The Toxins of Abuse: How to Spot an Abuser on Your First Date

Learn how to spot a would-be abuser. Here are the warning signs a person might be an abuser.

Is there anything you can do to avoid abusers and narcissists to start with? Are there any warning signs, any identifying marks, rules of thumb to shield you from the harrowing and traumatic experience of an abusive relationship?

Imagine a first or second date. You can already tell if he is a would-be abuser. Here's how:

Perhaps the first telltale sign is the abuser's alloplastic defenses - his tendency to blame every mistake of his, every failure, or mishap on others, or on the world at large. Be tuned: does he assume personal responsibility? Does he admit his faults and miscalculations? Or does he keep blaming you, the cab driver, the waiter, the weather, the government, or fortune for his predicament?

Is he hypersensitive, picks up fights, feels constantly slighted, injured, and insulted? Does he rant incessantly? Does he treat animals and children impatiently or cruelly and does he express negative and aggressive emotions towards the weak, the poor, the needy, the sentimental, and the disabled? Does he confess to having a history of battering or violent offenses or behavior? Is his language vile and infused with expletives, threats, and hostility?

Next thing: is he too eager? Does he push you to marry him having dated you only twice? Is he planning on having children on your first date? Does he immediately cast you in the role of the love of his life? Is he pressing you for exclusivity, instant intimacy, almost rapes you and acts jealous when you as much as cast a glance at another male? Does he inform you that, once you get hitched, you should abandon your studies or resign your job (forgo your personal autonomy)?

Does he respect your boundaries and privacy? Does he ignore your wishes (for instance, by choosing from the menu or selecting a movie without as much as consulting you)? Does he disrespect your boundaries and treats you as an object or an instrument of gratification (materializes on your doorstep unexpectedly or calls you often prior to your date)? Does he go through your personal belongings while waiting for you to get ready? Does he text or phone you multiply and incessantly and insist to know where you are or where you have been at all times?


Does he control the situation and you compulsively? Does he insist to ride in his car, holds on to the car keys, the money, the theater tickets, and even your bag? Does he disapprove if you are away for too long (for instance when you go to the powder room)? Does he interrogate you when you return ("have you seen anyone interesting") - or make lewd "jokes" and remarks? Does he hint that, in future, you would need his permission to do things - even as innocuous as meeting a friend or visiting with your family? Does he insist on a "dress code"?

Does he act in a patronizing and condescending manner and criticizes you often? Does he emphasize your minutest faults (devalues you) even as he exaggerates your talents, traits, and skills (idealizes you)? Does he call you names, harasses, or ridicules you? Is he wildly unrealistic in his expectations from you, from himself, from the budding relationship, and from life in general?

Does he tell you constantly that you "make him feel" good? Don't be impressed. Next thing, he may tell you that you "make" him feel bad, or that you make him feel violent, or that you "provoke" him. "Look what you made me do!" is an abuser's ubiquitous catchphrase.

Does he find sadistic sex exciting? Does he have fantasies of rape or pedophilia? Is he too forceful with you in and out of the sexual intercourse? Does he like hurting you physically or finds it amusing? Does he abuse you verbally - does he curse you, demeans you, calls you ugly or inappropriately diminutive names, or persistently criticizes you? Does he beat or slap you or otherwise mistreats you physically? Does he then switch to being saccharine and "loving", apologizes profusely and buys you gifts?

If you have answered "yes" to any of the above - stay away! He is an abuser.

Then there is the abuser's body language. It comprises an unequivocal series of subtle - but discernible - warning signs. Pay attention to the way your date comports himself - and save yourself a lot of trouble!

This is the subject of the next article.

Interview granted to Jessica Linnell, author

1. How do divorced men or women know when they are ready to begin dating again? Is there a standard time period one should wait or should it be based on how far along one is in the healing process? How soon is too soon to get back into a serious relationship?

