There are different forms of abuse; physical and psychological abuse of others; physical and psychological abuse of self, and these abuse forms can manifest in different ways too. Why do people abuse others and themselves? To understand this we must first look at the psychology of the abuser.
This is no easy task, and experts have spent decades studying the nuances of the human psyche to figure out what makes a person abusive and why people abuse. Are there core personality traits which predispose people toward abuse, or is abuse a learned behavior?
What is abuse?
Abuse is defined as the improper use of something or someone, but the definition does little to convey what abuse really is when it comes to interactions between people.
Abuse can be broken down into different categories, according to Kids Health, and these categories are:
- Physical abuse: Any abuse which causes physical injury; bruises, cuts, broken bones; biting; choking; throwing; etc. Physical abuse is the most easily recognizable form of abuse.
- Sexual abuse: Initiating unwanted sexual contact with another person, or overpowering another person for sexual purposes. Sexual contact between and adult and anyone under the age of 18 is considered sexual abuse by the definition of the law.
- Emotional abuse: One of the most difficult forms of abuse to identify, emotional abuse can cause just as much pain as physical abuse and has much longer lasting effects.
- Neglect: The most over-looked form of abuse, neglect occurs when basic life necessities are not met such as those related to housing, clothing, food, hygiene, or emotional support.
- Self-abuse: As the name implies, self-abuse is when an individual inflicts pain or suffering to their own person. This is usually the result of an underlying condition, and is not usually included when people talk about someone who is “abusive.”
When people think about abuse, they often think about family situations; spousal abuse and child abuse. Abuse is not limited to families, however, and people who work together, develop friendships or spend significant time together can also be participants in an abusive relationship.
Abuse statistics are eye-opening:
- Every 2 minutes, according to RAINN, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted.
- 44 percent of victims are under the age of 18 in sexual assaults; 80 percent are under the age of 30.
- 1 in 4 women has experienced domestic violence.
- Women account for 85% of the victims of intimate partner violence, men for approximately 15%.
- Low-income individuals are at a higher risk for domestic violence.
- Approximately 2 million people call crisis hotlines annually regarding violence.
- Everyday, approximately 3 women and 1 man are murdered by romantic partners in the United States.
- Approximately 50 percent of men who assault their partners also assault their children.
- As many as 10 million children witness domestic violence annually.
- Men and women engage in comparable levels of abuse and control, though women are more likely to use emotional manipulation whereas men use sexual coercion and physical dominance.
Why do people abuse? Nature versus nurture
So what is behind the psychology of an abuser? Why do people abuse? Are people who abuse others born with this tendency or is it something they are conditioned to through their own experiences of abuse?
“While it is important to realize that not all abusers were abused as children, and that many if not most people who are abused do not go on to become abusers themselves, child abuse is most likely the single largest risk factor –biological, psychological, or sociocultural – for later adult abusive behavior,” David M. Allen, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus, University of Tennessee Health Science Center, tells Saludify.
Dr. Allen explains significant family dysfunction of one sort or another is almost always present in the backgrounds of repetitive abusers. These dysfunctional patterns often do not stop when abused children grow up, but continue in modified form as long as the involved parents are still living.
While abuse tends to be cyclical in nature, people who become abusers do exhibit similar characteristics, those these personality traits vary depending on the form of abuse seen.
For example, in cases of domestic violence, a common type of couple seen by therapists is a male with “narcissistic personality disorder” traits and a female with so called “borderline personality disorder” traits.
Dr. Allen states this is a particularly volatile type of couple because strong emotions are easily aroused, and each member of the couple feeds into the other’s insecurities. Those with “narcissistic” traits often feel duty bound to be in charge and take care of others while simultaneously being starved for admiration. Those with “borderline” traits can be help-rejecting complainers who usually seem both miserable and unappreciative. While the male is typically the one who becomes violent, this is not always the case.
“Like many bullies, an abuser uses physical threats or actions when feeling impotent, frustrated,” says Herold J. Kreisman, M.D., co-author of I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality, and, Sometimes I Act Crazy: Living With Borderline Personality Disorder. “Borderline personality traits may be characterized by explosive impulsivity and extreme mood changes that whipsaw from loving feelings to hateful feelings when frustrated or angry. Drugs and alcohol unfasten controls, which may lead to abuse.”
