CW: dynamics of abuse (no explicit descriptions of cases, but the dynamics can be triggering if you've experienced this)
My first month as a victim advocate I helped an abuser get a restraining order against a domestic violence victim. At the time, I didn't know that's what I was doing. The person presented to court as a victim themself: they had been physically attacked, they claimed their attacker was on drugs and thus unpredictable, and they were scared for their future safety.
As a victim advocate it was my job to explain the legal process and connect them to resources, so I did. The temporary restraining order (for 30 days) was granted; at the hearing to extend the restraining order, the experienced judge poked holes in the person's story, the person reacted with rage and blame, and my mistake became clear: I had been helping the abuser use the legal system to further control their victim.
I felt sick with guilt.
I left work that day asking myself: what did I miss and how can I make sure I never miss it again?
Many of us want to think the answer to that question is simple. We want to say "believe the victim." But what if both claim they've been abused? What if there is only one victim coming forward and no one witnessed the abuse? What if it's someone we don't know well—or someone we do know well and like? What if we're trying to figure all of this out based on internet posts, absent body language or eye contact or personal knowledge?
The rest of this post is going to highlight some key lessons and helpful resources I found over the next ten years as I continued to pursue that question: what signs distinguish an abuser from a victim?
Power & Control
Abuse is not just about explicit abuse. What do I mean by that?
To feel confident about labeling something abusive we want to be able to look at behaviors—free from context—and know that the actions are abusive. Physical assault? Abuse. Violent/armed rape? Abuse. Anything else becomes a "gray area" when we talk about it.
However, abuse is less about clearly aggressive acts and more accurately understood as a pattern of power and control. This is highlighted by the power and control wheel below.
(*Note: "Using male privilege" can often be replaced with "using privilege" period; similar dynamics appear with ableism, gender-presentation, racial privilege, etc.)
A physical assault isn't just abusive because it causes physical harm, it's also abusive because it tries to control how the victim acts: if someone expresses a different opinion, and gets hit for it, they likely won't try and disagree again.
A pattern of minimization can be controlling in a similar way. If the abuser can minimize what their partner believes, they are saying they have the power to define what matters or not. In its extreme form, minimization can actually have the power to define reality: "No, you're exaggerating...that never happened."
Read more about types of abuse here.
Compare the abusive control above to the healthy relationships wheel below, which has equality at its center.
Patricia Evan's excellent book on verbal abuse illuminates this dynamic perfectly. She highlights the difference between an abusive person who wants power over their conversational partner versus someone who wants equality. Power-over people focus on winning an exchange, while equality-people focus on having an effective exchange:
"Generally the abuser isn't thinking about the pain he is inflicting by the abuse. He may 'win' a battle with manipulation or convincing put-down without his partner even realizing a battle has taken place. If she does feel put down and tells him, he will deny the abuse. He might say, for example, that his partner doesn't know what she's talking about. Does she? She wonders" (p. 38).
Evans highlights some key dynamics in verbal abuse vs. healthy communication:
Verbal abuse can be hard to detect because an equality-focused partner assumes the abusive partner is striving for the same goals; they assume they both want respect, intimacy, good will, validation, etc. When an abusive partner acts in a harmful way, it can seem like a "communication problem." That puts the equality-focused partner in the position of trying to improve what they say, or rephrasing what they say over and over, because in their mind everything can be fixed with better communication ... when really the problem stems from fundamentally different goals.
How do we apply this? Step back and look at conversations and exchanges.
Does the person treat others as their equal? Or do they belittle, talk down, or try to compete with them?
Does the person assume hostility or goodwill?
Does the person negate others or seek to understand?
Does the person take any responsibility or do they only blame others?
In a "win" dynamic, admitting any blame can be a form of losing, so many abusers avoid it. You might see fake responsibility ("I have a bad temper, but they push my buttons", etc.), but rarely do you see an acknowledgment of genuine fault. Some abusers will make elaborate apologies, but how much is focused on an accurate account of what they did wrong, vs. how much is focused on promises to do better in the future and asking for more chances?
And if their words makes you unsure of their sincerity, you can always fall back on the most fundamental form of remorse: does the behavior change?
Myths vs. Reality
Lundy Bancroft was one of the first professionals to specialize in treating abusive men. His book "Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men" is an excellent look at some of the common myths about abusive men and the reality based on his decades of working with them.
Bancroft summarizes and challenges common myths about why people are abusive. Some common myths:
I can't summarize the entire book, but there is a brief summary of the text here. If those reasons sound like excuses you've heard (or used) for someone's abusive behavior, it might be worth reading the entire text. He provides stories and research to dismantle each myth.
Bancroft also dives into the reality of the abusive mentality:
Summary of points here. In the main book, Bancroft provides a lot of detail and examples that can help you start to recognize these dynamics when you see them. As he writes:
"Abuse grows from attitudes and values, not feelings. The roots are ownership, the trunk is entitlement, and the branches are control" (p. 75).
Looking at behavior can be a starting point, but a lot of interactions happen where we can't see or could be open to interpretation. I find it more helpful to key into attitudes:
Do they seem entitled?
Do they try to control others or control the narratives about them to an extreme degree?
Do they act as if the world owes them something?
Do they excuse their actions with those common myths, e.g. claiming they "lose control" or "just have an anger problem"?
These can be yellow if not full-on red flags.
Dots Make a Picture
Taken in isolation, none of these traits automatically mean someone is abusive. But data points add up to a trend.
Let's use the Zak S. situation as an example. A lot of people have said, "I heard he was mean to people online but I didn't realize he was THIS abusive."
His online posts were verbally abusive. Consistently. Verbal abuse is a reflection of core attitudes and values. When someone has abusive attitudes and values, that is the biggest red flag they can wave. Because attitudes and values are what drive abusive behavior.
There is this myth that people are mean on the internet because they are on the internet, i.e. the medium of communication is to blame.
Research disagrees. In multiple studies, psychological assessments have linked trolling behavior to personality traits of sadism and psychopathy. (Note: this is sadism in the psychological sense of "selfishly enjoys hurting others" not in the BDSM sense where consent and boundaries are present). People who target and hurt others for enjoyment online target and hurt others for enjoyment period.
As someone who has worked professionally with sociopaths, abusers, and perpetrators of violence, this matches what I see too. People (especially adults) are more consistent in life and online than not.
And it makes sense. Abuse is driven by values, and we carry our values everywhere we go. Even online.
This is just a brief introduction to abusive dynamics. There are numerous resources to learn more: