Understanding the Psychology Behind Why Abusers Abuse
Why would we fall in love with an abuser? This is a great question. And one I can answer. Because of what we experienced in childhood. And something called ‘trauma bonding.’ We subconsciously seek out people who mirror what we experienced in childhood. We may call it love at first, but after the honeymoon period is over, abuse sets in.
The most confusing thing about domestic violence and abuse is the fact that we find ourselves loving people who hurt us. This so often stems from early childhood experiences. Our caretakers, who were supposed to show us love and support, used power, control and violence to raise us. This leaves us traumatised, and unless we do deep healing work, attracting relationships into our lives that mirror our abusive relationships from childhood. Most likely, severe psychological issues such as personality disorders are involved.
Abuse is all about power and control. The more control and power you have over yourself, the less someone else has over you. Recovering from abuse is all about self-empowerment. Abuse is nothing more than one person trying to have power and control over another. By removing a person’s free will, autonomy and authenticity, abusers feel powerful and in control.
What we need to remember is that most abusers also suffer from personality disorders due to their abusive childhoods. They feel disempowered and out of control on the inside, so they try to inflict power and control to other people in the outside world. Because of this chaos and powerlessness – and their quest to quell this – they often lack empathy or remorse for their actions. They will do anything and everything to feel powerful and in control. Nothing you can do or say will change them. Unless they actively heal their childhood trauma and wounds, they will never stop abusing. You must leave them behind and heal yourself. It is not your job to save them.
Personality Disorders & Abuse
Personality disorders are psychological conditions that begin in adolescence or early adulthood, continue over many years, and, when left untreated, can cause a great deal of distress. Persons with documented childhood abuse or neglect were more than four times as likely as those who were not abused or neglected to be diagnosed with personality disorders during early adulthood after age. (Childhood Maltreatment Increases Risk for Personality Disorders During Early Adulthood, Jeffrey G. Johnson, PhD; Patricia Cohen, PhD; Jocelyn Brown, MD; et al). Oftentimes, personality disorders are how we can understand the type of abuse and the abuser.
When we are developing as children, from the ages of 0-14, every experience we have imprints itself into our subconscious where it then forms a belief. These beliefs then create our reality. If we experience abuse and trauma during childhood, this trauma and abuse can program us to function in ways that harm ourselves and other people. We all know that if a parent physically and emotionally abuses their child, that child is more likely to inflict abuse or suffer from abuse later on in life. Whether or not you become the perpetrator or the victim is up to the individual.
Children of abuse go on to develop serious psychological problems such as anxiety, depression as well as personality disorders. The most relevant personality disorders amongst domestic abusers are borderline, narcissistic, anti-social and paranoid.
Borderline Personality Disorder
From the Mayo Clinic: Borderline personality disorder is a serious psychological condition that’s characterized by unstable moods and emotions, relationships, and behavior. Borderline personality disorder symptoms include instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and emotion, as well as a pattern of impulsive behaviors. Signs and symptoms include:
- Fear of abandonment
- Unstable relationships (conflict, neediness,
- Identity Impairment (low self-esteem, low self-worth)
- Impulsive behaviour (spending, sex, binging, law breaking, etc)
- Self-harm/ suicide
- Emotional instability
- Feeling of emptiness
- Intense anger and and aggressive behaviour
If you are in, or have been in a relationship with someone who suffers from BPD, it is like riding a roller coaster – you never know what to expect.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
From the Mayo Clinic: Narcissistic personality disorder — one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
A narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school or financial affairs. People with narcissistic personality disorder may be generally unhappy and disappointed when they’re not given the special favors or admiration they believe they deserve. They may find their relationships unfulfilling, and others may not enjoy being around them.
Signs and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder and the severity of symptoms vary. People with the disorder can:
- Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
- Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerate achievements and talents
- Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
- Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
- Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
- Take advantage of others to get what they want
- Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Be envious of others and believe others envy them
- Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious
- Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office
At the same time, people with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism, and they can:
- Become impatient or angry when they don’t receive special treatment
- Have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted
- React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior
- Have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior
- Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change
- Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection
- Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation
Antisocial Personality Disorder
From the Mayo Clinic: Antisocial personality disorder, sometimes called sociopathy/psychopathy, is a mental condition in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others. People with antisocial personality disorder tend to antagonize, manipulate or treat others harshly or with callous indifference. They show no guilt or remorse for their behavior.
Individuals with antisocial personality disorder often violate the law, becoming criminals. They may lie, behave violently or impulsively, and have problems with drug and alcohol use. Because of these characteristics, people with this disorder typically can’t fulfill responsibilities related to family, work or school.
Antisocial personality disorder signs and symptoms may include:
- Disregard for right and wrong
- Persistent lying or deceit to exploit others
- Being callous, cynical and disrespectful of others
- Using charm or wit to manipulate others for personal gain or personal pleasure
- Arrogance, a sense of superiority and being extremely opinionated
- Recurring problems with the law, including criminal behavior
- Repeatedly violating the rights of others through intimidation and dishonesty
- Impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead
- Hostility, significant irritability, agitation, aggression or violence
- Lack of empathy for others and lack of remorse about harming others
- Unnecessary risk-taking or dangerous behavior with no regard for the safety of self or others
- Poor or abusive relationships
- Failure to consider the negative consequences of behavior or learn from them
- Being consistently irresponsible and repeatedly failing to fulfill work or financial obligations
Adults with antisocial personality disorder typically show symptoms of conduct disorder before the age of 15. Signs and symptoms of conduct disorder include serious, persistent behavior problems, such as:
- Aggression toward people and animals
- Destruction of property
- Serious violation of rules
Paranoid Personality Disorder
People with PPD are always on guard, believing that others are constantly trying to demean, harm, or threaten them. These generally unfounded beliefs, as well as their habits of blame and distrust, might interfere with their ability to form close relationships. People with this disorder:
- Doubt the commitment, loyalty, or trustworthiness of others, believing others are using or deceiving them
- Are reluctant to confide in others or reveal personal information due to a fear that the information will be used against them
- Are unforgiving and hold grudges
- Are hypersensitive and take criticism poorly
- Read hidden meanings in the innocent remarks or casual looks of others
- Perceive attacks on their character that are not apparent to others; they generally react with anger and are quick to retaliate
- Have recurrent suspicions, without reason, that their spouses or lovers are being unfaithful
- Are generally cold and distant in their relationships with others, and might become controlling and jealous
- Cannot see their role in problems or conflicts and believe they are always right
- Have difficulty relaxing
- Are hostile, stubborn, and argumentative
The exact cause of PPD is not known, but it likely involves a combination of biological and psychological factors. The fact that PPD is more common in people who have close relatives with schizophrenia suggests a genetic link between the two disorders. Early childhood experiences, including physical or emotional trauma, are also suspected to play a role in the development of PPD.
I grew up in an abusive household. And for many years I blamed myself for the treatment I received. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I discovered my father suffered from both narcissistic and antisocial disorder and my mother was also a narcissist. By understanding their inability to parent in a healthy way, this gave me permission to begin my healing journey. I hope this knowledge will assist you in yours.