Why Do People Abuse Other People? Lundy Bancroft Explains

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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Why do people abuse other people? Is there logic behind abuse?

While abuse is a terrible thing, many abusers actually don’t believe it is. In fact, Lundy Bancroft’s book Why Does He Do That? explains that abusers feel justified in the way they act and do so intentionally.

Keep reading to learn why people abuse others.

Abusers Behave Intentionally

Why do people abuse other people? 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, on the abuser’s side, 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. We can see this intentionality in three aspects of the abuser’s behavior:

He Never “Goes Too Far,” Based on His Definition of the Phrase

When Bancroft asked his clients why they didn’t do something worse when they were supposedly out of control—why, for example, an abusive husband didn’t kill his wife instead of merely beating her—the almost universal response was that they would never go that far. This demonstrates that even during periods when an abuser seems crazed, he is behaving only in ways that he deems acceptable or justified. What he considers acceptable varies from person to person, and even over time—some abusers do ultimately kill their partner—but whatever that line is, he will not cross it, no matter how enraged or intoxicated he is. 

(Shortform note: That abusers are in control of their actions is further demonstrated by the fact that the most extreme acts of violence committed in an abusive relationship—up to and including murder—generally occur after the victim tries to leave. An abuser doesn’t kill his victim out of uncontrolled, irrational rage so much as in a last-ditch attempt to control and punish her.)

He’s Rarely Abusive in Front of Others

An abuser can turn off his abusive persona and turn on the charm when there’s a risk that someone might witness his abuse and bring consequences to bear. Several victims recount that as soon as the police showed up, their abuser became calm and articulate, downplaying what happened or depicting her as hysterical. An abuser will also often wait until they’re behind closed doors to turn on a partner, even if what upset him occurred hours or weeks earlier. Many victims remain trapped in abusive relationships because their abuser is so good at switching between personas that no one believes such a likable man could be abusive.

Charm Without Feeling

This ability to quickly switch between personas is sometimes discussed in psychiatry as a trait of sociopathy or personality disorders. When a person lacks empathy or is unable to form strong emotional attachments to others, it’s easy for them to treat people with extreme charm or extreme cruelty—their behavior isn’t motivated by genuine feeling, but by a desire to “win” a social interaction and get what they want, and they feel little to no guilt for the emotional impact their behavior has on others.

While most abusers aren’t full sociopaths, they do tend to lack empathy for their victims. This absence of feeling similarly enables both the abuse and the abuser’s ability to manipulate others into seeing only what he wants them to see—a charming, trustworthy, and nonviolent man.

He Rarely Does Anything to Hurt or Inconvenience Himself

Abusers might smash or break items seemingly at random when in a rage, but as Bancroft points out, these are usually items belonging to the victim, not to him or shared by both of them. He will be violent or cause property damage in ways that hurt his victim, but he won’t inconvenience himself by, for example, damaging his own car, striking items that might bruise or cut his hands, or breaking things that he bought for himself. 

(Shortform note: On the rare occasion that an abuser does hurt himself or his property, there may still be a self-serving and outwardly abusive motivation behind it. For example, an abuser who struggles with addiction may deliberately relapse or threaten suicide in order to convince the victim that she’d be endangering his life by leaving him or that he needs her in order to get better—even if he ultimately never does.)

Bancroft argues that the rationality behind abusive behavior becomes especially clear in abuser intervention programs or in counseling, where abusers feel comfortable discussing their behavior. According to Bancroft, very few of his clients struggled to come up with a reason for why they behaved abusively. On the contrary, they almost instantly and with no emotional turmoil clarified how a specific outburst allowed them to get revenge on a victim or to force her to give them something they wanted. 

(Shortform note: Bancroft’s impression of his clients is reflected by the rare public confessions made by abusers, who were fully aware of the harm that they were doing but found ways to justify it to themselves or to repress their guilt.)

Why Do People Abuse Other People? Lundy Bancroft Explains

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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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