The Dark Heart: Understanding Abuse in Relationships

All too often we hear about a woman who was violently attacked by her partner, or one who continues to stay with him even through extreme abuse of all kinds – physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, psychological. Without fail the first reaction from people who find out about is always, “Why does she stay with him? Why not just leave?”

Abuse isn’t something that happens suddenly, and it’s not isolated to any particular class or race of people. I used to think abuse stems almost solely from the low-class, uneducated types whose lifestyles are generally questionable, yet now I understand that anyone, from ordinary people to those in the upper echelons of society, can fall victim to or be the cause of abuse. Ignorance is the enemy, don’t be fooled by what appears to be a normal person on the surface when your gut tells you something is wrong.

The other day I read the following: “Everyone always asks why a woman stays with an abusive partner, placing blame on her. Why doesn’t anyone ask why he’s doing what he does? Why are there never questions about what is wrong in him to commit such an act?”

This blog isn’t isolated to male on female abuse situations. It’s to inform anyone who doesn’t understand it, why it’s more complicated than just walking away, to help them see how intrinsically manipulative and psychologically destructive these types of relationships are. I also write it in the hopes of helping some who are going through it at the moment, or who have left such a relationship and are are still trying to process it all, to get some clarity. Abuse happens everywhere, in so many forms. I’m going to focus specifically on abuse in relationships, be in heterosexual or homosexual, because the behaviour traits don’t change based on gender, age or sexual preference.

My personal experience with this left me both strongly compelled to write this blog post, yet also had me extremely reluctant. A year ago I was still in a state of concern and slight anxiety over putting anything out there that might help my ex track me down and show up at my doorstep. After speaking to a few friends and also sharing opinions on the subject on Facebook recently, I realized I should just go for it and write this blog.

My brief summary of experience about this happened between 2011 and the end of 2013. I came out of a long-term relationship and ended up in two successive, extremely dangerous and harmful periods with two men. The alarming shared common behavioural traits between the two only became obvious to me later on. One had an extreme temper and trust problem and the other, it later turned out, was bipolar and had been psych evaluated and found to be a sociopath and danger to society.

I walked away from that phase with a few broken bones and I lost of almost all my possessions, but became a whole lot wiser about how easily things could spiral out of control, and how to help those who go through the same thing. I was lucky in a sense, my natural reaction to back off when someone’s aggravated saved me from additional harm a few times and overall I’m stronger and a lot more aware today. Here are the main things I’ve learned to look out for in a dangerous, abusive partner. Not all of them may apply all of the time, but if any of this sounds familiar, it’s reason for concern:

Kind, Compassionate People Are Targets

Kindness is considered an absolute weakness by abusers. They see it as an easy way ‘in’, to get under your skin and exploit you. One day my ex gave me some insight into how he sees the world, and told me most people are so easy to manipulate and control, to bend to his will. He was convinced that people want to be controlled and told what to do, because they’re too stupid and weak to know what’s good for them. In his mind, the entire world of people is divided into malleable pawns or absolute enemies. If you can’t be manipulated and won’t give them what they want, they’ll hate you straight off the bat and avoid you entirely. If you’re naturally someone who is sympathetic, kind, caring and giving, you’re basically chum dangling above shark infested waters. They seek out people who won’t fight back, people who won’t argue with them or stand up for themselves to the extent where they’re quick to fight or argue when they disagree. They look for peace makers, people who are willing to compromise and like to please and help others. It makes it so much easier to toy with people like this throughout the process.

They’ll be extremely kind and generous at first.

What hooks potential partners so often is how well the abuser treats them in the beginning. You’ll be showered with affection and compliments and made to feel like a million bucks. You’ll think you are so lucky to have someone in your life who wants to share their time with you and go out of their way to make you happy. Initially, you’ll feel there’s nothing wrong as you get swept up by their generosity and focused attention. While some people might test the waters and ease their way into getting to know you, abusers (this may vary, but I found it consistent in what I’ve experienced) tend to go all in and push hard to win you over.

They’re persistent. And often pushy.

If you don’t fall head over heels for them immediately, they’ll wait it out but constantly stay in touch, as they try to figure out what it will take to let you lower your guard a bit. In time they’ll try to find a weak spot in your armor to break through. They’ll do this by assessing you from a distance and soon they’ll have figured out what you want or need to hear to let your guard down. I’ve found they weave their way into your daily life, waiting for a moment or day where you are more receptive, like when you’ve had a bad day at work or something’s gone wrong in your personal life. In that moment, they’ll step up and ensure that they provide exactly what you need to feel better. They tend to be very possessive and jealous, always insisting that they have to protect you or look out for you.

