Early Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse

by John Folk-Williams Patient Expert

In a comment to my last post, Merely Me posed a key question about emotional abuse: How can you tell whether the behavior is abuse or genuine love "since an abuser can have periods when they act lovingly ....apologetic ...charming ....buys you things to make up ...always sorry.
And you are right ...it is for control. An abuser can also shift their behaviors and quite dramatically.
And this is what makes things so confusing for many women."

(Men would face these same dangers in dealing with abusive women, but, as I pointed out last time, the available evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of abusers are men.)

What are those warning signs that can alert a woman to the possibility that the man she's getting to know is an emotional abuser? They can be identified, but it's often hard to see them for what they are. For one, men who are not at all abusive might do some of the same things, so it becomes confusing. The second problem, though, is a bigger one.

A woman might quite naturally focus on the person behind the behavior rather than what he's actually doing at any one moment. Especially after a dazzling early period of getting to know him, the impression goes deep that this is the guy she's been hoping to find, and this is the kind of relationship she's always wanted.

I think the intense feelings surrounding the "person" and the "relationship" come out of hope as much as reality. In fact, these are ideals that take on a lot of psychological and emotional power. Once the belief is there that this man fulfills that ideal - and this seems confirmed by all the love and attention he lavishes on her - it's much harder to admit that she could possibly be so wrong in both feelings and judgment.

Even when the man starts revealing his more controlling and abusive side, the hope remains that she must be able to do something to bring back that wonderful person behind the immediate problem and restore the relationship as it had been at its best.

It's hard to imagine being so rational at a time of intense emotional response, but it's much safer to avoid relying on the hopes about the "person" and the "relationship". Assume the man is what he does. The early behavior that seems a little strange for such a wonderful guy is exactly the tip-off you need to pay attention to. That's the behavior that will become more and more frequent and come to dominate the relationship. That's who he is, and that's what the relationship will be like.

Here are a few of the most important warning signs. (It will take another post to summarize the others.)

  • He can arrive as the knight in shining armor. Many abusive men are attracted to women at especially vulnerable moments in their lives. Perhaps a long-time partner has abandoned her - or died. Perhaps she's just gotten out of an abusive relationship and feels she'll never be able to trust another man. Maybe she's been lonely for years, drifting from one failed relationship to another, worried she'll always be alone. Perhaps, she's been depressed and feels she isn't worthy of being loved.

  • Whatever the reason, an abuser is quick to pick this up and move in to become her rescuer. She really needs support and love, and, all of a sudden, here it is. He's incredibly loving and attentive, takes her out on the town, gives her gifts, helps to solve practical problems, does all sorts of things for her. He's a take-charge guy at a time when it helps to have a strong man in her life.

But there are some odd things:

  • He makes all the plans, decides where to go on a date, gives her things or does favors she hasn't asked for, all without consulting her first. It's easy to excuse this as an excess of love or simply out of the woman's need to let him make the choices, given the emotionally difficult state she's in. The truth is, though, that he will never care what she needs and will always insist that things be done his way.

  • He talks about his previous relationship as a disaster. After a long period when everything was great (meaning the woman gave into him on everything), the woman turned into an abusive, manipulative monster. He couldn't understand the change, but all of a sudden she blamed him for all sorts of problems she cooked up. She turned her family and friends against him. Perhaps she stole his children away from him by lying to a court. And on and on.

  • He wants more and more of her time to himself.

  • He disparages friends and family - exactly the people she wants to spend time with.

  • He might even suggest she get a less taxing job so they can be together more often. The fact is he's nervous when she's not in his immediate orbit and under his control.

  • He starts to get irritated if she disagrees with his ideas and attitudes about anything - politics, religion, other people.

  • He gets serious too soon about the relationship and starts planning their future together, one that is exclusively his creation.

These are just a few of the typical behaviors that may not seem ominous at the time but are sure signs of what's to come. The immediate question is: What should you do if picking up these signals?

Here is a summary of the advice of Lundy Bancroft, a psychologist who has spent years working with abused men and the women they have victimized. You can find these ideas and a wealth of other material on emotional abuse in his comprehensive book, Why Does He Do That?

  • Talk to him as soon as possible about behaviors that make you uncomfortable and that you just can't accept.

  • If he keeps on doing the same thing, stop seeing him for a substantial period of time. If you simply give warnings about ending the relationship but keep on seeing him, he'll assume you don't really mean it.

  • If he still doesn't stop or instead goes to different behavior that is also a warning signal, the likelihood that you're dealing with an abuser is very high. If you keep waiting to see if he'll change, you could well get in too far and be trapped.

Remember, if you accept him despite misgivings, you're fulfilling his fantasy as the compliant woman. If you object and resist, you're ruining that fantasy, and he'll get even.

John Folk-Williams
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John Folk-Williams

John wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression.