The qualities that make up an abusive man are like the ingredients in a recipe: The basics are always present, but the relative amounts very greatly. One man may be so severely controlling that his partner can’t make a move without checking with him first, and yet, oddly, he contributes substantially to the domestic work and child care. Another man may allow his partner to come and go as she pleases, even accepting her friendships with men, but there is hell to pay if she fails to wait on him hand and foot, or if she makes the mistake of asking him to clean up after himself. Still other abusers are less overtly controlling and entitled than either of these men but mind-twisting in the severity of their manipulations.
The tactics and attitudes of an abuser can vary from country to country, from ethnic group to ethnic group, from rich man to poor man. Abusers from each culture have their special areas of control or cruelty. Middle class white abusers, for example, tend to have strict rules about how a woman is allowed to argue. If she talks back to him, shows anger, or doesn’t shut up when she is told to, he is likely to make her pay. My clients from Latin American cultures typically permit their partners to be more forceful and “mouthy” in a conflict than my white clients but can be highly retaliatory if their partners give any attention to another male. Abusers select the pieces of turf they wish to stake out, influenced in those choices by their particular culture and background. Each woman who is involved with an abusive or controlling man has to deal with his unique blend of tactics and attitudes, his particular rhythm of good times and bad times, and his specific way of presenting to the outside world. No one should ever tell an abused woman, “I know just what you’re going through,” because the experience of each woman is different.
Viewed from another angle, however, abuse doesn’t vary that much. One man uses a little more of one ingredient and a little less of the other, but the overall flavor of the mistreatment has core similarities: assaults on the woman’s self-esteem, controlling behavior, undermining her independence, disrespect. Each abused woman has times of feeling that a riptide is dragging her under the sea, and she struggles for air. Confusion has been a part of the experience of almost every one of the hundreds abused women I have spoken with. Whether because of the abuser’s manipulativeness, his popularity, or simply the mind-bending contrast between his professions of love and his vicious psychological or physical assaults, every abused woman finds herself fighting to make sense of what is happening.