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Q&A CLOSE-UPS
by Jill Bourdais

Warning signs for avoiding abusive relationships?”

Q : My marriage to a Frenchman, which lasted 9 years, ended in divorce. By the time I left, his chronic anger and over-controlling behavior had become unbearable, and had actually degenerated into regular verbal and occasional physical abuse. Recently, I’ve met a new man, but I am petrified of making the same mistake again. Are there any warning signs, which I should heed to avoid getting into another abusive relationship?

A : There is no surefire early detection system. Mental health researchers are looking at the very pattern you describe, in which one partner — usually, but not always, the man — winds up capturing most of the overt power, while the other person takes a one-down position, first accepting, then appeasing, then begging for change, and often finally being taken over by resentment which leads to divorce.
Despite gains made in many areas by women over the past three decades, we’re still stuck with the legacy of centuries of patriarchy. You should assess how closely your new friend demonstrates allegiance to the idea of men as logical, rational, strong, dependable, the best decision-makers etc. — and women as emotional, oversensitive, unreliable, irrational, dependent and so on. Watch his behavior; listen to how he talks to and about you, about other people, even about characters in films or books.
Find out as much as you can about his childhood — how he was treated by his parents, siblings, teachers and schoolmates. Some important research is being done now on the subject of shame — especially so-called toxic shame — a sense of being “less than” which people carry around as adults due to having been put down, criticized or humiliated as children. While women who’ve been treated this way move easily into the victim stance, men tend to leap from what feels like a weak position into compensatory grandiosity with its attendant features — boasting, belittling, bullying. Often all it takes is a minimal expression of discontent from another person to activate first the shame, then the grandiosity, and when escalation ensues, violence may be just around the corner.
How willing is you friend to discuss emotional issues seriously, particularly when problems arise between you? It is currently being hypothesized that men’s difficulty to engage in this area is directly related to societal and familial denial of their vulnerabilities as little boys. Even when they are tots, boys who exhibit fear, tenderness, hurt or sensitivity are derided by peers — or by their parents — and they are pushed into a performance mentality where doing rather than simply being is given top billing. Robbed of the right to feel what he feels, a man may develop few skills to deal with his own emotions, let alone those of his loved ones.
Lastly, take a good look at yourself. As a woman, you have been socialized to be a caretaker, and are genetically programmed to seek greater fulfilment in the relational than in the performance spheres of life. You may have accepted far greater responsibility for the relationship than was healthy. Demanding more from your husband would doubtless have created conflict, but in the early stages of a marriage, while romantic love or the memory of it still lingers, people are often motivated to work at the relationship and step down from destructive positions. With this new man — don’t accept or make excuses for behaviors which could be linked to some of the above points. If he won’t do his share, then it’s probably best to write him off sooner rather than later.

Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she organizes workshops dealing with improving relationship skills and building self-esteem. Tel: 01 43  54  79 25. Questions for the Close-Ups column may be mailed to the Paris Voice, 7 rue Papillon, 9e, or emailed to her directly at JABourdais@aol.com