Dating Red Flags: Recognizing the Potential Abuser

My Dating Red Flags series of the past few weeks was aimed at showing people the often subtle warning signs of an abusive relationship using my experience. While I didn’t face any physical violence outside of unwanted groping and gripping, I still consider what I experienced to be abuse on the mental level. The blogs I wrote were primarily aimed at warning signs for girls, but that has me wondering, what about the boys?

You know what, that’s not right either. My piece doesn’t have to be taken in a heteronormitive fashion. Maybe my experiences can provides lessons and warning signs for everyone. Gender doesn’t matter when it comes to red flags. Men and women can both be victims of domestic violence and said violence can be perpetrated by men or women. As such, my real question has nothing to do with boys. What I want to address is the aggressor. It’s common to tell people all the things they should avoid in a relationship, but is anyone asking people to look and address signs of romantic aggression in themselves?

At the end of my Aftermath post, I asked what parents would do if they suspected their  child was the perpetrator in an abusive relationship. How is a situation like that to be addressed? It might be their child thinks their actions are normal. They might not recognize their actions as abusive. It’s then the responsibility of parents to step in, making sure their child knows right from wrong when it comes to how they treat a significant other.

Here’s a mildly terrifying story.

There was a day years ago in my grandparents house. My parents, myself and my boyfriend were all visiting. When it was time to leave, my boyfriend and I walked into a doorway leading to the living room to get our shoes. Passing through the doorway, my boyfriend said, “SPIDER!” and, in what seems like seconds, reached up at something and threw it at me. Out of seemingly pure instinct, I let out a surprised yelp and slapped his hand away (I think. I’m pretty sure my eyes were closed). The next second, I realized he had been joking and rounded on him. I’m not a yeller, but I pushed him and told him sternly how little I appreciated the joke.

In the next moment, I caught the shortest glimpse of my parents in the room we had just left, looking at the small scene. I immediately felt chagrin at my actions. Sure, my boyfriend’s actions were that of an immature college student. He shouldn’t have done what he did, but it was at least equally inappropriate and immature for me to react violently.

In that moment, I recognized the warning signs in myself. There were things that made me angry and there were things that scared me. If my gut reaction to those emotions was violence, my relationship was going to be more tumultuous than it needed to be.

This photo, “what now?” is copyright (c) 2014 Kiran Foster and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license
This photo, “what now?” is copyright (c) 2014 Kiran Foster and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license

I thought this even though no one ever explicitly told me it was inappropriate to hit a significant other. I suppose being told not to hit in general when I was three should have done the trick. When you are scared or angry, logic can sometimes leave you. That is not an excuse, but it is something to notice. Those emotions are related to insecurities and the feeling of losing control. When they are dealt with through violent outbursts, not matter how small, they become a sign and a red flag that you are at risk, not of abuse, but of being the abuser.

My boyfriend and I have both matured beyond those days, but that one event still haunts me a bit. It was so simple and so pitiful that many would probably think my actions don’t count as violence. My slap at his hands, eyes closed or otherwise, was just a reaction to fear. My push was just a reaction to anger and frustration. They’re all reasonable, right? Besides, how could tiny TK harm her tall, strong boyfriend?

Violence is never the answer, even when the person being violent doesn’t stand a chance in a fight. I feel we need to start talking about warning signs on both sides of domestic violence.

Maybe the message we get at three years old needs to be repeated a bit. Don’t hit people. Don’t put people down. Don’t lie. Don’t act aggressively towards other to get your way. Don’t manipulate people. These are behaviors which can escalate and lead to becoming the abuser in a relationship. Is there some message like that we can send?

It’s kind of like the issue of rape. Far more effort goes into telling people how to avoid being raped then goes into telling people not to rape. In the same way, there are a lot of tips aimed at recognizing yourself as the potential victim in an abusive relationship, but not recognizing yourself as the potential abuser. Perhaps a potential abuser could catch themselves in time, before they develop bad habits. Maybe the tips could offer advice, such as calming techniques, so they can be proactive and never let their fear or anger turn them against those they love.

