Abuse and Empathy: How Abusers Flunk the Empathy Test

The very first book I bought and read when I began my quest to study abuse was Physical Abusers and Sexual Offenders [Affiliate link] by Scott Allen Johnson. It is not a Christian book. Johnson’s thesis is that therapists and researchers have erred in not realizing that these two forms of abuse are very often linked in the same abuser. Physical abusers are often also sexual abusers. This is a fantastic book and I wanted to summarize one chapter for you in which Johnson explores empathy. This is great stuff, so hang on and here we go:

Generally, abusers do not have empathy. This is an important fact which can help a victim discern if he or she is being abused. A correct understanding of empathy (which the Bible so often calls “love” and sometimes “repentance”) can be a hugely freeing help for victims of abuse. Johnson notes that empathy has three characteristics:

Cognitive Recognition — This is simply the basic, bare-bones ability to understand what empathy is by definition. An abuser can very well mouth the words that define empathy and even admit that not having it is a bad thing.

Emotional Connection — Here we mean the ability to step into another person’s shoes and identify with their feelings of confusion, pain, shame or fear that abuse produces. It entails an understanding of the damage that his abuse effects. Depending upon the scale or spectrum that a particular abuser is on, from less abusive to all out sociopath, the abuser may or may not have the ability to emotionally connect. As Christians, we realize that genuine love for another human being necessarily entails feeling what the other person feels. That is one reason the Bible tells us about the shame and grief and suffering of the Man of Sorrows as He became our Redeemer.

Behavioral Demonstration — What Johnson means here is “faith without works is dead.” This element of empathy impels a person to alter their behavior so as to not hurt and abuse others. Johnson says:

Believing that your behavior is abusive….yet continuing to verbally abuse your partner, actually demonstrates that you do not believe that abuse is wrong. In fact, your abusive behavior demonstrates loud and clear that you do believe that  abuse is appropriate in certain situations. If you have true empathy, then you do not abuse your partner for any reason.  (p. 65)

Johnson then proceeds to identify visible behaviors that are the fruit of genuine empathy. These include:

1) Allowing the victim to vent. In other words, the abuser will sit and be quiet and let his victim explain, even at length and with a spectrum of emotion, what the abuse has done to her. And he will not object to her venting this to other people such as her family and friends and church. Victims, if they are to heal, need to tell others, including their abuser, how they have been harmed and damaged. An abuser, if he is truly repentant and practicing empathy, will not object to this.

2) Patiently permitting the victim to vent and talk when triggered by later events, even if this still occurs years later.

3) Being willing to seek therapy for himself and diligently work at employing the new thinking and behaviors he is learning.

4) Confess and repent when he sins by relapsing. Listen to this great quote from Johnson on this:

….what separates the abuser from someone who engages in occasional insensitive behavior is that the nonabuser is willing to admit his behavior, take full responsibility for his behavior, and choose not to repeat the same behavior.  The abuser, however, blames the victim, makes excuses, and rationalizes his behavior, and he chooses to repeat the same behavior.  (p. 66)

And then it gets even better! Johnson lists 28 indicators of a lack of empathy! Here are some of them:

  1. Apologizes quickly.
  2. Expects instant forgiveness.
  3. Pushes the healing process. — She needs to just get over it.
  4. Resist continuing accountability. This shows when they are confronted later when they slip back into abusive behavior.
  5. Either….or — Johnson calls this ultimatum issuing….”you do this or else I will….”
  6. Dragging his feet on pursuing therapy and treatment.
  7. Justifying, rationalizing, intellectualizing, or blaming.
  8. Could care less attitude about the victim’s feelings.
  9. Refusing to accept full responsibility.
  10. Working to erode the victim’s support network. Working to gain allies, in other words.
  11. Overdoing “niceties.” Look out for this one! Compliments, nice actions, gifts….that really are inappropriate given the circumstances.
  12. Telling the victim how she needs to change and what she needs to do.
  13. Pursuing therapy, but insisting that the therapist be a person who is unqualified to deal with abuse cases. We meet this one all the time! The phoney “Christian” abuser who insists that he must only see a “Christian” counselor!
  14. Complaining about how much the therapy for himself or the victim costs.
  15. Pressuring the victim to participate in “fun” activities with him and forget all that is “water under the bridge.”
  16. Enforcing a system of double standards

As Johnson concludes, he advises that any single one of these indicators is very serious, but if a victim checks off several that apply to her abuser, she can be sure that he lacks empathy.

And, the chapter ends with this sobering statement:

….A lack of empathy usually indicates that the abuser is unlikely to change. In most cases when the abuser lacks empathy, his relationship ends.  (p. 71)  [Emphasis added.]

Whoa! Sobering! But it is the truth. And the truth has a way of setting us free.

[September 22, 2022: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to September 22, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to September 22, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to September 22, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (September 22, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]


UPDATE Sept 2021: I have come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches. He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.

96 thoughts on “Abuse and Empathy: How Abusers Flunk the Empathy Test”

  1. This is great, great stuff. I wish that information like this could get into the evangelical bloodstream. Thanks for sharing Jeff– we are one step closer.

  2. Fantastic stuff. Bad people seem to understand the “rules” very well and when in a corner make a phony apology or show of repentance. Christians in general seem to accept this. If you don’t accept the quick apology, you are accused of being bitter. How do you counter this?

    1. Hi Jim, nice to see you here again.
      You asked: “If you don’t accept the quick apology, you are accused of being bitter. How do you counter this?”
      I think if you are accused of being bitter (or of anything else, for that matter) when you don’t accept the quick apology, you can simply say, “Stop it! Stop accusing me! What you are doing is more abuse!”
      If they don’t stop, which they probably won’t, you can counter by walking away, hanging up the phone, or laying down some other really firm boundary, and sticking to it.

