Relationships | Sex

Don’t fall prey to abusive relationships: red flags you should note

Relationships are one of the things that have the most significant impact on us as human beings. Whether they’re romantic, friends or family, the relationships you experience have the power to shape and change us in ways that we’re not even aware of. They can be truly wonderful things, full of positivity, support, and love that helps us accomplish goals, believe in ourselves and take steps that we would have otherwise been afraid to take. These relationships are positive goldmines, and we should cherish each and every one of them.

But how do we know when a relationship isn’t good for us? There are often huge red flags that disguise themselves as petty arguments, tension and an overall can’t-quite-put-our-fingers-on-it sense of misgiving. Spotting these red flags early is hard; we often live in the honeymoon bubble, unaware of the negatives or often just ignoring them outright because they’re your new found love, or they’re family, or they’ve been your friend for over a decade, which make us believe that whatever it is, is a forgivable offence.

As many as 1 in 4 women suffer at the hands of domestic abusers, and it’s vital that everyone remembers that it can happen to anyone, at any time. A succinct list of abusive relationship signals can be found at Psych Central, and here’s a little insight into what it can feel or look like to experience some of these signs.

We’ll look at this as a romantic relationship, but it is absolutely applicable to toxic family members and negative friends, too. If you get to the end of this and something here feels uncomfortably familiar, trust your gut. Even if you don’t read any further, rule number one is to trust your gut. It’s a terrible cliché, but our gut feelings sense danger before anything else and alert us to the fact that something isn’t right before your head or heart has a chance to rationalise it. It’s important to remember, that unhealthy or abusive relationships don’t appear overnight. You don’t go to bed, wake up, and suddenly your other half is attacking you out of the blue. Abusers are calculated – nothing they do is an accident, and they know just how to gradually turn up the temperature on the pressure cooker that is your relationship. Remember that old saying about a frog in boiling water? Throw it straight in, and it’ll hop straight out; slowly bring the water to the boil, and it’ll not know what’s happening until it’s too late. This is an abusive relationship.

Prince Charming Behaviour

Often abuse starts out as a too-good-to-be-true fantasy relationship – romance, OTT gestures, impossibly early declarations of love and marriage and the baby carriage. They can’t do enough to prove how exceptional you are and how much they love you. This showering of affection inevitably starts to disappear over time. They pull back; they stop telling you they love you; they stop treating you with respect and admiration. This is a tactic to make you hold on tighter – you know what the relationship has been, so now you will do anything to get back that overwhelming love and affection.

Emotionally Withdrawing

Once they’ve stopped declaring their love, they will stop showing it, too. Emotionally withdrawing is another tactic that forces you to overcompensate. Have you ever been having a lovely evening snuggling on the sofa when they suddenly pull away from you? They won’t tell you why (or worse they’ll pretend you “know what you’ve done”) and you’re left feeling totally confused and wrong-footed. They stop kissing you, holding your hand or even looking at you. This is an often used technique that forces you to beg, plead and apologise for something you haven’t even done, which in turn gives them all the power. You see – we’re already starting to be manipulated.

Controlling Behaviour

Controlling behaviour is usually the first thing people think of when they think of an abusive relationship. They think of one person screaming at another and expressly forbidding them to do something, which often makes people confused as to why anyone stays in a relationship – something along the lines of if they’re telling you that “you can’t wear this or that or go here with this person”, why are you still with them?. In reality, it’s not this clear cut. My abusive partner wouldn’t expressly tell me not to do anything. Instead, they would “suggest” something, or offer their opinion in a way that tears you down without even registering that they’ve done it. “Why have you got so much makeup on, you look so much better without it?” “Why would you rather spend your evening with them instead of me? Don’t you want to spend time with me?”.

Everything is a subtle and underhanded manipulation. There tends to be a lot of unspoken rules that you’re not even aware of until you “break” them; which is when you feel the wrath of the abuser. You can be screamed at, belittled, bullied and attacked for something that you didn’t even know about. By doing this, they somehow get you to apologise for it – even though you haven’t done anything wrong. You then subconsciously don’t repeat that behaviour in order to avoid the fight. And this is exactly how someone controls you, without you even realising it.


nce they’ve berated you for something that you don’t even understand, you may argue back (which you should, incidentally – never let anyone make you feel like shit because of their problems. Ever.). If they sense that they’ve pushed their manipulation tactics too far, that you’ve seen the real them and that they might be losing you, they jump ship and switch gears faster than you can roll your eyes at them. Then comes the apologies. They may cry, break down, beg for forgiveness, promise they’re going to seek help or counselling or any number of things that make you hesitate and think “well they’re obviously aware of their behaviour and know it’s not ok, so maybe I should give them another chance”. Or “I don’t want to be dispassionate or cruel, this person is suffering, and I should help them because I love them”. The second you waver, give them that second chance or tell them that it’s ok and you forgive them, then they have you. They are still in control, and they know just how to switch lanes to confuse you and appeal to your kind heart and empathy. They’ve gotten away with their behaviour, and you’re stuck to repeat this loop forever.


I wanted to save this for last, as it’s the most important and ultimately most damaging thing that can be done in any abusive relationship. Gaslighting is a term used when an abuser convinces their target that they’re losing their mind, lying or confused about something. Its specific definition is to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their sanity.” This usually starts small; they may convince you that you said something hurtful, repeating words back to you that you know you didn’t say. You know you didn’t say them, and yet they’re so adamant that you did, that you were hurtful or wrong, that you start to think “maybe I did say that at the moment and just haven’t realised.”

It can be moving things from where you left them, then putting them back once you realise you’ve lost them and telling you they were there the whole time and you’re too stupid to have looked properly. It can be telling you something degrading; then when you react with hurt or bewilderment, they tell you they never said that and you’re making it up to cause an argument. In short, it is the cruellest form of manipulation, and the effects can be lifelong. Vox posted an excellent article about how to recognise gaslighting and how to shut it down.

There are many, many other forms of abuse when it comes to relationships. However, these are some of the earliest forms that can help you know when it’s time to call it quits and step away. There is a wonderful (and saddening) thread on Indy 100, which lists many sufferers experiences of abusive relationships.

One of the most important things to remember is that if something doesn’t feel right then, it probably isn’t. Even if it doesn’t seem severe, or abusive now, there’s a reason your gut is telling you to get out – listen to it, and shut that shit down as soon as you can. Trust it, and never feel guilty for putting yourself first. Many abusers suffer from some form of personality disorder, and while everyone deserves help and guidance to overcome these, it is not your responsibility to put yourself in physical or emotional harm’s way in order to help someone – only they can help themselves.

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