In my last post, I tried to explain how difficult it is to recognize a covert abuser, especially if you are ignorant of the dynamics of abuse. Abusers are so deceptive and manipulative, and so skilled at making their victims second-guess themselves, that it’s even difficult for victims to recognize abuse. EJ and I have struggled with abusive family throughout our marriage, we have spent years educating ourselves, and we still second-guess and blame ourselves. But over the years, as I have experienced various traits and tactics of abusers, I have developed a list of Red Flag behaviors that I personally watch for to help me recognize toxic people. These behaviors are often hidden from outsiders, but they help me and I’ll try to describe them in this post in the hopes that maybe they will help others who are in abusive relationships.
Emotional abuse is much like a game of chess. The goal of chess is to bring down the opposing king. This is done by removing as many of the king’s allies–pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, queen–as possible in order to isolate him and trap him. Without allies, the king is vulnerable to checkmate. Meanwhile, you use your own allies to protect yourself and to attack the opposing king. It’s a very tactical game.
Abusers use similar tactics in their psychological chess game. Using manipulation, lies, and other tactics, they work behind the scenes to remove as many of their victim’s supporters as possible, often turning their family and friends into their own supporters whom they use to protect themselves and attack their victims. Without support, the victim can be isolated and brought down.
Just as there are chess pieces with different roles and movements, so there are different types of people that an abuser uses. These can include well-meaning people who are ignorant of abuse and don’t realize they are being used as pawns. Or they can be people who choose to be willfully blind–they don’t want to see or hear what is happening or get involved. Others know what is happening, but they deliberately choose to align themselves with the abuser. Whether ignorant or deliberate allies, all these people are used to destroy the victim. The terrible thing about the psychological chess game is that the victim is matching wits with a master and she doesn’t even know she’s in the game until suddenly she finds herself surrounded, with no support, fighting for survival.
I have been helped by the realization that abusers and their tactics are actually described throughout the Bible. We call them “abusers.” The Bible calls them “wicked people” or “evildoers.” I’d like you to see just a few of the many similarities between both modern descriptions of abusers and Biblical descriptions of the wicked.
People who are good at the game of chess can easily recognize the type of tactic the opposing player is using in just a few moves. The tactics even have names, such as the King’s Gambit, the Sicilian Defense, the French Defense, and others. I’m not good at chess and I don’t know what any of those names mean (I found them listed on the Internet), but my point is that I’d like to train myself to recognize the behaviors/tactics of abusers in just a few moves so I won’t be totally blindsided and destroyed by them. Over the years, I’ve observed (and experienced) some behaviors that I want to set up as Red Flags to help me recognize abusers.
I think it’s important to note that abuse experts advise that people pay attention to patterns of behavior and that is what we are talking about here. We are not talking about good people who occasionally have a bad day.
Abusive people are incredibly self-centered and controlling, demanding to be given what they want, when they want it, in exactly their way. If something isn’t done as they want, they excessively criticize and/or get very angry.
Excessive meddling is also part of this control. 1 Peter 4:15 says, “Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler.” For many years, I didn’t understand why “meddlers,” also called “busybodies,” were in this list because they seemed relatively harmless compared to the others. However, I’ve come to realize that meddlers are actually people who are on the self-centered end of the spectrum. In varying degrees they take on god-like powers over others: They assume their way is the only correct way, they assume they know what is best for others, and they assume they have the right to override the free-will of others. I’ve known some who have dictated such things as what opinions others should hold, what foods to eat (or not), where to shop, how to drive, where to live, what friends they should (or shouldn’t) have, what books to read (or not), what Bible version to read, what time of day to read the Bible, and so on. Most people occasionally meddle, but they also respect boundaries if told to back off. Abusers meddle excessively and refuse to respect boundaries when asked.
Bullying is also a type of controlling behavior. It is defined as “seeking to harm, intimidate, or coerce (someone perceived as vulnerable).” Bullying is anything that is used to try to pressure/force a person to do something against her will. A bully can be an individual or a group. Sometimes an emotional abuser will stir up others to bully his or her victim.