      “Stop it!” is a good phrase to use. I learned it from Patricia Evans. Then I used it quite often on my ex. It does not necessarily get the abuser to stop, but at least it conveys that you see what he is doing as still more abuse, and you are not going to get involved in ‘discussion’ because abusers don’t want to discuss or use logic or exchange views like gentleman and ladies do, they just want power over their victim.

    2. I think you just say that while God requires forgiveness, He does not require reconciliation in matters of abuse, and then just walk away and stand your ground. Too many times, there is false repentance and the victims are made to take the phoney as “true” repentance. Only the victim knows if there has been true repentance and there is nothing in Scripture to support that a pastor or elders or the body of the Church, are to be the ones to determine if the abuser is repentant. God is the One Who determines that first, and then next, the victim.

      1. That is really true. Good observation. I have had people preach at me many times about how I needed to forgive someone and reconcile with them and yada, yada, yada. But all the while I KNEW they were not truly repentant and were just faking it, thus not a safe person to be in relationship with. I finally have come to the point of telling such DG’rs (do gooders) that I have the right to determine this myself and I have the right to decide who I have relationships with, and they need to back off!

        Hey, let’s get some of those Yosemite Sam stickers: BACK OFF!

  3. Jim brings up a good question. I was thinking as I was reading this list about those letters from “counselors” a few posts back and I was wondering about the quality of empathy (or worse, complete lack thereof!) abuse victims are likely to encounter from uneducated or wrongly educated counselors in the course of their struggle.

    What happens in those cases where the “counsel” is as bad as the abuse? I am thinking of cases where they do understand all the victim has been through and then dismiss it as irrelevant because the victim is supposed to be about reconciling with the abuser or else they are not demonstrating forgiveness and are therefore just as guilty as the abuser, or are now the problem themselves because the abuser is “repentant.”

    1. BIT — That is precisely what happened to me. I went from my abuser at home to abuser-counselors. It kept me in a very dark place for 3 years because the counselor convinced me that his way was the only way (isolation, isolation). When I look back at how I escaped . . . it was really a miracle of God. There were a few lone wolves (of whom I was skeptical but they made so much sense and I KNEW that things were only getting worse with the counsel and not better) who spoke truth into my life almost daily. I hid my conversations with these two people for months before finally leaving. My ex now partly blames THEM for my leaving (because I can’t think for myself, you know. I am just a hollow puppet who needs others to tell me how to live my life). Again . . . it was our Rescuer-God who helped me . . . along with my willingness to take the plunge and go, which was the bravest and most agonizing thing I ever did. And, even then, I doubted.

    2. Barnabas – I think what you have in those cases is more abusers. I have to conclude that where there is a lack of empathy for the victim, and in fact where the empathy gets directed toward the ABUSER, for heaven’s sake, then you have abuse. You have people who do not express the love and compassion of Jesus. “Oh, hey, there is a guy laying in the road all beaten and robbed. I wonder what he did to tick off those guys who did that to him. He should never have made eye contact with them. And what was he doing out here in the first place. Stupid guy.”

      And then we must press the issue further. If a person lacks empathy, an “inner pathos” which enables one to feel the pain and shame of a victim, then what does Scripture tell us about such a person? Let’s see – “If a man says he loves God but hates his brother, he is a liar.” Which is to say I think we have a WHOLE lot fewer real Christians running around on this planet than we like to think.

      1. That reminds me of something that was posted some while back here. I think it might have been you that posted it, Jeff. It was about the kind of cold hearted counsel given to these victims. It might have been about nouthetic in particular. I’m not sure. (One thing I do remember was the victim being told something she was doing was “another nail in Jesus’ wrist” or something like that, which is incredibly weird as Christ’s offering is a finished work, and there were only 3 nails. I have no idea why that particular point stuck out to me.) But the tone was really, I’d say, vicious.

      2. If you read the 67 page report by GRACE, the organization that thoroughly investigated the New Tribes Mission child sexual abuse at their boarding school in Senegal (and I recommend you all read it), you will learn about how the missionaries at the boarding school would tell the children that they could not complain or cry about being separated from their parents because that would make their parents sad. And if their parents were sad, then they wouldn’t be able to tell as many people about Jesus and those people would go to hell.

        If that isn’t bad enough, missionary parents were pressured to leave their children (some as young as 5 yrs) at the boarding school so they could more effectively focus on spreading the gospel. They were told that if God gave His Son Jesus for our sins, how could they refuse to give up their children. They were also told that if they clung to the children then they were idolizing them and that was a grievous sin.

        My wife reminded me the other day when I told her this that back in the early 1980’s (and that is when this evil was going on in those and in other boarding schools like the Christian Missionary Alliance one that has been in the news), we were looking at missions. We had two little children. We said “no way are we ever going to separate from our kids.” So I became a pastor. I remember being in school at Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland, Oregon, sitting in chapel. This missionary was the speaker and he said “so you can stay here in this country and be a fat pastor taking it easy, or you can sacrifice all for Jesus and head across the seas to the mission field.” I remember telling the person sitting next to me (rather loudly) – “I don’t like this jerk!”

        But this is the terrible abuse that goes on in our Bible Colleges and among our missions agencies and in our churches. Jesus spews it out of His mouth and those who molested those little kids heated up the fires of their eternity considerably. “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Our God is a consuming fire.” What? That’s in the Bible you say?

      3. Maybe this G.R.A.C.E. group instead of the Ambassadors of Reconciliation should have been called in for the SGM debacle!

      4. my husband has shown all thirteen of these point which doesn’t surprise me as much as the fact that my “former” pastor who took my husband in after I kicked him out show five of these points towards me…makes you think doesn’t it?

      5. Do you have a photo of the “kick”! I like it! Yes, 13 points is a big flunk and even 5 shows that that pastor was no one who was going to help you.

      6. Jeff- I don’t have a photo of the “Kick” but the police do, because he was carried off to jail and spent 45 days there before moving in with the pastor!

      7. Jeff- I don’t have a photo of the “kick” but the police do! They carried him off to jail where he spent 45 days before the pastor took him in.

