“I didn’t notice a single red flag. I thought he was a caring, loving man. In retrospect, I know that he was cunning,” said Amira Martin, a therapist and survivor of domestic abuse. “Be wary of too much, too fast.”
We’re often told that if something—or someone—seems too good to be true, we should be skeptical and behave with caution. But even the savviest of us can sometimes be taken in by a smooth-talker who showers us with affection, attention, bountiful gifts and promises.
Psychotherapist Amira Martin learned this the hard way. Although she knew that it made sense to move slowly when starting a new relationship, after a whirlwind romance, she married a man she’d known for less than a year. After all, the courtship had been perfect—indeed, the man himself appeared perfect—and however improbable, Martin believed that she had found her soul mate.
In fact, things quickly soured and Martin was blindsided by her mate’s escalating demands and verbal and physical abuse. Worse, after she gave birth in 2016, she realized that the situation was so unsafe that she had to take her child and flee.
The pair are now divorced but Martin is using her experience to aid others. A self-published guide, Healing from an Abusive Relationship: Life After the Breakup, offers concrete advice to survivors so that they can move into a healthier and safer future.
Amira Martin spoke with Ms. reporter Eleanor J. Bader in early May about her marriage, its dissolution, and what she learned from it.
Eleanor J. Bader: Let’s start with your marriage. Tell me about how he lured you in.
Amira Martin: When we first met, things were going really well for me. I was working in a management position at a social welfare agency in New York City and had just gotten a promotion. It was 2013. In fact, things were so good that I decided to throw a party. I was looking for a caterer and posted something on Facebook asking for recommendations. A man I knew slightly responded. He told me he was a caterer and would be happy to do the job. This is how the relationship started. I was 36 at the time; he was 37, so we were both fully-grown adults.
At first, we really connected with each other and things between us were absolutely amazing. We’d go to see shows and then walk through Manhattan holding hands and laughing. We were in sync about everything. By May of 2014, after less than a year of dating, we got married. And that’s when things started to shift.
Shortly after we tied the knot, he told me that he was having trouble with his business and needed money to get things stabilized. I gave him the money he wanted and even helped out on several catering jobs. Then I helped him open a restaurant. He said he’d always wanted to have his own place and he set up shop in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. I put up $20,000 to get him started and was giving him between $2,000 and $4,000 a month during that first year. In addition to my day job, I started seeing clients privately but I remained focused on supporting his dream.
Then, in 2015, I got pregnant. This was planned. He said he really wanted a child but then changed his mind and began to withdraw from me emotionally. He even told me not to come to the restaurant anymore.
I had my daughter on June 11, 2016, and this is when the abuse really ramped up. The day I brought the baby home, he threatened me. I didn’t know what to think but I dismissed the behavior as stress-related. Sometime after this he struck me across the face. The first time he hit me he ran to the bathroom afterwards and hid. He apologized, but the behavior continued. We went to couple’s counseling but it didn’t help.
He said he really wanted a child but then changed his mind and began to withdraw from me emotionally. … The day I brought the baby home, he threatened me.Amira Martin
Bader: What did you do?
Martin: Between 2017 and 2018 I called the police seven separate times. The first six police interactions were not helpful. They basically told my ex to take a walk and calm down but they did nothing to ensure that my daughter and I were safe. He was finally arrested in July 2019. By that point he was just milking me for money and I finally gave him enough to move out. After he left, he continued to stalk me and that’s the reason he got arrested.
I eventually moved five-and-a-half hours north of where we’d lived in New York City and am now in a remote, rural town.
Bader: By the time you met your ex, you’d attended social work school and had earned a master’s degree. You were also a therapist. How much did you know about interpersonal violence at that time?
Martin: My mom had been victimized by my father. She left him when I was 4 so I knew a bit about the subject. But when I met my ex, I didn’t notice a single red flag. I thought he was a caring, loving man. In retrospect, I know that he was cunning. He had a long game planned and was pathologically disturbed. I’ve since learned that many abusers have antisocial personality disorder or are narcissists.
In social work school we learned about the cycle of violence, with the tension phase where victims tend to walk on eggshells in an effort to sidestep abuse; the calm phase were the abuser promises that nothing bad will ever happen again; and the crisis phase in which there is a blow up, with physical and emotional violence that threatens the victims’ security and safety. I now understand that not all abuse follows this trajectory, especially when the abuser has a personality disorder. In addition, not every victim of abuse is codependent on the abuser.
I certainly was not.
I didn’t notice a single red flag. I thought he was a caring, loving man. In retrospect, I know that he was cunning. He had a long game planned and was pathologically disturbed.Amira Martin
Bader: Is there any information that might have helped you avoid getting involved in the relationship?
Martin: I wish I’d known about love bombing, the constant flattery and gifts that came my way. I also wish I’d known about mirroring. My ex would copy me and agree with everything I said to make me feel like we were soul mates, that he was my intellectual and emotional twin. While this was happening, he was isolating me from my family and friends.
I later learned that he was telling people all kinds of stories about me and presenting himself as a victim. It was an incredible distortion but my ex, like others with antisocial personality disorder, sought me out because I am accomplished and high-performing. I’ve since discovered that men with ASPD offer a different model from the one we typically hear about, where someone stays in an abusive relationship because they are economically dependent on their abuser.
Bader: Do you believe you made other mistakes?
Martin: I misperceived him as ambitious and driven to succeed. I excused him as a Black man who had been dealt a bad hand in life. I wish I had delved into his history more fully and not accepted everything he said at face value. I wanted to believe that he was in love with me. I should have been more patient with the relationship and dated him for a longer time rather than rushing to get married. Unfortunately, I had full faith in him and he gave me no reason—at first—to doubt what he said.
Bader: You repeatedly called the police when your ex became abusive. Many people of color argue against utilizing law enforcement. Do you feel their apprehension about police involvement is justified?
Martin: I obviously believe that women of color need to call the police and even though the encounters do not always go well, we as Black people have a right to safety when we are being abused or hurt. That’s what we pay taxes for. We have to use the tools and resources that exist and we have to push police to do their jobs and protect all victims of interpersonal violence.
My ex would copy me and agree with everything I said to make me feel like we were soul mates, that he was my intellectual and emotional twin. While this was happening, he was isolating me from my family and friends.Amira Martin
Bader: How can we reduce interpersonal violence in our society?
Martin: People need affordable mental healthcare and adequate, affordable childcare to help parents who work. We need to lower people’s stress levels. We also need to talk more about mental health issues and how they manifest in our day-to-day lives.
People who have personality disorders need treatment—often a mix of medication and therapy. They need help learning how their behavior impacts others as well as how it impacts their lives. For example, many people with personality disorders are lonely, and therapy can help them understand why they don’t have many friends.
Treatment and education need to start early. We need to address anti-social behaviors in young children and intervene when we see kids who hate authority and who act out at home, never want to listen and push back, even attacking teachers and family members who attempt to restrict them. These are kids who seem uncontrollable. They may not fit in with their classmates and may be unable to show compassion to others. Schools need to better integrate social and emotional learning into curricula. Empathy building exercises help and are important to healthy emotional development.
Of course, working with disordered kids in elementary and middle school is challenging, but the kids who seem the most anti-social are the kids who need the most help. They need consistency and routines. They need love and affection. Yes, it can be difficult when these kids behave badly; it can be frustrating, but giving them extra love and support usually pays off.
By the time kids are in high school, they should be taught about love bombing and be alert to partners who want to be in constant contact with them every minute of the day. These are clear red flags and kids who are beginning to date need to know that they should be wary of too much, too fast.
They also need to learn that taking care of themselves is as important as taking care of others.
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