The pre-abuse phase in a relationship is a time period when warning signs fall under the radar. Here’s what you need to know.
Domestic Violence and the Pre-abuse Phase: Early Days vs. Early Warning Signs
Too often, in the early days of a romantic relationship, magnetism has zero competition from even the most basic routine lifestyle responsibilities. Phone calls with the new boyfriend last into the wee hours of morning. Hanging up the phone feels impossible. Desperately needing sleep, you try to end the call ever so gently and diplomatically at various intervals throughout the conversation. The long-standing workout with your close friend and workout buddy is dropped in a way that feels frantic as last-minute apology texts are sent pleading, “so sorry for the no-show. I’ll make it up to you.” Just a nanosecond after your apology text is sent, the phone rings and your brand-new prince charming chirps, “Good morning.” Then you, feeling like a zombie who is only posing as a grown woman, start leaping around with the cadence of a nervous toddler trying to gather her clothes to save time after her shower. The grown woman reflected in your full-length mirror asks herself, Why didn’t I let the phone go to voicemail or set a boundary the way I did with the other guys I went out with? This woman knew on some level that she was losing ground by losing her own free will. Yet, she also knew that she felt mesmerized by Tim* and she just couldn’t break her steady compliance to him.
Neither gut level warnings, strange public pushing, or even “playful” hair pulling by the new boyfriend will derail a woman’s choice in a partner once she’s allowed compelling chemistry to be the determining factor of the relationship. The compelling factor prevents inserting even the smallest type of boundary. Compulsion for being in a romantic relationship has a parental level of innate loyalty, but is paired with the intoxication of drama laden intimacy. With compelling chemistry in the driver’s seat, the new union moves forward with all the hesitant caution of an express train. Way too often, this relationship train makes its final stop at An Incident of Abuse.
Example – Lanie
Lanie was a nurse practitioner in a private group practice for five years. Life outside of work was spent getting together with friends, visiting family and occasionally doing volunteer work through her church. Dating was mostly with guys she met online. Tim was sitting at the bar of when Lanie, in mid-date, walked by enroute to the ladies’ room. As she passed by the bar again, heading back to her table, she smiled nervously as Tim handed her his business card.
The next day was Sunday. Lanie awoke, took a breath, and sent her first text of the day to Tim. Within minutes, plans were made to meet for a bite that day. The conversation was seamless from the moment they met outside and were seated. By the time their lunch order was taken, Lanie let her hand rest snuggly in Tim’s. She smiled shyly as he told her that she was so special that she had some kind of hold on him, a hold that no one has ever really had. After carefully listening to how Lanie’s family members were all in medicine and how she almost went to art school, Tim spoke about his last engagement and how his then fiancée cheated on him. Tim put his energy into studying and then practicing personal injury law. He said he was due for a blessing and all he needs to be happy is to find his soulmate. And then he gave Lanie their first kiss.
In the Early Pre-Abuse Phase, Others Get Caught up in the Myth
It is so easy for those in the relationship as well as those watching the relationship to miss the early stages of domestic abuse. Co-workers praise the boyfriend’s attentiveness as he drives his new girlfriend to work each day, and makes it a point to learn the names of everyone in the practice. When Tim came to her group practice out of the clear, Lanie was initially worried that something bad had happened. When she heard him say that he just missed her, she paused. Here was this young lawyer, cute, well spoken, who just came to her work to surprise her. Why did she feel angry? Even her overworked team was eager to see her take a break for a few minutes – when none of them took breaks – ever.
Example – Lanie’s Best friend, Mella
Mella listened as Lanie was going into detail about this guy, Tim. It had just been three weeks. From the inception of dating Tim, Lanie was laughing more than usual and almost giddy, back to treating herself to manicures and so happy to have finally met someone she could be close with. Even though Mella and Lanie’s standing weekly phone calls had fizzled, Mella knew they would just catch up eventually. Over Saturday brunch, Mella was prepared for a great story filled with more good news about Tim. She was a bit taken aback when Lanie appeared tired, with dark circles replacing her typical complexion and a black extra-large hoodie replacing her usual fitted long sleeve tee and bright tights. Lanie choked back a tear as she tried to explain that something wasn’t adding up between her and Tim. She felt an unease but couldn’t find the words to describe.
Mella wanted what was best for Lanie. Her nature was to console her friend, but at the same time, she didn’t want her friend to sabotage her own success. She didn’t want to see Lanie, who was like a sister to her, make the same mistakes her own sister made by pushing away her husband and living to regret it every day. She took a careful pause to choose her words carefully.
“It sounds like you’ve met a really great guy but it’s tempting for you to analyze it because of all that you’ve been through previously.” Mella continued over bites at their Friday happy hour, she urged Lanie to give herself a chance to be happy, “Sometimes with human relationships, it’s way too easy to just throw in the towel, Lanie.”
Domestic Violence Relationships Are Different from the Start
Even with external appearances seeming normal at times, domestic abuse relationships have a unique feel, even before there is any incident of indisputable abuse. From the very start of the union, where goodness, connection, interest, steady communication seems to flow steadily and uninterrupted, something feels different. Domestic Violence expert and author Dr. Dina McMillan clarifies the pace and control abusers will take, “They go from not in your life to all over your life.”
