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Why Do People Abuse Other People?

Part 2: Why Do People Abuse Others—Caged Animals

May is Mental Health Awareness month. Mental health is one of our more precious aspects of health. Last week I shared with you the aspects, characteristics of “hunters.” This week in regards to mental health I am sharing the flip side of this that I call Caged Animal.

What happens when the mental health of another, a loved one, starters to fall into question? For my purposes, what about the mental health scenario when talking about abuse? This usually stirs the question by many victims of “Why does he do that?” This is also the title of Dr. Lundy Bancroft’s book.

It was through reading, researching, and rereading this book that I formed the understanding of who Hunters are and who Caged Animals are. I was a victim then survivor of this type of abuse for nine years. As someone who is deep in the thriving process thanks to the healing journey of forgiveness, the question of why I stayed will not be answered here. That answer is found in my book Pinpoint of Light.

What are the characteristics of a Caged Animal?

Abusers who are caged animals hide a lot of pain. They have feelings of inadequacy, disappointment, and shame. They might have suffered from trauma or abuse or loss as a child. Decades of research have shown that “childhood experiences interact with our genetics to change the structure and function of the brain. Within the range of normal experiences, this system enables the brain to be modified during development to adapt to various environments and cultures.”1

They might have suffered from trauma or abuse or loss as a child. “Traumatic experiences interact with genetics to change the structure and function of the brain, compromising emotional and cognitive development and initiating a pathway to pathology.” 2

Caged Animals will display and share a bit of the story with their partners and spouses. Sharing this pain with others is enough that we start to feel empathy and sorry for them. Women, we are nurturers by nature and so this starts to form a connection. (WARNING! Be careful--hunters can use the same tactic to lure you in).

  • Feel trapped

  • No control of own Life

  • Paranoia

  • Hidden Rage

  • Addiction

  • Abuse

  • Mental Illness

  • Strikeout unpredictably

The end result of all of this is Abuse.

What do Caged Animals Look like?

The abuser who is acting like a caged animal does not know how to deal with their fear and pain, and many of their spouses/partners (who eventually become their victims) see the abuser, the caged animal, in a very pitiful place. We have empathy for them and their story. Victims feel like they can help them, rescue them, free them to rehabilitate them.

The woman... sees that her partner is a human being who can be caring and affectionate at times, and she loves him. She wants to figure out why he gets so upset so that she can help him break his pattern of ups and downs. She gets drawn into the complexities of his inner world, trying to uncover clues, moving pieces around in an attempt to solve an elaborate puzzle. —Lundy Bancroft

Ultimately, however, victims can’t help them out of their cage or solve this elaborate puzzle. Why? Victims are too close and too invested in the relationship. No matter what, the person who is feeling like a caged animal will ultimately never trust the other spouse/partner/victim.

They will Never Trust you.

According to Dr. Bancroft the abuser will:

At other moments, he sounds wounded and lost, hungering for love and for someone to take care of him. When this side of him emerges, he appears open and ready to heal. He seems to let down his guard, his hard exterior softens, and he may take on the quality of a hurt child, difficult and frustrating but lovable. Looking at him in this deflated state, his partner has trouble imagining that the abuser inside of him will ever be back. The beast that takes him over at other times looks completely unrelated to the tender person she now sees. Sooner or later, though, the shadow comes back over him, as if it had a life of its own. Weeks of peace may go by, but eventually she finds herself under assault once again.

Victims often try to offer resume plans to the caged animal. This can be defined as a “Savior complex” According to Eduard Ezeanu the definition of the Savior Complex is,

A psychological construct which makes a person feel the need to save other people. This person has a strong tendency to seek people who desperately need help and to assist them, often sacrificing their own needs for these people.”

Many victims fall into this trap because they feel that saving them they will finally feel self-worth and loved. The Caged Animal is not able to give that love and never intends to because they are so trapped in their own mess. Victims spend their time, energy, and devote their life to something that causes them pain, hurt, grief, and abuse—all the name of wanting to love and help the other person. We think if only the caged animal would just listen. If only they could see the pain they are in they would want to take the help that the victim is offering.

