This article was originally published in 2014. It was updated in 2022.
No one ever plans to venture out into the dating world and choose an abusive partner. No one goes on a blind date hoping for red flags that signal this new romantic partner is potentially controlling, obsessively jealous or has a penchant for violence. And yet, abusive partners will still find so many of us. If only we could profile an abuser before we ever fall into their trap.
Well, maybe we can. Though of course we can’t generalize and say all abusers are this or that, we can look at the statistics, which show us what the majority of abusers share in common. We can look at the most commonly reported early warning signs. We can look at the psychology behind an abuser's motivations. And in that sense, we can put together a makeshift profile of an abuser.
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Men Commit the Majority of Assaults, Women Most Often Victims
According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 90 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence against women are men. In the same survey, 93 percent of men who reported being victims of sexual assault also say the perpetrator was a man.
As far as domestic violence goes, which can include sexual violence as well as other types of physical and nonphysical abuse, statistics show that at least 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women. While abusers can also be women, the chances are much higher that a perpetrator will be male.
Additionally, statistics tell us that certain tactics of abuse are more prevalent in the LGBTQ+ communities—44 percent of lesbian women and 61 percent of bisexual women, compared to 35 percent of heterosexual women, say they have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. According to the same survey, 26 percent percent of gay men and 37 percent of bisexual men—compared to 29 percent of heterosexual men—have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner.
Why are People Abusive?
Generally, abusers use abusive tactics to gain and keep control over a partner for personal benefit. An abuser wants a survivor to:
- Comply with their demands
- Cater to them
- Be subservient or submissive to them
- Allow unlimited access to a survivor’s time and attention, money and their body
- Keep the survivor’s life centered around the abuser
Childhood domestic violence, or CDV, can also be at play. For many abusers, abuse became normalized to them in childhood. They believe that is how adult relationships play out and they feel justified in controlling others. The Childhood Domestic Violence Association reports children who witnessed domestic violence in their childhood home were 3 times more likely to commit domestic violence as adults. The Association calls CDV the most significant predictor of domestic violence later in life.
The History Many Abusers Share
Domestic violence is a choice that abusers make, regardless of what they’ve gone through in their own lives, regardless of abuse or mental health issues, and regardless of anything the survivor does or says. Abusers still choose to abuse.
But there are a number of factors known to increase the risk someone will abuse. They include:
- A history of abuse in one's family or past
- Being physically or sexually abused as a child
- A history of being physically abusive
- A lack of appropriate coping skills
- Low self-esteem
- Having few friends or being socially isolated
- Codependent behavior
- Untreated mental illness
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Socioeconomic pressures or economic stress (studies show a higher incidence of abuse in lower-income communities)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- A prior criminal arrest history
- Lack of nonviolent social problem-solving skills
- Having few friends and being isolated from other people
- Economic stress (e.g., unemployment)
- Emotional dependence and insecurity
- Belief in strict gender roles (e.g., male dominance and aggression in relationships)
- Desire for power and control in past relationships
- A history of attitudes accepting or justifying violence and aggression
Individuals who have one or more of these traits aren’t necessarily going to be abusive, but it’s important, as their partner, to be aware of the full picture.
On the other hand, abusers may try to use one or more of the above as excuses for their behavior, negating responsibility and even using these reasons to justify their abuse. But as social worker Larry Bennett, PhD, puts it: "A batterer who quits drinking is a sober batterer."
Psychology of Domestic Abusers
What’s going on in an abuser’s brain that motivates them to be this way? Can it be written off as a disease or attributed as a side-effect to mental illness?
In short, no. Mental illness doesn’t cause abuse. Plenty of people with mental health issues do not abuse their partners. An abuser who lives with any mental illness simply has two issues—mental illness and propensity to abuse their partner.
Still, abusers often share psychological traits, something else to be aware of when evaluating a new partner. These may include one or more of the following:
- A hatred of or hostility toward women. An entrenched culture of misogyny can manifest in some individuals as social exclusion, adherence to gender roles, sex discrimination, hostility, patriarchy, male privilege, belittling of women, disenfranchisement of women, violence against women and sexual objectification, and is thought to be one of the supporting factors for partner abuse to continue.
- Cruelty toward animals. An abuser may use harsh punishments or completely neglect pets or other animals they encounter, or put them at unnecessary levels of risk such as leaving a dog tied up with no shade or water.
- Jealousy. This often comes under the guise of caring so much about their partner, before morphing into a more stalking nature—asking who you’re with, where you’re going, etc.
- A controlling nature. Again, abusers will say this is in concern for your well-being. But soon, it can escalate into telling you what you are allowed and not allowed to do.
- Inability to admit fault, take blame. This also looks like blame-shifting. Everything is someone else’s fault or the blame is constantly shifted to a partner. Abusers often think the world is against them and they are a victim of their circumstances.
- Desperation to move the relationship quickly. If a new partner confesses their love for you after the second date, asks you to move in together after a week, uses words like “soulmate” or says they’ve never met anyone like you or that you were meant for each other, this can be a red flag. Abusers often want to isolate victims or make them emotionally dependent on them as quickly as possible.
