Just read one of your Twitter posts where you reference proto-abuse. It’s ringing some kind of flag or bell or what have you with respect to one of my current relationships, where I’m experiencing a lot of conflict right now. Could you expound on that concept? Examples and trajectories would be incredibly helpful!!
Also thank you so much for your wisdom, vulnerability, and presence!!
Thanks for the question. What is proto-abuse? Okay, I’ll explain a little more:
It’s important to note that usually abusive dynamics onset in rather insidious ways. That’s the tricky thing about abusive relationships: They rarely start out that way.
Abusive partners can be very charming, sweet. And any early signs of control or manipulation are subtle and easily explained away. Proto-abuse is behavior that hasn’t quite reached a level of abusiveness where it is easily recognized as unacceptable but is still hurtful and left unchecked might develop into abuse.
Still a bit muddy, huh?
It would be easy if there were a clear-cut line. If I could quickly pen a comprehensive guide to what this looks like in the wild — not unlike those naturalist books that have the nice illustrations of poisonous plants to watch out for. Or cute birds to spot.
But it’s rarely that simple.
Instead, it’s more of a pattern of someone pushing your buttons, watching how you react (or don’t) to cruel or harsh behavior, and coming to conclusions about what they can get away with. These testing behaviors are proto-abuse.
The reality is that the exact behaviors look different depending on the people involved and the exact situation. And further confounding the problem is the fact that a behavior that is proto-abusive in one context could be an honest mistake or misstep in another.
That’s incidentally also why proto-abuse can be so effective as a manipulative testing strategy: It’s never really clear-cut that those behaviors were proto-abuse. Not at first at least.
One Experience & Trajectory with Proto-Abusive Behavior
My most recent experience with significant proto-abusive behavior was a few years back, with the ex-partner I wrote about in a piece called “You Did Break My Heart, But It Was Worth It.” I write about how bizarre our communication got at great length in that piece, but the tl;dr of that situation was that she kept constantly rehashing topics we’d settled, saying that she knew I wasn’t ready to be her girlfriend (yes, I’m a woman).
This was so UNTRUE! I adored her, thought of her as much more than my girlfriend, and considered her a soulmate, and I had told her that multiple times. We were also social media-official at this point. We’d had already a long conversation about making our situation official before we put it up officially and had even celebrated becoming official/public afterwards by going on a date.
But she kept acting as though we’d never had this talk and also other talks that we’d had multiple times — in person and via text. At first I assumed benign intent (memory lapses, miscommunication, or insecurity) and did my best to be patient with her. Affirming her and affirming our relationship, I was clear about the situation and effusive and warm with praise for her repeatedly on each of those occasions.
But every day was like Groundhog’s Day. We would come to an understanding. Each time we came to an understanding, I would feel very much like she understood and was taking things seriously and that things would be better.
But this was not the case.
Not only did my words not seem to sink in, each time I turned around, it was as though we’d never, ever talked. She kept putting false words in my mouth and freaking out about it.
And every time we spun in this cycle, she’d adopt a very apologetic and tearful posture that made it very hard to push too firmly on the unacceptable behaviors she had shown on the way there. Not impossible. I’d bring it up, and she’d quickly agree but then change the subject, forcing us into a pattern where I spent 95% of the time in one of these conversations consoling her over things I never said and situations that didn’t exist and she spent about 5% saying things like “okay, I guess things are okay, thanks.”
This Groundhog’s Day Phenomenon Had Never Happened to Me Before
I’ve dated a lot. This strange disconnect had never happened to me before in a relationship. Ever. (And prior to this, I had dated plenty of people who came from abusive backgrounds or had trauma histories and have one myself.) I’m a bit of an overcommunicator, patient, and willing to talk about the same topic multiple times to make sure we understand one another. I also offer a lot of preemptive praise and support (I basically give partners reassurance before they ask for it and am happy to give more if it’s asked for).
And extra bizarrely, she was also really good with words and a writer, so she had plenty of tools at her disposal with which to express herself.
My best guess at that time (which would change later as things progressed) was that she was attempting to get reassurance (I have struggled with insecurity and appreciate how difficult it can be) — but was doing so in a way that was very confusing and crazy-making on my end.
