Dr. Noelle Nelson

Dangerous Relationships
How to Stop Domestic Violence before It Stops You (Insight Books)

CHAPTER 1: SWEPT AWAY (Isn't It Romantic)

"Tell me how it all began," I asked. The attractive middle aged woman in front of me sighed, looked out my office window for a moment, then said, "How it all began? It seems so long ago --like on some other planet!" I waited patiently. It had taken Mary much courage to start therapy. She'd only left her abusive relationship three weeks ago and her wounds, emotional as well as physical, were still fresh. Finally Mary spoke up again: "How it all started? With a kiss! Literally, with a kiss."

Now that she'd started, Mary found it easier to go on. "I was delivering plans to an office building, and as I was rushing down the hall, I heard someone yell 'Wait' I turned around and there was this great looking guy -- real handsome, rugged, kind of like the Marlboro man -- and he was holding one of my rolled up plans I'd apparently dropped. 'You dropped this,' he said, coming over to give it back to me. I put my hand out to take it, and before I could do that he took my hand and kissed it -- real nice -- and said 'You're so beautiful,' and then he like blushed and stammered and dropped my hand real quick and said, 'I shouldn't have done that, I shouldn't have said that, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' and he's backing away and I said 'No, it's OK -- it is -- thanks for picking up my plans,' and he said 'Really, you're not upset with me?' and I said 'No, thanks' and I turned to go. I mean I was getting later by the minute and he said 'Can I call you?' and I'm running at this point, I'm late, and I yelled out 'Sure' and threw one of my business cards his way and kept running. He picked it up and kissed it and just stood there looking until I disappeared out the door.

"When I walked into my office the next morning, there was a single red rose on my desk, with a card that just said 'Delivered with a kiss' on it. No name. But I knew exactly who it was. And then he called. And that's how it all got started."

Mary looked at me for a moment, "Sounds incredible, doesn't it? But that's just how it was -- incredible. Like something out of a romance novel." Mary continued her story: "I was in heaven. I've never felt so beautiful, so wanted, so loved. This was a fairy tale come true -- the most marvelously romantic relationship I'd ever had! John was wonderfully passionate, intense, right from the beginning. I mean, on our third date, he told me I was the woman he'd always dreamed of, that I made him forget all the others. He'd bring me a rose, a single red rose, every time we had a date. After the first week, well, we pretty much were together all the time. I went to bed with him on the second date. I know that was kind of quick, but he was so ardent, he wanted me so badly, I guess he kind of bowled me over."

Adam And Eve In Paradise

"How it all began?" Bob shook his head. "From the way it all began, Doc, I never would have guessed this ending." Bob had divorced his second wife of just 18 months, Karen, less than half a year ago, a wrenching parting that still tugged and pulled at his heart, even though he knew that it was the only sane thing to do. "The beginning was paradise," Bob said, "Hokey as it sounds, that's what it was -- Adam and Eve in paradise."

"I've never been so loved by a woman," Bob continued. "Never. She couldn't keep her hands off me. It was great. Karen had this slinky way with her eyes, she was always looking at me, like eating me up with her eyes. And she was so exciting -- right from the start. She wanted to be with me and do it all the time, telling me how I was the best. She couldn't get enough of me, how I turned her on like no other man.

"From another woman, wanting to be with me all the time like that, I would have felt suffocated -- but Karen was different -- she wasn't clingy, wanting me to be sappy and calling her all the time. She was exciting. She never called to say 'I miss you, where are you?' Karen would call and first thing out of her mouth would be 'I can feel your hands all over me, making me wet -- I can feel them so much it's like you were here right now, oh, I can't take it --' and she'd moan and hang up. I'd be standing there like an idiot, listening to a dial tone, erect as all get out. I couldn't get over to her place fast enough. And it was all the time like that. It's almost like she didn't care what I did, whatever I did, it was great, it excited her. Man, she was a trip!"

