We think it won’t happen to us. We’re too smart, too strong, too loved to end up in an abusive relationship. But 30% of women have been physically abused* while 48.4% have been mentally or emotionally mistreated.** And that includes educated, confident, respected girls and women.
We often believe the signs of abuse are obvious—screaming, hitting, name-calling. But there are many signs that are tougher to pinpoint. Abusers are often charming, manipulative, and convincing—they even persuade their victims that the abuse is their fault. These are just some of the subtle strategies abusers use:
Offer lots of romance, little support
Many abusers start with heavy doses of romance. They write you love poems, tell you you’re beautiful, and buy you jewelry. But how often do they listen? Do they support your dreams and goals—or try to talk you out of them? After they draw you in with romantic gestures and grand promises, toxic people will rush relationships and intimacy, mainly to get you hooked before they reveal their true selves.
Mindset shift: Be careful before you take a critical step such as moving in together, having a baby, or combining finances and businesses.
You have big plans with your girlfriends, but your abuser convinces you to cancel for “something special.” They may even try to paint your family and friends in a bad light or instigate fights. “Us against the world” may seem romantic, but it’s a lonely, scary, and boring way to live. An abuser will use isolation to control you and persuade you that only they offer you support and love. Plus, it’s easier to hurt you if there are no witnesses.
Mindset shift: Keeping a support system can help you gain perspective and reinforce your self-worth. Standing up to your abuser will be easier if you have friends and family in your corner. Remember, even abusers leave sometimes, and then you’d be left truly alone.
Suspect a friend is being abused? Help Raise Awareness about Violence Against Women
Make you feel indebted
Abusive people find ways to make you think you “owe” them. For example, they pay off your credit card debt, co-sign on loans and apartment leases, or offer you a place to stay. And it’s not limited to financial support – some abusers help your career, do favors for your children, or buy you extravagant gifts. Abusers use this strategy to help them “prove” their superiority, once again convincing you to hand over control of your life.
Mindset shift: Although it’s tempting, don’t rely on someone else to reduce your debt or get a new home. Depending entirely on someone else can cost you your income, your privacy, and worst of all, your independence. And even if someone does something kind for you, you don’t owe them a relationship.
Use guilt as a weapon
Emotional manipulation is one of the main tactics of an abuser. It involves making you feel sorry for them or positioning themselves as a victim. When you call out their behavior or gain the confidence to leave, toxic people will break down in expressions of self-pity. You may hear things like, “I have no one and nothing without you!” Or “I’m going through a rough time; how can you leave me now?”
Mindset shift: The truth is, if someone has nothing without you, they really should be focused on improving themselves. And while it’s not necessary for you to “fix” them, encourage them to seek out something positive for themselves. Meanwhile, give yourself permission to move on. You’re not responsible for anyone else’s happiness. Start by prioritizing your own.
Promise to change
Swearing to get therapy, quit drinking or just become a new person may be well intended, but be cautious until you see real change. And beware of empty promises intended to win you back, especially those you’ve heard over and over.
Mindset shift: It can take years of intense therapy to overcome abusive tendencies. There’s a very low percentage of abusers who truly do change their ways.*** Some even need major life changes in addition to professional help, such as change in location, career, or social circle.
Abusers have mastered the art of subtlety; they tear you down so slowly you barely realize you’ve been harmed. Remember, this kind of behavior isn’t limited to romantic relationships, it can also occur with friends, family members, even co-workers.
No one has the right to put you down, hurt you physically or try to “improve” you. You deserve better. No matter what anyone tells you.
Devon Miller has been a professional writer for 10 years, covering topics such as financial education, interviewing, career management, and personal growth. She also writes children’s stories and coaches new writers.