It is important to note, however, that not everyone who has narcissistic personality traits or borderline personality disorder becomes abusive, just as not all children who are abused go on to become abusive as adults. The nuances of how and why someone becomes abusive is all a part of the psychology of an abuser.
In conclusion, the experts indicate to Saludify the human species as a whole certainly has some genetic propensity towards violence, and all behavior has a genetic component, but most repetitive interpersonal patterns seen in individuals – such as repetitive abuse – are learned and/or thought out.
Individuals who grow up in dysfunctional families often begin to act out specific roles that include a type of abuse. These roles are then validated and encouraged by the parents, albeit somewhat subconsciously.
Why do people abuse themselves?
Because self-abuse is still a form of abuse, it is important to create a distinction between it and the other forms of abuse mentioned. People who self-abuse do so in many ways, often through chemical abuse and self-mutilation, but also through other means like those associated with eating disorders.
People who self-abuse do so for very different reasons compared to people who abuse others, and self-abuse is seen more as a severe form of communication rather than a behavioral trait.
“Unlike people who abuse other people, self-abusers may not have been abused themselves – as children or adults. This is important for families to understand lest they blame themselves or search for an abuser,” explains to Saludify Lloyd I. Sederer, MD, Medical Director at the NYS Office of Mental Health and Adjunct Professor, Columbia/Mailman School of Public Health.
He adds, self-abuse does not reveal any specific character profile. Experts know from self-reports of people who abuse themselves that they suffer great psychic pain and/or dissociation from which the abuse can provide transient relief, and that they often loathe themselves for reasons they may not understand. Some, of course, were sexually and physically abused and sustain their victimization with self-abuse. Friends and family should also see the abusive behavior as a communication, an indirect but very strong call for help.
“I know of no evidence that self-abuse is innate,” says Sederer. “The brain circuitry by which pain is mediated and can be rerouted from psychic to somatic is innate, as is the release of endorphins (neurochemicals that relieve pain and produce well-being). The behavior is learned – but in complex ways that space does not permit us to discuss.”
How can people recognize an abuser?
Most people ask “why do people abuse?” in aims to learn the warning signs of an abuser. While it is not fair to go around classifying people as abusers without first-hand experience or knowledge of their abuse, BatteredWomen.com indicates there are warning signs individuals should be aware of when it comes to a potentially abusive situation.
The psychology of an abuser often means the display of certain behaviors.
People who abuse others can be found in all socioeconomic groups and races and often exhibit these patterns:
- Are usually male, although there are female abusers too.
- Have short tempers.
- Seem emotionally dependent.
- Want instant gratification.
- Have an insatiable ego.
- Have low self-esteem.
- Make frequent promises to improve.
- Perceives themselves as socially inadequate.
- Becomes jealous easily.
- Isolates significant others from friends and family.
- Ignores or lacks awareness of personal boundaries.
- Believes forcible behavior is acceptable if it’s for the greater good.
- Feels no guilt after explosive episodes.
- Demanding and assaultive during sexual activities.
- Uses “playful” force during sex.
- Uses threats to control another individual.
- Can switch between abuse forms depending on which tactics are most effective.
- Blames others for the abuse when it happens.
- Abuse worsens or only occurs when chemical abuse is underway.
- Objectifies women.
- Maintains tight control over finances.
- Exhibits cruelty toward animals.
- Uses children as means of manipulation.
- Makes the abused appear “crazy;” demeaning toward partner in front of others.
- Makes a joke out of the violent situation.
- Quick to become involved in relationships.
- Are alcohol or drug users.
- May have a fascination with weapons.
Where can abusers go to get help?
It is very difficult for an abuser to acknowledge they have a problem which needs to be addressed. These individuals have gone through life getting what they want at great cost to others and little cost to themselves. It is a system which is effective for them; it bestows feelings of power and control, and many people who are abusive have no desire to give these feelings up — many are not even aware they are abusers.
But if an abuser has reached the point where they acknowledge their behavior has chased away all they love and they are ready to seek help, where should they go? Most help centers for abuse tend to focus on the victim.
Abusers need psychological aid just as much as do victims, and for this reason, someone who is abusive can also benefit from calling a victim’s hotline. The qualified individuals on the other end will direct abusers to local experts who can help them overcome the need to abuse.
National hotlines include:
National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233)
National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE)
National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD)
SAFE Alternatives (1-800-DONTCUT)