An Abuser's False Self: Hypocrisy in Sacramental Relationships
The statistics are shocking, yet they reveal a harsh reality: one in every three women in the U.S. has been, or is, in an abusive relationship.1 These statistics hold steady regardless of race, educational level, location—and religion. What this means is that one in three women in our parishes have been or are victims of abuse within their own homes.
It’s time to start talking about this serious problem, to build awareness, support, and healing help for Catholic women suffering in abusive marriages. (Men can also be victims of domestic abuse, but 85% of victims are women.)
Those suffering in an abusive relationship are often confused, blame themselves, are in a state of severe depression, and suffer from PTSD as well as other symptoms of severe anxiety and distress. If you’re in this place, understanding your situation and educating yourself on all aspects of domestic violence helps open the door toward health and healing.
One crucial thing to realize is that a skilled abuser (whether he consciously abuses or not) has an extremely fragile ego. Such individuals demand to be understood and “respected”—to the point of expecting their target to read their minds—but paradoxically they’ll never reveal their true, innermost selves.
There’s a two-fold reason for this: first, they abhor vulnerability, and letting someone know who they truly are—with the consequent risk of rejection—feels too vulnerable for them. Second, they don’t even know who they truly are.
They’re wandering … In circles.
If you’re involved with someone like this, you’ve likely come to realize that you’re expected to foresee all your partner’s needs and expectations, and to comply accordingly—even though he doesn’t want you to know the real him and therefore, you could never know what his true “needs” are.
And, of course, your own needs don’t matter.
It doesn’t make a difference if you’ve been dating for two months (yet are already love-bombed into a fairy-tale romance) or if you’ve been married for fifty years. If you’re with a skilled abuser, you’re with a liar, a manipulator, and someone who hides. He hides his true self from you, and he hides his true self from himself.
“A hypocrite is a human person who has been reduced to the status of being like an actor on a stage, desperately seeking applause and approval from men” (Msgr. Charles Pope).
These manipulative tactics—often unconscious on the part of the abuser due to his ability to convince himself of his own lies and distorted thinking—can be summed up in one word:
Most of us think of a hypocrite as someone who is inconsistent and has double-standards. Their actions don’t line up with who they claim to be. “Do what I say, but you’re not allowed to do what I do” seems to be the mantra of someone with this mindset. They preach one thing, and practice another.
If you’re involved with a hypocrite, you’ve probably noticed that your partner feels it’s his right and privilege to do certain things—for example, go out for drinks with friends—but if you suggest doing the same, an abusive episode of blaming, accusing, verbal attacks, twisted arguments, and other forms of psychological, emotional, verbal, or even physical assaults are sure to follow.
Hypocrites “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to help” (Matt 23:4).
Although this is one aspect of a hypocrite, it’s just one small aspect. It’s important to get back to the foundation of what hypocrisy truly is.
The root of our English word hypocrite comes from the Greek word hypocritos, which simply means actor. In the ancient world, Greek actors commonly wore masks to represent the character they were playing.
In other words, a hypocrite is a masked actor.
The False Self.
“Woe to you, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”
he false self has been carefully—yet subconsciously—crafted by the abusive personality. This isn’t something he sat down and strategically planned out. There was no, Hmmmm … I wonder who I’ll pretend to be today? Instead, his driving need for approval, adulation, and admiration have compelled him to become whatever person is necessary in any given situation.
Does he feel you’re about to leave, or perhaps you have left? He may (at first) turn into Prince Charming, the man of your dreams, kind and sweet and seemingly empathetic in an effort to convince you to return to the relationship.
Does he feel threatened by your outside friendships, differences of opinion, or life away from him? The need to control will propel him into an abusive frenzy.
The Greek mask slips. Out comes Mr. Hyde.
Those are just two of many examples.
An abuser’s false self is characterized by his baffling alternate reality. The target in such a relationship is left to wonder if the person they’re dealing with is even on this planet. The extreme use of irrational “rationalizations,” false versions of the truth, twisted reality, and the stories they make up to justify their behaviour are truly mind-boggling.
Every human being on the face of this earth has both positive and negative characteristics. We’re made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26), yet we’ve all been endowed with free will, which means we have the penchant to make mistakes and even to grievously harm others.
It’s the healthy people—those most in tune with their true selves and their God-given nature, determined to live a life of empathetic virtue and goodness rather than competition—who are honest with their inner selves, especially their motives and behaviours. These are the people who can see their flaws, but don’t falsely hide them. Instead, they seek to make amends. They’re also willing to do the repair work needed to eliminate negative habits so as to replace them with virtuous ones.
However, those who aren’t mature or developed enough to be so honest with themselves hide behind a mask of hypocrisy. In most cases this can be traced back to a childhood of emotional and spiritual depravity.
For such people, their childhood was filled with vulnerability because showing their true emotions was often met with scorn, shame, punishment, or neglect, so these children subconsciously decided not to be honest about their humanity. They focused on the outer world and fitting in, rather than the needs of their developing inner world. They quickly learned the “correct” behaviour needed to please their parents or other loved ones, and they changed accordingly.
This burial of emotions didn’t cause the feelings to go away, of course—they just caused the formation of the false self and the inability to express or even feel certain emotions in a healthy, constructive manner.
Such personalities have a distinct inability to think about anyone except themselves. However, most ego-based individuals are extremely covert, attempting to not only portray a social image that’s the opposite from how they act in private, but also trying to convince themselves that they truly are this false (and wonderful) self. This is the actor’s attempt to cultivate a reality specific to their own personal needs, to the exclusion of everyone else.
In the end, what’s most important to realize is that abusers are actors, but such great actors that they don’t even realize their own role. When the mask slips—and it will—be prepared, be forewarned, and realize that the False Self is all about cover-up, projection, and blame. When you begin to understand that these factors are at play in your relationship, you’ll be better equipped to set necessary boundaries and refuse to fall into the trap of unnecessary self-accusation.
Special announcement: Looking for stories of Catholics abused by spouse
If you're a Catholic who has been impacted by intimate partner violence (IPV) in any way – as a victim or survivor, or if you have a friend or family member who’s been abused – I want to hear your story! I’d also love to hear from clergy, lay Catholic ministers, and those who have used harm in their relationship but have come to full repentance and have gone through the work to achieve authentic change. In conjunction with Catholics For Family Peace, I’m compiling a book for Catholics to help increase awareness of and healing from domestic abuse. To hear one another’s stories – and to know we’re not alone – is one of the most powerful ways to heal. Pseudonyms will be used in this book to ensure discretion and your privacy.
If you’re willing to share your story, please contact Jenny duBay of Create Soul Space. Please share this announcement with any Catholic you think may be interested. The deadline for initial contact is October 15, 2022.