    3. Yes, good questions, Jim and Barnabasintraining.

      Jim, I don’t think you can counter it. It’s about a place of power and control with the abuser, and them wanting to do what they want with out any restrictions. They do not want to be without the power, and if they feel in a powerless position, they will do what they can to gain that place of feeling in control back.

      One thing I try to remember is a false accusation towards me is not truth. I took me a while to get that into my head and heart, though, and stop feeling I had to defend my behavior.

      Not defending myself was hard to do at first…the brain-washing of believing I was to blame and responsible for the abusers behavior, second guessing myself, checking and rechecking my motives…it has taken a few years to work through and from which to heal, and I’m still in the process. But I’m much quicker at recognizing it and letting people think what they will about me, especially those that are quick to pass a judgment or assumption. Feeling responsible for what other people think and believe about me is not as strong as before.

      It really is heart breaking, sad, and adding abuse on top of abuse when seeking help from a “professional”, Christian counselor or Christian psychologist. When it happened to me, and the Christian psychologist started down the path you two described, I cold-called two other Christian psychologists who freely and graciously listened to the scenario, and gave me their opinions of “Do not return. That is abusive. It’s time for you to find another counselor.” Second and third opinions are just as important in these matters as they are in getting medical advice.

    4. I’m a little late in the discussion, but Barnabasintraining’s comment about the counsel being as bad as the abuse is reminding me of the recent lawsuit case with Sovereign Grace Ministries. One of the plaintiff’s stories involved a 2-yr old who was sexually abused and church leaders brought the little girl and her parents back to meet with the perpetrator when she was 3 so they could reconcile the “biblical” way. The little 3-yr old saw her abuser and hid beneath the table. I’ve typed this story a few times and it doesn’t get easier each time, it just gets me more mad at people who claim to be doing the “biblical” thing by encouraging forgiveness and reconciliation, but really all they are concerned about is the letter of the law, not the heart of people.

    5. Aha! This is what I have seen: I am thinking of cases where they do understand all the victim has been through and then dismiss it as irrelevant because the victim is supposed to be about reconciling with the abuser or else they are not demonstrating forgiveness and are therefore just as guilty as the abuser, or are now the problem themselves because the abuser is “repentant.”

      Why is abuse the victim’s fault and responsibility to reconcile? Agreed, it is just more abuse.

  4. BIT, I think precicely the point of this post is to reveal that there is a whole lot of information in secular sources that if the church had and took seriously, abusers would not be able to hoodwink it so easily. Try to get one over in Joe Pastor or Suzie Coinselor and they’ll take the bait, hook line and sinker. But someone like Scott Alan Johnson– now you’ve got someone who has studied the mindset of the abuser in depth and knows how to see through the lies. And better yet, he’s written a book on how to help others see through it too. The shame of it all is that Joe Pastor and Suzie Counselor aren’t reading it.

  5. The information about Narcissistic Personality Disorder demonstrates that those affected can understand the pain of others in their intellect (cognitive empathy), but they don’t connect with it in their own emotions themselves, so they feel detatched from the suffering of others. They’re so overwhelmed with their own internal and unresolved internal pain, they have no room to be considerate when others feel pain. They use control of others to ward off and avoid their own pain, too, because they’re overwhelmed. Control the environment, and they believe that they can control pain. That usually means aggression of some variety.

    And in understanding the person’s pain on purely a cognitive level without emotion (that lack of empathy), when it comes to appropriate behavior, they can play act. They understand how others expect them to act, but they don’t connect with it. It also helps shield them as master manipulators because they can scheme and manipulate without that nasty impediment of emotion to get in their way.

    It’s just so ironic that they are overtly fragile people on the inside, nothing more than angry, terrified children with the capabilities of an adult. And they’ll do anything to avoid the pain.

    1. Cindy – Great insights. Thanks a bunch. I am trying to remember the other books I read that make the same points. I think George Simon Jr. and his books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance. Also Robert Hare’s Without Conscience and the one by Martha Stout – The Sociopath Next Door. Like Johnson, these people understand. The pathetic pity is that pastors and Christians for the most part, don’t. And we have no excuse. The Bible is quite clear about these things.

      1. Jeff, you’ve named a great hit parade on the subject. Lack of empathy is a hallmark characteristic of many abusers and sociopaths. You can see in in Christians who express prejudice against women, those outside of their denomination, or plain old sinners, but they’re so good at covering things up with Scripture and sweetness. And you have the ones who don’t try to cover it up at all, brazen in their arrogance and anger while people in the pews just drink it in.

        It’s hard, because the emotionally healthy people don’t want to naturally assume that good people can find it so easy to be so cruel. You have to be given painful reasons and then look for the signs. It seems counter intuitive to “Love believes and hopes all things, keeping no record of wrong.”

    2. Cindy, can I bottle your words? They are like a fine cognac. Rich, potent, well-rounded, full of depth, with the truth lingering long after the sip has been swallowed.

      The only thing I’m a little wary of (and I know you didn’t mean it this way) is where you mention that such people are ‘fragile on the inside’. Even if that be the case (and to my memory of George Simon Jnr’s book Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing, he may not agree there) we have to caution victims of these narcissists that it is a mistake to feel sorry for the abuser.
      As far as I can recall, George Simon talks about how the focus on neurosis (excessive anxiety about conforming to social norms) which began with Freud’s theory of neurosis, has so deep affected the mindset of psychologists, counsellors AND the general public that our default thought when we see abusive behavior is “That person must be in so much pain inside! I wonder how they got so hurt that they behave like that.” Simon says this is a wrong approach, unbalanced, because it doesn’t recognise that covert aggressive people actually enjoy upsetting others. The innner spring motivating them is not “I am hurting, anxious, and fearful,” but “I want to create damage, it gives me satisfaction”. I hope I’ve faithfully recalled Simon’s work here. I’ll check when I get home.

