The Path to Abuse

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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The abuser mistreats only his closest – spouse, children, or (much more rarely) colleagues, friends, and neighbours. To the rest of the world, he appears to be a composed, rational, and functioning person. Abusers are very adept at casting a veil of secrecy – often with the active aid of their victims – over their dysfunction and misbehavior. This is why the abuser's offending behavior comes as a shock even to his closest, nearest, and dearest.

But, abuse has no clear-cut, unambiguous definition. Unlike a personality disorder, abuse is not all-pervasive and does not affect all aspects of the abuser’s life and relationships. Moreover: abuse can be merely situational rather than systemic: we all become abusive in extreme circumstances. Abuse is largely a matter of value-judgement: a social construct (not to say: artefact) and culture-bound syndrome, which reflects prevailing mores and norms. Indeed, as far as the abuser-victim dyad is concerned, abuse can be construed as a mode of communication, a language, and an organizing principle.

Victims are now fully aware of narcissistic abuse. Why do they keep falling for it? Why don't they resist, recoil, regroup, & retreat?

Because repeat victims share two things with their abusers: a partially latent pathway of mental processing & impaired object constancy.

A healthy person reacts to someone they have just met on a "gut level": a biochemical-emotional exchange followed by a layering of cognitions which lead to either the deepening or the negation of the initial reactions.

Victims & abusers react to each other almost exclusively viscerally. They suppress their cognitions & experience them as threats. Theirs is a bonding of resonating pathologies, sometimes way beyond their awareness.

But why do victims refuse to face their abusers down? What do they stand to lose?

Most abusers and victims are LONELY. They fail to internalize (or introject) significant others. When their nearest are away, they cease to be their dearest.

Healthy people interact with internal representations of their loved ones in the absence of the originals. They cognitively recall the absentees and are flooded with emotions which evoke & elicit memories of the departed.

Habitual victims and their abusers also start by cognitively dwelling on the missing person. But then they have to resort to memories to experience a dim and diffuse nostalgia which passes for emotions. There is a void where an avatar of the ostensibly beloved should have been, replete with attendant memories & feelings. Abusers & victims fulfil each others' voids.

These two idiosyncrasies are at the heart of trauma bonding & dysfunctional attachment styles, often culminating in a shared psychosis.


The victim feels that only the abuser can truly understand her, is her soulmate & twin. And, in these two ways, he really is. He provides external object constancy & simulated emotions and like his target, agrees to suspend introspection & judgment. It is an intoxicating offering of merger & fusion that is not mediated or scrutinized cerebrally & which no victim can resist.

Read about the abuser's tactics and concealment and manipulation here:

Telling Them Apart

Facilitating Narcissism

In the October 2003 issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Dr. Christina Nicolaidis of the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, studied 30 women between the ages of 17 and 54, all survivors of attempted homicide by their intimate partners.

Half of them (14) confessed to have been "completely surprised" by the attack. They did not realize how violent their partner can be and the extent of risk they were continuously exposed to. Yet, all of them were the victims of previous episodes of abuse, including the physical sort. They could easily have predicted that an attempt to end the relationship would result in an attack on body and property.

"If I had talked to some of these women before the attack, I would have counseled them about the domestic violence, but I would not have necessarily felt that their lives were in danger," Nicolaidis told Reuters – "Now I am more careful to warn any woman who has experienced intimate partner violence about the risk to her life, especially around the time that the relationship is ending".

Secrecy is a major weapon in the abuser's arsenal. Many batterers maintain a double life and keep it a well-guarded secret. Others show one face – benign, even altruistic – to an admiring world and another – ominous and aggressive – at home. All abusers insist on keeping the abuse confidential, safe from prying eyes and ears.

The victims collaborate in this cruel game through cognitive dissonance and traumatic bonding. They rationalize the abuser's behavior, attributing it to incompatibility, mental health problems, temporary setbacks or circumstances, a bad relationship, or substance abuse. Many victims feel guilty. They have been convinced by the offender that they are to blame for his misconduct ("you see what you made me do!", "you constantly provoke me!").

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Others re-label the abuse and attribute it to the batterer's character idiosyncrasies. It is explained away as the sad outcome of a unique upbringing, childhood abuse, or passing events. Abusive incidents are recast as rarities, an abnormality, few and far between, not as bad as they appear to be, understandable outbursts, justified temper tantrums, childish manifestations, a tolerable price to pay for an otherwise wonderful relationship.

When is a woman's life at risk?

Nicolaidis Reuters: "Classic risk factors for an attempted homicide by an intimate partner include escalating episodes or severity of violence, threats with or use of weapons, alcohol or drug use, and violence toward children."

Yet, this list leaves out ambient abuse – the stealth, subtle, underground currents of maltreatment that sometimes go unnoticed even by the victims themselves. Until it is too late.

This is the subject of the next article.

Continue ...


How to Spot an Abuser on Your First Date

The Toxic Relationships Study List

"Trauma Bonding" and the Psychology of Torture

Coping with Your Abuser

Traumas as Social Interactions

Spousal (Domestic) Abuse and Violence

Verbal and Emotional Abuse - Articles Menu

HealthyPlace Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) Community

Case Studies on the Psychopath and Narcissist Survivors Support Group

Ask Sam on the Psychopath and Narcissist Survivors Support Group

Ask Sam on the Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Forum

Domestic Violence and Abuse statistics - Click here

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