A. There is a delicate balance to be maintained between the need to process the trauma of divorce (to recuperate, heal, and recover) and the need to maintain the interpersonal skills essential to dating and, later, to bonding and pair-formation (pairing). The main problem may be the temporary suspension of the ability to trust, to open up, to render oneself emotionally vulnerable, and to reciprocate. The pain of divorce is so enormous and so all-consuming that narcissistic defenses kick in and the new divorcee is often unable to empathize and selflessly interact with potential partners. My advice is: listen to your inner voice. You know best. Do not let yourself be coerced, cajoled, and pushed into dating prematurely. You will know when you are ready.




2. What can divorcees do to "ready" themselves for dating again?


A. The most important thing is to learn to develop trust despite the recent harrowing experience of divorce and its often ugly aftermath.

You have to know WHO to trust, you have to learn HOW to trust and you have to know HOW to CONFIRM the existence of mutual, functional trust.

People often disappoint and are not worthy of trust. Some people act arbitrarily, treacherously and viciously, or, worse, offhandedly. You have to select the targets of your trust carefully. He who has the most common interests with you, who is invested in you for the long haul, who is incapable of breaching trust ("a good person"), who doesn't have much to gain from betraying you - is not likely to mislead you. These people you can trust.

You should not trust indiscriminately. No one is completely trustworthy in all fields. Most often our disappointments stem from our inability to separate one area of life from another. A person could be sexually loyal - but utterly dangerous when it comes to money (for instance, a gambler). Or a good, reliable father - but a womaniser.

You can trust someone to carry out some types of activities - but not others, because they are more complicated, more boring, or do not conform to his values. We should not trust with reservations - this is the kind of "trust" that is common in business and among criminals and its source is rational. Game Theory in mathematics deals with questions of calculated trust. We should trust wholeheartedly but know who to entrust with what. Then we will be rarely disappointed.

As opposed to popular opinion, trust must be put to the test, lest it goes stale and staid. We are all somewhat paranoid. The world around us is so complex, so inexplicable, so overwhelming - that we find refuge in the invention of superior forces. Some forces are benign (God) - some arbitrarily conspiratorial in nature. There must be an explanation, we feel, to all these amazing coincidences, to our existence, to events around us.

This tendency to introduce external powers and ulterior motives into our reality permeates human relations, as well. We gradually grow suspicious, inadvertently hunt for clues of infidelity or worse, masochistically relieved, even happy when we find some.

The more often we successfully test the trust we had established, the stronger our pattern-prone brain embraces it. Constantly in a precarious balance, our brain needs and devours reinforcements. Such testing should not be explicit but circumstantial.

Your husband could easily have had a lover or your partner could easily have absconded your money - and, behold, they haven't. They passed the test. They resisted the temptation offered to them by circumstance.

Trust is based on the ability to predict the future. It is not so much the act of betrayal that we react to - as it is the feeling that the very foundations of our world are crumbling, that it is no longer safe because it is no longer predictable. We are in the throes of death of one theory - and the birth of another, as yet untested.

Here is another important lesson: whatever the act of betrayal (with the exception of grave criminal corporeal acts) - it is frequently limited, confined, and negligible. Naturally, we tend to exaggerate the importance of the event. This serves a double purpose: indirectly it aggrandises us. If we are "worthy" of such an unprecedented, unheard of, major betrayal - we must be worthwhile and unique. The magnitude of the betrayal reflects on us and re-establishes the fragile balance of powers between us and the universe.

The second purpose of exaggerating the act of perfidy is simply to gain sympathy and empathy - mainly from ourselves, but also from others. Catastrophes are a dozen a dime and in today's world it is difficult to provoke anyone to regard your personal disaster as anything exceptional.

Amplifying the event has, therefore, some very utilitarian purposes. But, finally, the emotional lie poisons the mental circulation of the liar. Putting the event in perspective goes a long way towards the commencement of a healing process. No betrayal stamps the world irreversibly or eliminates other possibilities, opportunities, chances and people. Time goes by, people meet and part, lovers quarrel and make love, dear ones live and die. It is the very essence of time that it reduces us all to the finest dust. Our only weapon - however crude and naive - against this unstoppable process is to trust each other.

