Abuse is not okay whether or not he “can help it,” and by the way – he can.

Abuse is not okay whether or not he “can help it,” and by the way – he can.

Do you spend a lot of time wondering if your spouse “can help it?” By “it” I mean his (or her) abusive treatment of you, of course. I certainly did. I agonized over it, in fact, so badly did I want to be able to conclude it wasn’t my ex-husband’s fault.

Why did I care whether or not it was his fault? Because I didn’t want to have to think of him as a bad guy, and because I didn’t want to believe it was personally directed towards me. In other words, it took the malevolence out of the abusive elements of our relationship. If he had some magical disorder that compelled him to mistreat me, then he was a victim of himself, and I was a victim of that disorder.

In a final private session she held with me - the session in which she apologize for not being able to help me – one of our marriage therapists disclosed to me in confidence that she thought my husband had a high-functioning level of Asperger’s. This hypothesis was seconded by own personal therapist after my husband joined us for a session.

Asperger’s! I rejoiced – maybe it’s not me, after all. I read about Asperger’s and a lot of the description fit – the anti-social behavior, the lack of empathy, the extreme intellectual intelligence. But it didn’t account for the abuse. In fact, I learned that people with Asperger’s don’t like to hurt other people. They do unintentionally, but once they find out they feel badly and apologize.

That was NOT my husband. My husband took great pride in his ability to hurt me, and often said, “That was fun!” after he was finished berating me. And rather than apologize, he’d reaffirm his right to say whatever he wanted – even if it was hurtful.

So what did account for this malicious side of my ex-husband? I learned that abusive tendencies usually have their roots in a personality disorder so I researched those. There are many, but when I read about Narcissistic Personality Disorder it was like reading a catalog of everything my husband ever did and said down to the very reason he wanted to have a child (to pass down his genes.)

Having this label, even having an explanation for what was behind my ex-husband’s behavior, was helpful because it gave me “search term” that led me to a trove of blogs, articles, and support groups. I spent a period of two weeks reading up on Narcissism, and it was a tremendously useful exercise. Now I can anticipate his actions and make sense of his seemingly bizarre behavior.

Learning about Narcissism was empowering and helpful, but I quickly realized that it had no bearing on whether or not I left the marriage. I had to leave because his abusive behavior was destroying me. If he has Asperger’s, I could feel empathy for him. I could even forgive him the Narcissism because maybe it’s related to some traumatic events in his childhood. But neither condition obligated me to stay and take it.

This is why the question of whether or not he can help it doesn’t matter: because leaving isn’t about him – it’s about you, and what you need to do to save yourself. One of the hardest parts of leaving an abusive relationship is that first step of acknowledging that the abuse isn’t okay. We don’t want to do it because we don’t want to say – or think – bad things about our partners.

So what if I gave you permission to leave your partner’s character and intentions out of it? What if I said the only thing that matters is their behavior and not the intention behind it? You’d be free to appreciate your partner’s few good qualities, to feel compassion for a rough up-bringing, to be grateful for the children you have with him – and leave him, anyway.

I will end with this tip: run through a list of people that your spouse interacts with – boss, co-workers, friends, family. Does your partner treat them like he treats you? This is how you answer the question “can he help it?”