All forms of control ignore healthy boundaries and are attempts to take away the freedoms of others–their right to have their own preferences, their own opinions, their own choices. Controlling behavior can sound nasty or sound “nice,” “reasonable,” or even “spiritual.” It can involve threats, anger, insults or more covert methods such as guilt, shame, ridicule, patronizing statements. People who control have the attitude that there’s MY way or the wrong way–which leads me to the next behavior:
Attitude of Superiority/Arrogance
There are two different ways that these attitudes are revealed: Sometimes it is very obvious that people believe they are superior–they are boastful, arrogant, treat others as if they have less intelligence or value. Other times it is more covert. Superiority can masquerade as caring, doing what is best for others, being more humble or righteous than others.
For example, a couple who led a small group that EJ and I used to belong to often stated that “Most people cannot handle the truth so we must handle it for them.” They assumed they were wiser and more spiritual than others. They treated others–all with an attitude of caring–as if they were simple little children who didn’t know what was best for them. But God never tells us to “manage” other people or to make the truth “easier” for them by manipulating it. He says instead that “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
There are also what we call “toppers.” Their attitude is like the song in the old movie, Annie Get Your Gun: “Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.” They don’t lift others up, they lift themselves. If a person shares that she had stayed up until midnight packing boxes for the poor, a “topper” virtuously comments that she stayed up far later and packed twice as many boxes. If someone jokes about never knowing what to fix for meals until the last moment, a topper shares that she prepares healthy meals a month in advance. Her marriage is the best ever, her parenting style is without flaw, and so on. I think such people must live in Lake Woebegone where, in their family, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
Being proud of your family or endeavors is not wrong, but excessive “topping” can be. The pattern of having to be the “bestest and mostest,” of never allowing another person to take “center stage,” is a Red Flag that I watch for, especially when other abusive behaviors are also present.
Wanting to win at all costs
I’ve heard a person say that “If I am not winning, I feel as if I am losing–and I don’t want to lose” so he/she has to win no matter what it costs or who it hurts. Such people always seek the advantage for themselves. I’ve also heard, “If a person is not 100% with me, they are against me.” This attitude leaves no room for differences, for compromise, for working together.
I think that the person who has to win all the time is very short-sighted. Galatians 6:7 says “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” These “winners” may win a few things–they may succeed in getting what they want for a while, but they end up losing much more than they win. They lose loving relationships. They lose respect. They might get the promotion by stabbing their co-workers in the back, but they lose their co-workers’ trust and loyalty. They might succeed in avoiding the “inconvenience” of helping others, but eventually people will be less willing to help them out (and rightly so). They might gain the world, but they lose their soul.
Abusive people are extremely manipulative and deceptive.
I’ve heard people who were leaders in their church say that they would have no problem lying to and deceiving others if it accomplished something (they felt was) good. But the way we accomplish something matters, the end should never justify the means. In fact, one of the six things that Prov. 6:6-7 says that God particularly hates is “a lying tongue.” In John 8, Jesus said that those who lie are of their father the devil, who lied from the beginning.
Abusers also twist the truth and falsely accuse their victims and manipulate situations so they appear good and their victims bad. For example, I’ve known some who have provoked in secret and then pointed out their victims’ reactions to others as proof that they are the terrible ones. Or they might show others “proof” that they tried to reconcile and their victims refused, but they don’t mention all the times they were abusive so that the victim now knows that the “apologies” are not genuine.
People who truly love God will not believe lies or deception are good, they will love the truth.
A pattern of double standards is a HUGE Red Flag. Abusers often demand from others things they refuse to give. For example, an abuser would:
The list can go on and on. Whenever someone demands from you things that they would never give, BEWARE.
Lack of Empathy/Compassion
In the beginning, emotional abusers can appear to be extremely loving and compassionate, but it’s an illusion. Once they have your love and trust, the mask falls off and they are extremely callous and uncaring. They might expect you to heap on the compassion for their paper cut, but have absolutely no empathy/compassion for your serious injury.
