Domestic Violence and Dating

© 2018 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq,

Domestic violence is a problem throughout the world in 20-50% of partner relationships, depending on your location and source of information. Sometimes it is called Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), to distinguish it from child abuse, since both occur within the family often behind closed doors. I will use the term domestic violence (DV) in this article, making it clear that I am focusing on two people in an adult intimate relationship. 

Four Types of Domestic Violence

It helps to understand four different types of domestic violence:


Extreme violence, bruises and sometimes broken bones. The purpose is to control the partner’s life to give the abusive person a sense of security, dominance or superiority. The victim feels an ongoing sense of fear. This will be discussed in more depth below.  


This type of violence is more likely to be started by either partner (about 50-50, both male and female) by shoving or slapping, rather than extreme one-sided violence. Neither has a sense of fear about the other or feels controlled by the other. But they lack good conflict resolution skills. They often feel remorse for their behavior and will admit what occurred.


This occurs with one or two incidents when a couple separates. There is no history of violence, but the tension of separating may trigger an incident of misunderstanding or momentary anger. When this happens, it usually shocks both partners and they learn to avoid future such encounters.  


This is defensive violence, usually by a victim of Coercive Controlling Violence. It can be quite dangerous, as it may trigger the partner’s extreme violence which may escalate into physical harm or death. It’s better to find a way to get away from a Coercive Controlling partner—or avoid this type of relationship from the start. 

The rest of this article will focus primarily on Coercive Controlling Violence and how to avoid getting into this type of relationship. 

Coercive Controlling Violence

This is the type of situation in which one partner (maybe 80% male; 20% female) is trying to control the other partner, which includes violence but often many other means as well: controlling finances, cutting off the partner from family and friends, controlling freedom of movement, abusive sex, verbal abuse, etc. Violence may actually not occur that often, so long as the abuser feels in control. The victim/survivor feels fear and changes their behavior because of that fear, usually becoming depressed and self-doubting. 

This type of violence is what people usually think of with domestic violence: power and control, bruises and possibly broken bones, intense moments of rage, trips to the hospital, calls to the police, etc. It’s also known as spousal abuse and sometimes known as intimate terrorism. The person engaging in this abusive behavior usually denies it to one and all, or justifies it as necessary to “protect” the victim from herself, or to teach her some kind of lesson.

Personality Disorders and Coercive Controlling Violence

From my experience working with some victims and some perpetrators, in counseling or representing them in divorce, the most common personality types engaging in Coercive Controlling Violence tend to have personality disorders: either borderline, antisocial or narcissistic. Signs of these personality disorders are extreme possessiveness and jealousy, impulsiveness, all-or-nothing thinking, difficulty managing their emotions and/or a sense of superiority to their partners. 


Those with borderline personalities tend to have “hot anger,” in that they are very reactive to feeling abandoned and go into a rage. This may be triggered by something innocent that their partner said, which was misinterpreted, or may be triggered simply by a thought the abuser had, which was a distortion of reality. (“She’s quiet today. I wonder if that means she’s having an affair and thinking about it.”) The victim’s efforts to be more independent of their control may especially trigger this feeling of abandonment that the person fears. Their behavior may be based on an insecure attachment in childhood or other factors going into their personality development, including being born with these tendencies.  


Those with antisocial personalities want to have power and control over someone in order to dominate them. Bullying someone else, in and of itself, seems to give the person a sense of security and satisfaction. They may engage in “cold anger,” in which they plan to do an abusive behavior when the person is least suspecting it. In a sense they have predatory behavior that is planned rather than reactive (although they may have that too). Their partner’s desire to be more independent of their control may trigger more dominating behavior, as they can’t tolerate losing control. In many cases, antisocial personalities were born that way, although in some situations they arise out of a very abusive childhood. (Someone with this personality is also known as a sociopath.)


Those with narcissistic personalities want to be seen as superior to everyone else. Their drive is to get their partner to look up to them, give them lots of admiration, and respect their directions. They like to be in control to have someone to reinforce their sense of superiority. They’re usually quite insecure inside and try hard to keep up an image of superiority that can’t be maintained—because no one is that superior. They also want partners who will make them look good and give them increased status. Some narcissists have hot anger like borderlines (the “vulnerable” narcissists) and others have cold anger like antisocials (the “grandiose” narcissists).      