At the same time, I found myself staying up texting with her until all hours of the night (when I had to work in the morning) over and over about these same issues, and even when I tried to excuse myself and let her know I loved her but had to go to bed, she would continue to text and text, becoming more frantic and even a bit nasty with what she said.
And then the next day, when I would text her to let her know I read the overnight texts and offered reassurance, she would respond as though it never happened. (Again, very crazy-making. The log of messages was sitting right there. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. Had that gaslighting feel to it after a while.)
Part of why I stayed the course on this for a while was because I’d struggled with insecurity myself in the past due to an extensive trauma history, and I found that partners often quit trying before the reassurance had any chance to stick. They’d say something reassuring once and I might have an issue in a few months where I felt down about that thing and wanted to hear it again, and they’d be like, “Page, I already TOLD you that!”
So I hung in with reassuring her, even though it was exhausting, constant, and seemingly not going anywhere. And even though she mischaracterized what I did and said over and over again.
One example of this mischaracterization was that she kept telling me she knew I wanted to keep our relationship casual; I had never said that. I had said that I was crazy about her, and I would have her any way she would have me — from a casual encounter up to spouse level. I had mentioned that I had dated women in the past who would be only casual with me and that I could do that with her if that’s all she wanted. I said that ONE TIME, immediately followed by the idea that I’d prefer to be serious with her (and that it had been the case with a lot of the women I dated, that keeping casual had been a limitation placed on me).
Somehow this became “well, you want to keep things casual, so I guess I have to be patient.” Over and over again. Yes, even as I repeated what I had said before, about adoring her and wanting to be very serious.
This cycle went on for a while.
Asking Me to Open Up & Shooting Me Down & Judging Me
And that wasn’t the only troubling behavior happening then.
While I spent hundreds of hours empathizing with her fears and helping her emotionally process through them, she’d also repeatedly ask me to share complicated, vulnerable stuff about my past — a good example was “tell me about the first woman you ever loved” — and when I had only just begun to answer the question, she’d interrupt me and criticize the (incomplete) answer in a harsh way. Put it down. She did this over and over.
None of these experiences in isolation were clear-cut abuse. Nor was it clear (especially at the time) that she was intentionally testing me or trying to hurt me. I felt like it was possible she was having severe memory problems or experiencing alcoholic blackouts or some other explanation for the lack of continuity and harshness (perhaps poor mental health? etc.), which often felt like a demand for sensitivity for her concerns but a complete lack of sensitivity for the other person.
But after several weeks of trying to address this behavior with her and only having her grow worse, I became very depressed.
It was a definite sign to me. I got the old proto-abuse spidey signal.
I Wasn’t the Only Person This Was Happening To
I was only one of her four partners at the time, too, another telling detail. She ostensibly had a pretty good support network, multiple places to turn for reassurance. But the more I tried to help her feel secure (while feebly trying to set a few boundaries by reminding her I had other responsibilities, needed to go to bed, etc.), the meaner she became. And the behavior got even worse.
I could read the writing on the wall.
“This is a proto-abusive dynamic,” I told a friend at the time. “This will get much worse if I don’t leave.”
“Page, this is breaking my heart,” my friend told me. “I can hear the pain in your voice.”
“It doesn’t even matter if she means to hurt me. I see how this ends, and I don’t want to go there.”
At about this time, another of her partners that I was also dating (she and I had a partner in common at the time) approached me about her behavior. He admitted he had actually started pretending he was already asleep when she got on one of her late-night texting tears and was letting her just switch to texting solely at me because she would exhaust him and steamroll him and his gentle redirections and reassurance as well, and he couldn’t take it anymore.
I Wanted to Break Up with Her, But I Waited — & It Only Got Worse
Once I sensed proto-abuse, I was ready to break up with her. I was done. It depressed me greatly — because I was crazy about her, but this was unacceptable behavior, and I could feel her steering me towards even less acceptable behavior, like apologizing for doing things I had never done and saying things I’d never said.
The only reason I hadn’t broken up with her already when our mutual partner approached me was because I was trying to think of a way to do it that wouldn’t make the situation worse. (I had started to worry she might be dangerous when rejected. She was showing a few troubling signs.)
But our mutual partner urged me to wait. He said he wanted to get her a gift basket and apologize (for things he hadn’t done, mind you, that she had either imagined or was inventing) and sit down with her and try mending fences (again, over things she had accused him of but he had not actually done).