      1. This insight is incredibly helpful to me, Barbara. When I would go and tell Jim W something awful my ex had done to me, he would say these words EVERY TIME,
        “Well, Megan. How do you feel when you have sinned?”
        “Then [my ex] must feel terrible inside right now. You have joy because you have done nothing wrong, but he is miserable. Feel sorry for him.”
        I am not exaggerating. Word for word. I would have to pull out pity from my gut. It was the worst advice EVER.

        The innner spring motivating them is not “I am hurting, anxious, and fearful,” but “I want to create damage, it gives me satisfaction”.

        This took a long time to sink in. And I still sometimes need to hear, once or twice a week, that his intentions are not good. That he is evil and wants to destroy me.

      2. This is exactly what happened in my case. The people supposed to be counseling me, the victim, took his side and started telling me how much pain the abuser was in! It was so obvious he had won them over by lying to them, and they were “feeling sorry for him”. All that time, he was plotting evil against me — victimizing me over and over again.

        Could someone do an article on “It is a Mistake To Feel Sorry for The Abuser”, unless one has already been done. Guess I need to search it before I ask!

      3. Anon, since September have had a draft post sitting in our drafts folder with exactly that title “It’s a mistake to feel sorry for the abuser”. All it has so far is the title and a few page no references from George Simon’s book. We will try to work on getting it out.
        I wish I had time and the energy to carry through on all my ideas. I brim with ideas for posts, but getting them written and polished for publication is a different story.

      4. Barbara,

        Simon approaches the topic from a more general sense, looking at all manipulators. Most high demand religion leaders fall into the cluster B personality disorder category, and the fragile ego concept is a part of the clinical picture of pathology. Lack of empathy is also a problem with cluster B issues as an assessment finding as well as a consideration in communication and therapy.

        What Simon relates and other general approaches to manipulative behavior in general need to be seen as arguing that abusive people are not responsible for their actions or that their behaviors should be tolerated. An assessment finding isn’t the same as behavior management, but the specifics aren’t antithetical. The post concerned the issues of low empathy which is a clinical problem with behavioral effects, and it helps to understand abusive behavior so that we can better respond to it in wisdom. Framed that way, it should give a victim more validation and evidence for developing more realistic expectations in relationships (which may translate into, “This is a relationship that I need to leave”).

    1. Jeff, I got a copy. Seems like they may have more than one at that price, as it’s still there. I have no idea what I’m going to do with it- lol. Not exactly light bedtime reading I’d guess.

      1. I really hope I am never in the position to interview sex offenders. But right now, any Christian with better knowledge in this area is a good thing!

      2. Great. Just start reading. It is really an incredible book. It even ends up teaching how to interview sex offenders and so on (toward the back). It really is a gold mine.

    2. And just to plug it, this write up Jeff did is based on a section of this book that he showed a few of us. It is really, really powerful stuff. I read every point and could tell you specific examples of how my ex did what it was talking about on 95% off them. For anyone who has wrestled with doubts about abuser “Repentence”, the $30 for that section alone is surely worth it.

      1. Anon – Yes, it is this article you are commenting under. The thread got a bit long so I see why you didn’t understand that.

      2. Oh! Well I had read the empathy article another place…; )…and just skimmed through it here, but I didn’t catch the link between the empathy and “Repentance” Jeff S. mentioned here. I get it now. It is another section of the book this article on empathy was taken from. I thought Jeff S. was saying there was an article on the “Repentance” section that you, Jeff, had done. Ooops.

      3. Anonymous, what I meant to say, and I realize I wasn’t clear, was that this whole discussion on empathy is about repentance and false repentance. He outlines the steps abuser would take to make things right if they are repentant, and there’s a list of behaviors that demonstrates they have not changed.

        What Jeff has done here is not quote the book- he distills a lot of the points down for us. The section in the book he’s drawing this from is far longer and more detailed. If anyone struggles with “has he really changed?”, it would be a big help to read the source material.

  6. I read this post 3 times, hoping that a lot of this will stick to my brain. Thank you for this, Jeff. Posting to my Facebook page. And hoping to be able to buy it in the next few weeks (along with the 70 other books I want to read!!). 🙂

  7. When I finally “got”the whole lack of empathy and true repentance issue involved with my STBE- the veil was lifted and I suddenly had an answer for the past 24 years. He even once told me he didn’t think he had a conscience.This was towards the end tho- I can’t imagine what I would have done if he had said that years earlier.

    1. Yes, Jodi – this issue of empathy/repentance is exactly that important. Lack of empathy – ie, the void of love in the abuser — is key to understand and to enable us to get free. “Hey, that guy does not care about me at all. Hey, that guy has never loved me. Hey, (lights going on) that guy has no capacity to love or feel for anyone.”

      1. It is amazing to me how long a person can live in denial of that reality though. I fiercely held on to the belief that he was/would be able to care for 16 years and was shocked/devastated the day i faced reality and realized that he actually couldn’t. I think it is because I was working so hard to build this marriage, jumping through all the hoops that I just never looked up to notice he was on the other side taking it all down. Mix in the counseling hamster wheel of working on your own stuff and being 50% responsible for the “dynamic.” It’s so exhausting you don’t have time to sit back and look at the big picture. Add a cup full of he insists that this IS love. And lastly you really really don’t want it to be true because then what will you do? What a crazy making mess to clean up!!! I need a nap just writing a comment about it:)

      2. Jeff – the realization that he never loved me is one of the hardest for me!! It’s also hard to see some of these things come through in his interactions with the children. When he calls, it’s like he’s going through a checklist of what a ‘good dad’ should ask, but none of it is personal to what they really think and feel about what they care about in their lives.

      3. Thank you, Jeff, for this post and your response to Jodi. It really is such an important key to freedom.

        AJ- Your comment is sooo accurate! Crazy making and exhausting….it’s so true! “I was working so hard to build this marriage, jumping through all the hoops that I just never looked up to notice he was on the other side taking it all down.”