Greed/Lack of Generosity
Healthy relationships involve a balance of both giving and taking. Sometimes others give, sometimes we do. Sometimes we have a need that they meet, sometimes they have a need that we meet. Generosity flows naturally in a healthy, loving relationship. In contrast, abusive people tend to be takers. No matter how much we help them, it’s never enough. No matter how much we sacrifice, it’s always trivial. They take and take and take without ever giving back. This behavior shows deep self-centeredness, tremendous greed, a sense of entitlement, a lack of love.
No matter how much you give to an abusive person, they are not grateful. They might throw a “thanks” at you now and then, but they always want more, what you do is never enough, and if you ever tell them “no,” they get angry and tell you, “You never do anything for me.”
Gratitude is extremely important, which is why both God and parents try to teach gratitude to their children. A person who is grateful recognizes the sacrifices of time, effort, or money that another person made on their behalf. A grateful person has humility. An ungrateful person has an attitude of greed, arrogance, and selfishness.
Angry Tantrums/Verbal Abuse
I do not believe that all anger is wrong. We ought to be angry about some things, such as abuse, injustice, cruelty, oppression. Anger can motivate us to make good changes in our lives or in society. Psalms 7:11 says that God “is angry with the wicked every day.” In the NT, Jesus was so angry at the money changers that he drove them out of the temple. However, uncontrolled, revengeful anger can destroy. The Bible warns us against this sort of anger:
I have encountered people who fly into a rage whenever they don’t get their way, even in little things. They curse, they insult, they rip people to shreds. I will no longer associate with people who are easily angered.
The wicked borrow and do not repay, (Ps 27:31)
I know that there are many ways that money can be used to abuse, such as an abusive husband who has such excessive control of the finances that he allows his wife very little money and/or demands that she account for every penny she spends. I’ve never experienced that sort of abuse.
However, we have experienced a different form of financial abuse. There are times when we have given money (or items) as a gift, no need to pay us back. There are also times we can’t afford to just give money, so we have lent it to meet a person’s temporarily need. Most of the time when we lend money we set generous repayment conditions, such as “Pay us when you can, or as much as you can afford.” However, we have also had a borrower refused to pay us back, even though it hurt us financially, even after EJ lost his job and we could have really used it. In fact, this person often used the money as leverage, promising to repay us if we did what he wanted or telling us he’d never repay us when he was angry. This person also demanded that we immediately “repay” him for every penny he felt owed to him. For example, if he drove us anywhere, he demanded that we immediately repay every cent for gas, even if it was a short drive or a medical emergency and we were struggling financially.
It reminds me very much of the parable in Matt 18:21-35, in which a king forgave a servant a HUGE debt, but then the servant had a fellow servant put into prison when he couldn’t immediately repay a tiny debt. The king was angered over the servant’s lack of mercy: ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
We will never again lend anything to a person who has refused to repay us because of the lack of integrity, love, mercy, compassion, and generosity that is shown. To continue giving/helping such a person only empowers him. I’ve added to my list the Red Flag that “The wicked borrow and do not repay (Ps 27:31).
Repentance and forgiveness are not easy to write about because it’s been so twisted that it’s difficult to untangle. It would take several posts and many long conversations to pin down what forgiveness is and isn’t. I’ve found that to many people, “to forgive” means to never confront others, to overlook all offensive behaviors, and to unconditionally accept the other person without requiring any change whatsoever. Let me just say this: It is neither unloving nor unforgiving to set healthy boundaries or to stand up to evil.
Forgiveness requires repentance. Apologies and repentance are not the same things. Apologies are easy to give, and they aren’t always genuine. I’m sure we’ve all heard stories of a guy who beats up his wife and then brings her flowers, tearfully crying that he’s sorry and will never do it again. She forgives him, but a while later he beats her up again. And again. And again. The man apologized, but it wasn’t genuine. True repentance involves changed behavior. If you apologize but never change, you are not repentant, you are manipulative, you are abusive. I think Helena Knowlton did a good job explaining forgiveness in this article on her blog: Lies About Forgiveness.
There are other behaviors to watch for, but I think you get the idea. Again, it’s not always easy to see these behaviors when the abuser is hiding his abuse, but eventually his mask comes off–at least to the victim. If a person or situation feels “off,” there probably really is something wrong. And if you begin to see any of the behaviors listed here, you are likely dealing with an abuser.