John was charged with assaulting Vanessa during their in-person rendezvous. First, they met online, then texted briefly before speaking on the phone, after which John suggested an in-person get together. He offered to make Vanessa dinner at his apartment. Though he had been a “perfect gentleman,” she felt more comfortable if their first “live” rendezvous was less private. They agreed to dinner at a local brewery.
John picked Vanessa up and immediately told her that he “forgot something” in his apartment. After arriving there, he insisted she come up for a moment as it was “too hot” to sit in the car. In the apartment, he turned on the TV and told her he’d be right back. He returned, sat next to her and commented, “You don’t really want to watch TV” and began groping her. When she protested, he appeared surprised and exasperated. As she walked to the door in an attempt to exit, John grabbed her shoulders while blocking the door. After a few brief verbal exchanges, Vanessa left and took an Uber to her girlfriend’s apartment. Shaken, she recounted what occurred. The girlfriend called the police, which led to John being charged with assault.
Vanessa testified at a preliminary hearing that John initially seemed engaging and easy to talk to. His openness and empathy were particular traits that she longed for in a partner. He was transparent about his issues with his family and work, and he was a good listener and seemed interested in her life. Their early social media exchanges led Vanessa to think, “He’s a dream come true.”
John pled guilty to misdemeanor assault. As part of his probation, he was required to attend anger management classes.
John was free of a history of abuse or violence, or psychiatric problems. In his youth, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As an adult, he found ways to get around his inattentiveness, though apparently left with an impulsive proclivity. These characteristics were not obvious to Vanessa, especially since he was also capable of being empathic and thoughtful.
Abusive behavior, online or otherwise, is defined in the psychological literature when an individual perpetrates aggressiveness in one kind or another towards a partner. This behavior could be of an aggressive type, which includes harassment, verbal abuse, or physical threats. It includes instances of posting humiliating comments about a romantic partner or, of course, making physical threats to one’s partner. A second type is referred to as control/surveillance type behaviors. It comprises conduct such as the invasion of privacy through an online source or in person, and attempts at dominance and control, such as prematurely pestering one to cancel a dating app. Research data indicate that direct online aggression was experienced by 14% to 30% of those surveyed, with the rate of control/surveillance being higher at 65%. As might be expected, men tend to express aggression directly. However control/surveillance, which included ghosting, is perpetrated by both sexes in equal measure.
John’s abuse was not online per se, but what are the subtle characteristics of individuals that portend possible abuse which might surface while during online contact or soon after? John initially seemed quite outgoing, personable and socially-oriented, characteristics that are described in psychological literature as extroversion. In its extreme form, it’s expressed as a neediness, with an inability to be alone, which could turn into an impulsive and controlling interpersonal style. This seems in part the difficulty Vanessa had with John, which prompted his physical aggression. Another personality characteristic that has been associated with intimidating behavior is agreeableness, which, I know, sounds surprising. On the positive side, people who are agreeable tend to be compassionate, empathic and good listeners, again, like John. Excessively agreeable people tend to be gullible and avoid feelings of dissatisfaction. Under emotionally complex conditions, naiveté could morph into cynicism and distrustfulness, which surfaces in a tendency to become quarrelsome, or controlling or even aggressive.
A third characteristic has been identified in the psychological literature to be associated with bullying is referred to as alternately emotional stability or neurosis. Emotional stability is generally associated with psychological adjustment. However, folks who test within the extreme range are self-conscious and vulnerable to stress, self-dissatisfaction and, paradoxically, to lability. This could be a problem in intimate relationships. A vulnerability to stress, a heightened self-consciousness and a rigid need for consistency could induce one to react harshly and with hostility during times of conflict.
The difficulty for online travelers is to discern when the characteristics I just described portend difficulty or a potential for a close relationship. How is one to know if an individual who seems like an agreeable sort and a good listener might transform into an abuser? Or consider that someone who is engaging and gregarious in the virtual space may have the potential to become overbearing and obsessively intense when those attractive traits are expressed in their darker hue. How is one to know?
Social media allows an enthusiast to make contact with a multitude of potential partners easily, with efficiency and convenience. But no technology can override the requirements necessary to know when a meaningful interpersonal bond is possible. And if that’s what you’re interested in, there’s no substitute for spending a liberal amount of face-to-face time and contact together in order to grasp the true measure of this person who you first contacted in the social media cosmos.
There’s additional issues that impact the world of online dating and its abusive potential that I haven’t covered. Unlike people in general, abuse victims who met their perpetrators online are not all created equal: some virtual travelers have traits and attitudes that enhance their risk to fall victim to an abuser. For instance, did the encounters with John in virtual space provide a platform that eased the way for Vanessa to project onto John her fantasies of a “dream come true” man, derailing her willingness to identify red flags? Was John a chimera in Vanessa’s eye?
More on this in a future blog. Vulenable