What do abusers look like?
Abusers can look and act like everyone else and exist in our everyday social environments. They are typically charismatic and fun to be around, similar to kind people. They have large groups of people who like and support them. They occasionally do kind and thoughtful things for people. However, when you observe them long enough, most acts of kindness have ulterior motives such as gaining loyalty, distracting from bad acts, or creating a debt which they expect to be repaid in the future.
In jiu jitsu, it is more common that the abuser will be in a position of power, such as a coach or upper belt in the school. Abusive relationships require power and control from the abuser and being in an authority position naturally provides some level of it. However, abuse can come from anyone.
What are initial warning signs I should pay attention to?
The challenging aspect of recognizing red flags of a potentially abusive relationship is that it’s very similar to how strong bonds are built between friends. Jiu jitsu is known for creating family-like relationships and so it can be difficult to differentiate between a healthy one or a toxic one in the beginning.
Many genuinely kind and good people may also do things in this list because these are all common behaviors to building trust in a relationship. Especially if you are female, coaches and teammates may be trying to go above-and-beyond to make sure you feel welcome and comfortable and that may coincide with some of the behaviors on this list. This doesn’t mean that you should not trust them. However, if you find half or more of this list to be applicable, or you have an uneasy gut feeling with any of these behaviors, or you ask them to stop and they don’t, you may want to take a closer look at that relationship.
- They claim a special connection with you. They’ve never felt this way about someone, never been able to talk to someone like they can with you, they tell you things they’ve never told anyone, they feel they can trust you with anything…
- They give you free lessons or special attention that others do not get. This type of behavior makes you feel good, but it may create a debt that you feel like you need to fill later when the abuser asks you for something. It’s not uncommon to get occasionally free lessons or special attention, especially when you first start, but you should be concerned when it appears to be offered to only you and never anyone else.
- They create an avenue for consistent physical connection. This may include always being your partner, alwaying having you help demonstrate techniques, insisting on always getting a hug before parting ways.
- They want to talk about personal topics early on. They quickly want to talk about your fears, heart breaks, past challenges, and be a supportive person for you to talk to. They have a similar experience to every one of your experiences.
- They share secrets with you. They attempt to get you to share a similar secret of your life with them.
- They make unsolicited promises. This will typically happen after learning about hurtful experiences in your past. They may promise to never abandon you or never hurt you.
- They give you over-the-top praise and flattery. Coaches will naturally praise you as a part of their job to help you grow. The key is when it’s over-the-top and begins to cover areas that shouldn’t concern them such as your looks and body figure.
- They have an unusual number of “crazy” people in their past. This may be past romantic relationships or past students. They will likely talk about how great things were until one day that person just “went crazy” and disappeared.
- They text or call you frequently. This is common among good friends, but if it becomes excessive and is done concurrently with multiple other warning signs of this list, it can be a cause for concern.
- They find opportunities to be alone with you. This could be meeting early/staying late at the gym, giving/asking for rides, inviting you to their home, etc.
What are indicators that a relationship is becoming abusive?
Abuse is not only physical or sexual. Other abusive behaviors that may happen either preceeding or concurrently to sexual abuse are:
- Slowly pushing boundaries or ignoring established ones. Even after saying no, they will likely try again days, weeks, or months later. They may tell you to stop being so sensitive or stop being conservative as they continue to push past a ”No.”
- Giving you the silent treatment. Rather than discussing their feelings or talking through a disagreement, they ignore you and refuse to speak until you apologize (maybe for something you didn’t do) or move past the situation as if nothing happened.
- Retaliation for saying “No”. Typically this is shown with the silent treatment or giving you less instruction/coaching. In later stages of abuse, this may include verbal outbursts or physical aggression.
- Gaslighting. Gaslighting is when someone tells you something happened that didn’t happen or vise versa. This typically occurs when you call them out on the behaviors listed above. They will insist they are not pushing boundaries, not punishing you, not intentionally reducing their level of coaching or interaction. They will often call you sensitive or needy for thinking that.
