Editor’s note: Lovefraud recognizes that sociopaths are both male and female. This article, however, is about male sociopaths.
Updated for 2019
Often, the stories told here on Lovefraud about abusive relationships have so much in common that readers jokingly ask each other if they were involved with the same man.
Still, there can be profound differences in the stories. For example, quite a few people have said that the men who abused them sometimes exhibited great shame. I was always mystified by this, because I never saw an ounce of shame in my psychopathic ex-husband, James Montgomery. I assumed that those who were exhibiting shame were playacting.
Maybe they weren’t.
A few years ago I read The Batterer a psychological profile, by Donald G. Dutton, Ph.D. This book is excellent and so important that I wanted to highlight it again. It cleared up many issues for me. If you really want to understand men who batter their wives, I strongly recommend this book.
The objective of abuse
This isn’t a new book. It was written back in 1995, and is based on Dutton’s many years of treating and researching batterers.
Right in the beginning of the book, Dutton explains the objective of batterers, and it’s chilling:
As the men gave up their secrets, I began to learn that intimate abuse was not just about hits and punches. It was about psychologically and physically trying to control their victims’ use of time and space in order to isolate them from all social connection, both past and present. It was an all-out attempt to annihilate their wives’ self-esteem, to enslave them psychologically. And it was performed repeatedly in order to maintain and inflate the damaged self-identity of the abuser.
The results of this campaign of control can be deadly. Dutton quoted some scary statistics:
- About 2,000 cases of wife abuse per year become murder cases.
- In a Canadian study, 50% of murdered women were killed by male intimate partners, and 25% were killed while estranged from the men.
- In Detroit and Kansas City, police had previously been called in 90% of intimate homicide cases.
The terrible cases of wife assault are similar, but not all the same. In what I found to be the most important insight of the book, Dutton identified three types of batterers: psychopathic, over controlled and cyclical.
Psychopathic wife assaulters
Psychopaths, as we know, have no conscience, so they suffer no pangs of guilt when they assault their wives.
Psychopaths are exploiters in all areas of their lives. Dutton notes that the psychopaths are often violent with other people, and engage in other illegal or immoral behavior.
The book describes a particular type of psychopath, identified by psychologist Neil S. Jacobson as a “vagal reactor.” “Vagal” refers to the vagus nerve, which conducts impulses between the brain and the muscles of the heart, throat and abdomen.
These are the men who become cool and controlled when engaged in violence and heated arguments. Their heart rates actually go down. Dutton quoted Jacobson:
They looked aroused, they acted aroused, but inside they are getting calmer and calmer.
Psychopathic wife assaulters, Dutton says, are poor candidates for treatment.
Over controlled wife assaulters
Dutton says the over controlled wife assaulters appear to be distanced from their feelings and tend to show avoidance and passive-aggression.
Dutton identified two types of over controlled assaulters:
- “Active type” a control freak with an extreme need to dominate others.
- “Passive type” tend to distance themselves from their wives.
Many of these men have rigid ideas of sex roles and demand subservience from their wives. They are extremely controlling of their wives and engage in emotional abuse.
Cyclical / emotionally volatile wife assaulters
These abusers are the men who fit a typical pattern of abuse identified as the “battering cycle” by Lenore Walker in her 1979 book, The Battered Woman. A key difference between these men and psychopathic assaulters is that they only abuse their wives or intimate partners.
The three parts of the cycle are: tension building, an explosion of acute battering, and loving contrition. This cycle repeats over and over again.
The wives of cyclical abusers all complain that their husbands become irritable for no apparent reason. They go through building tension cycles that are unrelated to their surroundings. They react with escalating verbal and physical attacks. They are pathologically jealous, drawing ludicrous conclusions about nonexistent extramarital affairs. They don’t merely react to events, but create a different view of the world in which emotional bumps become earthquakes. And then, suddenly, after the cataclysmic explosion, they are sweet and loving and gentle.
Dutton says cyclical abusers are terrified that their wives will abandon them. Of course, after enough abuse, many of the women do.
Dutton spends most of the book describing the cyclically abusive men.
Seeds of an abusive personality
Most researchers today believe that psychopathic personality develops from a combination of nature and nurture — a person is born with a genetic predisposition towards the disorder, and then grows up in an environment that encourages the disorder to take hold.
For the cyclically abusive man, Dutton explains the process as much more nurture than nature. He writes:
The development of the abusive personality is a gradual process that builds over years. The seeds come from three distinct sources: being shamed, especially by one’s father; an insecure attachment to one’s mother; and the direct experience of abusiveness in the home.
So is there a clinical diagnosis for this psychological profile? Dutton says yes.
Borderline personality disorder
Dutton believes the cyclical wife assaulters (not the other two types of wife assaulters) suffer from borderline personality disorder.
Borderline personality, Dutton explains, “is a clinical category developed in the psychiatric literature for people who are neither psychotic nor neurotic.” Here’s how he explains it:
The essential defining criteria for borderline personality disorder, in order of importance, are: a proclivity for intense, unstable interpersonal relationships characterized by intermittent undermining of the significant other, manipulation, and masked dependency; an unstable sense of self with intolerance of being alone and abandonment anxiety; and intense anger, demandingness and impulsivity, usually tied to substance abuse or promiscuity.
Dutton conducted research on the wife assaulters in his practice to determine if they fit the profile for borderline personality disorder. His answer was yes.
Lovefraud’s definition of sociopath
So does that mean these men are sociopaths? According to Lovefraud’s definition, they are.
I define a sociopath as a person who intentionally exploits others. I suggest that this word be used as a generic, layman’s term to encompass several clinical diagnoses, including psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder. For more on this suggestion, read:
Reading Dutton’s book, The Batterer, reinforces my belief that defining “sociopath” in this way is useful. The word could educate the public that there are people among us who live their lives by exploiting others. From the point of view of the victims who suffer the damage, the actual clinical diagnosis is almost irrelevant.
In the last section of Dutton’s book, he describes treating the cyclical wife assaulters — those with borderline personality disorder. Sometimes it works. But not always.
So the best thing we can do is learn the warning signs of abusive behavior and when we see them, stay away.
Lovefraud originally posted this article on February 10, 2014.