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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The Nature of Manipulation

I found this article at rumination2.blogspot.com. Another great post from a great site.

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In relationships, manipulation can be defined as:

any attempt to control, through coercion (overt or covert),another person’s thoughts, feelings or behaviors.

From this definition, manipulation would seem to have no advantages. However, if you are codependent and defined by others, there can be many advantages. When you allow others to control your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and make decisions for you,

— you do not have to think for yourself;

— you can avoid taking risks and making difficult decision;

— you can avoid taking a stand on controversial issues;

— you can avoid feeling responsible for negative outcomes;

— you get to blame others when things go wrong;

— you can believe, when others tell you how to behave, what to think, how to feel and what to decide, that you are “being loved” because they “want what is best for you”;

— you can avoid feeling separate and alone by avoiding conflict;

— you can avoid the hard work of emotional growth and development.

Appreciating the advantages of not being manipulated is to accept the hard work of living and interacting with others. It is about being willing to grow and develop emotionally.

These advantages can be that,

— you learn to know who you are, what you like, what you think, and how you feel;


— you learn to make difficult decisions;

— you get to take credit for your decisions;

— you learn to handle risks and uncertainty;

— you learn to handle differences and conflicts;

— you get to be in control of your life and know the freedom of personal self-reliance;

— you get to have an increased sense of self worth by feeling competent and capable of taking responsibility for your life and personal happiness.

Manipulation is usually attempted using power, unsolicited helping, rescuing, guilt, weakness, and/or dependence, in order to achieve a desired outcome. For example,

1) Power – physical, verbal, intellectual intimidation or threats, put-downs, belittling, withholding of things needed or wanted. The goal is to be in a “one up, I am right and you are wrong” position;

2) Unsolicited helping/rescuing – doing things for others when they do not request it, want it, or need it; helping others so they become indebted, obligated, and owe you. The goal is to be in the “after all I have done for you, and now you owe me” position;

3) Guilt – shaming, scolding, blaming others, attempting to make others responsible, trying to collect for past favors. The goal is to be in the “it is all your fault,” or “after all I have done for you and now you treat me like this” position;

4) Weakness/dependence – being (or threatening to become) helpless, needy, fearful, sick, depressed, incompetent, suicidal. The goal is to confuse want with need, with the message “if you do not take care of me, something bad is going to happen and it will be all your fault” position.

With manipulation, there is a physical and emotional response, such as a heightened level of anxiety or irritation, although it may not be perceived as such.

This is where boundaries differ from manipulation.

Boundaries (or limits) are statements about our values and where we stand on issues. True boundaries are not threats or about getting the other person to do what we want. True boundaries are not compromised by another’s response.

For example, you discover that your spouse has lied to you and has run up a large gambling debt. You discover the problem by chance, get financial and professional help and are back on track. However, there are new signs of trouble. It is time for some hard decisions.

– What is your bottom line?

– What will you tolerate?

– What manipulative tactics do you use to change your spouse’s behavior – check up on them constantly, bird-dog them, never let them be alone, hide the credit cards, lie to your creditors, parents, and children?

– How much rescuing, guilt, power plays, threats, and protection do you run on the gambler?

– At what point do you stop trying to change their behavior and let them know your bottom line?

You cannot make them do or not do anything. You can only let them know what your position is and what you are willing to do to protect yourself and those you are responsible for.

The problem with loud, threatening bottom lines, is that they keep getting louder, more threatening, and redrawn lower and lower.

We tend to determine what our position and action is by what the other person does, instead of voicing our true position and then responding accordingly. This is the time for tough decisions and actions.

In another example, a friend asks you for a ride to work because she is having car trouble. This is the time to establish ground rules, such as, how long will she need your help, pick up times, expense sharing, days off, etc. A boundary or limit is set when you clearly let your friend know what you are willing to do and not do.

Problems arise – she is frequently not on time morning and evening. Do you wait and be late, or do you leave her? Her car has been in the shop six weeks because she cannot afford to get it out. She has not offered to help with the expense, nor does she seem concerned about the arrangement.

Your friend is using weakness to manipulate and be dependent on you. She has transferred her problem to you and you have accepted it by rescuing and not setting boundaries or limits on your participation in her problem. If you refuse to wait when she is late and she has problems as a result, she will blame you and try to make you feel guilty. What we really want are for others to be responsible and play fair; however, when they do not, we either have to set boundaries, or feel manipulated and victimized with the accompanying advantages and disadvantages.

Lastly, often we confuse UNDERSTANDING with AGREEMENT.

This is when people confuse their decisions with wanting the recipient of a decision to like or agree with it. When we make decisions that oppose the desires of others, there is a cost. We usually attempt to minimize that cost by explaining, in exhaustive detail, our rationale for that decision, somehow thinking if they could just understand our position, they would agree.

Applying that scenario to parent and child – if a parent makes a decision based on the best interest of the child, it needs to be made separate from whether the child is going to like it.

