abusers and the good times

I bought Adele’s 21 album spontaneously. A few of her songs were coming up somewhat regularly on the Pandora station I listened to at work, so when I spotted her album standing in line at Starbucks while on a road trip up to New Jersey I couldn’t help myself. That afternoon was the first time I heard “Someone Like You” and I did not understand it. At all. Later, some colleagues were talking about their favorite breakup songs and after sharing mine– “King of Anything” by Sara Bareilles–  someone said “Someone Like You” was theirs. I snatched at the opportunity to understand what the hell “Someone Like You” is about and why it’s not really really creepy. The conversation didn’t really help, but the last thing they offered has stuck with me:

“Sam, you probably don’t get it because you’ve never broken up with someone you were still in love with.”

I wanted to argue– but I couldn’t. I was still in love with my ex at the time he broke our engagement, but the heartbreak only lasted about a month and then I was nothing but pissed at him. Since those days I’ve come to appreciate the blinding fury that propelled me through the early months of escaping an abusive relationship. For me, there wasn’t any redeeming quality to that relationship. There was nothing worth holding on to, nothing I could remember fondly. He was an abuser, a rapist, and that was all there was to him and our “relationship.”


One of the most common statements I hear from people recovering from abusive relationships is something along these lines:

It would be easier if they’d been horrible 100% of the time, but they weren’t. Sometimes, they could be so sweet and caring. It makes me second-guess whether or not it was abuse– how could they be an abuser and be so gentle and loving sometimes?

Here’s the thing I want every abuse victim and survivor to understand: your abuser was horrible all of the time. Yes. Even when they brought you soup when you were sick, or bought you flowers for no reason.

Being “nice” is part of the abuse.

I think we all understand this intellectually. Lenore Walker created the “Cycle of Abuse” model all the way back in 1979, and the pattern she identified hasn’t changed in the decades since she wrote The Battered Woman Syndrome. Most of us are familiar with the three phases: tension building, event/episode, and the honeymoon period. On one level, we probably all know that the times when our abuser is being nice to us is the honeymoon. I bring this up every single time someone asks “why did you stay?” Abusive relationships are not actively violent every single second of every single day, 100% of the time. If it was unremitting agony, no one would stay. Abusers are absolutely dependent on the honeymoon phase — however brief or long it is– to keep their victims with them.

However, there’s more to it than that. Yes, abusers have to be “nice” sometimes or we’d quickly realize there’s nothing to keep us in a relationship. Why Does He Do That? isn’t a perfect book (for one, it relies on gender essentialism for significant parts of its argument) but one thing I do agree with Bancroft on is that if there’s a universal quality in abusers, it’s entitlement. Whatever abusive tactics they use, the goal is to guarantee their victims give them what they feel entitled to. The reason why we can identify similarities and patterns in abusive situations is that abusers are only doing what’s the most effective at getting another human being to cooperate with their entitlement.

On top of guaranteeing cooperation, abusers use “niceness” in the same exact way they use emotional or physical pain. There is not a single shred of genuine care about you and what your needs are. They are not bringing you soup because they were motivated by compassion during your illness. An abuser, by being nice, is getting what they want from you the same way hitting you or demeaning you gets them what they want. Sometimes they want you cowering in fear, but sometimes they want to be worshiped.

Something all survivors understand is that abuse resets your expectations. What you consider acceptable changes to accommodate the escalating abuse, and after a while the constant anxiety and hypervigilance becomes our baseline. When we get any relief from that, or any glimpse of kindness from an abuser, there’s a tendency to fall to our mental knees in gratitude. We’re used to violence and disparagement, and suddenly we’re offered a ray of hope.

Abusers know this.

They’re looking for it. They feel entitled to that gratitude; they crave it. Victims, like anyone else when they’re offered what looks like kindness, express their thanks in one way or another. Except that thankfulness is heightened because we’ve been trained not to expect it, and the end result is that an abuser does something “nice” in order to bask in our gratitude for their mercy. They’re doing it because it allows them to feel magnanimous and noble– look at them, doing something good for the miserable little worm they live with. Their victim certainly doesn’t deserve their kindness, but aren’t they just the most good and loving person for bestowing it?

