Katherine (pseudonym) sits before me, meticulously dressed and exuding confidence. She makes great eye contact, and within minutes of our meeting, she has informed me of her high-powered position at one of the top law firms in the city. She is assertive in her responses, and I am left without any question that this woman is brilliant.
As our session unfolds, I find out that Katherine has come to see me after having left her husband following years of abuse and deceitful manipulations. As she described the last incident — how he pinned her against the wall, almost choking her, and then threw her across the room — I can hardly believe that this self-assured, outspoken and composed woman in front of me has been the victim of abuse.
After years of listening to clients share their stories about how they have endured aggressive and controlling relationships, it occurred to me that we’ve got to throw out our misconceptions of abuse and start paying attention to the reality of abusive patterns.
Most important, abuse is not just physical violence. Although physical and verbal abuse are usually the easiest to recognize, psychological and emotional abuse are more destructive to a person’s psyche, physical health and mental health. Psychological and emotional abuse mostly go unrecognized because the person is left without visible bruises. There are many abused people who have never been harmed physically, which leaves them to question themselves rather than identifying the abusive dynamic in their relationship.
And it’s not simply the insecure, meek woman who finds herself in the throes of an abusive relationship. It’s the woman who graduates with distinction from her Ivy League school or the selfless housewife who dedicates her life to her children. It’s the male executive who is ashamed to admit that his wife physically attacks him.
There is no way of telling if the person sitting next to you is being severely mistreated and manipulated by their partner. There are, however, some defining characteristics that make a person more vulnerable to being abused. It is important for people to know what personality traits make them more susceptible to being manipulated and abused so that they can begin to protect themselves.
Are you naive or inexperienced in relationships?
People who have not dated much or who have not had many romantic partners are more likely to end up in a controlling relationship simply because they don’t have other relationships with which to compare. They believe that what they are experiencing in their relationship is normal even if it doesn’t feel right.
The widely believed notion that only people who grew up in abusive families seek what is familiar and tend to end up with abusive partners gives many a false sense of security. Those who have not grown up in an abusive home think they will be equipped to know what to look out for in a partner. Although people from abusive homes are more likely to overlook abusive behavior in their partners, this is only part of the story — a very small part that has left many people falling unsuspectingly into the hands of abusive partners.
Because abuse occurs gradually, many people find themselves committed to their partners before they even have an inkling that something is amiss. Therefore, it is critical not only to know the early warning signs of an aggressive or controlling relationship but also to know how to protect yourself if you find that you fit the profile of someone who is at a higher risk for being abused.
Are you overly responsible?
People who take on more than their fair share of responsibility — be it bearing the brunt of financial burden, investing more in the family or carrying the emotional weight in the relationship — tend to be more likely to end up with partners who exploit their sense of responsibility and work ethic. It is not uncommon for one person to find that they’re doing most of the heavy lifting in the relationship while their partner sits back and watches, completely unconcerned.
In addition, those who tend to apologize even when they haven’t done something out of line are, in fact, taking responsibility for whatever mishap has taken place. While it is admirable to have the humility to apologize and “own up” if you’ve done something wrong, it makes it easier for an abuser to take advantage of you if you constantly apologize when you haven’t done anything wrong. So if you tend to be the overly responsible type, both in practice and emotionally, be sure to find a partner who contributes equally to the relationship.
Are you highly empathetic?
Highly empathetic people are more likely to fall for someone who plays the role of the victim, a common personality trait in most abusers. A person with a great deal of empathy accepts when their partner tells them that past childhood trauma is the reason for the abuse and that they simply can’t help it. The highly empathetic person is also more likely to cave after standing up for themselves when an abuser cries, apologizes, begs them not to leave or promises that “it won’t happen again.”
A person’s greatest strength can also be their greatest weakness, and this is certainly the case with empathy. If you’re an empathetic person, be aware that abusers know they can appeal to your empathy and compassion to get what they want. You must learn to protect yourself from being manipulated by someone who does not have your best interest at heart. Focus on relationships with people who do not exploit your empathy or coerce you into tolerating behavior that you should not have to withstand.
Do you avoid conflict at all costs?
Those who suppress their feelings to prevent others from getting mad at them are more likely to end up being abused. People who avoid conflict experience extreme discomfort if they believe that someone is mad at them. Their fear of disapproval or discord leads them to give up their need so as to avoid confrontation at all costs. These people, who typically describe themselves as peacekeepers, are far more likely to end up with an abuser because they are an easy target.
The conflict-avoidant person takes pride and feels settled when harmony is restored, so they work harder and harder to keep the abuser happy. The problem is that no matter how hard they work in their relationship, they alone cannot change the dynamic. Far more likely, they will completely lose their sense of self in the process of trying to change the relationship, eventually succumbing to keep harmony in the relationship.
Although there are tremendous benefits to being a peacekeeper, the problem arises when you completely sacrifice yourself to keep your partner happy. It is important to practice asserting yourself and your needs and to have a partner who allows you to do so without punishment.
Trust your intuition
I encourage people to trust their intuition if something doesn’t feel right in their relationship. Far too many people suffer in silence because they are embarrassed to admit that they have ended up in an unhealthy relationship or that the cost of getting out of the relationship seems too great.
Remember, abuse is gradual, which makes it even more difficult to see objectively. People try to convince themselves that if they could just get the relationship back to what it was, everything would be all right. But it will not be because abuse escalates over time.
In the case of Katherine, her personal life now matches her professional one. It wasn’t an easy journey, but she has learned to recognize the early warning signs of an abuser, to speak up for herself and to not excuse bad behavior. Her life now is filled with people she respects and who respect her in return. And she has the freedom to make her own choices — without fear.
Avery Neal holds a doctorate in psychology and is a licensed professional counselor, a practicing psychotherapist, and an international author and speaker. In 2012, she opened the Women’s Therapy Clinic, which offers psychiatric and counseling support to women. She is also the author of If He’s So Great, Why Do I Feel So Bad?: Recognizing and Overcoming Subtle Abuse, which has been translated and published in 12 languages. Contact her through her website at averyneal.com.
Read more about how counselors can recognize and treat psychological abuse in Avery Neal’s article “Identifying psychological abuse” in the February issue of Counseling Today.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.