Playing Their Part: How an Abusive Partner’s “Good” Behavior is Part of the Act

The Hotline

Playing Their Part: How an Abusive Partner’s “Good” Behavior is Part of the Act

By Bri, a Hotline advocate

“He’s really a great guy, though.”
“I know this isn’t okay, but she’s made me feel so special, and I just love her so much.”
“They were so loving and sweet, and the good times are the best I’ve ever had.”

We often hear statements like this from people who contact us. Many struggle to understand why their partners, who were once incredibly kind and loving, now treat them in hurtful and abusive ways. It can be so confusing because the abuse isn’t constant. Most partners aren’t abusive all the time, so it makes sense to think they could go back to being that “kind and loving” person and stay there. In most of these relationships, though, when a partner acts nice, it’s really just that: an act. Thinking about their behavior in this way can be helpful by allowing you the space to prioritize your safety and well-being.

Act I: Auditioning for the Role

How Abusive Partners Initiate Relationships
A common trait of many abusive partners is that they are really charming, especially at the beginning of a relationship and in the first stages of dating. You might begin to feel like they understand you better than any other partners before and can treat you better because of it. Under these conditions, it would be hard for anyone not to become really attached and develop strong feelings of love unlike anything they’ve felt in the past. We also hear from a lot of survivors of abuse that their relationship moved faster than they were comfortable with in the beginning because their abusive partner “swept them off their feet.” There are two sides to this coin, though. Being treated in new ways can be a really great thing, but it also means not knowing what to expect or how to respond to new behavior. Abusive and controlling partners will slowly start to choose unhealthy and then abusive behaviors. It becomes difficult to identify whether what’s happening is healthy, and it’s easier to excuse this behavior since you’re focused on how different and great things had been until now.

Act II: Putting on the Show

How Abusive Partners Maintain the Control They’ve Taken
Just as their initial charm was a part of their act, so are the times when they return to that good behavior. When the unhealthy or abusive behavior begins to escalate, you may have a gut instinct that something isn’t right, even if it’s hard to figure out why. But, it can be tough to trust that instinct, especially after seeing all that great behavior in the beginning of the relationship. Abusive partners acknowledge this instinct, and that’s one reason why abusive relationships usually don’t start out with abuse. The escalation tends to happen over time after they have shown you their charming act.

However, that doesn’t mean the escalation of abusive behavior is predictable. As we’ve said before, the phrase “cycle of abuse” isn’t entirely accurate because it implies patterns and levels that can be measured or predicted. You might want to know how bad is “too bad” and where you should draw the line, but that’s not a question anyone else can answer for you. Since abusive behavior is a choice, it happens when that person chooses it, which isn’t something you can predict. The loving, kind, sweet act they put on for you is a primary tactic they use to maintain the control they’ve taken. Moving back and forth between the good and bad behavior is an intentional manipulation tactic that plays upon your desire for them to return to the good behavior. You may find yourself questioning your own actions, especially if they blame you for their abusive behaviors because clearly, they can choose to behave lovingly. But it’s important to recognize that their minimizing and excuses for the behavior are part of the abuse, too. If they were abusive all the time, you might be more likely to leave or seek help sooner, since you wouldn’t be reminded of how it used to be.

Act III: The Audience Response

What Others Say About the Abuser
Another aspect of the abuser’s performance that makes it really difficult to see things clearly is that their partners are usually, though not always, the only ones who get to see both of the parts they play. People with controlling, unhealthy and abusive attitudes know their behavior is not okay. That’s why they don’t show it to most of the people in their lives or treat others with the same level of abuse. This can add to a victim’s confusion. When everyone else is saying how great they are and admiring their charming behavior, it might validate the hope that the good behavior is the “real” person. It can be incredibly hard to trust your instincts if you think you’re the only person worried that something isn’t right, or like you’re the one causing the abuse.

