How the male intimate abuser selects, sets-up & grooms a target woman (Don Hennessy series part 3)
The man who is abusing his long-term female partner has honed the skills required to select a target woman and then set her up, target her and groom her, in order to be able to offend against her with impunity and then re-groom her… so he can re-offend against her.
That is what Don Hennessy says. He ought to have a good handle on the topic. He has met with at least 1500 men who have abused their female partners and worked closely with at least 1000 of those men (link).
In his book How He Gets Into Her Head, Hennessy describes all these phases the skilled offender engages in.
This post focuses on the first three phases the skilled offender (the male intimate abuser) engages in to achieve his goal:
- selection of the target woman
- set-up of the target woman
- grooming of the target woman, wherein the skilled offender uses both benign and sinister tactics.
I am not sure whether I need to give a trigger warning for this post. It contains no explicit descriptions of sexual abuse or physical abuse. But it does describe in detail how the abuser gets into the target woman’s head and undermines her sense of herself and gets her to ignore her instincts. Some of our readers might find this so revelatory that the realization and the accompanying pain might be temporarily overwhelming. Please look after yourself if you find that happening to you. You might want to read this post in small doses and go for a walk in nature, or pray, or have some distraction in the breaks to help you absorb this material.
Emphasis in quotes from Hennessy has been added by me.
Selection of the target
They devise injustices, saying, “We are ready with a well-conceived plot”;
For the inward thought and the heart of a man are deep. (Psalm 64:6)
What we found out by listening to the abusers was that these abusers began the abuse on the day they first met the woman. … We also learned that the tactics of abuse and control are common to all successful abusers in long term relationships. These tactics are initiated if the abuser wants to explore the possibility of a lasting relationship and if he feels that the particular woman would be susceptible to such tactics. This awareness, of the possibility of control in intimate relationships, is developed instinctively by the abuser. This is not learned behavior as many of us would like to believe, but rather then honing of a skill that we all possess. This skill is based on the abuser’s ability to hide his real intentions when he makes the initial approach to a prospective partner. ( How He Gets Into Her Head. [affiliate link*] p 17)
Hennessy says the skilled offender looks for a woman who is kind, loyal, dedicated and truthful.¹ He says that the one thing all victims have in common is kindness. Yes – kindness. Let me encourage you to take this on board if you are a survivor of abuse from your husband. You were targeted because you are kind. Your abuser took advantage of you because he recognized that you are kind, loyal, dedicated and truthful.
For without cause they hid their net for me;
Without cause they dug a pit for my soul. Ps 35:7
Here are some quotes from Irish media and YouTube items where Hennessy is describing what the abusive man looks for. All emphasis in these quotes has been added by me.
Men Who Abuse Do It Because They Can Southern Star –
Don Hennessy spoke about his work with male perpetrators of domestic violence. He revealed that men who abuse choose the type of woman they can control. He said they look for a kind woman – a type who never puts her own needs before that of her partner.
In answer to one of many questions from intrigued members of his audience, Don Hennessy refuted that alcohol, unemployment or poverty are factors in why men abuse.
He said most men do not respond to such external factors by showing violence to the women in their lives: the men who abuse do it because they can.
…being in an abusive relationship has nothing to do with being a vulnerable woman. It can happen to any woman. The only reason why it doesn’t happen to some women is that they have never been targeted by an abusive man.
Emotional abuse, damage, despair and self-doubt Irish Times –
According to Don Hennessy of the Cork Marriage Counselling Centre and author of the book How He Gets into Her Head, the one thing all victims have in common is kindness. “They have to be the type of person willing to put another person’s needs before their own.”
The first thing Hennessy asks someone seeking support at the counselling centre is: are you being blamed for things in your relationship? “And the usual response is, ‘Yes, I’m blamed for everything.’ ”
He says abusers groom their partners to meet their needs from the start of a relationship. They usually have a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy and the ability to manipulate.
The initial thing is that they would select the same type of target… the people who were being abused were always kind people, the type of people who would put others before themselves.
Let all genuine Christians take note:
The very qualities Christian women are encouraged to cultivate are the very qualities that are most attractive to abusive men.
Furthermore, when Christian victims of abuse start to display what the church perceives as ‘unkindness, disloyalty, lack of dedication and lack of truthfulness’ in regard to their marriages, they are often chastised – and may eventually be brought under discipline – by the church. But victims of abuse have to adopt the very characteristics that most churchgoers think are ‘un-Christian’ if they are to get safe and remain safe from their abusers.
The church needs to chew the cud on this. Seriously.
