Updated: May 1
Dina McMillan's book offers rock-solid advice on how abusive men think and strategize, and how to avoid them
Avoiding abuse is easier than leaving it. Photo by Marco Verch on Flickr
Want to know what your abuser's really thinking while he's gaslighting, controlling, criticizing, and reminding you every single day how worthless you are, but how oh-so-lucky to have him, since no other man would?
Do you wonder where your self-esteem of yore went, along with his promises of your rosy, blissful future together, 'You and me against the world,' not to mention the evaporated friendships he didn't approve of, along with your family?
Dina McMillan's powerful book But He Says He Loves Me: How to Avoid Being Trapped in a Manipulative Relationship was published in 2007 but few seem to have gotten the memo. It's THE book for women in, who've been in, and who have not yet entered manipulative, abusive relationships, yet in all the years I've argued with angry victim feminists and domestic abuse counselors since 2007 about the role of choice, no one's mentioned it. I've written about the importance of taking back your power and choosing better for the past three years, and not a single one of my critics has advised me to read this book.
Do they even know it exists? If not, why?
I had to stumble across McMillan's TED talk to learn about it. We could erase untold years of misery if every young girl and woman started with McMillan's paean to prevention.
Based on her domestic violence work of over twenty years, the social psychologist and relationship expert's 2015 TED talk, Unmasking The Abuser, offers a thumbnail sketch of what abusers don't want women to know. She describes her epiphany, realizing domestic violence work was 'a hamster wheel, going around in a circle with no real progress.' One day, she identified the missing link: It's much easier to avoid abusive relationships than leave them, and she claims she can teach girls and women in two hours how to avoid a lifetime of heartache and pain.
Get off the hamster wheel! Better yet, don't get on it in the first place. Photo by Marco Verch on Flickr
I wonder if feminist willful blindness to But He Says He Loves Me is because it teaches women how to resume control by addressing the weaknesses in their own psychology rather than blaming men and patriarchy and reflexively responding with don'tblamethevictim.
McMillan's consciously preventive approach rather than reactive response is the only resource I've found of its kind. Rather than cleaning up the female psychological Hurricane Katrina of a toxic relationship, McMillan's book encourages women to reinforce their walls early.
Women and counselors who refuse to get off the hamster wheel function as essential, if unconscious, collaborators in preserving and partner abuse.
The book's format is a bit confusing. Book 1 details how abusive men strategize against women from their standpoint and Book 2 speaks to women from McMillan's view. She advises them to read Book 2 first, since she felt it might be too disturbing to first read how easily a prospective predator can size up a target and manipulate her. In the hardcopy, the left-hand pages were Book 1 and Book 2 was on the right-hand pages. In the e-book, Book 2 follows Book 1 like with any normal book. Why not just make Book 2 Book 1?
The rest details how women can reclaim control of their own hearts and minds. Or better yet, learn how to intelligently give only their heart in the future, and never their mind. McMillan's straightforward tactics and red-flag awareness empower women to identify and avoid these men, or get out early, before he destroys her.
Book 1: The Abusers Handbook
"Most information designed to help women with bad relationships starts too late. Those books offer to help you after you realise your relationship is crap." - Dina McMillan
McMillan notes the pre-existing large body of information on violent relationships. This book is about emotional and psychological abuse only.
It begins with a frightening journey inside the abusive manipulator's mind to detail how a toxic, controlling man thinks, how he views women, and how he utilizes female psychology to entice his target into a relationship ultimately intended to serve him, and only him.
McMillan's re-creation of the abusive strategist's mind is based on interviews with several hundred abusive men who, as she states in her TED talk, were able to be perfectly transparent with her because they knew she was never allowed to tell on them. Ever.
Speaking as the abuser, McMillan outlines:
Men need to reclaim their 'rightful place' as leaders over women to restore the 'natural order'.
The abuser must remember who is the important one--himself. Her duty, her very reason for existence, is to serve him and him only. She must always remember that his needs are more important than hers. Any protest or resistance on her part is simply the result of feminist indoctrination but if he perseveres, eventually she will come around to seeing things his way and love him more than ever.
The abuser's success relies on a thorough understanding of female psychology, and particularly his target's. He succeeds when his knowledge of manipulation exceeds her ignorance in avoiding it. McMillan uses the word 'agree' here a lot, emphasizing the importance of understanding the element of choice on the victim's part.
Book 1 details how to select his woman and the different types to choose from - the easy target versus the more difficult ones, including The Challenge, the one who's strong and independent. One way to capture and tame a wild feminist is to make his move when she's emotionally vulnerable from a divorce, job loss or other life event.
