Early Warning Signs for Domestic Violence
Especially if your relationship is new, it’s hard to tell what your future as a couple is going to look like. Best case scenario, you’ve already had your last first date. Worst case scenario, though? Well, there are a lot of worst case scenarios, but one of the scariest is finding yourself a victim of psychological abuse or domestic violence.
So how do you know if he’s going to turn abusive? Abusers are famously charming, especially in the beginning of a relationship. How do you tell the difference between charisma and real character?
(Note: for the purposes of this article, I’m going to refer to the abuser as a “he,” but I want to make it clear that although physical violence is much more often perpetrated by men, psychological abuse is not a gendered phenomenon.)
Society believes a lot of myths about abusers. We believe that a person becomes abusive because they have been traumatized–in childhood, maybe, or by a previous partner. We believe that poverty, or stress, or addiction, or mental illness, has made them abusive.
But then, don’t you know plenty of people with trauma, poverty, addiction, and mental illness in their life, who treat their partners with respect?
The fact is, nothing makes a person abusive. Abuse is a choice. Lundy Bancroft, author of “Why Does He Do That,” comes back to this point over and over. Bancroft spent fifteen years working closely with abusive men, learning about how they thought and what they believed, and his point is crucial: Abuse is a choice.
It’s a choice to treat your needs as automatically superior. A choice to manipulate, overpower, and control those you are supposed to love. A choice to treat people like you are entitled to their love, to their bodies, to their obedience, and to their attention.
What this means is that long, long before a man decides to give you a black eye, he’s already been showing warning signs of abuse. Because it’s about his attitude. It’s about how he sees the world. The same attitude that made him feel like hurting you was justifiable has been there all along, showing itself in other ways.
Look for signs of a person who’s attached to power, who feels entitled rather than grateful for what they have, a person who feels justified in controlling others, and always has a reason to shift blame to somebody else.
If you’re not sure what kind of a person you’re involved with, look for the answers to some of these questions. It’s not an exact science, but it’s a good place to start.
How does he treat people with less power than him?
If he’s disrespectful to waitstaff, or to his subordinates at work, or to children–that’s a sign that when he’s being kind to somebody, it’s because he has something to gain. It’s not really kindness, so much as self-interest, and it shows that power is the most important dynamic in a relationship to him.
How does he act when he doesn’t get what he wants?
This answer will give you a clue to his sense of entitlement. If he can’t accept disappointment with a reasonable amount of grace, then you might quickly find yourself tiptoeing around him, trying not to accidently “set him off.”
Does he pressure you for sex, or expect you to do things you’re uncomfortable with?
If your physical and emotional comfort isn’t as important to him as his own, then this man does not love you. He loves himself, and he feels entitled to something that is yours and yours alone. And if he’s coerced or forced you into sex, that’s a form of violence and in many places, a crime.
Does he find ways to get back at you for not giving him what he wanted?
This can be subtle. I had a boyfriend who reacted to me spending any prolonged time with any other friends by becoming withdrawn and sullen for a day or so. It was enough to leave me feeling guilty and confused, and it worked exactly like he wanted it to–eventually, I was afraid to spend time with other people. It’s a kind of control that’s harder to recognize.
Has he ever acted abusively toward an ex?
A person who’s willing to hit another woman will also be willing to hit you. No matter how monstrous she might have been, if he thinks he had an excuse for hitting her (“I just lost control” or “She was deliberately pushing my buttons”) then that means he thinks there’s ever a good reason to hit your partner. One day, he’ll think you’ve given him a good enough reason, too.
Can he apologize without making excuses?
None of this “I’m sorry if you thought…” or “I’m sorry but I did it because…” or “I was just so drunk/tired/stressed/worried.” I’m sorry ought to be a complete statement. If it comes with qualifiers, it’s not an apology. If his apology is a subtle way of shifting the blame, that’s a big red flag.
Has he ever made you feel unsafe without physically hurting you?
Women often think that because there wasn’t any actual physical contact, what happened wasn’t really violence. But anything that makes you feel unsafe, Bancroft cautions, meets the definition of violence. That includes a person throwing something in the same room as you, or raising a fist as if to hit you, or driving dangerously with you in the car, or threatening violence verbally.
Does he blame other people for his own choices?
Just hum Taylor Swift’s “Look what you made me do” to yourself. It’s a handy excuse, but it’s just not true. Nobody can make anybody else do anything. We make our own choices.
Does he call people who disagree with him “crazy”?
It’s fine to be annoyed that somebody’s disagreeing with you, but when you characterize every disagreement as a sign of the other person’s mental instability, that’s epic level gaslighting right there. It’s worth wondering whether a man with a long string of “crazy ex girlfriends” is giving you an accurate picture of who those women were. Were they really crazy, or does he think that everyone he dislikes is crazy?
To end on a happier note, all of these questions work well in the reverse, too. Is your partner able to apologize sincerely, and take responsibility for his actions? Does he take your needs and preferences seriously, and treat people with less power than him with real respect? I guess if he does, then you’re not worried. But it’s nice to notice the green flags too, if only to help you appreciate the good character of the person you’ve chosen to be with.
Anna O’Neil likes cows, confession, and the color yellow, not necessarily in that order. She makes a hobby of pointing out realtime instances of gaslighting in all its subtle and various forms, and is working hard to teach her kids to become 100% manipulation-proof. (She’s not sure if that’s even possible, but it seems like a worthy goal.) You can find her other writing at Aleteia, Verily, Mind&Spirit, and elsewhere.