Does Abuse Require Bad Intent or Can It Be the Result of Simple Incompetence?

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I didn’t think of myself as being a survivor of anything — much less abuse — until I was in my 30s.

The news was delivered to me in my therapist’s office, spoken as an casual aside, quickly, as though she assumed the information was obvious to me.

“Well, that’s pretty common for people who have had abusive childhoods, that behavior,” she said, in response to my telling her something I’d been struggling with.

“Are you saying I had an abusive childhood?” I asked, stunned.

At the time, the idea that my childhood could have been abusive was so foreign to me. It was strict, and my mother and I surely warred, but perhaps I had been a difficult child. Perhaps it had been primarily my fault that we hadn’t gotten along.

It was only when my therapist flipped the script around and asked me of my current expectations of the behavior and maturity of children now that I myself was an adult that I began to understand her point.

Nonetheless, it was still months before I really absorbed what she’d thrown out there so casually. And years before I believed it fully.

I Couldn’t Prove That My Mother Meant to Harm Me, So I Didn’t Know If It Was Abuse

My sticking point was simple: I couldn’t be sure whether my mother had meant to harm me via her actions. Even when they were particularly cruel, perhaps they had been conceived of by her as juvenile pranks. Acts perpetuated by an insecure person who had never learned how to maturely manage her own emotions.

Even acts of violence, when viewed through the proper lens, could be understood as a loss of control. Acts of a woman who was in over her head. Who didn’t know how to parent and had been left alone with four small children while her workaholic husband traveled the world in the ever-moving goalposts that being a “good provider” (his own model of virtue) entailed.

Perhaps my mother was mentally ill. She did deny her actions later whenever I’d try to talk with her in order to debrief. But even when I approached her with an apology for my part in things, she would question my memory, tell me I was imagining things again. (A tendency of hers that led me to a habit of extensively journaling that I’ve maintained my entire life.)

Through a certain lens, this was gaslighting, a form of emotional abuse. But how was I to know that her memory wasn’t faulty? Perhaps she was experiencing breaks from reality, blind rages that she couldn’t organically remember later.

It was all possible.

And I had basically nothing to go on outside of what she said and did, all of which could be interpreted ambiguously, particularly if I wanted to give her the benefit of endless doubts.

At that point in my life, I needed her to have meant to hurt me for it to have been abuse.

Huh. Apparently There’s No Mention of Abuser Bad Intent in the Definition of Abuse

abuse (verb) –

  1. use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse
  2. treat (a person or animal) with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly

abuse (noun) –

  1. the improper use of something
  2. cruel and violent treatment of a person or animal

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I always know I’m deeply troubled about something and feeling like I’m out of options for reasonable answers when I’m consulting a dictionary definition.

But at some point I did consult the dictionary (feeling like such a pedant all the while, egads). And there it was. Abuse, both as a noun and verb, was described in terms of impact instead of intent. In the dictionary definition at least, there was no mention of ill intent.

I began to see that perhaps there was room for me to prioritize my experience of the bad treatment over whatever my mother was (or wasn’t) thinking while she acted out.

And I began to realize that the reason I was so reluctant to was also a side effect of what she’d done, that I’d been systematically trained to defer to another person’s experience over my own when our views were in conflict.

It’s taken an awfully long time, and I still have no love of the A-word (abuse) nor am I particularly excited about accepting that it applies to me (I come from a long line of stoics and people who generally don’t like to complain), but I’ve finally accepted that a lot of what I’ve experienced is common to abuse survivors.

Does Abuse Require Ill Intent or Can It Be the Result of Simple Incompetence?

Anyway, I’m writing today because the question occurred to me: If ill intent isn’t in the dictionary definition of abuse, then where did I get the idea that it was a necessary component of abuse?

It occurred to me that there must be others out there who currently now believe or have believed that abuse requires ill intent. Who believe that someone needs to be acting in bad faith to be an abuser. And that you can’t abuse someone simply via incompetence.

So I thought I’d open up the question to you, readers: What do you think? Does abuse require ill intent or can it be the result of simple incompetence? Why or why not?

