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His Ex Was a Monster ... Or So You've Been Told
If he tells you his ex was so terrible that now he's damaged and "can't help" acting the way he does, watch out.
Another common and telltale sign that your partner may be abusive—and one you can often notice during that tricky dating stage when everything is still bubbly wine and roses—is if he harbors resentment toward his ex and speaks of her in highly negative terms. If this is the case in your relationship, chances are you’re dealing with a manipulatively abusive personality.
Why? Couldn’t it be that he just happens to have a truly horrible ex (or a series of them)?
Sure. Some people have rotten exes. But the venomous stories of victimhood or the scathing commentaries about his ex’s horrific personality are a different story (not to mention the frequency in which the ex is mentioned).
If your partner talks about his ex in disdainful, disrespectful, and monstrous terms, that’s a sign he’s not seeing her as a human being, but as a personal possession. She’s someone who has triggered his underlying feelings of shame and worthlessness, particularly if she was the one who left the relationship, so he has to hide from those feelings and protect himself from his unbearable emotions by turning her into the monster.
All these thought processes and cognitive distortions simmer beneath the surface of his psyche and often aren’t things he’s aware of. And because he’s not conscious of these distorted thought patterns, the abuser eventually comes to believe his self-created sense of reality.
Venomous stories of victimhood and talking about his ex in disdainful, demeaning ways is a sign that he’s not seeing her as a human being but as an object who hurt him, so in his mind she must be bad.
In my blog post “He’s Abusive Because He was Abused,” I promised to follow up on what Lundy Bancroft calls “Myth #2” in his list of “The Myths About Abusers”:
“He had a previous partner who mistreated him terribly, and now he has a problem with women as a result. He’s a wonderful man, and that bitch made him get like this.”
First, we’re all endowed with God-given free will—no one can “make” another person into an abuser. Abusing someone is a choice.
Second, although it may be true that some men have had horrible exes, it’s also true that using this as an excuse for abuse is a common manipulative tactic. In conducting interviews with hundreds of domestic abuse victims/survivors, across three separate survivor platforms, I discovered that with the exception of three participants, every woman reported that their abuser claimed to have had crazy, cheating exes who caused them immense damage (which points toward projection).
And of the three who didn’t report this behavior, all three stated that their abuser didn’t have any previous exes because they’d been together since they were teenagers.
The skilled offender will only reveal things about himself that evoke a useful response, such as sympathy. He will tell his target that he was abused himself as a child, or that his previous partner was a bitch. It is a serious error to allow abusers to anaylse and explain why they behave badly. The ability of these men to exaggerate or even invent stories about their past is matched by our tendency to look for explanations we can grasp.
(Don Hennessy, How He Gets Into Her Head)
I was also able to verify Bancroft’s observation that “in the most common version of this story, the man recounts how his ex-partner broke his heart by cheating on him, perhaps with several different men.”
This is also used as an excuse for the over-the-top jealousy that is a “major, huge huge red flag” of an abuser. The manipulative man quite often attempts to shelter himself within the tactic of excuse and blame by claiming, “ ‘It’s because my ex-partner hurt me so badly by cheating on me so many times, and that’s why I’m so jealous and can’t trust you.’ ”
It’s sad and excruciating if anyone is treated this way, but infidelity in a past relationship is never an excuse to take it out on an innocent victim. Also, due to cognitive distortions, abusive individuals typically see infidelity where infidelity doesn’t exist, making up “worst-case scenarios” in their minds and obsessing over them until they honestly feel their own made-up stories are true.
According to domestic violence expert Donald Dutton, abusive people “are pathologically jealous, drawing ludicrous conclusions about nonexistent extramarital affairs. They don’t merely react to events, but create a different view of the world in which emotional bumps become earthquakes.”
Abuse destroys trust. And faith. And hope. And love.
Think of it this way: his brain is broken, and unless he makes an internal, authentic effort to fix it, with all the arduous work that entails, his brain will always be broken.
It’s very typical for a manipulative man to begin a smear campaign against his partner when she finally decides to break free and leave him. He’ll attempt to discredit her amongst family, friends, and—well, anyone who will listen, and even those who prefer not to—by spreading lies about how abusive she was, how crazy she still is, how much of a bitch and a cheater, how manipulative and back-stabbing, etc.
This is done to soothe his own sense of wounded self.
Being abandoned is one of his core fears, and when it actually happens, his sense of shame and worthlessness goes into hyperactive overdrive. In order to protect himself from his own unbearable feelings, he convinces himself that he was the victim, not the other way around.
He can’t see his role in the demise of his relationship, because he doesn’t want to see it. It’s too painful for him to acknowledge the truth, look it in the eye, and fix what’s broken. And so he’s doomed to repeat the same pattern, again and again.
Being abandoned is one of his core fears, and when it actually happens, his sense of shame and worthlessness goes into hyperactive overdrive.
Again, even though this is incomprehensible to others, he honestly believes his own lies and distortions of reality. This is due to a “rigid unconscious defensive structure” and “unconscious distortions and defenses” provoked by a desperate need to avoid that burning, horrific sense of shame that lurks deep inside most abusive personalities. It also serves to “alter reality in order to make it more palpable for a fragile ego.” In order to soothe that unbearable sense of insignificance and being unlovable, an abuser “often unconsciously incorporates a victim stance.”
This level of distortion is scary, yet true—and it’s also extremely difficult for the victim to deal with. As the victim of domestic abuse and the target of your partner’s ongoing cognitive distortions, questions naturally swirl and swelter inside your head.
You want to believe the best of him. You want to maintain faith that he’s always truthful and honest and wonderful.
But then … things happen. Doubts niggle. Intuition begins perking up again. And you wonder: should you believe your abuser’s smear campaign against his ex and continue to feel sorry for him and his sufferings (which means continuing to allow yourself to be abused), or should you view his tale as a severe cognitive distortion (one he’s not even aware of because he has so thoroughly lied to himself as well as to others), and deal with that issue accordingly?
Ah, but those are the wrong questions to ask! What really matters is that mantra I keep repeating: There is no excuse for abuse. Whether or not a smear campaign against his ex is purposeful and conscious makes no difference whatsoever (and trust me, if/when you’re the “ex,” a smear campaign will likely be waged against you, as well). To again quote Lundy Bancroft:
“The instant he uses [his ex] as an excuse to mistreat you, stop believing anything he tells you about that relationship and instead recognize it as a sign that he has problems relating to women … Whether he presents himself as the victim of an ex-partner, or of his parents, the abuser’s aim—though perhaps unconscious—is to play on your compassion, so that he can avoid dealing with his problem.”
(Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?)
Don’t fall for it. Give your compassion to yourself and your own healing. You deserve to be treated with love and respect, not with coercive control and cruel mistreatment. If he won’t deal with his problem head-on, without excuse or blame, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to help him. You can’t fill his bottomless well of need. You can’t love him into good behavior. For the sake of self-preservation please, please stop trying.