Perpetrators of domestic and family violence don’t fit just one particular profile. They come from every cultural background, religious affiliation, income bracket and vocational type. 1
Because of this, abusers are not easy to spot within churches.
They are ordinary people
It is easy to think that domestic and family violence is something that occurs on the fringes of our communities, perpetrated by men who are easily identified by their harsh personalities and the giant sign around their neck that states, "I’M AN ABUSER". In reality, the opposite is true.
Most real life abusers aren't the kinds of monsters we envision. 2 They can be very ordinary people who get along with people pretty well and could easily be in your social circle. Within churches they can be rather convincing, involve themselves with key people, and be quite undetectable. They appear quite harmless.
That is why it is vital to understand that perpetrators of domestic violence are in fact highly dangerous people who choose to behave in ways that are extremely sexist and very frightening.
Do not assume that perpetrators of domestic violence are mentally, psychologically, or emotionally unwell. They may not register any mental health or emotional disorders on standard psychiatric or psychological evaluations. There is no personality or mental health profile or simple means of identifying who is, or might become, abusive.
They can be likeable
“We must learn and then teach our children that niceness does not equal goodness. Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait. People seeking to control others almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning. Like rapport-building, charm and the deceptive smile, unsolicited niceness often has a discoverable motive.”Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
It can be difficult to understand why someone gets into a relationship with an abusive partner in the first place. The reason?
Most abusive men:
- are sometimes charming and caring
- are really attentive and caring early in a new relationship
- gradually increase their abusive control over time
- begin with verbal and emotional abuse that is subtle and difficult to recognise.
To other people, the violent partner appears very likeable. They have families, colleagues and friends, all of whom would almost certainly consider them to be 'good people'. This is why when a woman discloses abuse in the church, she may not be believed because her partner is 'such a lovely person'.
It is also rare that the first act of abuse is a physically violent one. In some cases the first physical act of violence in an abusive relationship is murder. This may be why one of the most persistent and dangerous myths of domestic violence is that the perpetrators are good men who made one bad choice because their partner 'pushed them too far'. 3
Men who abuse, also don’t abuse
It is common to think that certain men can’t be violent because they love women and are warm to their colleagues and their friends. It can be very hard to accept that someone we like might have done something horrible to their partner. It is natural to not want to believe it.
The truth is that abusers feel entitled to hurt their partners because they feel a sense of ownership over them. In order to force their partner to do what they want, an abuser will use a series of tactics of coercive control. They can then separate these violent behaviours from their day-to-day life and convince themselves they are doing nothing wrong because they treat other people well. When a faith system is involved, they might even justify their treatment of their partner on the basis of their church’s teaching.
Perpetrators can be violent and controlling when they are not angry, or non-violent even when they are angry. They can contain their violence in some settings (e.g. at work), but not in others (e.g. at home).
Always remember, it is possible that this person can be kind to you, that you might love them, and that they are still an offender.
Ostensibly 'nice guys' hurt people too.
Violence is always a choice
In most cases, perpetrators are capable of exercising control over their abusive actions, but choose not to do so for various reasons.
When an abusive man 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 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 common explanations:
“I wouldn’t want to cause her a serious injury.”
“I realised 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 the neighbours would hear.”
And the most frequent response of all:
“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 the 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 considers 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."
How abusers groom victims
Domestic violence specialists talk about a grooming process where a perpetrator will ‘wear down’ the victim’s defences by slowly desensitising their natural reaction to abusive behaviour.
Grooming works by mixing positive behaviours with elements of abuse. At the beginning of a relationship, all interactions are positive and the perpetrator is very seductive. Over time, abusive elements are added in amounts that surprise the victim to an extent, but do not push alarm to a high level. As these behaviours escalate over time, the abuse comes to feel normal.
The pace of the early relationship is often accelerated. An abuser may tell their new partner how much they love them within the first few weeks. They may listen closely to everything their new partner says, always wanting to know more. They might pay their bills or shower them with expensive gifts. They begin discussing marriage, moving in together and having children very early on.
The abuser will then start to insist that their other actions are also demonstrations of love. That their criticisms and constant demands, jealousy and spurts of anger, are also due to their passionate interest and love.
The element of seduction that so strongly features at the beginning of the relationship will also re-emerge whenever the victim starts to pull away. This is why abuse is so confusing for victims and why it can be so hard to leave. Their partner appears to ‘love’ them.
To learn more about this, read our section Signs of Abuse.