I thought this was a very bad idea and told him so. “If you reinforce proto-abusive behaviors, they become worse,” I told him. “You will end up in an abusive dynamic.”
And indeed, when I ended up spending some more time with her and her other two long-standing partners (which happened shortly after this, during that period in which I had strong misgivings), I discovered that the dynamics with her other partners were extremely unhealthy. Way worse than what was going on with either one of us newer partners. Just awful.
Then the Double Binds Began
While I honored our mutual partner’s request and waited for what I was sure would be an ill-fated sit-down, things got even worse. The double binds began. At the same time that she was complaining she didn’t see me — or him — enough, she was constantly flaking on times we had each set up to see her. Yes, really. When we compared notes, we found out she was doing it to both of us. She would forget or cancel dates we set up with her and then turn around and complain that she didn’t see us enough in person.
Meanwhile, I would even offer to drive over and see her right then, and she’d reject the offer.
Yeah, pretty classic double bind set-up. (Double binds — situations where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t — are a common emotionally abusive strategy by the way. Tragically, you can do it to someone else by accident. Here’s a post on how to not double bind people by accident.)
“Well, maybe she’ll settle down if I can just sit down with her and talk it out,” said our mutual partner. He still wanted to talk through things with her, in spite of the numerous cancellations and the double binding (and the bad behaviors that were still happening and resistant to attempts at being more than temporarily addressed).
The Final Test: Abandonment/Rejection
And then, before that time could come, she texted both of us at the same time saying that she wanted to break up with each of us.
Reportedly, he didn’t write back at all.
I did write back, a very brief response that acknowledged receiving the text and thanked her for letting me know.
As the days and weeks went on and she texted me some (I didn’t respond very much after that point because I was so past done with the situation that it wasn’t funny), she predictably steamrolled over my requests for space, continuing to write. When I didn’t respond, she wrote multiple online public posts designed to get me to reply to them (I was done with the whole situation and just wanted to move on, but friends told me of the writings’ existence).
When I ignored what she had written in public and just went about my own business, she went to an obscure platform where she could easily reach me and wrote to me directly, sharing links to her provoking posts. She wanted to make sure I saw them, I guess.
Anyway, in everything she said both privately and publicly during that wild period, it became evident that she hadn’t really meant to break up with me. She had just been pretend-breaking up with me to get a certain reaction. To test if I really cared.
She wanted to dump me and have me beg for her back, to prove my love.
Never mind that I had cared about her plenty and told her constantly before everything had gone sour (her top love language was words — same as mine — and I wrote her beautiful affirmations, in public and private). Never mind that I made time for her, and she was the one who canceled.
Nope, time to abandon/reject me and see how much I would hurt and scramble after her. No, thank you.
But I guess it really freaked her out that I instead accepted the breakup and moved on with my life.
Rejecting me was her final test, and I failed. Honestly, I’m so glad I failed that test. I don’t care what she thinks about me at this point. At all. I’m just glad we’re not together.
A Bit of Trajectory After We Broke Up
I legit left her the hell alone afterwards and tried to heal (and waited while she stopped hopping around, employing increasingly more creative ways to try to get my attention). I suppose I could have reached out one last time to confront her, but she was trying so hard to provoke a response out of me, I didn’t think this was a good idea. Plus, I had a reasonable expectation that no matter what I said, it wouldn’t matter. By this point, she had an established habit of not retaining anything I tried to say to her (whether this lack of retention was pretend or authentic and for another reason) and additionally didn’t seem to be acting in good faith. Any response at that point — particularly after I had asked for space — would be reinforcing the behavior.
My close friends knew what happened to me, as well as our once-mutual partner, and were enraged but mostly just gave quiet side eye, especially while she was trying to goad me in public. They were tempted to argue with her publicly on her attention-seeking posts, but didn’t after I told them I just wanted to move on and that moving on was more important to me than anyone defending me (she did get bored after a while though and stopped).
I didn’t ask anyone to shun her. And they didn’t. But I imagine it did give the people closest to me some pause in getting involved with her or her partners. (I am not the town crier; I am very mild mannered and positive and rarely complain about people in the community, so friends know if I have an issue with someone that shit actually went down.)
