Getting It Right: Spousal Abuse

This post was prompted by a few passages and books I have seen that deal with spousal abuse. In my opinion, the patterns of behaviours did not fit what I know, both first hand and from my studies, about this issue. For the record, I have worked in a women’s shelter where I went through an extensive training program.

I wish to state up front that I will use the feminine pronoun for this when I refer to the victim. Yes, I know that men are sometimes abused, too, but this is about a syndrome. Using “she/he” makes for awkward reading. Since nine out of ten victims of spousal abuse are female I think it fair to make that choice. This post is not about arguing gender.

First let me say that abuse comes in many forms, physical, emotional, financial, sexual and psychological, but they all have one thing in common. It’s about control. Period. The method and form simply are the tools to gain and maintain it.

Second, and this is where many writers go off track, abusers, or perpetrators, are almost never just nasty monsters. They are complex human beings and so have positive traits as well as abusive ones. That is the most frequent reason for the abuse – remorse cycle which is so prevalent. In most cases abuse begins with small incidents that women tend to excuse and pretend mean nothing, especially if the remorse follows, which it almost always does. It is also what allows the abuser to go unnoticed outside of the home. Often abusers appear to be ‘nice guys’, ‘pillars of the community’ and show no signs in public. Watch the news. You’ll see that neighbours will say, after he is charged with the murder or assault on his partner, what a great person the abuser was and how surprised they are to hear of the crime.

Early Signs

Uncontrolled Temper: Does he anger easily? Does he get nasty if you are late for a date or take too long getting dressed? Does he get angry if you question him about his life or past?

Extreme Jealousy: Some women think it’s cute or flattering until he hits her. Only then does she realize the danger. Does he accuse you of seeing someone else or going out on him? Does he get mad if you have male friends?

Lack of trust: Does he check your phone and e-mail. Does he get angry if you are late or don’t answer your phone? Does he call to check on you several times a day, even at work?

Past Violence: Does he get into verbal and physical fights easily? Do you have knowledge he has been abusive to other women? Past abusers will give you the same treatment if you go with them long enough. You are at risk if he has abused others.

Reckless Behaviour: Like running red lights, breaking laws, drinking and driving, using drugs, and inability to control his actions.

Lack of Respect: What is his relationship with his mother? Is there respect for women generally? Does he use derogatory words when referring to women or to you?

Patterns of Abuse

Escalation: The escalation phase of the pattern of abuse may be a period in which the abuser uses a broad range of coercive tactics to control the victim and to wear away at his partner’s self-confidence and self-worth.

Financial: These efforts to control are often made under the guise of good intentions. For example, an abuser may constantly point out the difficulties of working full-time and raising a family as a way to get his partner to quit her job and therefore become more financially dependent on him.

Isolation: An abuser might attempt to isolate his partner from friends and family. This can include moving house, restricting phone access, making family unwelcome or actually preventing access to family.

The Acute Incident: The acute incident is an intense show of force intended to make the victim afraid and to firmly establish the abuser’s control over her. While the acute incident is often a physical assault of some kind, the use of threats or the destruction of pets or property can also be effective ways of instilling fear and establishing control.

De-escalation: (the remorse phase of the common cycle) During the de-escalation phase, abusers often apologize, promise to not repeat the abusive behaviour, give gifts, or express a desire for sexual intimacy. For abusers, this “making up” behaviour may help them ease any genuine feelings of guilt they may have. In addition, abusers may use these behaviours as a way to manipulate their partners’ emotions – to give victims hope that the abuse won’t happen again. This can help abusers avoid negative consequences of their abuse.

Progression of Violence: Early on in a relationship, when the controlling behaviours are typically less intense, less severe, and often imposed under the guise of “good intentions,” it is very difficult to clearly identify them as part of a pattern of abuse. As a result, the first acute violent incident may easily be considered by the victim (and by others) as an “isolated” incident. Coupled with her partner’s remorse and promises to never repeat the behaviour, a woman may be easily persuaded to stay and “work it out.”

