10 Ways To Notice An Abuser: How Our Brains Adapt To Domestic Abuse

Photo: getty
couple in bed

Abuse can insidiously sneak its way into relationships. Often, you feel blindsided by the signs of abuse.

You don’t know what happened. How did you get here? Without warning, suddenly your world is reeling, uncontrollably.

How do you catch the signs of abuse before it's too late? First, you have to know why it happens.

I’m a survivor of domestic violence. It’s an important topic for me. It’s important that women — and men — understand how it happens in order to reduce domestic violence.

I was young and very naive when I got married. Coming from a religious family, they taught me that once married, you stayed and stuck it out. Love would get you through. Commitment to God was the glue.

What I didn’t know is that it takes more than love.

RELATED: If He Does These 12 Things, You're Being Emotionally Abused

As the years went by, the signs of abuse presented themselves.

I, however, seemed to adjust well, though. Barely noticing or brushing it off as insignificant. Being lied to was commonplace and, somehow, I was able to normalize it by thinking, "No one has the perfect marriage."

I was loving even when he wasn’t loving back. I thought my job was to focus on loving others. It didn’t occur to me that it was abusive behavior.

When I finally got the courage to leave, after six months of separation, he beat me up brutally. I don’t know how I survived.

Afterward, trying to put myself back together again and find some sliver of myself to glue together, I beat myself up for not leaving sooner, not paying attention to the signs, and not speaking up. My mind tortured me with regret.

Why didn’t I see the signs? Why did I do this? Why didn’t I do that?

On the outside, I looked like I was doing great. Internally, I was a terribly broken mess.

I started healing. I was hungry for knowledge, reading books, going to therapists and groups. It was great! I felt hopeful.

All the information put the onus of responsibility on me to be the one that needed to change. That felt empowering.

I can change it! I had to change. I wanted to change! I wanted to change myself to fix whatever was causing me to attract this type of situation.

And change, I did.

However, I never stopped looking for answers or reasons because it didn’t feel complete. Something was missing.

I continued to find answers. It was like peeling onion layers. Fast-forward to decades later, I understand, now, how the mind works and how to avoid falling into those default decisions.

When I was young and naïve, they conditioned me to accept abuse to enable addictions, to make excuses for my husband, and to stay. It wasn’t me that decided back then, my default programming did.

Now, even though I know I didn’t do it consciously, I still had to be the one to continue changing and change I have.

However, I did more than change. I’ve gained an incredible amount of knowledge on how the brain affects relationships and attraction.

Knowing why I missed the signs and knowing why those decisions were made by me.

Gave me a sense of peace. It was my conditioned brain, my subconscious, that was actually trying to keep me safe. I now know that when the brain feels threatened, it will protect itself, and often fawn.

Fawn as in backing down or give in for safety.

The brain doesn’t wait for permission; it happens quickly. Fawning, for me, was accepting the abuse in my relationship and not telling anyone about it. My brain was trying to protect me from harm.

As I’ve had an insatiable appetite for the way the mind works and how we navigate and relate in relationships, I stumbled upon Dina McMillan’s work. I love her work! Finally, it all made sense!

Dina L. McMillan has a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Stanford University and has counseled many female victims and male perpetrators of domestic violence.

She provides training for human service professionals, advises the government on domestic violence policy, and assists agencies in developing domestic violence support programs.

She explains in her book But He Says He Loves Me how to tell if a man (speaking of the majority here — women can be domestic violators, too) is an abuser and an emotional manipulator.

McMillan says, "When our brains are hooked we have only one option — one protection — one defense that is to get away from them. Your brain adapts to this process quickly and you are unaware of it."

RELATED: 13 Acts Of Emotional Abuse Commonly Misinterpreted As 'Acts Of Love'

There are reasons why you might not notice that your partner is an abuser and why you're still hooked on them.

Your brain gets conditioned to not have boundaries, tolerate inappropriate behavior, or stay in relationships. You are set up to be a prime candidate from the beginning.

McMillan says, "The abuser starts right from the beginning, grooming, and testing to see if you are a good fit for them. Showing way too much too soon. They will overpower you with affection, attention, adoration, and even gifts or grandiose promises or gestures. You will be his girlfriend quickly."

You’ll soon be spinning and unable to concentrate or think clearly. The chemistry will be so strong, you’ll feel happy and full of life.

Your brain will be hooked, chemically, but you don’t know what's happening.

It was important to hear and take in that this happens subconsciously and at a level that's much deeper than conscious thought. Our brains get hijacked.

McMillan says, "the abuser will direct their attention to your emotions to divert the other actions and will want to underestimate the impact. You are so overtaken by him you’ll want to overlook it, too."

Here are 10 signs indicating your relationship could turn abusive. 

1. Sharing secrets too soon.

They want you to share your secrets and be vulnerable.

2. They come on strong, fast. 

Everything is too much, too soon.

3. You suddenly feel you've known them forever — but you haven't.

You’ll quickly feel you’ve known them for a long time.

4. They wear you down. 

Your fatigue will make you easier to influence.

5. They promise the world.

They make too many promises.

6. They are quickly future-focused.

They talk too much talk about the future.

7. They make big plans.

They keep making big plans.

8. They treat you as "exclusive."

They swear they're doing things for you that they've never done before.

9. You feel you can't say no.

You find you don’t want to say "no" to them because you don’t want to hurt their feelings.

10. You pity them, giving them endless chances. 

If they do something hurtful, you end up saying to yourself, "Poor them, they deserve another chance."

Abusers will do everything in their power to stay in your life.

Remember, if you reject them, they will do everything in their power to stay in your life.

They will ignore your requests and continue to contact you, text you, and show up to where you are.

You can avoid them if you keep in mind that their primary aim is to have control. They want to have you in their life one way or another.

Self-forgiveness is part of healing from domestic abuse. 

My journey continues in my curiosity about how our brain affects our relationships and my journey to understanding myself.

What I gained from this information was that my brain couldn’t resist the situation. I needed to not only take responsibility for my part but also give myself a hug and forgive myself.

I couldn’t have done it differently because I didn’t know the difference.

Self-forgiveness is powerful in our relationship with ourselves. Actually, it's the most important aspect.

If you’re experiencing domestic abuse, you’re not alone. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that approximately 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the U.S. More than 12 million women and men over the course of the year suffer from instances of domestic violence and abuse.

RELATED: I Tolerated Domestic Abuse Because I Was Raised To Think I Deserved It

Lisa Hawkins is a certified life coach, certified cognitive-behavioral therapy coach, and a dating and relationship coach. For more information, visit her website.