3. What are the pros and cons of online dating? Do you recommend it and why or why not?

A. The only reason and justification to date online is if you have no access to venues where you can date "real" people face-to-face, instead of mere avatars. Online dating is a disaster waiting to happen. To start with, it is unsafe as it affords no way to establish the identity of your interlocutor or correspondent. It also denies you access to critical information, such as your potential partner's body language; the pattern of his social interactions; his behavior in unexpected settings and circumstances; his non-scripted reactions; even his smell and how he truly looks, dresses, and conducts himself in public and in private. Frequently in online dating, the partners use each other as "blank screens" onto which they project dreams, wishes, and unfulfilled needs and yearnings. They are bound to be disappointed when online push comes to offline shove.



4. Besides online dating, where can divorced adults meet new people (especially those who are not into the bar scene)?


A. Divorced adults are surrounded with eligible partners: at work, on the street, in the elevator, the clinic, next to the traffic lights, buying a newspaper, pushing a shopping cart at the mall. The problem is that of mindset, not of opportunity. Divorcees are in such agony that many of them withdraw and "block out" new information, potentials, and possibilities. Additionally, their narcissistic defenses kick in and they feel entitled to "something or someone better". They become overly selective, pose unrealistic demands, and subject people they have recently met to a battery of tests that all but guarantee failure. It's like they are self-defeatingly punishing wannabe partners and would-be mates and spouses for the sins of, and abusive misbehavior and maltreatment meted out by their exes.

5. How should parents explain to their children that they are starting to date again? What advice do you give to parents who have children? What should parents do if their children do not like the person they are dating?

A. It depends on: (1) Whether the divorce was consensual and amicable or ugly and rupturous (2) Who is perceived by the child to have been the "guilty" party (3) How old the kids are and (4) Whether one of the parents or both use the child to taunt, torment, and punish their counterparties. The parent should explain to his children his or her emotional needs. The parent should not supplicate, ask for the child's permission, or pose as the child's equal or "partner". He or she should simply share. The child should be kept fully informed at all times regarding developments that may affect it: a date that is turning into something more serious and may alter living or custody arrangements, for instance. The parent should make clear his or her priorities and, as much as possible, foster the child's sense of safety, emotional stability, and certainty that he is loved. But, the child should not have a veto power over the parent's predilections, choices, and, ultimately, decisions.

6. What red flags or warning signs should newly single adults be aware of? What advice do you give newly single people about first dates (i.e., where to go, what to do, how much to say about previous relationships, how much personal information to share, etc.)?

A. See the article above.

7. When should men or women break off a relationship? How should they know if the relationship is not going anywhere or could be a bad situation?

A. That's an easy one: when they are profoundly unhappy and also incapable of hoping or believing that things could or would get better, no matter what they do and how much they invest in the relationship. It is essential to maintain an on-going and honest dialog with oneself and to let your inner voice guide you as, undoubtedly, it knows best.

8. How does dating differ for different age groups (i.e., a newly divorced 20-something year old versus a newly divorced 50-something year old)?

A. The mechanics are the same, but the expectations are different. The divorced 20-odd years old is probably still looking for a partner to establish a family with, as her main priority. Her 50-something years old counterparts are more concerned with companionship, personal growth, and issues related to old age and security. Consequently, these two age groups are bound to home in on different profiles of potential mates.

9. What qualities or characteristics should newly single men and women look for in a new partner? Is it OK to look for Mr. or Mrs. Right Now? How should newly single people know when they have found someone to hold onto?

A. "For what qualities in a man," asked the youth, "does a woman most ardently love him?"

"For those qualities in him," replied the old tutor, "which his mother most ardently hates."

(A Book Without A Title, by George Jean Nathan (1918))

A. Women look for these qualities in men: 1. Good Judgment; 2. Intelligence; 3. Faithfulness; 4. Affectionate behavior; 5. Financial Responsibility.

