Abusers: Conning the System

Abusers, people who physically, psychologically, emotionally and sexually abuse others, are notorious con artists who easily deceive mental health professionals. Learn why this happens.

Even a complete battery of tests, administered by experienced professionals sometimes fails to identify abusers and their personality disorders. Offenders are uncanny in their ability to deceive their evaluators. They often succeed in transforming therapists and diagnosticians into four types of collaborators: the adulators, the blissfully ignorant, the self-deceiving, and those deceived by the batterer's conduct or statements.

Abusers co-opt mental health and social welfare workers and compromise them - even when the diagnosis is unequivocal - by flattering them, by emphasizing common traits or a common background, by forming a joint front against the victim of abuse ("shared psychosis"), or by emotionally bribing them. Abusers are master manipulators and exploit the vulnerabilities, traumas, prejudices, and fears of the practitioners to "convert" them to the offender's cause.

I. The Adulators

The adulators are fully aware of the nefarious and damaging aspects of the abuser's behavior but believe that they are more than balanced by his positive traits. In a curious inversion of judgment, they cast the perpetrator as the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by the abused or attribute the offender's predicament to bigotry.

They mobilize to help the abuser, promote his agenda, shield him from harm, connect him with like-minded people, do his chores for him and, in general, create the conditions and the environment for his ultimate success.


II. The Ignorant

As I wrote in "The Guilt of the Abused", it is telling that precious few psychology and psychopathology textbooks dedicate an entire chapter to abuse and violence. Even the most egregious manifestations - such as child sexual abuse - merit a fleeting mention, usually as a sub-chapter in a larger section dedicated to paraphilias or personality disorders.

Abusive behavior did not make it into the diagnostic criteria of mental health disorders, nor were its psychodynamic, cultural and social roots explored in depth. As a result of this deficient education and lacking awareness, most law enforcement officers, judges, counselors, guardians, and mediators are worryingly ignorant about the phenomenon.

Only 4% of hospital emergency room admissions of women in the United States are attributed by staff to domestic violence. The true figure, according to the FBI, is more like 50%. One in three murdered women was done in by her spouse, current or former.

The blissfully ignorant mental health professionals are simply unaware of the "bad sides" of the abuser - and make sure they remain oblivious to them. They look the other way, or pretend that the abuser's behavior is normative, or turn a blind eye to his egregious conduct.

Even therapists sometimes deny a painful reality that contravenes their bias. Some of them maintain a generally rosy outlook premised on the alleged inbred benevolence of Mankind. Others simply cannot tolerate dissonance and discord. They prefer to live in a fantastic world where everything is harmonious and smooth and evil is banished. They react with discomfort or even rage to any information to the contrary and block it out instantly.

Once they form an opinion that the accusations against the abusers are overblown, malicious, and false - it becomes immutable. "I have made up my mind - they seem to be broadcasting - "Now don't confuse me with the facts."


III. The Self-Deceivers

The self-deceivers are fully aware of the abuser's transgressions and malice, his indifference, exploitativeness, lack of empathy, and rampant grandiosity - but they prefer to displace the causes, or the effects of such misconduct. They attribute it to externalities ("a rough patch"), or judge it to be temporary. They even go as far as accusing the victim for the offender's lapses, or for defending herself ("she provoked him").


In a feat of cognitive dissonance, they deny any connection between the acts of the abuser and their consequences ("his wife abandoned him because she was promiscuous, not because of anything he did to her"). They are swayed by the batterer's undeniable charm, intelligence, or attractiveness. But the abuser needs not invest resources in converting them to his cause - he does not deceive them. They are self-propelled.

IV. The Deceived

The deceived are deliberately taken for a premeditated ride by the abuser. He feeds them false information, manipulates their judgment, proffers plausible scenarios to account for his indiscretions, soils the opposition, charms them, appeals to their reason, or to their emotions, and promises the moon.

Again, the abuser's incontrovertible powers of persuasion and his impressive personality play a part in this predatory ritual. The deceived are especially hard to deprogram. They are often themselves encumbered with the abuser's traits and find it impossible to admit a mistake, or to atone.

From "The Guilt of the Abused":

Therapists, marriage counselors, mediators, court-appointed guardians, police officers, and judges are human. Some of them are social reactionaries, others are abusers, and a few are themselves spouse abusers. Many things work against the victim facing the justice system and the psychological profession.

Start with denial. Abuse is such a horrid phenomenon that society and its delegates often choose to ignore it or to convert it into a more benign manifestation, typically by pathologizing the situation or the victim - rather than the perpetrator.

A man's home is still his castle and the authorities are loath to intrude.

