How to Tell If Your Date Might Be an Abuser

'claudia with ring' photo (c) 2007, ryan remillard - license: you or your children are dating, you may wonder how to spot an abuser. In this guest post, Daniella Levy tells us the warning signs.

People tend to believe that violence is a random, unpredictable disaster.  “It was totally out of the blue!” “He was always so nice!”  “There’s no way we could have known.”

That’s just not true.

Violent people are everywhere.  The rates of domestic abuse are similar across every culture, race and religion.  If they were easy to identify, they would not be successful.  So they conceal their violent behavior.  They draw in their victims using manipulation, take away her safety net, break down her defenses and coping mechanisms and make her totally dependent on him.  (For the sake of statistical integrity, I will refer to the violent person as being male and the victim as female.  This is because in an overwhelming majority of cases, violent partners are male, and in a less overwhelming majority, the victims are female.  Men have been victims of domestic violence as well.)

The key to identifying a violent person is understanding that violence is all about control. Abusive people use violence—physical, emotional and/or sexual—to gain a sense of control over their lives and the people in it.  This is often the result of a troubled childhood in which the violent person felt powerless in some way.  They are often victims of some form of abuse themselves.

So how can you tell?

He Doesn’t Respect Your Boundaries

A good way to “test” your date for potentially violent behavior is to challenge him by setting a good, solid boundary and watching his reaction.  For example, insist on paying for your date.  He will probably protest, since there is a societal expectation that he not let you pay, but a normal guy will give in once you have explained that it is important to you to pay just this once.  A potentially violent guy will get angry, accuse you of insulting him, and might hand his credit card to the waiter behind your back.  Or, politely decline his offer to carry your bag or to give you his coat.  A normal guy might ask, “Are you sure?” and when you say you are he’ll shrug and move on.  A potentially violent man might shoot you a mildly derisive, perhaps playful “You trying to be superwoman or something?”  “Come on, don’t go all women’s lib on me.”  or “Come on, that bag is way too heavy for a little shrimp like you.”  And yes, he will try to take your bag or place his coat on your shoulders.  When you say, “I said no!”  He’ll tease or insult you further, or get defensive.

A man who does not respect your right to say no and make decisions for yourself is not going to respect your physical or emotional boundaries either.

He Is Egocentric

Pay attention to how he talks about the people in his life, especially women.  A potentially violent person believes the world revolves around him.  Everyone in his life is either a villain or a hero.  See how he reacts when you express an opinion contrary to his.  Does he discuss it?  Does he accept the possibility of being wrong?  Or does he belittle you and mock your opinion?

He Is Manipulative—and Often Charming

When you first meet them, violent people tend to be… extremely charming.  Yes, that’s what I said.  Remember: personal charm and “niceness” are not inherent traits.  They are tools.  In our case, they are extremely effective manipulation tactics that lower your guard and get you to relax.

Another classic manipulation tactic is one Gavin de Becker, violence prediction expert and author of “The Gift of Fear”, calls “loan-sharking”.  He’ll buy you a very expensive piece of jewelry on your second date.  You are overwhelmed and a little uncomfortable, but now you feel you owe him something, since he spent so much money on you.  Or, he confesses that he loves you and can’t live without you.  The suddenness throws you off, and the intensity of his confession makes you feel like you can’t possibly let him down or hurt him by asking him to slow down.  If you refuse or reject him, that makes you the “bad guy”.  He might even press this point a little if you hesitate to take what he offers: “Go on, take it, don’t play hard to get.” “I didn’t think I was dating an ingrate.”  “Are you so cold-hearted as to not respond to what I just said?”

Remember: if his “favor” was unsolicited, you owe him nothing.

This penchant for messing with your head can manifest in countless ways, but the upshot is that once involved in a relationship with him, you will somehow end up feeling stupid, helpless, completely dependent on him and… responsible for his behavior.  He will keep you locked in this mentality that if only you would do things right, everything will work out.  Don’t get trapped in his mind games!

