The early warning sign of an abusive relationship we’ve been conditioned to ignore. 

Video by ABC

John Meehan told Debra Newell he would be the best thing that would ever happen to her.

He ended up being the worst.

The new podcast Dirty John produced by the Los Angeles Times tells a story of an abusive relationship and how a serial offender managed to manipulate and coerce multiple smart, accomplished and wealthy women.

But this is not like the story we are used to.

Meehan is 55 years old, six-foot tall, handsome and charismatic, presenting as an anaesthetist, rarely dressed in anything but his scrubs.

Listen: Last week on Mamamia Out Loud, I recommended Dirty John, the podcast that everyone’s talking about. (Post continues…)

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Newell is 59, a mother of four, and owner of an extremely successful interior-design business.

The narrative of abuse does not start with Meehan’s fiery temper, or checking his partner’s phone in the middle of the night. It does not begin with degradation or cruelty or control.

It begins with what looks a lot like kindness.

Meehan was – in Newell’s words – “perfect”.

On their first date, he opened the door for her and placed her napkin gently on her lap. He had a warm smile – the kind that made people trust him. Meehan was fascinated by Newell, asking question after question about her life.

“The intensity of the attention was flattering,” Newell says. He would constantly tell her how beautiful she was and how lucky he was to have her.

As the weeks rolled on, he spoiled his new girlfriend. Every morning, he bought her coffee. He did the grocery shopping. He did the dry cleaning. He took the cars for maintenance. He insisted on carrying her purse. He doted on her in a way she had never before experienced.

Meehan was everything Newell had ever wanted.

It was date two or three when Meehan told Newell he loved her, and he could not wait to marry her.

Because that’s what happens when you fall in love – we’re told. You just know. It’s why we use the analogy of ‘falling’ – you can’t control it, you can’t stop halfway. Everyone thinks you’ve gone mad. Your heart beats hard out of your chest. It’s moving fast, but that’s because of the force of the passion.

“Follow your heart,” goes the cliche.

All you have to do is listen to the radio, read a novel or watch a Disney movie and you will be told in no uncertain terms that love is immediate, swift and overpowering.

But that is not at all what love looks like. In fact, for Newell, it could have been the biggest warning sign of all.

Debra Newell. Image via the LA Times.

Dr Dina McMillan, a social psychologist who specialises in abusive relationships, says, "Right away he calls you his future wife or girlfriend.

"He's talking about what kind of house you're going to buy, what kind of holiday you're going on. And you've just met. You don't even know each other yet.

"This is another trick they use to try and get you focused on the future. Focus on the future to give into the now."

Within weeks, Meehan moved into Newell's home.

After less than two months, they spontaneously married. No family or friends were invited to the wedding.

"Abuse thrives in isolation," Dr McMillan says, another tactic Meehan used from the very beginning. He damaged the relationships between Newell and her four children, as well as various other family members, meaning before long, he was all she had.

And from there, we know the signs. They're familiar. There's control and threats and emotional abuse. But by that point, the victim is in far too deep.

Dr McMillan makes the point, "For too long we've told women to be careful, but we only gave them the warning signs about the negative behaviour. We haven't shown how the over the top positive behaviour is also an indicator."

And it is for that reason that Dirty John is a true crime podcast unlike any other.

Because the six-part series reveals one of the most terrifying warning signs of an abusive relationship: that the experience of 'love' can be a tactic. That over the top kindness can be a form of manipulation.

That being swept off your feet so quickly - and falling in love almost overnight - is not the stuff of romance.

It's the first red flag.

If you or anyone you know is suffering abuse, call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). Experienced counsellors are available 24 hours a day.

You can listen to the latest episode of Mamamia Out Loud, here:

Dr Dina McMillan speaks about abusive relationship in the brilliant ABC documentary 'Big Bad Love.' You can watch it, here

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