Men who abuse women tend to go through a subtle but ultimately dramatic transformation that leaves their partner desperately searching for the person he was at the start of their relationship and blaming herself for losing him along the way.
“They are extremely clever people,” says relationship counsellor and former director of the National Domestic Violence Intervention Agency Don Hennessy.
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He means cleverness at its most cruel. Abusers, he says, are conmen and brainwashers who employ tactics no different from paedophiles. Those are strong words but Hennessy believes in straight-talking.
“He dominates everything. I ask ‘do you talk to your partner in your head’ and they say ‘all the time’. They wonder, how would he like me to do this, what will he think or I couldn’t tell him this or he’ll go mad if he finds out that.
“He is in her head. She carries him around the whole time. She comes into the office here and you are talking to her but she is filtering what you say through his voice. You’re not getting to talk to the woman.”
Working to understand how this happens led Hennessy to publish a groundbreaking book late last year. How He Gets into Her Head: The Mind of the Male Intimate Abuser puts forward the theory that abuse stems from a sense of entitlement.
The abuser, he believes, feels entitled to have his needs put first and foremost and must subjugate his partner to ensure she sees to those needs.
“Any man is capable of developing a sense of entitlement. They may carry it with them to different degrees or they may not display it at all. It’s the unlimited sense of entitlement that makes an abuser. What limits it for most men is old-fashioned conscience. Some people will not take advantage of other people and some people will.”
Hennessy says abusers will go out of their way to find a woman they can take advantage of, and believes they operate the same way as paedophiles, grooming their victim.
“They start from the day they meet the prospective partner. What they are really looking for is somebody who will put his needs before hers.
“The woman will take responsibility for him being happy and the pattern is there right at the beginning. If he meets somebody who has more self-interest than concern for him or who doesn’t respond the way he wants, he tends to move on. Abusers look for kindness and they abuse that kindness.
“They are probably the biggest conmen I have come across in my life. They are very capable of presenting themselves in whatever way is attractive to the woman. If she tries to leave, he will pull her back. He will convince her that if she changes or improves, everything will be okay. She is constantly being re-groomed. The process is exactly the same as with a paedophile.”
As with the paedophile, he believes the primary sense of entitlement is sexual.
“Most [of the] women have been killed or seriously assaulted because they have let it be known they are no longer sexually available. Often the first step in her breaking away is that she leaves the marital bed and that’s when the risk is greatest.”
Hennessy makes no distinction between men who abuse with their fists and those who use less physical force.
“The effect on the victim is exactly the same. What they want to do is control the intimacy of the relationship. I have met women who have never been physically abused and have met women who have been physically assaulted every week and they are both in the same condition at the end of the experience.”
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While many abusers will claim to love their partner — and even that their controlling behaviour is motivated by love — Hennessy dismisses the notion.
“He loves what she can do for him. He certainly does not love her in a way that he wants her to be feeling good about herself. He has no interest in her wellbeing.”
The other common plea by the abuser — especially in the early days of his abuse — is that he’s sorry but again, Hennessy says it’s another self-serving act.
“There was a good example in England recently with the man [Mick Philpott] convicted of burning his children to death. He’d been crying on TV, apparently grief-stricken.
“I have had them here in my office, crying and full of remorse but they have no concept of the harm they have done to other people and their only regret is that somebody is going to do something to them now they’ve been found out.”
Particularly disturbing is the fact that most of the men Hennessy deals with see no similarity between themselves and other abusers.
“I have met the occasional person who lacks mental development but mostly they are ordinary people living ordinary lives. They are quite capable of living to a set of principles and they are very clear that domestic abuse is wrong.
“In group sessions one man will say the reason this guy beats his wife is because he has no money and no job. The man who says this will probably be successful. Or a man will say about another man, it’s because he has no education. This man will be well educated himself.
“Or you’ll hear it’s because he’s stressed because he’s successful with a high-pressure job. They keep on separating themselves from other people in the room. They have principles but they just ignore them in their own case.”
For a woman who has survived one abusive relationship, a major warning sign is the arrival of a new man who appears to be absolutely everything her previous partner tyrant wasn’t.
“Some women end up with a second abuser and everybody has said there is something wrong with that woman, she must be really inadequate in some way.”
Hennessy does not believe abusers are completely irredeemable — but he hasn’t seen much proof that they are.
Tomorrow we look at the options and obstacles when moving on from domestic violence — physically, legally, and emotionally — and we talk to Women’s Aid and other groups about what more needs to be done to tackle the problem.