- Hypersensitivity. Many abusers get easily upset over any inconvenience or personal slight. Something as minor as a partner suggesting a different restaurant for dinner can be made out by an abuser as an attack on them.
In addition, this piece highlights six other signs you might want to pay attention to.
Abusers and Mental Health Disorders
Abusers may have been diagnosed with or show signs of one or more of the following mental health disorders. Keep in mind, abuse is still a choice. Abuse is not a mental illness nor is it caused by a mental illness. Many individuals who live with mental health issues do not abuse their partners.
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This presents as a lack of empathy, constant seeking of validation, arrogance or grandiose behavior. Narcissists will belittle others to appear superior, exaggerate their talents and monopolize conversations to make others feel inferior.
- Borderline Personality Disorder. This mental health disorder, once again, doesn’t cause abuse, but its traits can certainly perpetuate abusive choices. Borderline personality disorder is defined by self-image issues, difficulty managing emotions or behaviors, an intense fear of abandonment or instability, frequent mood swings, impulsiveness and inappropriate anger.
- Psychopathy. A person defined as a psychopath feels no guilt, shame or remorse. More concerning, a psychopath’s brain actually shows an increased response in the ventral striatum, an area known to be involved in pleasure, when imagining others in pain, reports ScienceDaily.
- Antisocial Personality Disorder. This is sometimes called sociopathy. These individuals share many similar traits to psychopaths—feeling no remorse, not understanding the difference between right and wrong—and also like the feeling of dominating others and having power and control. Unlike psychopathy, which is thought to be genetic, sociopaths are made through a traumatic event in their past. “Sociopaths can be predators, so you may naturally feel uncomfortable being alone with them,” says Bill Eddy, licensed clinical social worker. “You may suddenly get the feeling that you want to get out of a situation. Go, and ask questions later.
Three Personality Types of “Unsafe” People
In the book Safe People, authors and therapists Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend identify three types of commonly recognized “unsafe people,” meaning individuals that should trigger a feeling of uneasiness in your gut. Are all people with these traits abusive? No, but these traits should influence your decisions on how much and how quickly to trust them.
Abandoners. These are people who start a relationship but can’t stick with it. They often leave when you need them the most. The authors say this type of person has typically been abandoned themselves at some point in their life and are afraid of getting too close, so they prefer shallow relationships. Others are simply perfectionists and leave people in whom they find “faults.”
Critics. These individuals are judgmental without being caring. They have no room for grace or forgiveness, say the authors, adding that critics often jump on doctrinal and ethical bandwagons and are more focused on pointing out others’ errors than they are with making real connections with people. They can make you feel guilt-ridden and full of anxiety.
Irresponsibles. These people are those who don’t take care of their own lives very well. They’re like grown up children, say the authors. Irresponsibles don’t think about the consequences of their actions, don’t follow through on commitments and are just generally flaky. They’re people with whom you will come to resent after giving them an endless number of chances. You’ll find yourself often making excuses for them.
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How Abusers Speak
Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” If we think about that in the context of potential abusive partners, then we need to look no further than some of the words they choose to speak.
Phrases like the following, said to actual survivors we spoke with, should raise a major red flag if someone says them to you, indicating a desire to control, degrade or shame a partner.
“You can go but I don’t want you to go.”
“Couples don’t have secrets—I need to be able to read your texts or emails whenever I want to.”
“You’d be much more pretty if....”
“I bring the money into this house, so I decide.”
“I’ll give you money to spend. You don’t need to worry about a bank account.”
“How much did you spend? I need to see all your receipts.”
“Where were you today?”
“I tried calling ... why didn’t you answer?” [This is after 15 missed calls in a few hours.]
“Why did you make me do that?”
“You don’t love me as much as I love you.”
“No one will ever understand you like I do.”
“If you loved me, you’d do this.”
“You're always creating drama/making a big deal out of nothing/starting a fight/trying to get the last word in.”
“If you leave me, no one else will want you.”
“You’re not smart/successful/strong enough to survive without me.”
“You need to go on a diet.”
“Why don’t you look as hot as you did when we first met?”
“You’re such a slut/you dress like a whore.”
“This is why no one likes you.”
For more examples, read “How Abusers Speak.”
Abuse Isn’t Your Fault
Many survivors I’ve spoken with have said the above red flags were apparent only after they escaped from an abuser. Hindsight is often so much clearer because we can see the person objectively, without romantic or obsessive feelings of what we believe is love clouding our judgment. It’s the reason why it’s so much easier to spot abusive behavior in a friend’s partner compared to our own partner.
If you come to realize you were completely blindsided by an abuser’s tactics of power and control—even if you missed every red flag, stayed longer than you should or went back more times than you wanted to—it’s still not your fault. Abuse is a choice an abusive partner makes, not something you deserved because you missed the signs.
Also, abusers are often disguised as some of the most charismatic people you'll ever meet. Author John G. Taylor writes in “Behind the Veil: Inside the Mind of Men That Abuse,” that men who abuse are “very clever, smart and extremely charming. Most of these men have a personality that draws people in because of their level of charm. This is part of their art to deceive and manipulate.”
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