Power Play: How To Recognize An Abuser

Jul 25th, 2010 | By | Category: All Posts, Christina's Blog

Christina Enevoldsen

by Christina Enevoldsen

It was the first time in weeks since my husband and I had been on a date. Don held my hand and I rested my head on his chest while we waited in line for the planetarium show at Griffith Observatory.

The young couple a few feet in front of us caught my attention. The woman appeared to be about seven months pregnant and was struggling to reach the price sticker that her companion stuck on her upper back. The man with her seemed to delight in placing the sticker just out of her reach. Abuser. I immediately saw the scene play out in my head and cringed. They were both laughing, though she was noticeably frustrated. When the sticker fell off, he flicked her hair. She tried to smooth it out. He poked her in the stomach. She poked him back but he seized her arm and forced her to hit herself. When he let go, she grabbed his arms, but he easily broke free and gripped her wrists tightly enough to leave red marks. She gave up and he won.

It was easy to recognize the true motive behind the seemingly playful exchange. It was the same ‘game’ my ex-husband played. I’ve lived with abusers for most of my life and though I wouldn’t have called them abusers at the time, I’ve come to easily recognize the quest for power in everything they do.

My former spouse placed a high value on good food. Part of his image of a good wife meant being an excellent cook. I’m a good cook, though I didn’t know it when we were married. He convinced me I wasn’t very good. He pressured me into cooking, but he was constantly dissatisfied with what I made or how I made it. Sometimes, instead of eating what I made, he’d make something else. Other times, he’d take over the cooking as a ‘favor’ to me. He won no matter what. If I cooked, I lost because it wasn’t good enough. If he stepped in, I lost because I wasn’t a good wife.

That gave him power. I felt like a bad wife so whatever he did to me, I deserved it. In my eyes, he was tolerant of my inferior quality so I was lucky to have him.

I was terrorized by the way he handled our finances. I craved financial stability, but when I asked about our bills or bank account, he talked in circles. I felt stupid. He made major financial decisions without consulting me, yet dictated how I earned and spent money. When I refused to work for him, he shut down his lucrative business in retaliation. I was defeated and deflated, but blamed myself.

Being in a relationship with an abuser was extremely frustrating. It was like trying to figure out the rules to the game, but the rules kept changing. I knew our marriage had problems, but I thought I was the problem. No matter how hard I tried, it never helped.  I always felt like the loser.

In a healthy relationship, there is equality and mutual respect. Both people work for the benefit of each other. There’s a desire for communication, cooperation, participation, understanding, support and validation. When problems arise, they are solved together. Compromises are made. In a healthy relationship, nobody loses because neither party thinks in terms of winning or losing; it’s not a competition.

But you can’t have a healthy relationship with an abuser. Abusers must dominate. Everyone is either a superior or a subordinate; there are no equals. Abusers have no sense of personal power so they gain power by controlling others. Their personal worth is achieved by one-upmanship. If you try to assert your own power with an abuser, he will escalate until he wins.

The game you play with an abuser is really war. He may make light of things, “I was only joking,” or “You’re being too sensitive” but each move you make to explain yourself or question him is seen as an act of hostile aggression. The abuser thinks in terms of defending his territory. Attempts you make to understand the situation is a challenge to his power. He rarely shares his thoughts, feelings or plans and you don’t get the clarification you ask for because in the abuser’s eyes, that would make him vulnerable.

I know this about abusers now. Although my ex-husband was the most damaging abuser in my adulthood, he wasn’t the only one. I’ve had abusive friends, bosses, coworkers, teachers, and pastors. Abusers come in all packages, male and female, large and small. I’ve found them everywhere I go and they all seek power. But they won’t steal mine anymore.

Related Posts:
The Fear of Being Re-victimized
The Wolf in Shepherd’s Clothing: The “Benevolent” Abuser
Power Trip: How to Journey From Overpowered to Empowered

Christina Enevoldsen is cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse, an online resource for male and female abuse survivors looking for practical answers and tools for healing. Christina’s passions are writing and speaking about her own journey of healing from abuse and inspiring people toward wholeness. She and her husband live in Los Angeles and share three children and four grandchildren.

