I struggle with using the words “narcissist” and “sociopath” and the like in my descriptions of abusers. The words get a lot of online attention and would draw in abuse victims trying to solve the mystery of their lover’s nasty behaviors. However, “abusers” do not fall into any specific category in the DSM-IV (the guide psychiatrists use to diagnose mental illnesses). By and large, abusive people are not mentally ill – even though to us normal folks, it sure appears that they are insane.
Due to some of the comments this post received, I want to clarify that I am talking about cases of domestic violence and abuse – two adults who chose to be together initially until one found out the other was abusing them. There is some peace in “diagnosing” your abuser as a sociopath, narcissist, or whatever as a layperson because your research will also show you these people DO NOT CHANGE and IT ISN’T YOUR FAULT they behave the way they do. This helps you to detach from them.
However, if you are a victim of abuse in a domestically violent relationship, then it does no good to wait around out of “loyalty” or “marriage vows” or any other reason if your abuser happens to actually go to a therapist and receive such a diagnosis. You will become disordered if you live with someone with a mental disorder that science has no way to treat or cure.
Labeling Abusers As Mentally Ill Hurts Victims of Abuse
In fact, there is no more, no less mental illness in the abusive population than in the general population. Therefore, pigeon-holing abusers as narcissists, sociopaths, or any other disordered type can hurt the victims of abuse. As a victim of intimate partner violence (IPV, the psychological term for domestic violence), I searched for reasons why my husband acted the way he did. Going through the checklists online for different disorders left me empty-handed. Yes, he was somewhat of a narcissist and somewhat of a sociopath…but he didn’t quite meet the qualifications for ANY disorder. According to psychiatry and the DSM-IV, my husband was “normal”.
This was actually a GOOD thing for me to discover because, at the time, I was looking for an excuse for his nastiness (and a reason for me to stay). I mean, if he had a disorder (like my depression), then I “should” stick with him – he can’t help his brain chemicals, right? That’s what I would have thought . . . and I would have tried to get him into counseling for a diagnosis so he could accept what he’d been doing and change into a nice guy. You see where that thinking leads, right? Straight to more reasons to blame myself for not accepting him as he is and loving him unconditionally.
To complicate matters, stroke victims and those with traumatic brain injuries can emerge from their traumas as very different, very abusive, people. For example, one man’s wife suffered a stroke and changed into an abusive jerk. Part of it is due to depression and the stress of learning to deal with life after a stroke, but part of it is much more ominous. For example, she told her husband that she acted out a dream while he was at work one day. In the dream, she took a kitchen knife and killed him as he watched television. She acted this out by herself, home alone, pretending it was real! She felt compelled.
Is she reaching out for help by telling her husband? Or is she purposefully inflicting emotional abuse? The husband doesn’t know. I don’t know. And if she did it on purpose, would she really tell that truth? There is no way to know what is in her mind. The man must decide for himself when he has had enough of the abuse (intended or not). Labeling his wife as a “stroke victim” doesn’t help him at all.
Labeling your abuser as a narcissist, sociopath, or even an addict doesn’t help you at all, either.
Trying to Figure Out the Abuser Doesn’t Help You
On the flip side of the research, we have to consider this, too: most sociopaths, narcissists, and other similarly disordered people DO NOT seek counseling because they see nothing “wrong” with what they do. By and large, they’re happy with themselves – it is the rest of the world that is screwed up. So, it is possible that abusers DO have a higher percentage of disorders than the general public, but we can’t prove it. We don’t know it for sure and blanketing “abuser” under other disorders hurts their victims more than it helps.
If you struggle to answer the question “Why does she abuse me?” you will find no good answer to the question. A better question is “What can I do to protect myself from the abuse?” That empowering question will lead you toward answers that will help you instead of contributing to your feelings of powerlessness, anger, and pain.
*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so do not assume my pronoun choices are an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimized.