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Unmasking the Abuser

Commentary on Dina McMillan and How To Prevent Abuse & Domestic Violence

Being the parent of a teen daughter, and having just finished a domestic abuse advocate a certification course, I keep thinking about what I can do for my kids to make sure that they don’t end up in the same situation I was in – being married to an abusive partner.

How did I, a smart, educated and competent woman, end up in something so outrageous? It was my sister who first said, “Lisa, you have been in an abusive relationship,” when I finally extracted myself after eighteen years, and my reaction was nothing short of shock.

There is an excellent comparison to the psyche of an abuse victim called the Frog in the Pot, credited to Elin Stebbins Waldal, a survivor of teen dating violence. It basically says that if you put a frog in a pan of boiling water, it will immediately jump out. But, if you put the frog in tepid water, it won’t. And as you slowly increase the heat, the frog won’t notice it.

As the temperature rises little by little, the frog is slowly cooking, getting hurt, but able to tolerate. As the changes has been minimal and over time, the frog had not realized when the water actual began to boil. This is often how it is with abuse, and why psychological and emotional abuse can be much harder to recognize than physical abuse.

Yesterday, I stumbled on an amazing Ted Talk by Dina McMillan, a social psychologist, called “Unmasking the Abuser” published on March 11, 2016, which talked about how abusers are able to manipulate their victims and some easy ways to spot an abuser and hopefully avoid getting stuck in his or her trap.

Ms. McMillan worked in domestic violence for over 20 years. She not only interviewed thousands of victims, but also was able to openly speak with abusers, who revealed a lot.

One thing every abuser has in common is that he has no guilt, and feels entitled to a relationship which is unbalanced and all in his favor. The partner is just an object, not something to be respected or treated fairly. Abusers have no empathy, compassion, or accountability, and feel that no matter what they do, no matter how awful, the partner just needs to accept it.

Abusers are incredibly good at lying, especially to outsiders. To others, they will often look sorry, swear innocence, and make all kinds of excuses to change and “never do it again.” Therapy never works in these situations.

Sometimes, an abuser will say something like, “I know I’m hard to live with, but…” and list a bunch of wonderful things she has recently done for her partner. McMillan noted that abusers were actually quite proud of themselves in their ability to manipulate and fool others, especially in law enforcement.

Abusers look for partners who will really care for them. They put an effort into romantic relationships, because they don’t like being single. Often, they will be involved with more than one person at a time. In the area of narcissism, this is often referred to as “supply.” My ex told me at the very beginning that he was a “serial dater” and used this fact to make me feel special. He confessed that he went through about four women at a time, and was easily bored, but I kept his attention.

At the very beginning of an abusive relationship, there is a predictable cycle, and it begins with what is called “grooming.” McMillan defines grooming as saying and doing things to lure someone in. An abuser will do whatever is necessary to inspire another person’s trust, which leads to a more intense emotional attachment, and naturally increases the abuser’s control.

Grooming is a type of power technique known as psychological manipulation, which involves lying, deceiving, and performing in order to influence how someone thinks, feels, and acts. It’s very effective because it works on not the conscious or subconscious, but an emotional level. Advertisers use this quite often.

In order for this to work, your mind has to view the other as a “legitimate authority.” My ex was seven years older, an avid reader, and very intellectual. He always presented himself as being much smarter than others, and taught me to respect his judgment from the beginning. In this way, he was able to convince me in many arguments that he was the more level-headed,, and that became his regular role in our relationship, which of course gave him the upper hand.

An abuser gets control by making a lot of small decisions and getting you to agree, such as where and when to meet, where to sit, and those sort of innocuous things. You will of course let him decide because you want him to like you and think you’re relaxed. These sorts of choices seem innocent. The problem is that your brain quickly adapts, and in a short time, when given orders, you begin to obey without question. This may seem unbelievable, but think of the statistics: one in every four women is the victim of domestic abuse. And men, though the numbers are not as high, are also frequent victims of psychological maneuvering.

An abuser needs you to trust, fall in love with, and plan a future with him.

In the beginning, during the grooming stage, she will also try to “marathon” you, McMillan says. She wants you to spend as much time focusing on her as possible, and this includes convincing you to stay out longer with her, even late into the night. There are lots of phone calls and texts. Abusers have a tendency to fixate, and they know that all of this continued contact creates a false sense of intimacy.

You quickly feel like you know her well, and for a long time. So you let your guard down, and immediately trust her. Especially late at night, you will confess things that you might not have revealed otherwise, because you are fatigued.

A common way an abuser can get under your skin is the “you and me against the world” sense. He’ll swear that he’s revealing things to you that are secret and special. He’ll claim he’s never done this before with anyone. This is not true. But you will probably believe it. Then he’ll demand you share your secrets with him. WARNING: Sharing your secrets will not just bind you to the abuser, it will give him the ability to control you.

An abuser will persuade you that she’s the only one that really gets you. Sound familiar?

Even in the early days, the abuser wants things done her way, If you don’t share her views or opinions on anything, first she’ll to try to change your mind. It may seem casual enough, but there is actually a fury just beneath the surface. She’ll try to lower your confidence so you’re easier to manipulate, drawing attention to your every flaw or mistake, and will make comments or jokes that embarrass you. She will do things that make you feel dumb, unattractive, naive, and self-conscious.

Most people begin to pull away at this point. It is then that the abuser will treat you like you are special again. This combination of nice and nasty is what McMillan calls the “push-pull.” She claims that this back and forth actually creates a stronger bond than if the person were just nice all the time.

So, how does one spot an abuser? How can my children avoid these monsters?

McMillan has three specific things to look out for:

  • Too much – In the beginning, there are too many compliments, too many gifts, too much togetherness, too many promises, and too much talk about the future. He goes from not in your life, to being involved in everything in your life right away. You are joined at the hip, and he wants you to go everywhere together, contacts you constantly, and expects immediate responses. He wants you to focus on him and prioritize his needs over everyone else’s, including your own.
  • Too soon – From the very beginning, and without your explicit consent, he calls you his girlfriend or his future wife. Or, he claims, “you’re mine now.” He makes big plans for the two of you, though you don’t even know each other well yet. This is very flattering, but is a major red flag.
  • Transforming – The abuser starts trying to change you by giving unsolicited advice, commenting on your tastes, beliefs, career, and/or personal style. A common phrase is, “You know what you need to do…”

Abuse thrives on isolation. A hyper-jealous abuser wants you all to himself. What he hates most is people interfering. He will try to ruin your relationships with everyone else, criticize your loved ones, and start questioning their motives. My ex had a fit one year at my aunt’s house on Thanksgiving because there was no pumpkin pie. He claimed she was un-American, a terrible hostess, and said he would never get together for a holiday again at her house, and neither should our entire family!

Remember, abusers don’t believe you have the right to refuse anything. You are an object to her, and she will try every trick in the book to stay in your life, including bribing you to making you feel like a bad person for not allowing her to do what she wants. An abuser knows that if she can stick around, you will probably eventually do what she wants.

A lot of people, especially women, have a hard time saying no. We want to be liked. We don’t want to hurt his feelings. We feel sorry for him. Or, we may just be afraid of his anger. Friends and family can be a problem because they may say he deserves another chance.

It can be extraordinarily difficult to take action. McMillan claims that the first thing anyone needs to do is acknowledge the power another may have over you, and try to stay strong. You have to be able to stand up to the pressure. Keep in the front of your mind that this person is ultimately trying to ruin your life. Your only protection and defense is to get away. But even better: never allow this person into your life in the first place.

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