Reforming the Abuser

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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How to get your abuser to see reason in the first place? How to obtain for him the help he needs – without involving law enforcement agencies, the authorities, or the courts? Any attempt to broach the subject of the abuser's mental problems frequently ends in harangues and worse. It is positively dangerous to mention the abuser's shortcomings or imperfections to his face.

As I wrote elsewhere, "Abuse is a multifaceted phenomenon. It is a poisonous cocktail of control-freakery, conforming to social and cultural norms, and latent sadism. The abuser seeks to subjugate his victims and 'look good' or 'save face' in front of family and peers. Many abusers also enjoy inflicting pain on helpless victims."

Hence the complexity of trying to prevent or control the abuser's behavior. His family, friends, peers, co-workers, and neighbors – normally, levers of social control and behavior modification – condone his misbehavior. The abuser seeks to conform to norms and standards prevalent in his milieu, even if only implicitly. He regards himself as normal, definitely not in need of therapeutic intervention.

Thus, the complaints of a victim are likely to be met with hostility and suspicion by the offender's parents or siblings, for instance. Instead of reining in the abusive conduct, they are likely to pathologize the victim ("she is a nutcase") or label her ("she is a whore or a bitch").

Nor is the victim of abuse likely to fare better in the hands of law enforcement agencies, the courts, counselors, therapists, and guardians ad litem. The propensity of these institutions is to assume that the abused has a hidden agenda – to abscond with her husband's property, or to deny him custody or visitation rights. Read more about it here.

Abuse remains, therefore, the private preserve of the predator and his prey. It is up to them to write their own rules and to implement them. No outside intervention is forthcoming or effective. Indeed, the delineation of boundaries and reaching an agreement on co-existence are the first important steps towards minimizing abuse in your relationships. Such a compact must include a provision obliging your abuser to seek professional help for his mental health problems.

Personal boundaries are not negotiable, neither can they be determined from the outside. Your abusive bully should have no say in setting them or in upholding them. Only you decide when they have been breached, what constitutes a transgression, what is excusable and what not.

The abuser is constantly on the lookout for a weakening of your resolve. He is repeatedly testing your mettle and resilience. He pounces on any and every vulnerability, uncertainty, or hesitation. Don't give him these chances. Be decisive and know yourself: what do you really feel? What are your wishes and desires in the short and longer terms? What price are you willing to pay and what sacrifices are you ready to make in order to be you? What behaviors will you accept and where does your red line run?

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This article appears in my book, "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"

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Verbalize your emotions, needs, preferences, and choices without aggression but with assertiveness and determination. Some abusers – the narcissistic ones – are detached from reality. They avoid it actively and live in fantasies of everlasting and unconditional love. They refuse to accept the inevitable consequences of their own actions. It is up to you to correct these cognitive and emotional deficits. You may encounter opposition – even violence – but, in the long-run, facing reality pays.

Play it fair. Make a list – if need be, in writing – of do's and don'ts. Create a "tariff" of sanctions and rewards. Let him know what actions of his – or inaction on his part – will trigger a dissolution of the relationship. Be unambiguous and unequivocal about it. And mean what you say. Again, showing up for counseling must be a cardinal condition.

Yet, even these simple, non-threatening initial steps are likely to provoke your abusive partner. Abusers are narcissistic and possessed of alloplastic defenses. More simply put, they feel superior, entitled, above any law and agreement, and innocent. Others – usually the victims – are to blame for the abusive conduct ("see what you made me do?").

How can one negotiate with such a person without incurring his wrath? What is the meaning of contracts "signed" with bullies? How can one motivate the abuser to keep his end of the bargain – for instance, to actually seek therapy and attend the sessions? And how efficacious is psychotherapy or counseling to start with?

These are the topics of our next article.

Continue ...


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