Like most lifelong cultists, I have a pattern of being drawn into toxic relationships, in which I am dominated by the other person. This pattern is also common in survivors of domestic violence and child abuse. There are plenty of theories as to why we “love-reincarnate” our past abusers, never learning our lesson even after enduring the same trial over and over again. But after plenty of introspection and self-improvement work, I can honestly (and thankfully) say that it’s been a long time since I last unwittingly fell into an abusive situation. My secret? The Dealbreaker List.
The Dealbreaker List is a set of characteristics that I look out for when meeting new people. Once I see any of the Dealbreaker personality traits or behaviors, I nip our relationship in the bud. Bam. The end. No second chances. No negotiations. No bullshit. We’re done.
You might be thinking, that’s harsh. But listen. The last three times I made an exception to my Dealbreaker List and tried to be someone’s friend anyway, I lived to regret it, big-time. Now I know that if there’s any doubt about a person from the beginning, it’s way better to be safe than sorry!
To make a Dealbreaker List, you must first figure out what specific type of abuser you tend to attract. Think about every abusive, controlling, domineering and manipulative person who’s ever taken advantage of you. Start from your earliest memories, all the way to now. What traits, behaviors and mannerisms did these people have in common?
You might be inclined to list the universal characteristics of abusers, like, “lack of empathy” or “self-centered.” But the key is to spot the traits specific to your abusers. Your abusers got into your life because their traits were compatible with your weaknesses in particular – that’s why they aren’t able to abuse everyone they encounter, but they were able to abuse you.
Let’s pause here, because that’s an uncomfortable truth, but a necessary one to confront. Everyone has vulnerabilities, so it’s not like you’re especially weak or anything. You just happen to be a puzzle piece shaped in just the right way to “click” with certain abusive types. Think of it this way: there are some abusers who want money – so they go after people who are generous, have an abundance of compassion for others, and may even have a bit of a Savior Complex. Then, there are abusers who want sex – so they go after people who crave affection and have poor intimate boundaries. No abuser can exploit everyone. And likewise, no victim can be victimized by just anyone.
The good news is, once you admit that you have specific vulnerabilities, you can simultaneously strengthen those parts of yourself, while also learning how to stave off abusers compatible with those weaknesses.
More good news: abusers always give themselves away in the beginning of a relationship. As long as you know what you’re looking for, you can learn to spot them early, and cut contact.
To teach you how to make the Dealbreaker List, I’ll use myself as an example:
I tend to attract psychologically and emotionally abusive people – because, unfortunately, my mental boundaries and emotional regulation have been my weak spots. In contrast, I don’t attract financially, physically or sexually abusive people. With that in mind, my Dealbreaker List may look very different from someone’s who, say, attracts physically abusive people. I’ll address that at the end of this post.
MY DEALBREAKER LIST
If a new person in my life displays any of these tendencies consistently, I promise myself that I will avoid them or entirely cut contact if possible.
1. They’re condescending, patronizing and arrogant.
Remember, I attract psychological manipulators in particular. The thing they all have in common? Believing that they’re intellectually superior to everyone else, and that this gives them the right to “talk down” to people.
When someone thinks you’re stupid, they won’t always say it up front. So I’ve learned to listen for phrases like this:
“How did you not know that? Everyone knows that.”
“That can’t be true because I’ve never heard of it.”
“Wow, that was really clever of you – even I didn’t think of that!”
“I had no idea you were so smart!”
“Are you kidding? That’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard!”
I also look out for subtle conversational patterns, like if someone:
often explains the obvious to me (assuming I didn’t already know it),
talks very slowly and with simple language (as if speaking to a child),
doesn’t believe me when I claim to know something (“You’re an editor? Prove it. What’s an Oxford comma?”)
then I take the hint. They think I’m an idiot.
I used to waste my time trying to impress them with my intellect, mistakenly believing that their disrespect was merely a misunderstanding — that if I could convince them I was “in their league” they’d be nicer to me.
Sadly, I learned the hard way that a person like this does not, and will never, see you as an equal. They’ve already decided that you’re below them, which is the only reason they want to be your “friend” in the first place. They want someone to dominate — but that someone doesn’t have to be you.
2. I’m not allowed to disagree with them.
None of my past abusers would tolerate any deviation from their worldview. Any. At all. If you dared to assert a different opinion, then you’d be in for relentless arguments, sometimes lasting days or weeks at a time. That is no exaggeration.
Now, when meeting a new person, I disagree with them as soon as possible – especially about small things. Just to see what happens.
Generally, if someone is safe, they might get somewhat defensive but ultimately accept a difference of opinion. (Brownie points if they’re excited to learn why you disagree with them!)
However, with abusive people (particularly mind-abusers), every disagreement is an opportunity for them to shape your mind. If they can succeed at changing your mind about small things (like favorite movies, favorite books, etc.), they will gradually, over time, try to alter your perceptions about bigger things (who you can talk to, what you’re allowed to wear, etc.)
