I’ve been working in domestic violence for twenty years now. As you can imagine, it’s a wonderful, terrible, always challenging field. And I’ve always loved my work. But I almost quit, back in 2006. It wasn’t the job. I just felt like we were on a hamster wheel, going around in a circle with no real progress. I remember taking a walk by the water, to clear my head and plan my next move.
And then something happened. My brain kind of pops and blended everything I knew and came up with something really amazing. Now, I should explain, first of all, I’m a little different from the kind of person who usually works in the field. Sure, most of us are women, but I’m also a social psychologist.
And in social psychology, we study influence and interaction. We look at the factors that can change beliefs and behaviors, often without somebody consciously noticing. So we examine methods of persuasion, manipulation, coercion. You’ll see why this is important to – By 2006, I also had in-depth interviews with more than 2,500 victims. That’s not exceptional for someone working in the field for a decade, but unlike my peers, I’d also had in-depth confidential interviews with more than 630 abusers, interviews where they knew I couldn’t tell on, so they were incredibly open with me.
What also came into play that day is that I’m very solution focused. It’s one of my favorite things when science discovers answers to long-standing problems. So, what’s my amazing discovery? But what if I told you that most domestic violence is preventable because most of domestic violence relationships are avoidable. What if I told you that abusive relationships aren’t just different after things get ugly? They’re different even at the very beginning. And what if I told you teen girls and women can easily learn the early warning signs in around two hours?
So you can get out before you get trapped. And this solution is available now, not in a decade or a generation. No more good intentions. Let’s go down a different road altogether. It doesn’t sound possible, does it? Most people don’t think we can do anything about it. It all seems too big. The World Health Organization estimates the risk for women worldwide at one in three. I did some calculations. That’s 1.16 billion girls and women experiencing physical or sexual assault from current or former romantic partner, at least once in their lives. And that’s just physical abuse, the easiest type to measure. We don’t have statistics on emotional or psychological abuse, or coercive control even though these are the foundation of all abusive relationships. Your life can be ruined by someone who never put his hands on you in anger.
Now, do you understand coercive control? It’s living under a suffocating system where someone else controls every aspect of your life: what you do, say, eat, how you dress, where and how you live, when you get an education or have a job, how do you spend your money, how many children you have, and how you interact with them. Your relationships are monitored, even with your own family, and you can’t have relationships at all unless the person controlling you gives their permission.
With no exaggeration, it’s a type of slavery. Now, this may sound like your definition of hell; it sounds like heaven to abusers. They put enormous effort into gaining and maintaining this level of absolute control. It also allows them to mistreat their partner at will without being punished or abandoned. And guess what? The risk of a woman getting stuck in one of these relationships is the same now as in 1985.
So the young girl with her mullet hairdo bhopping long, listening to George Michael on her Sony walkman, had the same risk of being abused as a young woman now, watching Beyoncé videos on her iPhone 6s Plus. So, what’s my new approach? It’s turning the usual domestic violence paradigm on its head. It’s talking prevention, not just response, and giving tools directly to the people with the higher risk: teen girls and women.
Now, we can do this because my aha moment was recognizing: abusive relationships don’t just happen; abusers use tactics to get what they want; and these tactics form a pattern. Now, this pattern is visible. So you can see it. It’s consistent. They use the same tactics in the same order in each new relationship. And it’s universal. I heard the same stories regardless of personal demographics. Best of all, I recognize these tactics. I knew why and how they worked thanks to social psychology.
Now, before we talk tactics, I want to talk about abusers. We hear a lot about victims. We don’t hear much about the other side. And I should say a few things. First, I am not implying that every man is a ticking time bomb. That is not fair to the good guys.
Second, I estimate the percentage of abusive men in mainstream culture at around 10%. Third, I still can’t reveal anything that would identify a specific person. The guys I met with knew this. They saw it as their chance to be truly open and honest about what they thought and felt without risking punishment. What they told me was disturbing and surprising and unlike anything I’d heard in open forum. It’s why I call my program “Unmasking the Abuser.”
Now, relatively few of these men – and more than 95% were men – were obviously the angry type with no social skills. Those guys don’t hide, so you don’t need someone like me to tell you how to avoid them. The majority seemed perfectly normal, even charming, until they opened up. Then I could tell their drives went deep with obvious psychological underpinnings. And here is a surprise. These guys knew their relationships were twisted and dysfunctional and hugely unfair to their partners. Some would smile and say, “Oh! I know I’m hard to live with,” then they told me a few nice things they did for their partners as though that balanced it all out. Yet, they felt no guilt.