What feminists call manipulation abusers consider an unkind word better referred to as smooth maneuvers. Harnessing a strong, independent woman involves more work but can provide great satisfaction in knowing she can be broken and ridden like a wild horse.
Book 1 encourages a man to pay close attention to a woman's psychology to encourage her to open up to him and follow his 'gentle' instruction. This will "also persuade her to ignore suggestions from her own intuition or from her friends or family that could otherwise prompt her to question you or your motives."
McMillan lists statements designed to make the woman feel good about herself. Here are a few:
You're the most incredible person I've ever known.
I'd love to take care of you so you'll never have to worry about anything again.
You'll make such a beautiful bride.
I can imagine what our children will be like.
I've told you secrets I've never told anyone. [He hasn't.]
I don't care about myself. You're all that matters.
McMillan observes one way women open themselves to potential abusers by 'catalog shopping' - looking for qualities in a partner they themselves don't possess. They may want someone much more attractive, more educated, and of course, the time-honored siren call for bad relationships, wealthier. When the accomplishment levels are heavily lopsided, she'll be more inclined to defer to his assumed more considered opinion, and The Abusers Handbook encourages men to use it to full advantage.
McMillan asks the critical questions women must ask themselves: Why is he not interested in someone on his own level? Why doesn't he value women from his own social/educational group?
The loving 'great guy' changes over time as the woman completes her training. The Abuser's Handbook details an abuser's entrenched entitlement, stuffed to the point of bursting with strategies manipulative men utilize to navigate psychological weaknesses in general, and their target's individual psychology, based on close observation of what makes her tick, what touches her, and what she fears. The last is particularly important since it's the key control tool to lock and keep her in the relationship, along with its close second, financial control.
Book 2: "But he says he loves me"
The much lengthier part of the book helps women understand the abuser's push-pull psychological tactics, to better arm and inoculate against getting played, manipulated, or 'smooth maneuvered' at all.
Women aren't taught to accept emotional abuse, states McMillan (although they could have been growing up), but they're taught to accept male authority, to await selection, and--in my own opinion, the most widespread and common damaging lesson--to "always be nice and give everyone the 'benefit of the doubt'." They're taught to accept 'dominant, masculine men.'
Society trains men too. She offers as one example how a man stands at a supermarket checkout, idly perusing mostly women's magazines positioned to coax a woman to throw it in her basket for a special treat. What do the covers feature? How to be sexy and attractive to men. We self-objectify, which teaches men to do it too.
When a woman resists her training, strategies employ her fears and insecurities to his advantage. The man can become emotionally distant, 'remind' her of her faults and insecurities (never let her forget them!), 'make himself scarce', or back out of something she wants to do. The punishments can become more severe later in the relationship, but the point is to reward submission and punish resistance. Women are trained at large, McMillan explains, to do whatever it takes to keep a romantic relationship and ignore a lot of red flags.
Another way abusers control women is to get them to do things they don't like. Even if a woman agrees to everything he suggests, he must find something she doesn't like and train her to do it on demand without complaint. This includes, of course, sexual practices, and she must be entirely clear she must NEVER refuse him sex, the way he wants it, ever.
McMillan notes, but doesn't identify as such, one way men gaslight themselves: From Book 1, The Abuser's Handbook: "She feels better when she knows her place in your life and does not worry about what you do elsewhere."
If that were true, fewer women would seek to get out of these relationships. It's an identified weakness in the abuser's brain a woman can strategize against him.
Are you expendable? How to become untameable
The most critical section is the last where McMillan provides women their own strategies for avoiding these men, or simply drawing clear boundaries for a new partner. No one's perfect, after all, and some men aren't intentionally manipulative, so they need to understand how far they can go. She decides.
McMillan notes a point I've been making for a long time: The woman must first give him the control.
Embarking on a new relationship begins with choice. Women decide who they're going to allow into their lives and how they'll permit themselves to be treated. They may make those decisions from a position of ignorance, perhaps youth and inexperience, or clueless resistance to wiser friends and family, but ignorant choices are still choices, and now they can choose never to let it happen again.
Once the target 'agrees' to be trained, the abuser teaches her to hand over her control in baby steps. It's why a critical early response for women is to stand up for themselves--something many women, even hardcore feminists, are uncomfortable with. I've heard numerous excuses and rationalizations from women as to why they can't stand up to some domineering man in her life, whether they're a partner, a boss, a friend or a family member.
