Abusive relationships can happen to anyone—smart people, happy people, good people. But abusers know just how to spot you. They know what they’re doing, and they’ll use you to feel superior, to satisfy a need to feel powerful, and to fulfill a deep void within their broken psyche. It feels like love at first. And it doesn’t happen all at once. You may have believed it was love, but it wasn’t.
Here are the 13 tactics abusers deploy that almost feel like love—but aren’t.
1. They make you doubt your reality.
It’s hard to believe that someone who was so special at first, so great, so disarming, could ever harm you. Not them. Yet the signs were there from the beginning. And when you called out their red flags, they may have listened to you, but they said you were wrong. That’s when you started to feel a little nuts. Before too long, the balance of good times to bad times got worse, and you felt really awful. When they hurt your feelings, you’d second guess yourself. Then your abuser would double-down on the good stuff. This cycle of abuse (pain, punishment, threatening to leave, then a period of redemption and positivity) is extremely common. And it makes it really hard to leave. You are not crazy.
2. They move the relationship forward really fast.
When you met, you felt dizzy. Literally. They may even have swept you off your feet. When you think about the old-fashioned sentiment of being swept off your feet , isn’t it kind of creepy? Catching someone off guard, throwing them off balance? Maybe you mistook their crazy energy and constant shifting for rabid enthusiasm when it was really just misdirection. You couldn’t react to the random, one-off red flags or statements that didn’t add up. You didn’t have time! Maybe it felt like romance. It wasn’t.
3. They make you feel so special.
They introduced you to their friends on the premise that you “had your shit together.” It was flattering. You were the one they just had to meet. You came with a reputation for being special. But did you ever stop to consider why? Did they have their shit together? Maybe it looked like they did, but was it legit? Maybe their friends thought you were a good match because they needed someone to show off. Maybe you were simply a target. Maybe they needed to knock you down a few levels to feel superior. You initially felt desired, special, wanted. It was insanely flattering, but it wasn’t love.
4. They put the brakes on and everything comes to a stop.
They may have spent hours, weeks, months, maybe years convincing you that they believed in you and the dream of being together. Then, when the day finally came, they changed their tune. In fact, a lot of things changed. Their face looked different; their voice was off. Did they smell different? How could someone you knew so well suddenly appear like a stranger wearing their skin? Well, snakes shed their skin every season, so it’s natural. They brought you this far and pushed you beyond your comfort zone. It felt like they were scared, maybe holding back. Yet, there was more to it.
5. They make you feel inadequate.
Every time you threw up a boundary, you felt like you were personally wounding them. Or you panicked and felt like you might be throwing away something special. And yet, you knew better! You’re smart, you’re successful, yet you had insane thoughts like, “This is the best I’m ever going to do,” or “If I can’t make this work, I’ll never make anything work.” Deep down, you knew it shouldn’t be this hard. Is it me? Why am I so bad at this? You felt like you couldn’t trust anyone. They acted hurt, because they wanted so badly to get close to you. If you could go back in time and hear yourself, how you placed them on a pedestal, how you constantly felt so low—if you could see how they just ate it up! They were manipulating you. It felt like you were growing, learning to trust again. But it wasn’t love.
6. They remove everything amazing and unique about you.
Remember how you used to have really fun hobbies? Remember your group of friends, not just theirs? Does it feel like a special occasion to get together with your loved ones, but normal to hang out with their buds? Do you miss anything about yourself from your past? Did they ever lament the fact that you “used to be so confident, so fun”? It didn’t happen all at once; little by little, all the things that made you cool started to lose importance. You’re still important.
7. They act like your values are obstacles in the relationship.
Relationships are about compromise. You like to cook at home to save money, they like to go out. There’s probably middle ground there. But are they making you feel like a jerk about how you live your life? You believe in equal rights. You campaigned for candidates. You believe in a healthy lifestyle! You don’t want to stay up all night if you have a big day tomorrow. Drinking all day, every day is not your cup of tea. And cancelling all of your plans last minute just to keep them happy? Anything you value in a relationship, in life, is important enough for your partner to respect. If you’re feeling bad about your values, if you find yourself compromising on those? You are probably being manipulated.
