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More PsychNotes: Trauma and PTSD

August 2, 2017

Why a “Good Man” Abuses
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

The wounds of love can only be healed by the one who made them. Publilius Syrus
Many times my clients have reported being physically abused by their partners and yet describe the partner as a “good man.” Such a description made it seem as if the client was in denial and tending to ignore the partner's true nature.

However, in some cases, perhaps it is not denial but an understanding of the partner's full nature, the depth of his love but also the emotional turbulence hidden beneath the surface. Of course, this understanding may be the reason many women stay with an abusive partner. They believe that if only they can love him enough, he will come to terms with his emotions and quit being abusive.

In line with the idea that a “good man” can be abusive, research shows that 77% of men who abuse their intimate partner have experienced trauma while 62% report multiple traumas and more than half experienced trauma in childhood. Of those men, as children 14-19% were physically abused, 8% were sexually abused, and 33% witnessed parental aggression (Maguire, et al., 2015; Semiatin, et al., 2016). Many of these men are not bad but are emotionally conflicted and in mental distress because of the trauma in their past.

Men externalize emotions

Many people wonder why women who were abused as children aren't as likely to be abusive to their partners. The difference between men and women who were abused as children or who have been traumatized is that men tend to be externalizers of emotion (Eaton, et al, 2011) which means instead of experiencing anxiety or depression they focus their emotion outwards.

Instead of turning anger inwards as women tend to do and experience self-blame, low self-esteem, and depression, men will focus their anger on others. They are more likely to blame others and may release these emotions through aggression or attempt to medicate the emotions away with drugs or alcohol.

Under some circumstances such as previously experienced trauma, a man may have good intentions towards his partner and in many ways treat his partner with love, respect, and kindness, but under emotional duress he may lash out and be abusive. Afterward, he may feel genuinely horrible about his abusive behavior and sincerely intend to change. Yet, because he externalizes emotions he is unlikely to seek professional help because it requires looking inward.

Importance of professional help

This in no way excuses the abuser's behavior but is to explain why a “good man” might be abusive. Of course, it also is to say why the abused partner needs to withdraw from the cycle of abuse. Given the possibility of trauma and externalizing depression and/or anxiety, the “good man” who abuses, in spite of his promises, cannot stop the abuse on his own but needs professional help. As long as the abused partner participates in the cycle of abuse and continues to accept his promises, he is unlikely to obtain the help he needs.

Much help for abusive men has focused primarily on anger management. However, the therapeutic work also needs to focus on the underlying depression and anxiety. He needs assistance to understand his emotions and how to process the trauma he has experienced. In this way he can learn to express his emotions appropriately.

Eaton, N.R., Krueger, R.F., Keyes, K.M. Hasin, D.S., Balsis, S., Skodol, A.E., Markon, K.E. and Grant, B.F. (2012). An Invariant Dimensional Liability Model of Gender Differences in Mental Disorder Prevalence: Evidence from a National Sample. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 121, 282-288. DOI: 10.1037/a0024780

Maguire, E., Macdonald, A., Krill, S., Holowka, D. W., Marx, B. P., Woodward, H., . . . Taft, C. T. (2015). Examining trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in court-mandated intimate partner violence perpetrators. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, 7, 473–478. DOI:10.1037/a0039253

Semiatin, J.N., Torres, S., LaMotte, A.D., Portnoy, G.A. and Murphy, C.M. (2017). Trauma Exposure, PTSD Symptoms, and Presenting Clinical Problems Among Male Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence. Psychology of Violence, 7, 91–100. DOI:10.1037/vio0000041

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