How To Spot an Abuser On the First Date

This post is in response to a question asked in the comments of one of the articles on this site.

Right up front, let me clarify that this is by no means a comprehensive answer! And as I said in my comments, I don’t think it will be possible to always spot an abuser on the first date. So the title of this piece relates to the question asked, not the answer given.

I have replied with some things that would have applied to my own situation with an abuser. I am quite sure there are more red flags which would apply with other abusers. I hope that others who read this will chime in with other red flags they have seen.

The original question was this:

If you were going on a date, now, with the same man, what would have given you a clue of your future? how would you know if it is real gold, or “gold” that doesn’t exist?

This was my response (somewhat amplified):

A single date could very likely be hard to see through. Someone can put on a perfect front for a brief period of time. With a skillful abuser, you have to put the pieces together over a period of time, though there are generally subtle clues that will peek through even on short association.

For me, with the specific man I married, there were some indications before hand that I didn’t understand.

1. He never quite managed to tell the truth. Everything he said was either over-exaggerated or under-stated, whichever would put him in the best light. I frankly suspected him of lying with all of his self-glorifying stories, but then I did find out at least one of them was true so I thought I must be wrong.

Later, this issue of him recreating reality was HUGE – he used it all the time when talking about me to others, especially pastors, counselors and his family. For many abusers, (I don’t know if it is universal but I’ve seen it in several) their reality is self-customized to their specifications – whatever meets their perceived need at the moment. So dialog becomes virtually impossible since they turn everything that actually happened around, even taking incidents that happened and recreating or even repositioning them in time/space to suit their purposes – generally to the disadvantage of the one they are abusing.

2. There was an incident where he punched a fellow student. I didn’t see it happen so all I knew was his own story, which was that the other student persistently provoked him, telling him over and over, over a period of many weeks, to punch him. So finally he did. I wish I had known to ask other students who knew both of them and would have seen these interactions, what really happened. After experiencing his violence first-hand, I know his version of this event was not true.

3. His mother asked me before we were married whether I thought I could handle his temper. Well, she never explained exactly what she meant by that or told me of any history or examples. And I had literally never seen an adult with a “temper.” In my family, everything was always handled very civilized. That didn’t mean that people didn’t disagree, but no one ever got nasty or yelled and screamed, or called names, or used profanity. And certainly, there was never any violence, not even throwing things, punching walls or furniture, slamming things, etc. So I was completely clueless about what she meant. And I thought that if we truly loved each other we could certainly work out any disagreements. After all, that was what I had seen modeled all my life.

4. I didn’t realize that he was utterly self-absorbed before well into our marriage. Before our marriage, he attempted to engage me in conversation (scripted, no less, with 3×5 cards with questions on them) to try to “find out about me” – but even these were about him. He was trying to find out whether I matched his purposes – not wanting to get to know me because of me. Years later I realized some of those question were designed to make sure I was the type of person who wouldn’t catch on to him or stand up against him – though he may not even have been consciously aware of that fact. I don’t know whether that would have been more obvious to me unless/until I had a clue about abuse, however.

This is something I have seen other abusers do, to a greater or lesser degree. Their conversation, even about you, is always really about them. And they will use flattery, gifts, and constant statements of deep attraction, love, need, “you are more than life to me” yada, yada to win you over. But this is really not about adoration – it is about obsession and desire to “have” you like a possession. And that turns deadly once the “I do’s” are said (or when they feel confident they “have” you).

5. He didn’t really listen to the things about me — he recreated his understanding of me to match his desires and expectations. This was demonstrated in things like the gifts he purchased for me which were things he liked and I didn’t (after his persistent probings to find out what I liked). Also it was revealed in his choice of activities for us – which were always things he wanted to do and not things I would have enjoyed.

Later in our marriage, he went through several months of again probing to find out what I liked to do. He gave me lists to fill out and questionaires to complete. I resisted at first, because by then I knew what would happen. But, of course, he insisted under the banner that my resistance said I didn’t care about him or our marriage. So I filled out his forms.

He didn’t say anything about them at first, but then weeks later he again accused me of not liking to do anything, having no interests, etc., etc. My reply was that I like a lot of things and I had even filled out his forms telling him all of them. His response — none of those are any fun. My response — so, in other words, if I don’t like what you like, I have no interests and don’t like to do anything “fun.” He didn’t reply – but that didn’t mean he changed his mind. He said the same thing again to me and to others about me multiple times after that.