        LMM- I agree. The “good dad” checklist is a hard one to watch happen. The confusion it creates for the children is heart breaking.

      4. Little Miss Me- What you said about your husband going through a checklist when he talks to your kids- is right on the money! That is one big reason why my youngest daughter doesn’t even want to talk to her father- he is so wooden and fake and she knows he doesn’t really care about her or her life. It breaks my heart.
        It’s also the reason I stopped wanting to talk to him- he would just ask me ” how are you, how was your day- how are the kids?” That was it- finally when he would call from work- I would pick up the phone and just answer all those questions before he asked them and end the phone call.

      5. Leslie — I have had the same experiences. It took me way too long to recognize that my ex’s over-the-top declarations of “unconditional love” for me were another way of making me feel guilty if I did not stay or could not bring myself to feel loving feelings toward him after abuse. And what he described was not love at all. He might have meant what he said, but his idea of love is twisted — and then used against me. His definition of love became:

        “You have to demonstrate love to me no matter what I do. And I will remind you that I will do the same, just to show you how great I am and how much higher my understanding of love is than yours and really keep you in that place all the time.”

        Not sure if this makes sense.

        Have you ever looked into Borderline Personality Disorder? It was very helpful for me to study this particular PD. I used to think my ex was bi-polar because of the intensity of his moods but I really feel like he is not. I also just started Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door”. I had to put it down after 10 minutes because it was shocking to me how I could not see his narcissism. All those years….

      6. Leslie and Megan C. you said and quoted “Leslie — I have had the same experiences. It took me way too long to recognize that my ex’s over-the-top declarations of “unconditional love” for me were another way of making me feel guilty if I did not stay or could not bring myself to feel loving feelings toward him after abuse. And what he described was not love at all. He might have meant what he said, but his idea of love is twisted — and then used against me. His definition of love became:”
        I can’t believe how exactly this was my experience. I wasted so much time feeling guilty because I couldn’t feel any love towards him in spite of all his words. I would let him force me to do things I didn’t want to do out of that guilt- going against your own conscience like that for years will do terrible things to you emotionally and every other way.

      7. This is one thing I still cannot wrap my head around. Yet I know my mind also cannot compute his over the top declaration of love…unconditional love he says, no matter what I do or say or feel”. One day it’s this, and he cannot understand why I can’t trust it or him. Then another day it’s all the crazy making stuff, distorting, minimizing, deflecting, denial etc. Obviously part of me wanted to believe the claims of love to the point where I agreed with him for 22 years that the reason I couldn’t. ” feel his love, receive it” was somehow my fault, because of my unhealthy childhood.
        I cannot compute the two sides, but to truly accept that he never has loved me is still a huge leap in my mind.

  8. Empathy – that’s one area that really tripped me up trying to figure my situation out. I saw the disconnect between his words and his actions, and was also confused by the fact that expressing empathy is commonly a difficult thing for people with autism spectrum disorders1. So it took me a while to realize that his lack of empathy really had nothing to do with his ASD.

    There are many things on that list that completely fit with my experience. #11 – Overdoing niceties is one that I still deal with. So much so that any time I get an email from anyone that opens with “Good morning!” (the exclamation point is the ‘tell’ that he’s going to say / do something abusive) I get tense, even if it’s from a friend or colleague.

    One thing that made it clearer for me was when my father died and he did only the obvious “what’s expected” things, but he never let me vent. He never asked me a single question about how I was feeling or doing. When I pointed this out he ran down the list of the things he did to “help,” and the glaring omission was talking to me about it, and checking to see if my needs were being met. Though he never said it, it was clear to me that he expected me to just get over it when one of the children said “See? it’s your first holiday without grandpa and you’re doing just fine!”

    (1NOTE: The issue for people with ASD can be in expressing and communicating empathy to others. Most people with ASD HAVE and FEEL empathy – sometimes more so than those who don’t – but have difficulty with the social and communication skills to share that.)

    1. My husband does not have ASD, but I have always wondered why, when my father died, he left me immediately after the funeral and went on a trip with his friend. He never did anything to help, with preparations or comfort or participating or being with my family or mother or anything, and I mean — anything! He never asked me how I was or how I felt. He never asked how the children were in it either. I was alone in all of it. sigh Oh well. I guess I know why now.

      1. Maybe leaving immediately after the funeral would have been agood choice for mine – on the way home he told me again how he couldn’t stand my sister and how difficult it was for him to avoid her all day, because he just refused to be in the same room as her.

    2. I have ASD so I understand and can concur. I do have and feel empathy. Now that I do know it’s ASD I have been able to learn the “social norms” of how to act on that empathy. Simple things like my child falls and gets hurt. Before I had no idea what to do. Now I know it’s good and ok to say, “Oh honey I’m sorry you got hurt. Are you ok?” Now couple ASD with an abusive husband no wonder I have been a mess! Instead of learning normal healthy ways to interact with people I’ve been learning abuse and manipulation.

      1. Yes, Marisa, what a formula! Tremendous that you have been able to make such big strides. Thanks for these insights into empathy and ASD. They help us see that people with this condition can make improvements.

      2. Marisa – welcome! I can’t imagine what you’ve been through – having ASD and an abusive spouse is quite the combination. I hope you find this blog helpful and I hope you’re getting the support you need from people who understand the complexity of your situation. It’s tough to find a counselor who knows about one or the other, let alone both!

        I also hope that I’m clear enough when I talk about my ex that you know I don’t believe his ASD is the cause of his abuse, nor do I think that people with ASD are typically abusive. I love hearing from people who have it because it helps me to understand my child better, so feel free to let me know if I say anything here that you think is off base.