8. They test your trust.
You would never even think of putting them in a compromising position or making them question your loyalty. But they always did it, and you were simply not allowed to question it. If you did, it was thrown in your face for being “suspicious.” After all, only people who cheat suspect their partners of being dishonest, right? So, you were forced to smile through your pain and ignore your doubts even when you knew something was off. But your gut was onto something.
9. Their problems become your symptoms.
You knew they weren’t perfect when you met them, and you accepted their issues. That felt like love, right? But something unusual began to happen after a few months. Their weird problems and habits started showing up in your life out of nowhere. You’d never had a problem with panic attacks before, but suddenly you found yourself having them all the time. And were they there for you? This weird voodoo is called projective identification. An abuser uses this very tricky tactic to literally transfer their mood, energy, or symptoms onto their target. Then they punish you for it. A simple example is to imagine speaking with a partner who had a significant stutter, only to discover a few months later that you are unable to communicate without the same stutter. You’d never had one before, but now it’s as if you’d always had it. And every time you stutter, your partner belittles you for it as a weakness of character. In real life, it’s usually anxiety, or depression, or eating habits. Empaths are uniquely susceptible. How do you know it was projective identification? The moment they vanish, the weird symptoms will too. They’re instantly in a position of power to take care of you, so it feels like “protection.” But it isn’t love.
10. They use your past to shame you.
You opened up your past history to them, from everyone you’ve ever loved to everything that could possibly hurt you. Then they used it like a book to run a counterplay against your insecurities. And now? You feel nothing but shame. You wonder how you’ll ever trust anyone again. Thoughts of running away, changing your name, and moving to a new city flash before your eyes. You were vulnerable—that’s what love is, right? With the right person, it should be.
11. They ask you to change but won’t support your growth.
Everyone has things they can work on, right? We all can be better. But our partners shouldn’t constantly point those things out to us. Worse still, when they do, they shouldn’t derail us from reaching our goals. Constantly shifting the target is a fascinating, and devious, tactic of abusers. It’s called moving the goal post, and there’s absolutely no way you can win. If, for example, your partner suggests that your behavior changes when you drink, but then hands you glass after glass, maybe they have ulterior motives. When you suggest taking a fast, and they say, “But you’re so fun when you’re drunk,” do you wonder if they really want to see you live your best life? Don’t you deserve to?
12. Their friends are infallible, but they’re actually awful.
You’ve been courteous to their friends and supportive about their need for “alone time.” But they’ve told you that their friends have a problem with you. First, there’s no reason that telling you this information is anything other than extremely hurtful. Why would you ever need to know? Second, they tell you they’ll defend you, no matter what. It almost sounds like they’re protecting you, like they’re your knight in shining armor. They aren’t.
Rule #1: If their friends are assholes, they’re an asshole.
13. It all seems so perfect until it begins to fall apart.
Finally, once you began to see through the perfect image that attracted you in the first place—that charming smile, the friendly demeanor—and started to see that they were putting on a show, things got dark. The talk about wanting to own a home turned into criticizing yours (when they didn’t even own their own dishes). That big, perfect group of friends they flaunted to look popular? They didn’t know most of their last names. When they pretended to be super rich on that flight to all the flight attendants? It was kinda weird. Delusions of grandeur are extremely common among narcissists. People can only fake it for so long, but in the time that it takes to see the real picture, they can inflict a lot of pain. They can even fake love, because trust me, it wasn’t. You deserved better. You still do.
The right relationship will still be work, but it shouldn’t be that hard. A partner should encourage you to be your best self and support your goals, ambitions, and values. You shouldn’t feel ashamed, devalued, or like an interloper to his lifestyle. If they’re putting you in this role, it’s not love.