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Identifying the More Subtle Signs of an Abusive Relationship

03/02/2015 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

The dating game always starts out innocently enough, doesn't it? The movie date here, the bouquet of roses there. You are excited; there has been a lot of laughter, and a lot of heart-fluttery-belly-butterfly-ness since you met this person a short while ago.

It was Maya Angelou who said, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."

Moreover, it is an unknown -- yet brilliant -- entity who points out that "the person with nothing to hide hides nothing."

The lies we tell ourselves when we meet someone new are extraordinary, aren't they? In my case, I got a real taste of the kind of abuse with which I did not have prior experience. As I learned, abuse is not always a black and white issue (e.g., he either hits me or he doesn't; he either puts me down or he doesn't; he either attempts to control me in really obvious ways or he doesn't). I feel oddly -- perhaps disturbingly -- lucky, and certainly thankful, that I do not have any "extreme" tales of abuse to report.

Abuse is sometimes extremely subtle. It is often insidious: You go from thinking you are falling in love to wondering why all of the "problems" in your new relationship seem to be your fault -- with no clear idea of how you got from point A to point B. Perhaps you blame it on having not been in a relationship in a while; you decide that you simply forgot how to be in a relationship. You assume -- you convince yourself -- that you have become selfish because you have wants and needs (such as the need for unwavering, enduring respect; the need, simply, for a person to be honest with you). For these reasons, it is you, and you alone, who is responsible for the relationship's problems... or so you tell yourself.

In my 20s straight through to my early 30s, I learned a great deal about relationships (the learning does not stop, by the way). And there are many, many subtle cues that I either missed or blatantly ignored (the latter is more likely true). In my profession, I am surrounded by young women on a daily basis. I often think about my life when I was their age. While I have parents who were excellent at teaching me how to avoid the more explicit, obvious signs of an abusive relationship, I do sometimes wish that I were taught about the seductive power of manipulation when I was younger; it would have saved me a lot of heart-ache and trust issues that I continue to work through as an adult.

When I pen these kinds of articles, I envision myself in conversation with my younger-self; the late-teen and early-mid-late-20s version of me. And it is to my younger-self that I wish to impart the following experience:

Basically, it's never cool to enter a relationship only to be assigned a job you did not apply for: The job of allowing someone to live out their control issues, no matter how subtle, at your expense.

You, younger-self, would be wise to think about (and avoid) the following:

  • The guy who nonsensically reminds you that hordes of women are attracted to him at any given moment is the guy who wants to manipulate you into believing that it is your job to please him and make him happy at all times, lest he find someone new.

Younger-self, he doesn't want you -- not only does he want a mirror, he wants a woman who is sure to chase her tail in circles trying to please him at all costs, no matter how high. Stay away.

  • If he says he's going to call you at 7:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, but does not do so until 10:00 p.m. the following day (or later) -- this is someone who needs to know that he can control your emotions.

He wants you to be thinking about all of the possible reasons for why he's not contacting you when he said he will. He wants you kept on a short leash, and in his mind, this is one way to do it.

I'm not talking about the guy who says he's going to call at 7 and winds up calling at 7:15 -- no one wants to appear desperate. It's ok to save a little face in the dating game. Learn the difference.

Furthermore, the guy who does not keep his word goes far beyond the guy who is "just not that into you" -- he's into you, alright -- but for reasons that should leave you wanting to head for the hills, never to be seen (by him) again. He's into you because he needs to feel in control, and you are precisely the person who is going to fulfill that need if you do not run.

Or maybe he is, quite simply, someone who does not feel as though keeping his word is something he needs to do (this is a conditioning with which, I assure you, you cannot compete). Whatever the case, it is not your job to figure it out. Head for the hills.

The guy who appears really interested in marriage and children within the first month of knowing you is not interested in marriage and children. This is a tell-tale sign of grooming -- the earlier he tells you what he thinks you want to hear, the easier it is for him to get you to put up with his garbage down the line.

