Creating Communities of Care pt 4: Defining abuse

This is Part IV in a 5-part series on creating communities of resilience and care by examining abuse and accountability. This was originally published on Little Red Tarot. Find the other pieces in this series here.

A person in a tie dye shirt with a ponytail in a dimly lit room looks out a window. There is snow on the ground outside and golden sunlight comes in through the window, gently lighting their face and hair.

Defining abuse is a really big challenge, especially when you are living it.

When I was in an abusive relationship, I was being gaslit and struggled to understand the dynamics I was living in, though I knew something felt wrong. My partner didn’t outright call me names, but treated me like I was crazy and unreasonable for having normal and healthy needs in our relationship. He never hit me, but he did grope me non-consensually and withheld affection for years after I requested he stop. He gave me plausible yet untrue explanations for his boundary-crossing and disregarding behavior. His abuse in the beginning, while more obvious and outright, became slowly more subtle and hard to unmask as he became more proficient in social justice jargon and learned the language of the trauma-informed.

While many articles will give you lists of things that might indicate abuse – such as yelling, name-calling, and physical and sexual violence – these are not always the most or the only accurate indicators of understanding the true dynamics of a relationship. It is very common for abusers to use subtle yet persistent and destabilizing tactics to drive someone to their snapping point where they may verbally lash out, then use that behavior as evidence that the survivor is in fact the unstable, crazy, or abusive one. Similarly, there are many cases of survivors being arrested for striking a partner in self-defense, with no mind paid to the fact that the abuser was engaging in physically threatening behaviors beforehand or struck the survivor first.

Abuse is messy, and gaslighting makes it all the more challenging for survivors to truly understand that they were not the ones in the wrong.

I attended an insightful workshop recently on The Dynamics of Abusers presented by local Portland educator Eric Mankowski where we explored abuse in-depth, in the context of broader social structures, and examined the underlying attitudes and beliefs that lead to abusive behaviors. While I have learned a lot about abuse through personal research and experience over the years, I had never seen abuse articulated so clearly as I had in this workshop. The definition I present below draws upon the language and understanding presented at this event:

Abuse is a set of coordinated and patterned behaviors with the acknowledged or unacknowledged intention of coercing or controlling another person for the purposes of meeting one’s perceived personal needs.

Let’s break that down.

Coordinated and patterned behaviors

While myths about abuse would have many believe that abuse is only when someone physically assaults their partner, the truth is that abuse is mostly non-physical. Tactics used in emotional and psychological abuse are utilized constantly by all types of abusers and are used in between bouts of physical violence when that dynamic is present.

Abusive behavior is stonewalling, lying, gaslighting, and crazy-making.

Abusive behavior is just as much love-bombing and hoovering and promises of change.

The cycle of abuse is so often talked about, because many struggle to conceptualize the fact that the honeymoon period after an abusive episode is just as much a part of the abuse cycle as is physical violence, name calling, or any other more recognized form of abuse. During this time, abusers have promised to change their ways, the relationship feels renewed, and the survivor feels assured that things are going to be different or at least relieved that things seem to be okay for the time being.

Yes, even when an abuser is ‘being good’, they are still playing out the pattern of abuse.

In his workshop, Eric Mankowski spoke of “selective effort”, which is the phenomenon where abusers will have copious amounts of energy to put towards projects that are of personal interest to them, but seem to magically be missing the energy to put into having a healthy relationship or meeting the needs of their partner. Abusers will often meet their partner’s requests for a limited period of time before slipping back into old patterns.

The truth is that abuse is a pattern and is not a function of anger or loss of control. On the contrary, as Mankowski succinctly put it, abuse is an assertion of control. Abuse doesn’t happen because an abuser has reached the end of their rope and explodes. Abuse occurs because an abuser views their victim as an object to manipulate for their own personal gain, usually in something that the abuser lacks. Personal gains can be anything: endless attention and emotional care from their partner, increase in social status, or someone to care for the children and the home environment – to name a few.

Abuse is also coordinated. Abusers provoke to get a response, which might be compliance or to set their partner off to prove that they are crazy and that the abuser is the stable and sane one. This coordination is necessary to keep victims on their toes. Intermittent praise is a tactic often used, and backhanded compliments and subtle slights keep a victim in search of the love and care that they deserve but will never get with any true consistency from an abuser. Alternating patterns of violence and sweetness create physiological responses akin to addiction. This coordination is what keeps victims engaged, attentive, and ripe for manipulation and exploitation. Until a victim can begin to recognize the pattern, they are often left wondering what they are doing wrong, believing that they do not deserve a partner who is loving and attentive.

