The Mind of an Abuser: 3 Harmful Ways Abusers Think

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Why Does He Do That?" by Lundy Bancroft. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is it like inside the mind of an abuser? Why do abusers behave the way they do?

In Why Does He Do That?, Lundy Bancroft examines the logic behind abusive thinking. He claims abusers feel comfortable engaging in hurtful and immoral behavior for their own benefit.

Below we’ll look at three characteristics of abusers in detail.

1. Abusers Behave Intentionally

Abusive behavior can seem senseless or random to the victim, who is unable to predict the abuser’s moods or what might set him off from day to day. According to Bancroft, this is a tactic abusers employ deliberately. The more time a victim has to spend thinking about what the abuser might do, the more control he has over her life.

(Shortform note: The unpredictability of an abuser’s behavior may lead a victim to become hypervigilant, constantly on the lookout for subtle changes in the abuser’s mood so that she can try to appease him and avoid a violent outburst. Not only does this rarely work, but it also places the victim in a permanent and exhausting state of anxiety, a “survival mode” that sees any potential conflict as a threat. As a result, many victims become people-pleasers in their future relationships. Having been conditioned to suppress their own needs and to fear even minor disagreement, victims may struggle to honestly communicate what they feel to a non-abusive partner.) 

However, inside the mind of an abuser, his behavior has a clear goal and logic behind it. This is not to say that all abusers are criminal masterminds who plan their emotional outbursts in advance, but when an abuser has an outburst, he does so knowing that it will get him what he wants: the victim’s capitulation.

2. Abusers Are Self-Centered

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.)

3. Abusers See Their Behavior as Justified

Far from feeling conflicted or guilty about their abuse, many abusers see their behavior as justified and even necessary for the relationship to function. Bancroft notes that while many of his clients fully understood that they were causing harm, they rationalized their behavior, saying things like, “I’m not like one of those men who would hit a woman for no reason.” 

In the abuser’s mind, the victim actually causes the abuse by stepping out of line or upsetting him. He expects his partner to behave according to his rules, and whatever controlling or retaliatory action he takes is either necessary to control her or “not that bad” compared to truly meaningless cruelty. According to Bancroft, it’s this self-justification that makes abusers get worse over time, as increasingly violent and aggressive behavior will become acceptable to them if it allows them to maintain control over the relationship.

(Shortform note: Sometimes, an abuser will attempt to convince his partner to accept these same justifications, telling her that she deserves the abuse, and if she could just be “better” he wouldn’t act this way. This is obviously a lie, used to deflect responsibility and break down her self-esteem. No one deserves to be abused, and in fact, most abusers repeat the same behaviors over and over with new partners. Abusers aren’t reacting to the needs of their relationship, but repeating the same self-serving patterns of controlling or violent behavior.)

The Mind of an Abuser: 3 Harmful Ways Abusers Think

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Lundy Bancroft's "Why Does He Do That?" at Shortform.

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

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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