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:
- 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.
- Patiently permitting the victim to vent and talk when triggered by later events, even if this still occurs years later.
- Being willing to seek therapy for himself and diligently work at employing the new thinking and behaviors he is learning.
- 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 behavior.” (p. 66)
And then it gets even better! Johnson lists 28 indicators of a lack of empathy! Here are some of them:
- Apologizes quickly.
- Expects instant forgiveness.
- Pushes the healing process — she needs to just get over it.
- Resist continuing accountability. This shows when they are confronted later when they slip back into abusive behavior.
- “Either…or” – Johnson calls this ultimatum issuing. You do this or else I will…
- Dragging his feet on pursuing therapy and treatment
- Justifying, rationalizing, intellectualizing, or blaming.
- Could care less attitude about the victim’s feelings
- Refusing to accept full responsibility
- Working to erode the victim’s support network. Working to gain allies, in other words.
- Overdoing “niceties.” Look out for this one! Compliments, nice actions, gifts…. that really are inappropriate given the circumstances.
- Telling the victim how she needs to change and what she needs to do.
- 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!
- Complaining about how much the therapy for himself or the victim costs.
- Pressuring the victim to participate in “fun” activities with him and forget all that is “water under the bridge.”
- 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).
Whoa! Sobering! But it is the truth. And the truth has a way of setting us free.