Since being active in the survivor realm I have spoken to hundreds of brave survivors who fearlessly shared their stories with others. These women and men shared their stories not only to empower themselves but to warn others. Many of these survivors barely made it out alive.
I write this article on International Women’s Day as we still live in a reality where one Australian women is killed each week. The greatest gift we can give to womankind is to be aware of abuse as a society. Let it become as unacceptable as smoking has become in the last 20 years. No longer is the excuse of ‘boys will be boys’ to be tolerated. Let’s call out abusive behaviours early. Let’s educate our boys and girls in regards to what these look like.
Survivors often say they never saw it coming. They met their abuser and felt like they were in a fairytale. They seemed to have finally met the man or woman of their dreams. So how can a fairytale turn out to be so wrong?
Abuse is complex and every situation is unique, yet there are elements which I keep hearing again and again. I’ve broken these down in to three sections — what might happening to around you (environmental), behaviours you may see in your partner and how you may feel. While abuse doesn’t need to come from a partner to be considered domestic violence, I will focus on this type of abuse for now.
What Might Be Happening Around You
- Whirlwhind Romance
When it comes to spotting an abusive partner — this one is the holy grail. Abusers who move from victim to victim, need to find their new supply quickly and break down barriers fast. They may have been in your life for years but the minute the romance begins things start to move at warp speed. The faster the process, the less likely you are able to see who they really are.
“I met Eric after a devastating break-up. It was a whirlwind and within 2 weeks we were engaged. 6 months later we were married. It was after our wedding that the mask dropped and the nightmare began.” Monica shared. “In hindsight I realise he was love-bombing me, and setting the scene for his control and abuse. But I never saw it coming and continued to be in utter disbelief and shock as the mask came off, paralysing my reactions.”
So if someone is moving at light speed, ask yourself why? What is the rush? Why can’t you take time to get to know each other?
2. Your Boundaries Are Being Eroded
Boundaries are healthy and instrumental to self-care. Abusers will disrespect and bulldoze your boundaries early on. This will be subtle at first. You may ask them not to stay the night, or leave things at your house, and they ignore this.
You may want to take a relationship slow and they announce the news to others knowing that you are uncomfortable. When you challenge these behaviours they may tell you that it is your fear that is stopping love in its tracks. Stand your ground — you have a right to your boundaries and maintaining them isn’t just healthy but instrumental to your mental and physical health.
Behaviours You Observe in Them
- Controlling Behaviours
These acts may seem chivalrous or romantic at first. These can include subtle jealousy, wanting to drive you places, insisting you eat or wear what they choose, wanting to know who you’re meeting with/ wanting to claim you in front of others.
“There were small red flags in the beginning that I ignored or justified. He had asked me to remove any ex flings and photos off Facebook. That seemed fair. I wanted to prove my love to him. Then he asked me not to add any of his friends on Facebook which seemed a bit strange” Charlotte recalls. “I should have asked why. I now realise many would have warned me about him.”
Annabelle ended up taking her abuser to court in a class action. It took nearly two hours to read out his sentencing, as he had abused so many women in such grave ways. “Derek took over every aspect of my life. At first I thought it was just him being caring and loving. I felt so enarmoured with him that I quickly lost control of the situation and he isolated me from friends and family, took control of my bank account and card; progressing to controlling my food intake and requiring his permission to shower.”
2. Abuse & Remorse Cycle
Abusers will act out and often show instant remorse. They may shout at you or scare you in some way, or break your property or act inappropriately to others. You will observe behaviours from them which seem unacceptable, instantly followed by intense remorse and an excuse.
Annabelle clearly remembers this cycle. “He’d let his violent outbursts out on my personal property and smashed my phone. He’d get so angry but then he’d apologise with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and promise never to do it again. I wanted to believe him.”
They may blame it on work stresses, personal problems, issues with addiction, their family …you name it. Whether it’s the first time they hold on to your arm enough to hurt you or explode unreasonably. These are warning signs you should not ignore.
