Intimacy and Abuse

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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It is an established fact that abuse – verbal, psychological, emotional, physical, and sexual – co-occurs with intimacy. Most reported offenses are between intimate partners and between parents and children. This defies common sense. Emotionally, it should be easier to batter, molest, assault, or humiliate a total stranger. It's as if intimacy CAUSES abuse, incubates and nurtures it.

And, in a way, it does.

Many abusers believe that their abusive conduct fosters, enhances, and cements their intimate relationships. To them, pathological jealousy is proof of love, possessiveness replaces mature bonding, and battering is a form of paying attention to the partner and communicating with her. Psychopaths and narcissists possess “cold empathy”: the ability to “see through” people and instantly discern their vulnerabilities, fears, and needs. They leverage this knowledge to foster faux-intimacy with a select few.

This “targeted intimacy” helps to condition the abuser’s nearest, dearest, and closest and transform them into a “flock” or an “audience”: members of his mini- cult. Targeted intimacy is exclusionary (excludes everyone outside the "cult"); ephemeral (wanes when no longer useful); and utilitarian (intended to manipulate the recipient of the intimacy and its ostensible beneficiary.)

Targeted intimacy is triggered when the abuser sets a goal and embarks on a charm offensive intended to re-acquire a potential source of narcissistic supply or of material benefits by idealizing her. His needs satisfied, the abuser’s warm interest in his target abruptly dissipates and he turns cold and distant, devalues and discards. He blames his prey for this startling about-face: she made him withdraw with her nagging, insensitivity, dumbness, insufferable character, hypocrisy, evil designs, and so on.

Such habitual offenders do not know any better. They were often raised in families, societies, and cultures where abuse is condoned outright – or, at least, not frowned upon. Maltreatment of one's significant others is part of daily life, as inevitable as the weather, a force of nature.

Intimacy is often perceived to include a license to abuse. The abuser treats his nearest, dearest, and closest as mere objects, instruments of gratification, utilities, or extensions of himself. He feels that he "owns" his spouse, girlfriend, lovers, children, parents, siblings, or colleagues. As the owner, he has the right to "damage the goods" or even dispose of them altogether.

Some abusers are scared of real intimacy and deep commitment, afraid of the intolerable hurt wrought by an eventual and inevitable abandonment. They have been taught to consider themselves unlovable and unworthy of being loved. Being hated and feared is within their comfort zone: they know the ropes of intimidation and alienation as means of controlling their environment and rendering it less threatening.

These abusers lead a "pretend", confabulated life. Their "love" and "relationships" are gaudy, fake imitations. Such an abuser seeks to put a distance between himself and those who truly love him, who cherish and value him as a human being, who enjoy his company, and who strive to establish a long-term, meaningful relationship with him. He becomes emotionally or physically absent, or “ghosts”.

Some abusers even turn a blind eye to their intimate partner’s sexual or emotional liaisons with others, allowing her to develop and maintain a parallel life as long as she continues to observe her “contractual” obligations to provide services and companionship. Such emotional absenting can take many forms: from workaholism to sexual swinging.

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Abuse, in other words, is a reaction to the perceived threat of looming intimacy, aimed at fending it off, intended to decimate closeness, tenderness, affection, and compassion before they thrive and consume the abuser. Abuse is a panic reaction. The batterer, or the molester, are scared out of their wits: they feel entrapped, imprisoned, shackled, and insidiously altered. By dishing out egregious maltreatment, they seek to both shatter the impending intimacy and to stress-test the partner’s commitment to the non-intimate form of relationship on offer.

Lashing out in blind and violent rage they punish the perceived perpetrators of intimacy. The more obnoxiously they behave, the less the risk of lifelong bondage. The more heinous their acts, the safer they feel. Battering, molesting, raping, berating, taunting are all forms of reasserting lost control. In the abuser's thwarted mind, abuse equals mastery and continued, painless, emotionally numbed, survival.

Early in life, the abuser had been abused by the very people who were supposed to “love” him. As an adult, he abuses the people who truly love him! This is his way of righting this wrong and restoring symmetric justice.

Fear of Intimacy

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A phobic fear of intimacy betrays a deep distrust of the world as a benevolent place and of the future as an agreeable time. This hurt-aversion apprehension results in reticence: a reluctance to expose one’s vulnerabilities lest they be leveraged and abused and a refusal to commit to any long-term relationship owing to a catastrophising mindset (“it is all going to end badly anyhow, so why risk the pain?”)

The inner dialog, inner script, of people who fear intimacy is comprised of several strands:

This (potential) intimate partner will destroy my life. I will be left with nothing and no one;

I am no good. I am crazy. I will hurt this (potential) intimate partner and destroy his or her life. I must get away from him/her for his/her own good;

Devaluing the (potential) intimate partner: focusing on his weaknesses, shortcomings, mistakes, misjudgements, and failures;

Imagining the future with the (potential) intimate partner as bleak, unpleasant, with bad, painful outcomes (“He will anyhow leave me, hurt me, or living with him will be dull and oppressive”);

Distrusting the (potential) intimate partner to make one happy, disbelieving his/her intentions, feeling that (s)he is manipulating and imprisoning one;

Doubting one’s own judgement, one’s ability to choose right and appraise the situation correctly;

Diffuse anxiety, an uncomfortable but fuzzy sensation that something real bad is happening or about to happen and one needs to get away before the catastrophe hits.

Also Read

"Trauma Bonding" and the Psychology of Torture

Traumas as Social Interactions

Spousal (Domestic) Abuse and Violence

Verbal and Emotional Abuse - Articles Menu

Open Site Family Violence

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