One of the scariest parts of dating, online or not, is the possibility that you might meet someone who will ruin your life, and not necessarily in the “my heart is broken” kind of way. We don’t always think about it, though, because the vulnerability that comes with opening up your heart and life to another human being is part of the thrill, and it can be easy to get caught up in the ride and forget about that danger.
I suspect that for most folks, physical abuse tends to be pretty obviously a bad thing, and it tends to be extremely obvious if any objective outsider is told about what happens. Even so, it’s not terribly difficult to get sucked into it when it starts small or in the context of angry words, when the excuses are easy and the explanations and apologies plausible. And usually, it does start small. Abusers are pretty good at not launching straight into a full-on beating rather than a slap here, a shove there. But usually, we know that when there is angry or annoyed physical force, questions need to be raised and a hard look needs to be taken to figure out whether or not “this one time” is truly an anomaly or part of a pattern of problematic behavior.
Sexual abuse and assault/date rape is sort of a subset of physical abuse (simplifying somewhat, but bear with me here). For sexually inexperienced folks in particular, I think it can be harder to spot than what we generally think of as ‘standard’ physical abuse because it doesn’t always come on as overt violence so much as nudging and pressing, when passion seems to overtake the moment. Sometimes what you are talked into or end up doing is, in fact, fine, and sometimes it’s very much not fine. Consent is vital but desire and sex drive are things, and pre-consent isn’t always as easy as we’d like it to be even among more sexually experienced partners. We don’t all complete detailed questionnaires about our proclivities and schedule an in-depth conversation about them before we fall into bed – and that’s okay as long as we understand general consent and revocation of consent. In some cases, it’s not until we start having sex that we learn about whether we like a particular kink. So again here, when a round of sex goes beyond what we initially had in our heads, we need to think carefully about whether it was mutual sexual exploration or part of a pattern that’s going south.
That pattern is easier to spot when you look at other factors – boundary creeping, control attempts, and attention monopolization.
A lot of us think of boundaries as an easy thing to define and defend, but they can be really subtle and really difficult to understand. It can be helpful think broadly, not just of firm boundaries stated in terms of “I don’t want to talk about that” or “Don’t touch me like that,” but also of the more quiet boundaries that we might put up like shifting away from physical closeness or avoiding topics of conversation. Of course, we must have the skill and will to be explicit with our boundaries, but we also must be able to recognize when we have set the softer ones because otherwise, we won’t be able to identify when they are being overrun. Just because we have not yet stated them clearly does not mean they do not deserve respect, although we might understand and forgive an intrusion more easily before we turn to enforcing that line more specifically. Boundaries are often a matter of give and take, and non-explicit ones may be brushed against with true innocence or awkwardness, but someone who keeps rubbing up against those lines is potential trouble.
Boundary pushing can take many forms, not all of which are terribly obvious. If someone tells us in so many words that they want us to do something we’ve said we don’t want to do, or to not do something we do want to do, then we have a pretty good idea that we are at odds and that they are trying to change or control us. However, they may also try to manipulate us into changing our boundaries with strategies like pouting; the silent treatment; withholding approval until the “right” decision is made or lavishing extra approval at that time; ignoring protests; and others. Asking, disagreeing, or even arguing aren’t necessarily bad, so much as doing so in a way that doesn’t honestly take your position and feelings into account or in a way where you somehow always end up compromising what you really want so it’s always give and rarely take. It gets worse when those attempts start taking place before you have stated your preferences or relate to more personal items like how you dress, what activities you take part in, or who you spend your time with. They may not be boundaries you thought you had, but they are part of who you think you are and how you lived your life before this new person came into it. Attempts to control those aspects of you are trouble. If someone is truly interested in you, they are interested in you today and not who you might be if only you became what they want.
Another controlling strategy to look for is the other person trying to monopolize all of your attention, so that you don’t have time to do your own thing or even think your own thoughts. It might seem sweet that they want spend every spare moment together, and you might want to do the same, especially early on in a relationship. That can be normal, and part of the energy of a fresh romance, which is why it can be hard to tell when it becomes not okay. One big clue are the responses to you wanting to participate in any activity that doesn’t include the new person in your life. The same kinds of actions that are used to creep your other boundaries might be used here, and perhaps lean more into constant wheedling or even use of statements like “If you loved me, you would…” That phrase alone is a pretty good red flag indicating that a relationship is heading in an unhealthy direction.
It’s not that there is a potential abuser around every corner. It’s more that the consequences can be so terrible if you get entangled with one. It’s hard to keep track of specific indicators that a new flame might turn out to be a nightmare, but keeping these principles in mind can help you figure out who they might be, hopefully early enough to keep you safe.