Society Magazine

Canaries in Coal Mines: Early Warning Signs of Abuse

Posted on the 16 May 2017 by Brute Reason @sondosia

Yes, I’m still alive and writing! I’ve spent the past few months enjoying life with medication for my sleep disorder and focusing on stuff like hiking, building friendships, baking bread, and learning how to ride a motorcycle. To that end, I’ve recently started a separate blog to document some of those adventures. But now I’m back with a Real Blog Post.

[Content note: sexual assault and abuse. Another note: This post discusses some dynamics common to many forms of violence and abuse, of which sexual assault is obviously a subset. This isn’t to conflate sexual assault with abusive relationships in general, but rather to acknowledge that they often go hand-in-hand and that most sexual violence involves someone the survivor knows.]

Canaries in Coal Mines: Early Warning Signs of AbuseCredit: David & Angie

All too often a friend or client with a long history of abusive relationships or sexual violence asks me, “Why does this keep happening to me? How can I break out of this pattern?”

And most of the time, I’ve had nothing to say. The feminist perspective is that, because you are never to blame for violence or abuse, any “prevention” thereof has to focus on the perpetrator. Implying that there’s a way for you to keep yourself safe(r) by changing your own behavior is victim blaming.

As a response to our nauseating cultural tendency to interrogate survivors about their behavior and insist that they stay safe by dressing like nuns and locking themselves indoors (preferably with an armed guard), this makes sense.

But as I look at the scared but determined person sitting in front of me, asking me these questions, it seems incredibly unhelpful to say, “Well, it’s not your fault that this happens. The only person who can prevent abuse is the abuser. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Okay, now what? Are folks supposed to just sit around patiently waiting for us to replace rape culture with consent culture, teach everyone bystander intervention, establish real consequences for sexual assault, and ostracize all abusers from our communities?

Drawing the line between actual prevention advice and victim blaming is challenging, but it can be done. For starters, don’t give unsolicited advice, and especially don’t give unsolicited advice to someone who’s just disclosed to you that they’ve been the victim of someone else’s fuckery. That’s the sort of thing that makes you really come across like you’re blaming, whether you meant to or not.

Second, recognize that prevention strategies may not be accessible to everyone, every time. The leap from “this might help” to “you have an obligation to do this or else it’s your fault” is really more a hop than a leap in our culture. I think of it like this–many people learn defensive driving so they can try to avoid accidents caused by another driver. But just because you didn’t spot the warning signs of a collision this time doesn’t mean you’re now to blame for a crash caused by someone else. They’re still at fault. Their insurance still pays. The story is still “wow, some asshole totally ran a red right into my car” and not “I fucked up and failed to see that someone in my peripheral vision wasn’t actually decelerating as I drove legally through a green light at or slightly above the speed limit.”

And sometimes there are no warning signs.

Third, acknowledge that the vast, vast majority of advice intended to prevent sexual or emotional violence is bullshit. Most of it focuses on irrelevant factors that the advice-giver has a personal fixation on, such as what people wear or how nice they are to their abusers, and has nothing to do with reality. A lot of it demands that people drastically curtail their lives and freedom for what is, at best, a small increase in safety. For instance, if you stop going out and socializing, you’re probably less likely to encounter a would-be assailant or abuser because you’re not socializing, but at what cost?

Any prevention advice worth listening to has to begin from the premise that sexually and emotionally violent behavior is caused by the person who perpetrates it, and that if they’ve decided to behave that way, you can’t stop them by dressing some particular way or placating them somehow. What you can do is learn to recognize the red flags for such behavior and stay as far away as you can from people who display it.

Most resources about abuse focus on pointing out the signs that a relationship is abusive–for instance, they damage your property or pets, try to isolate you from friends or family, and so on. These signs are important and you should familiarize yourself with them, but the whole thing with abusive relationships is that they’re really hard to get out of. A lot of folks who have been in abusive relationships say that they were caught off guard–“When we first started dating, he was so sweet and loving. I never knew he had this side to him.” Abusers often wait quite a while before revealing their abusive traits and behaviors. By then, their partner is invested in the relationship and leaving would be difficult.

By in paying attention to how abusive people behave, I’ve noticed that they often start giving off red flags a lot earlier. Like, as soon as you meet them, in some cases. Most of us Just don’t see them as red flags. We may even see them as quirky, charming, or romantic.