[read Christina's story here]

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23 comments
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  1. i will share this with my friends. because no one really does know, less you been there.

  2. and people so easily fall for the charming comments like “but she doesn’t have any humor” and “I was just kidding”…

  3. Wow!! A lot of this is just how my husband was, even the cooking thing! However, i had been in relationships before him that weren’t abusive but just didn’t work out and so i already knew I was a good cook and stuff so I guess in a way I ha…d somewhat of an advantage. A lot of these he did but a lot of them didn’t work so good on me either….he sure did continue to try over the years though.There were times he would make insulting remarks towards me and I would tell him that if he didn’t like it then maybe he should do it himself. After so long I refused to wash his clothes for him and bring him his food. He always tried to make me feel bad for it but i didn’t care. He always had to make himself look good especailly when others were around and he would always try to make me look like crap in front of them. He was always right and everyone else was always wrong. He hated when he was proven wrong by anyone but mostly by me. Looking back no matter what i refused to do he wasn’t going to stop trying to have control.

    About a year ago late one night he woke up and was very mad cause I wasn’t sleeping by him. That night I knew if things didn’t end soon he was going to become physically abusive. Not to long later i found out he was sexually abusing my daughter and had been for 4 or 5 yrs. He couldn’t fully control me so he found someone he could…my daughter. They arrested him about a week later when he got back(he was a truck driver). It has been almost a year now and things are finally starting to come to an end. The court trial is this wed and thurs and the divorce is suppose to be done by the end of the summer. Not looking forward to the trial but we are looking forward to it being done.

  4. Stacie, my husband always had to make himself look good, too. The worst times were when we’d visit my parents. He would put me down and if I protested, my dad would tell me not to start an argument. It was always my fault.

    I can relate to the sleeping by him thing too. He always wanted me close–awake or asleep. He didn’t want me driving too far from home, either. He convinced me I’d get lost. I tried it a few times and I actually did get lost. But I found my way back, so what’s the harm? He made it sound like it would be fatal and I believed that for a long time.

    My ex was sexually abusing our daughter too and verbally abusing our son. He’s in jail now, awaiting trial. I saw him as so powerful and it was shocking to see his mugshot. Nice, but shocking. It’s hard to believe we were all his prisoners all those years.

    That’s so awful that your ex was abusing your daughter. I hope you know that it didn’t have anything to do with you not letting him control you. Even if you had let him control you, he would still want more control. Good for you for reporting him. I understand not looking forward to the trial, but wanting it done at the same time. I’ll be thinking about you this week as you face that.

  5. This is excellent, Christina. Thank you for writing and posting this! Very, very insightful.

    Hope your next post talks about solutions to this no doubt common situation… :)

  6. Ryan, YES we will definitely be talking about solutions. There are several more to come in this series–each one uncovering more about how abusers work and why we buy into them. The last one will deal with what I feel is the most important thing we can do to never be vulnerable to abusers again– though I’m sure others will contribute along the way.

    Thanks for the compliment! It’s really nice to see you here! :)

  7. For me he was always worse about making me look bad when we were at his parents. There was one time we were there for Christmas( I had gotten sick along the way & he said I was faking cause I didn’t want to be at his parents) & he was using up all the film in the camera taking pics of me laying there sick on the couch. I got mad at him and told him to stop using up all the film cause that was all we had with us. He continued anyway and i keep getting after him. After a few times his dad looked at me, raised his voice some and said “That’s enough.” Really?? What the heck was I doing?? Things would be really weird at times though cause he would make me look bad in front of them but then when his parents would question him about why I was like that he would defend me. That is one thing I don’t get. He got his parents to believe that i was the one causing problems but then when they would say something to him about me he would make “excuses” to them for why I did something. Maybe it was to make himself look good to his parents and me??

