Seven things you need to know about abusers (Abuse series part 2)

Here are links to this entire series:
Part 1: My story of abuse (Introduction)
Part 2: Seven things you need to know about abusers
Part 3: Dealing with victims of abuse
Part 4: It started with a crossword puzzle
Part 5: Getting help for an abuse victim
Part 6: Taking the next step
Part 7: My church’s initial response to abuse
Part 8: Your marriage counselor may destroy your marriage
Part 9: Cutting off communication
Part 10: How to choose sides in an abusive situation
Part 11: The strangeness of a spring break
Part 12: Filings for divorce and early rumblings at church
Part 13: What are those deacons good for anyway?
Part 14: The “repentance” game
Part 15: Isolation
Part 16: When the church goes off the rails
Part 17: When the church goes off the rails even further
Part 18: Final church problems
Part 19: How to neutralize an abuser
Part 20: The saga concludes
Part 21: Updates
Part 22: The very end

It has been a while since I have written an article that has been as widely read as this one from last week on abuse. I have gotten countless emails and comments and I thank you for those even if I have not been able to respond to all of them.

I want to also mention that the victim I am discussing in this series is now blogging at Go check her out and encourage her if you can.

Let me reiterate something at this point. This series is not really about my former church nor is about my friend’s abusive husband. I am well aware that of the over 20,000 of you around the world that subscribe to this blog, only a tiny fraction know my former church much less the abuser. So while our situation was a textbook example of how abusers operate and how churches fail in their response, this series is not about making those people pay by embarrassing them. I do not plan on naming any names. Rather, this series is about helping you in your own church with your own abuse situations.

Today, I want to talk about some key, surprising things I have learned about abusers in the past two years.

1. Abusers are incredibly good at putting on a front in public.
In general, abusers go under the radar. If you have a few hundred people in your church, some of them are abusers. However, it is likely that the abusers are the people you would least likely suspect. They are the incredibly friendly ones, the patient ones, the ones that are good with children. They are the ones that always have their arms around their spouse and likely will be the ones that are publicly romantically demonstrative toward their spouse. In the situation I experienced, I saw the abuser/victim hug and even kiss at church numerous times.

Once you know that abuse is occurring, you start to see through the outward facade. You catch on to the way comments are made and what various actions mean. What at first appeared to be innocuous all of a sudden looks very sinister. However, it takes some experience and knowledge to start to recognize signs of abuse.

2. Abusers know they have a problem and genuinely want to get better.
There is nothing simple about abuse. It would be nice to say that abuse consists of a bad guy (the abuser) and a good guy (the victim). In the end of the day, that is pretty much true. However, you have to wrap your head around the fact that abusers are humans too just like other people with serious problems. Just as a drug addict desperately wants to escape drugs, abusers want to stop abusing. Without serious help though, they simply don’t have the capacity to stop abusing.

3. Abusers almost all follow the same playbook.
You would be shocked to know how true this is. I have gotten dozens of emails from you guys over the past week that tell me essentially the same story. When I have researched this topic over the past few years, I have seen that same story recounted numerous times. It is eerie how similar the methods of different abusers are though there are two basic scripts they follow: they either abandon or they smother.

If you wonder if you are a victim of abuse, just type one of the tactics your spouse uses on you into Google and you will probably find countless stories that sound like yours.

Abusers are not trying to hurt. Rather, they are trying to control.
If you yell at your spouse occasionally, that behavior may be abusive but that does not make you an abuser. The serious kind of abuse that I am discussing is not about inflicting pain (as bad as that is) but rather about control. This is true regardless of whether the abuse is physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual. An abusive marriage consists of one party trying to exert extreme and illegitimate control over the other using methods such as manipulation, physical force, mind control, etc.

Abusers almost always model Jekyll/Hyde.
Again, abuse is a complicated thing. Abusers are not always mean. Sometimes, they are incredibly nice. They tend to flipflop between nice and mean. That makes little sense unless you understand that last paragraph: abusers want to control and they are masters of knowing whether Jekyll (nice) or Hyde (mean) is called for at any given time.

Of course, this makes things very difficult for the victim. Some victims (such as the one we worked with over the past year) are more susceptible to Jekyll. They get false hope when things go well and try to pacify the abuser, only to see him/her flip to Hyde a short time later. One of the things we did when working with her was try to smooth out her emotions by reminding her during Hyde times that it would not last forever and during Jekyll times that he was still an abuser. That is a key thing to remember. An abuser is simply an abuser regardless of how they are acting at any particular time. Regardless of how nice he may be today, nothing has really changed.

By the way, another reason abusers tend to flip back and forth is that as I mentioned earlier, they genuinely want to get better. They feel sorry for their past actions and try to make amends. Unfortunately, their remorse never lasts long.

If you want a view of this from a victim’s perspective, read this article and the followups from my friend where she discusses Hyde and Jekyll.

Abusers put on a great show of repentance when they lose control.
When my friend left her abuser, he modeled a very elaborate “repentance” for a while. This is very common with abusers. I have heard it called “orchestrating a repentance.” Abusers know how to orchestrate a repentance in order to regain control and get the victim back. In almost all cases, this repentance is short lived. In my friends’ case, the cracks started showing within weeks.

Abusers also use this faux repentance to try to rally friends and family to their side. They demonstrate a bit of repentance and very subtly blame their spouse for not accepting them back with open arms. Ironically, the end result is that the victim gets the majority of the blame for the problem because they are unwilling to reconcile with a “repentant” spouse.

Because this short-lived repentance is so common, real experts in abuse (as opposed to typical church leaders) recommend that an abuser must demonstrate repentance for a full year before reconciliation is even put on the table for consideration. There is much wisdom in that.

Abusers very, very rarely change.
It is easy to get an abuser to say that he has changed. However, when the rubber meets the road, abusers do not change. I have a friend who consults with churches on abuse situations. He told me recently that he sees a 10% success rate of getting abusers to change. He would be the first to admit though that 10% is at the high end of what experts believe is realistic. There are many experts that give very little hope to abusers regardless of whether they are Christian or non-Christian. This is a very hard thing for Christians to accept because we believe that God can change people. However, in the case of abusers, the reality is that you will likely see no improvement.

If an abuser is to change, it is a long process that will last years. It will involve real help and accountability. Abusers like to agree to counseling when they are backed into a corner but they will give up on it quickly. They may even go see a professional such as a psychiatrist a few times before declaring themselves cured. However, as a rule, abusers are unwilling to put in the work and time necessary to change themselves.

In my next post, I am going to flip this a bit and talk about things you need to know about how churches incorrectly respond to abuse. That is abuse in itself and very important. Stay tuned.

Read on: Part 3: Dealing with victims of abuse