If only, if only, if only...But, only professionals can help the caged animal (if they want help).

Regardless, Caged Animals present someone who is trapped, yet will seek for control any way they can. They are trapped and fearful. Victims see them and want to help, or nurture, or set them free. Victims pity them, and they look for all the reasons why they were put in the cage in the first place. Victims think they are mothering, helping them to find healing, and light, but really we are being sucked into the cage. If victims are too close to the cage they will strike out causing damage to the victim. No MATTER how hard victims are just trying to lift the latch and let them out of the cage the fear and mistrust of the Caged Animal is always there.

Two Questions Rise up 1) Can Victims Help Abusers Change? 2) If not, How Do Victims Escape?

Dr. Bancroft states:

The abuser’s mood changes are especially perplexing. He can be a different person from day to day, or even from hour to hour. At times he is aggressive and intimidating, his tone harsh, insults spewing from his mouth, ridicule dripping from him like oil from a drum. When he’s in this mode, nothing she says seems to have any impact on him, except to make him even angrier. Her side of the argument counts for nothing in his eyes, and everything is her fault. He twists her words around so that she always ends up on the defensive. As so many partners of my clients have said to me, ‘I just can’t seem to do anything right.’

Can Victims help Abusers Change?

No. They are too close to the situation. They are toxic together and they were attracted to the relationship that has led to unhealthy ways. The bigger question is does the abuser, the caged-animal, want help?

That is the hope, but the Caged Animal has to reach a bottom point and want to change in order for it to stick. Dr. Lundy Bancroft states that the abuser,

“Discrediting her is your ticket to running away from yourself. As you read the list above, you may find yourself in an internal argument. On one hand, you may tell yourself, “I don’t have any of those attitudes,” and on the other, you may think, “Of course I think that about her because it’s true.”

Both reactions will keep you from really looking. So work to drop defensive habits and look honestly at what’s been going on.” That means they have to do healing from their own pain, shame, guilt, and horrors that haunt them. The percentage of them to do that is very low.

Victims, YOU are NOT the one to help them change or do any more for them. Victims, you can’t do it for them. It has to happen with professionals and it will only stick if they really are at a low level and willing to change.

Responsibility is Two Fold

To wrap it all up, victims, what is your responsibility? Is it to hang on to something (the fairytale that is not happening) that is hopeless and destroys your self-worth? No! Your responsibility is to get out, to escape, to find the support that can make your escape a reality.

There are agencies, family, friends, advocates, and co-workers that will become your support network. This is where Support Network is a combination of so many things.

Supporters (agencies, family, friends, advocates, and co-workers) it is time to rise to the challenge, step up, and be with the victim. Supporter’s, you can start by being a safe place to vent, to share, to plan, to laugh, and then eventually to escape. I teach all about this in my program called the Supporter’s Toolkit.

Victims, your second responsibility to yourself is to find help and healing. There are many ways to achieve that (and yes it is achievable). But let me warn you right here. The healing journey is just that, a journey. It is a process with time, trails, and facing your worst fears. It takes courage and vulnerability to go through this, but there are millions of us who have gone through the healing journey and we are here shining as a Lighthouse out towards you helping you to find your safe harbor.

Trust the journey and process. It will be hard. It will suck! But please don’t NUMB or RUN from it. Just as the abuser has to hit a rock bottom to want to change, you have to face that fear of really facing your demons to overcome in order for you to change—from victim to survivor, and overtime to thriver. It can be done and I can share a testimony of hundreds of women who I know that can share with you their story as well. Email me at and I will share with you this list.


2004, with Jay G. Silverman, Ph.D. In P. Jaffe, L. Baker, & A. Cunningham (Eds.) Protecting Children from Domestic Violence: Strategies for Community Intervention, New York, NY, Guilford Press

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