Abusers abuse others on purpose: Coercive control is intentional

SpeakOutLoud.net intentional abuse Clare Murphy PhDMany women who are trying to make sense of why their male partner abuses and controls them ask me if I think he does it on purpose. Women find it extremely difficult to come to terms with the idea that he might do it on purpose. It’s not pleasant to consider that the partner you love hurts you deliberately. So women tell me they’d rather cling to the hope that his behaviours are unconscious and he doesn’t know what he’s doing or why he’s doing it — that he just can’t help it.

Use of abuse is executed on purpose

Several years ago when my partner and I were housesitting, I was yelling accusations at him in frustration and anger. During my tirade the daughter of the house owner let herself in, not realising we were there. I immediately stopped yelling and felt shame.

That’s when I began to realise that I, and people generally, have the ability to choose to use abuse or to choose to treat others with kindness. We all have the choice to learn what beliefs and attitudes lead us to abuse others and how to develop self awareness, self-responsibility and the ability to change.

A client once told me that her husband was in the middle of physically beating her when the neighbours, who heard the raucous ambush on her, came over to check what was happening. She blamed his use of alcohol on “his loss of control”. Yet, this so-called “out of control” husband suddenly ceased his abuse and spoke calmly, coherently and rationally to the neighbours.

One man who beat his wife admitted he, “used alcohol as an excuse, like a vehicle, so that I could do it.” (Hearn 1998)(1) Another said, “I knew I could control every move that she made” (Gondolf, 1987)(2)

Another man who used violence told the researcher: “I would like to dismiss it as ‘something snapped’. It wasn’t, I think it was conscious.” (Hearn 1998)(1) He deliberately beat her. Another man said he’d “do anything to get an excuse” to use violence, and yet another said he was “a bit of a tactician” and would “more or less try to intimidate her by going quiet and staring.” (Cavanagh et al 2001)(3)

Abusers choose a place where they are more likely to avoid getting caught

As researcher Jeff Hearn points out, abusers don’t commit sexual violence in the supermarket. (Hearn 1998)(1)

Abusers are trying to achieve one or more of the following:

  • Make someone do something.
  • Force someone to do something.
  • Stop someone from doing something.
  • Retaliate by punishing someone.
  • Gain power and control.
  • Avoid feeling certain feelings.

Several research projects have noted that men say they abuse their partners in order to keep score — to prove to their partner that he’s the winner, that he’s right, or that he’s bigger, better, stronger, more adult, or smarter.

Abusers decide who to abuse, what tactic to use, how much harm to cause

Some men who verbally abuse their partners deliberately choose how long they carry out the abuse and the level of hurtful words used (Reitz 1999)(4). One man said he’d hit the woman hard enough to hurt her, but not too hard to ensure she didn’t drop her child (Hearn 1998)(1).

In my hometown recently a man attempted to kill his wife. Luckily she escaped. However, he murdered their children then committed suicide. He deliberately set out to cause harm. He, like some other men who coercively control their partners make threats to harm. This often happens when a woman leaves. He says things like “you either take me back or I’ll kill myself” (Hearn 1998)(1).

Threats should be taken seriously. Do what it takes to keep those who are threatened safe, and if that’s you, do what it takes to keep yourself safe. See some safety tips here.

It might appear that an abusive person is out of control, has lost control, is acting unconsciously. But there’s plenty of evidence that our thoughts, attitudes and beliefs lead to our behaviours — caring or controlling, regardless of gender. Research with men who coercively control and abuse their partners show that they do so on purpose. This is especially obvious when a woman consistently attempts to clarify, resolve and stop his abusive behaviour and he responds by denying, minimising and blaming anything or anyone other than himself.

In the end, even if the abusive person is not being deliberately abusive, if they continue to avoid taking responsibility for their behaviour and do nothing to understand themselves and learn, grow and change, then the relationship is never going to work and the victim struggling to make the relationship work is never going to succeed. If you’ve been experience ongoing abuse it will only get worse. It is your human right to be free.

  1. Hearn, Jeff. (1998). The Violences of Men: How Men Talk About and How Agencies Respond to Men’s Violence to Women. London: Sage
  2. Gondolf, Edward, Hanneken, James (1987) The Gender Warrior: Reformed Batterers on Abuse, Treatment and Change. Journal of Family Violence2(2), 177-191.
  3. Cavanagh, Kate, Dobash, R. Emerson, Dobash, Russell P., & Lewis, Ruth. (2001). ‘Remedial work’: Men’s strategic responses to their violence against intimate female partners. Sociology, 35(3), 695-714.
  4. Reitz, Ronda Redden. (1999). Batterers’ experiences of being violent: A phenomenological study. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 23, 143-165.
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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jane Dec 21, 2015, 12:16 pm

    Paige. Don’t believe that because his marriage has lasted that long means that he isn’t abusive to her. Quite likely she doesn’t have the strength that you found to leave him. A friend of mine has been with her abusive husband for over 25 years. She had left him but unfortunately believed his claims that he has changed, so she went back. He didn’t change. He is as bad as he was. She is broken and without hope.

  • Paige Oct 5, 2015, 12:12 pm

    The man I loved was abusive. I left…several times. Heart wrenching. Now he is on his 5th marriage which has lasted 7 years. Maybe he changed? I am torturing myself thinking if I would have stuck it out, he would have stopped. Is he different with her? I don’t date, am alone and don’t trust a man. I am miserable.