Some other behaviours which are self-explanatory are: threats of suicide, threats of harming or taking away the kids, forced sex, destruction of belongings, threatening to harm or kill pets, blaming you for whatever angers him, humiliation and name calling, denial of any personal responsibility.

An interesting aspect of this syndrome is that often the abuser knows exactly what he is doing when he is doing it. He wants you to see him as ‘out of control’ but he seldom is. The pattern is often a calculated plan aimed at reducing the woman’s self-esteem and gaining complete control.

There are other behaviours I could add to this list but I think most people will be able to figure the rest out from what is here.

As writers it is important to keep our characters real. And that means showing not only the warts, but also the ‘better’ traits. It serves to help the reader understand why it takes so many victims so long to leave and why some never do.

For my next post I would like to explore that aspect of spousal abuse – why women stay. It’s much more complex than many realise.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

35 thoughts on “Getting It Right: Spousal Abuse”

  1. Great post, Yvonne. It’s easy to portray a “bad guy” as evil personified — but as you point out, it’s not real life, and it doesn’t make for a character who feels like a real person.

  2. Not only have you shown a way to add complexity, and realism, to characters, you’ve shed light on a major American problem. Thanks.

    1. May I suggest that spousal abuse is not a major American problem, but one that is a world-wide major problem. By limiting it to America, you have ignored a billion women world-wide who are suffering as we write.

  3. Interesting post. My Victorian character, Maggie, had little choice in coping with her struggle. Sadly, times have not changed much for many today.

  4. -shudder- For me those ‘better’ traits are scarier than the overtly abusive ones because they abuse the victim’s love. So long as these people are depicted as two dimensional monsters they will continue to go unrecognized. Great post.

      1. What interested me about this particularly was that from the abuser’s point of view, he (or she) is not acting kindly with an overt intent to manipulate. I’ve read plenty of lists of “warning signs of an abuser” that are aimed at the victim, and “the abuser alternates the abusive episodes with kindness and remorse” is always presented in terms of, “that’s the way the abuser ropes the victim in.” I confess that it never occurred to me ’til today to see this from the abuser’s point of view: he didn’t mean to be abusive to start with, and his remorse is genuine. It’s the fact that the victim sticks around afterward, giving him what he wants, that cements the behavior. It really is a dance, isn’t it?

        (Armchair psychology is fun! 😀 )

        1. Lest anyone think my parenthetical comment too flippant, I’ll just say that I’ve been on the inside of my share of abusive situations over the years — and sometimes humor helps.

        2. Lynne, that is true in some cases, not so in others. Yes, it is why some women stay. But the ‘remorse cycle’ can also be manipulative with intent. As in, “I’ll be nice to keep her off guard long enough to regain my control’. It’s also often difficult to tell which remorse is genuine and which is not. You are so right, it is a dance – a dangerous one. It took me many years to figure out which one my father was.

  5. Thanks, Yvonne! Great explanation for a very complex problem. You are right – it is about control – not only of others but of the way others are permitted to see him; like a Hollywood actor playing a role – hence the great guy out in the community. It boils down to why he feels the need to control his environment and the people in his life in the first place. The controlling, abusive bad guy in my first novel came with a history – the reader could connect the dots and determine the why behind his behavior – but the flip side of his character (the innate goodness laying underneath the broken spirit) will show through in the sequel and create a complete picture. Thanks again for this post. Looking forward to the follow up. 🙂

  6. Terrific explanation, Yvonne. It’s often too easy to portray abusers in fiction as pure evil. Yet if they were, partners would not be initially attracted, I’d imagine.

    1. Thanks, Laurie. I expect you’re right. And I also believe that ‘victims’ send out unconscious signals that abusers are attuned to that help them choose who they will target.

  7. Thank you, Yvonne. I hope you don’t mind, but I forwared the article to my writing group. One of the ladies just e-mailed me back that it came at the right time, as a woman she knows is going through a separation and needs to read this to help her go forward with a divorce from her spouce. Great work.