Speaking about how abusers target women who are kind, Hennessy says:
In my experience, she [the target woman] is the same as every other kind person I know, and she is no different from the kind people who are not abused. Our tendency to ignore this lack of difference is probably the most abusive thing we do to our clients. (How He Gets Into Her Head, p 138)
We do a huge disservice to these clients if we pathologize their persona and see them as unwell. (ibid, p 155)
Hennessy says in his book that the skilled offender is so calculating and covert that the woman is never aware that he is targeting her for long-term abuse:
… [the abusive man] wants to become God-like. … His ability to hide this intention is the cornerstone of this project. If a woman is targeted by one of these men she is never aware of what he is doing to her. (How He Gets Into Her Head, p 23-4)
Hennessy describes how the skilled offender can also use his early meetings with his target to discover if she has ever experienced previous abuse (p 24).
He sits in the lurking places of the villages;
In the hiding places he kills the innocent;
His eyes stealthily watch for the unfortunate.
He lurks in a hiding place as a lion in his lair;
He lurks to catch the afflicted;
He catches the afflicted when he draws him into his net. (Psalm 10: 8-9)
The skilled offender will listen to her revealing her inner life and select and store any information that will be useful for his purpose (25). He does this not because he wants to genuinely befriend her. Rather, “he will from the outset explore ways to challenge her view both of the context of her life and her ability to deal with it.” (25)
The set up
And when he comes to see me, he speaks falsehood;
His heart gathers wickedness to itself (Psalm 41:6)
When the skilled abuser is fairly sure he has targeted a potential long-term partner… he will begin the second and third phases of the process of establishing the relationship that he wants. He will work deliberately at setting up the terms and conditions of what it means to be his intimate partner. While this set-up phase is temporary and will eventually be concluded, he also begins the grooming phase which will develop and intensify throughout the life of the relationship. (27)
Some cultures and sub-cultures [e.g., Christian sub-cultures] have already established many of these conditions. If the target woman is already inducted into and trained or brainwashed by such a culture, the abusive man can rely on some of his work having been done for him by the culture. So the speed of the set-up process is reduced and the process of grooming is facilitated. (27)
The first and most critical step in setting up an abusive relationship is to establish that the woman is responsible for the emotional temperature of the relationship … The abuser will begin to blame the target for small difficulties that arise between them. (29)
This setting up [is] “quite detailed” and protracted – it doesn’t happen overnight. It sets out the terms and conditions by which the relationship will develop. The woman knows exactly what she can do, what she cannot do, the sanctions that will be applied if she doesn’t do what he wants. … It’s done in a way which gets her to take responsibility and take the blame when things go wrong between them. Right from the very beginning if he is upset it is her fault, she hasn’t done something right… she will begin to examine her own behaviour rather than the behaviour of her abuser. Once she is doing that she is into the mire of an abusive relationship and it develops from there. From then on she begins to take responsibility. She believes that if she does better, he will be happier and her life will improve. There is absolutely no truth in that. Men who abuse women ‘use the same tactics as pedophiles and I’ve never met one who wanted to change’ says author of How He Gets Into Her Head
[By] this gradual deepening of blame-shifting … this constant and deepening transferring of responsibilities, she [the target woman] becomes convinced that the reason she is sometimes unhappy in the relationship is because of her failings and not her partner’s behaviour. …she also becomes less sure of her ability to make sense of her position. Her instincts tell her that she does not deserve all the blame but this internal voice is quietened by the voice of the skilled abuser. Gradually the voice of her heart and gut is over-ruled by his voice in her head. She begins to question her own inner voices and also learns that when she speaks from her heart of her gut, she is dismissed. (30)
Pay attention bystanders! It’s not only the abuser who dismisses her when she speaks from her heart and her gut. It’s often her family, her friends, the ladies at her women’s bible study and her church leaders.
Another of the ways this invasion of her inner world is useful is that it allows the skilled offender to identify the aspects of the woman that make the woman feel good or bad about herself. These aspects become the focus of much attention and are used to undermine or to accuse the woman. (33)
He will undermine her positive attributes and expand her negative attributes. (41)
The slow diminution of her inner voice, the gradual influence of the skilled offender, is noticed in the changes in her language and narrative. This change is most reassuring for the abuser. The effect on the skilled offender is the growing realisation that the setting-up phase is working and that the process of invading her head is going to plan. (37)
During this set-up phase the skilled offender manages to get the woman to accept responsibility without question. He gets inside her thought process and replaces it with his worldview. He changes her language until it coincides with his descriptions. He gets his voice into her head and monitors it when she begins to speak it. … He skilfully and regularly assesses his progress. He takes nothing for granted. He watches how his demands are responded to. He is content to be respectful provided his demands have been catered for. If he feels unduly challenged he may become abusive. (37-8)
… the target woman … is denied the right to challenge his opinion…[and] also his memory. Skilled abusers have a talent for slightly adjusting the memory of any incident to their advantage. Target women begin to accept the abuser’s recall of events and to question their own memory. Gradually this apparent loss of memory may convince the woman that she is losing her mind. This process is more frightening for a woman than any physical assault. (38)
Your tongue devises destruction,
Like a sharp razor, O worker of deceit.