Bob got up and paced as he continued, memories returning quickly now. "Even the way we met was exciting. I'd been transferred to another department and so I was just meeting everybody for the first time. People were being real nice, making an effort to introduce themselves, and like that. Karen waltzed into my office with a big cup of hot coffee, sat it on the desk in front of me, perched herself on the side of the desk, crossing those unbelievable legs of hers in this short skirt, and said in a real seductive voice 'Nice and hot, just like you like it -- I hope.' I was stunned. No one had ever come on to me like that - but before I had a chance to react, the woman laughed, hopped off the desk and stuck out her hand at me, 'Hi, I'm Karen. Welcome to the department. We're gonna get along just fine.' She winked and she was out that door. Man. I didn't know what hit me! Talk about outrageous flirt! No one ever flirted with me like that. I'm an ordinary guy, just your regular Joe, I'm OK, but come on, I'm no looker! Well, didn't matter to Karen, she flirted with me so hard you'd have had to be a monk to resist her.

"I fell all right, hard. By the end of the first week she started in on me, I couldn't live without her." The sadness welled up in Bob's voice as he said, "Didn't want to."

A Love For All Eternity

"Funny you should ask that," said Peter, a pleasant looking man with a somewhat quizzical expression, of my "Tell me how it all began" question. "I've been going over the beginning in my mind a lot lately. Of course," he grimaced, lightly touching the side of his neck that was still bruised from his ex-lover Tony's attack several weeks back. "I've had a lot of time to think about these things." "I'm sure you have," I said quietly. "What sticks out most in your mind about how it all began?" Peter thought for a moment, then asked, "How much do you know about the gay community?" "A fair amount," I answered, "I have a number of gay clients."

Peter nodded: "Well, sex often happens quickly in the gay community. It just seems to be one of those things. So I wasn't surprised when Tony wanted to sleep with me right away. But what got to me, I mean really got to me, was how romantic he was! We'd met at a gay club, had sex that night, he left, and I thought, great, that was nice. But the next day, he called first thing in the morning, just to tell me he was thinking of me and how wonderful I was and what a terrific lover I was and wanted to see me again right away. "I thought it was just a sex thing, but when I left work, I found this silly sweet romantic card on the windshield of my car. When I met him later at the club, he had eyes only for me. We didn't sleep together that night -- he said he wanted to cherish just being near me."

Peter was quiet for a moment, lost in his memories. Then, stirring himself, he said, "I started to think, maybe this wasn't just a sex thing, and the next day, you know what he did the next day? He had balloons delivered to my work. He showed up at my door that night with this terrific dinner packed in a picnic basket, which he proceeded to unload in the middle of my living room floor, all because I'd mentioned to him when we were talking the night before how I loved picnics.

"Tony made love to me by candlelight and told me I was the best thing that ever happened to him, that he could think of nothing more wonderful than lying in each other's arms for all eternity. Heck, I was hooked."

A Dynamite Roomate

The young woman sat awkwardly on my couch, twisting her hands nervously in front of her. "I don't know what I'm doing here," she said, "There's nothing you can do, I mean -- it's over." I nodded, waiting. "It's just that I can't sleep, I keep dreaming about the fire. And I'm so scared of people now. I don't understand why it happened. Nothing seems to make sense to me anymore." "Well," I said gently, "Maybe if you talk about it, I can help you sort some of it out. Maybe together we can make some sense of it." "Maybe," Teri said, without much hope in her voice. "Why don't you start at the beginning," I said, "Tell me how you first met Anne, how you became roommates."

"Well, let's see," Teri said. "I moved to the city from the small town I'd grown up in, and right away I started working for X & Y Company. I didn't know much of anything about the insurance business, I was a real raw recruit. I was fumbling, having trouble with stuff, and along came Anne. She was like a savior to me! She'd already been with the company a year or so, and she took it upon herself to show me the ropes. And that was great. She was like always willing to help me out, seemed she always had time for me. Right away we started going to lunch together, and walking to the parking lot together after work, and she'd call and we'd chat after hours. I didn't know anyone yet, having just moved in and all, so I was happy to have found a friend so quickly. Teri blushed, averting her eyes momentarily, "At first I thought maybe Anne had a 'thing' for me, you know? I mean, I'm naive, but I'm not that naive... Anyway, I found out she had boyfriends from time to time, and she never touched me or talked to me in that way, so hey, I relaxed.

