Does Your Partner Know Their Behavior Is Abusive?
Even if they don’t, that doesn’t excuse their behavior.
It is easy to look at someone who has bruises inflicted by their partners and surmise that they are being abused in their relationship. There is an obvious sign prompting friends, family, and therapists to ask, “Is everything ok with you?”
Intimate partner abuse is a silent epidemic. Every day, there are people in relationships that are suffering at the hands of an abusive partner. Statistics show that nearly half of all women (48.4%) and men (48.8%) in the United States experience psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime (1). 95% of perpetrators who physically abuse their intimate partners also psychological abuse them (2).
Where it gets tricky is when people share that their partner puts them down, isolates them, or makes them question their own memory, or even sanity. Through the arduous process of understanding, identifying, labeling, and extricating yourself from an abusive relationship, you may be left wondering if your abuser is even aware that they have done anything wrong. What is the psychology and pathology behind this behavior?
It first needs to be stated that abuse is unacceptable, regardless of the abuser’s level of understanding or self-awareness about their behavior. Anyone who behaves badly against another person is accountable for it; no one gets a free pass.
Often people who utilize abuse because they have a need for control. This could be the result of feeling helpless in their own lives, or even a history of being abused as a child. Data supports a strong link between childhood abuse and becoming the perpetrator of abuse.
Clients have told me they feel badly for their abuser because they know that “their childhood was difficult,” and “if they had a more loving upbringing they would know how to love correctly.” While this may be true, and I applaud the empathy, it doesn’t excuse the behavior.
Many abusers, especially narcissists or those who have personality disorders, like drama, even if they are unaware of it. They receive their narcissistic supply by making things chaotic for other people. However, even if it may be claimed that not all abusive individuals are narcissists, most abusers likely exhibit symptoms of a personality disorder.
Personality disorders, whether fully diagnosed or just with some traits, are often present in people who are psychologically abusing their partners. This can prohibit abuser from being able to be aware of their misbehavior, also known as cognitive distortions. They often blame their behavior on their partner.
Psychological abusers may consider their reality to be the truth, unlike those who commit physical violence, who may be able to comprehend that their acts were wrong—at least in the eyes of the law. They may genuinely feel mistreated, and when paired with any appealing or persuasive qualities they may have, that belief increases their plausibility. These contradicting accounts might make it more challenging for outsiders to understand what is happening. They are likely to think that both are telling lies. This can happen with mutual friends, or even judges and juries. The individuals who work in our court system often have no background in mental health and so they can be especially vulnerable to the manipulations of someone who believes their own lies. And when an outsider goes along with an abuser’s claims, such as their lawyer or support network, they unknowingly reinforce this distorted reality.
Finally, keep in mind that all forms of abuse are unacceptable. The issue is with the behaviors, not with the understanding or awareness of the behaviors. You spend less time concentrating on yourself and your own recovery, which is where you need to be, the more you try to understand another person’s perspective. Spend time with people that believe you and are supportive of your recovery and validate your truth and your experiences. If you want assistance with your healing, speak with a therapist who focuses on the dynamics of traumatic and abusive relationships.