3. Anger Towards Others
Whether they are looking to discredit those whom they previously hurt, or they are just holding back a reservoir of anger that is soon to be unleashed, you will soon notice that this person is angry. They may get irrationally angry at their neighbours, or slander their ex partners. But anger is one to watch out for.
Bridget experienced physical and emotional abuse from her partner for years. But it didn’t start off that way. “He would call me every day to work out with him. He had ambitions of becoming a personal trainer and I was wanting to lose weight and get fit. We exercised, talked endlessly and watched movies together. We were getting fit, healthy and happy. Life seemed perfect for a moment. After a while, things started to change. The change was gradual. At first he’d would go on angry rants. Whether it was about the neighbours, his family or a woman who looked at him the wrong way at the shopping centre; he was convinced that everyone was always talking about him. There was no right way to respond to these outbursts. If I tried to reassure him I was labelled naive or he would say that I was accusing him of being paranoid.” Bridget remembered.
Showing intense anger towards family members or ex partners may also want to discourage you from connecting with these people. This is something to question. If they aren’t willing to discuss these elements or their answers seem confusing you may want to step back for a moment.
The Way You May Feel
- Confused & Disoriented
Whether it’s moving too fast or their stories keep changing, you’ll get a sense of being disoriented. My abusive ex constantly made me feel like I was losing the plot. Many survivors recall feeling this way.
I’ve always been a confident person, yet he had a strange hold over me. One minute he’d tell me we were just friends, and I’d be happy to have clarity. The next day he’d seduce me and declare his endless love and make me his salvation. When I confronted him he blamed me, saying I misunderstood our relationship. Nothing ever appeared simple — and that’s a big red flag one shouldn’t ignore.
When you like someone and they like you, it’s pretty simple. Any relationship intended to confuse or disorient is probably not good for you in the long-run.
It’s a harsh wake-up call to realise your fairytale is actually a nightmare. Therefore it’s natural for us to be in disbelief, as the reality seems unnaturally cruel. Psychologists call this cognitive disonnance — when your inside world doesn’t match your external reality. To avoid feeling the pain we rationalise their behaviours to make the two worlds be in harmony. Rationalising abusive behaviours can include, ignoring behaviours which make you feel uncomfortable or making excuses for them. You may also find yourself favouring friends who reinforce your feelings of your partner instead of questioning why things are happening so fast or why they acted in certain ways. You may also be frozen or unable to react properly due to the disbelief. These are serious red flags — seek help immediately.
3. Keeping Things to Yourself
Abuse feeds on secrecy. Whether your abuser hides part of himself to you or the external world — abuse thrives in places unseen. You may be ashamed or stuck in disbelief, but you will find yourself not sharing things with friends or family. You may feel scared or embarrassed to say what’s going on with your partner. If you are hiding any element of yourself, or your partner, from those who love and care for you then this is a dangerous red flag. Every relationship has its ups and downs, but you should always be able to share things with those close to you. You may feel ashamed to reach out but try giving those around you a chance.
What Can You Do
- Don’t ignore red flags
- Seek help if you are in danger. You can reach out to 1800Respect at any time. Or find a survivor mentor via Blossom Movement. Even if you worry your family or friends may no longer be there to help you, we are here and know what it is like. There’s no judgement here. Ever.
- Teach your children about red flags. Help them establish language and healthy reactions to communicate when their boundaries are being disrespected.
- Create a culture where victim-survivors feel safe to speak out. Don’t pity them, empower them. They are being brave so let’s recognise this.
- Discourage victim-blaming. Don’t ask victims why they didn’t leave. Instead focus on why abusers are abusing in plain sight. Hold them accountable and stop making your comfort a priority. This is an uncomfortable topic but if we are going to change our environment we have to stop burying our head in the sand.
Read Monica’s full story here: https://www.blossommovement.com/post/a-lesson-in-life-by-monica-r
Read Charlotte’s full story here: https://www.blossommovement.com/post/the-point-of-no-return-by-charlotte-m
Read Bridget’s full story here: https://www.blossommovement.com/post/my-long-walk-to-freedom-by-bridget-walker