When a child knows it is important to the parent that they be happy with a decision, then it will never be in the child’s personal interest to be happy with an unwanted decision.

If a child knows that their happiness with a parental decision is of equal importance to the decision itself, then all a child has to do is be unhappy in order to make their parent uncomfortable and doubt their decision — after all, it is always worth a try. This same dynamic can apply to interactions among adults also.

How do we manage manipulation? By becoming more aware of our interaction with others.

Is the interaction an attempt to communicate or does it feel like a contest?

Are you beginning to feel anxious or irritated?

Do you want to get out of the conversation?

Does the interaction fit into a manipulative style?

Is there an attempt to use power, service, guilt, or weakness to get your cooperation?

Are you a willing participant in your own manipulation?

Is it easier not taking responsibility?

Are you attempting to manipulate others instead of setting clear boundaries?

Are you making a distinction between a value and a preference?

Preferences can be negotiated, but values should not.

Our society does not deal well with differences in values and preference. We tend to take it as a personal affront and insult when others disagree with us. We will avoid conflicts at all costs, because it feels like rejection. What we need is to communicate to others, clearly and calmly, our values, preferences, and boundaries. We need to be respectful and dedicated to listening, hearing and appreciating, if not understanding, how we all are different.

Mary Treffert, LCSW, ACSW, is a Licensed, Clinical Social Worker, who is an individual, couple, and family therapist in Baton Rouge, LA.

www.marytreffert.com

This is one of a short series of articles from VictimBehavior.com.

You may reprint/reproduce any of these provided you include the entire copy, especially this credit.

The Neatnik and The “Relaxed” Housekeeper

This morning on the radio while I was driving to school, there was an interesting issue being discussed on the Christian station.  The show hosts received an e-mail from a woman asking for advice.  I don’t have an accurate quote since I’m operating from memory here, but the woman indicated her husband is a neatnik and she is not.  She feels like she cannot meet his expectations and is a failure. 

I wanted to call in but couldn’t get through – not at all uncommon, of course.  But the more I thought about it the more I realized this situation is a great relationship snapshot with a whole lot more to say than anyone can attempt to express in a one-minute (or less) phone call.

The problem is there are so many things we don’t know with just this information.  There is no answer possible because we don’t know what the problem really is.  One thing we do know – situations like this affect every married couple.  The blending of two people always has these places that don’t blend.  The situation serves to spotlight areas we need to change and grow, for both partners.

For instance, how can we know what “neatnik” means?  Is this husband truly obsessive about cleanness?  Or does he simply prefer things clean and tidy?  Is the wife genuinely a slob – completely unkempt, filthy home; unsanitary conditions; packrat to the point rooms can’t serve their given purpose?  Or does she have a child or a few, a busy life and a messy home as a result?  Do dishes get done once a day or so; bathrooms cleaned when mold is visible but not before then?  Hey, she’s not alone there by any means!  Real life doesn’t look like a magazine cover.  Real life doesn’t work like the 1950’s stereotype either.  There’s a big difference between being messy and being a slob. 

Anyone who is obsessive about cleanness has issues deeper than cleanliness.  Anyone who is obsessive about clutter, collecting more stuff than they have space, and about completely failing to clean also has issues deeper than dirt.

Another thing we don’t know is whether this husband cleans up after himself and this wife is feeling judged when in fact her husband is not upset by her housekeeping.  In this case, the issue is one the wife needs to address because it really doesn’t have anything to do with the husband.  Why does she feel inadequate, within herself?

Or does this husband occasionally vent about the mess, but he’s just letting off steam and doesn’t really expect his wife to reach perfection any time in this life?  This is something they can work on together, understanding their differences and giving each other grace to express themselves respectfully.

Or does this husband nag his wife constantly about the mess, pointing out everything that doesn’t get done to his satisfaction?  Does this husband help out with household chores or is he all mouth?  Does he help with the housework in addition to nagging, using his “help” as a weapon in a manipulative abusive twisted way?  These would indicate a serious lack of respect on the part of the husband, and could even be symptoms of deeper issues of abuse.  He needs to take a close look at Eph. 5:25-33, especially at what it says to the husband.  The focus is on how the husband treats the wife.  It is his responsibility to do what is right first and always, regardless of how his wife keeps the house.  He needs to get this right before anything can change in his marriage.  It’s not about the housework.

Is it possible for this couple to sit down and talk through the issue and reach a mutually-acceptable compromise between two naturally-opposite people?  There were some great suggestions called in to the program.  One woman who has a neatnik husband makes a point to keep one room completely clean for him; that is his refuge.  This works for them.  Another couple sat down together, made a list of all the work around the house with a 1-3 difficulty designation, and on the weekends they divide the work between them.  The point is that these couples have worked out agreements and compromises that not only keep their sanity at home, meet their material needs, demonstrate mutual respect, but also make their relationship stronger.

The little “stuff of life” that happens in our homes is often not as little as we want to think it is.  And these ordinary events have the power to unlock significant change and growth if we can find understanding of what is really happening.