Are abusers narcissists? Why are all abusers so selfish?
In Why Does He Do That?, Lundy Bancroft argues that all abusers are deeply selfish and lack empathy. This explains why they don’t care about their victims’ happiness or care about them in any way.
Let’s look deeper at how abusers demonstrate narcissism.
Abusers Are Self-Centered
Are abusers narcissists? Bancroft argues that because abusers are rational actors and fully in control of their behavior, their decision to be abusive demonstrates a deep selfishness and lack of empathy. An abuser is indifferent to or actively contemptuous of his partner’s happiness and safety, approaching their relationship not as a meeting of equals or a site of compromise, but rather as a power struggle that he intends to win. He believes that his feelings, opinions, and desires should always be put first and that his partner’s role is to satisfy him.
(Shortform note: An abuser’s selfishness motivates not just his bad behavior, but the “honeymoon period” which typically follows a violent outburst. After a particularly bad incident, the abuser will become loving, attentive, and apologetic, showering the victim with gifts or taking on responsibilities he normally leaves to her. He may promise to change, or attempt to gloss over the incident entirely. Rather than being motivated by actual remorse, these periods work to keep the victim “hooked” on their relationship; if she believes he’s trying to get better, she’s less likely to leave or involve the police.)
This selfishness manifests in three types of controlling and self-serving behavior.
He’s Unwilling to Admit Wrongdoing or to Be Disagreed With
Arguments with an abuser generally only occur on his terms. He reserves the right to start or shut down any conversation at any time by walking away, making threats, or verbally and emotionally overwhelming his partner. Even in more relaxed conversations, abusers believe that they are always right and will become frustrated or angry at disagreement or their partner’s attempts to assert her own point of view, especially if this disagreement has an audience.
(Shortform note: All couples argue at times, but in an abusive relationship, disagreements are sudden, explosive, and one-sided. In psychologist Michael B. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, he writes that for an argument to be productive, you need to recognize your conversational partner’s humanity and try to empathize with their point of view rather than focusing on your feelings of anger or frustration. Because an abuser doesn’t view his victim as an equal, arguments are less a form of communication than an opportunity to dominate her.)
He Expects His Partner to Drop Everything to Please Him
When the abuser needs something, that need is a top priority, but he rarely thinks of the victim’s well-being in turn. If he’s upset, the victim is expected to coddle him and attempt to improve his mood, or at least to be a passive outlet for aggression. However, if she expresses needs—for emotional support, for sex, for him to participate more in chores, and so on—she’s accused of being suffocating, demanding, or selfish.
(Shortform note: An abuser will often “project,” or accuse his victim of the same harmful behaviors he himself engages in: being possessive or overly critical, spending irresponsibly, drinking in excess, or even being physically abusive. For abusers, this works to draw attention away from their bad behavior, put the victim on the defensive, and confuse bystanders, who may be hearing about these incidents secondhand and thus be unsure of whom to sympathize with.)
He Regards Himself as the Final Authority
According to Bancroft, many of his clients felt that, as a father or husband, they were the head of the household and had the right to make serious decisions on behalf of their partner or the family. Abusive men will often offload the work of actually caring for their children onto the mother, but then refuse to consider her opinion on issues like where they go to school. When it comes to money, he might berate his partner for mundane expenses and attempt to wrest control of it away, keeping her in the dark about what their financial situation even is.
The Aftereffects of Abusive Parenting
In Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, clinical psychologist Lindsay C. Gibson warns that this simultaneously neglectful and controlling behavior can impact the child of an abuser well into adulthood. Because their father’s affection is conditional and easily withdrawn, they may scramble to please him and suppress their own needs and desires to avoid upsetting him—the same way that their mother does. The roles of parent and child reverse, with the child becoming a caretaker to their father rather than being able to rely on him for support.
As an adult, they may allow their father to continue to exert undue control over their lives, dictating what they study, where they work, how they spend their money, and so on. Some rush into romantic relationships early as an escape, or to get the love they aren’t getting from the abuser—only to replicate the same unhealthy dynamics they’re used to. This might mean seeking out abusive men or becoming controlling and emotionally volatile themselves.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Why Does He Do That? summary:
- A guide to how abusive men think
- Ways that abuse victims can better defend themselves
- A breakdown of the four most common myths about abuse