Psychology Today: Emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and domestic violence are on the rise, especially among young people. The risk of falling into an abusive relationship is greater than ever.
There are obvious red flags to avoid in a prospective lover, such as angry, controlling, possessive, jealous, or violent behavior. Unfortunately, most abusers are able to mask these tendencies in dating. By the time many people notice the obvious red flags, they’re already attached to an abuser, which makes it much harder for them to leave the relationship.
More useful than a list of obvious red flags are guidelines based on very early warning signs of a potentially abusive relationship, signs that are visible before an attachment bond is formed. The following is a list of qualities to look for in a potential lover. Avoid them at all costs.
Note: During the early stages of your relationship, your partner is not likely to do any of these things to you. But witnessing these attitudes and behaviors toward others is a sure sign that they will turn onto you, sooner or later.
Very Early Warning Sign #1: A Blamer
Avoid anyone who blames his negative feelings and bad luck on someone else. Special care is necessary here, as blamers can be really seductive in dating. Their blame of others can make you look great by comparison:
“You’re so smart, sensitive, caring, and loving, not like that bitch I used to go out with.”
“Why couldn’t I have met you before that self-centered, greedy, woman I used to date?”
“You’re so calm and together, and she was so crazy and paranoid.”
Hearing this kind of thing might make you think that all he really needs is the understanding and love of a good woman to change his luck. This disastrous assumption flies in the face of the Law of Blame.
The Law of Blame: It eventually goes to the closest person.
When you become the closest person to him, the blame will certainly turn on you.
Blamers can be dangerous to love because they usually suffer from victim identity. Feeling like victims, they see themselves as justified in whatever retaliation they enact and whatever compensation they take. Blamers will certainly cause pain for you if you come to love one.
Very Early Warning Sign #2: Resentment
Resentment is a negative mood caused by focus on perceptions of unfairness. Resentful people feel like they are not getting the help, consideration, praise, reward, or affection they believe is due them.
Everyone has to put up with a certain amount of unfairness in life. We don’t like it, but we deal with it and move on; we try to improve our situations and our experiences. The resentful waste their emotional energy by dwelling on the unfairness of others (while remaining oblivious to their own unfairness). They think (mistakenly) that they don’t know how to improve their lives. They use resentment as a defense against a sense of failure or inadequacy.
Resentful people are so caught up in their “rights” and so locked into their own perspectives that they become completely insensitive to the rights and perspectives of others. If you fall in love with a resentful person, you will eventually become the brunt of that resentment and almost certainly feel shut out and diminished in the relationship.
Very Early Warning Sign #3: Entitlement
People with a sense of entitlement believe that they deserve special consideration and special treatment. They may cut in front of others waiting in line, smoke wherever they want, drive any way they want, say anything they like, and do pretty much anything they choose.
Driven by high standards of what they should get and what other people should do for them, the entitled feel chronically disappointed and offended. So it seems only fair, from their myopic perspectives, that they get compensation for their constant frustrations. Special consideration seems like so little to ask! Here’s the logic:
“It’s so hard being me, I shouldn’t have to wait in line, too!”
“With all I have to put up with, I deserve to take a few supplies from the office.”
“With the kind of day I had, you expect me to mow the lawn?”
“All the taxes I pay, and they bother me about this little deduction!”
“The way I hit the golf ball, I should get the best seat in the restaurant!”
“I’m the man; you have to cook my dinner!”
After the glow of infatuation wears off, the entitled person will regard his feelings and desire as more important than yours. If you agree, you’ll get depressed. If you disagree, you’ll get abused.
Very Early Warning Sign #4 Superiority
Superiority is the implication, at least through body language or tone of voice, that someone is better than someone else. Potential abusers tend to have hierarchical self-esteem, i.e., they need to feel better than someone else to feel okay about themselves. They need to point out ways in which they are smarter, more sensitive, or more talented than others. This, too, can be seductive in dating, as he will point out ways in which you are superior, too.
The most abusive form of hierarchical self-esteem is predatory self-esteem. To feel good about themselves, persons with predatory self-esteem need to make other people feel bad about themselves. Many will test high in self-esteem when they come for court-ordered treatment, while everyone else in their family tests low. But once intervention increases the self-esteem of the emotionally beaten-down spouse and children who then no longer internalize the put-downs, the predator’s self-esteem invariably declines.
A variation on this very early warning sign is self-righteousness. If you dare to disagree with him, you will not only be wrong but immoral!
Very Early Warning Sign #5: Pettiness
If he makes a big deal out of nothing or focuses on one small, negative aspect of an issue, a relationship with him will be disastrous. This might show itself as being extremely particular about how his food is prepared in a restaurant or seeming impatient if someone drops something.
In a love relationship, his petty attitudes and behavior will make you feel reduced to some small mistake, as if nothing you have ever done right in your life matters. You will feel criticized and diminished for the smallest of infractions, real or imagined.
Very Early Warning Sign #6: Sarcasm
Sarcasm comes in many forms. Sometimes its just poorly timed humor – saying the wrong thing in the wrong context. Sometimes it’s innocently insensitive, with no intention to hurt or offend. More often it is hostile and meant to devalue. The purpose is to undermine a perspective the sarcastic person doesn’t agree with or to shake someone’s confidence, just for a temporary ego gain or some strategic advantage in a negotiation.
Sarcastic people tend to be heavy into impression management, always trying to sound smart or witty. Their tone always has at least a subtle put-down in it. In dating this will be directed at others. In a relationship, it will center on you.
