Note: I have deliberately used the language of men being the perpetrators and women the victims of abuse. It is not intended to antagonise. It is intended to highlight the direction of power in the overwhelming majority of abusive heterosexual relationships. It is also part of Naming the Problem. Gay relationships are certainly not immune from abuse and the issues discussed in this post could be equally applied to same sex relationships.
Red flags within a relationship are warning signs that you may be with an abusive partner, the relationship is abusive or the abuse is escalating. They are useful for both the women in the relationship; their friends or family who may be worried about them; counsellors or anyone else seeking to help the abused party. Often it is an accumulation of different signs or a pattern of behaviour that gives the clearest warnings of an abusive relationship.
Abuse comes from attitudes and values rather than feelings. This is why it is so hard for abusers to change. Ultimately they want and feel they deserve to have ownership of their partners. This may be ownership of their partner's feelings and thoughts or their behaviour or their movements. One thing all abusers have in common is a sense of entitlement and a level of narcissism. They believe that their wants and needs outweigh anybody else's and they are entitled to have their partner (and maybe children) focussed solely on them. To achieve their aims, abusers have to exert some form of control over their partners. Where that control is directed may differ but all are controlling. It is the method by which they perpetuate their abuse.
So Red Flags are born out of a sense of entitlement and are aimed at controlling the partner and focussing on the abusers wants and needs.
Why are the warning signs of an abusive relationship seemingly so hard to spot?
- Women, generally, are taught by society to ignore them and in some cases positively embrace them. For example, how many films do you see with over-blown romantic gestures or stalkerish type behaviour? These are the basis of most rom-coms. Take the films Frankie and Johnny (where Frankie is deprived of sleep and food before succumbing to Johnny's charms) or You've Got Mail for examples of stalkers and abusers being seen as romantic This isn't just limited to films many songs condone violence to women e.g. Eminem's Kim and a lot of hip-hop and R& B. Rihanna's songs are quite disturbing. The Twilight books and 50 Shades of Grey also depict abusive relationships. If the average person cannot recognise an abusive relationship when it is presented to them in black and white then it is no wonder that a woman in an abusive relationship can't.
- Until recently Law Enforcement has been complicit in retaining men's ownership of women and allowing domestic abuse to continue unchallenged. It has only been since 1991 that it is illegal for a man to rape his wife. And only since the 1990s that any significant progress has been made in the prosecution of men for domestic violence. As a result emotional/verbal/financial is only just being recognised and is still not illegal.
- In isolation red flags can appear as just bad behaviour so for example shouting and name-calling during an argument.
- Sometimes the signs are "revered" e.g. a workaholic providing for his family is ignoring the selfishness required to leave the house and childcare up to their partner.
- Sometimes, again in isolation, they just seems annoying e.g. sulking for hours/days, doesn't do housework.
- Abusers are not abusive all the time. This is known as the Cycle of Abuse. Time between episodes may be long enough for the victim not to notice a pattern initially. They will invariably escalate though and the time between periods of abuse will diminish.
Most people can exhibit an incident of abusive behaviour and red flags at some part in a long-term relationship but what makes a relationship abusive is a pattern of behaviour. And this behaviour will generally escalate. A man will not hit a woman on a first date because the woman would probably run a mile. Yet even though a lot of women are shocked by a partner's first violent outburst this is always an escalation of previous abusive behaviour.
Here are some signs prior to a relationship starting. They may not all prove to be abusive traits but could indicate a tendency towards selfish controlling behaviour:
He is disrespectful or has a low opinion of other women - this won't change with you.
He has never lived alone - may expect you to be doing all the domestic chores.
He is a workaholic/successful business man - selfish behaviour. Behavioural traits that makes you successful in business are not necessarily compatible with being a good partner.
He spends a lot of time playing sport/getting fit - again could be a sign of selfish behaviour
He doesn't respect boundaries - he brushes against you; doesn't accept no and always tries to talk you round.
Doesn't respect your opinion.
Is an "Alpha" male.
Drinks too much and/or gets belligerent when drunk.
