It’s important to note this article’s intent is not to be used to justify abusive behavior but to more clearly define it. If you are a woman in an unsafe situation, get safe, immediately.
I have been working with abusive men in my private counseling practice for ten years. In this time, I’ve seen a lot. It’s a unique position—a front-row seat to men’s deepest insecurities, their searing failures, and substantial heartache. I watch many men strive toward their most courageous moments and fight despite the high cost of becoming a good and safe man in today’s world.
Many of the men I work with are completely unaware of themselves. While this is never an excuse for poor, immature, or abusive behavior, it does help me understand them more fully and guides their treatment. These types of men have not done the emotional heavy lifting required to become a safe and loving partner. They tend to typically be the benevolent sexists, and the theologically rigid. They are unaware of patriarchy and have little interest in understanding how they are complicit in its advancement, until their partner draws a firm and unwavering boundary do they finally begin to listen.
Oftentimes the partner is tired of working so hard to be heard, exhausted being alone, and done with the feeling that he does not respect her as an equal. These types of men have narcissistic qualities with many unaddressed wounds; many are successful businessmen but lousy lovers. They are often incredibly proud and stubborn. They lack emotional intimacy and the ability to connect deeply with their partners. Are they particularly dangerous men? Well… yes and no. Are they abusive men? Well… also yes and no. I believe we would benefit from developing more nuance with our language around abuse and the spectrum of an abuser. I will explain more on this dilemma later, but first, allow me to describe the man who exists on the other side of this spectrum.
On the other end, this type of man is simply evil. His insecurities have overtaken how he lives and his style of relating. He has become extremely dangerous and incapable of an intimate relationship. His violence is so entwined with his narcissism that his humanity and divinity are nearly impossible to recognize. There is not much hope that he will ever live differently; therapy is not merely useless, it can be dangerous. What this man learns in therapy, he will use against you. Any information he gleans will become an advanced tactic to control, manipulate, and gaslight you further. He does not attend counseling for his own benefit and crucifixion, but rather to learn how to further annihilate you. Regardless, this type of abuser ends up quitting therapy soon after he starts. If you are in a relationship with this type of man, first get safe, and then run as fast and as far away as you can.
Confronting these types of narcissists is my favorite pastime, and yet there have been quite a few times in the past decade when it nearly cost me my very life. I am thinking of three men in particular whom I thought may very well try to kill me after a few spicy sessions. I remember walking to my car after a long day of fighting narcissism, looking carefully to see if one of these men was waiting in the parking lot to stab me. It may sound extreme or paranoid and yet the evil was in their eyes. If, as the therapist, they scared me that badly, imagine what it must have been like to be married to them! Their wives took the brunt behind closed doors. These men will disguise themselves as safe, and also as the unaware fool, but they are neither. They are dangerous and not to be trusted.
These two distinct types of “abusers” are similar yet very different. My hope is that we can grow a larger vocabulary around the language defining abuse to make sure we can all move towards greater healing and safety.
The emotionally unaware man with narcissistic characteristics is foolish, clumsy, and without self-awareness. He is very different from the violent narcissistic abuser. I will call the first type the “Unaware Fool” and the second the “Narcissistic Coward.” It is important to note that the Unaware Fool’s lack of awareness can lead to passive violence while noting he is not violent at his core. The “Narcissistic Coward’s” violence is more aggressive and his insecurities more pronounced. Check out the graph below-detailing differences between these two types:
As you review the graph, do you see how both of these types of men miss the mark on what makes a good and safe man? Where do you find yourself? Your partner? These are not static categories; abusers can move between both, yet, often there is a predominant category that best fits. All abusers are not created equal. Still, it’s important to note that I would much rather be a fool than a coward but neither type of man is who we should strive to be. Both men have a lot of work to do to become good and safe. Though the work ahead for them is similar, it will be at different depths and different timeframes. Let me share a couple of stories about these two types of men so you can get a better sense.