1. Crossing boundaries. Abusers will often deliberately cross small boundaries to see how you respond. Many of us are vigilant about this when it comes to sex, but it happens in a lot of other contexts. Pushing you to talk about something you’re not ready to talk about, pressuring you to try activities that you’re scared of or uncomfortable with, calling you and apologizing when you said you needed space, showing up uninvited or as a “romantic” “surprise”–basically the plot of any romcom. Some of these things may be totally okay in a context where they’ve been mutually agreed-upon, but otherwise they indicate that your preferences aren’t that important to the other person.

A lot of people think that these small boundary crossings are no big deal even if they’re uncomfortable with them, but that’s because our culture often encourages us to ignore our own gut feelings about people. When people deliberately ignore your stated boundaries, that tells you a lot about who they are. Assume they’ll continue to ignore them, in ways big and small.

2. Making you uncomfortable as a “joke.” Some people seem to find it funny when others are scared or uncomfortable. I suggest staying far away from these people. There’s a huge difference between playing practical jokes on people in order to amuse everyone involved and actually relishing seeing them in discomfort, even if it’s momentary. Most people have a visceral negative reaction to seeing others in pain or distress. Those who have a positive reaction instead are likely to make you feel like crap in order to feel good themselves.

3. Blaming you for others’ choices. One way that red flags for abuse can show up very early on in a romantic relationship is when someone blames their partner for the fact that someone else flirted with that partner or asked them out. It’s a disturbingly common dynamic in monogamous relationships between men and women–the guy sees or hears about another guy asking his girlfriend out, and tries to deal with his jealousy by blaming her and accusing her of having somehow provoked it.

For many people, it’s normal to feel some type of way if someone else hits on their partner. But blaming their partner for a choice someone else made is controlling. And while this is already disturbing in and of itself, it also slides really easily into other, more overtly abusive dynamics. Abusers often blame their own behavior on their victims–“If you weren’t so ______, I wouldn’t have to yell at you.” Abusers often convince themselves that some people (i.e. them) can’t be expected to control their own behavior, and that others should be expected to control it for them.

4. Using double standards. Do they get irritated at you whenever you’re late, but expect you to tolerate their own tardiness? Do they suddenly become tired or busy whenever you want to vent about something, even though they vent to you all the time? Abusers have a way of making others feel like nothing they do is good enough. One of the ways they do this is through double standards.

Aside from blaming others for their own behavior, as I discussed above, abusers will often find all sorts of excuses for their lower standards for themselves. “My job is really stressful; you can’t expect me to listen to you complain when I get home from work.” “I can’t not yell when I’m angry; it’s one of my mental illness symptoms.” You, on the other hand, will not be forgiven for anything, even if you also have a stressful job and a mental illness.If you want your partner to be okay with your lack of punctuality or willingness to listen to them vent, it’s unfair to expect those things from them. They may obviously still choose to be punctual or listen to you, but that’s different. You can also agree as a couple about what exactly to expect from each other. Just because I need you to take care not to wake me up when you come home late doesn’t mean you necessarily care about getting woken up when I’m the one coming home late. But if someone expects from you by default things that they have no intention of expecting from themselves, that’s a red flag.

5. Expressing bigotry towards people like you. If you’re in a relationship with a bigoted person, they may say things like, “You’re not like other girls,” or “I don’t even really see you as black.” They may say hateful and demeaning things about marginalized people and follow that up with, “But you know I don’t mean you.”

But that’s not how bigotry works. They may really see you that way–for now–but the moment you step out of line, it’ll be, “I thought you were different” and “Come on, don’t be like that.” Given the way bigotry and stereotypes work, your partner will probably use them against you whenever you try to set boundaries or advocate for yourself.

When you’re involved with someone who hates, fears, or looks down on people like you, it becomes your never-ending job to prove them wrong–even if you don’t realize you’re doing it. I’ve known a lot of people who were shocked when, in the middle of a heated argument, their partner suddenly spat out words they’d never heard them use–“whore,” “f****t,” “n****r,” “cunt.” I clearly remember a few moments when I suddenly transformed from a girl, a woman, a partner, into a fucking bitch. I knew then that to them, I was always just a step, a word, from being “like other girls.” From being a “fucking bitch.”

That’s why bigotry towards people like you is a red flag, no matter how kind and respectful they’re being towards you right now. And bigotry towards one marginalized group is good evidence of bigotry towards others.

