Thinking about a partner's behaviour in this way can be helpful by allowing you the space to prioritise your safety and well-being.
“He’s really a great guy, though.”
“I know this isn’t okay, but she’s made me feel so special, and I just love her so much.”
“They were so loving and sweet, and the good times are the best I’ve ever had.”
We often hear statements like this from people who contact us. Many struggle to understand why their partners, who were once incredibly kind and loving, now treat them in hurtful and abusive ways. I t can be so confusing because the abuse isn’t constant. Most partners aren’t abusive all the time, so it makes sense to think they could go back to being that “kind and loving” person and stay there. In most of these relationships, though, when a partner acts in a nice way, it’s really just that: an act. Thinking about their behaviour in this way can be helpful by allowing you the space to prioritise your safety and well-being.
Act I: Auditioning for the Role
How Abusive Partners Initiate Relationships
A common trait of many abusive partners is that they are really charming, especially at the beginning of a relationship and in the first stages of dating. You might begin to feel like they understand you better than any other partners before and can treat you better because of it. Under these conditions, it would be hard for anyone not to become really attached and develop strong feelings of love unlike anything they’ve felt in the past. We also hear from a lot of survivors of abuse that their relationship moved faster than perhaps they were comfortable with in the beginning because their abusive partner “swept them off their feet". There are two sides to this coin, though. Being treated in new ways can be a really great thing, but it also means not knowing what to expect or how to respond. Abusive and controlling partners will slowly start to choose unhealthy and then abusive behaviours. It can become difficult to identify whether what’s happening is healthy, and it’s easier to excuse this behaviour since you’re focused on how different and great things had been until now.
Act II: Putting on the Show
How Abusive Partners Maintain the Control They’ve Taken
Just as their initial charm was a part of their act, so are the times when they return to that charming person. When the unhealthy or abusive behaviour begins to escalate, you may have a gut instinct that something isn’t right, even if it’s hard to figure out why. But, it can be tough to trust that instinct, especially after experiencing the lovely charming person at the beginning of your relationship. Abusive partners acknowledge this instinct, and that’s one reason why abusive relationships usually don’t start out with abuse. The escalation tends to happen over time after they have shown you their charming act.
However, that doesn’t mean the escalation of abusive behaviour is predictable. The phrase “cycle of abuse” isn’t entirely accurate because it implies patterns and levels that can be measured or predicted. You might want to test how bad is “too bad” and where you think you should draw the line, and clearly this is a question that only you can answer. It is important to remember that abusive behaviour is a choice, it happens when that person chooses it, which won't be something you can predict. The loving, kind, sweet act they put on for you is a primary tactic they use to maintain the control they’ve taken. Moving back and forth between the good and bad behaviour is an intentional manipulation tactic that works on your desire for them to return to the charming partner they were in the beginning. You may find yourself questioning your own actions, especially if they blame you for their abusive behaviours because clearly, they can choose to behave lovingly. But it’s important to recognise that their minimising and excuses for the behaviour are part of the abuse, too. If they were abusive all the time, you might be more likely to leave or seek help sooner, as you wouldn't have the hope of the nice behaviour to hold onto.
Act III: The Audience Response
What Others Say About the Abuser
Another aspect of the abuser’s performance that makes it really difficult to see things clearly is that their partners are usually, though not always, the only ones who get to see both of the parts they play. People with controlling, unhealthy and abusive attitudes know their behaviour is not okay. That’s why they don’t show it to most of the people in their lives or treat others with the same level of abuse. This can add to a victim’s confusion. When everyone else is saying how great they are and admiring their charming behaviour, it might validate the hope that the good behaviour is the “real” person. It can be incredibly hard to trust your instincts if you think you’re the only person worried that something isn’t right, or like you’re the one causing the abuse.
An additional complication is the fact that gaslighting is one of the most common and effective abuse tactics. With this tactic, an abuser actively tries to make their victim question reality or if what they believe is actually true. If you’re constantly questioning your reality or your partner’s behaviour, one helpful thing to do is to keep a journal (if it’s safe for you to do so, and you’re able to keep it in a place your abusive partner does not have access to).
With all of these layers, it’s understandable that someone would focus on the good and ignore the bad. However, no one should ever have to experience hurtful or abusive behaviour for any reason. Everyone deserves respect and equality in their relationship at all times.
Act IV: Performance Review
Evaluating and Reframing the Good Behaviour
Thinking about a partner’s “good behaviour” in this way can be helpful for those still in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, as well as for those who question their decision after leaving. Constantly wondering which behaviours are the “real” person is absolutely normal and valid, no matter how hurtful a partner has been or for how long. People who choose to be abusive often have an underlying attitude of entitlement and privilege, which is something that is very difficult to change. Apologising and temporarily acting “nice” again are not true indications of change. Real change takes time and a tremendous amount of effort and commitment.