      3. I agree LIttle Miss Me. It is hard to find someone who knows about both. I have learned so much from my son who has it. We both function pretty highly with the main deficit being social difficulties. And absolutely it is not a reason for abuse nor does it cause it. If you have a child who has ASD I would strongly suggest the GAPS book. Look it up online. It’s a diet created by a dr. It’s hard but we have seen wonderful results. It is actually making me curious about and abuser and the gut-brain connection. Does anyone know any studies about this?

  9. I should have asked your permission before I did it but…. I shared your list with an on-line support group for abused women. If that is not ok I will take it down. I am sorry I didn’t ask first I guess I got excited to share with those precious ladies.

    1. Ha! No problem. I got chewed on a bit once for doing that but like you I was so excited about it I wanted everyone to know. But whatever you see on this blog is free-game for posting wherever you want. No apologies. Good job.

      And hey, as they say, forgiveness is easier to get than permission. (Now, that you didn’t hear from me)

      1. Jeff,
        The statement “It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission” is one a former pastor used on occasion. He also lived it and acted on it regularly. I don’t know if he would fall under the official “abuser” term, but manipulator and controller – absolutely. So to read it from you causes a pretty strong reaction in me, as it is one of the ways abusers justify doing what they want to get what they want. Just a comment…

      2. Ok, thanks. I will watch that. Hope you know I was saying it facetiously. Most anything can be distorted for evil, that’s for sure. Thanks again.

      3. Yes, anything can be taken and twisted for sure, and all of us have different trigger points based on our experiences. What is fine in a “normal” world is different than abuse situations, which are anything but “normal”. I guess the real problem is that we live in a fallen world. Heaven is going to be great!!

  10. I am of course sympathetic to victims of abuse, but “A Non A Mouse” has repeated something that was said in a confidential setting. Being a leader in DivorceCare myself, I would be very upset if someone in my group repeated something said in confidence. I do not imagine that “A Non A Mouse” or the moderators here have considered that they have crossed a boundary, but please give this due consideration. If support groups cannot expect confidence to be maintained they cannot be effective.
    “A Non A Mouse”, I hope that you ask your friend to follow the guidelines of the group and not share what happens inside. If she cannot do that, she needs to leave.

    1. Loren, I’ve given your comment quite a bit of thought. I admire and respect you for being vigilant for confidentiality, and for wanting to see the program principles of Divorce Care followed with integrity. Having said that, I would like to point out a couple of things.

      I’ll say the less important one first: I understand that A Non A Mouse’s female friend repeated something that was said in a confidential setting, and by the guidelines of Divorce Care, the friend’s action was wrong. But whether A Non A Mouse herself was then wrong to repeat it to us here on the blog, I’m not so sure. For one thing, A Non A Mouse is 🙂 anonymous, so it is extremely unlikely that any of our readers know who was being talked about. But for another thing, A Non A Mouse is not a participant in Divorce Care and has made no confidentiality agreement thereto. I agree with you Loren that A Non A Mouse could and maybe should point out to her friend that she (the friend) had done wrong by the rules of the group. But that is all.

      My second and more important point is this. If a person in a Divorce Care group happens to be an abuser, and that’s why their marriage ended, and if that person tells half-truths or lies to the group in order to invite them to collude with his sinful attitude and behaviour, and the leaders of the group are not trained to to detect, recognise and resist these invitations to collude, then a lot of damage can be done. The abuser will enlist sympathetic allies in the group, because the group will believe the lies and feel sorry for the abuser, not knowing he is an abuser. The leaders will be just as much in the dark. The abuser will remain unaccountable and unreformed, and his ex-wife will very possibly have her support network eroded, especially if she lives in the neighbourhood where the Divorce Care group is being conducted.

      What this indicates to me is that Divorce Care may not be providing their leaders with adequate training to recognise and resist the invitations to collude that abusers put out. And it follows they are not able to treat abusers as they ought to be treated. This training is quite specialised. The people who lead mens behaviour change groups (aka batterers groups) have to undergo very specific training. I would suspect that Divorce Care as an organisation is not sufficiently aware of this specialised need, and is not able to provide it to their leaders. I might be wrong, but I doubt it, having heard the anecdote that A Non A Mouse described.

      BTW, the comment that A Non A Mouse made which gave rise to this whole little discussion was removed from the blog by Jeff Crippen, after he saw Loren’s comment. That’s why you can’t see it in this thread any more.

      I would think that A Non A Mouse was feeling very upset because the report her friend gave her indicated that many if not all of the participants in the Divorce Care group which her ex-husband is part of have been recruited as allies by her ex-husband. If I were A Non A Mouse, I would feel really hurt and distressed by this.

      Confidentiality is important, but to my mind, it’s more important to be able to see through an abuser’s lies and manipulations.
      What value is there is ‘privileging’ the lies of an abuser by saying “those statements were confidential so they should not be passed on” ?
      I believe Divorce Care needs to re-think its whole enterprise from the bottom up. I would not be surprised if many abusers participate in Divorce Care groups, without anyone realising they are were abusive to their former spouses. And I would also not be surprised if some abusers use Divorce Care groups as a happy hunting ground for their next victim. The leaders and the program curriculum probably warn against getting into new relationships too soon, but we all know that abusers don’t listen to wise advice because they have their own self-serving agendas.

