How to determine if someone is 'an abuser' or 'just' not a very kind person?

barefoot

Sponsor
I feel a bit silly posting this, but I'm a bit stuck so would appreciate anyone's thoughts.

Last session, my therapist referred to my dad as 'an abuser'. It took me by surprise, to the point where I don't think I even really processed it at the time. But since the session, I have been mulling it over.

My first thought, considering it after the session, was that I must have misled my therapist by making my dad sound much worse than he is. I felt bad that I had made her think such a thing about him. It has never crossed my mind to think of him in those terms. I told my wife what my therapist had said and she pulled a face and seemed to dismiss the idea (of my dad being an abuser) – but I'm also not sure whether she thought that was the 'right' thing to say and what I would want to hear?

So, it feels weird and off to me to apply that label to my dad.
That said, if a friend were to tell me about their parent/partner and list the behaviours that my Dad often engages in, I might well think that they were emotionally abusive behaviours.

I often find my dad quite difficult and stressful to be around. He's not very warm, he lacks emotional intelligence/empathy, he's quite controlling, he's quite judgemental and critical...
But then, so are a lot of people, I guess?! At least some of the time.
So, how do you determine whether someone is abusive/an abuser or whether they are just...well, not the nicest of people?!

I really want to say – I'm not trying to belittle anyone's experiences here. I'm not meaning this to be a glib question or to dismiss anyone else's experience with someone emotionally abusive as 'well, it's not abusive...they're just not very nice...' I'm really not meaning that at all and hope it doesn't land that way for anyone. I'm really just trying to make sense of my own situation and family dynamics.

My wife asked me whether it's helpful to put a label on it. I said, in a way, yes. If I do accept that his behaviour is abusive, I think that will help with boundary setting. That I will not feel bad/guilty about setting boundaries around time with him etc.
On the other hand, I don't want to accept this, just because my therapist has said it, if my dad doesn't actually deserve it.

It's not really about the label as such...it's not that I'm desperate to call my dad something (or not) Just feeling my way, trying to sense make really...

Any thoughts??
 

scout86

MyPTSD Pro
I think that's a pretty good question and it's not one I've ever thought about really.

From Dictionary.com
1: to use wrongly or improperly; misuse: to abuse one's authority.
2: to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way: to abuse a horse; to abuse one's eyesight.
3: to speak insultingly, harshly, and unjustly to or about; revile; malign.

There's kind of a big overlap between "abusive" and "not very nice" it seems. Now that I think about it, my ethnic background is Scandinavian-American. We tend to be people who understate. In fact, it's kind of a form of humor. (And might lead to misunderstandings with people of other cultures. LOL) Anyway, I'd be tempted to describe a LOT of abusive people as "not very nice" in most polite conversations. All the while thinking of them in much darker terms.

So, do you think he realizes he's being hurtful? Do you think his motive is to hurt? I'm really not quite sure where a dividing line might be, but someone who gets off on hurting people seems like they'd be abusive. Then again, someone who's kind of an insensitive idiot could be pretty hurtful and too clueless to realize it and I'd say they're abusive too......

I suspect your T is right about your dad. She's had the chance to hear something about him and see what the results have been. What are YOUR thoughts on the differences?
 
How emotionally or psychologically not nice does a person have to be before you are ready to call that person and their behaviour abusive?

Is it because he is your father that you find it difficult to apply that word?

If it was your boss or neighbour would you leave your job or avoid him?

Your father is someone that you are rather compelled to negotiate with or put up with, or reason with, dismiss his behaviour or even excuse.. because he's always had those traits you described?

It's confronting to realise that the word abuse might well apply to someone that you love and have loved for a long time. It was for me. It was also so sad too. Sad for him and for me. It took me a while to accustom myself to use that word in relation to my father but when I looked hard at the behaviour and grappled with what it truly was, taking away all of the emotional attachments and subjected it to the same scrutiny I would apply to any other person who behaved in the same way, I was able to label the behaviour as abuse and place the responsibility for that behaviour at his feet. He's gone now and so the opportunity to explore this more is somewhat academic for me, but the damage still stings and lingers in my mind and it is still useful to understand how complex the issue is when we are attributing abuse to a parent.
 
D

Dennis

I feel a bit silly posting this, but I'm a bit stuck so would appreciate anyone's thoughts.

Last session, my therapist referred to my dad as 'an abuser'. It took me by surprise, to the point where I don't think I even really processed it at the time. But since the session, I have been mulling it over.

My first thought, considering it after the session, was that I must have misled my therapist by making my dad sound much worse than he is. I felt bad that I had made her think such a thing about him. It has never crossed my mind to think of him in those terms. I told my wife what my therapist had said and she pulled a face and seemed to dismiss the idea (of my dad being an abuser) – but I'm also not sure whether she thought that was the 'right' thing to say and what I would want to hear?

So, it feels weird and off to me to apply that label to my dad.
That said, if a friend were to tell me about their parent/partner and list the behaviours that my Dad often engages in, I might well think that they were emotionally abusive behaviours.