As a post script, she started to frequent corners of my local community that I hadn’t really been to much, instead of my usual haunts. Interestingly, I had several community leaders come up to me some months later (friends of friends) and tell me independent stories of subsequent bad behavior from her that followed in which she dated people new to the scene and went on to mistreat them. I don’t want to get super-specific because any details were told to me in confidence, but one situation basically involved mocking a new girlfriend about sensitive secrets that this girlfriend had told her in a vulnerable moment, in front of a tittering audience of her two other partners and her metamours who also mocked the new girlfriend, like they were all in junior high school making fun of an uncool kid.
And there were other incidents, too, ones that are harder to talk about in general terms but are worse.
As of this writing, I’m not really sure where she is or what she’s doing. Nor do I particularly care. I stopped getting even passive updates when I relocated to a new area in the summer of 2019 for work reasons. By that point, pretty much everyone I knew had soured on her for some reason or another on their own.
How Did I Not Recognize This Immediately as Proto-Abuse?
With the benefit of hindsight, some readers might wonder why it took me so long to nope out. Well, as I’ve mentioned, I adored her once upon a time. I was over the moon in love with this woman. Thought she was meant to be my wife.
Yes. I felt like she was meant for me. That we were meant for each other.
So I was very biased towards her, towards giving her the benefit of the doubt, towards being patient and working on things. Especially since I’ve struggled with insecurity myself. When things worsened (when she was harassing me after she dumped me, when community leaders came to me and told me independently she was bullying and mistreating new group members in the months after our breakup, etc.), it hurt even more on some level because I had in the past directly requested of partners that they be more patient with me as I worked through my own insecurity — and not all of them were patient or nice about the requests (in fact, most weren’t). And watching everything I poured into this relationship and how it only led to bad places, I felt very upset. It was as though everyone who had once told me, “It doesn’t matter how much reassurance you give someone. It never helps,” were all screaming and chorusing, “I told you so” at me at once. So I think the fact that I saw parts of my past self and my own struggles in her probably biased me against recognizing the situation for what it was sooner.
But even given all of that, there was a moment when I got the picture. And then I couldn’t un-see it. (That was when I became very heartbroken, long before we actually broke up. The breakup itself was almost a relief when it came because I worried about what could happen trying to get away from her.)
She was also quite skilled at manipulation for the record. There’s a reason she had two other longer-standing partners trapped in very bad dynamics.
But there was a point, even with all of that, when my stomach dropped, and I recognized it. How did that happen? Well, that feeling was a result of all my life experience, having an abusive mother, and having been in a badly abusive relationship in the past and remembering the gut feels I got back then, the ones I ignored then but will no longer.
I have a friend that calls this sensation “when reality begins to shimmer.” That feeling when things aren’t quite right. The moment you know that there’s something unsafe happening — or about to happen.
Okay, But What About Overreacting?
Now, the sticky thing here is that especially if you have an abuse history, it’s possible to overreact. To sense proto-abuse in honest missteps.
To illustrate, let’s talk about a different example of potential proto-abuse (in quicker terms than the example I just went into): Perhaps a mean joke is really clumsy wording. Maybe they weren’t testing to see how much disrespect you could tolerate, hiding behind the context of “it’s just a joke.”
But here’s what I’ve found: If I bring such a concern to someone else, especially coolly and with a calm head (“hey, it sounds like you’re not really joking and are instead saying this negative thing about me and I don’t like that, it rubs me the wrong way”), and they respond well to that and are apologetic/respectful, then I have a good sense that I’m probably overreacting (unless they don’t later modify their behavior, and it happens over and over again, and then it might be time to reevaluate).
But if they’re even more disrespectful in response, or if you find that they aren’t retaining anything you talk about, even when it happens repeatedly… well… that can be disappointing but it’s usually an important sign that maybe this person isn’t for you. It’s like I said in another post: It’s only when we set a boundary that doesn’t give someone exactly what they want that they typically show us their true nature.
A Note About Abuse Vs. Proto-Abuse
The point at which behavior stops being proto-abuse, i.e., something that is going to become abuse if left unchecked, and becomes obvious abuse… well, that’s not always clear-cut either, further complicating the picture.
