Marriage and couple’s counselors often say that a couple’s first fight sets the tone for all future conflicts and arguments. The difference in an abusive relationship, is that you aren’t so much “fighting” as experiencing an episode of abuse. Abuse is not about flawed communication or anger issues. Instead, it is characterized by behavioral tactics the abuser uses to establish and maintain power and control over his target…you. So, the first “fight” in an abusive relationship actually represents a starting place from which your abuser’s behavior will escalate. It may be that this escalation is so subtle that it’s almost imperceptible, or it may happen very quickly.
In my case, as in many, the first “fight” was shocking. We were neighbors and had been in a relationship for about four months at that point. Things were progressing pretty smoothly, we hadn’t really argued about anything. He was (for the most part) sweet, attentive, interesting, and easy-going. The night the shit finally hit the fan, we were walking to a nearby cafe to grab dinner. At the time, I was in a class with a teacher who worked with homeless youth in Portland, Oregon. I had been talking with her about the issues they faced, and frequently had conversations with street kids I came in contact with around the city. As we were walking, I brought up the fact that I felt like people often overlooked the traumas those kids had experienced in life, that I saw it as a complex social issue, and I wished that the focus was more on helping them rather than branding them as lazy or no-good. To my utter disbelief, my abuser suddenly became agitated. He called me naive and began talking about the fact that he had been one of those youths, so he knew that they were all just “scammers from middle class homes”. At first, I just let the comment about my naivete go, and pursued the debate. I wasn’t arguing about what their background was, people from any background can be stricken with a life-changing trauma. I stressed that I was only expressing my opinion, that it was a complex issue, and that my experience was different from his. Oh man, was that ever the wrong choice. In the middle of the sidewalk, he started yelling that I didn’t know what I was talking about, that my teacher didn’t know what she was talking about, that we were both basically academics that had no understanding of “real life”. I was so embarrassed. Completely shocked, I asked him not to talk to me that way. I said I didn’t appreciate the condescension or the fact that he was raising his voice to me in public. Standing up for myself only made things worse though; more yelling, more put downs, more arm flailing. At that point, I said I’d had enough, turned around and started walking home. He followed me for fifteen blocks back to my house, fuming and shouting at me the whole way.
Now, I know that this description probably doesn’t sound that bad, but believe me when I say it got much worse as time went on. My point in sharing this part of my story, is to illustrate some of the dynamics at play in the beginning of an abusive relationship. Specifically, with regard to incidences of abusive behavior early on. These initial episodes will often come as a surprise; a sharp contrast to the persona you’ve come to know up until that point. They will involve him establishing dominance and control through physical/verbal intimidation, by devaluing you as a person, by making you feel inferior and/or embarrassing you. These episodes will also be characterized by a marked lack of respect for any boundaries you attempt to establish. Pay close attention to what happens the first time you ask your partner to stop doing something that makes you feel threatened or degraded. When you ask someone to “stop”, you are essentially setting a boundary that you hope will be respected. An abusive person loves to find out what your boundaries are and will smash right through them. It solidifies their position as the dominate party; the one in control.