"Anne was really nice," Teri continued, "She'd get free tickets to go to ball games and the movies, and we had a great time. She was always telling me how smart I was and how funny, and how much more interesting I was than all the other girls at work. I couldn't see it myself, heck, she was the one who was smart and funny -- and real pretty to boot. I was surprised she didn't have other friends she wanted to spend time with, but she said most people were boring, except for me, of course, and at the time, I wasn't interested in pursuing the issue. All I know is, she made me feel great.

" Anne suggested, about three weeks after I met her, that we should look for an apartment to room together. I would have loved to, but I told Anne, I couldn't, I'd signed a six month lease. Anne said that was no problem, and you know what? Two days later, she pranced into my cubicle with a cat-got-the-cream grin on her face, and slapped a piece of paper down on my desk showing that I was released from the lease! I was amazed -- she just laughed and said 'I usually get what I want.' Then she said 'Better start packing' -- and she was out that door laughing the whole way down the hall. I thought, wow! This is great! Here's someone I like, who treats me terrific, and who would make a dynamite roommate. So we did it. She found a place and we moved in together the next week." Teri stopped in her recitation: "And that's how I met Anne, how we became roommates. If I'd only known what she was really like, I'd never have done it," she said wistfully, "If I'd only known."

Case Analysis

Whether romantic, sexual, or platonic, the beginning of a violent domestic relationship is typically intense. It has an exciting, impassioned quality that tends to unsettle people, throw them off their usual emotional moorings. This puts you at risk, for there are already patterns of abusive behavior evident, that you might not notice given the initial excitement of the relationship. The purpose of this chapter is to describe the abusive characteristics as they first appear in a relationship so you can easily recognize them as early warning signs of potential domestic violence.

Too Much, Too Soon

You are getting everything you ever wanted in a relationship. So much attention, romantic and otherwise, so much affection, so many compliments, that you're carried along on a veritable sea of wonderful emotions and it all feels so good. You never want it to end.

So what's the problem? You're getting too much, too soon. The problem is that all those flattering words, all that attention and affection, are acting like a drug. The brain has a "pleasure center," which when stimulated produces endorphins, the neurotransmitters that make you feel good. When people are flooded with so much of what "feels good", nothing else matters. It's as if the individual's ability to think rationally is put on hold. In scientific experiments, rats who are given cocaine when they press on a bar will literally press that bar until they die. They cease to eat, drink or do anything else that is "normal." So too do humans. When given their "drug of choice" over and over and over they seemingly lose the ability to think straight.

The person being showered with attention and affection doesn't look at the giver of such delights with any degree of objectivity. He or she wants to believe that it's for real. The individual's normal ability to evaluate and form opinion gets put on hold as he or she gives in to the enjoyment of the pleasurable feelings in the moment. They are 'hooked' on the good feelings just as an addict is hooked on drugs. There is little if any thought given to future consequences or implications.

The Drug of Romance

Romance can be a particularly potent drug. John made one romantic gesture after another in such rapid sequence, that Mary was emotionally overwhelmed. We forget that it is just as possible to be emotionally overwhelmed with positive feelings as it is to be overwhelmed with negative ones, and just as mind-numbing. John flooded Mary with romance -- kissing her hand, kissing her business card, staring longingly after her, delivering a single red rose with no name on the card (the adoring mystery man, an undying romantic fantasy), then giving her a red rose on every date. Mary rapidly became hooked on the romance. In this condition, she was unable to stop and look at John to see who he really was, she could only see him as the dispenser of romantic "goodies."

Hooked on Sexual Desirability

Bob got "hooked" on how sexually attractive and desirable Karen's overt sexual advances made him feel. Although Bob wasn't particularly insecure in the sexual arena, he'd never received the kind or amount of sexual attention Karen gave him. Had Karen made her advances within the context and steady progression of a relationship, Bob would not have been emotionally overwhelmed. But in the face of such consistent, persistent sexual attention from a desirable woman Bob felt unbelievably sexually desirable for the first time in his life. That is a tremendously powerful "drug."

Not only were Karen's advances way beyond anything Bob had ever experienced before, but she made her advances immediately, before Bob had any way of integrating Karen's sexual behavior into the overall nature of the relationship. This exemplifies the "too soon" aspect of violent domestic relationship particularly well.