I often find my dad quite difficult and stressful to be around. He's not very warm, he lacks emotional intelligence/empathy, he's quite controlling, he's quite judgemental and critical...
But then, so are a lot of people, I guess?! At least some of the time.
So, how do you determine whether someone is abusive/an abuser or whether they are just...well, not the nicest of people?!

I really want to say – I'm not trying to belittle anyone's experiences here. I'm not meaning this to be a glib question or to dismiss anyone else's experience with someone emotionally abusive as 'well, it's not abusive...they're just not very nice...' I'm really not meaning that at all and hope it doesn't land that way for anyone. I'm really just trying to make sense of my own situation and family dynamics.

My wife asked me whether it's helpful to put a label on it. I said, in a way, yes. If I do accept that his behaviour is abusive, I think that will help with boundary setting. That I will not feel bad/guilty about setting boundaries around time with him etc.
On the other hand, I don't want to accept this, just because my therapist has said it, if my dad doesn't actually deserve it.

It's not really about the label as such...it's not that I'm desperate to call my dad something (or not) Just feeling my way, trying to sense make really...

Any thoughts??
I do believe I get the gist of your message- which is that you never realized that your father was abusive until you were older. I grew up with an ultra-conservative southern Baptist minister father who thought the sun rose and set in his own posterior. 'Everyone' in his church thought he was this handsome, charismatic and wonderful man but, unfortunately, so did he. BUT, in reality, he was a mentally ill man who ultimately ended up in a mental institution. He cheated on my mother and he beat my mother and he also beat me and my two brothers bloody many times. But I was the middle child and I secretly hated him and he felt it so I got the worst beatings, by far. Yet, no one ever saw it or knew anything about it. SO, I never realized that I was actually a severely-abused child until I was diagnosed with PTSD as an adult. The psychiatrist(s) made it clear that I had PTSD due to the severe physical abuse that I had to endure as a child. I was raised to believe, and accept, that my father was a 'Minister of God' and I was supposed to accept everything he did as something that I 'needed'. But, when a father beats a child with a leather belt while ordering them not to cry and, meanwhile, screaming that he's not going to stop until he sees a smile on their face, there has to come a time that the little boy wonders why 'God' didn't ever make him stop the beatings at some point. I swear- I still wonder. ???
 

grief

Sponsor
i label purposeful mistreatment as abuse. if your dad is mistreating you (and this can happen emotionally-verbal abuse, name calling, gaslighting, hurtful, insulting, yelling, screaming, and the list goes on) he is abusive.

you can be not very nice and not be abusive but the line is very thin. i happen to be a not-nice person. i'm blunt and i don't understand social cues. but i don't belittle people, judge people, critize people, yell at people-you know what i mean?

and if i do those things they are not on purpose and i am able to be acccounteble for my behavier when i realize what is happening. i don't bully people, but i don't coddle them, either. some would conseder that not nice. but it doesn't cross the line to being abuseve.

if i did all those above things? that line gets crossed.
 

barefoot

Sponsor
Thanks all. Perhaps I'm looking for a clear answer and there's not one.

So, do you think he realizes he's being hurtful? Do you think his motive is to hurt? I'm really not quite sure where a dividing line might be, but someone who gets off on hurting people seems like they'd be abusive. Then again, someone who's kind of an insensitive idiot could be pretty hurtful and too clueless to realize it and I'd say they're abusive too......


i label purposeful mistreatment as abuse.

I think this is where I'm getting stuck. Because I'm not clear about his intention. And I don't actually know if he's aware of his impact or not – let alone, if he is aware, how does he feel about it. I think he enjoys being in control. I think he believes he is superior and enjoys this. I think he likes saying one thing to my sister and another to me so that he gets what he wants (in this case, from me, he wants 'poor you' sympathy) So, I guess that's manipulation?

In his house (where my adult sister and teenage niece also live), what he says goes. No one does anything/makes a big decision without his input. He has the ability to control the emotional temperature of a room/house. And, just as he does this in his house, when he comes to my house, I strongly feel that he also believes he can exert this control here too. I feel like he thinks that what he says, goes...and he brings his controlling energy...when he's staying with my wife and I in our house! But my wife and I push back!

I had a really difficult couple of weeks after I saw my family recently. It took a long time to regulate as I felt so distressed and anxiety-ridden. I honestly don't think he will have had any idea that I find it/him so difficult. He would be totally baffled if I told him that, a weekend with them all led to a mini breakdown. He wouldn't feel glad about it. He wouldn't enjoy knowing that. He just would have no comprehension of it and wouldn't understand what my problem was. Because, I don't think he sees most (any?!) of the things I observe in him/family dynamics.

He and my sister have a very unhealthy, co-dependent relationship. There are a lot of things about it that I find very stressful/upsetting to witness. And I also find it difficult to see the way he is with my niece. Most of the time when I see them all together – which, admittedly, isn't that often – he is criticising her, telling her off and putting her down. I honestly can't tell if he knows how upsetting it is. And, tbh, I don't know how upset my niece is by it most of the time as it is just normal for her.