An additional complication is the fact that gaslighting is one of the most common and effective abuse tactics. With this tactic, an abuser actively tries to make their victim question reality or if what they believe is actually true. If you’re constantly questioning your reality or your partner’s behavior, one helpful thing to do is to keep a journal (if it’s safe for you to do so, and you’re able to keep it in a place your abusive partner does not have access to).

With all of these layers, it’s understandable that someone would focus on the good and ignore the bad. However, no one should ever have to experience hurtful or abusive behavior for any reason. Everyone deserves respect and equality in their relationship at all times.

Act IV: Performance Review

Evaluating and Reframing the Good Behavior
Thinking about a partner’s “good behavior” in this way can be helpful for those still in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, as well as for those who question their decision after leaving. Constantly wondering which behaviors are the “real” person is absolutely normal and valid, no matter how hurtful a partner has been or for how long. People who choose to be abusive often have an underlying attitude of entitlement and privilege, which is something that is very difficult to change. Apologizing and temporarily acting “nice” again are not true indications of change. Real change takes time and a tremendous amount of effort and commitment.

If you have concerns about the act your partner is putting on, The Hotline’s advocates are available to support you. Call or chat with us 24/7/365. Call us at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) or chat by selecting the Chat Now button right here on our website. Chat en español 12-6 p.m. Hora Central.

Comment section

13 replies
  1. [Admin note: This comment has been modified for safety per our community guidelines]

    I was in a relationship for two and half years with a lady whom seemed to be nice until I started being treated unfairly and made to do everything in the relationship when I left her she started telling people I molested her daughter and that I was stalking her and harassing her she also went as far as telling the courts that I threatened to burn her house down and that I was going to kill myself in front of her children and this was after she moved

  2. Hi brian,

    Thank you for sharing your story with our community. This sounds like such a difficult and heartbreaking situation, and we’re so sorry to hear about your experience. If you ever need additional support, please feel free to contact us by calling 1-800-799-7233 (24/7) or chatting here on our website from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Central time.

  3. I am experiencing domestic abuse in my relationship. And the fact of him doing cocaine is a big factor of his madness. He gets a look in his face that looks like a demon. He doesn’t realize he has a problem, he always blames his actions on me. Well it’s my fault, why did u do this, remember when u done this, etc. I hate going through that and I’m at my breaking point of leaving. But the factor we have kids is keeping me there longer. Most of the time when he gets paid I just leave the house because I know it will be arguing when he gets home. He always trys to keep tabs on where I am, who I’m with, how long am I going to be, or he’s riding with me,etc. It’s so stressful and such a pain. This website completely hit the nail on the head for me. He does put on an act for people and says I exaggerate things or don’t tell the full story to make him react. Ughhhh, so tired

  4. Hi GG,

    Thanks for your comment and for sharing some of your story with our community. What you’re going through sounds so painful, and we’re sorry to hear that your partner chooses to behave this way. Using drugs or alcohol is not an excuse to be abusive, and your partner must choose for himself to get help for his drug use as well as his abusive behavior. You have done nothing to deserve this, and you deserve to be in healthy, respectful relationship. We certainly understand that having children with your partner can make it very difficult to leave. We’d be happy to talk through the situation with you, and perhaps help you locate some additional options or resources. Please give us a call at 1-800-799-7233 (24/7) or chat here on our website between 7 a.m. and 2 a.m. Central time whenever you feel ready to do so.