He Is Jealous

Once he is in a relationship with you, he will start to isolate you.  He’ll stop you from speaking to your parents or friends using threats and tears.  (He does this because it increases your dependency on him.)  And he will make sure he knows exactly where you are at all times, and with whom.  If you are home late because you got stuck in traffic, you’ll find 50 frantic messages on your cell phone.  And he will be jealous beyond any reasonable measure.  A normal guy might see you interact enthusiastically with a male friend you meet in the street, and then ask a few cautious questions about your relationship after the encounter.  A violent man will interrogate you repeatedly on the incident, insist you are lying when you say there is nothing between you, and stalk the guy on the Internet.

He Is Intense and Habitually Uses Violence

Relationships with potentially abusive people get very intense very fast.  This is partially due to their mastery of manipulation, and partially to their tendency to get obsessed with their object of desire.  If things are spinning out of control really fast, take a step back and ask yourself if this pace is good for you and if it’s really what you wanted in the first place.

Pay attention if you notice him using violence against objects or animals to solve his problems.  Slamming his phone on the table, kicking his dog if he whines to go out.  A man who regularly uses violence to express anger or frustration will be more likely to use it against people, too.

He Displays a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde Pattern of Behavior

Violent people tend to have a kind of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde split personality.  One way this manifests is in the stark contrast between the way they treat their partners in public, and the way they treat their partners in private.  The other way this manifests is in their “cycles of violence” with their partner.  One minute they will be violent and abusive, next minute they will be pleading on their knees, telling you they’re sorry and they hate themselves for hurting you and they’ll do anything, anything if you will stay, even though they deserve it, even though you have every reason to leave etc.  Those “Dr. Jekyll” moments are more manipulation, but they are also another expression of the deep insecurity and dependency of the violent person.  He needs his victim as much as he makes her believe she needs him.  It is the “Dr. Jekyll” moments that tend to keep battered women in the relationship, because the display is so remorseful and genuine that they truly believe he means it and that he can change.  He often does mean it.  But he won’t change, at least not without very intensive therapy. Even then, full recovery is rare.

Trust Your Instincts and Defend Your Boundaries

If a guy gives you the creeps, even if you can’t explain why and everything is perfect on paper—don’t dismiss your feeling.  It could be mistaken, but just raising your awareness might help open your eyes to red flags you didn’t notice before.  I highly recommend Gavin de Becker’s book “The Gift of Fear” for more information on intuition and how it can help keep you safe.

As with all areas of self-defense, learn how to identify and guard your physical, mental and emotional boundaries, using a firm, clear voice and assertive body language.  Learning these skills can prevent a majority of violent incidents, and it is highly recommended to take a self-defense class that focuses on them and not just physical techniques.  In Israel, you can contact “El Halev”, the Israel Association for Women in the Martial Arts (, for information on courses near you.

Daniella Levy is a self-defense instructor for El Halev, as well as a writer, translator and mother of three.

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  1. important post! Be sure to send this one to Havel H

  2. Why do you use the “he” as the abuser and the “she” as the other?

    What about a “she” abuser or same sex couple?

    • ekek–see the explanation toward the beginning of the post.

    • Daniella Levy says

      As Hannah pointed out, I wrote at the beginning that I would use “he” and “she” for the sake of statistical integrity (and simplicity). In general, men are responsible for an overwhelming majority of violent crimes, including domestic abuse. However, women have also been known to be abusive in relationships. More often emotionally abusive, but in my mind, emotional abuse is no less dangerous or damaging than physical abuse.

  3. This is good advice for identifying an abusive person in any role in your life. The abuser could be your relative, co-worker, or boss. Great article!

  4. this might also be helpful to many people Unfortunately abuse is not just a non-jewish thing

    This comes from letter from the jewish press.

  5. I think this is an important list, which everyone dating needs to read. In addition, I think someone needs to put together a list of potentially controlling non-violent abusers. I’ve had several male friends date girls who were like this, one even broke off an engagement after he realized how she manipulated his every decision. Everyone out there needs to be aware of the pitfalls that exist with troubled personalities.