Ugh, I'm getting into too much detail, sorry...

I suspect your T is right about your dad. She's had the chance to hear something about him and see what the results have been. What are YOUR thoughts on the differences?
I guess though that I only talk to her about him when I'm stressed/upset with him...So, I don't think I've given her a balanced picture...and this is why I think I may have been unfair. She has said before that I don't need to make excuses for him. I think that was when I was describing how, when we were kids, he would get in a bad mood (I used to think because he was stressed at work – now I think he was probably depressed but he's always refused to talk to anyone about that) and he would just ignore us for days. Not look at any of us. Not speak to any of us. It was like, to him, we were invisible. Until he decided that we weren't.

Maybe that's the thing. He's depressed. And my distress (at least, partly) is due to having a dad with untreated depression (and total denial about it) my whole life...?

if i do those things they are not on purpose and i am able to be acccounteble for my behavier when i realize what is happening

Yeah...he's not really big on accountability...I don't think I've ever heard him apologise for anything... And he doesn't ever seem to be able to see how he contributes to something – it's always someone else to blame...


Is it because he is your father that you find it difficult to apply that word?

Yes, I'm sure this is a big part of it. Having never considered him as abusive, it is, as you say, difficult and confronting to consider the possibility. But I think there's a lot of anxiety then around not wanting to put this on him if he doesn't deserve it. Perhaps he's just a bit of an arsehole?!
But is this, as my T says, me making excuses for him and trying to find a way out of making him responsible for his behaviour?
And, no, I wouldn't be in a relationship with him if he wasn't my Dad...
 

barefoot

Sponsor
if your dad is mistreating you (and this can happen emotionally-verbal abuse, name calling, gaslighting, hurtful, insulting, yelling, screaming, and the list goes on) he is abusive
Just to add because I want to be clear – I don't live with them and don't see them often. I don’t really find myself on the receiving end of him directly and personally. He isn’t really directly mean to me (for want of a better expression!) Though he does have an impact even if things aren’t directly aimed at me. My distress is mainly about observing the behaviour/dynamic between them.

My T says the behaviour I’m observing with him and my niece is likely triggering old hurts that I experienced with him as a kid. In a way, it makes sense, because the fallout from visits is totally a feeling of being triggered.

But I can’t actually bring much to mind…just the ignoring thing…
 

Movingforward10

MyPTSD Pro
Yeah…I guess it does…

ETA: but that manipulation really just means he gets whatever attention he wants eg sympathy. It’s not like it causes harm to us?
As a child, if someone (and not just someone, but a parent), manipulates to get their needs met, we learn that we are not important enough, that their needs overide ours, and that our role is to tend to their needs and ignore our own.

My T would say that is relational trauma.
 

grief

Sponsor
Just to add because I want to be clear – I don't live with them and don't see them often
i understand. never the less just because he isn't currently mistreating you doesn't mean he hasn't mistreated you in the past.

in edition of that others have also mentened with regard of the intention, some times people can behave abusively even if they aren't aware of it.

how ever it sounds like your father is aware of his behavier. and as you had indecated he enjoyed doing it, and he is an unkind person. all of those to me would seem that the label is fitting. being unkind is abusive.

you don't have to be nice, but to be unkind is different. there is some form of intention there to behave badly. even if he isn't aware that it's abusive-the way you describe him, even if you made him aware, he would be most likely to blame you instead.

you could just tell him how he is behaving is unkind and harmful. i doubt he would take a serious inventery and change. he would blame you and refuse to apolegize.

but that manipulation really just means he gets whatever attention he wants eg sympathy. It’s not like it causes harm to us?
it sounds harmful to me. it's stressful. it amps you up. regardless of any thing all of this is poor behavier. you mentioned that labeling as abuse would help you to soledify bounderies but is that really necessery to do this? these are bounderies that are necessery regardless.

hey, you are being unkind to me, that is not acceptable.
 
D

Deleted member 50877

Reading your post and the answers, there is one aspect that was not mentioned so far, but, that may be important in my mind, when it comes to the difference between abusive and not so nice: dependency. You can only be abused by someone you are dependent on in some way and the abuse is about your boundaries not being respected.

Thinking about „being abusive“, it sounds almost like an universal trait of a person, but it may be more a certain behavior in a certain context. A child, needs love, kindness, approval, appreciation, support. If they do not get that, it can have damaging consequences. And if a parent is delivering humiliation, control and hurt, then the parent could be labeled as abusive. This parent may “just“ go as a not so nice person in other context - employees, buddies, neighbors - because they are not dependent and can set boundaries. They can chose to have less contact or to walk away. They cannot be abused. But you, as a child, entirely dependent on him, where you can‘t protect yourself and cannot decide to walk away or set boundaries.. that could be seen as an abuse.

You are an adult now. You can set your boundaries. Chose the amount of contact. Say something to your dad. It would be very difficult for him to be really abusive right now as you are less dependent. Maybe this lack of dependency is what makes it difficult to become friends with the thought of him being abusive? Maybe with the raise of your independency, he declined from “abusive“ to „not so nice person“?
 
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