6. Things always had to be done his way. Even if I had another way or another preference, he would pick at it and pick at it, and “reason” and cajole until I gave in to his way. This was vividly apparent (but I didn’t see it at the time) over our wedding plans. I planned that wedding for 18 months, during which we were separated for the most part. I had to pay for all of it, so it had to be on a very strict budget. When he came back from overseas and out of state 3 months before the wedding, he managed to get me to change almost everything. This wedding was “his” day, not the bride’s day. Boy, should that have been a clue!

7. Another indication, which seriously bothered me at the time, but I didn’t understand it’s significance, was in our physical relationship. Now, you have to understand that we were in a very strict environment. We were taught that men and women were not even to touch until after the wedding, period. We had both come to realize that was not only ridiculous, but unhealthy. Well, I thought that was we. Perhaps it was me and he was just glad to agree. But still, it was not to go beyond normal and healthy demonstrations of affection. No petting, etc.

In spite of our agreed boundaries, the first time he kissed me he attempted to french kiss me. I was appalled (understand, I had never done anything of the sort – I know most people would think I was nuts). And personally, I think I was rightly appalled. The boundaries of our physical relationship were to be completely non-sexual and french kissing is symbolic of the sex act – deliberately. But I figured I was being a ridiculous prude, so I gave in to him from the second kiss onward.

Now, here’s the serious part. Every single time he kissed me from that day until after our wedding, it had to be a french kiss. Never a simple kiss of affection. Not only that, he would hold me very tight, push my head as far back as it would go so I was overbalanced, and would prolong each kiss for minutes at a time. I literally couldn’t breathe. It took me many, many years (he still did this after we were married, just not every single time he got near me) to realize this was physical domination and control.

During our marriage, he started griping when I would push him off so I could catch a breath, and he told many, many people that I “wouldn’t let him kiss me.” In fact, this was one of his favorite gripes, along with accusing me of refusing him sex. That got the pastors, counselors and his family every time. What no one ever paused to find out was that I only refused him abusive sex – and he knew that. He also knew that he was welcome to intimacy that wasn’t abusive.

In fact, a year before our marriage ended, he got up in front of an entire church and “testified” that his life had been changed that week because his wife of 19 years had finally let him kiss her for the first time. I was completely humiliated and there was nothing I could do to defend myself. But I did wonder if anyone took a second to wonder how this man had managed to acquire 3 children without ever kissing. That would be really weird.

Going a bit off topic, this habit of humiliating me in front of others was also a consistent issue throughout our marriage. I don’t remember him ever doing that before we were married, but then we also were not together very much before we were married. Strange environment, long story.

But he did this often during our marriage, lying to people about me or telling them twisted things about me. I eventually observed that he did this, not only randomly, but also any time he felt that other people might be viewing me in a complementary way, if he felt I was getting too much attention, or if he felt that others might see him as “less” than me in some way.

But the result of this habitual behavior was that I was even more isolated than I was just by his refusal to let me do things, see family, go out with friends, etc. (And to be completely clear, he even accomplished this by manipulation and pushing, pushing, pushing me until I gave in and did what he wanted. He rarely just flat said, “No you can’t.” Instead he guilt-tripped, manipulated, etc. to get me to agree with him about me “needing” to stay at home.)

As a result, I never knew what people really thought of me because I knew he had lied about me to various people, but I never knew who, or what he had said to them. So I always kept myself reserved to a greater or lesser degree around people who knew both of us. Invariably, the things he had said about me would end up jumping out and slapping me in the face at odd times when people would accuse me of things, or decide to no longer associate with me, or whatever. This was especially true with his family, with the church, and with the pastors/counselors we saw.

Back to the issue of point 7, this behavior of pushing in the arena of physical relationship is common with abusers. They want whatever they can get, and they will flatter, cajole, manipulate, and flat-out push past boundaries to get it. Then if you feel guilty or want them to quit, it is you who are at fault, never them.

These are a few I can think of off the top. As a general rule, I think a single date would be difficult to know (though, not always; sometimes it’s really obvious if you know the signs) but over time it is not hidden.

What makes it most difficult, actually, is that if you have come from an abusive background (and unfortunately, a lot of people do not even realize their background was abusive since it was their “normal”) these behaviors will not seem abnormal to you. You may even feel flattered by the persistent attention and apparent adoration. So the very best way to learn to spot an abuser is to get healthy yourself first. In fact, I would go so far as to say, this is the only way to really protect yourself from an abuser.

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