Thanks in advance for any of your thoughts on the matter.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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13 Comments

  1. It’s always been my assumption that abuse is someone who lacks the ability to control their primal desires in most or all forms. They are usually apt to addiction and constant outbreaks because deep inside when someone is angry there may be a desire to harm the subject of their anger but most people hold back or consider the consequences their actions could bring or what the subject means to them. Abusers just act on the urge. I’m mad I’m gonna let it out! And that’s been my experience with it.

  2. I had a similar experience with my therapist. Because I had such a hard time using “abuse” to understand we used neglect instead. It helped because no matter what my parents intent was, it was easy to see neglect. I still feel uncomfortable using abuse as it pertains to my family because I still think they did the best that they could. Either way, I am working on changing my behaviors with the help of a competent professional.

  3. Hrmmm… I never thought about it like this, but I can see how I applied this same thing to my parents….They always claimed to have my best interests in mind when they did any of their emotional abuse tactics… you’ve given me something to think about.

  4. Thanks for this. I’ve been having similar thoughts. I can’t tell who the abuser is, or even if there is one. I see no ill intent, just misguided efforts. My ex partner and I were in a co dependent cycle for 7 years, where he threatened to leave the marriage (ever month or so) and actually moved out several times. He’d change his mind and come back and I’d take him back. He said I would pull him in w my unconditional love, but complained that my love is dysfunctional and a trap, since I don’t fulfill him. I lived for seven years with increasing anxiety, never sure what I’d do or say next that would mean he wanted out of the marriage. Several counsellors told me ‘threats of abandonment’ is a type of emo abuse. I’ve been unable to see him as abuser. In my attempts to understand my part in the cycle, I’ve taken to seeing myself as abuser: not letting him go when he says he wants to go. I talked him out of leaving. I reasoned. I changed my behaviours to please him. And I understand that I abused myself: I understood the threats were damaging my trust in him and that I was trying to please him to keep him and fix the cycle by making myself acceptable to him. I did that to me, because I wanted him.
    My trust finally broke and now the marriage ended in November, but he still wants to get back together. It’s confusing. I see we are both intending the best for each other. I cannot take him back, because that would continue the cycle. Plus I don’t please him, me as I am. He loves me best when he doesn’t ‘have’ me, and I don’t trust he really wants the me I am. I think he wants a fantasy version of me, and I keep disappointing him.
    Anyway, in my opinion, regardless of the dictionary definition, where there is no ill intent I have a hard time seeing anyone as abusers or victims. People are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. We all do what we can to love the people we love.

  5. I think it can go either way, but I do think a lot of abuse goes unrecognized because the abuser doesn’t intend to be abusive. A lot of abusers were themselves abused and arguably don’t know any better, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. :/

    I’ve seen more than a half dozen personally abusive relationships, and I can only really say two were intentionally cruel and abusive. One was a psych major in college and used his knowledge of my PTSD to force me into flashbacks or panic attacks if I disagreed with him. The other ended up being a pedophile who admitted on arrest to intentionally abusing me and trash talking about me to everyone to isolate me so he could steal our kid away and no one would question it because I was “just crazy.” :/ The rest of them really just mimicked the behavior I saw from their parents and seemed confused when confronted with it being abusive. So in my albeit one-person experience, the split is about 25%/75% of intentionality or not. But the intentionally abusive cases were decidedly worse and got physical.

    And THAT – physical abuse – is where most people seem to “accept” that it’s “really” abuse. Most people don’t understand emotional abuse or financial abuse or abuse by isolation. But having seen it all, they’re just as painful. I’d have preferred if my exes just punched me. It’d have been obvious and people would have helped me get away. But being blamed and called derogatory names for being literally raped in my sleep? I’m not sure I’ll ever forget that. In fact, being screamed at about it and told it was my own fault and being kept from reporting it because he was still hovering over me and threatening me all day until it was too late (the police LAUGHED at me and refused to even file it because I didn’t “call them right away” and/or go to the hospital immediately.) hurts worse in the long run than getting raped did… 🙁

