Emotional Health

Dr. Ford on Emotional Health: The Lure of the Intermittent Abuser

Dr. Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. Here, she tells a woman who has just left an abusive relationship why it was that she could be duped into staying so long.


Abusive partners have a “nose” for vulnerable women. Isolation is one of their tools for entrapment. (Photo by Lee J. Haywood via Flickr)

Dear Dr. Ford:

I am 48 and have just ended a two-year live-in relationship with a man who was abusive. I am a CPA with a good job, and I thought I had common sense. I was wooed by this charming man who worked in the hospitality industry. He worked nights and I worked days. He made time for me for the first six months; then, after he moved into my apartment, things slowly began to change. He never volunteered to pay for any of the apartment co-op maintenance; never bought food; didn’t pay for part of the maid service. 

The sex was great for a year; then he was out more and more and resented my questions about where he was and when he would be home. I noticed that when I made plans to see friends, he became angry, even though he would often not be around. Over the second year of this relationship, the fighting began. He made me feel unattractive. He made me feel as though I asked for too much of his time.  I became aware of other habits that he had kept hidden from me—heavy drinking, pot, and cocaine. He needed money, and I did occasionally give him some, but it was never enough. We had multiple blow-ups over little things and big things, and I was always accused of being the instigator. Then there was make-up romance for a day.

Finally I went to my pastor for advice, and he told me that I had to get him out of my apartment before something more serious happened to me. Members of my congregation helped me pack up his clothes and all of his belongings and delivered them to his job. I took out a restraining order, since he had once threatened to kill me  if I ever tried to leave him.  I know that I am lucky to have escaped with only financial loss and two years of my life lost, but I now feel that I can’t trust my judgment in men. And, of course, my self-esteem is too low to be measured. Is this a common occurrence, or am I just unlucky? Will I ever be able to trust myself or another man again?



Dr. Ford Responds:

Dear Marie:

What you have described bears all the earmarks of a classic abusive relationship, and you are indeed lucky that you were able to escape without physical harm. Many women do not, as you know, and though your self-esteem may be shattered, it may help you to realize how very many have shared your experience.

Studies show that women who were abused as children, whether emotionally, physically, or (especially) sexually, are most likely to wind up in abusive relationships later on.

There are several reasons for this.

The most general reason is that people are drawn to what they find familiar. Even during the “honeymoon” phase, a woman with a history of abuse often responds unconsciously to the cues she is getting about a man’s true character—and it feels like “home.”

Second, abuse victims try to master, and thus make less painful, traumatic experiences by repeating them. This is what leads to the unfortunate cycle of victims of sexual abuse sometimes becoming abusers themselves later on.

Finally, abusive men usually have a “nose” for vulnerable women: they sense a potential victim’s weakness even if she herself is not aware of it.

Even if you have had no history in your past to make you a vulnerable target, your partner used a classic strategy to seduce, weaken, and entrap you. The basic scenario is to build you up/tear you down/build you up/ tear you down, etc. The first part—affection/intimacy—sets the stage. The subsequent random withdrawal of affection, the anger, and the fault-finding are so painful that when that part of the cycle stops and affection is restored, it is experienced as a tremendous relief, and is valued even more highly than it was in the first place. It is not unlike having been hooked on drugs by a pusher, who then capriciously takes the drugs away and then gives them back again.

The randomness is one of the keys to his power. You never know what will set him off—or when—or, on the other hand, when you might regain his favor. This strategy of  “intermittent” reinforcement is a tremendously powerful hook, and experiments have shown time and again that it creates habits that are most difficult to change.

Children whose parents are only randomly or intermittently affectionate find it much harder to break free of them than from those who are predictably, consistently rejecting. The intermittently affectionate parent holds out some hope that if the children can figure out the magic formula that worked once before, they can regain the parent’s love. Abusive partners wield a similar power. (Random, or intermittent, reinforcement is what keeps gamblers coming back, by the way, and casinos know this. That is why they are careful to let customers win regularly, but not predictably).

Another tool abusive partners use, which you mention in your letter, is isolation. Despite the fact that your partner seemed less and less interested in you, he still objected to your spending time with your own friends. By keeping his victim apart from the rest of the world, the abuser can retain control by making his victim even more dependent on him—and unable to test the reality of her situation by discussing it or comparing it with that of others.