    My ex is out on bail. They let him out on $20,000 and his parents paid it. He was arrested on sept 2nd last year and let out on the 8th. So this whole time he has been free while we have to watch oursleves when we go somewhere. They only put a no contact order on me, my daughter and the house, not on my son or youngest daughter(only child we have together). I was told by the lawyers to keep her out of the public view so he doesn’t have a chance to grab her and take her which he can legally do. So at times it feels like we are the prisoners while he is out walking free.

    I do know that none of this is my fault. Even if I had given in to everything it wouldn’t have stopped it. I think it wouldn’t have made things worse by letting him have his way.Honestly, i never had the chance to report him myself, wish it had been me. My daughter had told a friend who then told her parents and the parents had reported it. My daughter had asked this friend not to tell but it is a good thing this child didn’t keep it a secret. I guess my daughter had told a couple other friends a few months before and they did keep it a secret. I found out after a cop came to our door one day and brought us in for questioning, so I found out about it from CPS.

  8. Stacie, defending you to his parents could be because abusers often see their victims as their property. He probably wasn’t really defending you, he was protecting what was his.

    I was thinking, “Wow, finding out from CPS is a horrible way to learn about what happened” but I guess there are no good ways. Bethany told me after her father and I divorced.

  9. Yeah, it was horrible to find out from a bunch of strangers but like you said there is no good way.

  10. Stacie, I went through the same thing with my ex and his parents. It was very confusing to me that anyone would do that to someone they supposedly loved. I agree with Christina that is about him considering you to be his property. Takes a while to figure that out, but it helps you understand some of the thought process of the abuser. Unfortunately for survivors, we can’t always just leave and live our lives freely. I hope you are able to stay safe and find a way to start over. God bless and take care!!

  11. With the first example you used I could really feel the struggle. I wanted to slap the guy. :)

  12. Hoo boy, I remember the raised hand at his parents’ house when we were discussing something or other political and I said something “liberal”. This was before we were married. If only I had known what that meant for our future together.

  13. ‘recognizing a sexual abuser”—-hmmmm–that is easy for a victim….but what happens when –in my case a relative did not recognize them for over 35 years– he or she can be a ‘church goer- a policeman. a doctor , a nurse,, a school teacher. a uncle.. a priest, a neighbor–
    all these people seem to be ‘TRUSTED ADULTS’—–THINK AGAIN..

    only the victim know who is abusing them—it is a hidden crime

  14. Bonnie, we’ll be talking about those trusted roles tomorrow. So often, we’re so wounded after our sexual abuse that we turn to others for help and find ourselves in further abuse. The bottom line for all abusers, no matter what type of abuse, is the need for power. That applies to sexual abusers as well.

  15. Wendy, yes we have been staying safe. Trial is this wed and thurs. so that part will be done soon and the divorce should be done by the end of the summer. We do have plans on starting over, hopefully moving out of here sometime in Sept. So excited for that new start and to be away from here!!

  16. these are topics i can relate to and feel what others feel—

  17. Strange how easy it is to spot once you are educated on the subject when it was almost invisible before isn’t it?

  18. I, of course, had no idea that this kind of thing was abuse until it was too late, either. My mom used to ask me about the bruises that I got from him tickling me too hard, and I would get annoyed at her for being such a worry wart.

    Now, when I see this kind of behavior or even just get that feeling, everything within me cries out to warn the woman. But I know she won’t listen, and I know she can’t be helped until she admits to the problem, so I usually just try to push it from my mind.

    I think this is the greatest guilt that I deal with: not that I didn’t stop the abuse while it was happening to me (though I’ve dealt with that, too), but the guilt of not being able to prevent the abuse from happening to other young, naive, clueless women. Does anyone else feel this way?

  19. Kathryn, I don’t feel guilt over not being able to help women out of it. Like you said, they won’t deal with it until they’re ready. What I feel is anger. I feel angry that the abuser is getting away with it and I can’t do anything about it.

