What Is Abusive Behavior? How to Recognize the Signs

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 abusive behavior? How do abusers subtly manipulate and intimidate their victims?

Abuse isn’t just physical—it can also be emotional and verbal abuse that many victims might not recognize at first. But Lundy Bancroft’s book Why Does He Do That? will teach you how to spot abusive behavior from a mile away.

Bancroft breaks up abusive behavior into two categories, which we’ll look at below.

Recognizing Abusive Behavior

What is abusive behavior? Having defined abuse as deliberate mistreatment, Bancroft spends much of the book providing specific examples of what abuse looks like in practice. While abuse is often divided into categories based on the tactics used—verbal versus physical versus sexual—Bancroft argues that most abusers use all of these tactics to different degrees and at different times, depending on what they feel most comfortable with or what gets the “best” results. Bancroft instead breaks his examples up by their intent: manipulation or intimidation.

(Shortform note: While some anti-abuse advocates still distinguish between emotional versus physical abuse, many others, like Bancroft, point out that different tactics have the same abusive motives and that emotional and physical abuse generally go hand-in-hand. In addition, studies have shown that emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse, even if it doesn’t leave visible marks.)


Manipulation, mainly involving verbal and emotional abuse, persuades the victim to doubt her own thoughts, feelings, and opinions in favor of accepting whatever the abuser wants her to believe or do. An abuser uses manipulation to make the victim more emotionally dependent on and willing to cede control of the relationship to him. Some common manipulative tactics Bancroft describes include constant bullying and insults, which break down the victim’s self-esteem; “love bombing” her with time and attention early in the relationship and then abruptly withdrawing it; and shutting down any attempts at argument.

(Shortform note: Manipulation can also include gaslighting, in which the abuser attempts to convince his victim that she’s crazy or can’t trust her own judgment by repeatedly lying to her and misrepresenting past events. He’ll accuse her of imagining things or making them up to upset him, and he’ll generally trivialize her perception as being less accurate or trustworthy than his own. When gaslighting succeeds, the victim becomes dependent on the abuser to tell her not just what to do, but what to think.)


Intimidation, mainly involving verbal and physical abuse, forces the victim to comply with the abuser’s demands through actual or threatened violence. Abusers use intimidation to terrorize the victim into obeying them and keeping silent about the abuse. Some common intimidation tactics Bancroft describes include physical violence, threatening to hurt the victim or her loved ones, and falsely accusing the victim of infidelity. An abuser may also demand to know where the victim is at all times so he has constant access to her, or he may sabotage her finances to make her increasingly dependent on him. 

(Shortform note: Accusations of infidelity and excessive jealousy in general are a common factor in abusive relationships. While these behaviors may come from genuine feelings of insecurity, anti-abuse advocates warn that jealousy is often just a convenient pretext for an abuser to demand more control over his victim, such as forbidding her from speaking to friends, insisting that she come home early and update him as to her location at all times, excusing his violent outbursts as being expressions of his intense love and fear of losing her, and so on.)

Rather than relying on one approach or the other, abusers will regularly switch between them. Bancroft suggests that this constant switching is itself a tactic of control; by playing “hot and cold,” the abuser keeps his victim constantly on edge as to which version of her partner she’ll come home to. The intimidation feels more frightening for being sudden, while the manipulation feels like a relaxing of tension and thus a relief. 

(Shortform note: This “hot and cold” behavior is sometimes referred to as “intermittent reinforcement.” The term was coined by psychologist B. F. Skinner to describe a system in which rewards are delivered at irregular or random intervals as a means of maintaining control. If someone believes that they’ll eventually be rewarded for a certain behavior—such as, in the case of an abusive relationship, total submissiveness and capitulation to the abuser’s demands—they’ll continue to engage in that behavior, even if the effort they’re putting in far outweighs the actual reward.)

What Is Abusive Behavior? How to Recognize the Signs

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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

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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