Do you think there is any value in telling people how to recognize the signs of a potential abuser in themselves? Can a person who sees the red flags in themselves take action to avoid ever becoming an abuser? What sort of advice would you recommend to someone who sees the potential in themselves to act upon their insecurities in a violent way? Lastly, I’ll ask one more time; what would you do if you thought your child was the abuser in an abusive relationship?


27 thoughts on “Dating Red Flags: Recognizing the Potential Abuser”

  1. I think there’s definitely value in educating people to recognize their own potential as an abuser. I wonder though, who the appropriate person is to convey the message. True abusers often learn their behavior at home, and home life is such a strong influence.

    1. I don’t know if it will ever be completely possible to erase bad habits learned at home, but I honestly think there should be a class in middle school or high school on stuff like this. What is and isn’t abuse (especially mental abuse, which can be harder to notice)? What are the laws governing domestic disputes? Those questions are up there with what is and isn’t rape? What is and isn’t virginity? Few people actually answer these questions in middle school or high school. While the answers may seem obvious, I don’t think they are for teenagers. Imagine a 14-year-old, listening to music and watching movies about getting women drunk in order to have sex with them. S/he may think this is the way to get laid. Setting aside what is actually right or wrong. That person deserves to know that, according to the law, a drunk person cannot consent to sex.

      To me, this all relates to domestic violence. I’m not sure what the stats are for men, but for women, they are most likely to be seriously harmed or killed at the hands of a lover between the ages of 14-24. If it were up to me, I’d want to have this kind of class aimed at 13 and 14 year olds, just before they enter that dangerous period in their lives. People need to be educated so they know how to act and avoid being the abuser or the abused.

      1. I think the class that you mention sounds perfect. I had a class called Adult Roles and Functions in high school. It highlighted major life events, but it neglected to discuss abuse, I think a course aimed at 13 and 14 year-olds would be brilliant. Maybe 12 year olds would benefit, too.

  2. Hi TK, I get your message about having control over ones anger and its importance in relationship . However,regarding the spider incident,I think it was an involuntary, reflex action given your fear of spiders. Aren’t you being too tough on yourself ?

    1. Well, I don’t know. I just remember reacting and then feeling terrible about my reaction. I don’t really know what sort of signs a person might see in themselves that alerts them to a potential anger issue.

  3. Reblogged this on Jennifer Austin – Author and commented:
    I was just going to comment on this post by TK regarding the potential signs of an abuser, but I had so much to say I decided to reblog and post my comment here. It might be helpful to read her blog post first, then my comment, but do as you wish!

    Reading this brought a lot of ideas to my head, so I apologize if this is a very chaotic. I’ll try to be concise, but if you read my blog, you know I’m not! 🙂

    A few years ago my little sister, who is a reporter for a local news station, interviewed an old crush of mine for a feel good story. When I say old, I’m talking like from the time we could walk until about 4th grade. So, you know, we’re talking some pretty serious stuff here. Well, off camera, he mentioned to my sister that I was the first girl he saw naked. Let’s be very clear here: I remember none of this! And if it happened (and that’s a big if) it must have been when we were very little so really, he saw nothing!

    But it brought to mind another incident when I was little that I do remember. We were visiting a family friend who had a son my age. He locked me in a room in the basement and wouldn’t let me out until I flashed him my chest. Once again, my memory is fuzzy. I remember the incident, but not whether I actually went through with it. Regardless, we were like four, so no real harm done.

    Except there was. It was my first experience with males demonstrating abusive behavior. I know, he was four, but still. The humiliating feeling of being forced to become an object of ogling and treated like a thing as opposed to a person was somewhat devastating. After all, I still remember it a good 34 years later. I haven’t encountered much in the way of abusive men since then. I’ve been lucky. Many girls have not been. And men too.