My cult leader Arachne started the abuse by only challenging me over small things. For instance, if I mentioned that I liked drinking tea, she’d argue about it (Caffeine is super unhealthy! It’s literally damaging your nervous system! Don’t you care about your health?!) until I agreed not to drink it anymore. After successfully swaying me over small things like food and music preferences, she moved on to bigger projects…. like changing my mind about who my friends were.
Looking back, I might have prevented this manipulation if I’d held my ground from the very beginning. Let’s say I hadn’t changed my mind about tea. If I had been stubborn. (I don’t need to justify why I like tea! Why are we still arguing about this? It’s fucking TEA! Oh my god, may I please have a different opinion than you?!) She probably would have backed off, realizing that I am not the easily-manipulated pushover that she wants.
3. They’re incapable of giving a sincere apology.
I think this one should go on everyone’s Dealbreaker List, regardless of the type of abuser.
Abusive people will use any and every opportunity to power-play you, and they’re especially fond of exploiting vulnerable moments, like when they’ve hurt you and you ask for an apology.
An apology is a power-play if it….
- frames your feelings as wrong or insignificant:
I’m sorry you feel that way.
I’m sorry you can’t take a joke.
I’m sorry you’re oversensitive.
- turns the attention back to them and their own problems:
I’m sorry I said something that hurt you, but I was really upset because my mom and I got in a fight this morning, and I’m feeling so sad and hurt about it, and my life is miserable, and I have a major exam today, and I suck at everything, and everyone hates me, and, and, and….!
- puts you in the position of comforting them, but leaves your concern unresolved:
I’m sorry I’m such an awful human being! I’m sorry I can’t get anything right! You probably hate me now!
- deflects the blame back onto you:
I’m sorry for what I did, but YOU always do ______, so you’re not innocent either!
And so on.
Power-play apologies are designed to make you say sorry for their actions. Power-players aren’t oblivious to how inadequate their apologies are – so there’s no use explaining to them why you won’t accept their apology. That’s my experience, anyway.
4. They invalidate my emotions and perceptions.
One thing all my past abusers had in common, was that they never validated my emotions. If I was sad, they’d tell me to get over it. If I was happy, they’d find any way they could to burst that balloon. Just like how I wasn’t allowed to think for myself, if they didn’t feel a certain way, well, I wasn’t allowed to feel that way either.
This is another kind of power play. When someone disapproves of your emotions, they’re actually disapproving of your perception of a situation – or even your perception of yourself! I’d go as far as to say that dismissing someone’s emotions falls along the fringes of “gaslighting” territory. True gaslighting is much more methodical than that, of course, but both gaslighting and trivializing-emotions have this in common: they are intended to make you question your ability to evaluate a situation in relation to yourself.
Now, to avoid attracting such people again, when anyone tries to downplay my emotions (by telling me to “calm down” or “stop being dramatic, it’s not that big of a deal”) I have zero – read me, ZERO – tolerance for that. Nope. Nuh-uh, no. Bye.
See, here’s the thing: your emotions are not up for debate.
Your emotions are a fact. If you’re angry, you’re angry. If you’re sad, you’re sad. There is no debate to be had! Only you can say how you feel. Anyone who says otherwise is only interested in exercising control over you.
5. They make everything about themselves.
Remember Selene? My ex-“best friend” and cousin of my cult leader? It took me nine years to see how self-absorbed and lacking in empathy she was, and how those traits were toxic to my well-being. There are many examples I could give you to illustrate this item on the List, but I’ve settled on this one:
Selene’s self-centered perspective became most obvious after Roman died. In an emotional crisis, I asked when she could talk, only to be given an off-handed description of her booked-up week. When she finally did find a small window of time to talk, I poured out my heart to her on the phone about how much I missed Roman, how painful this was, how lonely I felt…
And you know what she said, after all of that?
“I’m so glad my friends aren’t suicidal!”
I don’t really need to explain this item on the list, do I?
What might your Dealbreaker List look like?
Let’s say you primarily attract physically abusive people. Your List might include people who seem to be in a constant state of anger, act impulsively, brag about fights they’ve won in the past, or can’t stand to lose a board game.
Or if you attract sexually abusive people, your List might include people who make an excess of perverse jokes and ignore your discomfort, or openly slander anyone who claims to have been raped (or worse — sympathize with the rapist!)
Financial abusers? Maybe they lavish you with expensive gifts very early on in the relationship and insist that you should “stay home, don’t work – let me spoil you!”
It could be little things, it could be big things. Just be specific!
And remember: many abusers are abusive in more than one way. So your List might feature a combination of traits from different types of abusers.
Ultimately, it all depends on your chain of experiences, and the List can be tweaked as many times as you want. I want you to come away from this blog post, empowered and eager to start setting long-overdue boundaries! Have fun with the process!
It’s your List, where you set your own boundaries on your own terms. In fact, feel free to hide your List! Or, show your List to a supportive friend so they can help you spot Dealbreakers in new people.
Give yourself permission to avoid contact with anyone who even slightly resembles your past abuser(s). Sure, some might think that you’re being unfair and that you owe them a chance. But the truth is, you don’t owe anyone your trust. Recognizing (and acting on) that truth is the first step towards ending the cycle of abuse.