While we may be more familiar with the concept of grooming when it comes to abusive relationships between children and adults, its counterpart in adult relationships is a subtler affair.
A few months ago, a close friend asked if she could come over again. She and her partner had yet another fight. And I, trying on a new colour I promised I’d wear more this year, tried to reserve judgement almost completely and told her that, yes, of course she could come over if she needed to get out. Twenty minutes later she was at my door, and I could tell she’d been crying. That was to be expected, though. Lately, their fights had always ended this way – with either one or both of them in tears. But what was perhaps a tad unexpected was that this time there was an anger behind her tears. She was sad, yes; but she was seething, too.
I let her in, set her up on my couch, watched her wipe away the dregs of her tears, and brewed us both a cup of tea as she offloaded. But here’s where it became a bit harder to stick to my New Year’s resolution: As she spoke, under her breath as she tends to when in the throws of feeling, what she said almost shocked me. This time it was all vitriol, bile; an exhaustive list of criticisms of her partner of two years, which hit its incensed crescendo with the following words: ‘I’m smarter than him! Better than him! I should never have stopped myself from just making him what I wanted him to be! He could’ve been so much better!’
Of course, I’m paraphrasing here. But perhaps now you can tell why I found it so hard to hold back my judgement. Here was this young woman I so admire, expressing something I so fervently disagree with; the idea that our partners should, in any situation, be manipulated into being what we want them to be. Rather than simply being loved for who they are, or who they could be on their own terms.
But this is something I’d been thinking about for months before my friend appeared on my doorstep – how so many couples I’ve observed throughout my life have one partner in charge. Furthermore, how often the partner who is not in control is steadily manipulated, funnelled through an array of unwitting compromises in order to come out the other end with all their edges dulled; someone more easily controlled, manoeuvred, and exploited.
What is grooming?
‘Grooming’ is defined as a relationship in which someone builds trust and emotional connection with someone so they can manipulate, exploit, and/or abuse them. It’s a sneaky thing; difficult to pin down when it’s happening, because frankly, sometimes it can be quite subtle. So subtle that you may not even know it’s happening to you, or even that you’re the one doing it. I know that seems harsh, but it’s true.
Why does grooming happen in adult relationships?
On the face of it, it could happen for a variety of reasons. It could be done for financial exploitation – one partner is steadily isolated and then used for money. Or it could be the same pattern with sexual abuse as the desired outcome. In rare cases, it could even be about getting someone to conform to a certain way of thinking – an ideology or cause.
But at the end of the day it’s all about power. The dynamic that pervades any of the above examples is one person looking to exert power over another, in a way that is neither consensual nor acknowledges the right to quality of life that the victim inherently possesses.
What are the signs of grooming?
One of the tell-tale signs that a person may be being groomed by their partner is social withdrawal. It may be that you’re not seeing this person nearly as often; that the life they had before their new partner seems to have been put on hold. That their new partner seems to have become the centre of their universe. Often, this situation is paired with your friend seeming troubled in a way you haven’t seen them before. It’d be a pervasive, new reluctance to participate in life; a sense of anxiety or sadness they’re often not willing to talk about. They may even become angry when you bring it up. Another sign is gift-giving. Groomers often ply their victims with gifts – big or small – to make them feel appreciated and valued at the beginning. So, if your friend is receiving an inordinate number of gifts from their new partner, this could also be a sign. But if any of these is the situation, what do you do?
How to approach a suspected victim of grooming
Grooming is a form of abuse, and so, as with all other forms of abuse, you have to tread lightly. This is because the victim almost never sees the situation in the same way you do. This is especially true of grooming, because it’s an intensive form of psychological abuse that often leaves its victims blind to reality, believing their partner has done nothing wrong at all. So, the best thing you can do is talk to them, kindly but directly, when you’re sure you know what you believe the situation is. Do this multiple times if you have to. In the end, they’re an adult and you can’t make them leave. But, you can make absolutely sure you’ve done your part in trying to protect them from slipping away completely.
If you, or anyone you know, are the victim of abuse, you can contact the following hotlines for support:
The National Gender-Based Violence Helpline:
0800 150 150
LifeLine South Africa:
0861 322 322
Text: Arlin Bantam; Photo by Jasmine Carter