    In TK’s post she asks what you would do if you suspected your child was the abuser in a relationship, and I think it’s a great question. Thinking about that humiliating experience I had as a child, my sons would be in serious trouble if I ever found them behaving in such a way. For that matter, whenever I hear a song or see a demonstration of inappropriate behavior to a female in movies, I’m sure to talk to my sons about it. Sometimes combining that with threats of dire retribution should I ever discover them treating another person with such disrespect. So I guess I would say I would definitely approach my children if I felt they were exhibiting abusive behavior, or even warning signs of said behavior. Relationships take respect, and if your being abusive, even minorly abusive, it shows you don’t respect your partner.

    Case in point, my ex-husband and I showed disrespect to one another on a daily basis. Obviously, since we’re divorced, it wasn’t a healthy relationship, and it went both ways, but I’m going to highlight a particular story.

    We were having a party with all our friends (we were in our early twenties) and a particular friend of his invited someone I really didn’t want there. When I politely asked this friend not to bring her (there’s a whole story behind this I won’t go into) he refused. I was so angry. He shouldn’t bring people to my house when I specifically asked him not to, but instead of taking my side, my husband took his friend’s. This was a pattern of behavior in which he always put his friends first, but it culminated this time in a heated argument in front of everyone. Then I really lost my temper and punched my husband in the face. I am so not proud of this, and though it didn’t make a huge dent in my psyche at the time, I later began to recognize that my behavior was abusive. What was he going to do? If he hit me, he’d be the abuser and no one would think twice about what I had done.

    So yes, in response to more of TK’s post, females can abuse just as men can. It is important for all of us, male and female, to recognize warning signs of abusive behavior in ourselves, our partner and even our children. Respect is key. Respecting those we love: husband, wife, children, friends, is imperative to giving them the love they deserve. And you certainly can’t expect them to respect you, if you don’t respect them. It has to start somewhere, so let it start with you.

    1. Your first story reminds me of some of my early memories. I don’t have anything like that, but I have some memories that are fuzzy. It’s like I remember the emotion but not the exact event that went with it.

      Recent studies I’ve read about indicate that many more men than previously thought may be victims of domestic violence. It’s a hard number to pin down because fewer men than women will report their abuser (due to shame related to societal expectations of masculinity). It is also less likely, I believe, for female abusers to use potentially fatal methods. We really need to get away from the idea that domestic abuse, rape and other issues related to relationships are gendered. Which gender is statistically more likely to be an abuser or a victim doesn’t matter. Anyone of any gender or sexuality can be either.

      It’s time we stop playing games with each other and make sure respect is at the heart of every relationship, no matter the persons age, gender or sexuality.

  4. I think there’s a lot of value in being able to really look in the mirror, see what’s wrong with oneself, and at least try to take steps to fix it. Self-control is really a very under-appreciated virtue, in my experience.

    I don’t know how typical this is, but several years ago I was in a relationship where I tried to tell the guy a few things he really should fix. For example, when you write emails to people, use proper capitalization, punctuation, and sentence structure; otherwise they won’t take you seriously. Obvious, right? No. He dug in his heels – “This is ME. This is how I do things.” He legitimately saw improving himself as an assault on his individuality. And I couldn’t work with that for very long.

    I wonder how widespread that attitude is – it seems to be the unfortunate downside of the unqualified “you are special just the way you are” that we drill into kids.

    With my kids I hope I am giving them the message that “you are special just the way you are BUT it is YOUR responsibility to reach your full potential.”

    1. I think the right message is “you are special just the way you are, so be the best you you can be.”

      The email issues doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but I can see how it might be an indicator for how he lived his life. For me, part of the fun of relationship is watching a person grow into the best person they can be an helping them along the way. I wouldn’t be happy in a relationship with someone who always stayed the same.

      1. The email was just the first example off the top of my head. And this particular email conversation was at least partially responsible for us not being able to get our children into one of the better area schools, so communication does have consequences.

        He also thought that he was entitled to not work on his anger issues or his laziness (the dog peed on the carpet and he waited for me to come home from work to clean it up), or certain irrational hangups that he had – he was fully aware that he had these hangups but in his words “that’s just the way I am.”