The Unaware Fool
For years, Nancy begged Dan to get individual help or even go to marriage therapy with her. They went a few times, and it seemed to help for a couple of weeks, but the old pattern continued. Nancy was at home alone tending to the kids, and Dan was gone. Sure he wasn’t out sleeping around or watching porn, but he was with his “other lover”—his business. He always told himself it was all for the family, and yet the family was withering, and Nancy was tired of begging for love and emotional attunement. Dan had been operating out of his own unaddressed need to win the favor of his own emotionally distant father who had recently passed away. He was unaware that his unaddressed childhood pain was merely being transferred onto those he said he loved most. It seemed like the only time he was attuned to Nancy was when he “needed” sex, which merely makes her feel like a “porn replacement” rather than a lover.
He is a decent man, as in he doesn’t lie or cheat. He is faithful, but an unaware fool who is clumsy with matters of the heart. In his unawareness he has participated in evil, acting like an adolescent boy pressuring Nancy into sex and guilting her when she would not. He is completely unaware of his entitlement and knowing that his wife’s body is not disconnected from her heart (emotions) like his is, meaning she is not merely a pornified object (something a sexualized society and a patriarchal church culture had taught him since he was a boy) to bring him pleasure but a whole woman who has integrated body and soul. He must begin to do embodiment work to heal his unawareness that makes him so foolish and thus emotionally dangerous and abusive. This type of abuser participates more in spiritual, emotional, and some covert sexual abuse (porn justification, sexual manipulation, pressure) and a smaller amount of psychological abuse. It is important to note that many times it is difficult to name the Unaware Fool as abusive because his actions are much more covert in nature, but a thousand pinpricks can cause you to bleed to death just like a shotgun blast can—it’s just slower and less dramatic.
The Unaware Fool is not yet a good and safe man but he can become one. I am convinced that this type of man is capable of radical change and becoming a new man if he does the work. It will involve a minimum of weekly therapy with a licensed therapist who understands male violence and betrayal trauma. If you are the betrayed spouse, it’s important to know that he may have already done too much damage for you to stick around, but if he is willing to humble himself into crucifixion, then resurrection is surely possible. The next type of abuser is quite different, the narcissistic coward.
The Narcissistic Coward
I remember one man who sought help for his teenage daughter. The entire family entered my office for their first session, the father, mother, and daughter. The tension was profound. The mother began speaking of not knowing how to engage their “rebellious” daughter and feeling caught in the middle of a continuous feud between her daughter and husband. I turned to the husband and asked him what he thought the problem was. He snarled venomously, “She is disobedient, has never respected me, and needs to be taught a lesson.” The violence beneath his words caught me off guard. He continued, “She has never even liked me. Even as a baby she would not come to me. Something is wrong with her.”
I turned and looked at the daughter, who was staring down at the floor. I asked her how she was feeling, hearing this, and she just shook her head, not saying a word. I don’t know if this was the best move (you seldom do in the therapeutic process), but I decided to engage the man’s violence head-on. I asked, “Sir when you speak to your daughter, do you normally talk with such an edge to your voice?” He mumbled something in return. I continued with my observation: “I am wondering if it’s difficult for her to know that you love her when your tone is so harsh.” I could feel his rage begin to shift from her to me, and I told him so. “Even now I see that your rage has begun to turn in my direction. It is quite intimidating. It’s okay, albeit unnerving because I can handle it, but maybe your daughter cannot, and that is why she does not respond well to your demands for compliance. As I check in now with my body, I feel my own fear in confronting you, like you will make me pay somehow. Yet my bind is that you are also compensating me to have the courage to tell you the truth, despite my fear.”
This was met with strained silence, so I continued. “I think your daughter does need continued support from a therapist, but so do you, and I am willing to walk beside you as you discover how your contempt is playing out in the story of your family.” At this point, the wife’s jaw nearly hit the floor, and the daughter’s face showed shock and awe as she waited for the nuclear warhead sitting next to her to explode. The man’s face was expressionless as he perhaps contemplated punching me or just ending my life right there on the spot. I was hoping he would choose neither option and would have the courage to deeply reflect on the state of his own heart.
