Navigating the ups and downs of a relationship can be a complicated — and maybe a little messy — process. We all move through the stages of love differently. Many of us go through a honeymoon phase that later makes us question whether things are working out the way we want. Sometimes, it’s easy to see some problems as glaring landmines that need to be addressed. Other times, tiny red flags pop up long before we see them as real, solid issues.
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Red flags are troubling because they can build toward larger issues, like ones that could result in domestic violence, says social worker Karen Salerno, MSSA, LISW-S. Most people think of domestic violence as only physical abuse, but it can also include mental, emotional, sexual and/or financial abuse.
“It can be difficult to break the power and control dynamic found in domestic violence,” says Salerno. “It’s important to know that the abuse is not your fault even if your partner tries to make you feel like it is.”
Salerno shares tips on how to identify relationship red flags early on. She also reviews the various ways red flags present themselves.
What are red flags in a relationship?
More than 12 million people are abused annually in the United States, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Sometimes, these incidents occur suddenly and without warning. But in many cases, there are red flags that indicate something may be amiss long before it becomes physical or dangerous.
To identify red flags, Salerno says it’s important to remain aware of issues as they arise. Red flags don’t happen in a vacuum. Instead, many red flags tend to rear their ugly heads at the same time. Paying attention to this cycle of behavior is important.
“There’s going to be a pattern,” says Salerno. “Typically, there’s not going to be an isolated incident. There will be multiple things that come up.”
Some red flags, like physical abuse, may be obvious on the surface. But there are also silent red flags, like showering you with gifts or texting you all the time. These creep in subtly and then evolve over time.
“One example that’s a little bit more subtle that could potentially lead to further issues is if someone tells you that you look beautiful in a dress,” says Salerno. “Then, maybe it starts to morph into that person telling you, ‘I don’t like that shirt on you.’ Then it could turn into the person telling you what you can and can’t wear.”
In order to spot potential red flags in a relationship, it’s important to understand what healthy relationships look like.
What does a healthy relationship look like?
All healthy relationships function on some level with core values that include:
- Mutual respect.
- Communication without fear of retaliation.
- Honesty and accountability.
- Trust and support.
- Fair negotiation.
Fair negotiation is especially important. When difficult situations arise, or differences occur between you and your partner, how do you handle them? Are you able to listen to each other’s needs and express how you’re feeling without attacking the other person? Are you willing to make healthy compromises without sacrificing your personal values? Or do you find yourselves arguing when life gets difficult and your needs aren’t taken seriously?
“A red flag of a potential abuser is someone who isn’t fair — they set the rules and there is no negotiation,” says Salerno. “But in a healthy relationship, you’re always talking about compromise and looking for solutions to conflict together.”
Red flags early in the relationship
Knowing what warning signs to look for early on in a relationship is important. As red flags show up more and more over time, you’ll start noticing patterns of behavior.
“There tends to be a cycle of abuse,” says Salerno. “In the first phase, tension builds and a person may feel like they are ‘walking on eggshells.’ In the second phase, the abuse occurs. In the third phase, the abuser may apologize and all may seem well — until the cycle repeats.”
Abuse comes in many different forms. Here are some red flags to pay attention to.
They try to influence you through apparent affection or love bombing
If they shower you with an excess of affection, compliments and gifts early on in the relationship, this could be an early sign of trouble. On the surface, it seems great — who doesn’t love a lot of affection and gifts? But everything comes at a price.
“Love bombing happens when someone is moving too quickly,” says Salerno. “They constantly want to be with you. They’re sending you lavish gifts out of proportion to the situation. Maybe you’ve only gone on a couple dates and they’re pressuring you to move in together or marry them.”
These behaviors can be red flags because the relationship is moving so quickly that each person may not have a chance to truly get to know each other. They’re inundating you with things to try to gain power and control over you and the relationship. Love bombing tends to drive a relationship, but when it ends, it can result in an unbalanced relationship.
