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UNMASKING THE ABUSER: Commentary on Dina McMillan and How To Prevent Abuse & Domestic Violence

Posted by Lisa Johnson on

Being the parent of a teen daughter, and having just finished a domestic abuse advocate a certification course, I keep thinking about what I can do for my kids to make sure that they don’t end up in the same situation I was in, being married to an abusive partner.


How did I, a smart, educated and competent woman, end up in something so outrageous?  It was my sister who first said, “Lisa, you have been in an abusive relationship,” when I finally extracted myself after eighteen years, and my reaction was nothing short of shock.


There is an excellent comparison to the psyche of an abuse victim called the Frog in the Pot, credited to Elin Stebbins Waldal, a survivor of teen dating violence.  It basically says that if you put a frog in a pan of boiling water, it will immediately jump out.  But, if you put the frog in tepid water, it won’t.  And as you slowly increase the heat, the frog won’t notice it.  As the temperature rises little by little, the frog is slowly cooking, getting hurt, but able to tolerate.  As the changes has been minimal and over time, the frog had not realized when the water actual began to boil.  This is often how it is with abuse, and why psychological and emotional can be much harder to recognize.


Yesterday, I stumbled on an amazing Ted Talk by Dina McMillan, a social psychologist, called “Unmasking the Abuser” published on March 11, 2016, which talked about how abusers are able to manipulate their victims, some easy ways to spot an abuser, and hopefully avoid getting stuck in his or her trap.


Ms. McMillan worked in domestic violence for over 20 years, and interviewed not only thousands of victims, but also was able to openly speak with abusers, who revealed a lot, and she finally decided to share her discoveries.


One thing every abuser has in common is that s/he has no guilt, and feels entitled to a relationship which is unbalanced and all in his favor. The partner is just an object, not something to be respected or treated fairly. Abusers have no empathy, compassion, or accountability, and feel that no matter what they do, or how awful, the partner just needs to accept it.


Abusers are incredibly good at lying, especially to outsiders.  To others, they will often look sorry, swear innocence, and make all kinds of excuses to change and “never do it again.”  Therapy never works in these situations.


Sometimes, an abuser will say something like, “I know I’m hard to live with, but…” and list a bunch of wonderful things she has recently done for her partner.  McMillan noted that abusers were actually quite proud of themselves in their ability to manipulate and fool others, especially in law enforcement.


Abusers look for partners who will really care for them.  They put an effort into romantic relationships, because they don't like being single. Often, they will be involved with more than one person at a time. In the area of narcissism, this is often referred to as “supply.”  My ex told me at the very beginning that he was a “serial dater” and used this fact to make me feel special.  He confessed that he went through about four women at a time, and was easily bored, whereas I kept his attention.


At the very beginning of an abusive relationship, there is a predictable cycle, and it begins with what is called “grooming,” which McMillan defines as saying and doing things to lure someone in. An abuser will do whatever is necessary to inspire another person’s trust, which leads to a more intense emotional attachment, and naturally increases the abuser’s control.  


Grooming is a type of power technique known as psychological manipulation, which involves lying, deceiving, and performing in order to influence how someone thinks, feels, and acts.  It's very effective because it works on not the conscious or subconscious, but an emotional level.  Advertisers use this quite often.


In order for this to work, your mind has to view the other as a “legitimate authority.”  My ex was seven years older, an avid reader, and very intellectual.  He always presented himself as being much smarter than others, and taught me to respect his judgment from the beginning.  In this way, he was able to convince me in many arguments that he was the more level-headed, and that became his regular role in our relationship, which of course led to his benefit.


How an abuser gets control is by making a lot of small decisions and getting you to agree, such as where and when to meet, where to sit, and those sort of innocuous things.  You will of course let him decide because you want him to like you, and think you're relaxed. These sorts of choices seem innocent; the problem is that your brain quickly adapts, and in a short time when given orders, you begin to obey without question.  This may seem unbelievable, but think of the statistics:  one in every four women is the victim of domestic abuse.  And men, whose numbers are not as high, are also frequent victims of psychological maneuvering.


An abuser needs you to trust, fall in love with, and plan a future with him / her.


In the beginning, during the grooming stage, s/he will also try to marathon you, says McMillan. He wants you to spend as much time focusing on him as possible, and this includes convincing you to stay out longer with him, even late into the night. There will be lots of phone calls and texts. Abusers have a tendency to fixate, and they know that all of this continued contact creates a false sense of intimacy.


You quickly feel like you know her well, and for a long time. So you let your guard down, and immediately trust her.  Especially late at night, you will confess things that you might not have revealed otherwise, and this is because, on some level, you are fatigued.


A common way an abuser can get under your skin is the “you and me against the world” sense. He'll swear that he's revealing things to you that are secret and special.  She’ll claim she's never done this before with anyone.  This is not true.  But you will probably believe it. Then he'll demand you share your secrets with him.  WARNING:  Sharing your secrets will not just bind you to another person, will give an abuser the ability to control you.


An abuser will persuade you that she's the only one that really gets you.  Sound familiar?


Even in the early days, the abuser wants things done his way, If you don't share his views or opinions on anything, first he'll to try to change your mind. It may seem casual enough, but there is actually a fury just beneath the surface.  She'll try to lower your confidence so you're easier to manipulate, drawing attention to your every flaw or mistake, and will make comments or jokes that embarrass you. He will do things that make you feel dumb, unattractive, naive, and self-conscious.


Now most people begin to pull away at this point.  It is then that the abuser will treat you like you are special again. This combination of nice and nasty is what McMillan calls the “push-pull.”  She claims that this back and forth actually creates a stronger bond than if the person were just nice all the time.


So, how does one spot an abuser?  How can my children avoid these monsters?