Men seem to place a premium on these qualities in a woman: 1 Physical Attraction and Sexual Availability; 2. Good-naturedness; 3. Faithfulness; 4. Protective Affectionateness; 5. Dependability.

The infatuation with Mr. Right or Ms. Right, common in the West, is very counterproductive and narcissistic. The romantic delusion that there exists, somewhere, a perfect match, a soulmate, a lost identical twin leads to paralysis, as we keep searching for the best rather than seize upon the good. It is the optimum that we should seek, not the illusory maximum. Dating and pairing is the art of compromise: of overlooking his shortcomings and deficiencies in order to benefit from your prospective partner's good traits and qualities.



10. What do you advise about having friends with benefits? Why?


A. There's nothing wrong with short-term, interim, intermittent, and less committed liaisons that involve sexual gratification as well as companionship. It provides for an oasis of much-needed calm in between more demanding, serious, ad sometimes onerous relationships. As long as this does not become a permanent and predominant pattern, it should be regarded as a welcome addition to the emotional and psychosexual arsenal of singles and the divorced.

11. What is your advice to people still hooking up with their ex? Should they break it off or try to make it work again? Why or why not? How should they approach the subject with their ex?

A. It depends to a large extent on who the ex is. Breaking up to a relationship is like illness to the body: it doesn't have to be terminal. Some couples convalesce, re-establish their bond and reaffirm it. But, if the ex is narcissistic, psychopathic, or paranoid, hooking up again may not be such a great idea. Personality disorders are all-pervasive and intractable. Best stay away and avoid the traps of rescue fantasies and malignant optimism.

You cannot change people, not in the real, profound, deep sense. You can only adapt to them and adapt them to you. If you do find your narcissist rewarding at times - you should consider doing these:

  1. Determine your limits and boundaries. How much and in which ways can you adapt to him (i.e., accept him AS HE IS) and to which extent and in which ways would you like him to adapt to you (i.e., accept you as you are). Act accordingly. Accept what you have decided to accept and reject the rest. Change in you what you are willing and able to change - and ignore the rest. Conclude an unwritten contract of co-existence (could be written if you are more formally inclined).
  2. Try to maximise the number of times that "...his walls are down", that you "...find him totally fascinating and everything I desire". What makes him be and behave this way? Is it something that you say or do? Is it preceded by events of a specific nature? Is there anything you can do to make him behave this way more often?

Remember, though:

Sometimes we mistake guilt and self-assumed blame for love.

Committing suicide for someone else's sake is not love.

Sacrificing yourself for someone else is not love.

It is domination, codependence, and counter-dependence.

You control your narcissist by giving, as much as he controls you through his pathology.

Your unconditional generosity sometimes prevents him from facing his True Self and thus healing.

It is impossible to have a relationship with a narcissist that is meaningful to the narcissist.

Moving On

To preserve one's mental health - one must abandon the narcissist. One must move on.

Moving on is a process, not a decision or an event. First, one has to acknowledge and accept painful reality. Such acceptance is a volcanic, shattering, agonising series of nibbling thoughts and strong resistances. Once the battle is won, and harsh and agonizing realities are assimilated, one can move on to the learning phase.


We label. We educate ourselves. We compare experiences. We digest. We have insights.

Then we decide and we act. This is "to move on". Having gathered sufficient emotional sustenance, knowledge, support and confidence, we face the battlefields of our relationships, fortified and nurtured. This stage characterises those who do not mourn - but fight; do not grieve - but replenish their self-esteem; do not hide - but seek; do not freeze - but move on.


Having been betrayed and abused - we grieve. We grieve for the image we had of the traitor and abuser - the image that was so fleeting and so wrong. We mourn the damage he did to us. We experience the fear of never being able to love or to trust again - and we grieve this loss. In one stroke, we lost someone we trusted and even loved, we lost our trusting and loving selves and we lost the trust and love that we felt. Can anything be worse?

The emotional process of grieving has many phases.

