Most psychotherapists work with people who have been abused, either recently or long ago. Some work with the abusers themselves, through court mandated treatment or, extremely rarely, because an abuser has has self-referred and is committed to their own recovery. In both instances, one cornerstone of therapist training is recognizing how abusers are able to get away with their actions, often over many years.
Many therapists, like me, are alarmed at how the patterns of abuse are playing out in our current president-elect.
Abusers use a predictable set of tactics to make sure they can continue with their abusive behaviors:
- Abusers make their victims, and, more importantly, the victims’ potential allies, numb to their language of violence. They make threats and later insist they were kidding. They carry through on some, but not always all, of the threats, so that there is always hope that they “don’t mean it.” They use language to demean.
As when Donald Trump called Mexicans rapists, “but some are good people.” As when he bragged about sexually assaulting women, then insisted “no one has more respect for women than I do.” As when he threatened to create a registry for people of the Muslim faith. As when he joked about standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue and murdering someone.
- In between their abusive actions, abusers intersperse favors, and they meet their victim’s real needs.
As in his promise now that he is president to create much-needed infrastructure, and American jobs. As in his alluring call for peace and unity.
- Abusers downplay their history of past abusive behavior.
As in his dismissing his comments about grabbing women’s genitals. It was ten whole years ago, when he was only fifty-nine, it was just boy talk, calm down everyone.
- Abusers intimidate or make their victims feel crazy or scared for naming the abuse.
As in his denial of every single accusation of sexual assault by the 10+ women who came forward, and his threat to sue each of them. As in his surrogate saying he has a “long memory” and is keeping a list of his enemies. As in his mockery of those who are protesting, often out of fear for their lives.
- Abusers rely on the third party. Every situation of abuse has three players: The abuser, the victim, and the bystander who does nothing to stop it.
As in 48% of the American public who have told themselves, He doesn’t mean it, he couldn’t really, his power doesn’t extend that far. The 48% who are largely not the targets of his violence.
- Abusers get away with abuse by promising to change. In the cycle of abuse, this is known as the “honeymoon” or “contrition” phase, where, for a period of time, the abuser acts kindly and generously, often apologizing for past behavior and promises it will never happen again.
We are hearing this from his supporters: “He’ll align with the moderate Republican party platform now that he’s president. He just said those things to get elected.” This week, he made statements about gay marriage and Obamacare that indicate a softening of his earlier campaign rhetoric. Will he lure us more into the honeymoon phase, or is he incapable of contrition? Time will tell.
The psychology of abuse tells us that abusers do not change quickly or easily. Thankfully, the American system of government does prevent one individual from becoming all-powerful, but someone with an abusive mentality will try to change even that system. I’ve decided to err on the side of alarm rather than cheap hope.
Let us not be the bystanders. Let us not be lulled into the complacency of abuse. Let us not believe our own understandable hope that things will not be as bad as they have seemed so far. All evidence – and the timeworn cycle of abuse – indicates that they will be.