*** This post has been edited to add a comment emailed to me by a reader. She wanted to point out that not all abusers have “tells” that other people would see. That comment – because this blog no longer accepts comments – has been added to the bottom of this post.
About a month ago, I read the Homicide Report by Stuff journalists. It was the first time, in black and white, I had ever read what I know so well. Almost 50% of DV related murders are committed by pākeha men. It’s something that my colleagues and I have talked about for a number of years. I had read the DV stats for years – you can do that here. I couldn’t understand why they read as if the biggest problem was amongst Māori, because the word on the street – amongst my senior colleagues in family violence – was that that was a false narrative. Once I found out they’re based on per head of population, it made more sense.
And then, two days ago, Kirsty Johnstone published her most excellent piece on domestic violence and how we need to focus more on the perpetrators. Followed up by this this also excellent piece on how we can do that. It’s about unchecked privilege basically. They keep doing it – being violent in all the meanings of that word – because nobody stops them, and nobody tells them not to do that. The police rarely attend incidences in pākeha homes, until it’s too late, and neither do pākeha women use refuge services very often.
The reality is is that Pākeha men commit the majority of violence against women – of all ethnicities – in this country. That’s the long and the short of it. It would be strange, statistically, if they didn’t as Pākeha form the majority of the population of this country.
So why don’t more people know about this? I’ve written about this before here.
Again it’s about unchecked privilege, and having resources they can hide behind. And most abusers are charming. But they’re not invisible, they’re just protected, so I wonder if I told people what the signs are, if the protection of them would stop? I doubt it. It’s a bit of a racist and classist thing, in my opinion. If we can’t see the politician, doctors, lawyers, judges, police officers, bankers and other professional men as trustworthy then it shakes our world. Similarly, there is unconscious bias towards white professional men, in particular. So we tend to excuse their behaviour or not believe it could be possible.
It is possible, believe me. I get emails and phone calls all the time from women who have been or are married to these men. They tell me their stories and they always say the same thing: nobody ever suspected. They never contacted the police because they wouldn’t be believed. They were lucky to get away.
So whether or not people understand all this, I’m going to lay out in black and white exactly what to look for. Because you can let someone have their unchecked privilege or you can observe what’s happening, and maybe have a quiet word. They’re less likely to do it if they think they’re not going to get away with it. This is based on my experience of living with a person who was abusive, a lifetime of being around adult cis men, and the last 7 years of experience professionally.
This list is based on cis heterosexual relationships because, for this particular post we are focussing on the pākeha cis man dynamic, but of course can apply to anybody. And to be clear, when I say abuse or violence, I am talking about ALL manifestations of that. Here to remind you is the wheel of power and control. You can google the definitions of violence against women, but generally they are, as agreed upon by the UN and WHO, acts that demean and take away women’s power. In NZ, that looks like physical, sexual, emotional and verbal violence. There are many many manifestations.
So here, then, are some signs that your family member or friend may be abusive:
- Watch the way he speaks to her if he thinks nobody is listening, or even if they are. More narcissistic types won’t even realise or if they do, won’t think anybody will notice, or care. Does he verbally put her down, usually very subtly? Does he denigrate what she’s saying all the time? Tell her to shut up? Does he tell her to harden up if she get’s upset? Make fun of her in any way? Make jokes at her expense?
- Watch the way he speaks to people he doesn’t think are important: wait people, supermarket check out operators etc. Is he cold and dismissive?
- Watch the way he speaks to people he thinks ARE important. Is he slightly TOO self effacing?
- Does he blame everyone all the time? Is nothing his fault? Pretty classic sign of someone who engages in abusive behaviour. Does he talk about his ex partners negatively?
- Does he appear to get his way all the time? What happens if she challenges him, or tries to say no?
- Does she turn down invitations quite often? Do you see or hear from her very often when you used to all the time?
- Does she always stay quiet when you see them together? Is he always the star of the show? Does she constantly tell everyone how wonderful he is?
- If you’re privy to it, is everything overly ordered and on time in their household? Meals on the table at a certain time?
- Does he apologise for her under performing? Does he blame her or the kids for small stuff that nobody else would have noticed?
- No matter how polite, is he impatient? Do you ever notice a certain tone in his voice? A hiss perhaps that would be more than you’d expect? Is it more vehement?
- Does he always comment on other women when they’re together?
- Do you ever hear him complimenting her? If you do, is it in a backhanded way?
- Does he turn his back on her at a party? Does he ignore her completely?
- Or is he overly attentive/affectionate? Does he place his hand on her possessively? Tell everyone what a loving relationship they have?
- Are their kids, if they have any, slightly jumpy and excitable? Are they anxious and clingy to their mum?
- When the family are together are the kids really quiet, but when they are on their own they are different?
- Do the kids always seem to be having sleep overs at other people’s house?
- Do the kids talk negatively about their mother?
Does he fake laugh after putting her or the kids down? Like it’s a joke?
Do the kids have to ask other parents for lifts to weekend sports or practise?
- If he calls her while she’s out and about, do you have to verify to him where she is?
- Does he always order the food and drinks in restaurants? Does he comment on what she’s eating/drinking?
- Does he ever take her phone off her or restrict her use of the internet? “You’re always on the internet” – those sorts of comments.
- Does he constantly text/phone her while you’re out with her?
- If they break up, does he tell you she’s mad/bad/it was all her fault/ she was abusive/he couldn’t handle her moods?
- Is he sulky?
- Did they get married or start living together quite quickly? Whose idea was that?
- Does he seem to rely on her for all his needs?
- Is he easily insulted? Does she have to placate him?
- Is he mean to animals?
