Core Characteristics of Abusive Personalities, Part 2
It’s still eerie and strange and suspicious, and still true: abusive personalities all share common traits. Last week I discussed five of them. Here are five more.
My last post began a discussion on how eerie it is that abusers are so much alike in their tactics, techniques, and traits that their motives can actually be documented and discussed—yet it’s true. Did they all go to Abuser School to learn how to manipulate others? Obviously not, yet there seems to be something inherent in abusive personalities that causes them to intuitively and naturally act in similar ways. Freaky? Uh, yeah. For sure.
Adding to the list in my last post (again adapted from my upcoming book, Don’t Plant Your Seeds Among Thorns: A Catholic’s Guide to Domestic Abuse), here are several more common traits of abusive personalities.
Abusers are, almost without exception, excellent liars. To them lying is an art, and one they’re so skilled at that they’ve reached the level of near-perfection. They can look people directly in the eye and, with a straight and even empathetic-seeming expression, tell complete falsehoods without compunction. Because of a manipulator’s deception skills, their victims are usually unaware of the lies that have been told to them.
And, as scary and psychologically off-balance as this sounds, an abuser is such an expert at lying that quite often he fools himself, honestly believing his own twisted version of things. This high level of delusion is the result of unconscious defense mechanisms combined with cognitive distortion that “alter reality in order to make it more palpable for a fragile ego … By unconsciously altering reality, the narcissist exonerates himself or herself.”1
This becomes all the more confusing when we come to recognize that lying doesn’t consist merely of telling outright untruths, but also acts of omission, deliberate vagueness, and half-truths.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) is quite firm about the sin of dishonesty:
By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity … Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive to society; it undermines trust, it tears apart the fabric of social relationships (CCC 2485, 2486).
To put it bluntly: lying destroys relationships. The gravest lie is betrayal of the marriage vow, the promise to “be true to you … to love and honor you all the days of my life.” Lying and abuse are the opposite of loving, honoring, and being true.
This is particularly difficult to detect in someone with fragile, covert, narcissistic traits, yet it’s always there. This topic can get confusing, though, because when most people hear the word “narcissistic,” they often think of the grandiose narcissist, someone who blatantly makes him or herself the dramatic center of attention.
A covert/fragile attention seeker is more difficult to spot, yet no less insistent that everything be about him. He demands emotional and all-consuming attention, and it must always on his terms—when he wants, how he wants. In conversations, he tends to talk at people, rather than to them—and he doesn’t take the hint when others try to make non-verbal gestures of boredom or frustration. Should the focus of a conversation stray to someone or something other than himself, he’ll chronically twist the topic back in the direction he desires, ensuring he’s the focus once again.
A covert/fragile attention seeker is more difficult to spot, yet no less insistent that everything be about him. He demands emotional and all-consuming attention, and it must always on his terms. Anything less is unacceptable to him—he’ll consider it a matter of “disrespect.”
Expectations of mind reading.
Abusers expect their victims to read their minds and be wholly attentive to their unspoken demands. Your spouse may expect you to act or react in a certain way, speak exactly as he demands, and give him the attention, emotion, or action that he wants—without him having to ask. You’re supposed to know instantly and automatically what he wants and when he wants it (apparently he’s forgotten that crystal balls and psychic mind-reading are forbidden by the Church). This, to him, isn’t an unrealistic expectation, impossible to fulfill, but rather a matter of “respect”—and acting “respectfully” (i.e. the way he wants you to act) is of paramount importance to him. There’s hell to pay if you don’t comply. As former domestic abuser Austin James admits of his distorted attitudes:
I very rarely verbalized my expectations to anyone yet at the same time I kept a very detailed score as to whether those expectations were being met or not. I carefully monitored other people and situations and could easily get upset whenever I didn’t see the outcome that I was looking for … It was a never-ending cycle for me: 1) have expectations, 2) don’t verbalize those expectations, and 3) be upset when those expectations were not met. Expectations trapped me in an almost daily pattern of getting angry about something or someone.2
Conversely, the abuser will assume he can read your mind. If you’re having a bad day for any reason whatsoever, he’ll feel it’s his right to jump into your head and assume your low mood is all about him. He’ll ascribe negative motives and thoughts to your most innocent and well-meaning comments or actions. He’ll tell you what you’re thinking and what you believe, and he’s nearly always way off-base—yet you can’t convince him of that. As always, he’s right and you’re wrong—even when it comes to your own mind. “A fool is right in his own eyes” (Prov 12:15).
People with abusive personalities tend to assume the worst in their partners, viewing them as an adversary rather than a lover. Your abuser may believe that all your motives, actions, and decisions have negative intentions, or that you’re deliberately trying to hurt him.
Researchers Amy Holzworth-Munroe and Glenn Hutchinson studied misattributions— flawed beliefs about someone else’s behavior—and found that abusive men were “much more likely to attribute the most negative intentions to their wives’ behavior. These men were much more likely to be convinced that she was trying to make him angry, hurt his feelings, put him down get something for herself, or pick a fight. The researchers also found that when the men perceived a situation of abandonment or rejection, they were particularly likely to respond with bad behavior.”3
It’s not his fault—nothing is. When called out on his abusive behavior, he blames his childhood, his ex, his job, stress, co-workers, or “you made me do it.” However, I repeat again—there is no excuse for abuse. No matter how damaging someone’s childhood may have been, how much stress they’re experiencing at work, or any other external circumstance, that’s not an excuse for intolerable behavior and mistreating another human being, nor is it an excuse for blame-shifting.
Most abusers won’t display all of these traits (yikes if they did) and there has to be a consistent repetition of behaviors, not just a “one-off” mistake. Abuse is a cycle and a pattern of living. Everyone has a bad day. People say things they don’t mean, but empathic and caring individuals recognize their mistakes, take care not to repeat them, and genuinely apologize (without blame or excuses). There isn’t a pattern to human mistakes. There’s no inherent cruelty. There’s no confusing, crazy-making atmosphere. If you recognize any of these traits in your relationship as a pattern and cycle, pay close attention.
Always remember 1 Peter 5:8. Be alert, be vigilant, be on your guard. Abusive tactics and manipulations are evil and destructive assaults, particularly when they’re subtle and shrouded in a false persona of caring. “It is effectively possible to destabilize or even destroy someone with seemingly harmless words and hints, inferences, and unspoken suggestions.”4
Erin Leonard, Ph.D., “Does a Narcissist Believe His or Her Own Lies?” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/peaceful-parenting/201906/does-narcissist-believe-his-or-her-own-lies (accessed April 28, 2021).
Austin James, Emotional Abuse, Silent Killer of Marriage: A 30-Year Abuser Speaks Out, 22 and 23.
David Wexler, Ph.D., When Good Men Behave Badly , 9.
Marie-France Hirigoyen, Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity, 5.