  20. Thanks for publishing this. It is important to recognize the little red flags that go up before abuse becomes so abusive and the victim so isolated that they have nowhere to turn. It may start with jokes increasingly more insulting, and later become sexual and physical violence and even reach the children. No one has to take any of that. I recommend this book by Martha Stout, PhD., called “The Sociopath Next Door.” It talks about recognizing people who are capable of never ending abusive vicious behavior because of the way they view the world. It features stories of the abusers and gives the reader a good perspective as to what goes on in their minds. Also, she highlights steps for normal people to avoid these deviants. I hope that it helps. I enjoyed it.

  21. Tamara,
    Thanks for recommending that book. The two that helped me understand abusers the most: “The Gift of Fear” and “The Verbally Abusive Relationship”.

    I agree that if we can spot abuse before it gets to the deeper stages, it’s much easier to escape. I’ve found those who are vulnerable to abuse are those who have already been abused in childhood. As long as we believe those devaluing messages, we continue to accept inferior treatment. Healing is the most effective way I’ve found to avoid more abuse. Thanks for your input!
    Christina

  22. Hi all – glad you published this Christina. I no longer have an abuser in my personal life, unfortunately the ‘man’ is still in my son’s life. We were never married nor did we live together – I wasnt stupid enough to do that – but I was dumb enough to try and try and make a relationship work. I would always turn his words against him ie: he would ask “why do I always have to be the liar?” and I would turn it around and say “I dont know – why DO you always have to be the liar?” He hated that!! I still do it.
    We are going through a custody battle due to his lies to other people who threatened to stop financially supporting him if he didnt try to get my son from me. My son has been acting out sexually for approx 2 yrs now and has just this week been able to tell me what has been happening. Approx 7-9 months ago I told the so-called Child Protective Services about him but they just ignored me because my son lives with me. They didnt even investigate the pedophile. The ‘wonderful’ police wrote in their reports that I was ‘hysterical’. Guess the police cant tell the difference between anger and hysteria… I have yet to hear back from my atty about what my son told me. We go to pretrial Dec 15th and real trial Dec 23rd. The pedophile has lost 2 atty’s due to his lies and was not able to retain many others and is now without an atty. (which has been the source of much mirth for me) I have had the good sense to tape my son while he was telling me what has been happening to him though I dont know if its even admissible in court.
    The truly sad part of this is that the pedophile was a victim as a child and never got help. Dont know if he ever said anything to anyone or just thought it was normal behavior and let it continue.
    For anyone reading this who has not reported a pedophile, do it now. I say this because I, too, was a victim as a child and no one ever helped me even when my abuser was caught in the act. I grew up thinking that was the normal way to show your love to someone – to have sex. My abuser was also a victim of his father who was also never reported. Many years later my then husband allowed my abuser into our lives. At that time in my life I did not know that pedophiles are not able to get well and will always abuse a child if given the chance. My abuser abused my daughter. Now he is currently incarcerated and is serving 30,000 yrs. Yes, I wrote that right. 30,000 yrs. I dont know if it made national news back in the late 90′s but we made the news here at home. I did for my daughter what many dont do and what no one did for me – I believed her and I took action. She was the same age as my son is now. I do not understand why it was so much easier to get a pedophile locked away in the 90′s than it is now. When my son showed me oral sex before he could even talk I refused to allow his abuser in my home – then his enablers made him sue me for custody. My first atty ignored me when I told her he was a pedophile and I was forced to agree to temporary joint custody. In the 2 yrs since the sexual abuse has gotten worse. I now have a new – and so far a much better – atty.
    My message is this – even if you are ignored, if you or someone you know is being or has been sexually abused, take action. Take action in every way you know. I am. I am posting on every website I can find to let the world know that the Oklahoma Child Protective Service and the Oklahoma City police force will do nothing. Thanks

  23. Patty,
    I know how heartbreaking it is to discover your child has been abused. I’m so glad to hear that you’ve taken action and that you’re persisting in getting something done. Thank you for sharing your experience.
    Christina

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