They have tormented pasts, whether you about it know it or not.

Both of my abusive exes had alcoholic, abusive fathers who nearly killed their mothers in front of them. Both of them grew up with a great deal of violence and dysfunctional behaviour in their homes. While some abuse situations don’t have this type of setup and the abuser just has bad temper or is vindictive, there are always patterns in how they deal with people they’re involved with. Sometimes you never know about their pasts, if they choose not to tell you. Often, women in particular, would feel sorry for a man with a painful childhood and feel the need to heal them in some way, to ensure their lives are better now than it was. The problem is often the damage was done long before they ever met and she doesn’t realize how deeply these experiences twisted the mind and behaviour of the person. For a compassionate person – especially one who is emotionally involved with someone – one of the hardest things to do is to know when to sever ties and walk away because someone is beyond help, or to realize that you’re just not the right person to help them. We hurt to know others are hurting and our first instinct is always to jump in and try to improve things, even if we stand the risk of being pulled under by them in the process. This is especially true in the case of relationships, because one party is trying to help and heal while the other doesn’t even recognize that they have a problem to begin with.

Cutting Your Wings

In the end, abusive people have a desperate need to exert control, because they are so out of control themselves. A big part of this is ensuring that you are completely dependent on them – which, later on, will make it very hard for you to just walk away. During the initial phase, where they try to win you over, they’ll be so generous and reassuring that you’ll feel it’s okay to let go of your independence a bit. They’ll continue to feed you this false security until you reach a stage where they have you fairly well locked down. This tends to be when you move in together and sets the stage for the next steps. Some abusers also want to get into their partners’ finances, finding a way to justify that it’s the best thing that they share everything, from the house to the credit cards. The tables will shift over time though and soon you’ll realize they’re taking a lot more from this arrangement than you are and you’re suddenly suffering huge deficits.

Progressive Isolation

Over time, abusers gradually cause their partners to isolate themselves from their friends and family. They’ll use many excuses as to why you don’t ‘need them in your life’ or resort to blaming you for choosing friends over them and saying you don’t care enough. They do this because they want to stand unopposed and be the only thing you need and want. Their need to be in control is so great that they will find a way to eliminate anything that dares to threaten their empire. And if they want you in it, you can be sure they’ll want to keep everyone else out. Everything from being told you’re weak for needing friends to you not being yourself around family, will be used to convince you that maybe you don’t need to see your loved ones as often. Once their more aggressive sides start surfacing, abusers will threaten you and make it very clear that you’re in for punishment if you decide to do what you want. Again, most strong-willed people will kick up dirt and say ‘screw you then’ at the first sign of having their arm forced,  but in this case we’re dealing with increasingly submissive partners who are also likely afraid of what awaits them when they get home, if they choose to rebel and go out.

Double Standards

You can be sure that the abuser allows himself/herself a great deal of leeway to do as they please. Without fail, they will be the dominant one in the relationship, on every level. This includes setting extreme rules for their partner to follow, while they entirely defy every notion of fairness. In line with this, abusers typically show none of the characteristics of a person who contributes to a healthy relationship: honesty, trust, compassion, fairness, openness, forgiveness, agreeability, compromise. You will find yourself constantly struggling to keep the peace and not set a foot wrong, while they easily dismiss their own wrong doings, even if those wrong doings are massive and would have any healthy person calling them out on it.

Blame, Distrust and Accusations

Abusers have a habit of seeing fault in everything their partners do. There is no rational logic behind most of it and it tends to be so erratic that, for a while – or sometimes for the entire relationship, their partners don’t know what will set them off. If you find yourself trying to mentally process an argument where you were accused of doing something terrible, but you have this gut feeling that what you did was just something people do and nobody would even notice, chances are they’re messing with your head. Abusers have short fuses and they’re quick to go from neutral to sudden attack, accusing their partners of disloyalty, lying, and cheating, among other things. Every fear and twisted interpretation they have of the world, will be projected onto their partners. Partners will be caught up in terrible phases of guilt, shame and confusion over if they really are that bad and what they can do to make up for what they did wrong. The problem here is that they actually did nothing wrong in the first place, but the negative programming and lack of positive input from others will warp their minds to the point where they begin to question even the most straight-forward things.