- Deny you should feel emotions that they are intentionally provoking. They tell you how they don’t want you to feel (which is likely how you are feeling). This could be, “I don’t want you to feel like…I’m not supporting you, this is a boys-club, everyone is trying to hit on you, etc…”
- Isolating you emotionally from family or friends. Abusers establish control by isolating you from your support. Outside of physically isolating you by consuming most of your free time, they may also talk poorly about your friends or family and create reasons for you not to trust them. Within the jiu jitsu team, this may look like spreading rumors that aren’t true or pitting members of a like-group against each other (for example, creating competition and animosity between female teammates).
Subtle indicators you may notice within yourself:
- You feel uneasy or anxious. Your gut feelings exist for a reason and you should trust it even if you cannot logically explain why you feel that way.
- You find yourself fact-checking or playing detective with what they tell you.
- It feels like your life is now filled with drama when it wasn’t previously.
- You notice yourself doing things that you wouldn’t have done before you met this person.
- You start to dread seeing them or being at the gym.
Why don’t people just say no or fight back?
Our nervous systems are complex and everyone reacts differently to a traumatic situation (sexual harassment or abuse is traumatic). It can be most simply summarized as a fight, flight, or freeze response. In a threatening situation our brain and nervous system take over in order to survive the event and will automatically go into one of those responses depending on what it thinks is best to survive.
We typically believe that the best response in any situation is to fight. That’s why we are training BJJ, right? That’s not necessarily always the best response though. Your body is taking all it’s knowledge, which could include prior experiences and training, to make a quick, unconscious decision of how best to survive. It may decide the best way to survive with the least amount of damage is to freeze, and people should not be shamed for that.
Saying no is difficult for many other psychological reasons. Typically the abuser has established trust with their target and it may be difficult for them to process that this trusted person is about to do them harm. Likely the abuser has also used previous situations to condition them not to say no. This is exacerbated when it comes to fighting back. Most people are not psychologically prepared to fight someone they felt was a trusted friend.
Why do people still hang around, or act friendly towards, someone who was abusive to them?
There are many reasons that people may still be around someone who abused them. One major reason is that they may feel like they have nowhere else to go or they don’t want to leave the close relationships they have on the team because of this person. In a majority of situations, even after the abuse is reported to a leader on the team, the abuser will not be asked to leave. This means that their target either has to leave the team themselves, or learn to live with the abuser so that they can stay on the team.
Abuse is also cyclical in nature. Typically after an abusive episode, the abuser will apologize and make promises to change. There will be a period of harmony and friendliness before abuse begins to ramp up again. In a domestic violence situation, their target may leave up to 12 times before they leave for good (source: https://www.talkspace.com/blog/cycle-of-abuse-domestic-violence/). While abuse in jiu jitsu is not exactly the same as domestic violence, it does help explain why victims stay in the abusive environment, and may also be friendly with their abuser, even after experiencing abuse multiple times.
If I realize I’m in an abusive environment, what do I do?
The most important thing is to figure out how to keep yourself safe. This will look different for everyone. The relationship can become extremely volatile once the abuser realizes you are trying to leave or end contact.
If you have a friend or coach you trust, reach out and let them know what’s going on. Work with them to develop a plan. If they are unwilling to do anything, you may need to make the tough decision on how healthy these relationships are for you going forward.
Sometimes the safest option is to just leave. Know that you don’t owe an explanation to anyone if that’s what you decide you need to do.
If you are not sure who you can trust, most states have confidential resources that can provide therapy on sliding scales or a professional who can help you navigate the situation. This site provides a great search tool for finding those resources.
Depending on what happened, you may want to file a police report. Typically the sooner you do that, the better. If you report within 72 hours, most police departments have victim assistance funding to help pay for medical and therapy bills. If you are unsure whether you want to file a police report, most departments also have a victim advocate office which can help you understand your options and explain the criminal justice process.
Finally, you can always reach out to us and we can help you find the resources you need.