At first, we are dumbfounded, shocked, inert, immobile. We play dead to avoid our inner monsters. We are ossified in our pain, cast in the mould of our reticence and fears. Then we feel enraged, indignant, rebellious and hateful. Then we accept. Then we cry. And then - some of us - learn to forgive and to pity. And this is called healing.


All stages are absolutely necessary and good for you. It is bad not to rage back, not to shame those who shamed us, to deny, to pretend, to evade. But it is equally bad to get fixated on our rage. Permanent grieving is the perpetuation of our abuse by other means.

By endlessly recreating our harrowing experiences, we unwillingly collaborate with our abuser to perpetuate his or her evil deeds. It is by moving on that we defeat our abuser, minimising him and his importance in our lives. It is by loving and by trusting anew that we annul that which was done to us. To forgive is never to forget. But to remember is not necessarily to re-experience.

Forgiving and Forgetting

Forgiving is an important capability. It does more for the forgiver than for the forgiven. But it should not be a universal, indiscriminate behaviour. It is legitimate not to forgive sometimes. It depends, of course, on the severity or duration of what was done to you.

In general, it is unwise and counter-productive to apply to life "universal" and "immutable" principles. Life is too chaotic to succumb to rigid edicts. Sentences which start with "I never" or "I always" are not very credible and often lead to self-defeating, self-restricting and self-destructive behaviours.

Conflicts are an important and integral part of life. One should never seek them out, but when confronted with a conflict, one should not avoid it. It is through conflicts and adversity as much as through care and love that we grow.

Human relationships are dynamic. We must assess our friendships, partnerships, even our marriages periodically. In and by itself, a common past is insufficient to sustain a healthy, nourishing, supportive, caring and compassionate relationship. Common memories are a necessary but not a sufficient condition. We must gain and regain our friendships on a daily basis. Human relationships are a constant test of allegiance and empathy.

Remaining Friends with the Narcissist

Can't we act civilised and remain on friendly terms with our narcissist ex?

Never forget that narcissists (full fledged ones) are nice and friendly only when:

  1. They want something from you - Narcissistic Supply, help, support, votes, money... They prepare the ground, manipulate you and then come out with the "small favour" they need or ask you blatantly or surreptitiously for Narcissistic Supply ("What did you think about my performance...", "Do you think that I really deserve the Nobel Prize?").
  2. They feel threatened and they want to neuter the threat by smothering it with oozing pleasantries.
  3. They have just been infused with an overdose of Narcissistic Supply and they feel magnanimous and magnificent and ideal and perfect. To show magnanimity is a way of flaunting one's impeccable divine credentials. It is an act of grandiosity. You are an irrelevant prop in this spectacle, a mere receptacle of the narcissist's overflowing, self-contented infatuation with his False Self.

This beneficence is transient. Perpetual victims often tend to thank the narcissist for "little graces". This is the Stockholm syndrome: hostages tend to emotionally identify with their captors rather than with the police. We are grateful to our abusers and tormentors for ceasing their hideous activities and allowing us to catch our breath.

12. When is the right time to move a date/relationship into the bedroom? What precautions should people take before entering the bedroom? What advice do you have when it comes to sex?

A. The sooner, the better. If he strikes you as a "candidate", if she strikes you as a potential partner, it is time to hit the sack. Sexual incompatibility is the reason for a majority of breakups and divorces. Better to get this issue out of the way before things get more serious. If you find that he repels you sexually; if you find her unimaginative or frigid; if you find him clumsy and irritating; if you find her perfunctory or domineering - better put an end to it now, before you commit yourselves and get entangled emotionally.

Of course, all the precautions apply: gather information about your prospective partners from his/her friends, family, and colleagues; insist on protected, safe sex; make clear, in advance, what you are willing to do and where do you draw the line. But, otherwise, go for it now, before it is too late. Find out if you are a true couple in bed as well as away from the sheets.


next: The Toxins of Abuse - The Abuser's Body Language

APA Reference
Vaknin, S. (2009, October 1). The Toxins of Abuse: How to Spot an Abuser on Your First Date, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Last Updated: July 5, 2018

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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