Contrary to the fears survivors have of being chosen for being weak, or unlovable–after all, abuse wears down anyone’s self-esteem after a while–abusers choose you for one reason and one reason only: You had something they wanted. They don’t want to work very hard for things they want, so they do the next best thing: Find a highly giving partner who will provide that for them.
So what do they want? This is idiosyncratic and as individual as the abuser themselves. If they want a nice lifestyle, they’ll find someone who is a hard worker or well-connected. If they want to be known as an intellectual, they’ll choose a smart person. If they are vain, they may choose an unusually beautiful partner, or someone who is very physically fit, which they believe promotes envy in others. However, this is not to say they plan to appreciate their partner’s hard work and support them, respect and value their partner’s intelligence, or cherish their beauty. They plan to exploit your best traits for their own gain. Charming isn’t it? I don’t include empathy or kindness or compassion on this list, because that’s a given. Abusers need unusually sensitive people as partners, because they know they’ll have someone who is sympathetic to them, who will give them second chances. It’s another trait they exploit.
In a parallel field, there is a term called victimology, which examines what predatory people look for in who they target. It’s important to me to preface any discussion of common traits of survivors with a very clear intention that victim blaming is unacceptable. No matter who or what you are, abuse aimed at you is never your responsibility; it is squarely on the shoulders of the abuser. However, for womxn who have noticed repeated patterns or who have been victimized more than once, I think it’s important to examine what might make us more vulnerable.
Abusers are highly skillful manipulators and provocateurs, and I’ve seen the most reasonable, grounded people become virtually frantic from long-term gaslighting. So survivors can seem “crazy” while the abuser may be smiling beatifically beside them, cool as a cucumber. (There’s some fascinating but terrifying research that a certain kind of abuser actually experiences a drop in heart rate when they are abusing their victim.) They always discredit and smear their victims, often claiming that the survivor abused them. However, I do see a certain kind of abuser target womxn who have had any kind of mental health condition, even ones as pedestrian as mild depression or PMS, and use that as a way to discredit her/them. They also target womxn who have had abusive relationships in the past, or an abusive/neglectful upbringing. Be wary of telling any of the above stories in a dating situation to people who you don’t know very well and haven’t yet earned your trust. It’s not that there’s anything to be ashamed of, there absolutely isn’t. I believe as many people suffer from mental health conditions as suffer from physical ailments. But it’s an easy out for an abuser. “See? She’s crazy.”
This is neither here nor there, but even if someone is “crazy”? Still doesn’t mean they’re not being abused.
Abusers commonly target womxn who have done sex work; in fact I believe this group to be the most vulnerable of all to predatory people. Sex workers are so shamed and maligned in our society that they are rarely given found credible. This is so wrong. Sex workers are daughters and children, parents and spouses, siblings and friends. Sex workers are valuable human beings, and nothing they do gives anyone the right to abuse them. However, I believe abusers target them due to their perception of these womxn as being broken or disreputable. Again, not okay. Unfortunately their smear campaigns stick to these womxn. “Well, you know, she was a stripper, or a prostitute, or did porn, etc etc.” As if that somehow makes the abuser the noble one.
Other common vulnerabilities are being much younger than the abuser (I myself was a decade younger than mine), idealistic, with romantic beliefs about love conquering all, a a trauma survivor, or fresh out of some kind of loss, such as divorce, family strife, or death of a loved one. Again, I evidenced all of the these. I’ve heard story after story where these elements were present. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean being weak, it just means that predators are very good at sniffing out when you’re nursing some kind of emotional wound. Not to be macabre, but Ted Bundy famously said that he could “spot a victim” by the way she held her head and by her gait. An actual prison experiment was conducted in which convicted sex offenders were able to pick out which women had been victimized in the past by watching her gait. Unbelievable, right? But if you want to protect yourself, knowledge is power. Predators don’t think like “normal” non-abusive people.
Over the years I’ve sat with hundreds of survivors, and one thing that always strikes me is what wonderful people they are. Smart, resourceful, kind, compassionate, hardworking, and infinitely lovable. Seeing them heal and discover their own power is one of the most rewarding things I have had the honor of witnessing. They are the people I’d want on my side, and in my corner. It’s not what they fear–that they are chosen because they are weak. To survive abuse, particularly psychological abuse (gaslighting, manipulation, exploitation), one has to be very strong. And because we’re strong, we can shoulder more. We last longer even under the most dire circumstances.
Just think…how survivors could bloom and flourish under loving, supportive conditions? I’ve seen it happen many times. It gives me hope.