  6. As a survivor whose experiences landed me with one of the major developmental trauma psychological disorders, I 100% believe abuse can be the result of incompetence. Further, I think it is more common for abuse to be the result of incompetence rather than ill intent. While working on my recovery, I have come to the conclusion that a huge component of multi-generational abuse is poor emotional regulation skills. I have powerful and at times overpowering emotions, even as an adult. I never learned how to regulate my emotions because I was responsible for managing my parents’ emotions as a child. I had to manage theirs and also could not learn from them to regulate my own in childhood because they did not possess those skills themselves. Cluster Bs are a thing in my family, and my maternal grandmother almost certainly had one–how would my mother have learned to regulate her emotions when she was managing *her* mother’s during childhood? There was no way she could have. I am working on learning emotional regulation now in adulthood, and I’m blessedly childless and able to live alone to focus on that growth.

    I similarly prioritize my experience of the bad treatment over whatever my parents and other abusers were perhaps thinking, at least in my assessment of whether or not the treatment was abusive. I believe that is the way claims of abuse should always be handled when victims come forward. I have also found myself disagreeing painfully in cases where my experience of being treated badly and needing protection/distance from the person who harmed me is prioritized lower than speculation about what that abuser may or may not have been thinking.

    Where I find intent to be of greatest consequence is during my processing of the abuse, forming my contemporary feelings/thoughts about my former abuser, and in finding/growing some compassion for them even as I maintain boundaries around contact or interaction. For me, it’s important to remind myself that I don’t control other people’s behavior with my own, i.e. it wasn’t anything I did to deserve the maltreatment or “make them” hurt me. Forming some ideas about their potential intentions or reasons tends to be a natural place I go when working through that. But it doesn’t change the way I define the behavior. At best, it makes it possible for me to understand that yes, I was abused *and* I didn’t do anything to make it happen, as well as make a determination about whether I or others in their vicinity are still danger of being harmed.

  7. Wow, yeah this makes a whole lot of sense.

    As a good example… it’s considered neglect if parents are found deliberately starving their kids, but they’ll also do it for the well-meaning-but-ill-informed parents that do so because think their 1yo needs to be slender, as well as the ones just so dis-engaged from their kids (eg drug addicted) that they forget to feed them.

  8. I definitely don’t think explicitly ill intent needs to be there in order for it to be abuse. Heavily religious parents arguable have “good intent”, at least in their own minds, when they put their queer kids in conversion therapy, harshly punish their sexual curious kids, or sex and body shame their daughters.

    Parents with addiction struggles don’t necessarily have intentions that are either good or bad yet in a lot of cases may be neglectful and harmful through those addictions.

    I think my personal experience actually sounds a lot like your own. My dad was extraordinarily strict and his expectations were oftentimes absurd. He used to physically discipline me and my sibling when we were younger, though he always struck me MUCH harder and that actually lead to me then fearing him for most of my childhood.

    When I was a teen he didn’t spank us anymore, but he instead made me feel incredibly insecure and ashamed of myself. His standards were so high that he was often frustrated that I didn’t keep my room clean enough or do something he told me to do fast enough, or in the way that he wanted me too, which of course was never clearly explained, he would mock me, put me down, call me names, and generally suggest I was dirty, a failure, a slob, I’d never find a partner, never succeed at life, etc. His emotions were often massive extremes, so, if he was in a particularly awful mood his face would redden, his eyes would bulge, his fists would clench, and he’d approach me or stomp around in a way that made me literally fear for my safety.

    He was also an alcoholic and disowned me for coming out as queer and trans a few years ago, started insulting me and refusing to acknowledge my existence to the rest of the family anymore cause he thought I as an embarrassment.

    Anyway, I could go on and on, there’s a lot more intense hurt he caused but that’s not what I’m trying to say here. Fact is that my dad is a very proud man and he genuinely believes he was doing no wrong, he was being a good father, and that he did everything out of trying to be a good parent. He refuses to acknowledge the emotional devastation, insecurity, fear, and more that he caused in my youth. He truly thinks I’m over exaggerating when I say I feared him as a kid, and in a lot of ways I still do now, especially.when he drinks, because in him mind he only ever did it all to help and never meant to hurt anyone.

