Updated: Jun 2
It’s eerie, it’s suspicious, it’s strange and it’s true: abusive personalities are so alike they can be easily identified. How? Well, read on!
It’s eerie, it’s suspicious, it’s strange and it’s true: abusive personalities are so alike they can be easily identified. Despite differences in socio-economic status, race, gender, political preferences, career choices and all the rest, abusive personalities have such common characteristics that they have been well observed, documented, and commented upon.
Obviously not all abusers will carry every single one of these traits, but if you recognize several in your partner, a red flag is likely waving in your direction. Adapted from my upcoming book, Don’t Plant Your Seeds Among Thorns: A Catholic’s Guide to Domestic Abuse, this post (Part 1)—as well as the next (Part 2)—lists the most common traits of abusive personalities.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting … Domestic Abuse.
Lack of core identity.
Most abusers try to manipulate and control others because they lack an inner sense of self and are full of deep feelings of toxic shame. They’re not in touch with the truth of their God-given identity, but instead feel an emptiness where self ought to be.
Domestic violence expert Donald Dutton states: “The shame-prone individual regards every mishap as indicative of a general flaw in themselves. They cannot make the distinction between a specific mistake and their overarching imperfection. Not surprisingly, this emotional style is accompanied by hostility, anger arousal, and tendencies to blame others for negative events.”Toxic shame, feeling powerless and vulnerable, and the need to control these feelings by controlling others are all foundational issues caused by a lack of core identity.
Excessive jealousy and possessiveness.
Another nearly universal trait of abusers is extreme jealousy. Dr. Lenore E. Walker, a pioneer in the field of domestic violence awareness and author of the now-classic The Battered Woman Syndrome, has noted that “anyone who is kind to the battered woman becomes a target of the batterer’s sexual jealousy. This includes her … male co-workers, next-door neighbor, supermarket clerk, bartender … and so on.”
Your abuser will likely mask his controlling jealousy under several pretenses, such as claiming to be insecure about his past or blaming you for dressing and acting flirtatiously. He may also say that he’s jealous only because of how deeply in love with you he is. The USCCB acknowledges, “While there is no one type, men who abuse share some common characteristics. They tend to be extremely jealous, possessive, and easily angered.”All the excuses your partner may have for his jealousness are just that—excuses, an attempt to minimize and even normalize his behavior, a way to brainwash you into feeling sorry for him or accepting the blame.
Domestic violence expert Lundy Bancroft, author of the best-selling book Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, has worked extensively with both victims and perpetrators for decades. He confirms his observation of jealous behavior among abusive men:
The jealous guy is sure to have excuses—that he’s this way because his last partner cheated on him, or because his mother cheated on his father, or because he’s never had such a beautiful partner and he’s afraid you’ll leave him. And that’s what they are: excuses. If he can’t trust you, he shouldn’t be with you.
Jealousy isn’t always limited to serious and demoralizing accusations of flirting and other forms of infidelity; an abuser can be jealous of your successes, your children, and your relationships with anyone other than him. All this eventually leads to self-isolation (another goal of the aggressive abuser). It gets to be too much to deal with his rages after a fun, innocent girls’ night out, or the barrage of questions after returning from the gym. It’s easier—and feels safer—to simply stay at home.
Lundy Bancroft also makes the crucial distinction between mere jealous feelings and manipulatively jealous behaviors. If you find yourself altering your innocent and healthy social life because of your partner’s jealousy, that’s a sure sign of domestic abuse.
A man with some insecurities may naturally feel anxious about your associations with other men, especially ex-partners, and might want reassurance. But if he indicates that he expects you to give up your freedom to accommodate his jealousy, control is creeping up. Your social life shouldn’t have to change because of his insecurities.
Full of Rage:
Individuals with abusive personalities are filled with simmering anger and deeply-rooted rage. When that rage explodes and Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde yet again, you’ll likely experience a heightened layer of fear, anxiety, panic, confusion, and despondency. As the abuse cycle continues, over and over again, the psychological and emotional damage can be both numbing and painfully overwhelming.
Rage is toxic, and toxins spill over into every area of life. In other words, it’s best to avoid toxins whenever possible.
An abuser forces his victim to follow a separate set of rules than he does. It’s fine for him to flirt with other women, use porn, or engage in some other act of infidelity, but if you so much as ask the produce guy at your local supermarket if the broccoli is fresh, your partner will fly into a frothing rage and accuse you of having an affair. (With the broccoli or with the produce guy? An abuser’s circular talk is so confusing it can be difficult to tell.)
He can go out to bars as often as he wants, but if you go out for an innocent drink with a friend, you’ll get grilled with so many accusatory questions that your head will start to spin as heartbroken frustration grips your spine in a tight mass of stress. He can have his own opinions, but if yours don’t precisely match his, he’ll accuse you of disrespecting him or even hating him. The examples are long and varied, but you get the idea: “Do what I say, but you’re not allowed to do what I do.”
Jesus was quite harsh with such personalities: “Woe to you…hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt 23:27).
Masters at Projection:
If he falsely accuses you of something, you can be fairly certain it’s the exact act, thought, or emotion he’s doing, thinking, or feeling. This is what projection is all about—attributing his own negative actions and motivations onto you. His projection is actually a fairly good way of figuring out what he’s up to. For example, if he accuses you of being unfaithful, be on your guard for any unfaithful behavior on his part.
He may complain that you’re controlling, inconsiderate, disrespectful, untrustworthy, selfish, rude, unfeeling, hopeless, impossible, mean, critical, manipulative, unloving and more. He may even claim that you’re the abusive one—that’s a very common accusation for an aggressor to make, one that’s to be expected in toxic relationships.
Whew! Okay, that’s enough for now. Soon I'll post the follow-up to this article, which will cover additional core characteristics of abusive personalities. Brace yourself because yes, there’s more to come. However, knowledge is power. Or so someone once said. Supposedly it was Francis Bacon, but I don’t really know for sure. All I know is that I get hungry every time I think about it.
To end, here's a wonderful homily from Bishop Mark Brennan of the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, WV, on the topic of domestic violence.