A second side-effect of all of this is that abusers have to go barely out of their way at all to “earn” a worshipful reaction from their victim. In conversations I’ve had over the last eight years I’ve heard so many people talk about all the good things their abuser did for them like those infinitesimally small acts were fireworks in the park. Oh, but one day they did the laundry when I was so ill I couldn’t get out of bed! They cooked dinner that one time! They thought of me when I was giving an important presentation and sent me an encouraging text!

The abuse makes us lose sight of what an above-and-beyond act really is. The “nice” things abusers do are almost always things that any basically decent human being would do for someone they care about. I had to be married to Handsome for literally years before I understood this. Yes, I appreciate all the things he does and tell him so. But him doing the dishes? Not a spectacular thing. I cooked us dinner, he does the dishes. It’s not that he’s so awesome for doing the dishes, it’s that he’d be kind of a jerk if he never contributed.

So, yes. Even the good times were bad.

I understand clinging to the scant good memories we have– some days in the midst of the abuse it’s all we have to go on. Most of the “grandest” gestures my abuser made came during the darkest days, and I was just so awestruck at the time. I’d exclaim about how wonderful he was to all my friends and they’d look at me sideways because I was going on and on about a note he’d written on a 3×5 card. Just … Christ. That was not that great, but I’d learned to expect otherwise.

Them being “nice” to you sometimes shouldn’t make you question whether or not it was abuse. The tricks an abuser uses to keep you trapped or to bask in your gratitude aren’t niceness. It’s just more of the abuse.

Photo by Roman Pfeiffer
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  • The Mom

    … and I’m listening to King of Anything… and thinking of the abusers that are now in my rear-view mirror. Absolutely agree on every point.

  • Chuck Geer

    Samantha, I’m so sorry that you had to go through this.

  • Carolyn Kate Buck

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this!! Two weeks ago I took my four children and left my abusive husband of nearly 10 years. His abuse left me almost too mentally ill to function and then he “helped” me with the care of the kids and acted like he was a noble martyr for doing so. Now that we have escaped it’s like we can all breathe again. And posts like this help me remember that yes, he was horrifically abusive, even though there were some very happy times.

  • Christen

    This was incredibly important for me to read. Thank you for sharing your life and your heart.

  • Yes yes yes yes yes. Thank you!

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    Thank you for writing this. I also feel like all of it was bad because it was all part of the ferris wheel I was on, but I’ve felt guilty, like I didn’t appreciate nice behavior or something.

  • gexpl

    I… I don’t know. I have confusing feelings about this. I look back at my history with my own abuser and sometimes this rings true and sometimes it doesn’t. Was she entitled? Holy hell, abso-fucking-lutely she was. Was she manipulative? Yes, in the extreme. There were definitely times when her feigned “kindness” was actually more cruelty than kindness that I was being gaslit into believing was kind. And other times the kindness was transparently a bargaining chip to keep me around. Hell, she wasn’t even subtle about it – writing me letters and putting them on my pillow listing all the wonderful things we could do together if I’d just stay.

    But there were other times when our relationship was good, and not just I’m-being-nice-so-you-stay good, but I’m-genuinely-enjoying-your-company-and-who-you-are good. At least I think so. Was she still entitled? Well… yes. These were the times when her control over me wasn’t being threatened. Without the need to exert her influence to dominate me (either with abuse or honeymoon tactics), she could relax into the sort of fun and “loving” relationship that she wanted. I don’t know that she had any thoughts of bribing me or controlling me at those times because she felt secure in her position. It seemed to me that this was the “real” relationship, and both the abuse and the honeymoon manipulation were the “you fucked up and ruined things” relationship. Maybe there’s not a meaningful difference between “honeymoon” and “things are going great because you’re behaving so I don’t NEED to manipulate you” but it feels like there’s a difference to me that I’m probably not articulating well because this is mostly raw emotion speaking.

    I dunno, I guess I just thought I’d put this out there in case anyone has a similar experience or feeling or maybe just some general thoughts on whether my framing makes any sense. Just FYI, my abuser was not a romantic partner (although she attempted to be), for the sake of any discussion about this.