A Matter of Timing

It isn't just the amount of attention and affection that sends people into an emotional tailspin, it's also the timing involved. In other words, if your partner becomes more romantic or sexually attracted to you over the years of your relationship, you have a way of integrating the increased attention and affection within the context of the whole of the relationship. You are able to take it "in stride." When such attention or affection comes all at once at the beginning of the relationship, there is no way to put such behavior in context. There isn't enough experience of the other to formulate a realistic assessment of what his or her behavior means. Yet the human mind seeks to attach significance to what happens to us, so people will quickly assign meaning to their lover or friend's behavior largely determined by their feeling on the moment. Under these conditions it is difficult, if not impossible to attribute realistic or appropriate significance to the behavior.

This is very much like what happens to prisoners who have been brainwashed. They are deluged with so much information under high stress conditions that they are unable to process the information appropriately and put it in a realistic or appropriate context. They literally can't think straight. Nor can you, in the presence of too much affection and attention too soon.

The Drug of Specialness

In Peter and Tony's relationship, the "too much, too soon" was the feeling Peter got of being so special that someone would pay attention to his smallest desire ("picnics"), so special that he made another's total happiness. This is probably one of the most seductive of all attention and affection drugs. It feels great to be special to someone! To be told that you make someone feel so terrific that they cherish just being near you -- that's powerful stuff! It's very hard to keep your rational mind in the driver's seat when you're being flooded with such statements. Especially as Tony was backing up those statements with exquisite attention to what Peter liked -- picnics and candlelight.

When a person pays attention to what you like and want, it is natural to think that you have meaning for that person, you are important to them. In many cases that is true, but when individuals pay too much attention to your wants and needs too soon in a relationship, they are frequently not revealing who they are, with their wants and needs. It is difficult to see who the person is behind the wonderfully satisfying feeling of getting what you enjoy. Therefore decisions are made about individuals not based on who those individuals are, but on the good feelings you're getting from their attention. Once again, decisions are being made under the influence of an emotional drug.

Attention Is Addictive

Teri found herself hooked on attention, large doses of attention and lots of compliments. Within the first week of their meeting on the job, Anne was behaving towards Teri as a long-time best friend: having lunch together, walking out to the parking lot together, chatting after work every night, taking Teri to movies and ballparks, telling Teri how terrific she was. Overwhelmed by the pleasure of such attention, Teri didn't look at the unreality of the relationship: Anne really didn't know Teri at all. Teri certainly didn't know Anne any better. You can't know someone in a week to the degree that a best friend does over a period of years. You can be fascinated by someone in a very short space of time, but you really don't know that person. Yet, flooded as she was by the very powerful good feelings engendered by Anne's attention, Teri didn't stop to think about the nature of the person with whom she might actually be getting involved. She just rode the "feel goods" and based her decision to become roommates on those feelings alone.

Drugs interfere with people's thinking process. Drugs interfere with good judgment. When people are drugs, they don't make good decisions because they are not able to see things the way they really are. Too much attention or affection given too soon, be that romantic, sexual or platonic, affect people just as drugs do. This overwhelming attention interferes with the ability to see things the way they really are, to think clearly. It impedes judgment and the ability to make good decisions for oneself.

Your Partner Pushes For Intimacy

There you are, riding high on a sea of wonderful emotions, and your new lover or friend pressures you to do something that's uncomfortable for you, e.g., wants to have sex before you're really ready, or wants see you more than you'd really like, or wants to move in together right away. Flooded overall with good feelings, you override your discomfort go along with their desire. You dismiss your feeling of being bulldozed into doing something you didn't really want to do. You ignoring the long term implications of overriding what's right for you in order to please your friend.

People who can easily and appropriately ask others for what they want or need don't have to bulldoze or manipulate. Abusers aren't good at asking for what they need. Abusers are often so out of touch with their emotions that they don't even know what they want, they just feel intense urges or internal pushes they need to satisfy immediately. Once a relationship has developed to the point of violence, these urges often take the form of "see red" or "get mad." At the beginning of such a relationship, however, such urges are expressed as "have to be with you all the time/for all time," "must have you sexually." These expressions can be very appealing and their demanding quality is all too often overlooked.