  5. I think your response to the incident you describe was probably reflex and instinctive rather than any sort of indication that you were potentially aggressive in your relationship. However, I definitely agree that there is merit in teaching people to recognise signs of abusive or aggressive or violent tendencies in themselves. I definitely believe that preventation is a better investment than remedying a situation after the fact and self-awareness, developing self-control and modifying responses to known triggers would all be part of preventative action.

    1. I’m not sure my action said I would potentially be aggressive. I shared that to show how I realized, almost immediately, that the action I had taken was childish and wrong. I think everyone should be able to recognize those traits in themselves, examine them, and make sure they treat their loved ones with the respect they deserve, If we can’t count on families to teach their children how to be respectful, then a classroom is the last defense.

  6. I think this is very needed. I think it’s a serious problem for victims that advocacy groups tend to paint abusers as all evil sociopaths. Victims know this often is not true of their abuser, and so they think their abuser must not actually be being abusive. We should instead recognize that people abuse usually because they have been taught or have somehow gained poor and selfish coping skills and do not prioritize other’s rights over their wants. Teaching people how to not abuse and how to recognize abuse in general would help those that do not yet have abusive habits solidified or maybe they do, and are willing to change, but may not even know what the problem is. It’s not saying anyone should stay to help an abuser get better. It’s just putting the responsibility on the abuser to change themselves.

    And it paints a more realistic version of abuse for victims to identify with. Abuse can be perpetrated by an evil sociopath, or all the way to the other end of the spectrum of small abuse acts from someone with poor coping skills. The abuse is wrong in all those cases, but I think victims would be less confused by the whole “x is sometimes horrible but sometimes nice” if we talked about abuse as something that is unacceptable and perpetrated by many people for many reasons to many varying extents and that perpetrators are not necessarily sociopathic monsters with no capacity to act nice and mean it. This is why I often downplayed abuse with my ex; I knew he could be awful and on purpose, but I also knew he could be good and it wasn’t fake. This did not fit with what activist groups said about abusers, and so I had trouble seeing it as abuse.

    So I completely agree we need to talk about this more, both for the sake of lowering abusive behavior by abusers who may have been taught wrong/developed bad behaviors from their own struggles and may stop abusing if we make them aware of how to stop, and for validating the real experiences of many victims where they know their abuser can be both loving and abusive. This always needs to be qualified with “you have every right to leave abusive behavior and there’s no excuse for it ever”, and emphasis needs to be made on that abuse is a pattern of control more than a one time act of anger (which I’d say is why I doubt you were really being abusive, abuse is about finding ways to control another whether consciously or not rather than a one time loss of temper/lashing out without thinking in fear, I.e. I doubt this made your bf afraid of you or was done to control him), but as long as those things are talked about, I think addressing how not to abuse is very necessary and could really lower abuse and help validate victims.

    1. I too questioned whether my relationship with Zachery was abusive. He never did anything until prom night that seemed to horrible. I felt like I was complaining about being loved or something. Only later did I admit to myself that was a mentally abusive relationship for me that had the potential to go physical. It has only been recently that I’ve been able to tell other people that because I fear they’ll hear my story and not think it’s abusive. Then they’ll attack me for spreading lies. The thing is, I’m not angry with Zachery. He does not have to pay for anything he did to me. He was just another confused, teenage boy who didn’t understand how to get what he wanted from a relationship and be respectful in the process.

      I hate the idea that we can only do something about abuse before it happens. We need to do more than tell people not to let themselves be abused, we need to define what it means to abuse and push people away from that path.

    1. I think it can be hard. When I was in high school, Twilight was the romance of the day. It wasn’t until I was older that I noticed how abusive some of the aspects of Bella and Edward’s relationship. Especially at 16, it’s hard to complain about a boyfriend or girlfriend liking you too much. Unfortunately, obsession is not the same as love, although the two are often confused.

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