If you asked this ex-girlfriend, I’m sure she’d say that the way she acted was neither proto-abusive nor abusive. That’s not the point of recognizing proto-abuse, by the way, having the other person admit what they did or that it was hurtful. It’s not a tool to bludgeon someone else or to shift blame for whatever failings I did have as a partner or any of those things.
Recognizing proto-abuse to me is honestly more about getting that private signal that the dynamic will develop into something that’s very damaging to me if it is reinforced or left unchallenged. (And sometimes even if you do those things, proto-abusive dynamics will still become unworkable/abusive.) Like a spidey sense. A “ruh-roh, raggy” moment à la Scooby Doo.
Some readers might very well say that even the early behavior in which she kept asking me the same questions I had answered dozens of times at great length, the stuff that registered as proto-abuse (at the time it was actually happening, not in hindsight) in my recounting of the more difficult aspects of dating her, is obvious abuse, not proto-abuse. But it didn’t hit me that way.
(People are known to round proto-abuse up to abuse when they talk about what has happened to them or others; this is what happens when you strip an issue of nuance.)
Proto-abuse is a helpful gray area for me — a place where I start paying attention and making difficult decisions and figuring out how to address the behavior — and if those efforts don’t work and only make it worse, then I start deciding how to get away from the dynamic safely.
A Note on Why I Told This Story
Note: I never expected to ever tell this story in public.
I am only talking about this experience because the advice letter I received asked for examples/trajectories. I thought it would be more helpful to dive into one example and trajectory deeply, instead of listing a whole bunch of behaviors that could be proto-abusive or not and not being able to devote adequate time to explaining how to decide either way on each. Instead, I chose the most recent significant experience I had with proto-abuse (which was thankfully some time ago). As you can see, this turned into a rather long post just discussing one example/trajectory!
I am not talking about this experience because I want to hurt or shame this individual. Anyone who could identify this person already knows who it is, could easily make their own decisions, and did years ago (many of them independently because she did a lot of things to a bunch of different people in the same corner of the world within a short time).
I am also not still seething about it and do not want to achieve emotional closure by talking about it in public. (I already achieved closure on this matter privately a few years ago.)
This recounting is intended as an educational example.
It was not easy to write about this because I don’t like talking about what happened. It was a very unpleasant experience, especially as it involved other people, including the mutual partner I spoke of and a handful of others, which I didn’t get into deeply in this post — because those are certainly not my stories to tell.
I do feel like I fell deeply in love with someone, only to discover that our relationship was going to turn quickly abusive, and I feel very relieved to have escaped before too much damage was done.
In this spirit, I hope that readers can refrain from dogpiling on this individual, even anonymously. For all I know, she’s completely cleaned up her act since the time I knew her.
I recognize that this post could prompt her to contact me again. I hope not. (My hope is that she doesn’t read this.) But I have no control over that. This is a chief reason why people often don’t get into the details of even proto-abusive situations by the way, especially not in public — you risk opening a Pandora’s box of really awful stuff, even if all you want to do is move on.
So please, readers, I urge you to take this post in the spirit of education and not be vindictive or petty — nor assume or inject any malicious intent from me where there is none.
As another FYI, I didn’t coin the term “proto-abuse.” Looks like there’s not much online about it, but I’ve been hearing people in social circles I run in (especially a group I’m in that’s mostly psych researchers and counselors – I’m a former researcher) use it informally for a while.
Proto-abuse has always been framed to me as a distinct concept from covert abuse, not emphasizing the hard to detect part — but having the connotation of something that explicitly will worsen if left unchallenged or reinforced, something that is incipient and will grow.
This might not seem like an important distinction. But a lot of people will tolerate milder forms of covert abuse believing “it’s not that bad” or they can deal with this if this is as bad as it gets. Proto-abuse emphasizes the potential and indeed likelihood of worsening.
But again, it’s not my term. It’s something people I respect have been using informally. And I genuinely had no idea that folks didn’t know about it before I randomly said the word and got a lot of people asking me what it meant (including today’s letter writer).
Update (1/25/2021): I published a follow-up companion piece to this one the following week on when you worry when a relationship will bring out the worst side of you. It is shorter than this piece.
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Your letter and my answer might be featured in Advice Friend. I regularly change identifying details and/or completely rewrite letters to preserve anonymity.