Spotting a potentially abusive partner

Common characteristics of people who go on to become abusive to their partners

I have compiled a list of the common characteristics of people who go on to become abusive to their partners. It is not exhaustive; please do feel free to add your own experiences to your personal list. It is also worth noting that not everyone who displays these characteristics will become abusive.

Jealousy

Showing signs of early or severe possessiveness and jealousy. Questioning your motives for going out, trying to control what you wear, becoming suspicious of you talking to members of your preferred sexual preference. They may tell you that it’s only because they love you so much.

Going Fast

Speeding into a relationship, not giving you time to catch your breath. Wanting to move in quickly or making you feel bad if you don’t want to go as quickly as they do.

Charming

Are they charming? This is different from authentically kind; charm is superficial and can hide an underlying narcissism.

Love-bombing: this is a technique that cults use to recruit; you will feel special like you are their whole world.

Something similar happens in a healthy relationship too. When you fall in love it is normal to idealise your partner somewhat, the difference is the extent and the fall from grace. In an ordinary, loving relationship, your connection will deepen and strengthen as your relationship matures, however with an abusive relationship you will experience a confusing alternation between idealisation and devaluation.

Idealisation or denigration of previous partners

Obviously, most of us have been in relationships where we were unhappy, but do they have a string of ‘crazy’ exes? Are they critical, denigrative, and undermining? Or at the opposite extreme, are their ex-partner’s perfect; incredible, amazing individuals who can do no wrong and who you feel you can never live up to? A non-abusive person should have a coherent and balanced narrative that generally includes empathy for the other and also takes responsibility for themselves.

Controlling

Do they take charge of the decisions, seek to control your actions, where you go, what you do, and who you see? What you wear? What you eat? How you speak? Abuse is all about power and control.

Emotional and physical violence

  • Do they call you names in an argument?
  • Have they ever been accused of domestic violence in the past?
  • Have they hit you?
  • Have they broken your possessions or threatened to?
  • Have they been cruel or abusive to animals or children?

Blame

Do they take responsibility for themselves and their lives, or is everything everyone else’s fault?

Admitting fault

Can they admit their part? Can they see where they are at fault if you have a disagreement, and do they make appropriate amends?

It is common for people who are abusive to apologise, sometimes excessively, after they have been abusive. In a healthy relationship, you should expect someone to make an amend – they might change their behaviour to take into account your feelings, without expecting you to be excessively grateful, or they might suggest something else that they could to in order to rectify their mistake, or for you to both be able to reconnect.

Hearing your boundaries

Can they hear you say no without them undermining it with persuasion, force or with flattery? Do they make you feel bad when you do say no or express feelings that are different to theirs, maybe even framing it as something wrong with you?

Substance misuse

Do they abuse alcohol or other substances? Many people who do are not abusive, but alcohol and drugs can loosen inhibitions in people who have the potential to be abusive making it more likely that they will become abusive. Moreover, it is common for people who become abusive under the influence to blame the substance for the abuse. Don’t be taken in; if they cannot drink safely then they have a responsibility to either not drink or, if that is not possible, to get help with their drinking.

Isolating you

They might begin to speak badly about your friends and family, undermining your relationship with them in that way, or punish you (either subtly or overtly) for seeing them, or expecting to see you all the time. Do you feel under pressure not to work, or pursue education?

Coercive or forceful sex

Forceful or unwanted sex (maybe when you are ill, tired or asleep); manipulating you by sulking or anger if you don’t do what they want.

Where do I go from here?

You have some good tools at your disposal that will help to keep you safe:

Analyse the past

If you have been in an abusive relationship before, how did the abuse develop then? It can be useful to analyse what happened and what information you might have discounted about your ex that you would understand differently now (that’s not to say you could have done any differently at the time, it is just that it can be helpful to look again at our experience with the benefit of hindsight).

Do you feel uneasy?

Having looked at the above list, can you see any warning signs that he might become abusive? When did you notice them?

What rationalisations do you use after the abuse; e.g. he loves me, he’s not like that all the time, she said sorry and she’ll never do it again (note how close your story is to their version).

Your internal guidance system

The following are indicators that something might be amiss in your relationship and you would be wise to slow down and analyse where these feelings are coming from.

Do you feel:

  • Guilty without quite knowing why?
  • Like you can’t get anything right?
  • That you’re walking on eggshells?
  • As though your world is getting smaller?

Heal yourself

The stronger and more in touch you are with yourself, the more likely you are to trust your internal warning system and act on it. The more content you are with your life, the less likely you are to compromise and enter a relationship that is unhealthy or unsafe.

If you are still experiencing the after effects of an abusive relationship, or are struggling to heal, it can be a good idea to enlist some specialist support.

If you are currently in an abusive relationship and want help, please call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247. They will be able to direct you to your local services.

Author: A Space to Reflect

Psychotherapeutic Counsellor specialising in women, and women’s issues.