Have you been told you’re too picky? Those were the words that resulted in a thousand chocolate-bar wrappers when I was searching for a mate. Some told me I would never find what I wanted; I needed to settle, or I’d be single forever.
Yet in my experience, most people’s standards aren’t too high; they’re too low. If I had to summarize over 60 years of excellent relationship research in just one sentence, that sentence would be: If you can find and be someone kind and respectful, your relationship will probably work; and if you can’t, it won’t.
Factually speaking, kindness and respect are Must-Haves when you’re seeking a partner. Not only do these qualities ensure a happy life; they will eliminate abusers—before you get abused, instead of years later.
An abuser is a man or woman who uses anger, violence, threats, put-downs, money, sex, or anything else to systematically control you. Abusers hurt you, physically and/or emotionally, to keep you under their total power. They say they love, but they don’t: They manipulate. They control.
And luckily for you, abusers can’t fake kindness or respect for long at all; they’re the opposite of the abuser’s game plan.
In fact, most don’t even try to maintain the façade. Studies of abusers show that they typically begin showing their true colors very soon after meeting a would-be partner. As abuse expert Lundy Bancroft put it, “Disrespect is the soil abuse grows in.” Abusers show you that disrespect quickly, so they can feel out whether you’ll put up with it and hang in there. They’re testing to see if you’re an easy mark for their control.
They might start off with subtle put-downs of you: “You know, a lot of men wouldn’t want to go out with a woman who has a kid, but I figure I’m better than that.” Or, “Your stretch marks would put off someone shallower than me, but I still think you’re pretty good-looking.”
Both of those comments were made to me by a man I stopped dating. I later learned he had been jailed for beating his former wife, whom he’d verbally abused for years. The comments can be backhanded compliments, but they are intended to pull you down by building the abuser up—and keep you feeling bad about yourself so they won’t have competition. These comments are a test. And had I said “okay” to those tests by continuing to see him, he would have upped the ante. It’s what abusers do.
But often, before insulting you, an abuser will test your tolerance by speaking unkindly and disrespectfully about others. Name-calling is common. Sometimes, they’ll test you by contrasting you with their ex: “She’s such a bitch, not at all like you.” It’s a compliment—or is it?
And then they eventually show you what they really are, once they think you’re hooked and under their power.
Abusers may not be acting consciously. And your disrespectful date may not be an abuser. But hopefully, you’ll never know, because your standard is kindness and respect—not abuse! We all have bad days. A test of our character is how we deal with them.
People who are mean-spirited when they don’t get their way, or cruel to those who can’t retaliate (animals, children, the waitstaff), or who speak with hatred and disrespect about other people, will eventually mistreat you.
If you’ve been abused, that’s the abuser’s fault and not yours. Once you were in that relationship, you couldn’t have done anything to prevent the abuse, and you did not deserve it; the best studies show that abusers abuse no matter how wonderful you are, and no matter how much you try to please them. Their unacceptable behavior is not about you—it’s about them and their insatiable need for control.
So nobody deserves abuse; we are all inherently worthy of love and the acts that prove it. But if you want to avoid abuse and have a happy love relationship, kindness and respect are rock-bottom requirements from now on.
Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., is the author of Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do (2015); this is a partial excerpt. The book is available now. You can get a free chapter and learn more at http://www.lovefactually.co