  5. Hi to all:
    I just want to thank whomever wrote this article and all of you who left comments. I also have plenty of experience, thankfully in the past, with domestic violence. The words in the beginning of this article really hit home, especially: “You might begin to feel like they understand you better than any other partners before and can treat you better because of it. Under these conditions, it would be hard for anyone not to become really attached and develop strong feelings of love unlike anything they’ve felt in the past.” and “Just as their initial charm was a part of their act, so are the times when they return to that good behavior. When the unhealthy or abusive behavior begins to escalate, you may have a gut instinct that something isn’t right, even if it’s hard to figure out why. But, it can be tough to trust that instinct…”
    Please, if nothing else, ladies & gents… Trust that instinct! Get out! It doesn’t mean you have to start entirely over right away. Go stay with friends or family if possible, just until you’re safe and can back on your feet again. If that isn’t available, and l suggest doing this anyway – contact a hotline such as the one above. It is NEVER, EVER too late to start over. It is NEVER EVER ok for anyone to abuse you. I’m sharing this because I’m living proof of this. I promised myself if one day I got safe again, for lack of a better phrase, I would reach out to others who might be in similar shoes. I’m embarrassed to share this with strangers but I’m just so very happy and peaceful – at last – that I’m glad to do so. Please get away. It can all be ok again one day if you can only take that first step. I promise you the rest will follow. Be well & safe always. Please!

  6. im not proud to say that I am an abuser. It’s hard to admit that but I finally see it.

    It’s painful to read through all these descriptions of what an abuser does, what tactics are employed, and how manipulation will be used for control, and see how correct they all are.

    It may sound crazy, but it’s all things that come naturally to an abuser. No one taught me these things. They just flowed out and I never saw the problem.

    I see the problem now. I’ve hurt people who I love dearly. Hurt them deep enough that I can’t expect forgiveness. Ever. I always thought because I didn’t hit I was in the clear. I was wrong.

    The point I’m trying to get to here is, if you’re reading this as someone who is dealing with an abuser, trust the articles on here describing what an abuser does. These are spot on.

    The quicker you get away the better. I never would have seen my abusive ways until my wife left.

  7. Hello Bri,

    This information is very helpful. Can you provide links to the scholarly research behind these warning signs? I’m glad to see this information posted online repeatedly and I’d also like to follow through by finding the original sources and studies that led to these lifesaving prevention tips.

  8. This couldn’t be more true. Trust your gut. I am currently in an emotionally abusive situation with gaslighting. In the beginning he was so wonderful. Near perfect man type of thing. After about 3 months with him for no reason (that I could figure out at the time) I began to have panic attacks. The first several times I had no ur what was happening. I thought I was dying. After several trips to the ER, I finally figured out these episodes were panic attacks. Now I’ve come to think these were warnings. I wish I would’ve heed the warnings my body was giving me.

  9. Thank You, Natalie! Just what I needed to know right now. A very confusing place to be in. Once I am able to get self sufficient again, I vow to do the same & help others. An early relationship was like this, but now that I am much older it seems harder to know where to go & what to do. Just know this isn’t working. Will Call…

  10. Hi everyone,

    Thank you for this article, it is absolutely right about everything what an abusive partner will do in an intimate relationship. This is the first time I have ever shared my story online. Being abused for 5 months from the man who had said “I love you” was the most shocking and eye-opening experience I have ever had in my life. He first appeared very charming and made me feel like I was very special and loved, I was on cloud nine. Then slowly he showed his hostality towards me and others. I saw him using his elbow to hit anyone who acidentally standing too close to him or bumped into him. Then one day I was a bit mad at him, just some ridiculous couple fights and he hit me with his elbow. I was shocked and he blamed me for my attitude and I ended up saying sorry to him. I read on the Internet that how you react to the first time they hit you is very important.
    After a while witnessing his violent nature I started feeling afraid for myself and people around me. I was walking on eggshells most of the time as anything could make me and others suffer his wrath. I decided to let him know how I was afraid that one day he would hit me for real (as this point I still believed I deserved his elbow hitting). He then said that I mistrusted him, he couldn’t believe even after I knew about his past as he was neglected as a child, I still didn’t understand him, he even said I hurt him. I didn’t say sorry but I stayed with him for 4 months after that. I was diagnosed with depression after 2 months dating him (I had depression 1 year before this happened). Then he cheated on me and acted like he did nothing wrong. I broke up with him 2 months ago and still healing . Like what you mentioned in the article, he was not always abusive, there were periods of time I believed he was not that horrible person, sometimes he was sweet and caring and understanding.