They talk about their exes with disrespect
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they speak about their exes. Sure, many of us might feel burned by them. But if everything seems one-sided, or if they’re constantly calling their exes “crazy,” this may be a sign that not all’s well that ended well.
“Maybe they’re always asking about previous partners and how they compare,” says Salerno. “Or they’ll blame their previous relationship failures on the other person. If they’re constantly putting down their ex or blaming them for things, you could start seeing a pattern where the person is not taking ownership of their behavior.”
Their anger makes you feel unsafe
Domestic violence doesn’t always start with physical abuse. If your partner becomes angry in a way that makes you feel unsafe, this is a huge red flag. Anger is an issue when it happens suddenly and often, or because they threaten you with violence.
“In a loving, supportive and healthy relationship, people may get angry, but they’re not going to take it out on you. They’re not going to physically hurt you and they’re not going to threaten to hurt you,” stresses Salerno. “If you find yourself getting scared of someone and their anger, I would really pay attention to that.”
They push your physical boundaries
This one can be an obvious red flag, but it can have some silent tendencies, too. If your partner is making you do things they know you find uncomfortable or unwanted, they’re pushing your physical boundaries. But this can also happen on a smaller scale. Perhaps you’re not in the mood to cuddle, you don’t like being tickled or just need some personal space. If they’re unwilling to listen to how you’re feeling, this crosses that personal line.
“How people define and establish boundaries is different for everyone. That may be something someone doesn’t recognize right away,” notes Salerno. “In a healthy relationship, someone respects you. If you say, ‘I don’t like that,’ ‘I’m uncomfortable,’ or ‘I don’t feel well,’ someone who loves and respects you will respect the boundaries that you’re setting.”
They isolate you
One major red flag, especially with victims of domestic violence, is that your partner may find ways to cut you off from the world around you. Maybe they’re hesitant to meet your friends or family or they get jealous when you spend time with them. Maybe they demand so much of your time and energy that it makes it difficult to see your friends and family, and they get angry when you do.
“In a relationship where someone is trying to exert power and control over another individual, the way that they can gain that power and control is really by isolating that person and controlling them so that they’re not able to interact with others,” says Salerno. “The smaller your world is, the larger impact the abuser has on your world.”
They gaslight you
This particular form of emotional abuse happens when your partner makes you question things you said or did in an effort to misplace blame or guilt. The goal is to make you feel responsible for what’s happening, even when it’s not your fault. An example, your partner may say you ruined an evening or an event in response to you communicating your feelings about something that upset you.
“Gaslighting is really trying to undermine someone’s reality,” says Salerno. “It’s another example of someone trying to set rules for you which could be another way to try to gain power and control over you.”
They have a hard time respecting your personal space
Is your partner being clingy? Do they expect or demand that you spend a certain amount of time with them each week even though it’s in direct conflict with your job, hobbies and other plans? If you’re feeling spread thin to meet the demands of your partner’s needs and they’re not respecting your need for downtime and personal space, this may be a red flag.
“If you’re saying, ‘I’m not comfortable with this,’ and they’re ignoring that, this is a sign of an unhealthy relationship,” says Salerno. “Initially, someone might feel flattered by the amount of time their partner wants to spend with them. However, that really could be a red flag if someone is trying to isolate you and gain control over your schedule.”
They need constant reassurance
This red flag is a difficult one. If your partner has unresolved trauma or baggage from past relationships, they may need additional support. This isn’t inherently a red flag as long as they seek out therapy, communicate their needs without overriding your own and respect your boundaries. You shouldn’t be responsible for saving your partner in every situation.
“This comes up a lot with love bombing,” says Salerno.
Social media red flags
Red flags aren’t limited to in-person encounters. They can happen with long-distance relationships and across social media accounts, too. In many ways, our social media accounts are extensions of ourselves.
“As social media grows, there are more opportunities for people to experience digital abuse,” says Salerno.