Acknowledged or unacknowledged

Abusers may or may not realize what they are doing. One of the issues with abusive behaviors is that they are rooted in attitudes and beliefs. Lundy Bancroft, in his book Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, conceptualizes abuse in this way. Ultimately, abuse is about the belief that power is a zero-sum game, that getting their needs met means someone else’s needs can’t be met. Access to resources such as sex, money, care, love, and power seems finite to the abuser, and one must have control over these resources to ensure one’s social standing and survival. Collaborative understandings of power, where power in relationship and community is shared, undermine and demean one’s social standing.

At their core, these beliefs are rooted in white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, and all axes of power that are dominance-based – and more often than not these beliefs go unexamined on any meaningful level.

Yes, a manarchist may realize that it’s not okay to call a stranger “babe” because he will be called a sexist, but he may not consciously understand the depth to which he dehumanizes women. This would be demonstrated in relationship through the constant undermining of her personal agency and power, and the undermining or outright denying of her needs and boundaries. He may not understand that his concept of power is rooted in an imperialist mindset and that, at his core, he fears he will perish if he does not maintain constant control and validation of his masculinity.

Or, perhaps, he does recognize this and simply does not see or care about the personal and communal benefit of undermining this power-over model for a collaborative approach to power. He’s got his needs met. Nevermind anyone else. This is how his father was, it’s how his friends are with their partners, and as far as he sees it, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Intention of coercing or controlling another person for the purposes of meeting one’s perceived personal needs

As mentioned above, abusers live in a finite world of scarcity where power is top-down and must be maintained. Much of life is a performance to illustrate their status and competence to others. This leaves no room for authentic vulnerability, collaboration, or negotiation.

Instant gratification is something abusers often seek out.

For example: in the act of infidelity, many potential perceived needs can be met. This includes the perceived need to feel desirable, for excitement, to assert personal agency, or for men to feel ‘virile’ and have their sexual prowess validated, to name a few. Some of these are valid needs, yet they are placed in an inappropriate context and could be met in healthier ways with open communication and negotiation with a partner. In a healthy relationship, the need for excitement could be met with travel or trying out a new activity. But for an abuser, the meeting of these needs is considered to be more important than their partner’s need for trust and safety in the relationship. In fact, it is unlikely that their partner’s needs were even considered in the first place.

An abuser seeks to control their partner and their partner’s responses so they can continue to act in self-serving ways without true repercussions.

Tailing on the infidelity example, an abuser is likely to make their victim feel at fault for the infidelity in the first place. They may say that they weren’t having sex with them enough, that they ‘let themselves go’ and aren’t attractive anymore. They may say “I didn’t know you’d be so upset,” or claim that it wasn’t clear to them that having sex with other people was wrong or abnormal within a monogamous relationship. They will make the victim feel as if they are to blame, or make them feel crazy or unreasonable for feeling violated and hurt. Over time, as trust issues continue to arise, the victim will be made to feel at fault for not trusting, even when no genuine efforts to repair the harm were offered.

This is where all aspects of the abuse come into play: undermining another person’s very humanity for the purposes of personal gratification. Infidelity isn’t just about satisfying individual needs, but about reinforcing one’s own power and control over another.

Piecing it all together

Let’s take a look at that definition again:

Abuse is a set of coordinated and patterned behaviors with the acknowledged or unacknowledged intention of coercing or controlling another person for the purposes of meeting one’s perceived personal needs.

Abuse is about power and control. It is not about anger or something that only happens occasionally. Abuse is a systematic way of relating to a person for the purposes of undermining their agency to assert one’s own.

Understanding the mindset of a person who abuses is an important element in developing strategies of intervention, both for protecting ourselves and for offering support to others. While I hope this is a good starting point, I can’t recommend doing your own research enough. The more you know, the better equipped you are to respond.

This is Part IV in a 5-part series on creating communities of resilience and care by examining abuse and accountability. In Part V we’ll be presenting a strategy for addressing abuse in community.

Images via: Unsplash & Wikipedia