      1. Barbara, I can appreciate your difference of opinion on the confidentiality issue I presented. I think that well intentioned people can disagree over the real world application. I did appreciate that Jeff C. took down the comment. I am concerned that ”A Non A Mouse” does not see this as an invalidation of her experience. I stand with her.
        I am not infrequently frustrated with the DivorceCare program. They come from a conservative evangelical background and I see a bias towards that viewpoint in their materials. They can be more heavily weighted towards moralizing, than towards grace filled acceptance and focusing on healing and restoration. Some of this may be to gain credibility in conservative churches, but I find it stifling. I could go on and on, but that is not the point of this reply. Maybe another time.
        I know that abusive spouses have attended groups I facilitated. Probably have one now. I feel that I generally cannot exclude people to punish them for their past transgressions, but I do carefully monitor their behavior in the group. I also challenge their assertions when they cross the line. If they do violate our group boundaries, I do not allow them back. I am assertive in protecting my “flock”.
        DivorceCare leader training does include discussion of participants who are “predators” but does not specifically mention abusive spouses. A new curriculum has just been released, and maybe there is some consideration in it, but I have not yet seen it.
        I have to respectfully disagree with your last assertions about confidentiality in a recovery group. Without confidentiality you have nothing. This does not mean that I would not report dangerous or criminal activity. It also means I tell participants to contact our church leadership if they have concerns about my behavior.
        We all encounter lies and manipulations every day. We just had an election in the U.S. As voters, we had to manage our way through a deluge of lies and manipulations. Fact checking groups were helpful in sorting this out, but as voters we had to use our own judgment about the truth. I believe the same is true in confidential groups. We have to use discernment and perhaps be enlightened by leadership. If we can not tolerate the possibility of enabling an abuser we cannot have confidential groups. Or elections.
        I am grateful that this online group exists, and its leadership is so vigilant to refute lies and present Truth.

  11. So true, so very true. Read the list to my parents and their response was, ‘that was your ex’….yep, sure was. After his infidelity was revealed he told me to go out and do the same and then we would be even and could move forward! That and that he was sorry but if I chose to stay I was to never bring it up. What did I do? Of course,like a ‘good little Christian wife’ I stayed for another 10 years trying to make it work. I also am reminded from something stated herein about our wedding night when he chose to partake of some cocaine that a friend gave him as a gift, stating that he didn’t want to offend his friend. Can you say, “There’s Your Sign?”. Ah, the clarity of hindsight, eh! What I can say praises for is that this road I have walked has taught me much, has changed my heart (tho these last few days not for the better, but that will pass), has made me stronger than ever and has blessed me with an intimately deeper relationship with my Lord.
    Thank you for this, thank you.

  12. Also something that struck me about this fact-my family is full of abusers. Between my parents and siblings- I have never seen any of them be truly sorry for anything. Most of them have never once even apologized for anything they have done to me or anyone else. That is a truly shocking fact.

  13. Yes it does become normal. You learn not to expect thoughtful behavior from anyone and end up feeling like it would be asking too much. I now know someone who , when he does something hurtful and I point it out- is actually sorry and when he promises not to do it again- he doesn’t. He makes it clear that he understands how much it hurt and will not hesitate to eat crow in public. I have never encountered that kind of humility or compassion from anyone before.

  14. I am so saddened to read Johnson’s conclusion. I want so badly for my marriage to remain intact. My husband has met all 28 of the characteristics of lacking empathy, but does understand what empathy is and can at times put himself in my shoes, as it were. But he definitely chooses to continue, failing on the third count. I have spent years supporting him, forgiving him immediately, when he lied or drank or verbally abused me or “Changed” mostly by giving small gifts only to threaten suicide, divorce, and anything else he thought might hurt me within hours or days. I have read countless self-help books, books about how to support one’s husband, Christian books, all focused on having no expectation of my husband but bettering myself. He has in the past year started work on himself, he started a 12-step program, and in the past two months or so, really has begun to change – have a much more spiritual approach in his life. He also started to work with me on the marriage program – a book and workbook billed as an alternative to couples counseling. For about 10 days, up until two days ago, he really was practicing the exercises suggested, and met with me or spoke with me regularly regarding them. It was the most peaceful 10 days of my life in the past five years, since his abuse began and escalated over time. but last night, he began to fall back into all of these behaviors, and cursed me out in front of my son, gave me no options, only ultimatums, stormed out, made no attempt on his own to practice what he has been learning and what we have been learning together, and rejected my attempts yesterday, and after giving him about 24 hours, my attempts again this evening. I am so committed to my marriage and family… I truly hope it is possible for my husband to stop these behaviors. But, I remain always in the wrong according to him – no matter what I do or say, and when he begins his abuse, there are no holds barred verbally – and absolutely no room for me to voice my feelings. He consistently does things like: hold his head in his hands and glare at me or the floor, refuse to answer simple questions, pretend he hasn’t hurt me and asked me to repeat myself but then berates me for wasting his time… So far, he has not been physically abusive beyond some pushing and shoving if I was in his way, kicking me once in the shin because I did not move away from the door “when I told you to.” But it has been almost a year since any physical abuse has occurred, though I have learned to stay out of his way. I am so sad and discouraged. I have worked so hard for so long to keep my vows and it seems like he truly is changing and has committed to doing so, but years of living this way have eroded my self-esteem, and I am no longer the cheerful person I once was, and I have become completely isolated from family and friends. Again, he has changed in noticeable ways for days at a time, now for more than a week most recently, and is committed to his 12-step program and was working very hard and acting on the suggestions of our marriage counseling book – though he frequently tells me I am insane and “need help” he canceled payments to the psychologist I went and spoke to, and will not engage in any therapy other than “anger management” books. Has anyone reading this gotten through to the other side? Had a nonabusive marriage with a partner who they believe in and married for very good reasons, and still love and wish to reconnect with and heal the relationship on both sides? Though still quite cruel tonight, my husband did schedule 30 minutes to work on our marriage program together this weekend… That gives me hope, but I am so frightened that the longer I stay, the more damage will be done and the more trapped I and my child will be, I am not sure when to accept this as “truth” and disentangle – I don’t think I will ever feel “free.”

    1. Dear K
      So far as we know, very very few abusive husbands reform. Personally I know of perhaps three couples where the husband eventually and truly changed, not just the outer stuff but the inner mentality of entitlement. And it took a long time, and much hard work on the husband’s part in each case. But I know of vast numbers where there was no reform. The slight hints or shows of reformation that you describe seeing in your husband are very typical of abusers who do not reform. The may show a little change for a little while, but it never lasts. We understand that this show of reformation is actually just part and parcel of the abuse: it is one of the ways the abuser manipulates the victim into giving him even more chances, keeping up her hope, stringing her out so she will not decide that there is no hope for the marriage. Sorry for that bad news.

