As a social worker specializing in domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault, I’ve had a front row seat to the beginnings and endings of so many romantic relationships that may have started out as fairytales but quickly turned into nightmares.
Oftentimes, clients will tell me that their abuser was “perfect” during the early days of their relationship, “the ideal guy,” but if we dig a little deeper, there are usually a few red flags present that can indicate whether or not a person will sooner or later exhibit abusive behaviors – be they physical, mental, emotional, or psychological – towards their partner. It’s also important to note that while abusers are people too, their abuse is less motivated by how they feel in the moment and more by how they think. (These behaviors, and much more, are explored in Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, which I can’t recommend enough as a DV specialist.)
All of His Exes Are “Crazy”
We all know this red flag, or at least we should.
If your man is disclosing in the early days of your relationship how “different” you are compared to his exes, who were all unhinged, crazy, psychotic, or insane in one way or another, that might be the encouragement you need to take a step back.
Maybe all of his exes really were “crazy,” but more often than not, this claim points to the fact that this guy doesn’t like taking any blame for any misdeeds or wrongdoing, and if he didn’t own up or take responsibility for his actions in his past relationships, chances are slim he’ll suddenly decide to do so with you.
He’s Disrespectful to You
This should speak for itself, but, ladies, know your worth – and then add tax. Maybe you’re not the type who dreams of guys who open doors for you or pay for every date, but that’s no excuse for a guy to treat you like a doormat.
Disrespect is the soil in which abuse grows.
If he’s verbally disrespectful, careless with the way he talks to you and about you to others, get the heck out. Psychologist Lundy Bancroft says, “Disrespect is the soil in which abuse grows. If a man puts you down or sneers at your opinions, if he is rude to you in front of other people, if he is cutting or sarcastic, he is communicating a lack of respect. If these kinds of behaviors are a recurring problem, or if he defends them when you complain about how they affect you, control and abuse are likely to be in the offing.” Mutual respect is the basic foundation of any healthy relationship, and if you don’t have that foundation, abusive behaviors can take root and flourish.
He’s Overly Generous
What woman doesn’t want a guy who’s generous? We all do, right? While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with generosity, there is something problematic with a partner or potential mate being overly generous, especially with an agenda in mind.
Ladies, if he’s being too generous – to a point where you’ve asked him to stop, or where it makes you uncomfortable – that’s a sign of possible manipulative behavior. Because, as I like to say, if a mouse wants a cookie, he’ll want the rest of the snacks in the pantry too.
This kind of behavior has a major snowball effect and can get out of hand fast. When a guy gives you a ride to the airport, builds your bookshelf, or picks you up after a night out (especially after you specifically said no, outright refused, or asked him not to), he’s guaranteeing that you’ll feel sympathy for or even indebted to him. Not only does this unfortunate tactic work, but it’s a slippery slope from “just a few favors” to hanging out or even dating someone you have no interest in being with.
Decades upon decades of movies, books, and TV shows have told us that passion is the sexiest thing about a man. Unfortunately, they’re all wrong.
Enthusiasm, coupled with mutual love, understanding, respect, and attraction are sexy, but getting worked up or aggressive to the point where behaviors escalate isn’t. “Passion” to me is a subtle indicator of a larger problem. When a client tells me her abuser is passionate, that usually indicates that while she may be really attracted to her man, have a great sex life, etc., it also means that he has emotions that aren’t so loving that he acts on, like punching holes in the wall, breaking furniture, tearing clothes up, or even putting his hands on her.
“Passionate” means he has emotions that aren’t so loving that he acts on like breaking furniture.
If your guy gets worked up over nothing, has difficulty controlling his emotions which change on a dime, and gets angry or sad frequently and easily, and you’d be tempted to describe that behavior as passionate, take a hard look at all his other behaviors.
He’s Never at Fault
This one can start out subtle at first, but in the full-on throes of abuse, this characteristic plays a much bigger part in getting an abuser to examine his own behavior and take accountability.
If he blames you for the small inconveniences – like not being able to find a parking spot, being late for a party, not having groceries, and so on – then he’ll probably blame you for the bigger stuff too, and he’ll ignore whatever role he played in the process. It’s not uncommon for serious physical abusers to put their partners in the hospital with devastating injuries, and later claim that it was motivated by her attitude, her actions, her behavior, etc. Not only is this kind of attitude completely immature on the harmless side, but it’s extremely dangerous on the abusive end. It’s also indicative of the early stages of gaslighting, or having your partner manipulate you psychologically, most of the time to where you end up taking the fall or being the only one to apologize.
If a guy hurts you, whether physically or otherwise, the only one who should be apologizing is him.
