Abusers can be manipulative. They can gaslight you and make you question what you know happened. They can groom you and alienate your support system so once you realize you’re in danger, you may feel like you have nowhere to turn for help.
Looking back, could you spot the signs early on that someone would be abusive in a relationship? Not always. It can be hard to recognize emotional abuse when it’s happening. Abusers are adept at hiding their tactics. And they may prey on you when you’re vulnerable and you’re not in a position to spot warning signs.
But Dina McMillan, Ph.D., a psychologist based in Australia, says there are things abusers often do early in relationships that might point to trouble.
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McMillan has confidentially interviewed more than 600 abusers. She shares what she’s learned in her TED Talk, her free podcast, Unmasking the Abuser, and her book, But He Says He Loves Me. She says many abusers use certain methods to target partners, and to gain power over those partners.
She points out that abusers are con artists, and they hone their skills in each relationship. She says that children who come from abusive families can start modeling these behaviors when they are just 3 to 5 years old. “They start using these methods and learning what works and what doesn’t, and by their late teens they are very skilled manipulators,” she says.
How Abusers Choose Their Partners
McMillan says that abusers seek out partners they believe they will be able to control. That could include:
- Partners from cultural or religious backgrounds where it’s common to have a controlling person, usually a male, in their lives.
- Survivors who have previously been abused.Individuals who are at a disadvantage compared to their partner. For example, an older abuser might seek out a much younger partner. Or, an abuser might select a recent immigrant.
Of course, many people in these situations form healthy bonds with their partners. But McMillan says women need to be aware of these reasons they might be targeted.
And emotionally healthy, confident women can be targeted, too. Some abusers get a thrill from destroying a strong partner. McMillan says abusers she has interviewed describe it as “breaking a horse.” She says confident women are vulnerable for two reasons. First, they don’t see themselves as vulnerable, so they aren’t cautious. And second, an abuser can enter their life at a low, vulnerable point. For example, an abuser could gain the trust of a strong, confident woman when her parents are sick and her role as a caregiver makes her temporarily vulnerable.
What to Watch for in the Early Stages of a Relationship
McMillan says certain behaviors early in a relationship might be warning signs of potential abuse:
Too much too soon. Abusers might take up a lot of your time. Dates go on late into the night, with texts and videos right afterward. “It creates an artificial intimacy,” she says. “This person is still relatively a stranger.”
They may also want to do everything together. And they expect to hear from you immediately if they contact you when you’re apart.
Testing your reactions. Abusers take small actions to see how you respond. For example, after you’ve made plans to meet, they might change the time or location at the last minute. “They want to see if you get angry or if you comply,” she says. They might suggest where you should sit or what you should eat.
It starts with small things, and when you agree, you think you’re being nice. You likely won’t notice that you’re moving into a dominant-submissive relationship, McMillan says. “When he asserts dominance, it’s easier [for him] to assert higher levels of control quickly.”
Wanting you all to himself. Abuse thrives in isolation, McMillan points out. So, he may criticize your loved ones and try to convince you that he’s the only person who really understands you.
Arranging situations where they are comfortable, and you aren’t. For example, an abuser might suggest that you meet in a restaurant in his neighborhood, or try a cuisine that’s new to you. These situations don’t always point to danger, of course. But, they can be initial steps toward controlling behavior.
Backhanded compliments. Abusers might compliment you in an off-putting way. For example, “I like that dress—my mom has one like it.” McMillan says, “It sounds like a compliment, but they’re lobbing in a hand grenade.” They are creating feelings of instability.
Love-bombing compliments. Of course, compliments aren’t usually a bad thing. But abusers can use them to influence and manipulate you. They may look at you closely and ask a lot of questions so they can target their compliments. For example, if you wear sporty clothes, they might comment on how fit you are. Or if you spend a lot of time on your makeup, they’ll tell you that you could work in the beauty field.
“The compliment is customized to get the highest resonance in your heart, past your brain,” McMillan says. “We like people better when they flatter us, even if we know they’re trying to get something from us.”
Ambitious future plans. An abuser may charm you with talk of a future together or quickly start calling you his girlfriend or his future wife. “So many women are frustrated by men who are unwilling to plan for next weekend,” McMillan says. His talk of the future might seem like a sign of stability. But that level of commitment early in a relationship could be a red flag. “He’s making big plans and you don’t even know each other yet,” she says.
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What Can You Do?
It can be very difficult to identify the signs that a partner might turn abusive. “A lot of the early warning signs look like assets,” McMillan says. After all, a partner who pays attention, asks questions, listens closely, and offers compliments can be attractive.
And even if you spot the signs, acting on this knowledge is easier said than done. “You can underestimate the impact,” McMillan says. “And a lot of women have a hard time saying ‘no’ even if they see the warning signs. They don’t want to upset him.”
Plus, abusers can be charming to others. So, your friends might say that you’re being too picky or you should give him another chance.
Here are some strategies that could help you get out before you get trapped:
- You can recognize if you have vulnerabilities that could make you an attractive target to an abuser and be more cautious in the early stages of a relationship.
- You can memorize the tactics abusers use to slowly gain control and watch to see if a new partner puts them in play.
- You can initiate plans and see how your partner reacts. For example, you can suggest a place to meet for your next date. “If a guy really likes you and you say, ‘Let’s sit outside,’ he’ll say, ‘I agree. It’s a beautiful day.’ He’s not trying to steer you away from everything you like to something he wants,” McMillan says.
Letting in someone new after abuse can seem daunting. Read “Dating After Domestic Violence: Critical Questions to Ask” to better prepare.
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