Dear Dr. Chani,
How can I know if the person I am dating is abusive or within the range of normal? I have been dating a woman, let’s call her Zahava, for about four months. I noticed some strange behaviors from the start, but some of her habits have become more concerning over time.
One of the first times that I sensed something was off was on our second date. As I was talking to the waiter about our orders, Zahava picked up my phone and flipped through my WhatsApp chats and photos. I felt that she had invaded my privacy. I told her that I would rather her ask me before she picks up my phone. She laughed and said it was “no big deal.”
I continued to date Zahava because I loved her fun energy, her passion, and her confidence. I tend to be more on the quiet side, and she really draws out my personality. We have a lot of fun together.
Yet, as we have started to talk about getting engaged, Zahava has become more outspoken and negative. Zahava criticizes my mother and sisters, with whom I am very close. She often grumbles when I want to spend time with my family. I get the impression that she is trying to distance me from my family.
Zahava has recently also become critical about my job. I have worked in the sales industry for many years and I enjoy my job. Out of the blue, last week, Zahava asked me if I would be willing to go to college and get a “real job.” I was kind of offended that she thought that what I do for a living is not respectable enough. I have a great salary, enjoy my work, and I get to help people.
I am concerned that Zahava wants me to change a lot more than I realize. Even though a part of me loves her and wants to marry her, I am afraid that she is showing me red flags. I worry that she is going to be controlling and abusive. Do you think our relationship could work out or should I just break up with her?
You are wise to pay attention to your feelings about Zahava’s concerning behaviors. Even if her behaviors are “within the range of normal,” they are affecting you. You feel that she does not respect your boundaries, is distancing you from your family, and is undermining your confidence in your chosen profession and your sense of self. Your feelings are signaling to you that there are important issues in your relationship that need to be addressed.
An abusive and controlling person does not always appear overly threatening and aggressive. A controlling partner might even come across as weak and vulnerable. Sometimes an abusive person does not even realize she is being abusive. It is important to follow your feelings. Abuse is not a yes or no situation. If you sense that you are being mistreated, it is important to follow your instinct.
A person may be controlling because she feels insecure. For example, even though Zahava appears confident to you, deep down she may feel insecure about herself and her relationship with you. This could motivate her to invade your personal boundaries, like checking your phone. She might want to find out more about your life to feel closer to you or to know what you are up to when you are not with her.
Insecurity can cause many of the behaviors you are noticing. Zahava may criticize your family members and dissuade you from spending time with them because she feels threatened by your close relationships with your mother and sisters. She may worry that you will feel more of an allegiance to them than to her.
Insecurity can also play a role in her questioning your job and prodding you to go to college. She may be concerned about her own image and wish to mold you to fit the image of the ideal partner with whom she would like to see herself.
I am describing these possibilities to illustrate what could be behind Zahava’s behavior. It is difficult to know the sources of a person’s behavior so these suggestions are not necessarily accurate. Ultimately, you do not need to determine why Zahava is acting in a way that makes you uncomfortable in order to do something about it.
So how should you respond? Since you are drawn to Zahava and enjoy her personality, it makes sense for you to discuss what you are feeling with her. Bring her into your dilemma. You do not need to analyze it on your own. Zahava’s reaction to your revelation can help you determine if you would like to work on these issues with her or end your relationship.
When you share your feelings with Zahava, keep in mind that there is usually an inverse relationship between empathy and abuse. If someone is empathic, she usually is not going to be highly abusive. As you talk to Zahava, observe if you feel that she is being empathic to you or focusing only on her needs.
Select one issue to discuss at a time. For example, you might say to her, “I thought about your encouragement that I go to college. You might have my best interests in mind, but it feels like you are undermining my career choices. It does not feel very good.” See how Zahava reacts. To what extent does she listen to you and express concern for your feelings?
If Zahava validates your feelings and lets you know that she will try to work on being more sensitive to you, there is hope for your relationship to work out. Continue to share other issues with her until she understands all of her actions that are bothering you. See how things develop after you discuss your feelings with Zahava.
However, if Zahava is unwilling to listen to your feelings, then you will have a difficult time resolving these issues. She may act defensively or blame you for being too sensitive. While these are sometimes normal reactions for someone to have at first when she gets negative feedback, she needs to eventually be able to listen to you.
Zahava needs to ultimately turn towards your feelings and express a willingness to be more sensitive to you. Then you should wait and see how her behavior changes over time before making your ultimate decision to marry her or to move on.
Wishing you much success,