  8. Great post, Yvonne. This kind of behavior is prevalent in human trafficking–where the pimp, or recruiter, gains the victim’s trust and then maintains control by threatening abuse or abusing, followed by contrition and protestations of love, offering gifts, etc., promising they’ll never treat them like that again. Of course, they do and the cycle repeats, often escalating to extreme violence, many times ending in the victim’s death. The more awareness of this issue, the better. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  9. Mon Cher Yvonne,

    This is an incredible post and you have done yeoman’s work (or should that be yoewoman’s work) on the topic for those authors who do not know or understand spousal abuse. You have written an excellent guide for authors and it is well-written.

    Just writing about it sheds a light on what is an epidemic – not just in the U.S. and Canada, but world-wide. Too many societies and cultures believe in the open ownership of women by men – we see it every day in the news. But here in North America, it is better hidden.

    Unfortunately, as a former counselor, I’ve dealt with too many types of abuse; from children, to teenagers, to adults. One horrific case still brings tears to my eyes – pause to wipe face. That is why when my series protagonist, Danny Phillips meets a young boy and his mother who have been badly abused, it is a defining moment of his life.

    On an extension of this topic, I recommend “The Road of Lost Innocence” by Somaly Mam (

    Yvonne, this is probably the most important thing you have written, and it will change lives.

    God Bless You!

    1. Thank you, Chris. It’s not something many of us want to talk about but as writers we have to keep it real. It’s part of the human condition and needs to be portrayed accurately.

  10. Yvonne,
    This post upset me because I believe it was draining for you to write. Thank you for writing it, and explaining this issue.
    I have heard many stories of abuse, and have been shocked by a murder/suicide in my development that was brewing for years.
    I had one conversation with my now husband when we were in our early twenties: if you ever hit me I will kill you in your sleep. I do not say this to make a joke of the terrible situation many women find themselves in. I believe that sometimes, accepting this treatment comes from how we are raised, our cultural norms, and our self-esteem. My husband is a very sweet man and would never abuse me in the ways you list. I simply wanted to set the boundary. I wish the solution could be so simple for women facing this violence.
    Sending you a big hug.

    1. Thank you, Lois. Sending hug right back to you. Writing it was not as difficult as one might expect. I have been there (in my family of origin), and come out the other end pretty strong. Funny though, I said much the same thing to my husband when we married. “You’ll hit me once and that will be the last time you see me.” He, too, is a gentle soul so I never had that threat challenged.

      As for the “why’ women get into these things and stay – read next month’s post. I hope it doesn’t disturb you too much.

  11. Yvonne, this article is not only helpful to us as writers, it is helpful to us as human beings making our way in a complicated world. We must ensure we understand so we can be truthful and ultimately be respectful of those who are victims of abuse.

    Thank you for writing this, Yvonne.

  12. You are touching on a subject that, unfortunately, is not uncommon anywhere in the world. And you are so right, Yvonne, it is all about power and control. I have worked in conjunction with ‘Women’s Shelters’ and ‘Rape Crisis Centres’; the perpetrators of abuse, and worse, consider themselves ordinary people who operate, in most other respects, as regular, stand-up citizens and, from the outside, are generally viewed as such.

    This is definitely another, ‘Get it right!’ area, where writers, if they don’t know, should do the research. Excellent article, Yvonne.

    1. Thank you, TD. And we need more men like you, who stand up against these abusers – or rather stand up for the abused. You are correct – they masquerade as ‘good citizens’ more than we will ever know.

  13. Dear Yvonne,

    I’ve seen all this from the teacher’s point of view, taken the workshops, etc. and I think you’ve got it nailed. I, too, have read very few novels where the antagonist actually “gets it right.” Actually, where the author gets the antagonist right.



    1. Yes, I’m sure this applies in the classroom as well, both for the kids involved and for spotting kids whose parents may be in that situation. Thank you for the confirmation.

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