The Infinitely Tipping See-Saw

What makes manipulators so good at getting away with the way they treat their partners, is that they pull unexpected ‘saves’ every now and then. They’ll suddenly be in the best mood and become loving and caring, take you out for dinner and compliment you. This propels you right back to where you were emotionally when you first got together, and make you believe that things aren’t really all that bad. Abusers consistently sway between treating you like dirt and treating you like gold, causing even greater confusion about whether something is actually wrong in the relationship or if it’s all in your head. Those brief moments where they are nice to you also induces overwhelming guilt for ever thinking anything bad of them when they suddenly treat you well.

Breaking You Down, Bit By Bit

If someone walked up to you and suddenly insulted you, you’d obviously be offended and either tell them off or walk away. Any respect you have for that person will be tarnished or destroyed and you won’t be all that willing to listen to them the next time. But abusers gradually break you down, so subtly that you don’t even realize it’s happening. They might start off by teasing you about a physical feature or habit, then gradually the teasing and jokes will turn into blatant insults. Whether you’re a bit overweight, have a slightly skew nose, different laugh, they’ll pinpoint it and make sure you know they think it’s terrible. Over time those insults start rolling into full onslaughts of your worth as a person and soon they’ll have you thinking you’re a complete and utter piece of dirt. Later down the line, a partner’s self-esteem is so degraded that they begin to believe their abusers when they’re told they’re worthless and that nobody else would ever want them or find them attractive. The “You’re lucky I put up with you, because nobody else would” card gets pulled often, leaving the partner – who is at that point completely without external, uplifting input – believing all this about themselves and stopping any desire or curiosity about finding something more out there.

Public vs Private Personas

Another aspect that is so hazardous about manipulators and abusers is their ability to seem completely charming and ‘normal’ in public environments. They maintain work life and outside interactions so well that most people never have the slightest suspicion that they’re not actually what they appear to be. This leaves partners feeling extremely isolated and in a state of distress and self-doubt, as they feel they’re the only one seeing and experiencing this dark other side and they have no one to talk to. Most partners of abusers, as I previously mentioned, are soft natured and not the type to be vindictive, so the chances of them lashing out, asking for help or bad mouthing their partner to a friend or colleague is slim to none – especially with the fear they are permanently drowning in that they’d step a foot wrong and face even more punishment. I’ve sat down with former clients and friends who knew my ex and would have to bite my lip as they said, “He seemed like a nice guy.” – completely unaware that he spat venom and wished them all dead behind their backs. Completely oblivious to the fact that he used to slap me moments before others entered a room and would say “Just wait until we get home. Then you’ll see”, demanding I keep a straight face and smile like nothing happened afterwards. Their greatest power is in seeming completely normal and the arrogant conviction that they’ve scared you into submission to the point where you won’t talk to anyone and nobody else would believe you if you ever did.

Guilt and Fear Infusion

One of their favourite weapons in breaking you down is their ability to induce guilt. They’ll wield it in so many ways, each time finding a way to make you feel that you are really being extremely selfish in what you are doing or wanting. Soon you’ll find yourself feeling guilty for just thinking something, as their programming of deprecation and criticism is absorbed and ultimately adopted by you. You’ll feel guilty and scared that you’ll upset them again, which means every waking moment of every day is spent walking on eggshells, praying you do everything just right and that you don’t absentmindedly set off the ever-ticking time bomb.

They’ll make you doubt yourself and everything you think or know.

I’ve heard of several women who, completely cut off from a healthy support structure and stable advice, start questioning not only their worth but also their every action and thought process. Some even go to psychologists in desperation to understand what is wrong with them, because their partners find so many faults in them. The need to understand is so great that you’d rather be diagnosed with a mental disorder and at least know that’s definitely the cause, than to spend your days questioning everything and wishing you knew why your partners treats you the way he does. Abusive partners are very good at making you believe their lies, including their accusations that you’re the one who isn’t right in the head and that they’re perfect and you are ungrateful for everything they do for you. Once they’ve isolated you from your loved ones, they’ll have plenty of room to reprogram you, without any interference – and this is where things become very dangerous.

These are just a few of the main aspects of how abusers interact with their partners. To understand why partners stay, you need to understand how immense the psychological destruction of exposure to an abusive person is. People have quit their jobs, moved schools and changed lifestyles just to get away from someone who belittles and bullies them to the point where they feel they can’t handle it. Now imagine living with someone like this, every day. By the time a woman is so beaten up that someone actually notices something is wrong, she’s so far gone in terms of self-esteem that she honestly does not believe anyone else will help her or love her,  convinced that she doesn’t deserve kindness or love. And sick as it is, if she doesn’t have a very supportive group of friends or family members to help her recover and see things in perspective again, there’s a chance she’ll go back her abusive partner. There’s also the reality that, thanks to the isolation and dependence abusers inflict on their partners, by that stage there won’t be anyone else to turn to. Don’t forget that for many women, they have spent years with their partners and in this time, everything from her financial stability to work and having children could have changed, most likely to the benefit of her partner’s control.