    • gexpl

      As an aside, if this isn’t somewhere that you want this sort of discussion, that’s fine and you’re welcome to delete my comment. I’m just hoping maybe for some insight from you and your community since I’m still in some pretty confusing stages of trying to understand what happened to me.

    • “Without the need to exert her influence to dominate me (either with
      abuse or honeymoon tactics), she could relax into the sort of fun and
      “loving” relationship that she wanted.”

      That’s a pretty relevant part to what I’m attempting to point out in the post. It’s unlikely she cared about *you* and who you are as a person. She cared about *her* relationship “goals” and she wanted things to go *her* way and be the way *she* wanted regardless of how you felt about it. As long as things fit into her worldview and her “ideal” for her “relationship” things could go ok for you.

      Abusers get into relationships — parental and romantic– because they want something out of them, in some ways like everyone else. I married Handsome because he makes me happy and I enjoy making him happy and I think we’re a good support system for each other and together we’ll be able to do things we couldn’t do apart. We all have reasons for being in relationships with each other, especially the relationships we choose, like partnerships and friendships. Abusers have reasons for wanting to be romantically involved with someone, and they probably aren’t all that different than someone who isn’t an abuser– to be happy, to be loved, etc.

      The difference lies in the fact that *making the other person happy* and *caring about the other person* isn’t a part of that equation. She couldn’t care less whether or not you were comfortable, or felt supported, or cared for. That doesn’t matter to abusers.

      So yes, it’s possible that some days things sort of felt fine. She probably cared about you as much as any abuser can. It’s just so twisted and fucked up that their “caring” is worse than anyone else’s ambivalence.

      • gexpl

        That does make a lot of sense. She definitely did not care about my needs or wants in the relationship, short of the fact that she believed that she always knew what was best for me regardless of what I said. I was sort of a non-entity in the relationship. She did like me, but only on her terms and when she felt secure and in control, and my allegiance to her was mandatory, not earned.

        Thank you for responding to help clarify!

  • Rachel

    Thank you for posting this. I feel much the same about my ex, though our relationship only lasted a few months. She would frequently pick fights so that she could yell at me and call me awful things, ignored my physical boundaries, and in the end assaulted me. But she could also be so kind, going to the store when I was sick so that she could make me ginger tea. But now I think that that wasn’t too terribly special–I waited in the ER with her for 8 hours one night even though it was a time when we were fighting, and I’ve bought ginger ale for my friends when they get sick. Even one of my co-workers a couple years ago went out of her way to buy me green tea and natural honey when she knew that I had lost my voice from a bad cough. I think I just got so used to feeling attacked and walking on eggshells that a kind gesture got blown out of proportion, and it made me feel horrendously guilty about being unhappy in the relationship.

  • JBReiter

    So glad you got out, Samantha! Speaking from personal experience (my abusive mother), abusers with a trauma history may be psychologically split into different parts. One personality-part might be genuinely loving, but that part is not always the one driving the bus! This is why we may feel so confused about what kind of person she is, good or bad.

    It also struck me that your description of reset expectations sounds just like hard-core evangelicals’ idea of God’s grace. In that brand of Christianity, we are supposed to be slavishly grateful for anything better than the eternal torture we deserve. Re-enactment much?

  • Lucy

    On Tumblr, I saw an account that I think is an example of this, from a person who had had a string of abusive relationships and found a good one. This woman loves olives, and her partner at the time did not. The woman emphasized how her partner hates olives “with the passion of a thousand suns”, and then showered praise on her partner for going to the store and getting olives for her even though he himself does not like them. She was so over the moon, she even posted a photo of the olive jar. The way I see it, that is an example of a small kindness being blown way out of proportion.

  • ” They’re doing it because it allows them to feel magnanimous and noble– look at them, doing something good for the miserable little worm they live with. Their victim certainly doesn’t deserve their kindness, but aren’t they just the most good and loving person for bestowing it?”
    yeah i’ve heard this in many a gospel presentation…

  • Timothy Swanson

    Well said.