Earlier this week, another young Guyanese mother was killed at the hands of her estranged reputed husband, as she attempted to escape her life of domestic violence with the father of the children. Over the years, Guyana has had an intractable domestic violence problem, but this should make us work harder to alleviate this pernicious condition. While there have been several initiatives launched, one of the areas that have not received much attention in Guyana has been the dynamics operating between couples. Nowadays, arranged marriages are passé, and couples date, or otherwise have a relationship for extended periods, before actually getting married.
An ever-growing phenomenon, of course, are the couples who ‘live home’ even after children are produced in the relationship. Are there signs of an abuser that can be discerned early on in a budding relationship, which can then be nipped in mandatory pre-counselling before matters proceed too far?
While Guyana has not ‘progressed’ to the stage of having dating services, some interesting warning signals have come out from those studies in the countries that we imitate in our social relations. The concept is the same as where the individual in Guyana reveals his/her personality after a few dates.
As this newspaper had said before, a paper that was published in the journal “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin” examined the influence of prior experiences on partner preferences. The researchers themselves constructed a believable-looking “online dating service,” and thus were able to track the study participants’ preferences and selection of various partners. Although the study participants didn’t know it, the researchers had carefully chosen the profiles so that they differed in systematic ways.
For their first study, the researchers focused on heterosexual women’s preferences, and the men’s profiles that they looked at differed in how much they signalled potential for psychological abuse in intimate relationships. The profiles themselves were actually real, with the profiles of potentially abusive men written by men who scored high on characteristics associated with abusive personality: impulsivity, anger, jealousy, low self-esteem. A separate sample of participants independently confirmed that the profiles gave off warning signals of potential abuse.
The researchers’ results are sobering: Women who had a history of being psychologically maltreated in a prior relationship were three times more likely to choose potentially abusive dating partners than women without this history. In other words, women who are at risk of being abused in their relationships are more likely to be attracted to the very features that others see as clear precursors of abuse. Often, these choices are rationalised: intense jealousy is misinterpreted as caring, and anger is romanticised as “dangerous.”
In a second study, the researchers turned the tables around and focused on heterosexual men’s preferences. Their question was this: Who do potentially abusive men prefer? The results showed that men who scored high on a measure of inflicting psychological abuse were 1.5 times more likely to choose a partner who is high on attachment anxiety. Attachment anxiety is a disposition associated with victims of abuse, and is characterised by an intense anxiety over rejection. As such, people high in attachment anxiety are particularly vulnerable to being “treated like a God” during the courtship phase of a relationship: being flooded with flowers, adulated, constantly called. Fears of rejection overwhelm the ability to detect an unhealthy balance between independence and interdependence in their relationships.
What does one do in the face of such data, with people high in attachment anxiety and their potentially abusive partners essentially judging each other as highly compatible? As simple as it may sound, one powerful answer is to rely on your social networks. Listen to what your friends are saying. In fact, people in new relationships should actually ask friends their opinions about prospective partners, and these friends should be honest in their evaluation. This is critical advice both if you are attracted to a potentially abusive mate, and if someone you care about begins describing abusive relationship patterns. Sometimes we need to rely on other people to help us see what we cannot.
Most abuse and violence are committed by “significant others”. We bear much of the responsibility for choosing them. Let us become educated for the signals sent out by abusers.