- What’s his attitude to women in general? What are the roles in their household? Are they equal?
- When you talk about him, is she quick to defend him? Does she admit they have problems but he’s “such a good father”?
- Are his moods mercurial? Does he move from pleasant to angry fairly quickly?
- Is he very aware of “his rights” and have a firm sense of what’s fair and what’s not?
- Does he act entitled? Does he get disappointed very easily?
- Does he try to make people feel bad about themselves in general?
- Is he really petty? Blows things out of proportion?
- Is he sarcastic?
- Is he really intense? Moves really fast in his romantic relationships? Fall in love very easily?
- If he’s drunk, does he do stuff to her that you think is funny?
- Does he enjoy getting her drunk?
- Is he friendly/brilliant/talented to everyone else so much so that it seems as though she “must be crazy” to even suggest he’s abusive? But-she actually DOES.
- Does he talk quietly to her quite a bit? Whisper in her ear? What does her face tell you afterwards.
- Does he help everybody else but you notice is not a big contributor at home?
Does he tell people she isn’t good with credit cards?
- Does he seem anxious to show her body off to other people?
When they are out walking is she trailing behind with one child whilst he strides off with smallest child on shoulders like best Dad in the world?
When you visit her is he always there too, and if she wants to discuss something with you does he somehow try to prevent it, or listen in?
Does he always have to have the last say and gets a bit snippy if she answers back?
- Does he talk about what a lot he has to put up with at home? Paints her as a dragon, or a tartar?
- Does he ring you and disclose his worries about her mental health? To discuss her meds?
When you’re around does he offer everyone else a drink food but her? If she brings it up, does he make out she’s unreasonable?
- Is she forgetful? Does she apologise too much? Does she seem anxious he’s having a good time?
This is not a comprehensive list, and there may be things you would wish to add. Things that your partner did that aren’t on here. If so, let me know and I can add them.
But you can see it’s a VERY long list. And I want to thank everyone who forwarded their experiences, to be shared. The things they think other people may not have noticed, or had put aside doubts around.
Traditionally we’re told that abusers can be very hard to spot. I don’t agree that that’s the case. I think it’s more that we need to be TOLD what is unacceptable and abusive behaviour because we are so used to seeing it in relationships that we tend to minimise it and make excuses. I also believe that when faced with some behaviour, we turn our heads the other way, or we minimise it, because it’s awkward and uncomfortable. Of course it is. Most of them will see how far they can push it. That’s how they figure out how much they can get away with, and how much power they actually hold.
And here’s the thing. I don’t necessarily think it’s the best thing to approach HER about what you think is going on. So I’m going to talk to any cis het man who is reading this right now. You. Yes, YOU.
If you recognise any of this behaviour from a friend or family member, I want you to have a quiet word. If you’re afraid it may make things worse for her? It won’t. If it’s an abusive relationship he doesn’t need an excuse to hurt her, in any number of ways. They may get bolshy about it, so do it in public. Make sure you have a good relationship with that person, obviously, but if you think that you are someone he trusts, and looks up to? You better call him out. Do it however you like – quietly is likely best – but YOU do it. Don’t expect women to clean up the mess, or police, or any other organisation who exists to support HER. You are likely the only one he won’t get uber defensive with. He will try to charm you, convince you it’s all her. Don’t buy it. Hold your ground.
And say something.
Once you have noticed, you cannot turn away, or you are perpetuating and condoning violence, and you are supporting the patriarchal structures that allows that violence to exist.
If you think of yourself as a good man, I’ve told you what to do. It’s hard, but it’s important. Let’s turn this shit around.
****Comment from a reader who points out, quite rightly, that not all abusive people have “tells” that others would see.
“Sometimes they are the ones who are almost IMPOSSIBLE to spot from the outside, and even from the inside!!
My abuser was extremely quiet, shy, softly spoken and gentle 95% of the time, and NEVER ONCE slipped up in front of anyone outside of our nuclear family. NEVER. Not once in 10 years!!!
People were known to say he was “the nicest guy i know” and “the kind of guy who wouldn’t hurt a fly” and “everybody loves [insert name here]”.
I later found out he was a Covert Narcissist. The kind of narc who appears to be the opposite of a narc. No wonder even **I** didn’t realise i was being abused. I never got any black eyes, but I’ve now been in years of therapy for chronic PTSD (a type caused by chronic incessant abuse) and sexual abuse. I didn’t even know i was being abused, it was so cleverly done and so subtle!
The only way i found out i was being abused was by accidently stumbling across an article about narcissists one day when i was reading about fixing relationship problems (we had been in relationship counselling since the beginning and not one counsellor ever picked it up either). Anyway, i always thought all our problems were my fault and that my life was doomed to constant misery because no matter how hard i tried, our problems NEVER improved, even slightly. I was reading relationship books and articles day and night, trying to fix us.
Then i read about narcissists and my whole world changed. I read every book i could find about abuse and recognised all the signs of emotional and verbal abuse. But because there was nothing physical or overly sexually abusive, it went under the radar for 10 HIDEOUS YEARS and our children suffered so badly!!! It was SO hard to get myself and kids out of that relationship due to his anger and control of our finances. He took my house that i owned and an inheritance from my family. Everyone had believed he was such a good guy, so they didn’t help me protect my assets, and i didn’t think i needed to protect them either. I was wrong.
My ex doesn’t do most of the things in the list you wrote, but he was one of the worst types of abusers there are. Bottom line… Even if the man only ticks ONE item on this list, SEEK ADVICE AND HELP **from someone who understands abusers inside out**. A regular counsellor may not be enough. “
I thank them for their comment.