doesn’t even just want what he wants badly.
The abuser demands what he wants.
For the abusive individual, to want something is to deserve it. Anything less than the responsive delivery of what he wants (and feels entitled to) is perceived as an injustice—a personal affront.
He will then use this perceived affront as justification (rationalizing) for his punitive, destructive response.
The abusive individual sees it somewhat like this: I deserved what I wanted; I didn’t get it; now she (as the uncooperative party) deserves to be punished.
When the abuser is too cowardly to punish his real frustrator (say, a boss), he’ll bully, instead, a more vulnerable target, like his partner (or kids).
Often intense anger and abuse are assumed to be synonymous. But it’s important to remember that expressions of anger—even intense anger—aren’t always indicative of abuse, just as expressions of abuse aren’t always delivered as overt anger and rage.
Anger can nicely deliver an abusive intent; but sometimes it’s just anger, not anger as the delivery vehicle of the abuse.
Many intelligent, abusive individuals can convincingly give lip service to the wrongness of their behaviors. Some abusive individuals, who aren’t sociopaths and/or too narcissistically disturbed, can and do confront the driving factors of their abuse and make genuine amends and changes.
But many others can’t, and won’t; their narcissism or sociopathy—in any case their fundamental immaturity and pathological self-centeredness—prove insurmountable.
When I work with cases of abuse “witnessing” for the abused client is vital. Although it’s true therapists shouldn’t make a practice of diagnosing people they’ve never met, it’s also true that when clients have a story to tell of their abuse or exploitation, it would be destructive not to believe them. And if you believe their experience (and why wouldn’t you?), then failing to recognize and label it as one of abuse is to fail them.
Why would it be destructive not to believe the client? Isn’t it theoretically possible that a client could be lying, contriving, or grossly exaggerating? What about false memories? It is exceedingly rare for clients to manufacture experiences of abuse. If anything, the opposite is true: the culture (as noted) of shame, secrecy, and minimization surrounding abuse inclines clients to underreport, not exaggerate, the extent of their victimization.
Invariably, it is the abuser who is guilty of the inverse of exaggerating, which is minimizing. And from the abuser’s minimized perspective, the truth looks like an exaggeration.
In the case of the aforementioned referral, it took little time to see that abuse was prevalent. I saw this couple for a consultation. It’s always an informative, first red flag when a partner tries to take you aside before his partner has shown up to preemptively set the record straight—that is, to assure and prepare you to expect all sorts of exaggerations and misreprentations from the yet-to-arrive partner.
You know that invalidation (and gaslighting), for instance, are issues when you hear (as I did), “Trust me, Doc, what she’s gonna say, it never happened…at least not the way she’s gonna say it did.”
These are cases where it’s best not to trust the client.
(This article is copyrighted (c) 2009 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)