Home » Unmasking the Abuser: Dina McMillan at TEDxCanberra (Full Transcript)

Unmasking the Abuser: Dina McMillan at TEDxCanberra (Full Transcript)

Dina McMillan at TEDxCanberra

Dina McMillan – TRANSCRIPT

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.

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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.

What they felt was entitled to a relationship that was all in their favor, where they could be hyper-controlling and cruel, and their partner just had to accept it. Their partner was an object to them, one they felt they owned fully and completely. Their partner’s right to be respected and treated fairly only came up when they were lying to outsiders. They didn’t really feel any empathy, compassion or accountability towards them. What they hated most was people interfering.

Now, the vast majority of these guys also wanted partners who genuinely cared about them. They put real effort into getting their version of a romantic relationship because they didn’t like being single. If one relationship ended, they were quickly onto the next, or perhaps they ran more than one relationship at the same time.

Now, this could explain how such a relatively low percentage of abusive men could create such a high risk of abuse for women. Now, you may still be wondering why in the world would these men confide in me. Because they could stop pretending, at least for a little while. I could never tell on them, remember? And most were actually proud of their ability to manipulate people, especially their victims and law enforcement. They viewed it as simply protecting their own interest.

Of course, it was a whole different story if the victim was in the room, or the abuser was in front of someone in authority. Then they looked sorry, and maybe the tears would flow. They’d swear, “I didn’t know what happened!” they claimed, “Oh! I must overreacted because of stress or job loss, or because I’m so in love. I’ll never do it again. I’ll change.” I had to stand by with a blank face and just watch an often very convincing performance. Well, I’m not standing by anymore. Instead, I’m revealing some key information abusers don’t want you to know. I’m exposing their secret tactics.

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Now, I can’t cover them all. But I can show you some of the common and effective tactics used by abusers at the start of every new relationship. These early tactics are known as “grooming.” Do you know that term? Grooming is scripted behavior with a purpose. It’s saying and doing things to quickly lure someone in, inspiring their trust, intensifying their emotional attachment, and increasing your control. All these tactics belong to a group of influence techniques known as “psychological manipulation.”

Psychological manipulation is lying, deceiving, and performing in order to influence how someone thinks, feels, and acts. It’s a powerhouse technique designed to spread like wildfire through your subconscious and unconscious mind and head straight for your emotions, all the while it’s distracting your attention, so you either miss what’s happening, or you underestimate its impact.

Psychological manipulation is scary because it’s not only effective; it works whether you recognize it or not, agree to it or not, resist it or not. Your only protection and the only defense is to get away from the person who is using them on you.

Now, psychological manipulation works best if your mind views the person using it as a legitimate authority over you. Even if he isn’t already in that position, the abuser will quickly gain authority by making lots of decisions and getting you to agree. “Meet me at the coffee at 6.” “OK, you say.” “Let’s sit over here.” “OK, you say.” “Try this,” or “Don’t eat that. It’s not good for you.” “OK, you say.” You let him decide because you want him to like you and think you’re easygoing. But your brain adapts. In a short time, he’ll give orders, and you’ll just obey. And he wants more: He needs you to trust him, and plan a future with him, and fall in love with him. So he’s going to marathon you, maximizing his contact. Anytime you’re together, he’s going to try to talk you out of going home. When you’re apart, he’ll phone, text, IM, or video call you late into the night.

Now, part of what drives this is the abuser’s tendency to fixate, but he may also know extended contact like this creates artificial intimacy. You’ll quickly feel like you know him well and for a long time. And you’ll trust him. Late at night, you’ll tell him things you provably wouldn’t do in the call by the day, and your fatigue will make you easier to influence. But as the ad says, “Wait! There’s more!” because even in the early days, it’s not all hearts and flowers. The abuser wants everything done his way. He’ll be furious if you don’t share his views or opinions on anything, or if you resist his control.

At first, he’ll just try to change your mind, but rage simmers underneath, and before long, he won’t bother hiding it. He’ll try to lower your confidence so you’re easier to manipulate. He’ll draw attention to your every flaw or mistake. He’ll make comments, or jokes that embarrass you, or make you feel self-conscious. He’ll do things that make you feel dumb, or unattractive, or naive. If you start to pull away, he’ll treat you like you’re special again, for a little while.

Now, I call this combination of nice and nasty the “push-pull.” Strangely enough, the push-pull forms a bond that’s even stronger than if you were just moderately nice the whole time. Now, I know a lot of women here are probably like, “OK, quick.” All right. If you want a shortcut to ways to spot these guys, I want you to think: “Too much,” “Too soon,” and “Transforming.” Here’s how they work. Too much: too many complements, too many gifts, too much togetherness. Also, too many promises and too much talk about the future. He goes from not in your life, to all over your life in one fell swoop.

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Too soon: right away, he’ll call you his girlfriend or his future wife, or he claims you saying, “You’re mine now.” He makes big plans for the two of you, and you don’t even know each other yet. Transforming: he immediately starts trying to change you. He gives unsolicited advice or comments on your taste, beliefs, career, personal style. “You know you’d look so much better with longer hair.” Or constantly saying, “You know what you need to do.” There’s something else I need to share with you. I call it, “you and me against the world,” and here’s how it works.

Number one: the secret. He’ll swear he’s revealing things or doing things for you that are secret and special, and he’s never done it before. Not true, but you’ll provably believe him. Then he’ll demand you share your secrets with him. It’s 3 a.m., and you’re exhausted, so you give in. Remember, sharing your secrets won’t just bond you to him. You’re giving him the means to control you.

Number two: joined at the hip. He may demand you go everywhere together. When you’re apart, he’ll contact you constantly, and expect you to respond right away. He wants you focused on him, and prioritizing his needs over everyone else, including yourself.

Number three: isolation. Abuse thrives in isolation. And the hyper jealous abuser wants you all to himself. So he’ll ruin your relationships with everyone else. He’ll criticize your loved ones and get you start questioning their motives. He’ll convince you that he’s the only one that really gets you. Now, that’s not all, but it’s a good start. Now you need to act on this knowledge. Easier said than done. A lot of women have a hard time saying no, even if they can see clear warning signs. They don’t want to hurt his feelings, or they don’t want him to dislike them, or perhaps they’re afraid of his anger.

Friends and family can also be an issue, telling you, “Oh, you’re just too picky,” or, “Poor guy. He deserves another chance.” And then there’s him. Abusers don’t believe you’ve the right to refuse. You’re an object, remember? He will try every trick in the book to stay in your life, from bribes to making you feel like a bad person for turning him down. Usually, he just ignores your rejection and continues to call, text, email, and show up at the venues you’ve posted on social media. He knows if he can stick around, eventually, you’ll provably come around.

So you have to be strong. You have to build your confidence so you can stand up to the pressure. Keep at the front of your mind that this person is ultimately trying to ruin your life.

Now, knowledge is power, and this knowledge empowers and protects women. Every teen girl and woman should learn the full range of tactics used by abusers, so should social educators and community services and law enforcement.

Back in 2006, I stood by the water and I made a decision: I was not going to stand by anymore; I was going to fight back. Now, I’m inviting you to join me. Let’s do something that can finally reduce the number of teen girls an women in abusive relationships. Thank you.

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