The Push for Sexual Intimacy

Certainly Mary found John's push for intimacy appealing. How could she deny such a passionate intense suitor his desire to be with her all the time, his desire for sexual fulfillment? After all, wasn't John doing all the "right" romantic things -- roses, kisses, passionate statements? In talking with Mary later, she disclosed that she was uncomfortable with giving John so much of her time so soon, and most definitely would have preferred that they wait a while longer before sleeping together. She felt, however, a sense of the inevitable, as if, as Mary puts it, "Well, it was going to come to this, we were going to be together and of course we were going to make love, so I felt kind of stupid saying 'no'." Given her state of emotional overwhelm, Mary wasn't thinking well, wasn't processing the information she really needed to look at, and she was all too easy for John to convince. She assumed, as most of us do, that physical intimacy, both time spent together and sexual intimacy, meant intimacy of the heart -- the tenderness -- would be there as well.

True intimacy is born out of closeness and familiarity with a person. To be intimate with someone means to know their ins and outs, to be familiar with all parts of them, and to be tender towards all those different aspects. You may not like your best friend's every decision and behavior, but if you are genuinely intimate with your friend, you will have a compassion and tenderness towards them you would not necessarily have towards another person making the same decision or exhibiting the same behavior. Abusers feel within themselves a tremendous push to get close to the other person very quickly. They will seek shortcuts to that closeness, in the form of moving in together or having sex, for example. The problem is, while you think closeness implies the tenderness and compassion that go along with genuine intimacy, to abusers, closeness in and of itself is intimacy. Abusers, lacking an emotional connection to themselves, are unable for the most part to connect in tender or compassionate ways with others. Closeness without tenderness is dangerous. Abusive parents are a prime example of how horrific close relationships can be in the absence of tenderness and compassion. Violent domestic relationships are another.

The Demand of Passionate Sexuality

In Bob's case, the push for intimacy took the form of passionate sexuality. Bob was only too happy to accede to Karen's demand to see him all the time, because every time he saw her, she wanted -- and gave -- plenty of very exciting sex. He didn't stop to think about what the implications were of her wanting to see him all the time, quite apart from the sexuality of their encounters. As exemplified in the movie "Fatal Attraction," passionate sexuality may not be good for your health. Given the intensity of his emotional state, Bob wasn't asking himself what might be motivating Karen's passion, what it might mean in the larger scheme of things, nor where it might lead. He certainly didn't realize the import of the message he was giving Karen by so eagerly responding to her every call: "I'm yours any way you want me anytime."

The Power of Intimate Words

Peter did not perceive Tony's desire to have sex the first night as a push for intimacy -- far from it. Such episodes are, according to Peter, common in the gay community. Tony's push for intimacy took a different tack. By the third day after their meeting, Tony told Peter he was the best thing that ever happened to him, and that Tony could think of nothing more wonderful than lying in each other's arms for all eternity.

If you look at this statement objectively, it's impossible. Tony hardly knew Peter at all at this stage of the relationship. Saying that Peter was "the best thing" is completely unrealistic. Such a statement is an expression of Tony's inner push for closeness, and not a statement of true intimacy. To Peter's ear, however, it sounded like an intimate statement, one that would carry with it all the tenderness and caring implicit in intimacy. Given the heady feelings of specialness Tony's attention had nurtured in Peter, Peter was susceptible to such a push for intimacy. He went along with Tony's "lying in each other's arms for all eternity" without thinking of what that statement meant, or what the reality of a relationship with Tony meant. Peter acceded to Tony's push for intimacy, not realizing what he'd just said "yes" to.

The Push For Togetherness

Teri didn't give much thought to Anne's push for intimacy. Teri was enjoying how she felt around Anne and the fun of the relationship. She really didn't see the push until I pointed it out to her. "Didn't you think it was a little strange that Anne couldn't wait out the term of your lease for the two of you to move in together?" I asked Teri during the course of a session. "You know," Teri answered, "I was so blown away by how she did it -- got me out of my lease, I didn't really think about it. But you're right. It doesn't make sense. I mean, we could be just as good friends living together as not, and it would have been something to look forward to." "Yes," I nodded, "but Anne couldn't wait." "No," Teri agreed wryly, "Anne always had to have her way, and she had to have it NOW!"