  6. I think it’s a very good article. However, I feel the examples used here are very extreme. Sometimes the clues are very subtle, especially if the dating period is short. Also, from what I understand there are two types of abusers – one who is very controlling of his partner and one who has a hard time controlling his temper. The examples here pretty much describe the first type, very controlling, calculating, self-centered personality. It’s important to be able to identify the second type too. Even though the second type is easier to treat, at the end of the day any violence for any reason is unacceptable and should be avoided at all costs.

    • Daniella Levy says

      That’s an important point. It’s hard to give examples that are subtle but clear. It can be very subjective and contextual.

      The dating period should be long enough to satisfactorily negate issues like this, and that is important for people to know. How long that would be depends on what happens during the dates. In the haredi/Hassidic community where dating is minimal, it is crucial that the family check with friends and family to make sure he does not exhibit this type of behavior–though it may be difficult to find out that way. The best way to know is to see how he treats his potential partner.

      A person who has trouble controlling his temper, but who does not exhibit the behaviors above, is kind of a different story. It results in a completely different dynamic between partners and rarely results in recurring domestic violence, because the angry person deeply regrets his behavior and the victim is much more empowered.

      • You say that the best way to know is to see how he treats his potential partner. I find that to be a poor indicator at times, especially if the dating period is short. In the beginning, everyone is nice. An abuser with controlling personality is in a way easier to spot – because of the signs you have mentioned: he will try to push the boundaries, play mind tricks, try to accelerate the relationship, etc – because being manipulative is such a big part of his personality.

        People who have trouble controlling their tempers I believe are harder to spot. They will be on their best behavior throughout dating and in the beginning of marriage. It’s when eventually they will be tired of controlling themselves that their anger problem will surface. In the long dating process such problem is easier to spot, and even then I’ve heard of cases when after years of dating people divorce within weeks because of physical abuse, which wasn’t present earlier. I believe it is integral to see how the potential spouse treats his mother, siblings, etc – people who have been getting on his nerves for some time and in such situations problems with anger are more evident than in the budding romance. Someone who treats his mother poorly will eventually treat his spouse poorly.

        I do not understand why you think that people with bad tempers will not be repeat offenders with physical violence. Unfortunately, I come from the part of the world where physically abusing one’s wife was not considered a crime, a lot of violence occurred not because men were manipulative, but because it was accepted. A man with anger problem who is not resisted (i.e. the wife doesn’t ask for help, doesn’t leave, he’s not afraid of the law enforcement etc. ) will continue to be violent.

        • Daniella Levy says

          I was talking about parts of the world where violence is not acceptable. I think you are raising some important points. I’m just trying to make an important distinction: repeated violence towards one’s loved ones is not normal, healthy human behavior. Someone who has an anger problem that is serious enough to make him a repeat offender, probably displays other controlling/manipulative/sociopathic behaviors as well. A bad temper alone is not what will bring a person to repeatedly hurt his loved ones.

  7. One should also remember the following:
    a] in certain situations you and your spouse get along like a perfect happy couple but can’t stand his or her spouse’s siblings. I saw that happen with my late wife and her sister’s husband…it was like world war III,. her mom had to referee the mess.Her sister n the other hand seemed to be very happy with hm.
    b] try the following experiment suggested by a doctor….
    you two start at 6 feet apart … one of you walk toward the other and touch the other and move back to where you feel most comfortable while the other stands still. take a measurement. then do the same with the other The one who is further away tells you he/she is more like to start being annoyed when you cross that comfort circle.

  8. excellent article
    Is it possible to look for the ‘ authentic person ‘ , maybe if you can’t , there is a problem

  9. Statistical integrity would have been to use both. Popular theory is that men are the abusive ones, research shows that it is more 50/50 (for all categories: emotional, physical, verbal, sexual)

    That clarification out of the way, I wish I would have read this before marrying my ex

    • Daniella Levy says

      I would appreciate if you could show me some sources for those statistics. Usually the subject at hand is physical violence, and in that case, as far as I know, men are responsible for a majority. This is true about sexual violence as well. But it could definitely be true that women “make up for it” statistically with emotional/verbal abuse (which as I mentioned in a different comment, I see as being just as damaging and dangerous if not more).