Younger-self, I am not talking about the necessary discussions about marriage and children that couples should have at some point; you need to know that you and your significant other are on the same page about these huge issues. What I am referring to are those far-too-early discussions about marriage and children in which he addresses, specifically, marriage to you and children with you; despite what he (and you) may believe, those attempts at manipulation are not cute or endearing; they should be interpreted as the red flag that they are.

And for the more sinister examples of what to avoid:

  1. The guy who barricades a door so that you cannot leave a room during an argument until you have given him his "rightful" opportunity to talk circles around an issue he created is the guy who needs to control your physical space. This is a guy who is used to being given opportunities to talk his way out of situations. If it happens once, shame on him. If it happens twice, shame on you.
  2. The guy who does not leave your dorm/apartment/home when you've asked him to is the guy who does not respect your boundaries, your physical space, or you. Likewise, the guy who shows up to your home when you have explicitly asked him not to is the guy who does not respect your boundaries, your physical space, or you. None of this is cute; none of this is endearing. It is offensive and an abuse of your boundaries.
  3. The guy who is not honest about who his friends are has something to hide. There is absolutely no two ways about it.
  4. The guy who goes out of his way to say and do things that annoy you is worse than a child; this is a guy with clear control issues -- he needs to know that he can manipulate you successfully, and this is one small way to test it. None of this is cute; none of this is endearing.
  5. The guy who says nasty and hurtful things about your major/career in a way that you know goes beyond innocent teasing is the guy who is deeply uncomfortable with his own life choices. I would not touch those issues with a ten foot pole.
  6. Have you ever apologized for your "role" in his behavior? This is Master Manipulation, at its finest. Not only has he behaved poorly, but he has found a way to manipulate you into believing that his behavior is/was/and will continue to be your fault. This issue is particularly difficult to pinpoint. Figure it out, and as soon as you do, run.
  7. Do your friends give you "the look" when you share details about the most recent argument? This is a subtle, yet helpful clue that your repertoire of problematic relationship issues is reaching its quota.

On honesty:

When you ask him a question about his intentions, does he stutter? Does he talk around the question? It takes approximately 0.0 seconds to invent the truth. It takes a little longer than that to come up with a passable lie or excuse. Interpret stuttering and dancing around questions for what they reveal: The very real probability that you are not getting the whole story.

On passive aggression:

I came home from work one day to the electric turned off in my apartment. I had absolutely no idea what was wrong/why this happened (I pay my bills on time). When "he" showed up an hour later, he laughed and walked over to the circuit-breaker to turn the lights back on. Because he was angry with me, he used the circuit-breaker to shut off the lights before he left (knowing intuitively that the circuit-breaker was not going to be my first stop. My first stop was to call the electric company, knowing that my bill had been paid).

Might this be construed as funny? Perhaps to those who do not see it as the warning-sign that it is. Rather than maturely address whatever issue he was having, he decided to passive aggressively control my surroundings when he was not around, in my own home. Still funny? I didn't think so.

Moreover, how often do you experience the silent treatment? This behavior is more passive aggression. Demand better for yourself, even if that has to take the form of a permanent departure from the relationship.

Before you met this type of person, you were doing quite well. You were happy. Upon meeting someone who exhibits the above manipulative tendencies, you soon see how quickly life goes from serene and enjoyable to dramatic and erratic. If a relationship seems endlessly dramatic, interpret this as the warning sign that it is: This person uses drama to manipulate your emotional well-being. This is abusive.

Younger-self, it has been said that we teach people how to treat us. I am much older than you are now, and I continue to struggle to remember this -- this particular lesson is lifelong. I wish I were tuned in to the ways by which a subtly manipulative relationship is also synonymous with an abusive relationship. Do not make my mistakes. Your life, whether you are in college, recently graduated, or watching your twenties come to a crashing end, is much more wisely spent working on your academic, professional, and personal successes than it is falling victim to someone's seductive effort to manipulate and abuse your world.

And by the way, younger-self, it works both ways: If you are guilty of the above shades of manipulation, then you too have perpetrated abuse. Grow up; there is not anyone worth your while who deserves this behavior.

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