    I think the most difficult part of being in an abusive relationship is you don’t really have a full understanding of what is happening, you think it is your fault, you keep questioning your sanity and believe everything they accuse you of. Some victims are even isolated from their family and friends, or some victims isolate themselves as they are afraid that any contact with their loved ones with trigger the abusor.
    Being in an abusive relationship is damaging, mentally and physically. Sometimes it might cost your life. Please be aware, listen to your gut feelings and contact professional help as soon as the first sign appears.

  11. I have been in a same-sex relationship for 17 years (married for over 10) with two beautifully amazing children whom we adopted. Over time, there became an inequality in our workloads; me working full-time, tending to the kids (meals, rides, appointments, entertainment) him working more hours in a public-facing job which he loved and paid well ..but somedays would go by without any interaction between he and us. One day a week we might do something fun or spend the day cleaning, always seemed his decision. I dreaded cleaning; his expectations for the kids to be perfect were unreasonable to me and it upset the kids. He didn’t seem to care..his way was the right way.

    The issues of his cheating came up and we would talk it out and things seemed to get better. As time went on, I was feeling less comfortable about the state of our relationship, our finances (he’d repeatedly invest in get-rich-quick schemes) but mostly, a serious problem I saw in him bullying our son. He couldn’t do anything right, no kind words said, ever..and because I am the one with the kids the majority of the time, I was blamed for that, not cooking healthy enough, not bringing the kids to the gym enough, I was getting overweight, I was criticized for not having the self-esteem I used to have, not having halloween decorations up soon enough, not having nice fresh flowers at times, on the table. Him threatening divorce put me in panic..divorce it was a foreign concept in my family. I asked him what I needed to do to make things better. He said I needed to change. We had been together 17 years… what kind of change he wanted I had no idea, and I pressed him on it. He gave me 3 honey-do lists in the year leading up ti his filing for divorce. I did everything on those lists – while walking on eggshells; nothing was good enough and nothing got better.

    Since separating (currently divorcing), I am feeling better and working on healing but focused mainly on the safety and welfare of our kids.

  12. These are very inspiring and encouraging comments.. that it’s never too late to leave.. i have Friends in their 60’s who are finally ready to leave now but feel because of the large amount of years in their marriage that it’s too late, my friend says now the Abuse is covert, her spouse won’t include her in the financial planning – he won’t pay off debt that he can afford to pay off, he has a secret bank acct, doesn’t help keep home clean, has been retired for yrs with a lucrative pension and bank acct and insists she work full time..they go to a Fin plnr as a couple but she cant have any Say as he gets verbally abusive with her after the meeting..he is worth quite a lot and says its his money, wants her to use what little money she has to pay for expenses.. 1 yr. ago he became very nast and mad with her because she wouldn’t move her IRA to their current fin. Planner-in the past when kids were at home, there were a few instances of physical abuse on her and many of psych and verbal abuse.. now he is behaving much better but still has times when he Tells her her children are against her but the kids are no Longer Living at Home. She confirmed with ger kids that they never Said such things. She feels if she ever quits work he will become abusive..also now that he has stopped the phys and verb abuse, he has become more covert and it Is hard for to care as much for him now considering all the horrible ways he treated her and her kids.. plus he gets angry if shes not working And tells her its his money and she needs to contribute even though his income is 3 times hers, then the next day he tells her how much he cares for her and his money is hers, but he refuses to pay off his 10000 debt and is late on bills Some times. She has thought that theyve been Married too Long And ITS too late to leave but she is in excellent Health and financial shape and dosent want her retirement to be like the last 30 years with the mean sweet cycle and the noninclusion in finances..seems like he keeps going back to old ways only more covertly..He Is extremely kinder and loving acting but he still hides finances and every now and then he makes belittling remarks to her then seconds later he asks if she’s mad at him and says how much he cares for her. She is very confused and is still considering leaving even though he has changed to good behavior in a lot of areas; non inclusion of finances are what concern her most.

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