In an abuser’s mind, he isn’t being “abusive” or “controlling”, he’s expressing anger. It’s common for the abuser to feel “attacked” by his victim, although a clearer perspective shows she has not attacked him or abused him, she has only expressed an opinion or practiced some act of self determination.
The abuser often tries to minimize, deny, or rationalize his abuse. This often comes in the form of claiming “anger”.
Anger, though, is a normal and healthy human emotion. What happens in an abusive relationship is an attack on the soul, a sense of entitlement, and a belief that his behavior is no reason for her to doubt, question, or leave.
A few days ago, a friend and I got into an argument.
My face got red, I broke into tears for a moment, and I had a hard time speaking straight. We had tense voices and intense eye contact.
Yet neither of us left that encounter feeling threatened, still angry, or confused. There was even a moment where we both broke into laughter over the situation. We realized the point of misunderstanding, figured out how we both meant to deal, and walked away feeling stronger for the conversation.
That doesn’t happen in abusive relationships. Instead, the abuser uses the acceptable term “anger” to justify his inexcusable behavior. If what happens is anger, or an argument, involving both parties, than it isn’t abuse. Or so he says.
Abusers tend to justify emotional, verbal, or psychological abuse by saying it was anger. “I didn’t hit you”, or “you know I could never hurt you” are offered up after the incident.
But the fact is he didn’t have to hit to hurt; sometimes not hitting is more manipulative or damaging than physical violence. And he’s already hurt her; to say he hasn’t is a distortion.
ANGER and ABUSE, a comparison
***Anger is authentic self expression; abuse is a ‘shadow’ or ‘play’ of anger, a theatrical display
***Anger is mindful of the situation and bigger picture; abuse is ego-driven and caught in mindsets
***Anger express a feeling; abuse becomes a tantrum
***Anger may be expressed with a red face, excited gestures, and a raised voice; Abuse may be expressed with a red face, menacing gestures, expletives, and a screaming voice.
***Anger is a form of assertiveness that shows respect; abuse is an aggressive attack
***Anger shows tough love that enriches and repairs the relationship; abuse explodes in rough and damaging mistreatment that endangers the other.
***Anger arises from displeasure at an injustice; abuse focuses on the other person as bad.
***Anger informs the other, creates rapt attention, and seeks a mindful response; abuse is meant to threaten the other and silence them.
***Anger is meant to communicate, to report on the impact of an event; abuse is meant to silence, to intimidate, put down, bully or dump
***Anger desires a response from the other but does not require it; abuse insists the other acknowledge how right or justified one is, the other accept the blame, or the argument to continue sometimes physically preventing the other from leaving.
***Anger asks for change but allows that the other may change or not; abuse masks or expresses a controlling demand that the other submit.
***Anger asks for accountability and amends; abuse is about blame and revenge.
***Anger is about the present issue and is expressed freshly from incident to incident; abuse is displaced rage, gathering intensity from incident to incident.
***Anger has perspective, can distinguish between major and minor issues; abuse is trapped in the heat of the moment and explodes vehemently, no matter how minor the issue.
***Anger relates to the feeling; abuse is possessed by the feeling.
***Anger coexists with other feelings; abuse occludes other feelings
***Anger is non-violent, in control, and always remains within safe limits; abuse is violent, out of control, derisive, punitive, hostile, and retaliatory.
***Anger releases lively energy and leads to repose; abuse derails lively energy and creates continuing stress.
***Anger is brief and lets go with a sense of closure; abuse is held on to as resentment, hate, grudge, or bitterness (a smoldering fire).
***Anger includes grief and acknowledges this; abuse includes grief but masks it with feigned invulnerability or denial.
***Anger believes the other is a catalyst of anger; abuse believes the other is a cause of anger.
***Anger treats the other as a peer; abuse treats the other as a target.
***Anger originates in and fosters a healthy ego; abuse originates in and perpetuates a sick ego.
***Anger aims at a deeper and more effective bond; abuse wants to get the rage out no matter what the cost; an abuser moves against the other.
***Anger coexists with and empowers love; abuse cancels love in favor of fear.
***Anger uses forms of addressing, processing, and resolving; abuse uses forms of avoiding one’s own grief and distress.
So Which is it?
Verbal abuse masked as “anger” can be hard to identify. Denial lies at the heart of the abusive relationship, distorting every interaction.
How you feel is the best indicator: as I mentioned above, my sister and I argued and then felt better, stronger, and closer to each other. My partner and I ‘argued’ and I felt cheated, blamed, confused and bewildered.
Lundy Bancroft suggests that the ‘defining’ point of abuse “is when the man starts to exercise power over a woman in a way that causes harm to her and creates a privileged status for him”. Bancroft elegantly pinpoints the heart of the matter: abuse causes harm to the victim and gives control to the abuser.
Abuse doesn’t happen as single incidents, as anger does. Abuse isn’t usually about ‘incidents’ at all; whatever the victim does or doesn’t do, it happens. A way to recognize the pattern as abuse and not ‘anger’ is to notice that it IS a pattern.
Trust your instincts, and practice turning your attention away from him or the relationship to your own thoughts and feelings. This is usually a radical thing for an abused woman to do, and quickly breaks through layers of confusion and denial.
Other indications of abuse listed by Bancroft:
He retaliates against you for complaining about his behavior. He may punish you after an argument, hold on to his own complaints, or use your complaints against you. He may also take the role of the victim, claiming that she abuses him. All are ways of saying you have no right to challenge him. All are ways of punishing you for standing up to him or defying him.
He tells you your objections to his mistreatment are your problem. “You’re too sensitive”; “you exaggerate”; “you just want to fight” as well as “you just say I abuse you because your ex boyfriend (parents, whatever) abused you, you just want to be a victim”; “it shouldn’t be any big deal”; “get over it”; “not everyone can be all nicey and polite like you want, where I come from we express anger….”;’you’re just angry because you aren’t getting your way’; ‘you think you’re better than me’. All of these suggest you have no right to complain about the way he mistreats you, and are distortions of your reality.
He gives apologies that sound sincere or angry, and then demands that you accept them. This suggests he knows how you should feel (grateful) and that he is entitled to forgiveness. This is adding insult and denial and crazy making to the situation, not apologizing.
He blames you for the impact of his behavior. He shifts blame for chronic mistreatment. He adds insult to injury. As she withdraws physically because of his treatment, he may snarl that she’s getting it somewhere else or make accusations of frigidigy, infidelity, or sexual disfunction. If she becomes increasingly distrustful of him, he may suggest that it’s her perceptions that make it look like abuse: this is reversing cause and effect and crazy making.
He coerces you into having sex or sexually assaults you. This can include using nagging, pressure, or guilt tripping.
His controlling, disrespectful, or degrading behavior has become a pattern.
You show signs of abuse. All of the above are looking at the abuser and what he thinks; unfortunately keeping the attention on his needs is part of the abuse. It is equally important to start paying attention to yourself: are you afraid of him; are you growing 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 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 the problems in your relationship are all your fault; do you repeatedly leave arguments feeling that you’ve been messed with but can’t figure out exactly why?
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