He Gets Too Serious Too Quickly
While it can feel exhilarating to be so in love with someone that you block out everyone and everything else, remember to keep your feet on the ground, especially if he’s the one going full steam ahead.
With commitment, he’ll have more room and a better capacity to control you.
For many women, locking down a guy who doesn’t shy away from the concept of commitment feels pretty great. But if he’s moving so fast that’s it’s concerning, he’s probably counting on locking you down, and that’s just the beginning. With commitment, he’ll have more room and a better capacity to control you, in whatever way best appeals to him (for many abusers, this means taking control of the finances, persuading a partner to quit her job, and generally isolating her from friends and family, which are hallmarks of abuse).
He Scares You
Of all the red flags, treat this one as the biggest and most glaring of all.
While he might tell you that you don’t know your own mind, you’re making something out of nothing, or it’s not a big deal (again: this is gaslighting), rest assured that you do know your own mind, whether you’re in a relationship or not.
If a guy scares you, whether it’s from not leaving you alone, continuously contacting you, or putting his hands on you, that behavior was meant to send an important message: “If you’re afraid of me, now I have power over you.”
Even if it’s just a little thing, or a behavior that wouldn’t normally set you off, or just a vibe, chances are it exists for a reason. Take hold of that instinct, and let go of him.
He Acts Differently Towards You around Other People
Cue the alarm sounds and bells. Red flag. RED. FLAG.
If you’re out with his friends and he treats you like a rug or a fly on the wall, this could be a sign that he’s negging you, meaning that he’s essentially treating you like crap so you’ll be more motivated to seek his approval. You’ll be able to notice this especially if his behavior towards you in private is wildly different. If he’s attentive, affectionate, and endearing to you in private but cold, derisive, or critical of you in public, put two and two together.
Negging is treating you like crap so you’ll be more motivated to seek his approval.
Conversely, if he treats you terribly when it’s just the two of you but like a queen when you’re out in public with other people, this is just as much cause for concern because he’s giving others the impression that your relationship is flawless and that he’s a great partner. In many cases when this specific kind of behavior is observed, this results in friends or family being wary of any accusations on the victim’s part, given what a “great guy” he is to her out in public (when he shows his true colors in private).
He’s a Narcissist
Of all the characteristics and qualities I’ve observed in abusers, narcissism is by far the most common denominator across the board. Narcissism usually manifests as an inflated sense of entitlement, arrogance, lack of empathy, self-aggrandizing or self-important attitude, and a need for admiration and attention, and a belief that others are envious or jealous of them. A narcissistic person might even make up fake accomplishments or personal successes, and constantly reference them in order to seek praise or approval.
For the narcissistic abuser, abuse is never their fault, no matter what their crazy or deranged partner might say. The narcissism at the heart of the abusive individual motivates them to be manipulative, whether that’s emotionally, mentally, or physically.
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, here are some of the signs: You constantly feel at fault, even though you’ve done nothing. You feel isolated. You break up with them, and they release your personal info or details about your relationship publicly.
More than anything, narcissistic abusers lack a sense of empathy or a sense that they’ve done something wrong, making them especially dangerous.
He Doesn’t Like Your Friends or Family
If a guy doesn’t like your friends and family, it’s not that he actually doesn’t like them. He just doesn’t like that you have a relationship with them or spend time with them, when you should be devoting all your time and energy to him.
Once you’re isolated, all abusive behaviors he might have kept hidden until then come out.
If your man discourages you from spending time with loved ones, he’s slowly working on isolating you, to the point where you’re unable to see them or have contact with them – meaning he essentially controls who you can and can’t see. Once you’re isolated, all abusive behaviors he might have kept under wraps until then are allowed to roam around freely. If he’s also controlling or jealous to the point of dictating what you wear, how much money you spend, how much you eat, or where or how often you work, get out as soon as you can.
He’s a Substance Abuser
Beware of the guy who is always “just about to quit” drinking or abusing drugs. (If he hasn’t quit already, you probably know he won’t just by virtue of being with you. And remember, don’t date people to change them.)
While it isn’t the alcohol and the drugs which cause a person to be abusive, their inherent behaviors are magnified a hundredfold while under the influence of these substances, making them volatile.
While many people might write off alcoholism and “casual” drug use as recreational, things will only complicate more if the substance abuser now has unlimited access to a person who either stays with them out of convenience or believes they can help them.
As any survivor of abuse knows, the early stages of a relationship are oftentimes the most important and most indicative part of whether or not a person is right for you. If you’ve experienced just one or even more than one of these red flags, reevaluation is long overdue.
If you or someone you know has experienced abuse, rape, or sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 to get help or get connected to resources and services in your area.
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