Sometimes the strongest visible difference is the guy’s reaction to being told by his partner that there is a change in plans. Whether his voice gets loud and commanding, or slow and menacingly deliberate and whether his physicality gets aggressive and taunting or faint and withdrawn, punishment is taking place. You, the victim, behaved in a way that he didn’t like and now you’re being punished. In order for this punishment to be so precisely dispersed, you have to be conditioned to accept it and react accordingly. Before this system of abuse can be successfully installed, a training has to be introduced to teach the victim to accept the punishment. Learning to accept punishment means accepting abuse. The Grooming Phase of teaching the victim to form a tolerance of abuse is the main objective within the early days of the relationship. This kind of grooming is also known in behavioral psychology as shaping behavior.
The Grooming Phase
Shaping behavior is a process that starts with a precise accounting by the abuser of what will and won’t be tolerated by the victim. The further away the victim’s life has been from previous abuse, the harder and more involved the grooming process. It’s like the abuser is a taxi driver and abuse tolerance is at a street uptown. If his passenger is all the way downtown, then the taxi driver will have to work harder by driving more than if his passenger was in midtown or even already uptown. Sometimes the victim grew up right around the corner from the structure of an abusive relationship. To quote a therapist from Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, “You sometimes have to identify the original abusive relationship that then made the current abusive relationship possible.”
The grooming process takes time. Such careful conditioning is a powerful force because it is paired with intimacy and other bonding moments. The sweetener of the romance masks the insistence of agreement and the bitterness of rage. Over time and with repetition, a habit is formed. The victim may wonder why she is putting up with harsh words and cruel deeds that she never would have put up with years or even just months ago. Who she was before this relationship is not who she is now, just as how one’s body was after doing a triathlon is not how that same body was before all the wear and tear. The athlete becomes depleted, weary, and less prepared to weather new stressors than she was pre-triathlon. However, with adequate rest, time, and nurturing, she will have her endurance level back, along with the earned strength and stamina. Healing from domestic abuse can be like that too. Healing is possible, but first, surviving the real risks requires complete focus. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the most dangerous time for a woman is the first 72 hours following when she leaves the relationship.
Domestic Violence Coverage Targets Abuse and Post-Abuse
It is understandable to zero in on actual physical abuse and its aftermath while skipping over the early pre-abuse phase that preceded the more blatant abuse. Domestic abuse in the later stages tends to be more jarring and undeniable, which then makes abuse easier to acknowledge. When the nuance, uncertainty, and gray areas of the early stages are dominant traits, confusion is dominant and abuse is easier to dismiss.
Even within PSA TV commercials and news reports, people tend to jump to the matter of physical assault within domestic violence and often skip over the pre-violence environments. We overlook the behavioral choices and circumstances that allowed the abuse to develop in the first place.
Self-Protection in the Early Stages of Abuse
When we name a problem, we can begin to construct the solution. The early stages of abuse have predictable problems. Below are a few main problems and solutions that are written for the victim in mind. But first, before the problems and solutions is a description of one of the pitfalls that therapists face. The human, understandable limitations of the therapist are something that the victim will benefit from considering. Nuance and fine lines are so hard to reconcile against one’s own human subjectivity – therapists are only human and so they are not exempt from missing cues and clues without the invaluable ingredient of time.
The Therapist’s Difficult Choice – Gut Instinct vs. Facts
The following situation is a fictionalized merged composite of several clients I have worked with.
It had been a long, tense fifty minutes with the married couple sitting across from me when, at the session’s end, the husband finally uncrossed his arms as the couple stood up. With ballet like precision, the husband picked up his wife’s coat and quickly eyed me before positioning himself and the coat in the direction of his wife’s arm. Somehow this act of kindness felt like pure display.
The wife continued seeing me individually for anxiety. Session time was spent on boundary setting, what being true to yourself meant, and tracking the situations when she felt her anxiety peak. Eventually, after a couple of months of steady sessions, I recommended she request an appointment with the victim advocate at the police department. I’ve found this strategy of referring to the victim advocate helpful for close to twenty years without exception. Clients often like doing their own research and then telling me about what they found out.
Problems and Helpful Situations
The following are three common problems seen during the early stages of an abusive relationship:
Abusive relationships are rarely abusive one hundred percent of the time. Not only does overall mood and temperament of the relationship change, but the persona of the abuser changes too. It’s natural for your conceptualization of your relationship to match what you’re experiencing. When your experiences within the relationship keep switching back and forth like a seesaw, it’s hard to trust your judgement and so your conclusions about the man and the relationship keep going back and forth, making your thoughts feel scrambled.
A helpful solution is to keep a list of good events and bad events, along with dates and times. This data becomes your own reliable point of reference.
Isolation From Friends, Family, and Co-Workers
It is sometimes a battle to get together or even speak with others in your life. While you may not be literally told to stay away from people, your significant other could act in a way that may make seeing people uncomfortable. You’ll want to watch for this, but that can be tough to do in daily life.
A great solution is to keep a written schedule. View this schedule as a promise to yourself and, if possible, create plans way in advance.
Underestimating the Value of Your Own Thoughts
When you start to underestimate the value of your own thoughts, keep a journal and read parts of it aloud to your closest friend or therapist.
Prevention starts with communication with self – an internal dialogue where you ask yourself the necessary questions: What am I feeling? Is there fear? What am I afraid of?
Disclaimer: the subject matter is focused on domestic abuse against women, however domestic abuse towards men does occur.
Pamela J. Garber is a therapist in New York. She has helped many clients develop the strength and skills
to make life-changing decisions and manage anxiety, depression, and stress. Pamela has
been published in trade journals and is recognized for creating and producing an award-winning
program called “Playing the Tape” that is used for relapse prevention. www.grandcentralcounselinggroup.com