I hoped he’d see how his contempt for others held intimacy at arm’s length, never letting the people he loved most get close. His daughter’s rebellion was merely a covert, brilliant scream for love. She was the victim of an aggressive, insecure, and narcissistic man and a passive, frightened mother who enabled the abuse to continue. The man’s unaddressed pain was being projected onto the most vulnerable member of the family. My job was to get him to own his self-contempt, which had turned into contempt toward his daughter or anyone who confronted him with the truth. He did choose to come back to see me a few more times but, sadly, did not continue. For these types of men, this is normal. They will often only seek therapists, pastors, or friends who will not challenge their violence but placate it.
I remember another incident where another narcissist coward was cursing and yelling at his wife in front of me. (Imagine how he must have spoken to her when no one else was present.) I quickly raised my voice and put a stop to it and kicked him out of my office. He felt embarrassed and rightly so. He was not safe. She was not safe with him. (In this particular scene I called the police after to do a welfare check.) I had a backyard office at the time and was aware of the danger when you wound a narcissist. I was very aware that he was capable of hurting me or my family. I decided to take my family elsewhere for the night to let the tensions settle. This type of “abuser” is dangerous in very clear ways. His insecurities rule almost all of his decisions and relationships. He is incapable of genuine intimacy and long-lasting relationships.
These men rarely change and it normally takes them losing all their relationships (and many times that doesn’t even work) for them to finally start the healing process. What these types of men need most is firm and strong boundaries, and although they hate it when they lose their control that is exactly what is most needed for them to begin their healing journey. Love does not look like “staying” but actually “leaving” the violence is the most “loving” act you can offer this type of man. These types of men participate in all forms of violence including physical, psychological, sexual, spiritual, financial, and emotional abuse.
These two types of men’s healing paths are similar in the fact that both must face their story of heartache and betrayal, as their early childhood wounds must be deeply grieved. I write more fully about this in the essay, “What Happens When My Abusive Husband Gets Healthy.” Both must have the courage, to tell the truth of the condition of their lives, past, present, and what the future will hold if they remain unrepentant. It’s vital to know what makes a good and safe man, to know what you look for in a partner and what to avoid.
It’s important to note this article’s intent is not to be used to justify abusive behavior but to more clearly define it. If you are a woman in an unsafe situation, you must get safe, immediately. Many times women who are in dangerous situations can minimize and justify behavior from their partner. Someone who is a “Narcissistic Coward” will tend to minimize themselves and their actions and try to align with the “Unaware Fool” so they can feel better about themselves, and lessen their responsibility. The fear is that this type of languaging of the “Spectrum of Abusers” can just be another way for the narcissist to manipulate victims and attempt to power over them, rather than help the victims clarify more fully what they are experiencing. If this article is used to further gaslight you rather than help you deepen your healing you are using this scalpel incorrectly. This could look like the “Narcissistic Coward” claiming that he is not one, trying to belittle you, and claiming he is on the other end of the spectrum. The truth is, anyone who is not “humbled” by these categories and pushed to grieve, is not safe and will most likely never become safe. To find yourself anywhere on the spectrum is problematic and means you are an abusive man who needs to seek treatment immediately.
I am a Christian and though I believe redemption is possible for all “sinners,” we must be wise in how we engage and enable “sinners” that we are in a relationship with, as “abuse” is a unique type of sin with unique consequences. In my early adulthood, I was the “Unaware Fool” who dipped into the “Narcissistic Coward” role (we are rarely one or the other, and many times can show signs of both), until I lost nearly everything in my life, ending up suicidal in the psychiatric ward nearly 20 years ago and I was able to begin the long road back to becoming a safe and good man through lots of therapy, tons of books, God’s kindness and the hardest work of all—being honest with myself about the truth of my condition. There is no resurrection without crucifixion, and for you to become new, you must make peace with suffering and the long journey back towards safety and goodness.
It is worth the high cost.