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Voices / Viewpoint

An abuser’s agenda

Contrary to myths and excuses, perpetrators are not out of control; they’re actually obsessed with staying in it

The Women’s Freedom Center (womensfreedomcenter.net; facebook.com/womensfreedomcenter) is the local organization in Windham County and southern Windsor County working to end domestic and sexual violence. Women in danger can reach an advocate at the agency’s 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954. Because of the sensitive and often dangerous nature of their work, we offer the Freedom Center advocates very rare anonymity in these pages.

Brattleboro

Whenever domestic violence homicide makes the news, we all get a brief look at the most extreme form of an abuser’s sense of entitlement. But his victim likely experienced a whole range of control tactics well before that fatal moment.

Across the country, thousands of women work to stay alive despite graphic death threats, and every day three more batterers become killers.

Because we’re all downstream of this potential safety hazard, it’s worth understanding a batterer’s M.O.

* * *

Contrary to myths and excuses, perpetrators are not out of control; they’re actually obsessed with staying in it. Their whole aim is essentially to get and keep power over a partner.

Typically self-absorbed, possessive, and extremely jealous, abusers see themselves as the victim, and minimize, deny, or blame others for their own behavior. They tend to hold very sexist views of women and use stereotypic gender roles to justify their deeds.

While the public and private personalities of batterers might differ dramatically, it’s important to realize that most do not have an underlying mental illness — and they might present to outsiders as quite stable, competent, charming, and even progressive.

Their ability to do so is likely how they impressed their partner at first, and this huge public/private contrast can make it much harder for victims to come forward and feel they’ll be believed.

Abusers also tend to be skillful manipulators, who use a hidden backdrop of emotional, physical, and sexual tactics to keep their partner afraid, overwhelmed, and often silenced.

Even when there is no overt violence, an abuser’s subtler tactics are always in operation. He might demand most of his victim’s time yet critique most everything about her; he might isolate her from support systems and financial resources, sabotage her educational and professional potential, or even use the children as ongoing pawns in this power dynamic.

Even a single blow or threat of harm will continue to function as a reminder in that relationship from then on — even during spells of relative quiet.

Abusers often blame drugs or alcohol for their behavior, but while these might exacerbate the problem, they do not cause it. Many abusers don’t drink at all, and those who do typically aren’t beating up random pedestrians, friends, or co-workers.

Batterings are premeditated: batterers intentionally address their violence toward partners and family, and usually in private.

But as headlines bear out, the violence doesn’t always stay home. Three quarters of all domestic violence homicides occur once the victim decides to leave, or has recently left.

* * *

As a community, we need to recognize all the ways a batterer might be trapping his victim and explore how we can be helpful to her in the process of leaving. Because leaving usually is a process, not an event, and because it’s for good reason, it’s the most dangerous time in the whole relationship. Therefore, it must be handled with extreme care.

And unlike with stranger violence, batterers tend to have repeated access to their victims, especially if they have children, so it’s critical that safety be woven into every resource and conversation a victim has.

Any superficial analysis of domestic violence tends to work to a batterer’s advantage; he’ll actively try to use others to help carry out his agenda, whether it’s through loved ones, police, the court, or other players.

And even if we all help one victim get to safety, the sobering fact remains: batterers are serial offenders. They move from victim to victim and engage in similar behavior.

They must be held accountable at every turn.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #313 (Wednesday, July 8, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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