Abusive or Socially Awkward? Parsing your partner’s behavior.

Although I am primarily a dating/attraction coach, I also dole out quite a bit of relationship advice in the course of my duties. Recently, I had a conversation with someone who I will call “Sam,” who is in a relationship with someone who I will call “Alex.” Sam was concerned because Alex wasn’t getting on well with Sam’s family. Okay, that’s a vast understatement.

You see, family is very important to Sam. Sam’s mother lives in a little Mother-In-Law unit in their back yard, and Sam always makes time for K & R, who are kids from a previous marriage. By the time Sam called me, Alex had already barred K & R from entering the household. In fact,

Alex went so far as to claim that, because K had recently been in the pool, it had been “contaminated” and Alex therefore refused to swim in it.  Oh, and Sam’s mother had thrown a vase at Alex. And that was just that day.

I could go on, but the phrase that caught my ear was: “[My family members] say Alex is abusive.”

“Do you think Alex is abusive?” I asked.

“Well, I found this website with a list of qualities that abusers have, and Alex does have some of them.”

As Sam began to rattle off the red flags listed on the website, I realized that a lot of those qualities could be just as easily attributed to a lack of socialization, or a low desire for social contact. I knew this because so many of my clients are lacking in the social graces many of us take for granted. But that doesn’t necessarily make them abusive, just tactless.

As I helped Sam parse the difference between an abuser and someone who is simply socially awkward, it occurred to me that this information is probably useful to a wider audience. So, I wrote up this quiz to help you determine whether or not your partner’s anti-social behavior is also abusive behavior.


1. You tell Your Partner (henceforth YP) you have both been invited over to another couple’s house for dinner, and that you have already accepted. How does YP respond?

A. “We’re too busy this week. Call them back and tell them no.”

B. “Are you sure they invited both of us over? Last time they barely talked to me.”

C. “Oh great, just what I wanted: another evening of mind-numbing chit-chat with Lord and Lady Douchebag. Why do you make me do these things?”


2. You tell YP that you like the couple in question and would like to attend the dinner, with or without YP. YP responds:

A. “Irrelevant. This is just not a good time for it.”

B. “Oh, I get it. You want to go without me. No, it’s okay, I understand. If you’d rather spend time with them than with me, I’ll just stay home and read a book or something.” *pained expression*

C. “Seriously? What do you see in those people? They’re such pompous hipsters.  But fine, whatever. If you want to waste your time on people like that, then you deserve each other.”


3. You tell YP that your parents have invited you over for Christmas dinner. YP says:

A. “Sounds boring. Let’s just stay home and watch movies this year.”

B. “I don’t know. Last year you kind of threw me under the bus in front of your family.”

C. “Your parents are awful. Why would I want to spend Christmas with them? Why would you? Can’t we just spend Christmas alone, just the two of us? I’ll make it worth your while…”


4. When you ask YP what you should tell your parents when they ask why you won’t be at Christmas dinner, YP says:

A. “Tell them we’re not doing Christmas this year.”

B. “Tell them we have plans.”

C.  “Tell them the truth: that you don’t want to have anything to do with them! Well, if it isn’t true, it should be.”


5. You take YP to a social function at work. It does not go well. At all. What is the most likely scenario?

A. Some of your co-workers were upset/offended by something YP said. You ask YP to apologize, but YP insists that the statement was true and thus refuses.

B. YP stays glued to your side from start to finish, and continually monopolizes your attention. Afterwards YP accuses you of flirting with co-workers and ignoring her/him all night. S/he sleeps on the couch.

C. After half an hour of watching YP mock your co-workers behind their backs, you ask YP to please knock it off. In a fit of pique, YP gets into a sarcastically enthusiastic conversation with your boss, glaring at you all the while: “Oh REally? I had NO IDEA you liked SOCCER so much. Now that is just FASCINATING.” On the car ride home, YP says only three words to you: “You owe me.”


6. You think it would be good for YP to get more social contact, and you say so. YP’s response:

A. “I don’t see why. What’s your supporting evidence?”

B. “You know I have social anxiety! Why would you even bring that up? You can be so cruel sometimes.”

C. “Just because you enjoy wasting your energy making nice with idiots doesn’t mean I should, too.”


7. You and YP have tickets to see a romantic show. At the last minute, YP says s/he isn’t up to it. You are disappointed and say so. YP says:

A. Why don’t you just ask someone else to go with you?

B. I really don’t feel good. Why are you always trying to make me go out when I’m sick?

C. Why are you fighting me on this? That show probably sucks anyhow. Next time ask me if I’m even interested before you spend our money on this crap.


8. Someone stops by when you and YP are in the middle of an argument. YP:

A. Continues the argument, regardless of the outsider’s presence, and/or tells them to leave outright.

B. Pouts and/or acts unpleasant until the visitor feels uncomfortable enough to want to leave.

C. Puts on a happy face and pretends like nothing is going on, and is even angrier when they leave, and/or attempts to get the interloper on his/her side.


9. You present a convincing argument as to why YP is in the wrong. YP:

A. Conditionally agrees with your assessment, pending further research, and declares the argument over without apologizing.

B. Throws a tantrum of epic proportions, screaming something like, “I’M ALWAYS WRONG!” and possibly causing harm to his/herself and/or others.

C. Changes the subject to some wrong you are “always” committing, or something positive you “never” do.


10. Your friends and family think YP is:

A. Blunt, rude, robotic.

B. Needy, delicate, melodramatic.

C. A downer, two-faced, mean.


If you answered predominantly A, chances are you are dealing with someone who is simply rough around the edges rather than abusive. An A probably falls somewhere near “Asperger’s syndrome” on the autism spectrum, and A’s inability to read other people’s emotions is often mistaken for callousness. Your friends and family may not always be pleased by A’s blustering honesty and logic-based approach, but that’s no reason to assume that A is actually abusive.

A lack of tact and a preference for one-on-one rather than group interactions may not be ideal, but they aren’t indicators of abuse, either.

So long as YP is honest and consistent, you could do much worse.

If you answered predominantly B, your partner may be using emotional manipulation to control you and keep your attention focused on him/her. That is, indeed, abusive behavior and needs to be addressed.

If you answered predominantly C, your partner may be using blame and judgment to control you. That is most decidedly abusive, particularly if C tries to isolate you from your support system and/or turn others against you.

The main questions you should ask yourself to determine whether or not your partner is abusive are:

– Is there an implied threat (emotional or physical) behind YP’s words? As in, “If you do not do what I want, I will be angry/sad and can’t be held responsible for my reaction”?

– Is it impossible to reason with YP? If you offer a convincing argument, does YP ever change course and/or admit to being wrong, or does YP instead go on the attack, blaming you and criticizing your actions?

– Do you spend a lot of time trying to please and appease YP? Does it often feel that there is no pleasing YP?

If you answered yes to any of these, trust your instincts and, as Dan Savage would say, DTMFA.