One of the reasons women get caught up in unhealthy relationships is that abusers can be very charming. They can appear confident, attentive and sweet, and they have an intoxicating energy when pursuing a woman.
It’s a personal goal of mine to ensure that high schools and colleges offer courses that teach young women how to recognize and avoid abusive relationships. Sadly, some of the most common warning signs of abuse are some of the same things that books, movies and TV shows teach us from a young age are signs of romance and love.
We aren’t taught to look for the steady, calm, rational guy who takes his time getting to know us. We are taught that crazy, passionate love is ideal. I believe that the twisted cultural construct of intense infatuation as true love is damaging to women’s expectations and relationship experiences.
Below are some indicators that you may be dating someone who has potential to become abusive:
Abusers may use “Love-Bombing” to win you over. They’re full of compliments and offer intense attention when trying to win a woman’s heart. They will tell you you’re unlike anyone else they’ve ever met. They can’t live without you and have never loved anyone as much as you. Putting you up on a pedestal ensures that you’re reliant on them to take you down.
At first it may seem romantic that he wants to know everything about you. Interest is good. Invasions of privacy are not. Where are you? Where are you going? When will you be back? Can I read your texts? What’s your Facebook password? Why didn’t you call me? How do you know that guy? If you hear a lot of questions like these, be careful. Don’t be afraid to say no. Expect your boundaries to be respected. Pay attention to the response you get when you ask for privacy. It should be accepted without question.
We all go into a bit of a love cave at times. Eventually we come out and want to show off our new relationship. Pay attention to how he behaves around your friends. Is he possessive? Does he cling to you? Is he always rushing you to leave? Does he sabotage social events to get alone time? Is he critical of your friends and family? Do you feel guilty when you want to spend time with people away from him? If you’re missing your friends and he doesn’t encourage you to see them, that’s a problem. Abusers may also wage war against your people; inventing drama or conflict in order to make you feel they are the only one you can trust.
Comments about how you should or shouldn’t cut your hair, whom you should see, what job you should take, how you should speak, etc. are an indication that your partner believes he knows more than you do about yourself and your life. This attitude will increase over time until you no longer know who you are.
There’s a difference between being considerate about what your partner might prefer and feeling like you have to ask permission in order to avoid consequences such as sulking, withdrawal of affection, silent treatment, or a verbal lashing.
6. “Us against them”
Since abusers have a hard time maintaining lasting relationships, when they find themselves alone they work hard to recruit kind and compassionate people who will rescue and feel sympathy for them. This ensures that they are connected to good people who will help fight their battles and create the illusion of stability. These recruits also provide ego boosts when the abuser needs to play the victim (a tactic used to avoid taking responsibility for their behavior). Once recruits eventually see the truth, they are either abused or discarded.
Random reinforcement is a common technique used to keep you engaged. Abusers will often run hot and cold emotionally and physically; withdrawing when you don’t say or do what they want you to do, and returning at warp speed as soon as you “do the right thing”.
8. Manufacturing jealousy
Abusers love reassurance that you want only them. They will create situations designed to make you feel jealous or that your relationship is threatened. They may even make up stories about someone else pursuing them, just to keep you behaving. They thrive on keeping you in a state of insecurity and are skilled at making even the most confident woman question where she stands.
9. Constant togetherness
If you find that you can’t get a minute alone, take note. You should be able to shower alone, lock the bathroom door, sleep alone, and have time to yourself without being made to feel that you are rejecting someone.
10. “Starting over” together
If he wants you to leave behind everything you know just for the sake of “starting over” together someplace new, he may be seeking to destabilize your life. If you’re confident that you could go back to your life at any time, then OK, but please be cautious if he wants you to move somewhere you know absolutely no one. This could be the beginning of isolation and control, and abuse is often not far behind.
11. Picking fights
Abusers like to assess how much you will take. They will start out testing you with small arguments to see if you’ll forgive them. Over time, these fights will get as big as you let them. They increase so gradually that you don’t realize you’re falling deeper into an abusive situation. The common element of these tests is that they usually make absolutely no sense. You will not be able to figure out what you’ve done wrong or why you’re apologizing.
12. Violence of any kind
An abuser may test the limits of emotional abuse for a few years before it becomes physical. Often violence occurs once there is a certain level of commitment. Statistically, initial acts of violence take place just after an engagement, a wedding, or the conception or birth of a child. If you see any signs of violence (physical fights, roughness with a pet or child, cruelty to strangers, damaging your belongings) prior to these milestones, get out as soon as you can. It will only get worse.
. . . of anyone and anything, all the time. Abusers tend to be messy perfectionists. They want the world and everyone around them to be perfect, but their own minds are a mess. They can’t make sense of their own stuff, so they focus their fixing energy onto others. They want to talk about what everybody else is doing wrong.
14. Comments about exes
If your partner describes his fights with exes as “passionate”, ask questions. Find out what that means. If he describes his exes using derogatory terms, question it. Even if things ended badly, degrading a past partner isn’t OK. Assume that whatever he says about her will one day be said about you as well.
This can look like confidence at first, but with an abuser it can turn out to be egomania or abrasive arrogance. At its worst, it can be sociopathic narcissism. Healthy people have no need to belittle others. They feel that everyone is equal and that there is room in the world for everyone to be great.
If any of these behaviors sound familiar to you, please talk to someone about it. The sooner you get some support, the better.
Women are love optimists and can spend years hanging on promises, but sadly, it is just not statistically likely that an abuser will change. The world is full of healthy people and happy relationships. Don’t be afraid to trust yourself and start again. It’s not easy to walk away from an abusive relationship, but I promise you, life is better on the other side.
*Note: I refer to abusers as male in this article due to the fact that the majority of abuse is perpetuated by men toward women. Read stats here. I recognize that violence against men does occur, and that abuse can also exist in same sex relationships.