Becomes aggressive or intimidating to other people in social situations
Common warning signs (Red Flags):Any physical or sexual violence from a man in a relationship is abusive.
Speaks ill of previous girlfriends/wives
Especially if they were "abusive" or turned their children against him. This is unlikely to be the case and in fact he is likely to have been the one who was abusive and his children recognised that.
He is disrespectful towards you
These could include name-calling; telling you you suffer from a mental illness; ridiculing your beliefs, values, ideas or opinions; disregards your accomplishments or uses them against you; harasses you about things you did in the past e.g. previous boyfriends; breaks dates/cancels plans at short notice; does not acknowledge the work you do or seems to think you don't work hard (especially with regards housework/childcare); humiliates you.
Does favours for you that you asked him not to or didn't want. Is inappropriately generous or loving.
Grandiose public displays of affection; brings you presents you don't want so you feel bad about refusing them; takes you places you don't want to go e.g. expensive restaurants especially after you have asked him not to.
He is controlling
Controls your access to money and what you spend it on; takes away car keys, money or credit cards; isolates you from friends or family; withholds approval, appreciation or affection; likes to tell you what you should be doing during the day or expects you to account for where you have been or what you have done, like he is your boss; tells you what to think, wear, how to behave; interferes with your work or school; sulks - not for half an hour like normal people but hours/days/weeks even.
He is possessive
Is angry if you pay too much attention to someone or something else (children, friends, school, etc.); gets jealous very easily or irrationally; is very concerned about his belongings and not so much about yours; treats you as property rather than a person.
Nothing is ever his fault
Turns arguments around to blame you; doesn't take responsibility for his actions; minimises or denies being abusive. gaslights.
Life revolves around him and his wants/needs
Does not include you in important decisions; expects you to cook his dinner, tidy up after him and generally put him first and becomes angry if this is not done to his liking; you find yourself thinking about him and what he wants all the time, neglecting your own wants.
Uses drugs or alcohol to excuse their behaviour; An abuser is an abuser without substance abuse. That sense of entitlement will still be there even if he gives up alcohol or drugs. But the nature of the abuse may change and escalate with substance abuse.
Sexual coercion and manipulation
Does not allow you to sleep; whines or nags about sex regularly (even though you may be having it several times a week); you wake up with him trying to have sex with you; barters chores for sex.
Very intense about the relationship at the start
Telling he loves you early on; putting you on a pedestal, initially, so he can knock you off it later in the relationship; fiery passionate behaviour.
Shouts; talks over you or fires questions at you during an argument; invades your personal space; criticises or threatens to hurt your family or friends; smashes up possessions (more often than not your possessions rather than his); reckless and angry driving; intimidating behaviour towards other people and strangers when angry.
He has affairs. makes contradictory demands; expects you to respect him whilst disrespecting you; comes home at late hours refusing an explanation.
Negative attitudes towards women
Stereotyped beliefs about sex roles for women; thinks women are conniving, manipulative, stupid or inferior; believes women should do domestic duties; addressing other women bitches, slags, sluts, whores;
Different public/private personas
He treats you well in company and calls you names in private; he puts you down in public and treats you better in private.
He appears attracted to vulnerability
Attracted to women who much younger than them or suffered abuse in another relationship or as a child.
Some of the feelings you may encounter whilst in an abusive relationship may include:
- Feeling afraid of your partner
- Avoiding certain topics out of fear
- Feeling you can't do anything right
- Believing you deserve to be hurt or mistreated
- Wondering if you are going crazy
- Feeling numb and helpless
- Thoughts constantly revolving around him and pleasing him
The above lists are not exhaustive and taken in isolation some of them may not be abusive behaviour. If in any doubt please ring Women's Aid and speak to someone. They are very used to spotting abuse and helping victims.
Resources used:Lundy Bancroft: Why Does He Do That: Inside the minds of Angry and Controlling Men
Emotional abuse checklist
Signs of abuse and control
Helpful resources for abused women:Women's Aid
Rights of Women
CRASAC - Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre
Domestic Violence - Scotland
16 days of action on violence against women