Characteristics of Abusers

I read a blog post (randomly) this morning in connection with a book review. The book is: Mending the Soul: understanding and healing abuse. In it, Steven R. Tracy identifies four general characteristics of abusers.

As I read the post, I strongly identified with every word.

You see, I was emotionally, verbally, mentally and at times physically abused in a 27-year-long marriage before I realized that God did NOT expect me to live that way for the rest of my life. A very rigid religious upbringing convinced me that I had to stay. I'm not saying that a person was telling me specifically, at every juncture, that I had to endure abuse. But I WAS told specifically that I would not be free in the sight of God to be married to anyone else. And I was offered no tools, no guidance, and virtually no understanding by those who counseled me; until I found a Christian counselor by the name of Floyd Dawson. And during the four years that I received counsel from Floyd (outside the religious group I was raised in), I began to see that I was enabling the abuse and had to learn how to respond differently if I ever wanted it to stop. And I had to risk the collapse of the marriage in order to do this because my desire to become a healthier person would be resisted by the abuser. Things would get rougher before they could ever get better, IF any healthy change followed at all.

I didn't go into any of the marital abuse in my book, Breaking the Chains. Readers who knew those details often expressed surprise that I didn't. And I have explained that the topic of my first book was spiritual abuse. I felt that the marital abuse would only distract the reader from the intended message and theme. And if I were to write a book about the marital abuse I suffered and overcame, it would be a book all its own. It would not be a sideline or a couple of chapters in Breaking the Chains.

But I also felt compassion for my abuser. I had no desire to humiliate him by sharing gory details of my abuse in a book. I did not harbor animosity. I felt pity for him. And not in a contemptuous way. I always knew he was his own worst enemy and I always hoped he might see that and change his behavior. Mostly, I hoped this for the sake of my son and grandsons. But I also held out this hope for him personally.

He had asked forgiveness more than once and had acknowledged in writing, "You deserved better." That had been healing for me. I did not need to be validated by him any longer. The repentance came long after the bitter, nasty divorce. And long after I was very happily remarried. But, as I tried to explain to my loving husband of today, "The acknowledgment that I deserved better is not healing to me because the words are coming from an ex-spouse, but because they are coming from my abuser. An abuser always makes their victim feel responsible for their actions. I was always blamed for his behavior. And someone like me, who is always trying to make relationships better and constantly feeling 'not good enough' to accomplish that, is an easy target for false guilt. My abuser is acknowledging (after years of blaming me) that his behavior was not my fault and I did not deserve it. Although I have recognized this for quite some time, it is in some way helpful in my healing process that he is acknowledging it. I can't completely make anyone understand who has not been abused. But it makes forgiveness easier."

An abuser convinces their victim that they deserve to be treated badly and no one will ever treat them better. An abused woman, because she is badgered, belittled and beaten down verbally and emotionally almost daily, accepts this as her reality. It has been almost ten years (in August) since I left that abuse. I have been in a wonderful, loving, fulfilling, respectful relationship for the last nine years. And my abuser has been deceased for almost a year. But I still have the occasional nightmare that I am back in that life and suffering abuse. And I still can't hardly believe that God has blessed me with the man I am married to today. I must not have believed I deserved to be treated better because it still feels surreal, even after all these years, to be treated so well.

Because of my own experiences with abuse, I deeply relate to those who have been victims of all kinds of abuse. I have a visceral reaction when victims are re-victimized; when their characters and motives for coming forward are questioned with cynicism and contempt. I don't struggle with a temper very often, but watching victims suffer for sharing their abuse this way makes me very angry. Very, very angry. I did not suffer sexual abuse, but I know what it feels like to be used, abused, manipulated, objectified, dominated and exploited. And I will never forget how much it hurts and how hopeless it feels. There was a time when I didn't think it mattered to God that I was suffering these things because He didn't seem to intervene. I had one parent who influenced me to believe that the minor details of my life were inconsequential to God. And I had another parent who prayed for a good parking space. It was confusing. And until the last nine years, I didn't think God cared much how I was treated. I just thought He expected me to "buck up" and deal with it.

I owe so much to Floyd Dawson and his careful counseling. Although he never urged me to leave my abusive marriage or my abusive church, he validated my decisions when I was finally able to make them myself. It took four years, but I finally (thank God!) believed that God did not want me to be abused.

I felt inspired by what I read this morning to share all of this. My abuse is behind me and I have healed dramatically, although I still see little cracks and insecurities emerge from time to time (which I recognize as after effects from so many years of living that way). But I will never completely cease to share my story because I've had so many women tell me that my story has given them hope. And I am frequently told that my ability to relate and understand what they have lived through has helped them feel less crazy, less responsible, less co-dependent with an abuser. A victim struggles not to blame herself for a bad outcome. If you've read my book, you know that I struggled with terrible anxiety and crying jags for a period of time after I left, worrying incessantly that God was mad at me for leaving. I had to know that He wasn't. And He so completely gave me assurance that He had rescued me.

John (my husband) told me once that I should launch a website offering online relational support to victims of marital abuse. Since I'm not a licensed professional counselor, I'm not sure I'm qualified. Many have urged me to write my "other" book. But even though my abuser is dead, I am reluctant to share the worst. I don't want to relive it the way you have to when you write about it. But it also feels like I'm beating up on a person who has already self-destructed. Ironically, I never could have left this man except when he was king of the mountain and feeling at the height of his power. In that brief moment, he didn't need me. I recognized the window of opportunity and I climbed out. I knew I could never have left him when he was in a depression or at his lowest. And I knew that day would come again. I remember my counselor telling me in one conversation that I felt responsible for him in a way a mother feels responsible for her child. Oh, I learned so much in counseling. And Floyd gave me tools I use to this day. I've shared many of them on my blog.