You love evil more than good,
Falsehood more than speaking what is right.
You love all words that devour,
O deceitful tongue. (Psalm 52:2-4)
She is also groomed. The grooming is quite hidden from her except that she has a sense that even when he is being nice to her she is still afraid of him and that fear is expanded but she can’t explain it, she doesn’t know how she got that way. If she tries to explain it everyone says ‘oh you’re too sensitive, or you’re too naïve’. She ends up being targeted, set up and groomed and once he has established that he will intensify the control until he is completely in charge.
Men who abuse women ‘use the same tactics as pedophiles and I’ve never met one who wanted to change’, says author of How He Gets in her Head
Grooming is benign if it generates sympathy and a desire to understand.
With flattering lips and with a double heart they speak. (Psalm 12:2)
…they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage. (Jude 1:16)
The skilled offender knows that being liked is essential in gaining and maintaining control, so he feigns a worldview that will make him more attractive to his target. (44)
The skilled offender will present as someone who wants to be understood, because he knows that one of the most seductive invitations to present to kind people is the invitation to try and understand another human being. So he pretends to reveal himself, while not revealing himself. (50)
The skilled offender will want to be seen as different. (56) He wants to be seen as not at all like the ‘real abusers’ who he strongly condemns, not like the target’s parents if they were irksome or abusive, not like her irritating or neglectful friends, not like her former partner, not at all like whoever it is that the target woman deplores. Using the same modus operandi, the skilled offender will present to authority figures as different – not at all like that type of person which those authority figures deplore.
The skilled offender will want to be pitied, sympathized with, and excused. (60) He can adapt, invent and lie about his life story and his current stressors to fit the worldview of his target. He is an attentive and consummate liar. From the beginning he studies his target, remembering every detail she has told him about her life story, her thoughts and feelings, her worldview. He uses this information to craft lies that will induce and shape her sympathy for him when he wants to excuse his behavior and inspire her pity and compassion for him.
The skilled offender will want to deflect blame. “From the beginning of the relationship the skilled offender explains the effects of his behavior as being the fault of the target woman.” This induces the woman to feel bad about herself, and “to look in the wrong place for an explanation of why she is unhappy”. (63-4)
The skilled offender may want to be seen as contrite. “The tactic of saying sorry is one of the most powerful weapons that the skilled offender uses. It is frequently used at the start of the relationship but its use declines as the relationship develops. …. They stop being contrite when they are confident they can manage the consequences of their bad behavior.” (64-7)
Grooming is sinister if it generates fear and secrecy
His mouth is full of curses and deceit and oppression;
Under his tongue is mischief and wickedness. (Psalm 10: 7)
The skilled offender will want to be feared. “The language and tactics of the skilled abuser are designed to implant fear while developing beliefs that the target woman can cope.” (68) The abuser does or says things to implant fear in her. At the same time or afterwards, his language to her is a malevolent cocktail of minimization and blame shifting, with expressions of love and contrition. This confuses the victim, making her uncertain.
This is the fog which we talk about so much about on this blog.
This combination of fear and love is a hidden weapon of mass destruction that invades her spirit. (70)
[the offender] has the skill to surreptitiously carry out this brainwashing while pretending to be in love. (80-81)
The skilled offender will lace all his grooming tactics with elements of intimidation and threat. This intimidation generates fear. Repeated intimidation expands into terror. Skilfully these men appear to comfort the woman while adding to her fear. … He learns to control and expand these fears because she describes them to him. (81)
Again, I want to encourage you to read How He Gets Into Her Head. Don’t think I’ve distilled all the good things he says in these posts. I’ve not conveyed half of it.
And there is good news! Don Hennessy has told me that his next book, Steps to Freedom, will be coming out in March 2018. It will be different from most ‘sympathy’ and ‘support’ books which rely on the target woman to protect herself. Instead it talks directly to the target woman while she is being controlled and hopes to give her the permission and the skills to protect her mind and her soul.
The next post in this series explains what Hennessy means when he says, “The domestic abuser is a ‘psychephile’.”
The post after that will discuss the phases that come after selection, set-up, and grooming, namely, offending, re-grooming and re-offending.
¹ Hennessy said this when being interviewed by radio presenter Ray D’Arcy. See Ray Darcy Domestic Abuse Special 54:00 onwards.
Our Don Hennessy Digest lists all the posts in this series and gives biographical details of Don Hennessy.
Unless otherwise stated, all indented quotes in this post are from Don Hennessy’s book How He Gets Into Her Head: The Mind of the Male Intimate Abuser [*Amazon affiliate link — ACFJ gets a small percentage if you purchase via this link.] Emphasis in quotes has been added by me. We’ve added this book to our Gift Books Offer in which we offer to give certain books to cash-strapped victims.