Anne's inner push, her need to get closeness fast, was hidden in how cleverly she'd gone about it. By going along with Anne's desire, Teri let Anne know she could be bulldozed. The fact that Teri never even noticed what was going on is typical of how the passive partner of a violent domestic relationship contributes to the development of the relationship: by not responding, thinking objectively, or taking the time to sort out the implications and consequences of the active partner's behavior.

You'll Be Put High Up On A Pedestal

You're ecstatic, fairly glowing with joy and love of life. Last night, on your third date, your new found significant other told you: "You're my reason for living, you're the sunshine in my life," and you've been walking on air ever since. How exciting, how wonderful to hear such thrilling words. However, at this stage of a relationship, such words have little foundation. If indeed, after the third date you are someone's reason for living, then at the very least you should wonder what they've been living for before meeting you. They hardly know you at this stage of the relationship, what is it about you then that makes you their reason for living?

Their expectations of you. Once abusers have put a person on the pedestal of wonderfulness, have determined that they are the one destined to be the abuser's reason for living, the light of their life, the partner they have always dreamed of, they expect that individual to live up to the description. It is the partner's inevitable failure to live up to such an unrealistic expectation that leads to much of the violence in these relationships.

The Woman Of His Dreams

John put Mary on such a pedestal early in the relationship, saying she was "the woman I've always dreamed of" long before he knew Mary well enough to determine that she was indeed that woman. Yet once he put Mary on that pedestal, John expected her to stay there, fulfilling all his expectations. In other words, Mary didn't exist in this relationship as an autonomous being. Mary existed in this relationship to fulfill John's wants and needs.

As long as Mary did fulfill John's wants and needs, Mary would be "the love of my life" for John. Should she fail to fulfill John's expectations at any time, she would fall from that pedestal of worship and adoration. Just by Mary being who she was, a fallible human being, Mary would at some time do or say something that failed to live up to John's pre-formed expectations, and that's when Mary would be at risk of violence.

What distinguishes abusers from other types of individuals is this expectation abusers have of their partners to live up to the abuser's definition of them, not to their partners' definition of themselves. A non-abusive person could say "You're the greatest" and mean simply that their partner is the most wonderful sexual partner they have thus far encountered. When an abuser makes such a statement, that abuser expects the other to be "the greatest" all the time from that moment on.

The Greatest Lover

Having declared Bob to be "the greatest" in bed, Karen expected Bob to fulfill all her sexual needs forevermore. This is an impossible sexual pedestal. What if Bob failed to bring Karen to orgasm one day? What if he was tired and didn't want to make love? What if he was depressed and couldn't make love? In other words, what if Bob behaved like the normal human being he was? Sooner or later he would, and that's when he would find himself in a potentially violent situation.

The Best Thing Ever

Tony put Peter on the pedestal called "best thing that ever happened to me" within the first three days of their meeting each other. Tony hardly knows Peter at this point, yet already Peter is dangerously set up to be that "best thing." The day Peter fails to live up to Tony's description, as he must, being human and likely to do or say something Tony will not judge is "best," is the day Tony will turn on him.

Never Boring

Anne, in a less direct yet equally emphatic way, created unrealistic expectations of Teri. Teri was perfectly happy to accept Anne's friendship. Why question a good thing? Teri didn't notice the unrealistic expectations that were building. For example, Anne saying Teri was "never boring;" one day, inevitably, Teri would be, everybody is, and then what? What of Anne's expectation that Teri would always be available to accompany Anne wherever she wanted whenever she wanted, and to talk on the telephone every night? Surely this availability would change as Teri came to know more people and make new friends. What then?

When people know each other over long periods of time, and have had the opportunity to see the wonderful as well as the not--so--wonderful sides of each other, such a statement as, "You are the love of my life" is no longer one of expectation, but is an observation, genuinely felt, derived from shared experiences. It has emotional truth to it. As with many of the potential abuser's behaviors, it's not the behavior in and of itself which tells you trouble may lie ahead. It's the inappropriate intensity, exaggeration, or timing of the behavior, that says "beware."

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