McMillan has three specific things to look out for:


  1. Too much. In the beginning, there are too many compliments, too many gifts, too much togetherness, too many promises, and too much talk about the future. She goes from not in your life, to being involved in everything in your life right away.  You are joined at the hip, and he wants you to go everywhere together, contacts you constantly, and expects immediate responses.  She wants you to focus on her and prioritize her needs over everyone else’s, including your own.
  2. Too soon. From the very beginning, and without your explicit consent, he calls you his girlfriend or his future wife. Or claims, “you're mine now.” He makes big plans for the two of you, though you don't even know each other well yet.  This is very flattering, but a major red flag.
  3. Transforming.  The abuser starts trying to change you by giving unsolicited advice, commenting on your tastes, beliefs, career, and/or personal style.  A common phrase is, “You know what you need to do…”



Abuse thrives on isolation.  A hyper jealous abuser wants you all to himself. What he hates most is people interfering.  She will try to ruin your relationships with everyone else, criticize your loved ones, and start questioning their motives. My ex had a fit one year at my aunt’s house on Thanksgiving because there was no pumpkin pie.  He claimed she was un-American, a terrible hostess, and that he would never get together for a holiday again at her house, and neither should our entire family!


Remember, abusers don't believe you have the right to refuse anything.  You are an object to them, and they will try every trick in the book to stay in your life, including bribes, to making you feel like a bad person for not allowing her to do what she wants.  An abuser knows that if he can stick around, you will probably eventually do what he wants.


A lot of people, especially women, have a hard time saying no.  We want to be liked.  We don’t want to hurt his feelings.  We feel sorry for him.  Or, we may just be afraid of his anger. Friends and family can be a problem because they may say he deserves another chance.


It can be extraordinarily difficult to take action.  McMillan claims that the first thing anyone needs to do is acknowledge the power another may have over you, and try to stay strong.  You have to be able to stand up to the pressure. Keep it the front of your mind that this person is ultimately trying to ruin your life. Your only protection and defense is to get away.  But even better: never allow this person into your life in the first place.


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  • Mayor de Blasio Launches Domestic Violence Task Force
    To Hold Abusers Accountable And Provide Pathways To Safety For Survivors
    September 29, 2018

    Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. –Martin Luther King

    Dear Mayor de Blasio,
    What does your Task Force do for Survivors? There are shelters, programs, trainings, walks, talks, fundraisers, concerts, counseling, etc. for victims & children, all good and fine.
    But, the only way the abuser is going to be held accountable is LAWS HAVE TO BE CHANGED AND ENFORCED.

    **Since Financial abuse is the weapon of choice most used by abuser
    against victims and children.

    My Hashtag: #HitAbuseNtheWallet

    Accountability Suggestion 1: By Law abuser has to pay compensation for the pain, suffering, loss, hurt, harm and danger all done to victim and our little victims the children by abuser. Who pays for all these programs (mentioned above) and how long do they last? As soon as I had to flee home to shelter I was sent to Public Assistant office for benefits, my abuser made 80,000.00 a year, a vet, purchased a 600,000.00 brownstone. My abuser should be made to pay back PA for the benefits I received for 6 months.

    “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.” Frederick Douglass

    Such a Great statement, our children are being traumatized by witnessing or being abused (sexual, emotional) they need financial help, they need counseling NOW and the future (suicide attempts and mental illness are on the rise for our children) whoever the abuser is should pay, taxpayers should not have to pay for abusers Bad Behavior-No Excuse for Abuse. Our kids should not think this is acceptable behavior, if there is no accountability abusers will go to the next victim and the pattern continues and to our next generation.

    The Financial Cost of Domestic Violence Is Costly To Every Community

    Accountability Suggestion 2: Equality in the courtroom, if the abuser can afford a lawyer By Law the abuser should have to pay all lawyer fees, abuser will get the best lawyer for themselves the Victim should have the same, be represented by a lawyer best for them PAID BY
    ABUSER. In my case I had worked hard my time in shelter to get and was awarded Spousal Support, my abuser got angry, I was served divorce papers in court lobby waiting for Violation of Non-payment Spousal Support Case, I tried to fight divorce but all I was told “You need a lawyer” HOW? WITH WHAT MONEY? So lawyer cleaned up abusers mess by getting him out of paying support, got divorce 2017(I was not present), my personal property destroyed. If my abuser was made By Law to pay my lawyer fees and I had the same experienced legal representation I would be getting Spousal Support, have my personal property and financially doing better (I still hope I can get help and my case is reopened).
    My abuser does have a history of abuse I decided to SPEAK OUT! My abuse happened in Brooklyn NY.

    Thank you,

    Crysta D. Anglin(survivor)

    Victims should NEVER be ashamed for someone else’s Bad Behavior!

    Domestic Violence is NO JOKE
    There is NO Love in Domestic Violence
    Know Who You Are-And You Will Know Who You Are Involved With


    We had our first argument last night, and he said a lot of cruel things that really hurt me. I know he is sorry and didn’t mean the things he said, because he sent me flowers today. I got flowers today. It wasn’t our anniversary or any other special day.

    Last night he threw me into a wall and started to choke me. It seemed like a nightmare, I couldn’t believe it was real. I woke up this morning sore and bruised all over. I know he must be sorry, cause he sent me flowers today. I got flowers today, and it wasn’t mother’s day or any other special day.

    Last night, he beat me again, it was much worse than all the other times. If I leave him, what will I do? How will I take care of my kids? What about money? I’m afraid of him and afraid to leave. But I know he must be sorry because he sent me flowers today. I got flowers today.

    Today was a very special day. It was the day of my funeral! Last night, he finally killed me. He beat me to death. If only I had gathered enough courage to leave, him, I would not have gotten flowers today….. Author Unknown

    Crysta Anglin on

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