Very Early Warning Sign #7: Deceit (intentional and unintentional)
Unintentional deceit happens all the time in dating, due to what I call the “dating self.”
We all try to put on the best face possible in dating. Most of us will exaggerate our good qualities at least a little, if we think the other person will like us more if we were just a bit more like that. “Oh, you’re religious? Well I’ve been feeling a bit more spiritual lately, so I’m going right home and read the Bible, or at least watch the movie version.”
This kind of unintentional exaggeration is meant less to deceive than to motivate the self. The exaggerator really wants to develop qualities you like; he’s just not quite there, yet.
Of course, the dating self often includes blatant deception, as in, “Oh, did I tell you that I went to Harvard?” or, “Yes, I know some rich and famous people.” Deceit shows a low-level of self-respect — and respect for you — that can only bode ill in a relationship.
Very Early Warning Sign #8: Minor Jealousy
Minor jealousy does not come off like the obvious red flag of controlling and possessive behavior. It looks more like this: He’s slightly uncomfortable when you talk to or even look at another man. He might not say anything, but he looks uncomfortable.
The tough thing about minor jealousy in dating is that you actually want a tiny bit of it to know that they other person cares. (You certainly don’t want to love someone who wouldn’t mind at all if you slept with the entire football team.) But a little bit of jealousy goes a long, long way. Think of it as a drop of powerfully concentrated liquid in a huge bucket of water. More than a tiny drop will poison any relationship you might develop with the jealous person and, more important, put you in harm’s way.
Even minor jealousy has the potential to be harmful. Jealousy becomes dangerous once it turns into obsession. The more we obsess about something, the more imagination takes over, distorting reality and rational thinking. Jealousy is the only naturally occurring emotion that can cause psychosis, which is the inability to tell what is really happening from what is in your head. Most severe violence in relationships involves some form of jealousy.
Very Early Warning Sign #9: Rusher
I have had clients complain that their boyfriends don’t pursue them or try to sweep them off their feet. I always tell them, “How lucky you are!”
Guys who go “too fast” (defined as whatever makes you uncomfortable), do not respect boundaries. One definition of “abuse” is “that which violates personal boundaries.” It is not flattering that someone wants you so much that he does not care about whether you are comfortable. Make sure that any man you become interested in shows respect for your comfort-level, in all senses of the word.
Trust in Yourself
While a certain caution in dating is a good thing, you want to be sure that your caution is proactive, rather than reactive; you want it based on trusting your instincts, rather than distrusting love.
Trust in yourself stems from your deepest values. As long as you stay attuned to the most important things to and about you, you will naturally gravitate toward those who truly value you as a person.
But even if you are firmly grounded in your values, it’s possible to be fooled by hidden resentment, anger, or abusive tendencies in the people you date. That’s because it’s easy for those prone to such tendencies to put on a false dating face. Because they have a more “fluid” sense of self than most people, it’s easier for them to pour it into any container they think you might like. But they can’t and won’t stay in a nice container once you establish a relationship. Then their resentment, anger, or abuse will emerge in full force.
Research shows that if a woman has been mistreated in the past, even in childhood, there’s a good chance that she’ll be mistreated in her next relationship as well. It’s called, “multiple-victimization,” and it is often misunderstood.
I have heard far too many women clients say things like, “I could walk into a room full of doctors and therapists and fall in love with the one criminal.”
Or they ask with sad and bewildered eyes, “Why do I only attract resentful, angry, and abusive partners?” They wonder if they put out signals that say, “Please abuse me!” This particular misconception has even infected a few professionals who have ridiculously theorized that some women “want to be abused.”
If you’ve experienced multiple-victimization, please understand this: The problem is not that you attract only resentful, angry, or abusive suitors; it’s that, by and large, you have not been receptive to the gentler, more respectful men you also attract. This is not due to your temperament or personality; it’s a normal defensive reaction. After you’ve been hurt, of course you’ll put up subtle barriers for self-protection. Non-abusive men will recognize and respect those barriers. For example, suppose that you work with someone who’s attracted to you. But he senses that you’re uncomfortable with his small gestures for more closeness. He will naturally back off and give you time to heal, or he’ll settle for a non-romantic friendship. But a man who is likely to mistreat you will either not recognize your barriers or completely disregard them. He will continue to hit on you, until he breaks down the protective walls that surround your hungry heart.
The following “intimacy test” can help you become more sensitive and trusting to the non-verbal signals about attachment that ultimately rise from your core value.
Can you disclose anything about yourself, including your deepest thoughts and feelings, without fear of rejection or misunderstanding? ________
Is the message of your relationship, “grow, expand, create, disclose, reveal?” Or is it, “hide, conceal, think only in certain ways, behave only in certain ways, feel only certain things?”
Grow___ Hide ___
Does this relationship offer both parties optimal growth? ___
Can you both develop into the greatest persons you can be? ___
Does your partner fully accept that you have thoughts, beliefs, preferences, and feelings that differ from his? ___
Does he respect those differences? ___
Does he cherish you despite them? ___
Does he accept your differences without trying to change you? ___
Do you want to accept that your partner has thoughts, beliefs, preferences, and feelings that differ from yours? ___
Can you respect those differences? ___
Can you cherish your partner despite them? ___
Can you accept them without trying to change them? ___
A greater sense of your core values will give you more confidence that you can detect the very early warning signs of abuse. Listen compassionately to the faint messages of your hungry heart. Then it won’t need to make the kind of desperate outcries that suspend your best judgment, scare off appropriate matches, and attract resentful, angry, or abusive partners.
Published on December 17, 2008 by Steven Stosny, Ph.D.