      No-one can tell you what to do, but we encourage you to read the posts on this blog and keep commenting and interacting with all of us, so you can figure out what if anything you want to do about your situation.

      One more thing: the amount or recency of physical violence has very little to do with whether you are really being abused. Abusers can abuse very effectively without using physical violence, and even a tiny amount or a rare episode of violence can condition a whole relationship — as you described in your case, you’ve adapted your behaviour to try to reduce the risk of him touching you in anger. But marriage should not be living in fear, or adapting ourselves to try to walk on eggshell all the time. Living with a slight (or major) degree of fear, or walking on eggshells, is a sign that you are indeed being abused.

    2. Also this:

      I am so frightened that the longer I stay, the more damage will be done and the more trapped I and my child will be,

      is very important. I think that is a healthy fear to have, and worth paying attention to. Many of us, once we’ve finally left abusive marriages, have said “I stayed too long.”

    3. K – I was in a very similar situation, except mine never struck me (though I feared it), and mine never actually tried to do anything to “change” until I had filed for divorce. (The quotes are because it turned out that these attempts to change were all fake – attempts to get me to change my mind.)

      The road since leaving has been far from perfect, but reading your comment reminded me what I used to deal with daily. For me, it’s better out here, even with my financial and career difficulties. I’ve developed friendships that I never would have been allowed while married. I’m not afraid in my own home. Something as simple as choosing what to watch on TV (or to not watch at all) is surprisingly freeing.

      You mention your son… I have two. I used to fear leaving because I didn’t want to teach them that marriage was something that could be ended easily, or something that you don’t commit to with your whole heart and soul. I used to be afraid that divorce would scar them. At some point I realized that by staying I was teaching them that it was OK to treat your spouse the way I was being treated.

      They have adjusted amazingly well, and are happier and healthier than when we were all dealing with control and manipulation every day. Because if Mom’s OK, the kids will be OK.

  15. Regarding the empathy test: A while back I heard Dennis Prager (a very wise Jewish radio talk-show host) speak about empathy. A mother had called about her pre-teen son who was developing a remarkable sense of empathy, but was often very sad b/c of it. The first part of what he said I understood, but the last part was an epiphany for me. First: Prager affirmed that empathy is indeed good & necessary, but also explained “empathy comes at a price; the more empathy you have, the more pain you will experience in life”. This is b/c the empathic person truly feels the pain of another as if it were their own. Empathy makes good doctors & nurses but also makes good parents. Empathic people are more naturally protective, and will defend those who are hurting or are being hurt. But, here is the kicker: “the less empathy you have, the more you will hurt others”. Suddenly, I understood on a visceral level why my abuser had NO problem hurting me or others. It’s one thing to not feel pain; it’s quite another to deliberately inflict it. Perhaps this is how an abuser justifies the quest for power & control? They feel no pain when they do it.

    1. “empathy comes at a price; the more empathy you have, the more pain you will experience in life”.

      My GP also told me, years ago when I was suffering from clinical depression, that studies show that people who suffer from depression tend to have higher empathy than those who don’t suffer depression. Figures.

      1. I have to say that the meds I am on have even dulled my empathy (meds for depression). I am trying to get back to the old me who used to feel deeply when others were in a bad way, and so am weaning slowly off the drug. It scares me to feel so sort of numb after feeling One with those who hurt. Can abuse and constant trauma numb a person’s feelings?

  16. 12 out of 16 is my husband’s score. This score makes perfect sense.
    When I cry I never get comforted. My expression of the effects of the abuse, which can be very emotional and angry, are put down to my negative behavior that has an effect on him. He sees himself of a victim of my behavior and thinks I’m just as much to blame as he is.
    Lack if empathy is very hard to deal with.

  17. I know this is an old post, but I just found it and wow, it really was one of those things that made me go … aha!!!

    I still puzzle over the fact that anti h just sat there with a little smile and no apparent care for the woman he’d been married to for decades, as she bared her heart, all her pain to him over the realization that he was abusive. It didn’t make sense to me how you could love someone and not be appalled to learn how deeply your words and actions hurt them.

    I left the encounter a year and a half ago with my head spinning, in so much confusion, because of course, he’d turned it all on me and I was back to blaming myself for it all.

    I was looking over the list of traits showing lack of empathy and probably 10 of them fit anti h to some degree and 4 out of those are dead on. (Trying to be fair and giving him benefit of the doubt. I know, probably shouldn’t, but that’s just the way I roll!!)

    A lot of people here have posted about their narcissistic anti h’s and lack of empathy is a defining trait for that. Just curious … can someone lack empathy and NOT be a narcissist? Because I don’t think that my anti h is one, the traits listed don’t really fit him except lack of empathy for me and our kids. He seems to have it for people he helps in his ministries, but I guess that could be part of his facade, passing the part of the wonderful, caring, Christian man.

  18. Thank you Jesus for giving wisdom even in secular books! Thank you Jesus for leading Brother Jeff to read this particular book and then share these nuggets of insight (which very well may help some dear sister keep from losing her weary mind) ! Thank you Jesus for helping me to stumble across this post and leading me to read it some 5 YEARS LATER!!

      1. I found it to be easily readable even though he is writing for his colleagues. It is not filled with jargon that you have to be an academic to understand.

      2. I clicked your link to the book on the Amazon site and it says it’s out of print or out of stock (sorry I can’t remember) and selling at the hefty price of $125. But when I typed the title of the book directly into the search bar, I found cheap used ones. I ordered a hardback $21 shipped. When I’m done with it, I’ll probably donate to my public library. Now, let’s hope I’m smart enough to understand it – it’s been along time since this Momma has done academic reading. LOL 😀

  19. This is an incredibly helpful post with the quotes from Pg 65 and Pg 66 of Johnson’s book and those lists of comparative behaviours.

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