Red Flags for Abusive and Controlling Relationships

Red Flags for Abusive and Controlling Relationships

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Be aware and respect the signs of a potentially abusive relationship

I grew up a hopeless romantic. If I’m honest with myself, I probably still am a little. I drank in romantic comedies and believed love only happened at first sight. Falling in love and finding my soul mate was my moon and sun. By believing in this chance of finding true love, I found myself in a string of toxic, controlling, and abusive relationships.

One of my favorite movies is He’s Just Not That Into You, a 2009 film by Ken Kwapis that is based on the book of the same title written by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. In a pivotal scene, Justin Long’s character, Alex, leans over to a forlorn Gigi (played by Ginnifer Goodwin) and tells her to give up on being the exception because she’s the rule. Gigi goes home, is up all night, and figures out how much of her life she’d based on thinking that she’d be the exception.

I bring this up because I ignored many red flags in the past because of actions I mistook for love, thinking I was the exception, thinking I’d found my love story, when really I’d fallen into a cycle of abuse and power.

Pinpointing red flags is difficult for most. I personally don’t like looking for or finding them for two very different reasons: First, in looking for them, I feel like I am not giving my potential romantic partner the benefit of the doubt. I feel jumpy, on guard, and like I’m still coming from a place I’ve tried so hard to overcome—being a survivor of domestic violence. I wish I could go about my life without that experience. Second, in finding them, I have to not only see them but also act on my discovery, and that’s not always met with an easy parting of ways.

Red flags are sneaky, in spite of their name. Some are a little more fluid, and some, I’d argue, have varying degrees of severity. I’m not talking about traditional relationship killers and the like. These are signs that the person you are dating could be a controlling and abusive person on his or her best behavior, which may be the case. Abusive people have enough control to seek out the type of person they can abuse and manipulate to a point at which the victim feels trapped.

A lot of red flags will show up in the first few weeks—and especially months—of dating an abuser. Many often are mistaken for displays of love, affection, or a deep sense of caring. Things such as jealousy, bad-mouthing friends you get in fights with, or getting in fights with other men who make advances when you go out together. Then there are the roses, the love notes, the gifts, and being made to feel like you’re on a pedestal. All of those actions separately can be viewed as a caring gesture, but together they are not a good mix to be caught up in, especially if the person is telling you he or she loves you and wants to move in together.

Red flags, to me, are a discomfort. They don’t feel right, such as the person getting unreasonably upset over you talking to a friend about him or her. Some are pretty obvious. I’ve found any man who describes his ex as a “crazy bitch” is most likely a bad dude. But some are sneaky, such as making suggestions on how to dress or calling to check up on you when you’re out with your friends. I look for signs such as being demanding, not taking your feelings to heart, a lack of empathy, and trying to convince you to feel otherwise while telling you what you feel is wrong. I look for this person getting upset over normal, everyday situations such as traffic or a messed-up order at a restaurant. If I ever start worrying I’ll upset someone in any way, that’s a telling sign and one I have to pay attention to.

Recognizing red flags calls for action. Depending on where you are in the relationship, it’s best to talk to a friend about what to do, especially if you don’t feel safe. Consult with an advocate at a local YWCA or the like. Read through articles online. I’ve found it’s best to be firm and not engage in arguing because he or she will argue and often do anything to keep you in the relationship. He or she will probably try to turn the tables on you, and tear you down. After a few days, he or she might come back with flowers and try to win you back. The most important thing is that you give the red flag its credit, and honor it. Keep your boundary and respect it because what you’re really doing is respecting yourself. Demand that respect, especially in romantic partners, because you deserve it. It is your right.

Stephanie Land, has a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing from the University of Montana. She and her two daughters live in Missoula, Montana. Read more of her story at You can follow her on Twitter at @stepville.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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