Early on, relationships are fun, exciting, even thrilling. In fact, attraction can cause the brain to release dopamine, increasing serotonin and producing Oxytocin, also known as “the love hormone.” Oxytocin is said to affect us socially in several positive ways, including increased relaxation, trust, and bonding. Research has shown that the effects of Oxytocin in new relationships may last as long as 6 months. Perhaps that’s why 6 months into a relationship is when we start to get irritated when our partner slurps their cereal even though it didn’t bother us a month in. Why is this important when we are talking about healthy vs. unhealthy relationship behaviors? Well, that same feeling that allows us to ignore the annoying slurping early on in the relationship, may also cause us to miss important cues to unhealthy relationship dynamics or “red flags” that may actually be present in the beginning of many relationships.
While working in the domestic violence field for a number of years, I heard many stories from survivors, women that experienced emotional, psychological, physical, sexual and financial abuse. A central theme in many of their stories were behaviors they saw early on in the relationship but “missed.” Yet in looking back, most could identify that those behaviors were there. Hindsight is 20/20 though and it’s a lot easier when you are out of a relationship to look back and see patterns from a new perspective, one that doesn’t involve the thrill of oxytocin in a new relationship.
Prior to working with survivors of domestic violence and hearing hundreds of stories of relationships teeming with toxicity, destruction and danger, some of the early relationship behaviors I saw as harmless, caring or even kind of “sweet,” I now see as serious warning signs that shouldn’t be ignored. Time and time again, I heard how these seemingly innocuous behaviors escalated over time to become hurtful, damaging, dangerous and even deadly. So what are some of those behaviors, and how can you tell when they are normal early relationship dynamics vs. warning signs of patterned behaviors that have crossed the line? Read on for a list of some of the top warning signs that echo across the voices of survivors.
- Past History of Abuse: They say the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. It’s true. Many of the survivors I met indicated they weren’t the first in a line of abusive, toxic and unhealthy relationships their partner had. So, as difficult as it may be to think about your new flame’s ex, it is an important indicator of your new partner’s behavioral pattern. In my experience, most survivors later found out their abusive partner’s ex (or in some cases, exes) went through the same experience. Hint, most jurisdictions publish court case records online now for free – a quick online check may tell you whether your new partner has any personal protection or no contact orders against them or past criminal convictions for violence.
- Pushing Boundaries: many times when we have strong feelings for someone, we do things we wouldn’t normally do for them. This can be especially true in newer relationships. Someone who would never skip class might do so to impress a new partner, or because they simply want to spend time with them. However, when a partner coerces you to do things you wouldn’t normally do, this can be a serious warning sign. If you are feeling pressured by your new partner and don’t feel like you can say no, proceed with caution, this may be a really big warning sign. In fact, many of the survivors I worked with told stories of how the first time they used drugs or engaged in other risky or illegal behaviors was prompted by their partner. These risky or illegal behaviors often became a source of power for the perpetrator later in the relationship as they used the threat of disclosure of these behaviors as a control mechanism.
- Isolation: Does your partner want to spend all their time with you and you alone, do they avoid your friends and family? Or tell you that they just want to be with you? Do you feel like you spend less and less time with others and more and more time with your partner? Are you afraid to spend time with others for fear your partner will be upset, sad or angry with you? If you answered yes, this could be the sign of a potential pattern of isolation used by perpetrators of domestic violence. Isolation is one of the principal ways perpetrators gain control over victims, and can become so debilitating for a victim that they have no communication with anyone outside their partner over time.
- Jealousy: does your partner get upset when you talk to other men/women? Does your partner always have to know your whereabouts? Do they want to check your phone, text messages, emails? Do they seem fixated on your social media accounts and who likes or comments on your posts? If your partner seems preoccupied with who else is in your life and what your relationships are like with those people, this could be a clear warning sign that danger lies ahead.
- Always needing to be in control: Does your partner always call the shots? If you want to go see a movie at the theater, but they want to stay in and watch Netflix, do they always win? Failing to compromise and always needing to be in control of the situation regardless of how it impacts the relationship can be another strong indicator of serious problems to come.
- Minimizing/denying: have you ever tried to talk to your partner about how you feel about any of the above warning signs or other issues that have come up in the relationship only to be told you are making a big deal about nothing? Does your partner completely deny that any of the things you bring up happened or do they try to convince you that the way you see it isn’t accurate? Or do they blame you for the problem? If you try to communicate your concerns in a non-confrontational manner only to be met with minimization, denial and blame, this could be an early sign of more serious issues to come. Perpetrators of domestic violence are highly skilled at making their partners think they are in the wrong when confronted with issues that are in fact warning signs of or actual abusive behaviors. If your partner deflects, denies or minimizes every time you try to bring up issues, take note, this is a very strong indication that there are abusive tactics at play.
Sometimes the above signs can show up in relationships that aren’t headed for abuse. They can also be signs of immaturity, insecurity and/or codependence and may be addressed with open communication and/or counseling. The difference between a partner who is likely to become abusive and one that is just immature, insecure, and/or codependent is in how they handle things when you communicate your concerns to them. A partner that wants to make it work will listen, acknowledge and make lasting, meaningful behavioral change. A partner that minimizes, denies and blames is much more likely to become abusive or escalate any abuse that is already occurring. If you have had these conversations only to see short-lived behavior change and the concerning behaviors always return or escalate, you are likely in the early stages of an abusive cycle.