One of the most heartbreaking things about abusive relationships is how much they can look like love in the beginning to their victims. They are often swept off their feet, passionately courted, and made to feel more special than they have ever felt before.
Then comes the crash: The desire to be near becomes a desire to control; talk of love becomes suspicion, sarcasm and hostility; behavior seems aimed at demeaning rather than revering. And to this emotional abuse is often added physical abuse as well.
That is not to say, of course, that all relationships that include fast-moving and intense possessiveness ultimately translate to domestic violence. But it is a warning sign, and we need as many as we can get. It is hard to spot the future abuser, especially since their initial weapons are so often charm and adoration. Not only that, the abuser rarely starts a relationship thinking they are going to do harm, so we can’t depend on seeing beyond their exterior to their negative intentions – they may not have any yet.
It is tempting to dismiss domestic violence as someone else’s problem. But the reality is that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men are the victim of severe physical violence at the hands of a partner, according to CDC statistics. It is an epidemic, and not just in the NFL. It cuts across all socioeconomic groups, all religions, all races.
In my work in the mental health field, I have dealt with many people struggling to free themselves from unhealthy, abusive relationships and lamenting how it all went so wrong. There are no easy answers for those caught in these webs. Most try to exit the relationship, but it can prompt retaliation and actually decreases safety initially. The statistics are chilling: Three-fourths of those killed and 85 percent of those severely hurt by an intimate partner had left or tried to leave the relationship in the past year. That means that those in abusive relationships need our support, understanding and assistance in breaking free rather than simply hearing “Just leave!”
It also brings home the importance of doing all we can to strengthen ourselves against getting entangled in abusive relationships in the first place. It doesn’t mean we should stop the search for true love; it just means that our eyes should remain open as well as our hearts.
Consider these tips for guarding yourself:
- Distrust sudden infatuation and people who seem to fall instantly, passionately and unequivocally in love with you. An abusive relationship usually starts with a whirlwind romance – the seduction stage – in which the future abuser aggressively charms the object of their affection. Love at first sight is beguiling, but it is often a sign that the person is creating an illusion of you based on their wants and desires rather than taking the time to discover who you really are.
- Realize that your love can’t fix them. The single biggest predictor of whether someone will become an abuser is if they have grown up in a home with domestic violence – whether they have been abused themselves or witnessed domestic abuse. Unfortunately, this past tends to be revealed only after the person becomes abusive, and then it is usually done as a pity ploy, to get the other to stay and endure more abuse. Anyone with such trauma in their childhood needs to seek help to get past it and should be encouraged to do so, but you should never buy into the notion that your love is the magic that will fix them.
- Check their insecurity level and your own. Someone who feels insecure in a relationship is more likely to need constant reassurance and find it harder to share you with others – all of which can be first steps toward dangerous obsession. And pay attention to your own self-esteem. If it is low, you are much more likely to succumb to the charm offensive of an abusive person. And you will be that much more willing to look past the offenses later in the hopes that things will return to the way they were. Abusive relationships feed on the insecurity of their members. Never doubting that you deserve respect is the greatest safeguard against being harmed in the name of love.