Lately it has become all the rage to refer to all men who abuse women as “narcissists.” In fact the terms “abuser” and “male abuser” seem to be fading away. I generally don’t like to debate about word choices, but this time it matters. The change to using the term “narcissists” is a mistake. Here’s why.
First, it’s just plain not true. The solid majority of abusers, including a majority of ones who get arrested for violence towards women, are not narcissists. Research has found that abusive men are not much more likely than non-abusers to have a narcissistic personality disorder. Abusiveness can look a lot like narcissism. Abusers demand that you look up to them; they refuse to be accountable for their actions; they turn on the charm when they have a goal in mind and want people on their side to help them get there; and they’re comfortable lying. They think the problem resides not in them but in other people – specifically, women they’ve been involved with.
But abusiveness is different in crucial ways. Abusers don’t have any particular similarities in their childhood emotional injuries, whereas narcissists do. Abusers can hide their abusiveness from the public for a lifetime and no one other than their intimate partners and children will know the truth; whereas narcissists leave a trail of enemies behind them (though they also fool some of the people along the way). Abusers are overwhelmingly influenced by attitudes, values, and behaviors that they’ve learned from key role models (male relatives, their own peers, men in pornography, cultural icons) and from the misogyny of the society at large; whereas narcissists are largely shaped by psychological injuries. (And this means, for example, that a true narcissist will hurt men in similar ways to how he hurts women.)
Multiple research studies demonstrate that abusive men learn their abusiveness from other men, not from their supposed bad experiences with women. When we label an abuser a “narcissist,” we’re contributing to the likelihood that people are going to blame his mother – often thought of as the cause of narcissism, rightly or wrongly — rather than blame the men who socialized him. And this is especially unfair to mothers given the statistical likelihood that his mother was a victim of abuse herself – usually by the future abuser’s father.
My final concern is my biggest one of all. If abuse is caused by attitudes taught by the society, then the whole community – or the whole society – is responsible to stop it. We all have to change community attitudes about domestic abuse, stop colluding with abusers, stop letting D.A.’s let abusers off the hook, stop disbelieving women and girls who disclose abuse, and stop accepting anti-female attitudes in general.
But if the issue is narcissism? Well, then, the problem is defined as the messed-up family he came from, and the community gets off the hook. No one has to confront the huge societal problem of chronic and pervasive male violence against women. It’s a big cop-out. And if we take this path, the problem is never going to go away.
Let’s go back to calling abusers abusers. (And even for the small percentage of abusers who fit the requirements for narcissism, they’re still also abusers; so let’s keep the focus where it belongs.)
Photo credits in order: