Dating Emotional Predators: Signs to Look Out For by Shahida Arabi
Dating an emotional predator, a narcissist, a sociopath or anyone else who has the potential to be an abusive or toxic influence in your life is a devastating emotional roller coaster of highs and lows. Although many abusers tend to unfold and reveal their true selves long after they’ve already reeled their victims in, there are some key signs to look out for when dating someone that can foreshadow their future behavior.
The great thing about dating is that you are not committing to a relationship, so you can use this process as a way to find out more about a potential partner, and if necessary, cut ties should he or she turn out to have abusive traits without investing further in the relationship.
Here are some signs to look out for.
1) A need for control. Abusers want to control and manipulate their victims, so they will find covert ways to maintain control over you psychologically. They can maintain this control in a diverse number of ways:
Excessive contact. Although many people don’t realize this, excessive flattery and attention from a charming manipulator is actually a form of control because it keeps you dependent on their praise. If you find yourself being bombarded with text messages, voicemails, calls and e-mails on an hourly basis in the early stages of dating, keep a lookout for other signs.
It might seem incredible that someone is so besotted with you after just one date, but it’s actually a red flag for dubious behavior and unwarranted attachment. It’s not normal to be in contact with someone 24/7 especially if you’ve only gone on a couple of dates with them. No one has the time to “check in” constantly with someone they’re “just” dating.
This form of contact is perfect for abusers to “check in” with you to see what you are up to, to make sure that you are suitably “hooked” to their attention, and is a form of “idealization” which will place you on a pedestal that at first, seems irresistible. Of course, if you’re familiar with the vicious abuse cycle of narcissists which include idealization, devaluation and discard, you’ll know that you’ll soon be thrust off the pedestal.
An unhealthy response to rejection or boundaries. Unlike dating partners who are simply excited to see you again and express their interest with polite enthusiasm, toxic partners will get considerably upset if you choose not to respond to them right away or if you resist their idealization by giving yourself necessary space. They won’t wait for your response, either: they will continue to persist and pursue you with an unhealthy level of attention without knowing much about you. This level of attentiveness is not actually “flattering” even though it may appear so initially – it’s downright creepy and dangerous. It reveals a sense of entitlement to your time and presence without regard for your personal preferences, desires or needs.
When you place boundaries with a potentially toxic partner, they will be sure to step over them. If you say no to coming home with them on a first date, for example, they may still continue pestering you despite knowing your reluctance. When your “no” always seems like a negotiation to someone you’re dating, beware. This means you’re in the presence of someone who does not respect your right to make your own choices and maintain your boundaries or values.
Physical aggression. As perpetual boundary-breakers, abusers can also overstep the physical space of their victims. This type of behavior may not come out until months into a relationship, but sometimes abusers can be physically aggressive with you just a few dates in. Grabbing you too harshly, pushing you during an argument or conflict, violating your personal boundaries in any way, pressuring you for sex, touching you inappropriately without consent is a red flag that must be heeded. It’s a sign that things will only get worse in the future.
This physical aggression may happen under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, so you’re not quite sure what to make of it except that you feel threatened and unsafe. Don’t attempt to justify this if it happens with or without the involvement of alcohol – alcohol may lower inhibitions, but it doesn’t cause personality transplants. It’s very likely that the abuser is revealing his or her true behavior even while claiming that the “drink” made him or her do it.
Mistreatment of others. Even if the abuser idealizes you quite convincingly in the early stages of dating, you may witness his or her behavior towards others as a red flag of future behavior. For example, is he or she rude to the waiter or waitress on your date? Does he or she get excessively angry if another person flirts with you, talks to you or hits on you in front of them? How about the way they talk about others? If they call their ex a “crazy psychopath” and include a whole range of expletives about their annoying coworker, recognize that these are toxic temper issues which you will eventually be on the receiving end of.
Demonstration of unwarranted anger is an incredibly important tactic that abusers use to 1) preserve their self-image and their ego, 2) project blame onto others, 3) take back control by recreating a “version of events” that makes them look superior and saintly and 4) evoke fear and intimidate others into doing what they want.
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2) Addicted to provoking you.
Covert manipulators are quite gifted at provocation. As they learn more about you, they are investigating your weak spots and catering their comments towards what they know will hurt you the most. Knowing you’re triggered by their comments gives them a sadistic sense of satisfaction that alleviates their secret sense of inferiority and strokes their delusions of grandeur, control and aptitude. Having control over your emotions also gives them the power to effectively manipulate you and convince you that you don’t deserve any better.
Debasing comments about your personality, your looks, your line of work, what you should wear, who you should hang out with, are all inappropriate, especially when just getting to know someone. If you find yourself frequently confronted with these so-called “helpful” comments in the first few dates, be wary. Nobody should be trying to “change” you immediately when they’re just getting to know you, and if they are, this is a recipe for chaos.
These provocative comments might be disguised as constructive criticism or “just jokes,” but you can distinguish them because they are often comments laced with condescension rather than compassion and consideration. Harsh teasing that serves no other purpose but to ignite your anger or annoyance, put you down and insult you is different from playful teasing which is used to flirt and build rapport with a partner.
Sarcasm. Beware of the tactics of the covert sarcastic put-down. Sarcasm is one of the mighty weapons in an abuser’s arsenal. Emotional predators enjoy invalidating your thoughts, opinions and emotions by making frequent sarcastic remarks that shame you into never questioning them again. Since sarcasm isn’t often considered “abusive” by society, abusers use it as a way to escape accountability for their harsh, condescending tone and belittling behavior. They become more and more condescending in their approach to sarcasm over the course of the relationship – what was once a “playful” sarcastic comment now becomes frequent emotional terrorism that questions your right to have an opinion that challenges theirs.
Efforts at making you jealous. If your date consistently brings up past romantic partners, looks at other women frequently on your dates (while furtively checking to see if you’re observing them while doing so), and talks about having a romantic “type” that is quite far from your description, run.
A healthy partner will strive to make you feel secure and cherished, not insecure and doubtful. This could be a form of toxic triangulation in which an abusive partner attempts to create an image of desirability while demeaning your merits so that you are encouraged to compete for his or her attention.
The silent treatment. Abusers may retreat into silence if you question their authority or bring up their mistreatment. This may provoke you into pursuing them even more, in order to try to coerce them into “validating” your emotions and admit that they are in the wrong. Unfortunately, you’re only giving them more power by doing this. They will eventually come around, but only after you’ve vented at them and eventually apologized for being too “harsh” even when you have doing nothing wrong but express yourself.
Image Source: Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney
3) Inconsistent character and behavior.
The most skilled abusers will save the “hot and cold” tactics for when they enter long-term relationships, but other abusers may give you a sample of this even within the first month of dating. They do so by the following:
Projection and Gaslighting. Narcissistic dating partners and other toxic people are also proficient at gaslighting and projection, techniques they use to convince society that their victims are the crazy ones and to convince their victims that their reality is inaccurate. The effects of this type of manipulation are incredibly lethal on victims long-term, so it is important to note signs early on in the dating process so that you can detach more quickly from the different type of reality these toxic partners are likely to impose upon you. Gaslighting and projection are very clever tactics that allow toxic dating partners to simultaneously shift the blame of their own characteristics onto you while also enabling them to escape accountability for their hypocrisy, deceit and otherwise unsavory behavior.
If you find yourself feeling at unease about something a dating partner did or said and later denied, minimized or projected onto you, remember that narcissists enjoy calling others “crazy.” It’s a common word they’ll use to describe any valid emotional reaction victims have to their shady and inconsistent behavior. It is gaslighting in its simplest form but over time becomes a complex type of psychological torture in which the victim starts to mistrust his or her perceptions of the covert abuse and feels unable to trust his or own reality. Stonewalling (shutting down a conversation even before it’s begun), silent treatments and devaluation soon follows in order to maintain control. Narcissists can easily maintain the illusion of their false self whenever their behavior is called out and discredit their victims so that the covert abuse is never recognized or addressed without the dire consequences of you walking on eggshells.
To understand the difference between a partner who provides you constructive criticism or simply disagrees with you and a partner who routinely projects their own qualities and gaslights you, look closely at their actions rather than their words. Does it appear that the person you are dating often accuses you of the same characteristics, traits or actions that they themselves seem guilty of committing? Do they call you a hypocrite when they are the ones who often contradict their proposed beliefs? When you call them out on being rude, do they bring up something irrelevant you did in response, in order to shift the topic back to you instead?
For example, you may meet narcissistic partners who, in the beginning, are very possessive of you, track where you go and who you are with, seem to check up on you 24/7 and call you out if you ever dare to show signs of flirtation or interacting with another man. Yet the moment you ever call out signs of potential infidelity on their part or question any lies that don’t quite add up, they may unleash their narcissistic rage and gaslight you into thinking you are the jealous, possessive one and tell you that you’re getting too heavily invested in the relationship too soon – minimizing the fact that they had been putting you under survellience from the very beginning.
Be careful – the projection and gaslighting of narcissists is so adept, so sneaky, so conniving, and so utterly convincing, that you are often led to apologize for being alive at all.
Superficial charm. I cannot count the endless number of abusers I have met who begin their ploys with superficial charm accompanied by self-absorption and an actual lack of empathy or substance. You can begin to spot how superficial their demeanors are once you’ve had some practice in identifying nonverbal gestures, nuances in facial expressions and tone of voice. Skilled predators are quite charming and you can easily learn to see through this by observing the way they exaggerate how they feel about you and their glib ways of showing you that they “care” when they really don’t.
For example, hearing “I’ve never felt this way about anyone else,” on a first or second date is not only premature, it’s most likely a lie to impress you. When this charm is paired with actions that don’t align with the abuser’s words, like the fact that this person never actually asks you about your interests or passions despite being so “enamored” with you, you’ll soon realize these are just shallow ways of getting into your head (and most likely your bed).
Pathological lying. Do you catch the person in frequent lies or stories that simply don’t add up? Do they “drip-feed” you information so that the full story eventually unravels over time? A girl he hung out with was once just a “female friend,” and now suddenly he mentions that he used to date her. A man she sees for Sunday brunch is “just” a colleague, but then you find out that it’s an ex-husband. It’s true that everyone reserves some crucial information on the first few dates for later and everyone makes mistakes or tells “white lies” to preserve their self-image occasionally. However, if these lies seem to be chronically common, it’s not a healthy pattern to start off a relationship with. Disclosure, honesty and open communication are foreign words to the abuser, who lives in a world of falsehoods.
Frequent disappearances. In the beginning, the person you were dating was constantly on top of you, bombarding you with calls and texts. Suddenly, they disappear for days, only to come back again as if nothing ever happened. These disappearances, which are often staged without convincing explanations, are a way of managing your expectations and making you “pine” for contact.
Attitude changes towards you. Abusers engage in “splitting,” emotional polarization in the ways they view you. You’re either “the one” when you’re meeting their needs or you’re suddenly the villain if you disappoint them in any way or threaten their fragile sense of superiority. Beware of this “hot and cold” behavior, because it’s another tactic to manage your expectations and keep you on your toes. Even if you don’t even like the person, if you tend to be the people-pleasing type, you might fall into the trap of attempting to avoid rejection and win their favor. It’s “reverse psychology” at its finest.
Intermittent reinforcement. This is a psychological tactic that provokes you into trying to please them, even if the abuser is mistreating you. The abuser gets to have you on your “best behavior” without changing his or her own behavior. Abusers love giving “crumbs” after they’ve already seduced their victims with the idea of the whole loaf of bread. You might find yourself on the receiving end of praise, flattery, attention one day, only to be given cold silence the day after. Occasionally you will get the same idealization that you received on the first few dates, but more likely, you will get a mixture of hot and cold, leaving you uncertain about the fate of the relationship.
TIPS FOR DEALING WITH PREDATORS IN DATING:
If you notice any of these red flags after the first few dates or within the first few months of dating, do not proceed. Since within the first few dates you are usually presented with a person’s best behavior, you can be sure that things will not get any better. You cannot fix this person and you run the risk of emotionally investing in someone who is out to deliberately harm you.
Be careful: if you choose to reject an abuser outright, it may infuriate them or he or she may use “pity ploys” or angry harassment to convince you should go out with them again. Going No Contact if someone is bothering you, harassing you or making you feel uncomfortable in any way is a better tactic. Block their number and any other means they might use to communicate with you. If they’ve been disrespectful, they don’t deserve a polite response.
Should they continue to harass you, document the evidence and tell them you will take legal action if necessary. If you’re trying online dating, make sure you block the predator from the site you are using after you document their messages by using screenshots.
Tread lightly when you’re dating someone new. Don’t give out personal information like your address, home telephone number or other means of reaching you besides a cell phone number. If possible, use an alternative like a Google Voice number or other text messaging app while still getting to know someone. You must put your safety and privacy first.
Resist projection and gaslighting. Stick to what you know to be true. Do not allow your toxic dating partner to minimize or deny things he or she may have said or done. When a dating partner attempts to gaslight you or project qualities onto you, know that this is a clear red flag of emotional infancy that will not be suitable for a long-term relationship. It is helpful to keep a journal during your dating process to note any inconsistencies, red flags, emotions and/or gut feelings that may arise. You will want to refer to this journal often in order to keep grounded in your own perceptions and inner sense of truth.
Keep your eyes open. Be willing and open to recognizing both the bad and the good. While we all want to see the best in people, it’s important not to also gaslight ourselves into denying or minimizing the signs that someone is not compatible with us. The signs will always be there, and even if they don’t present themselves quite as visibly, your gut instinct will tell you when something is not quite right.
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Have you noticed any of these signs while dating a toxic person? Do you have any other signs that should be added to this list? Comment below and share your thoughts!
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About the Author
Shahida Arabi is a graduate student at Columbia University and the author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Self-Care, a bestselling Kindle book also available in print. She graduated summa cum laude from NYU as an undergraduate student, where she studied Psychology and English Literature. Her interests include psychology, sociology, education, gender studies and mental health advocacy. You can check out her new blog, Self-Care Haven, for topics related to mindfulness, mental health, narcissistic abuse and recovery from emotional trauma, like her page on Facebook, and subscribe to her YouTube Channel.
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