Anyone who exacts harm on other people or living creatures without a thought of compassion has a twisted, damaged heart and mind. You will come across many in life, but you don’t have to become broken because they are.

Of Gut Feelings and That Little Voice

We’ve all heard someone say ‘follow your gut’ or ‘listen to your instincts’. Another variation of that is ‘do what your heart tells you is right’, although that tends to lean more towards emotional openness than self-preservation. Gut instincts have gone from what more than likely kept our ancestors from being eaten alive several times, to now being shrugged off as nothing more than your imagination running away with you, or you telling yourself ‘I’m just being paranoid for nothing’. If things aren’t backed up by cold, hard, in-your-face facts or visual evidence that makes it near impossible to deny the reality, we tend to ignore or play down the feelings that sometimes surface, seemingly from out of nowhere. Some people are more prone to this, maybe because they want more badly to not believe what their gut is telling them. This is often the case with relationships where you get the feeling your partner isn’t being faithful, although you don’t really have any proof of it. Or when you think someone isn’t quite who they say they are but you’re not sure why you’d think that. Time and again, you find these feelings had merit to them, albeit usually much later on.

After several personal experiences, I’ve learned not to ignore that gut feeling under any circumstances. It might be what stands between you being okay or in great harm. I was always intuitive as a kid and have always been very empathetic, and while it served well for being understanding and always looking for the good in people, it also caused me to be blind to the dangers of some. Finally I turned towards a very straight-forward, at-face-level way of dealing with the world and in a sense, I based my choices on my trust in science and facts, objectivity and research. Three years ago I decided to ignore a very strong gut feeling I had the moment I met someone. I just came out of a long-term relationship and the company was welcomed, although the very moment I met this person, I got a strong feeling of panic and distrust. I chose to ignore this and told myself I was being stupid. Three months later I was sitting in a hospital casualty ward, with a broken nose, punched out teeth and a concussion that left me with memory loss and blackouts for the next few months. Which would have been conceivable if I was a cage fighter, but I was a 48kg girl who invested her time and compassion in the wrong person. Listening to my initial sense about this person would have prevented all of this from happening. You’d think that would have been the final blow to my trust in people, but a few months later my compassionate nature got me in trouble yet again, this time ultimately leaving me sitting in about 4 liters of someone else’s blood and wondering how the heck my life got to this point. Aside from a potential post-Apocalyptic world, I didn’t expect quite such a turn of events to happen. (And no, I wasn’t responsible for the bloodshed, relax.)

Yes, these are extreme examples of how things could go wrong but to counter that, by following my gut instincts and choosing some people as friends, speaking at the moment I felt was right or making a move when something just made me feel it was the right time, has brought me tremendous windfalls and personal success as well. There are many stories of how people just got a sudden strong feeling and went with it, resulting in lives being saved or events which seem unlikely, to shift into incredible outcomes. The neuroscience of it all indicates that we learn from every experience we have in life and that, while we have no inkling of just how complex our mind’s processing power is, we’re constantly calculating potential outcomes and alternatives, based on past experience as well as some deeply ingrained genetic programming that links back to our good old fight-or-flight mechanisms. Some would say it’s the grace of God, that whisper in your ear when you least expect it. Others believe it is some form of divine intervention, whatever they choose to believe in. Whatever you choose to believe, I’ve found it’s rarely, if ever wrong. Your gut instinct is strong and tends to surface suddenly and from out of nowhere. Don’t confuse it with paranoia or deep-seated fears surfacing…those tend to have some form of thought process linked to them, you tend to have some form of panicked conversation in your head, indicating you’re trying to process and reason through what’s happening. Gut instincts and feelings initially appear completely independent of your own thoughts, they’re pretty much like the tap on your shoulder you didn’t see coming. What you do with it from there on is your choice.

Why am I telling you all this? Because maybe it will make someone reading it think twice next time they get a sudden bad feeling, or listen when they get an encouraging, good feeling. This is one case where I forfeit logic and reasoning and firmly believe you should just silence your mind and listen for that voice instead. It’s there for a reason.