Alyssa’s* teenage boyfriend was possessively jealous and controlling, verbally abusive and constantly critical. As her self-esteem plummeted, he did his best to isolate her from friends and family, lessening the chance anyone might be a voice of reason in her ear. It was over for good the first day he tried to hit her. Luckily, she dodged both his incoming swing and an unknown future with him.
But as life goes, someone else would eventually come along, marry him and have children with him. Alyssa saw a photo of the new woman on social media years later, smiling next to her husband and their children. “They seem great on social media,” Alyssa says. “But … so does everybody else.”
Today, in her 30s, happily married and a mom herself, Alyssa never reached out to this woman to warn her—now it would be too late, she thinks, and she most likely wouldn’t believe Alyssa—but it doesn’t stop her from worrying about this woman’s fate.
“I do wonder if she’s OK. I think I try to tell myself that he doesn’t treat her the way he treated me. That provides me with some comfort. I hope and pray that is the case.”
Even If You Tell, Will They Believe You?
After escaping abuse, many survivors may find themselves questioning what obligation they have, if any, to warn potential future partners of the ex they just left. Survivors may feel guilty if they never reported or pressed charges for the abuse, for not leaving a trail of red flag breadcrumbs for new partners to see.
But even if a survivor does try to warn a new partner, they may not be met with gratitude.
“As much as I would like to be able to warn other women, many abusers are gaslighters. They invalidate anything we might say by telling new girlfriends that their ex is a crazed stalker,” says survivor Amy*, who shared the heartbreaking story with us in April of giving up her son in order to keep him safe from an abuser.
“My abuser dated many women over the years,” she says. “He told them I was obsessed with him. I knew that some of them thought it was true and would never believe me.”
But Amy got to know some of the women because her ex still had shared custody of their daughter.
“He liked to parade my daughter around whenever he got a new girlfriend, so I met and got to know most of them. I really liked many of them and trusted them more with my children than I ever did him. Most of them figured out his problems long before it became an issue for them and left.”
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She says she only warned one young woman whom her ex started to date when she was pregnant with someone else’s child.
“She was a very sweet girl … and was really sweet to my children. I knew how bad he treated his own kids, and here she was—pregnant by someone else and about to expose a child to a monster. It weighed on me and my husband.”
When Amy went to pick up her daughter after a visitation, she found herself alone with the young woman and Amy told her everything.
“I asked her, if he treats his own children this way, how will he treat someone else's child? I think she had already caught a glimpse of that side of him. She left within the next few days, and we never saw her again. Her child never had to deal with the monster. She never had to endure the suffering.”
Warning Puts a Target on the Survivor’s Back
Advocates caution that survivors who sound a warning bell also risk facing retribution from a vindictive abuser.
“A victim’s first obligation is to protect him or herself. I didn’t always understand that it was OK to put myself first,” Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of the chilling memoir Crazy Love, her true story of abuse, told us last year. She didn’t warn women who would come to date her violent ex-husband because she feared her ex’s anger and, “I have three children [with her second husband] and I want to protect them, too.”
Plus, she says, echoing Amy’s sentiments, “No one who is falling in love with an abuser believes what the ex has to say. Just like I wouldn’t have believed one of his exes if they’d come to me.”
She believes writing her memoir is “warning enough.”
For a long time, Alyssa kept the abuse her ex-boyfriend inflicted upon her a secret. And when she left him, she justified to herself that maybe it was just her who was abused. Maybe she just “wasn’t right” for her abusive ex-boyfriend, and that’s why he lashed out at her.
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“I was scared when I thought about the first time [his wife] would have to deal with one of his ‘episodes’,” she says.
Even if her ex’s wife reached out to her, Alyssa says it would still be a question if she’d disclose. “I would maybe talk to her about it,” she says.
For these reasons, some advocate for a national database of domestic violence offenders, while others warn this comes with its own dangers. To learn more, read, “Are Domestic Violence Offender Registries a Good Idea?”
*Last name withheld for safety.
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