When I talk about my abusive ex, the question I get the most is not, “Why did you stay,” but “Why did you begin?”
It’s a question that makes me feel a proper idiot. Yes, I should have known. But no, I didn’t. Am I the only person this happens to?
According to the World Health Organization, more than one out of every three women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime; in some countries it is seven out of ten. If I am an idiot, at least I have a lot of company.
(NB: Unless hundreds of millions of women are shacking up with the same eight guys, which seems unlikely, then my ex has a lot of company too.)
The four abusive men I have known come from a wide cross-section of society. They are from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. They are Christian, Muslim, Catholic, and Atheist. One has almost no education, one finished high school, one has an undergraduate degree, and one has a graduate degree. One is wealthy. One is middle-class. One is economically humble but socially aristocratic. One is too poor to have running water.
Despite their many differences, they have exactly six things in common, six “red flags” that I missed because they are so opposite to the usual stereotypes about abusive men.
If you have ever asked a woman, “Why did you stay” or “Why did you begin,” then these are six things you do not know.
1. An abusive man is strikingly feminine.
He perceives his femininity and it terrifies him. It’s why he tries so hard, but fails, to make friends with hyper-masculine men. And it is — obviously — why he needs to assert himself over his female partner.
The abusive man is the one who joins the army with voluble bravado but gets himself assigned to logistics. He’s the one at the gym who won’t lifts weights while anyone else is watching.
He loves to talk about his guy friends but there aren’t that many of them; most of his friends are women — and they, should they not fancy him for themselves, are only too eager to set him up as they think he’s quite the catch.
Desperate to assert his two-dimensional concept of heteronormative masculinity, an abusive man won’t touch a woman’s hair or zip up her dress or hold her purse while she goes to the restroom. Sex with him is incredibly fraught, if it happens at all. Signs of menstruation send him into hysterics.
An abusive man won’t tolerate his partner dressing androgynously; he needs her to be pronouncedly gendered-female — in part so he can be decisively masculine in comparison and in part so he can vicariously enjoy her stiletto heels.
2. An abusive man is loved by all.
He is warm, friendly, interesting, and probably handsome. He is successful with women. He is endearing to older people. He loves animals, especially puppies and kittens.
His generosity tends, like a hyperbolic arch, to encompass friends, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers, and even, sometimes, people he specifically dislikes, but it will take an infinity to reach the straight and simple line that is the woman in his life. Yes, he jumps to bag the groceries for the clerk – but he hands his partner the bag for her to carry. Yes, he picks up the tab, very publicly, at big dinners – but he puts the charge on her credit card, not his.
At work, he is tapped for promotions that he doesn’t deserve and that he isn’t qualified for just because he is so charismatic and well-liked. Too bad that at home he drops that likable, approval-craving persona and becomes The Examiner.
Do you love him? Do you really? Then prove it. Prove it again. WHY ARE YOU NOT PROVING IT HARD ENOUGH?
If at some point his partner tries, in a confused and hesitant way, to tell one of their mutual friends — by this point she will have no friends of her own — that something’s not quite right, they don’t believe her.
Because they love him. And no one — NO ONE — sees herself or himself as (1) an abuser; or (2) someone who would be friends with an abuser.
An abusive relationship requires an entire community to be in denial.
3. An abusive man believes he is the one being abused.
Read that again. I’m not saying he thinks he has the right to abuse a woman (though he does think that) or that he thinks he is in the right for abusing her (though of course he thinks that too), I’m saying he actually thinks she abused him first and that his abuse of her is self-defense.
For example: He wanted you to buy him socks but you bought him the wrong pair of socks. He felt really sad about not being loved enough to have received the right pair of socks from you, his one and only, therefore he smashed your head into a wall.
To be fair, some people are sensitive about their footwear.
In the abuser’s mind, he is — unequivocally — the aggrieved party. His partner made him feel bad. Ergo he reacted. Because she started it, therefore it’s her fault. The heart, don’t you know, is more easily bruised than the body. She will heal; he might not.
This is why, despite what you see in the movies, an abusive man will almost never beg his partner to take him back. To beg would imply culpability, and he has none.
4. An abusive man is highly ethical.
It is widely accepted that a man is abusive because, in part, he is insecure. To (over)compensate for his insecurities he imagines, or pretends to imagine, that he is better than other people.
An abusive man might be devoutly religious. He might be passionate about human rights. Definitely he will hate injustice. Probably he will go out of his way to denounce violence against women.
‘If a guy ever touched my sister,’ he likes to say, ‘I’d break his face.’
And no, he does not see the irony in that (ref: point 3).
Having a moral code is useful because an abusive man is one angry guy; an ethical stance allows him to believe that his fury is righteous.
Please note: a woman will not detect this anger right away. It is subtle, and sub-dermal; like one of those bacterial infections that everyone thinks is no big deal until it turns out it’s resistant to all known antibiotics and then oh yeah it’s flesh-eating too and the only way to kill it is to cut off your leg.
Which is basically a metaphor for the financial settlement a woman can expect when she leaves an abusive man (ref: point 6).
5. An abusive man loves you more than anyone else in the world.
He is a hopeless romantic. The waiter, the ticketing agent, and the guy who piles the beets at the farmers’ market all know how much the abusive man loves his partner. She is perfect. She is divine. It was love at first sight and he wants to live with her together forever in perfect harmony.
If she does anything to screw up this utopia he will choke her. Or ignore her for weeks. Or shag someone else. Or break something she loved.
The one thing he will not do is have a rational conversation about his displeasure because an abusive man is non-confrontational. He has emotional explosions, yes, but these are explicit, unexpected, up-ending affairs that are intentionally too chaotic for anyone but him to participate in. A woman has no recourse to, and no recourse from, an abusive man’s affection.
It is impossible to overstate how confusing it is to be utterly adored by the person who hates you the most.
6. An abusive man almost always wins.
I know that’s not fair but it’s true.
The thing is, an abusive man needs control. He is afraid of flying, of death, of poverty, and of being made to look a fool; he absolutely will not accept rejection.
He will start early, while still in the honeymoon stage, to lay the groundwork for how he will make his partner pay if she leaves him. By the time she realizes her predicament it will be too late to get back the money she spent, to have children with someone else, to invest her youth in some worthier project, or to get a restraining order that sticks.
Not to mention that, given the duality of her life with him, it’s the woman who will bear the social consequences of the separation. She will become The Skag Who Left That Super Guy and Destroyed Their Happy Life. He will become That Poor Man We Ought to Have Over for Dinner.
A bit of advice if these six characteristics sound familiar
First, forget the stereotypes. Forget Hollywood. Listen to your gut. Don’t listen to fairy tales and novels. Don’t listen to your friends. Don’t even listen to your mother.
Do, however, listen closely, between the lines, to your man’s own mother. She may love him…but if he’s abusive she probably doesn’t like him all that much. She will give you hints.
Second, when in doubt, leave. People don’t change. It’s tempting to give second chances but before you do, ask yourself: this thing I’m so angry about, is this something that I, too, might have done to him in a moment of weakness?
I don’t mean in an alternate universe. I mean, would you have done it last week, knowing how much it would have hurt him?
If the answer is no, then let him go. You know he won’t have any trouble replacing you. After all, he’s one of the greatest guys you’ve ever met.