A frog, if dumped into a pot of hot water, will immediately jump out. But if it’s placed in cold water, it will remain in place as the heat gradually increases to boiling point — and that can ultimately be fatal.
There was a time, a few years ago, when I was at the uncomfortably-warm-water stage. And just like an unsuspecting frog in a pan, I had no idea how close to danger I was.
When I was fresh out of my teen years, I found myself living with a man I’d only known for a few weeks and making excuses for behaviour I would have loudly called out just a year before.
So my boyfriend got drunk and verbally lashed out in front of my friends? He never did hold his booze very well, I justified.
So he had a fully-fledged, door-slamming tantrum because my girlfriends and I didn’t want to switch our TV channel to Top Gun when he came home? Yeah, he’s just temperamental.
So he told me my ‘slutty’ dress must be a bid to attract attention? Oh, he cares so deeply that he can’t help getting jealous.
So my windscreen was mysteriously smashed during one of his bad moods? What weird, bad luck.
Any relationships expert will tell you the severity and frequency of abusive behaviours escalate over time, and that early red flags like name-calling, isolation from loved ones, and controlling tendencies can evolve into full-blown emotional, verbal and physical abuse.
But for the person inside the unhealthy relationship? Those red flags are inconvenient truths. They bruise the beliefs to which that person holds tight — that their judgment is solid, that their whirlwind romance is ‘the real deal’, that they are loved.
Of course, those beliefs will ultimately be slowly eroded anyway, or shattered at the relationship’s inevitable breaking point: The moment when the penny drops that the relationship was an illusion. But until that critical stage, the person in a relationship will often keep her blinkers on, quietly doubting herself but never quite admitting that the relationship is drowning, not uplifting her.
That constant self-doubt is part of what makes dating a man with abusive tendencies so confusing and difficult.
But you know what’s almost as awful as that? Seeing a close friend get closer and closer to a partner who’s not only unkind, but possibly dangerous.
It’s notoriously difficult to warn a friend that they’re dating a jerk. You run the risk of being shut out — because the very nature of an abusive relationship means the person trapped inside one is conditioned to distance herself from friends and family.
Lectures don’t always work, either: In my case, pamphlets and long-winded speeches drove me away from the people who lovingly tried to remove my blinkers.