This has gotten quite lengthy. But I believe there is a reason why I'm feeling inspired to go into all of this. Especially now, at a time when I'm so free from abuse and enjoying the good life God has blessed me with. Someone needs to read this. I don't know who or why or when. But I have a feeling someone is going to write to me and tell me. That's how it always happens when I feel this kind of inspiration. And I'm often surprised by who. It isn't always a stranger.

Here is the information I wanted to share from the blog I read this morning. I hope it helps someone to define their own situation and find help.


"The application of these characteristics extends beyond sexual abuse to all forms of abuse. They are also useful for protecting people who are in potential marriage relationships. If you read what follows and believe the person you’re with is a potential abuser, seek counsel and accountability immediately. Don’t downplay or ignore what you see. Save yourself and many others untold trouble by seeking help from a trusted counselor." (Steve Cornell ~ WisdomForLife)

Four general characteristics of abusers

1. Pervasive denial of responsibility

“The single most consistent characteristic of abusers is their utter unwillingness to accept full responsibility for their behavior.” (Tracy)

Abusers are full of excuses, rationalizations, and justifications for their abusive behavior. They play the blame game by projecting on others responsibility for their actions.

 2. Bold deceitfulness:

Tracy identified this as a “skill” abusers use to “maintain their innocence, avoid the discomfort of changing long-established patterns of behavior, escape the painful consequences of their actions, assuage their own nagging consciences.”

Abusers create their own self-serving reality and expect others to affirm it. They can be “masterful at manipulating words and actions to confuse, confound, and put others on the defensive.”

3. Harsh judgmentalism:

To deflect attention away from themselves, abusers will often be very judgmental and harsh toward others. They use this mechanism to maintain their “moral facade” and to perpetuate denial of responsibility. They replace their shame with blame to escape a guilty conscience.

“This harsh judgmentalism is also a godless method for unrepentant abusers to deal with their own shame, much of which is a gracious, God-given, internal witness to their sin…” (Tracy)

Legalistic religious communities can be both breeding grounds and havens of protection for undercover abusers. Communities with gospel clarity where people celebrate God’s grace in a context of humble transparency will not be safe places for abusers.

4. Calculated intimidation:

As can be seen, abusers lives are “built around twisting reality” and “avoiding consequences.” Their weapon of choice for keeping people from knowing the truth about them and their abuse is intimidation. Abusers are notorious for threatening their victims into silence and submission. But they also use what might be viewed as a positive means of manipulation. Abusers target people who are needy or come from difficult homes. They buy them gifts and shower them with affirmation as a means to control and abuse them.

It’s not surprising that some abusers are drawn to religious communities with hierarchies of authority. The Catholic priests who abused young boys leveraged their authority to intimidate their victims. Power without accountability can easily lead to corruption and abuse. The lack of accountability among coaches and in Churches encourage abusers to pursue these contexts.

Additional traits:

An abuser often has an inordinate need for affirmation and praise. This usually connects with deeper levels of insecurity or histories of rejection. It is displayed in a tendency to project onto the words or actions of others motives and messages of acceptance or rejection. Abusers also typically have unhealthy attachment and detachment issues. They generally refuse to seek help and prohibit their victims from seeking help.

Their deep fear of rejection makes abusers unpredictable and volatile. It’s common for them to carry inner rage that they periodically unleash on those close to them. Not surprisingly, abusers have difficulty admitting to failure or weakness. But, after unleashing rage on others, it’s not uncommon for them to become profusely apologetic to atone for the damage they’ve caused and to manipulate their victims. Any repentance that does not lead to change must be seen as a means of manipulation (see: Seven signs of true repentance).

Some of the characteristics of abusers can be found to certain degrees in most people. Parents must correct their children when they exhibit behaviors associated with abuse. Children learn early in life how to avoid responsibility for their actions, blame others and manipulate those around them — even their parents. Firmly correct them if they tend to bully others to establish feelings of superiority or to make fun of others to feel better about themselves. Help them see through their selfish motivation and lead them to build their security in God’s love displayed in Christ and exemplified through your love for them.

Because abusers prey on vulnerable people, victims often enable their abusers by making excuses for their behavior. If you are doing this, please break free from the deception and recognize that it is neither loving nor wise to allow yourself to remain in an abusive relationship. Insist on getting help whether your abuser is willing or not.

Another list of characteristics:


■Low self-esteem
 ■Extremely jealous and possessive
 ■Dual personality – alternating between extreme tenderness and extreme aggressiveness
 ■Inability to cope with anger and stress
 ■ Extreme mood swings
 ■Grew up in an abusive home
 ■Socially isolated – has few friends
 ■Very poor communication skills
 ■Suspicious – makes accusations
 ■Forcefully controlling
 ■Believes in using violence to solve problems or have fun 
 ■Abuses alcohol and drugs
 ■Blames, belittles, humiliates, intimidates, shames and threatens
 ■Can be very charismatic


Jennifer said…
Wow Shari this is my husband! We are currently getting divorced and I have just recently started realizing how abusive he was to me over the whole course of our relationship. It was more mental abuse than physical but just this month he left bruises on my face, and he also went to jail. It is good to read this and know that I was not the problem. It is so refreshing to be away from him and be with my family, I feel like I am detoxing from him and it's wonderful!
Shari said…
Jennifer, I'm thankful that you are out of your abusive relationship. Abusers do their best to shift responsibility and blame others for their wrongs. I understand exactly what you're talking about and the relief of seeing your situation for what it was and is. Congratulations on being back with your family! And thanks for your comment.