Most people you talk with will tell you that relationships are sometimes hard. Naturally, anytime two people get together there can be challenges. Differences of values, cultural norms, opinions all create points of tension. That’s normal. In non-abusive relationships, couple’s work through challenges with concentrated effort. In abusive relationships, challenges have a way of sticking around – they don’t get talked about and ultimately create a set of unspoken norms.
Once relationship challenges get hidden into a couple’s behavioral norms, it can be even more difficult to see the signs of abuse.
Growing up, I was taught to believe that abuse only occurred when people got physical with each other, grabbing someone tightly, slapping or hitting. That belief was erroneous. Turns out that there are a multitude of behaviors that occur long before physical violence ever happens. As a matter of fact, in some relationships, the only abuse is emotional abuse. The scary thing about emotional abuse is that it is hidden, invisible to people outside of the relationship. Often it’s hidden inside the relationship too - simply because of a lack of awareness.
What we know for sure, is that there is a honeymoon phase in abusive relationships. And things that start off feeling warm and fuzzy inside can turn on a dime and become controlling, intimidating and minimizing.
Here are some subtle signs that your dream relationship might be abusive:
Knowing the Favorites
This person quickly learns all your favorite things. This can be incredibly enticing when you begin a relationship. It starts out with your favorite cup of coffee or favorite food. It feels amazing that after just a couple of dates, this person is thoughtful enough to bring you one of your favorite beverages or morning treats without you having to ask. It can make you feel truly cared for and loved.
Over time their knowledge of your favorites grows. They come to learn the types of clothes you like, your favorite color and even all your dislikes. Soon you don’t even have to ask for what you want because this person already knows. In public or at parties you may even receive compliments. “Oh you are so lucky to be with this person” or “they always knows what to order for you”. Perhaps you’re the one sharing the compliments about the person because it feels so darn good to be with someone who really gets you.
Gradually you’ll stop even thinking about what you might like or need because this person is one step ahead of you taking care of it for you both. This person is especially great at bringing you one of your favorite things after they’ve behaved badly. For example, one day my abuser told me how much he hated me. The very next day he surprised me with my favorite coffee house beverage. While it comes across as sweet and generous, this is not always kindness. Knowing and delivering your favorite things can be a controlling act especially when it prevents you from thinking clearly about your own wants and needs.
Ask yourself, when was the last time you thought about what you wanted?
Here’s what to look for:
- Not having a chance to think for yourself because this person already thought of what you needed
- Being offered a favorite thing after a tense moment instead of an apology or acknowledgement of error or wrongdoing
- Feeling as if (or being told that) this person knows you better than you know yourself
Lighthearted Put Downs
This person can redirect your behavior with one look. In the beginning this can create an amazing sense of connectedness. It can be so rewarding when this person can look over at you and with a raise of an eyebrow or a smirk you know what their thinking. You feel a shared bond, like you each know a secret that no one else knows.
It almost always begins with fun and lighthearted situations. For example, while watching a movie something funny might happen and this person will get your attention and offer a look to call your attention to the joke. Once you begin to learn what each look means, it can feel really satisfying. You can communicate with this person and don’t even have to talk. This is exactly what the intimidating person wants - someone who can pay attention to their needs without them having to ask.
Eventually the looks and gestures become used for redirecting your behaviors. Their goal is to throw a look or gesture, and have you attend to their needs immediately. By example, my abuser had a specific look he would throw at parties. The side head tilt raised brow meant it was time to go home. Our unspoken norm was that I would take the lead on communicating the exit and he never had to say a word. This made him look good in front of his friends and deflected the reason for departure onto me.
Ask yourself what might happen if you didn’t respond to a look or a gesture?
What to watch for:
- Frequently anticipating this person’s reaction to situations
- Feeling this person’s upset with you and immediately adjusting your behavior
- Doing everything possible to prevent the escalation of an upset after look/gesture has been given
Accomplishments or Not
This is when this person takes something important to you, or others, and makes light of it. This person may even use humor to deflect attention away from the seriousness of the subject and/or avoid the deeper topic altogether. Minimizing can happen under any topic or condition. Whether you are talking about the kids, your friends, your work, or a special project this person will find a way to minimize it.
In my case, my abuser would often mock my work by saying things like, “someone asked me what you do, I don’t even know how to answer him”. The minimization isn’t just verbal, however. It can also be in actions. For example, you may have spent the entire day cleaning the home in preparation for a party and this person will act as if your effort is no big deal or redirect the conversation to what they did that day.
Minimization is not always one sided either, it is not just the person minimizing you. It can be you minimizing yourself. The person, for example, may expect you to minimize your accomplishments and aggrandize their efforts, especially in public. This person may sincerely appreciate and seek out public praise and the expectation is that you will indeed be praising them too.
Ask yourself, when was the last time you boldy celebrated your accomplishments?
What to watch for:
- Completing special projects and tasks and having them go unnoticed or observed but unacknowledged
- Being made fun of for things that are important to you
- Minimizing your own successes so this person can feel better about themselves
In each of the situations presented in this article, the abuser’s goal is to always look good in front of family and friends. Controlling, intimidating and minimizing behaviors are sometimes considered subtle signs of abuse because to observers these behaviors may appear sweet and kind. And, while it is true that someone buying you a favorite flower or sharing a secret look with you can be loving and kind. It can also be a form of abuse when used to control/redirect your behavior or leave you feeling silly or inferior.
The best way to keep your dream relationship from turning into a nightmare is through awareness. If you know what is happening, you can break free from the unspoken norms. Stay alert and check-in with yourself regularly.
If any of these subtle signs resonate with you, take time to read more about Duluth Power and Control wheel and learn more about the many acts of abuse that happen long before physical violence.