    But intent does not negate harm. Incompetent or even good will abuse definitely exists too.

  9. Abuse is what happens to the victim, not what the abuser wants to do. Most horrible acts that are comitted by humans are comitted with good intentions. Parents of the past have physically abused their children, to teach them strength and rules that they needed to function well in society. They have abused their children out of love and the desire to raise them succesfully.
    A person I have loved with all my heart has manipulated me (out of fear of telling the truth), gaslighted me (to protect himself and to keep the connection alive that we had), broken agreements (out of love for other people) and done a number of horrible things out of sheer incompetence. I still believe that they are the kindest, most loving soul on earth, but have never learn how human connections actually work and are struggling with a number of mental health issues that are scary to confront.
    Still what they did was abuse.
    Not even the worst kind, but abuse nonetheless.
    I believe most people do what they do out of love even though in very twisted ways sometimes. And also most people in our society never learn how to process their emotions, communicate their needs or put in the work necessary for true human connection. The way our society is set up still discourages all of these skills.
    So yes, I even believe that most abuse is out of incompetence, not ill-will.

  10. I don’t normally leave comments, even though I enjoy reading your posts, but you did ask for thoughts, so I thought I might share some of mine.

    I agree that it doesn’t take deliberate, conscious intent to harm. But I do think that abuse requires intent to *control*. I think there are some things that are harmful or hurtful but not, technically, “abusive”. Leaving someone might be hurtful, but is not abusive, for example. I just answered some question on Quora asking why people who do the dumping always claim to be the victim. The implication was that the person being dumped was the “real victim” because they were dumped, because it was the act of leaving that was abusive.

    So I do think that not everything that hurts qualifies as “abuse”. I think for it to be “abusive”, it requires some amount of control or some intent to control. But I also think that the people doing the controlling things, it’s possible and many of them *do* believe that their effort to control others is not out of malice, perhaps even “for their own good” and out of “love”.

    I believe that we, as a culture, are surrounded by examples of controlling behaviour that is accepted as “loving” behaviour, so I think that pretty much everyone engages in some amount of controlling behaviour with those they care about. Some of it reaches a level that I would call the relationship itself “abusive”.

    Another example I like to use is one of gaslighting. Gaslighting is trying to control another person’s inner landscape – changing how that person experiences reality for the purpose of getting that person to behave in a way that the gaslighter wants them to behave. Dismissing their subjective opinions or feelings, telling them how they feel, changing history by confusing their memories of past events, stuff like that.

    Now think of a harried, exhausted mom trying to get her toddler to eat her broccoli. The toddler says that she doesn’t like broccoli, and the mom, fed up, in a hurry, and just trying to get her kid to freaking eat, says “yes you do, now eat it.” That would be an example of gaslighting. She is trying to control her child’s behaviour by dismissing and “rewriting” her child’s subjective experience. But I wouldn’t call that mom “abusive” for that act. I would say that she was exposed to that sort of parenting so much that she just reached for this tool because it was readily available without thinking about it or noticing anything harmful about it because it’s so ubiquitous in society.

    I think that the people who engage in abusive patterns in relationships – not just this mom desperately trying to get her kid to eat something healthy, but *abusive* relationships – these people tend to know that they’re attempting to control someone, but they believe that it’s justified. That’s why it’s so hard to get abusers to stop, even with therapy – they believe they are justified in what they are doing, that they have the right to control this other person. You can maybe get these people to change their tactics if you can show them how those tactics are “wrong”, but underneath, as long as they believe they have the right to control another person, they will just switch tactics.

    This is why regular therapy and couple’s counseling not only doesn’t stop abusers from abusing people, but kinda makes them worse. It gives them the tools for better hiding their abuse because they know what people are going to be looking out for. They need to go to *abuse specialist* counselors, who are really on the side of their victim and can see through their shit.

    If you haven’t read it yet, or if you have but if any of your readers haven’t and are reading my comment, I recommend the book Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft. It opened my own eyes to some surprising things about abuse and made me look at it in a whole new way.

