Impact on Abusers

There is remarkably little information available about the impact of abuse on the abusive person. Many abusers will not be able to acknowledge that the abuse happened at all — much less that it had a negative impact on them.

Some, perhaps most, abusers will justify their abusive behavior and insist they have done nothing wrong. Other abusers may be so narcissistic or self-focused that the abuse seems to have little impact on them. If the impact of abuse on an abuser is to increase their level of denial, reinforce their sense of entitlement and reinvigorate their efforts to blame other people, then the abuse will contribute to whatever pathology/dysfunction was present before the abuse. This is not, however, the only possible outcome.

For other abusers, the experience of being an abuser can be extremely traumatic — their behavior may be dissonant with their self-concept, they may find their behavior to be confusing or incomprehensible, and they may experience enormous personal suffering as the result of their behavioral choices. There is some evidence to support this possibility.

  • The incidence of suicide subsequent to allegations of sexual abuse is just one indication that abuse can have a huge impact on the abuser.12.
  • There is also some evidence which suggests that abusers have a significantly increased life-time risk for developing an alcohol and/or substance abuse or dependence disorder compared to controls.3
  • If the abusive behavior of an abuser is dissonant with their self-concept they may also seek to switch to another role in the abusive family system — see the discussion here
  • There are, of course, the effects related to prosecution, incarceration etc. Most abusers are neither prosecuted nor incarcerated but fear of these outcomes is part of the experience of many abusers.
  • The features of typical sex offender treatment programs suggest that even in treatment the impact of abuse on the abuser is given a relatively low priority. The priority concern is protecting the community from the abuser, not providing services of any kind to the abuser. See for example:
    Treatment of Sex Offenders – Difference Between Sex Offender Treatment and Psychotherapy

The impact of abuse on abusers has just not been studied that much. It seems likely to me that Jesus was on target when he said:

whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (NASB) Matthew 18:6

Taken as a description of the suffering experienced by abusers, this text seems like a good summary to me. It is not a fun thing to be an abuser. Abusers do not lead happy, contented lives. It may seem like cruel people have “gotten away with something” . . but that is only appearances. That abusers pay a price for their behavior is proverbial:

A kind man benefits himself,
but a cruel man brings trouble on himself.4

Awareness of the negative consequences of abusive behavior for the abuser might, of course, tend to increase our empathy for abusers. And that has some risks because many abusers will see empathy as a sign of weakness and know how to use it to their advantage. Empathy is certainly not an unqualified virtue when working with abusers. But without it we run the risk of abusing abusers — which is unlikely to lead us to a increased safety. It is important to note that abusers suffer as the result of abuse, it is a good thing if this makes it possible for us to experience empathy for abusers, but this empathy must be deeply embedded in a context which holds abusers responsible for their actions, prioritizes behavioral change rather than intentions as evidence of personal transformation and insists on substantive accountability structures for people who have hurt others.

  1. Priest suicides and the crisis of faith.By: Rossetti, Stephen J., America, 00027049, 10/29/94, Vol. 171, Issue 13 

  2. U.S. Prosecutor Held in a Child Sex Sting Kills Himself. By: Goodnough, Abby. New York Times, 10/6/2007, Vol. 157 Issue 54089, pA10-A10, 1/7p; (AN 27343821)  

  3. Psychiatric co-morbidity in caregivers and children involved in maltreatment: a pilot research study with policy implications. By: De Bellis, Michael D.; Broussard, Elsie R.; Herring, David J.; Wexler, Sandra; Moritz, Grace; Benitez, John G.. Child Abuse & Neglect, Jul2001, Vol. 25 Issue 7, p923-944, 22p, 4 charts; (AN 5019776)  

  4. Proverbs 11:17 

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