In the aftermath of the Sandusky trial, we have the opportunity to talk about violence prevention; a teachable moment. One really important conversation to have is about recognizing potential abusers. Stop It Now! has compiled some really great resources related to protecting children from abusers through increase awareness.
What about adult survivors of childhood abuse who have a pattern of difficult relationships in adulthood? How do they learn to break the cycle?
Recently a reader asked me a related question:
I would really like to see a piece on how predators test their victims, really for grown up survivors of abuse. There is not much stuff out there in books about what is normal and what is not, for people who have never known healthy relationships, we really have no idea what to look for or what our rights and boundaries should be. It is like learning another language and is very confusing but no one seems to address this.
“Like learning another language” is a very apt way to put it! Trauma survivors need to learn things in adulthood that ideally we all learn as children. Predators can be good at honing in on those who have not learned good self-protection skills.
Predators do indeed test or “groom” their victims. The intentionally violate boundaries in small ways and wait to see your reaction. Then they up the ante. An example of this could be as simple as insisting on eating pizza on a date if you have expressed not liking it.
They come on really strong, really quickly. This can be especially hard to spot because it is the stuff of romantic movie fantasies. It can also be flattering to have someone profess immediate love. You are definitely special and lovable, but someone who met you 5 minutes ago has no way to know that yet. Be suspicious of the motives of anyone trying to “sweep you off your feet”. Their true motive may be manipulation.
Soon after the heavy romancing, or sometimes alternating with, predators also mess with your self-esteem. They criticize you, your activities, you friends and family, again often starting small and then escalating. This serves to make you doubt yourself (maybe more than you do already) your choices, and to isolate you from support systems.
So what can you do to better prepare yourself to pick up on these early warning signs? In Relationships after Severe Trauma: Making Healthy Choices I suggested the following:
- Avoid going to extremes. Neither isolation or premature, instant attachment are healthy for you. Learn to share of yourself with people in your life gradually, over time.
- Learn to hear and pay attention to your “inner voice”. This could be your intuition, your gut sense of something feeling not quite right with another person. This could also be the voices of other parts of you. Do not discount what they have to say without exploring it. Yes, some parts may have the job of warning you away from anyone, but there may be valid reason for concerns about an individual in your life.
- Get to know yourselves. Develop relationships with other parts of yourself. Learn to communicate with each other. Share information about people you are meeting, developing friendships or intimate relationships with.
- Do you already have someone in your life you trust? A friend? A therapist? Use them as a sounding board or reality check. Share what concerns you. Listen to feedback, especially if you tend to “forget” things that concerned you regarding the new person’s behavior.
- Remember that trust is something that is earned. Trust is built in relationships by experiencing each other over time. Pay attention to whether what others say and do matches up (or does not), look for consistency over time. Let yourself evaluate whether the relationship is mutual or one sided: do you each get a chance to talk, receive support and attention or does it seem to flow in one direction mostly?
- Learn how to sort out whether your reactions are present- or past-based. Are you angry because someone has violated your boundaries now or are you reminded of past experiences? Sometimes it is both!
In addition, I’d like to add:
- Healthy people let you say no. They respect (and want to know!) your opinions and preferences. Your job is to get in touch with what you think and feel and learn to express it. Learn that “No” is a complete sentence.
This quote from The art of “no.” (captainawkward.com) really sums it up:
Women are socialized to make men feel good. We’re socialized to “let you down easy.” We’re not socialized to say a clear and direct “no.” We’re socialized to speak in hints and boost egos and let people save face. People who don’t respect the social contract (rapists, predators, assholes, pickup artists) are good at taking advantage of this. “No” is something we have to learn. “No” is something we have to earn. In fact, I’d argue that the ability to just say “no” to something, without further comment, apology, explanation, guilt, or thinking about it is one of the great rites of passage in growing up, and when you start saying it and saying it regularly the world often pushes back. And calls you names.
- Read The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. I cannot emphasize enough what a good resource this is for learning how to tune into your own early warning system to recognize precursors to abuse.
Healing complex trauma requires connection, attachment. The skills that are missing are missing because things went terribly wrong in early relationships, thus a different kind of relationship is required to master them now. The neglect, abuse, betrayal and just plain ineffective environment of your earliest relationships have caused you to develop complex PTSD. It is in the context of a different kind of relationship that you can identify, understand and ultimately heal the impact of your early experiences.
All that being said, the unfortunate reality is that we cannot always spot abusers in advance. Repeat predators are good at what they do. Even people without trauma histories get taken in by master manipulators. If this happens to you, learn what you can and be gentle with yourself in the process.