6. Gaslighting. So much has already been written about gaslighting that I won’t give it much space here, but in a nutshell: gaslighting is denying and invalidating your feelings and experiences, making you feel like you could be wrong about your own perceptions. Gaslighting isn’t the same thing as disagreeing with you about your interpretation of something (“Are you sure this means she hates you? It sounds to me like she’s upset at you for what you said”); it’s disagreeing with you about something that you have knowledge of and the other person doesn’t (“I’m sure he didn’t really do that; he’s a nice guy”; “Come on, there’s nothing to be so upset about”). Gaslighting is usually pervasive in abusive relationships and it’s one of the main ways they function–by making the person being abused distrust or ignore their own perception of reality in favor of the abuser’s.

But gaslighting can also come up in subtle ways when you’re first getting to know someone, before they have enough influence over you to gaslight you “successfully.” Like I discussed above with boundary crossings, we often ignore these apparently-harmless interactions. For some people, especially men, gaslighting is practically a style of social interaction (especially when they’re interacting with women). While it may never escalate into something that would actually harm you, it’s at the very least annoying and at worst, potentially a very red flag.

A great way to test this when you’re first meeting someone is to tell them a story about a time you were hurt by someone, and how you felt. For maximum effectiveness, choose a story that involves someone that that person might identify with. If you’re on a first date with a white cis guy, tell him a story about a white cis guy. Watch him get really uncomfortable and start pulling out rhetorical moves such as, “Aren’t you overreacting a little?” and “It can’t have been that bad.” Then tell him it’s not going to work out and sashay away.

7. Saying one thing and doing another. 

One of the most destabilizing traits of many abusive or otherwise unsafe people is that they will repeatedly tell you what they intend to do and then do the opposite. It’s sort of a gaslighting-adjacent behavior in that it leaves you really confused and uncertain of whether or not they really did agree to whatever it is they said they’d do.

As an extreme example, I’ve known people who would ask their partner to put on a condom, and the partner would reply “Oh of course” and then literally proceed to have sex without the condom. But it also happens in non-sexual situations and with other types of boundaries, and although the person will often try to chalk it up to a bad memory or their own confusion, that’s rarely it. I once asked a partner to stop doing certain things that I found patronizing and described exactly which behaviors I took issue with, and that partner would agree to stop doing those things, but by next week would be doing them again.

I mean, could it be a memory issue? I suppose so. But if you can’t trust someone to remember your clearly stated boundaries, that’s a problem.


All of these behaviors could be (and frequently are) explained away as some combination of good intentions, mental illness symptoms, genuine miscommunication, garden variety human hypocrisy, and more. Doing a few of these things doesn’t automatically make someone an abuser.

But I encourage folks to move away from questions like “Did the person mean to be hurtful/controlling/etc” and instead ask questions like, “Does this work for me? Can I be in a healthy relationship with someone who acts like this?”

Assume, too, that these behaviors will escalate. Small boundary crossings will probably turn into bigger ones. “Oh, come on, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad” turns into “How dare you accuse me of this horrible thing I never did.” “When I saw you sitting all alone and looking so beautiful, I couldn’t help but to come and talk to you” turns into “You can’t expect me to control myself when I’m turned on.”

Setting firm boundaries right away rather than waiting till later can help truly well-intentioned people improve their behavior, and convince the ill-intentioned ones that you’re onto them. “I don’t appreciate pranks like that.” “Stop asking me to try this [food/activity/drug/sexist TV show/etc]. I said no.” “Actually, you weren’t there; I was. I know what I experienced.” “Whoa, that’s pretty fucking racist and I don’t care if you think I’m an exception to that. I’m leaving.”

Feeling uncomfortable setting boundaries is normal and okay; it takes practice. But if you feel unsafe setting boundaries–if you’re actively worried that the person will yell at you, become physically violent, gaslight or guilt-trip you, or so on–that’s a red flag in and of itself. We will all need to set boundaries at some point in every close relationship, and in many casual or professional ones, too. If you have the option to avoid someone that you feel unsafe setting boundaries with, I suggest taking that option.

But we can’t avoid all abusive people forever; unfortunately, many of us will experience abusive family members, friends, partners, bosses, or others. Blaming people for “letting” abuse happen is one way that many people try to cope with that reality, but it doesn’t work and it’s unjust.

Sometimes, though, gut feelings and a good knowledge of how abuse works can help us NOPE out of potentially shitty situations before they develop. Hopefully this helps someone.


Brute Reason does not host comments–here’s why.

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