Most abusers are men and most victims are women. Even the most advanced communities in the world are largely patriarchal. Misogynistic gender stereotypes, superstitions, and prejudices are strong.

Therapists are not immune to these ubiquitous and age-old influences and biases.

They are amenable to the considerable charm, persuasiveness, and manipulativeness of the abuser and to his impressive thespian skills. The abuser offers a plausible rendition of the events and interprets them to his favor. The therapist rarely has a chance to witness an abusive exchange first hand and at close quarters. In contrast, the abused are often on the verge of a nervous breakdown: harassed, unkempt, irritable, impatient, abrasive, and hysterical.

Confronted with this contrast between a polished, self-controlled, and suave abuser and his harried casualties - it is easy to reach the conclusion that the real victim is the abuser, or that both parties abuse each other equally. The prey's acts of self-defense, assertiveness, or insistence on her rights are interpreted as aggression, lability, or a mental health problem.

The profession's propensity to pathologize extends to the wrongdoers as well. Alas, few therapists are equipped to do proper clinical work, including diagnosis.

Abusers are thought by practitioners of psychology to be emotionally disturbed, the twisted outcomes of a history of familial violence and childhood traumas. They are typically diagnosed as suffering from a personality disorder, an inordinately low self-esteem, or codependence coupled with an all-devouring fear of abandonment. Consummate abusers use the right vocabulary and feign the appropriate "emotions" and affect and, thus, sway the evaluator's judgment.

But while the victim's "pathology" works against her - especially in custody battles - the culprit's "illness" works for him, as a mitigating circumstance, especially in criminal proceedings.


In his seminal essay, "Understanding the Batterer in Visitation and Custody Disputes", Lundy Bancroft sums up the asymmetry in favor of the offender:

"Batterers ... adopt the role of a hurt, sensitive man who doesn't understand how things got so bad and just wants to work it all out 'for the good of the children'. He may cry ... and use language that demonstrates considerable insight into his own feelings. He is likely to be skilled at explaining how other people have turned the victim against him, and how she is denying him access to the children as a form of revenge ... He commonly accuses her of having mental health problems, and may state that her family and friends agree with him ... that she is hysterical and that she is promiscuous. The abuser tends to be comfortable lying, having years of practice, and so can sound believable when making baseless statements. The abuser benefits ... when professionals believe that they can "just tell" who is lying and who is telling the truth, and so fail to adequately investigate.

Because of the effects of trauma, the victim of battering will often seem hostile, disjointed, and agitated, while the abuser appears friendly, articulate, and calm. Evaluators are thus tempted to conclude that the victim is the source of the problems in the relationship."

There is little the victim can do to "educate" the therapist or "prove" to him who is the guilty party. Mental health professionals are as ego-centered as the next person. They are emotionally invested in opinions they form or in their interpretation of the abusive relationship. They perceive every disagreement as a challenge to their authority and are likely to pathologize such behavior, labeling it "resistance" (or worse).

In the process of mediation, marital therapy, or evaluation, counselors frequently propose various techniques to ameliorate the abuse or bring it under control. Woe betides the party that dares object or turn these "recommendations" down. Thus, an abuse victim who declines to have any further contact with her batterer - is bound to be chastised by her therapist for obstinately refusing to constructively communicate with her violent spouse.

Better to play ball and adopt the sleek mannerisms of your abuser. Sadly, sometimes the only way to convince your therapist that it is not all in your head and that you are a victim - is by being insincere and by staging a well-calibrated performance, replete with the correct vocabulary. Therapists have Pavlovian reactions to certain phrases and theories and to certain "presenting signs and symptoms" (behaviors during the first few sessions). Learn these - and use them to your advantage. It is your only chance.

This is the topic of our next article.

Note - The Risks of Self-diagnosis and Labeling

The Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a disease. It is defined only by and in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). All other "definitions" and compilations of "criteria" are irrelevant and very misleading.

People go around putting together lists of traits and behaviors (usually based on their experience with one person who was never officially diagnosed as a narcissist) and deciding that these lists constitute the essence or definition of narcissism.

People are erroneously using the term "narcissist" to describe every type of abuser or obnoxious and uncouth person. That is wrong. Not all abusers are narcissists.

Only a qualified mental health diagnostician can determine whether someone suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and this, following lengthy tests and personal interviews.

It is true that narcissists can mislead even the most experienced professional (see the article above). But this does not mean that laymen possess the ability to diagnose mental health disorders. The same signs and symptoms apply to many psychological problems and differentiating between them takes years of learning and training.


next: Befriending the System

APA Reference
Vaknin, S. (2009, October 1). Abusers: Conning the System, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: July 5, 2018

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

More Info