The 'what ifs' women submit to in their own brains are the difference between the men and the girls. Men commonly take more risks than women; they ignore the 'what if' and do it anyway. Sometimes they lose, but often they win, and the woman who submits to her 'what if' loses, every single time.
The feminist mind's worst-case outcome resulting in injury or death for assertiveness is near-miniscule if the woman sets the rules before things go very far, and especially before she has sex with him.
The abuser will resist her resistance, of course, and employ many manipulative strategies to get his way. His target can casually dismiss him when he criticizes or accuses her of something, or offer her own critique in return. McMillan notes a woman's not obligated to detail her every move, check in like he's her boss and tell him who she's with. When she wants to see her family or friends without him, she can state clearly and firmly good-bye and she'll see him later.
The abuser subtly and overtly teaches the woman, even if they're married, she's always 'expendable'. Women can handle a red-flag man early on by making it clear he's expendable. It is, after all, early in the relationship, when they're exploring whether a future is possible. While expendability later in an established relationship is bullying and abusive, it's an important strategic weapon in the smart woman's arsenal for drawing boundaries for a merely insecure man, weeding out those who refuse to recognize them.
McMillan notes, "If you do not allow yourself to care about his opinion of you, he will not be able to maneuver you. Keep this in mind, take a deep breath and walk firmly away."
But what if he's overwhelmed her by 'love bombing'? Guess what, love bombing is much less effective when a woman knows her own boundaries and is willing to defend them. McMillan's book effectively arms a woman against this first shot across the bow.
A good way to challenge him, McMillan states, is to ask him to do something outside his wheelhouse. Manipulators want to keep a partner away from the places where she shines and may receive approbation from others. He'll constantly 'challenge' her to 'grow' by doing things 'outside her wheelhouse' where he knows she'll falter and he'll shine. It's his turn to experience growth, and she can pressure him to do something where he'll feel like he's on uneven ground, and worse, she can 'lead'.
The early stage of the relationship is 'make or break' time. He must capture her early or she'll decide he's too much of a pain in the ass and depart. It's critical for the woman to accept his little tricks as he continuously push-pulls what McMillan calls the 'sparkly scarf' trick, the 'illusionist' moving it back and forth to draw attention to keep her from noticing how the trick is done. 'Misdirection' is the secret to successful magic tricks, and it works very well in training someone to become submissive and compliant. The abuser offers positive reinforcement with one hand--compliments, nice dinners, faux support for her projects while subtly chipping away at her self-esteem with the other, since the only way to keep a woman is to remove any self-esteem she currently possesses.
Women must learn, McMillan says, "not to automatically associate certain actions with positive intentions."
It's why women with low self-esteem are the easiest marks.
What's most important for avoiding these abusive wastes of her value is not rationalizing away the early warning signs because he seems like such a 'great catch' in other respects, because he makes more money and she could live better than she does now, and because her girlfriends kind of envy her. But what about his critics? The ones don't like him, who say, "He criticizes you too much, and he was rude to the waitress the other night, and what's up with all the mother hatred, and why do you always have to do what he wants to do? You should stand up to him more!"
How many women wait too long before they realized they should have listened?
He does the research. Now it's your turn.
You might be surprised to learn, McMillan says, that many of her abusive interviewees have read self-books on how to get their own way, including the Dale Carnegie classic How To Win Friends And Influence People. They keep up on all the latest information on coercive persuasion, hypno-persuasion, leadership and influence and even read books on abusive relationships to get more tips.
Men who choose to manipulate and abuse are often the best female psychologists, except they use their knowledge for evil instead of for good.
Women must do the same, and I'll address the best books for inoculating one's self against abusive manipulators in my next article.
For women who've been in abusive relationships the book is a motherlode of critical insights into how a manipulative abuser's mind works, and why it works so well. Until women address the weaknesses in their own psychology they'll remain vulnerable to these emotional predations. There's new insight for everyone; I learned a few new things too.
McMillan is 100% correct it's time for domestic violence experts and women to 'get off the hamster wheel' and begin making real progress again to reduce violence against women. We will never eliminate it entirely, like many other behavioral ills, but we can all make better choices to greatly reduce the opportunities for predatory, supremely entitled men to draw us into a relationship and slowly turn up the heat until it's too late.
I've never seen any resource on abusive relationships as valuable as McMillan's book. Her tone is kind and compassionate, but she makes it clear no man takes control of a woman.
She must give it to him. She makes a choice, at every step.
It's time to get off the hamster wheel, and now.
No more excuses.
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This article first appeared on Vocal.media in March 2022