Updated: Apr 25
It is not uncommon to hear one parent describe their abusive co-parent as a "charmer" and worry that no one in the family law system will see the reality. Many times this is the case. Why is this?
There are a few reasons why this might be. First, the family justice system itself, but that is beyond this blog.
"Well-liked" abusers exist because individuals that perpetuate abuse often present as charismatic, engaging, and thoughtful. They use their charm and ability to persuade and strategically win others over, especially in post-separation and legal contexts. Abusive individuals often perceive themselves as victims, making for a convincing narrative and presentation.
Further, there is a sub-type of abusers known as family-only abusers. Family-only abusers rarely, if ever, exert violence (be it physical, verbal, mental, emotional, financial, spiritual, or controlling) toward anyone other than their partner and/or children. These individuals show a higher degree of positive social functioning, low rates of substance abuse, mental health problems and are commonly described as otherwise socially well adjusted. Research indicates that family-only abusers are less likely to be reported by their victims. It is not surprising then that they can hide in plain sight.
Another reason? Seeing is believing. As author Peggy Streep aptly states in her article Stop Pretending You Know What an Abuser Looks Like, "We often want our thugs to look and act like thugs." She continues, "We want the bad guys and gals to look the part" and "we want bad behaviour to show in obvious ways." When that doesn't happen, it becomes harder to believe that this seeming likeable, friendly, kind and sincere parent sitting in front of the parent coordinator, the children's therapist, the assessor or the judge could be abusive.
The result? Mistrust of the victims' account, increased ambivalence, lost empathy and risk to best interest decisions.
Written by Glenda Lux M.A., R. Psych.