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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Hartney, LPC NCC

See the cycle of abuse before you're in a spin.

Unfortunately, a first date doesn't include the tradition of disclosing issues of being a perpetrator of violence in a relationship, or one's tendency to control through physical, emotional, sexual or financial force. It can be really hard to tell right at the start that a potential mate will be an abuser. Typically, after an idyllic start, abuse will evolve and grow more intense over time, and can happen so subtly, that without a primer, the stages of development can be very easy to miss. People who use abuse to control a partner may even initially appear too good to be true, perfect, even. It may feel intense, and you may reveal deeply personal parts of yourself very early on. Aggressive and controlling behavior will emerge as the relationship continues, and as the partner feels emboldened. The negative behavior will intensify, ensnare the victim, and lead the abused to question their version of reality. In extreme cases, leaving the relationship can be a dangerous proposition and will require safety planning and outside resources. Learning the signs, and how to read the signals of some toxic relationship traits may make it easier for you to get out, before you are fully in.

There are some things that make you more vulnerable to these types of relationships, so let's start there. If you were raised in a family that resorted to violence or yelling to resolve conflict, you are more vulnerable to a toxic relationship. If you were raised in a family where one or more of your parental figures drank alcohol daily, you are more vulnerable. If you were scolded using negative reinforcement, being called stupid, or otherwise demeaned, you are more vulnerable. If you believe that "love" is intense, fast, and based on shared secrets and desperate feelings, the likelihood that you are attracted to a trauma bond rather than a trusting intimate relationship makes you more vulnerable for exploitation in an abusive relationship. Finally, if you use substances, or have some other behavior that makes you feel private shame, you are a vulnerable target for an abuser.

So, what do these first stages look like? One version of this first stage takes a decidedly direct form. After displaying passive behavior for some time in the relationship, the abuser will lash out. This will typically be in the form of an overreaction, which will leave you confused, disoriented, wondering what you've done wrong. The timing of this may be when you are "trapped" with the person, perhaps out of town, or otherwise without an easy means of escape.

A more subtle version involves a new mate exploiting the newly formed bond. The abuser may mock you, or use name calling. They may claim to do this from a loving joking place, even if it makes you feel bad. If and when you protest, the behavior does not stop, and may intensify. Your partner may mock you in front of others to "prove" there is nothing "wrong" with their behavior. Other behaviors in this stage may mask as intense daring couple behavior. Among these are introducing you to behaviors that you find disagreeable. Maybe it is skipping work, or trying a substance or even attending a party that makes you uncomfortable. There is a common factor that these behaviors share-they disregard your voice. They disregard your position. They encourage you to ignore yourself in favor of the other person. In this stage, it will be very important that you read your gut, and read it in a voice louder than the other voice that is insisting, "but he/she is soooo amazing except for this one thing..." At this point, using this questionable behavior, your partner is feeling you out, seeing if you can be groomed to meet the needs of their insecurities and need to control. They may track your movements through your phone or computer, or they may monitor your social media activities, even demanding passwords.

Whether the abuse builds slowly, or comes on suddenly, following the violent outburst the abuser will sometimes apologize profusely. Prepare for lot's of emotion. Apologies, excuses, and self recrimination are common ploys of this stage. And make no mistake, the abuser may believe with their whole soul that the awfulness they feel will prevent them from ever doing this again, until...This is what we call the honeymoon phase. And like all honeymoons, this one ends too. You will recognize it because after the apologies or gifts the tension will slowly begin to build again. Perhaps without even realizing it, you will begin to augment your behavior to stave off any trouble. It can feel like you are walking on eggshells. And the trouble will come, because the trouble has nothing to do with you. This is how your partner manages their emotions. And as the cycle continues, your finances may be threatened, you may be coerced or forced into sex against your wishes, you may be threatened, or your pets or family members, or security may be threatened You may be shown weapons as a show of force. They may threaten public humiliation. You may be physically harmed.

Abusers can be men or women, teens or adults, wealthy or not, educated or not, well liked, or not. They may present as aggressors or as victims. There is no "type" to avoid to stay safe. What matters here is the health of the relationship, your autonomy within the relationship and how you handle conflict as a couple. If these are lacking, it will be important for you to thoughtfully consider if staying in an unhealthy relationship is preventing you from experiencing abiding, fulfilling intimate love.

National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233 TTY 1-800-787-3224

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