    I, too, used to think that it required malice, or at least conscious thought. And, it *kinda* does, but not in the way of the black-hatted villain twirling his mustachios and scheming his next torture for his victim. It requires the belief that controlling another person to suit your aims is acceptable. Then you can have all kinds of different motivations for wanting to control them, including out of “love” or “for their own good”.

    I have a friend who truly believes that, when you’re married or in a significant romantic relationship, part of that relationship involves giving up some of your bodily autonomy. Like, that’s a *feature* of the relationship, not a bug. He willingly gives up some of his own autonomy for it, but the point is that he thinks he is owed the right to have some say over what his partner does with her body. Certain things, she is not supposed to be allowed to do without a conversation and agreement.

    Based on how well I know him, I truly believe that he would not resort to physical violence or gaslighting or some of the more extreme forms of coercion over this, but he would only choose a partner who has the same beliefs, and would therefore use their shared belief systems to exert control over things like her hair style and whether she ever got any tattoos, and, of course, whether or not she carried a pregnancy to term.

    He is not doing this to be mean. He is not taking joy in hurting his partners. He, deep down, truly believes that when you are in this kind of relationship, what your partner does to their own body directly affects you and *can harm you*, so he has to have this level of control (she gets that level of control over him too) because they are in a relationship where their identities merge to some degree, so what happens to her body *happens to him*, and since it happens “to him”, he therefore has a say in it.

    In the case of pregnancy, he also really believes that the genetic contributors to offspring “own”, or have the right to control the offspring’s body. Like, he believes that men have a say in whether or not a woman has an abortion because *that fetus belongs to him so he gets a vote in what happens to his property*. If he bought an Xbox with a roommate, his roommate couldn’t just decide to get rid of the Xbox because he owns half of it. He’s kinda thinking of a fetus in these terms and not recognizing that the “house” the Xbox is in is really the only one who gets to say whether you bring an Xbox into it or not. There is also a little bit of “for her own good” mixed in there.

    So, yeah, I do not believe that abuse requires ill intent or malice. But it does require an underlying belief that there is justification to control another human being, and certain tools of control are appropriate to affect those ends.

    To that effect, however, I have mixed feelings on the utility of labeling a relationship as “abusive”. There might be some benefit to correctly identifying and labeling something as “abuse”, and I’ll leave that up to the individual people who use that label. But at some point, I think it’s less important to identify something as “abuse”, and more important to just recognize that this relationship is not a good one for me, and it doesn’t matter if he is trying to “control” me or if he’s just a dick, that I am not happy with contact with that person and I am tangibly better when not feeling the effects of what they do.

    Sometimes it helps to identify these things so that you can find the right tools to recover from the effects, because recovering from abuse is not necessarily going to be the same techniques as recovering from a brush with a jerk. But, for my own personal identity, I don’t need to “identify” as an “abuse victim” in order to give myself permission to not like what someone does to me, and I don’t need to avoid the label “victim” in order to reach for tools of healing and move on.

    Someone harms me, and they are probably a “good person” in some contexts because we all do good things and bad things and even Saddam Hussein had a family who loved him, but they are not good *for me* and that’s what matters when it comes to making my own choices for my own life. So if you’re not comfortable with the labels of “abuse” and “victim”, I don’t necessarily think you need to use them, now that you’re aware of how they could apply to your life, in order to heal from the effects.

  11. I feel how important this question seems but it still centers the abuser and makes their states of mind and emotions into the foundation for your states of mind and emotions.

    With love from another abuse survivor, this is a question where all answers will lead you astray, further down a path that doesn’t center your healing. The reason is not nearly as important as the effect it’s had on you.

    In the end, it can be simple incompetence or even worse, callousness, but you should still be able to expect more maturity out of your mother than out of your younger self. There’s no such thing as a bad enough day or a severe enough mental illness to justify doing this to a kiddo.

  12. You write a lot of things that touch different parts of me and this article is no different. I am nearly 37 and coming to terms with my own abuse. Most from plain incompetence and only occasionally with actual bad intent. I currently struggle with the terms “survivor” as well as “abuse”. I dont feel either should apply and yet they probably do. Thanks so much for your articles.

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