Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why Do I Keep Getting Hurt?


Do I Have an “Abuse Me" Sign on My Head?  

 (Please note: I was asked to write this for women dating men. Please insert your gender pronouns to suit your situation. Lesbian, gay, transgendered and all folks entering into intimacies need to know about abusive personalities as they come in any gender.)

Many clients have asked me that very question. And while I certainly cannot answer in the affirmative, as no one asks to be abused – there are indeed many ways that we advertise” our susceptibility to being a good Target.

Let me first say that no one deserves to be used, abused or in any way taken advantage of by another.  And though we can not foresee the outcome of any relationship going in, there are things you can do that will reduce your chances of attracting the bad guys. This article is addressing the situations where relationships are really problematic. I am not talking here about simply poor matches, commonplace relational issues like differing life goals, drifting apart, of even situations where he stopped giving you the attention and love needed to sustain a healthy connection.

I am offering a perspective for women who are finding that they have had a couple or maybe many very bad relationships. These are situations where you have been harmed, lied to, taken advantage of, manipulated, intimidated, controlled, or physically, verbally or emotionally abused.

Along with having a career as a trauma therapist (child abuse, sexual abuse, and sexual assault mostly), I also have taught self defense classes for 19 years and have been a student of martial arts for 22 years. I have researched violence against women, and have listened intently to hundreds of stories of abusive experiences.  I have learned a lot about how women are chosen for attack physically, but also targeted for emotional abuse.  I have also worked with and listened to the perspective and intentions of perpetrators of violence, abuse, and other forms of harm. The tactics used by the guy with intent to date rape for instance, are very similar to the person who is looking for a target to scam money,  - or the guy who is looking for the next relationship within which he will lie, betray, manipulate or otherwise harm someone new.

Here is a quick summary of a common process used by harmful guys, that I call “Targeting and Testing”.  

1.     TARGETING: This means he observes you for signs he believes indicate that you will be a more malleable or passive person upon which to prey. Depending on his game, he will look for slightly different things. But know that if someone intends on using you, they usually watch early on for signs that you have weak boundaries, low self esteem, or are in some way needy for attention of some sort. (And aren’t we all at times?).

2.     Next, he will TEST: This means he will engage you and cross subtle and sometimes not so subtle boundaries…”Oh come on, don’t be rude - let me buy you another drink”... (After perhaps you already said ‘no thank you’ to the prior offer).

It’s after he has determined that you are a good candidate for whatever he is looking for, (and for the purposes of this article we are talking about men who want to become involved with a woman who will be easily manipulated, lied to, or in some way allow themselves to be treated with less than genuine good intentions) that he will move forward with next steps. (Like starting a relationship where he can get his needs met without regard for your well being).

Now I don’t mean to frighten anyone. In fact, this knowledge is power. But it is estimated by many researchers that sociopathy and other severely maladaptive and pathological abusive personalities are more common than we think.  Estimates suggest that as many as 1 in 10 males have a pattern in their behaviors that put them in the “he will abuse me” category. The good news is that leaves about 9 out of 10 guys who are OK.

So your odds are very good that if you choose a guy to get to know, you are likely to choose someone who (while they may not be THE ONE) is unlikely to be abusive in any way. But if you are spending your time and energy with the yucky folks, you’ll be in the weeds. It won’t be easy to see the flowers. So let’s clear out some of the weeds. By the way, did you hear me say “you choose”? There is power in being the chooser. You are more likely to pick someone good than be picked by someone good. 

Knowing there are people who will target you for a relationship based on their belief that you will allow a certain level of abusive, manipulative or just plain cold behavior to occur without consequences – is your power. And let me be clear, I do not mean to say that if you have had a few or a string of “bad” relationships that this is your fault. Spotting someone who is controlling or dishonest or even abusive is not something we can do with complete accuracy. And it is not something many of us are ever taught to even think about.

I am also not saying that most poor outcomes or less than stellar relationships are the result of someone’s bad intentions. If you have had one or two relationships where you felt you weren’t treated well, it’s possible you were just a bad match for each other, the guy was just lacking in some relational skills, or other elements were present that mark a relationship for failure. Good people mess up. Relationships are complicated by both partner’s histories, and we play out some of our best and worst traits in the context of an intimate relationship.

What I am saying is that I have seen too many women who are repeatedly targeted by those with unkind or selfish intentions and I want to open lid on this phenomena and expose steps you can take to decrease your risks of attracting this sort of person. Be it romantic relationships, friendships, or even workplaces – we deserve to know more about how to spot an abuser. Watching for and observing boundary violations, disrespect, limit crossing or pushiness is your key to sorting through the weeds. Sometimes the boundary violations of an abusive person are subtle and stay that way for many months. Sometimes they are obvious and show up right away.  But if you are watching for boundary violations early and often, you are in a good place to make valuable judgments about who you allow to get closer to you.

And this is a key: Allow close in, only those people who treat you with fairness, honesty, authenticity, respect and good intentions – and you will know the life of good connections. This isn’t to say people don’t mess up, let you down, or sometimes act poorly. I am talking about a set of behaviors that indicate good intentions.

And it is behavior that counts! Promises do not count. Words only count if they are consistent with behaviors.  Abusive types will say one thing and do another. They will lie to you while looking you in the eye. They will deny what you know or feel in your gut to be true. They will leave you confused and bewildered and sometimes feeling like you are in a hall of mirrors.  But that is usually only if you are listening to what you want to hear rather than facing squarely what you see and feel through their behaviors.

OK -

What do you do to at least LIMIT the chances you will be a more welcoming target for bad guys?

1.     Know your boundaries.

2.     Practice your assertive body language. Look straight ahead and keep alert when you are walking;  stand up straight;  pay attention to your surroundings; look confident (even when you aren’t); make eye contact as needed; use an adult form of speech and voice tone.

3.     Do not feel the need to answer every question. Keep your privacy (especially with folks who haven’t earned your trust).

4.     Be willing to open your eyes to when people are testing you or crossing some limits (even if you haven’t verbalized them).

5.     Set limits. Use assertive communication to enforce a boundary: “I said no thank you” (to that 2nd offer of a drink where you ridiculed me and called me rude for not accepting) “and you need not ask again.”

6.     Stop worrying so much about pleasing people who aren’t respectful. Stopping someone’s attempts to push you is not impolite. The pushing they are doing IS!

7.     Check in with what matters more: your safety and the possibility of better relationships in the future, or being called mean or bitchy.

8.     Know that having calm, self contained, assertive communication and using boundaries as needed is an excellent way of getting valuable and needed information about people.

9.     Your demeanor and assertiveness are your protective advertising. It is not foolproof but it is an excellent way to keep yourself safer, happier, and attracting better people.

10.  Start thinking about places in your current relationship (if you are concerned) that may need a dose of level headed, calm and assertive limit setting, or even self protection. (Think verbal, emotional, sexual, financial etc).


Good guys don’t test your limits. They have no agenda and do not need to scout out if you are a weak target. When your limits, even subtle ones, are being crossed – look very carefully at the person crossing them and do not let them closer to you (physically or emotionally), until you find out more about them, or maybe not at all.

I have said this before I my articles. Using your judgment and assertiveness does not reduce your connection to the world and people – it increases it. We are safe to be open when surrounded by caring people we attracted through our maintenance of self worth, as demonstrated using boundaries.

So this isn’t about acting like a “bad-ass”. It’s not about looking tough. It is about holding your demeanor, self awareness, and countenance in a place of self care. You can work at this even if it feels awkward. Think about what you would say, how you would communicate, and what you would allow in to your personal life space if you did value yourself more than any other thing in the world.


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