For women in abusive relationships, living in a perpetual state of fear can become an everyday reality. When that’s your normal, it’s easy to engage in a behavior that feels proactive, but is actually incredibly harmful: moving the goalposts.
Romantic relationships rarely start out as abusive. You were likely drawn in by a great sense of humor, a charming personality, a shared worldview, or maybe even all three. But as time went on, red flags were raised. And as each additional flag appeared, you designated a new deal-breaker: “He said something hurtful, but at least he didn’t raise his voice” became “he yelled, but at least he didn’t put his hands on me.”
This can seem useful on its face. After all, you’re utilizing an ability to reflect, assess and predict: “This is a behavior that occurred, this is one that could potentially follow, but I don’t think it will come to pass.” The only problem is that those predictions are being made by someone who is afraid, and you’re not making your best decisions when you’re scared.
In a typical abusive relationship, psychological aggression generally precedes physical violence. According to the Center for Disease Control, which publishes a National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, this can include expressive aggression and coercive control. Things like insulting, humiliating, or making fun of you in front of others fall into the first category, and the second includes behaviors such as preventing you from accessing your money or spending time with friends and family, demanding to know your whereabouts at all times, or making threats of physical harm.
The CDC estimates that half of all women have experienced psychological aggression. But how can you tell if you’ll end up as one of the 25 percent of women who will experience severe physical violence, too?
Only a licensed professional can properly evaluate your individual situation, but here are some things to consider when you’re trying to assess whether your abusive partner has the potential to become physically violent towards you.
Does he have a history of mental illness?
The majority of people who suffer from psychological disorders are not violent or abusive, but as Meg Kennedy Dugan and Roger R. Hock write in It’s My Life Now: Starting Over After An Abusive Relationship Or Domestic Violence, when determining the threat an abuser poses to you in the present, you need to consider their psychological history.
If a person is mismanaging a mental illness, it can create fertile ground for abuse to occur. Side effects from medications used to treat psychological disorders can also seem to turn your partner “into a different person.” Their mental illness isn’t their fault, but it (and its treatment) is their responsibility, and abuse is never okay.
Is he impulsive?
Is your partner prone to acting on a thought or a feeling without considering the consequences? Does he weigh his decisions carefully, or take actions impulsively? Kennedy Dugan and Hock write, “People who are impulsive can also be very unpredictable. If this impulsiveness was part of the abuse, the possibility of future violence may be increased.”
Do his moods change quickly?
If your partner is prone to rapid mood swings, it can be hard to predict their behavior at any given point in time, and that includes predicting a violent outburst. “If the moods were unpredictable and frightening,” write Kennedy Dugan and Hock, “you have every reason to believe that this volatility will continue, increasing your risk of future abuse.”
Has he made threats before?
Verbal threats are abuse. Full stop. But if you’re trying to convince yourself that it’s not so bad because they’re only words, remember that a threat is a description of actions he’s already thought about taking.
Unfortunately, statistics indicate that the greatest chance of physical violence is after you attempt to leave the relationship. “Did you have the feeling that it was going to escalate if you didn’t leave?” Kennedy Dugan and Hock ask. “If so, [once] you have separated, his violence may increase even faster.”
It’s important to have a plan and get help in leaving an abusive relationship. Ultimately, no individual factor can predict whether or not your partner will become physically violent towards you. But if you found yourself answering yes to one or more of these questions, you may face a greater risk of intimate partner violence. Just because he hasn’t hit you yet, doesn’t mean he isn’t dangerous.
You can keep moving the goalposts, but eventually, you’ll run out of field.
Abuse can come in many forms and from any type of person — regardless of gender or sexual orientation. If you feel that you may be in an abusive relationship, seek help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can help victims and survivors of domestic violence. Call 1–800–799–7233 or chat with an advocate on their website.