    • I know that this is the current conventional wisdom, but the studies actually don’t bear this out, when it comes to physical violence. And the greater the level of physical violence, the more skewed the numbers are.

      • Daniella Levy says

        Again, I’d love to see the studies you’re referring to. The studies I am aware of definitely support the conventional wisdom that men are the main perpetrators in violent crimes, including domestic violence.

        • Sorry, I was not being clear. I agree with you. I know it’s the conventional wisdom that abuse is more or less equally perpetrated by men and women, but the studies don’t bear it out. What is really amazing is reading a synopsis of a study that says something like “this study shows that men and women abuse each other equally” and then read statistics that show that an insanely lopsided percentage of the study participants who wound up at the emergency room due to abuse we women victims of male violence. And repeated use of physical violence is predominantly male, with the percentages being male going up as the violence gets more serious. Oh, yes, if you look at the number of people who have EVER hit a partner – including ONE slap (I am NOT making this up!) then it does tend to even out.

  10. This is the stupidest article I have ever read. I have been married 22 years and have been doing all these nice things for my wife and I have never ever abused her in any way…..maybe i should start?

    Stop writing articles if you do not know what you are talking about. This is more the reason for our shidduch crisis than anything else.

  11. David Aharon Lindzon says

    Re: Dr. Jekyl / Mr.Hyde post

    As one who has studied Chassidus, and Mussar, I can say that:

    We all have tendencies to be abusive [called the Yetzer HaRah] or to be altuistic, never harm a fly type [Yetzer HaTov] … We also have FREE WILL [Bechirat Chafshi] to act in either direction. The human Race is totally given Free will to act however we please, notwithstanding Social norms and values that have been handed down throughout the generations.

    Hnnah Katsman’s remarks are found within the text of the Ketubah in one little phrase that is WRITTEN right near the beginning of the Ketubah SIGNED, WITNESSED, and then READ OUT LOUD … in public under the CHUPAH.. I WILL HONOR YOU … among all the other commitments the CHASAN [groom] makes.

    IMHO, Mr WOW is apparently trying to SHLKEP A BISSEL NACHAS [a pat on the back] from the fact he has been nice to his wife for 22 years. He should know that he is only one out of hundreds of thousands of Jewish married men who do this DAILY without fanfare.

    As we are now in the month of Elul, we need to fix our marital relationships because this month has the Roshei Teivos of Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li [I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.]

    For starts I recommend that Mr. WOW take a look at one book called The Garden of Peace for Men Only as part of his ongoing efforts making his marriage work better. He might also consider giving his darling EISHES CHAYIL wife a copy of Women’s Wisdom, The Garden of Peace for Women Only.

    We are all given different Challenges in life to help our Neshamas fulfill its mission in this world

  12. David Aharon Lindzon says

    With regard to one thing . Men are generally physically Stronger than Women …. sorry gentlemen. Of course, there are exceptions like the woman who attends a Kung Fu or some martial arts / Self defense program …

    With this in mind, I urge all the ladies to learn how to defend yourselves that may save your life regardless of who the abuser is …

    • David Aharon Lindzon says

      One additional point:

      While the parents may see the abuser for what he/she is, often the abused person may not… In this case, the parents may have to seek advice from a professional such as a trusted Rabbi or Rebetzin or social worker if it is at all possible … It is no offense to seek help as to how to get the abused person to understand that he/she is being abused, as many times he/she is not aware of the abuse until it is too late.
      And if he/she admits it be ready to offer a safe haven for them and no “See I told you so” attitude will work..

  13. I wish I had read something like this when I was a teenager. I went through a couple of horrible relationships during high school and college, and they started just like the article describes. The first one didn’t get physically violent because I got out, but it was a matter of time. The second one got violent once, and once was enough. I know I was very lucky.
    It’s so hard to see the signs for yourself when you are in an abusive relationship; you can even make yourself believe that you are in love, when what you really feel is fear. And when your mind is conditioned to stop trusting your friends/family, it’s even harder to accept help from an objective person who sees the problem as clear as water. I did learn from those experiences, and it shaped who I am today, but I still wish I hadn’t gone through that.

  14. This article is perfection! If only I could had read this 2 years ago.