Many how-to-spot-an-abuser advice pieces, including the one we wrote in 2014, will tell you to look at a person’s past. Be wary of a traumatic childhood, an abusive upbringing, a history of drug use or alcoholism, or a previous criminal record.
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However, one can argue—and rightly so—that plenty of individuals with those obstacles in their lives do not become abusers. Look at Roger Lockridge, a professional bodybuilder from West Virginia. He grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father who, one night, aimed a rifle at Lockridge, his mother and his siblings, threatening to kill them. He may have, too, if police didn’t intervene and help them get to a domestic violence shelter where Lockridge lived for several months.
But instead of heading down a similar path as his father, Lockridge became a spokesperson for Childhood Domestic Violence, got married, had two kids and is now an outspoken child advocate as well as a successful bodybuilder.
Do These Six Apply?
So, if the past is not a 100-percent reliable predictor of abusers, what is? Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to that question.
“Wouldn’t it be great, of course, if we could predict in any super accurate way who will be abusive?” says Laura Finley, professor of sociology and criminology at Barry University in Miami, Fl. Finley provides domestic violence training for physicians and is editor of The Encyclopedia of Domestic Violence and Abuse.
But Finley does give credence to looking at a person’s present behavior over their past, which can sometimes be a more accurate indicator of what sort of tendencies—abusive or not—they’re prone to. Look for these six signs, for starters:
- Sexist jokes. If they’re demeaning verbally or in their behavior toward women, this is a red flag worth paying attention to, says Finley. This also includes sexist behavior and attitudes, objectifying women, implying women’s opinions are of less value, prioritizing a woman’s looks over any other attribute, trying to silence women when they speak or adhering to antiquated gender roles. Also, says Finley, look to how they treat other women in their life—mother, sisters, etc. Are they controlling?
- Bullying. Do they seem like a bully, talk about bullying others who have wronged them, or fixate on being the victim of bullying in a sense that they need to prove something now in their life?
- Male-Dominated Profession. Of course, this is not to say all men in male-dominated professions are abusers, but when it’s in addition to other red flags, it should be noted. This can include police officers, the military or pro-athletes. Male-dominated professions often bond around sexist rhetoric and male aggression. “It’s clearly something about the way society idolizes many of these men,” says Finley.
- Fast Mover. Does he talk about commitment right off the bat, tell you that you’re "the one" by the second date, bring up moving in together or getting married by Week 2? “I’ve seen that whirlwind a lot, working with survivors,” says Finley. You may think, “This person is super into me!” when in reality, an abuser will be trying to isolate you from friends and family. “If you really want to control someone, it’s much easier to do that without someone else in their life telling them it’s wrong,” she says.
- Owning a weapon. Again, this isn’t to say all gun-owners are abusers. But if you’re already seeing red flags with someone and they own a gun, be aware: The presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the risk of homicide for women by 500 percent. There may be a more sinister reason for owning a weapon than sport.
- Cruel to animals. A report from the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said that abusers who harm their pets are “both more controlling and use more dangerous forms of violence than batterers who do not.” Does he have a dog and neglect it? Make jokes about harming small animals? These are warnings that shouldn’t go unheeded.
Control Can Be Subtle
While being on the lookout for these red flags is certainly proactive, it should also be noted that abusers are, as Finley puts it, “savvy at what they do.”
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“They try multiple tactics. When you’re in it, you can miss the early, more subtle signs of control,” she says. This might include an abuser telling a partner to only wear certain clothes “because those make you look good,” or getting upset when their partner doesn’t answer the phone each time they call because “I’m just worried about you.” These types of control might take a lot of repetition to sink in, especially when we all want to believe in the best version of someone when we first meet them.
Not Sure If It’s Abuse?
If you’re unsure about your new or current partner’s behavior, it’s always a smart idea to reach out to a trained domestic violence advocate who you can talk to about your questions, suspicions or fears. Their expertise may help you better understand if what’s going on points to danger.
Just a reminder: You can call an advocate just to chat, even if you don’t want to leave a partner, seek shelter or even give any specific or personal information. They can simply listen and give feedback.
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