Let’s get the obvious out of the way: abusive relationships are horrible. We should do everything we can to provide people with information on what an abusive relationship looks like, how to get out of one, and how to stand up for yourself and your boundaries, as well as support for those who are trying to escape an abusive relationship.
There are many good resources out there on how to recognize unhealthy behaviors. There’s also lots of people out there doing work specifically with women and girls to remind us that we don’t deserve abusive relationships.
What is not a good response to abusive behavior is blaming mental illness. I can’t believe I have to say this, but it is 100% possible to have a mental illness, really any mental illness, and not be abusive. This includes individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder. Pointing towards abusive behaviors as intrinsically linked to any of these disorders is not backed up by facts (there are many abusers who use all of these same tactics and do not have any mental illness), and throws the rest of the individuals with mental illness under the bus in order to advocate for abuse victims.
This article at Self Care Haven has some great information about techniques that many abusers will use. Unfortunately, it couches it entirely in language of “narcissists” and how those individuals behave, rather than recognizing that any abusive individual can make use of these tactics (and many do), and recognizing that a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not a life sentence to being an abusive person who cannot have real relationships.
Abuse is a pattern of behaviors and interactions. It is not a personality. We don’t get to simply label any behavior we deem bad as “mental illness” in order to ignore how we as a society have contributed to it or in order to brush off any support we could provide for someone to change. I am all for speaking openly about mental illness and the challenges it can present in relationships and everyday life, as this is the best way to improve treatment and diagnosis of mental illness, but more often than not we use the label of “mental illness” to close a conversation about a difficult or painful topic.
Gun violence? They were mentally ill. Start a registry.
Domestic abuse? Mentally ill. Don’t date people with personality disorders.
Do you just disagree with someone? They’re probably mentally ill too.
Here’s the truth: even the personality disorders that make it most difficult to hold down relationships are not a life sentence. Borderline Personality Disorder, which has long been seen as the land of the manipulative and angry, has an evidence based treatment that has high success rates. Many people with BPD have totally functional lives with families, jobs, and everything else a healthy human being might want (ok, maybe not everything, but they lead fairly boring lives for the most part).
There are absolutely highly functioning individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or Antisocial Personality Disorder. There’s evidence that Cognitive Behavior Therapy can reduce symptoms and increase functioning, allowing patients to form better and healthier relationships. More study is definitely needed, but instead of broadly labeling personality disorders (especially ones that already come with a lack of empathy and distrust of others) as breeding grounds for abusers, perhaps we could put some effort into finding treatment for people who have these disorders.
None of this is to say that people who have mental illnesses should be excused of abusive behavior. But providing information about abusive behaviors and giving tools and support to victims is not mutually exclusive to providing mental health treatment options to abusers, and absolutely does not require that we assume a certain mental illness necessitates abusive behavior.
There are some parallels here to threats of suicide or self harm. If you have a mental illness, there is a possibility you will feel urges to enact these behaviors. Letting a partner or friend know that you are feeling the urges is definitely a good idea. Threatening the behaviors in order to get your partner or friend to do something is not ok and cannot be excused by mental illness. The urges are the same, the behaviors are different, and choosing the healthier route is a skill that can be learned. Similarly, the urge to use and manipulate people might be a hallmark of a personality disorder, but the urge doesn’t necessitate the behavior.
We can do better in how we talk about abuse.