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Abusive Behavior and Mental Illness

Updated: May 5, 2021

Even if your partner does have a mental illness, there is NEVER an excuse for abuse.

Abuse is a choice someone makes in order to maintain power and control over a partner. If a partner is abusive towards you, regardless of whether they have a mental illness or not, they have no right to treat you in that manner. You always deserve to have a healthy, loving, supportive, trusting and safe relationship 100% of the time.

It’s important to understand that whether or not your partner is dealing with a mental health disorder or issue, you are not responsible for their behaviors. Your partner could be diagnosed with a personality disorder and still choose to not be manipulative and controlling.

If your partner is dealing with mental health issues, that is something they will need to acknowledge and seek support for on their own. The same is true for getting support in addressing abusive behaviors. If your partner is abusive, their behavior is never something you can cause and is not something you can “fix.” In the end, a person must actively choose for themselves to take the steps needed to make a change.

Connecting an abusive partner’s abusive behaviors with a disorder can also blur the line between free will and something seen as “unchangeable.” Many disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder, are marked by a person’s inability to identify their behaviors as unhealthy or show empathy to those affected by their actions, greatly reducing the possibility of change. When people consider their partner’s behavior in this way and apply a label like “narcissist,” it may lead to a belief that their partner has no control over their behavior or even a feeling of acceptance of their behavior.

Or, a person might feel that if only their partner could get diagnosed, they could get some combination of medication and therapy to turn things around. However, medication is not a fix-all and is not appropriate for everyone managing a mental health disorder.

It is also important to keep in mind that medication is not a treatment method for abusive behaviors. Abusive behavior would need to be addressed separately. We know that whether someone has a mental health disorder or not, they are always in control of their choices and abuse is a choice that someone makes. Therefore, medication cannot be an appropriate solution.

Since abusive behaviors happen primarily in one’s intimate partner relationship, it’s common that an abusive partner will not show their negative or harmful behaviors with friends, co-workers, or family members. An abusive partner tends to put on what can be considered a “fake mask” for the rest of the world to see.

When it’s just the victim and the abusive partner together, that mask comes off and the victim sees a different side that others aren’t allowed to see. The impact of being the only person to see this behavior is often isolating for the victim, as they may think (or the abusive person may even say) that no one else will believe them since no one else has witnessed the abusive behaviors. This also makes it easier for the abusive person to make their partner feel responsible for their abusive behavior, which reinforces the isolation.

The following questions may help clarify whether what your partner is doing is abuse or abuse with mental illness:

  • Does my partner yell or scream at others (friends, coworkers, family members) outside of our relationship?

  • Does my partner make others check in to see where they’re at and who they’re with?

  • Does my partner hit others outside of our relationship?

  • Does my partner minimize or verbally tear down others?

  • Does my partner pressure others to do things that they aren’t okay with?

  • Does my partner make threats to others when they say something my partner doesn’t agree with?

If you answered no to most of the questions, then most likely your partner is abusive without mental illness.

If you answered yes to most of the questions, then it’s possible your partner is abusive and also may be experiencing some form of mental health issue or illness.

You can call The Domestic Violence Hotline. Their advocates are ready to answer your call and identify services and resources to support your needs.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1−800−799−7233


Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft


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