All of these personalities put a lot of energy into covering up their violent tendencies while they are dating. They usually do that by pouring on the charm and attention, telling you how wonderful you are and how wonderful they are, and trying to make you feel special. If you’re not used to this type of attention, you may be swept off your feet. You might think: “Finally, someone is treating me the way I always wanted to be treated.” Watch out!

Warning Signs

In 2017, Megan Hunter and I wrote a book titled Dating Radar: Why Your Brain Says Yes to
“The One” Who Will Make Your Life Hell
. In it we described patterns of behavior of the above personality types and more. We encouraged readers who are dating to see if they saw potential signs of:

  1. all-or-nothing thinking;
  2. blaming others a lot;
  3. difficulty managing their emotions; and
  4. extreme behaviors: doing negative things that 90% of people would never do.

These are four warning signs in general, as well as the specific types of behavior associated with each personality above. Here’s a few brief examples of what else to look for in these three personalities:


Unusually wide mood swings. Sudden and intense anger. Lots of blame for you seeming to “abandon” them in very minor situations. Very possessive. Concerned about who you spend time with.


Superior attitude. Put-downs for your normal behavior. Always comparing people to each other, including saying some are losers. Insulting or embarrassing you in public, to impress other people. 


Laughing at other people’s distress. Complaining that you’re trying to control them. Disappearing for days at a time without a credible explanation. Wants to control everything. 

Jamming Your Radar

In our book, we also added two other areas of warning signs: Their attempts to “jam” your radar and your need to know your own “blind spots.” Things they often do to jam your radar are: 


Pouring on the compliments, treating you to special events, lots of special attention.  


They often unrealistically say they will take care of you and protect you from all difficult situations. However, they often end up doing the opposite and want you to take care of them.


They often will figure out what your interests are and try to appear interested in the same things. Then, after they think they have you, they lose interest in those things.


They often want to have sex sooner than you do. You may feel rushed or pressured and tempted to just go along. They may want to do things you don’t want to. These are warning signs. 

Know Your Own Blind Spots

Your blinds spots are reasons you might be more vulnerable to falling for someone who could potentially be difficult or even abusive toward you. These can include:


You may be feeling down and out for a variety of reasons. People with the above personality disorders are often attracted to those with low self-esteem, because they are easier to deceive and manipulate. They are good at spotting who feels vulnerable. 


You may be going through a hard time, such as after a break-up or other loss. Again, people with the above personalities can often spot this vulnerability and act super supportive.


These are the beliefs that you can change the person or that “time and love” will cure all of their bad behaviors. Forget about it! What you see is what you will always get, and more!

If you have some or all of these blind spots, you are encouraged to talk to friends or a counselor to build your self-esteem back up and to deal with any loneliness or grieving before you start dating again. 


People who engage in Coercive Controlling Violence often have personality disorders which are not obvious at first. On the surface, they can appear extremely appealing, through the attention they pay and the things that they say. However, sooner or later, their abusive behavior comes out. Responses to the survey that we did for our Dating Radar book revealed that many abusers were very nice until their partner made a commitment to the relationship, like getting engaged, getting married or having a child. Then, their personality seemed to change and their possessive, cruel and/or superior side came out, including physical abuse. Yet they often denied doing anything wrong and slowly wore down the person. 

From our experience with hundreds of separation and divorce cases, the violent side usually shows up within the first year. Therefore, we strongly recommend that anyone who is dating wait at least a year before making a major commitment to a new partner, such as getting married, having a child or buying a house together.  During that year, it also helps to get other people’s input to see if you’re missing any warning signs. Don’t try to figure this out alone. You should feel comfortable AND have your eyes wide open.

Bill Eddy is the co-author with Megan Hunter of Dating Radar: Why Your Brain Says “Yes” to the One Who Will Make Your Life Hell. He is a lawyer, therapist, mediator and the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute.


Photo by Alisa Mulder on Unsplash

Megan HunterBill Eddy