Here are some social media red flags to be aware of.
They text you all day, every day, and expect an immediate response
Communication is key to every relationship, but if it feels forced or if it’s interrupting other areas of your life, this red flag may need to be addressed.
“If someone is constantly texting you, they have a high need to be in communication with you,” says Salerno. “Often, with that, come those power and control questions like, ‘Where are you?’ ‘Who are you with?’ and ‘When are you getting home?’”
To avoid falling too far into this trap, make sure you set up healthy boundaries and expectations. Talk with your partner early on about your text expectations to make sure you’re on the same page.
They stalk your social media accounts
Is your partner constantly checking up on where you are and what you’re doing? Are they demanding you share your location with them (even when it makes you uncomfortable)? This may come across as overprotective behavior. But whether it’s rooted in a lack of self-esteem or something else, any disregard for your personal privacy is an unhealthy form of establishing control.
“If someone is demanding your passwords or constantly asking you to show them their phone so they can read your texts and social media posts, they’re not allowing you to have privacy,” says Salerno.
They bully you into participating in non-consensual sexual activities
Checking in with your partner and establishing consent is an essential part of any relationship. If your partner is demanding photos, videos or other content from you that you’re uncomfortable sharing, take a step back and stand your ground. You should never feel pressured to participate in any activity you’re not comfortable with.
They ask you to delete your social media accounts
“This is another tactic for isolation,” explains Salerno. “If your social media accounts are a primary source of communication and someone is asking you to delete all social media accounts, that may be a tactic to control you. If your accounts are deleted, people don’t know where you are or if you’re safe.”
They take your private concerns public
It’s OK for your partner to crowdsource some things on the internet regarding your relationship, but it’s not OK to crowdsource others. For instance, it’s OK to post a poll on your social media newsfeed about the best place to get a certain type of food to settle a debate with your partner. But it’s not OK to make a post that puts you down and makes negative comments about you.
“If they’re taking your private arguments or concerns public in order to embarrass you, belittle you or try and gain control over you, that’s a red flag,” says Salerno.
When red flags become domestic abuse
“Domestic violence is a repeated pattern of behavior where someone is trying to gain power and control over another individual,” says Salerno. “When you start seeing a pattern of warning signs for abusive relationships, that’s when you should really be concerned.”
Domestic abuse can also include nonphysical signs like:
- Preventing you from getting and/or keeping a job.
- Giving you an allowance or taking your paycheck away.
- Forcing you to account for every penny you spend.
- Putting you down, criticizing you or calling you names in public.
- Refusing to use birth control or preventing you from using birth control/protection.
- Sabotaging your birth control efforts (by poking holes in condoms, for example).
“It could be name-calling, physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse or something else,” says Salerno. “If you find yourself doing things that don’t feel right for you, but you’re doing them because you are trying to prevent your partner from becoming agitated and angry, you should take note of that.”
When you should seek help
If you recognize any of these behaviors in your partner, know that help is available. It’s important for your own safety to plan your exit strategy carefully. “Only you know when it will be safe for you to leave,” says Salerno.
It’s also important to be aware of when friends or family may be in this situation.
“If you know someone who’s experiencing domestic violence, the key is to listen and let them know you care,” says Salerno. “You don’t want to blame them. You want to support them and tell them they’re not responsible for what’s happening.”
Salerno recommends taking these measures for safety:
- Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.7233.
- Tell a loved one to call the police if you don’t make contact by a certain time.
- Develop a code word with children or family to prompt them to call 911.
- Keep important documents (birth certificates, social security cards, etc.) in a safe place in case you need to leave quickly.
- If you think someone is monitoring your technology, try using a different device that the other person doesn’t have access to.
- Create new accounts with non-identifying usernames and/or change your usernames and passwords using an alternate device.
Fortunately, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
“There is hope and help for people in abusive relationships,” encourages Salerno. “You can live a happy and healthy life, free of domestic violence.”