Finally, you ask if there is hope for the future, and the answer is “Of course,” as long as you are careful to give yourself time and opportunity to recover. Reconnecting with your friends and family is important, and you may want to seek out a support group or therapist. You will definitely find that there are very common themes that run through the experiences of women in relationships with abusers, regardless of the level of abuse. You need to be able to reflect on what happened and to be alert to the “red flags” of potential abusers in the future. Though they often appear charming and warm at first, the “tells” are there, if you watch for them.

It is vital that you be aware of your own vulnerabilities and when you are fragile, so that you can be particularly on your guard. Most of all, know that while some of us are more fragile than others, none of us has not, at some point, given the right conditions, been ripe for the picking.


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  • alice ray cathrall April 7, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    Thank you both for your comments.
    Very helpful

  • Cecilia Ford Ph.D. April 7, 2013 at 12:21 pm


    This is indeed a good question. It would be great if had a roadmap to guide us whose signs were easy to read, but in the absence of that there are some classic “red flags” to watch out for. Dr. Allen has touched on them all: secrecy about the past, jealousy, substance abuse, controlling behavior, inappropriate anger or rudeness directed towards anyone, not just you. A general rule of thumb is to watch out for actions that tell you that, no matter what he might say in words about how much he cares about you, it’s “all about HIM.” Many years ago I had a friend who, accidentally pregnant, decided to get an abortion. She and the man she was dating were not yet entirely committed and she was just beginning a new career pathway. He supported her decision, paid for the procedure, accompanied her, nursed her, etc. But my friend was deeply disturbed by one thing, which did not fit in with the rest of the picture and which she could not banish from her mind: he was enraged by the GYN’s post-op instructions not to have intercourse for 6 weeks following the procedure. Because the rest of his behavior was so solicitous she couldn’t make sense of this and tried to push it out of her mind. Unfortunately successful at this, she wound up marrying him a year later and he revealed himself to be a classically emotionally abusive husband whom she later (messily) divorced.
    The main point of this story is while everyone has faults, there are some signs that should not be ignored, no matter how small. In this behavior, my friend’s ex-husband, while generally very good at coming off as a “good guy,” couldn’t keep the facade of the loving partner up during a time when he should have been most caring about her. Instead he revealed that he was really only interested in himself, at a time when it really mattered.

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. April 7, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Dear Alice,

    This is a great question. I know that Dr.Ford will weigh in on this but it would be wonderful if readers would give us their knowledge of early signs that women can watch for in order to avoid beoming involved with someone who will abuse them. Here is my list culled from years of discussing these issues with patients:

    Too much too fast: I love you on the second date. I want to call you, text you, see you too much because I can’t live without you.

    Unwilling to give information about past relationships. Or the information given is a littany of how he was always disappointed by every woman in his life.

    Inappropriate jealously early on in a relationship.

    Observe how he treats the waiter, the valet who parked the car, how he talks on the phone….rage, judgemental behavior, can only be hidden for so long.

    Addictive behaviors: too much alcohol or drugs now or in the past; pushing for sexual favors too often and too soon;

    But the frightening thing, Alice, is that so many of these men are successful in business, revered in their religious and social circles, and no one could believe the emotionsal and verbal and sometimes physical and sexual abuse that their wives or long term partners endure. There has been a recent increase in discussion of abused wives of the rich and famous. The media is full of the news of The Michael Arrington abuse allegations, instigated by Gawker.

    Medical students, residents and practicing physcians are now expected to ask this question, “Do you feel safe at home”? We are expected to care about the possible abuse inflicted on women by the men in their lives. And, we are expected to provide a non-rushed environment for women to feel safe enough to talk about their fears and to be given a plan for intervention.

  • alice ray cathrall April 7, 2013 at 8:12 am

    Very Interesting,thank you.
    What are the tell tale signs a charming person may be an abuser in the beginning of a relationship?

  • ellen sue spicer-jacobson April 4, 2013 at 9:31 am

    After reading this, I realize that my ex-husband was emotionally abusive and I am glad we are no longer married. Thanx for the clarification!