Abuse comes in all forms, and can be very difficult to see at first. That’s because abusers universally groom their victims by slowly decreasing their self-esteem and worsening their living situation. By the time a victim realizes that abuse is happening, they are often so deeply involved that getting out of the relationship can seem like an insurmountable barrier. In addition, our culture celebrates such a skewed vision of healthy relationships that it can be easy to overlook initial red flags because they seem much more like romantic gestures. For more information, I highly recommend this page from the Interact of Wake County website. A great book is The Verbally AbusiveRelationship by Patricia Evans.
So how can we see the potential for abuse when we’re in a dating relationship? Most abusers are excellent at portraying a good face to the world, and that includes girlfriends. I hope to help with some clarity with this post. I’ll be discussing actions which may seem romantic, but could be red flags for future abusive situations.
10. He pursues me.
Men are supposed to pursue women. That’s not giving up on the relationship. That’s sticking around until she “knows” that you’re really a great guy. And yeah, sure, it’s cool if a guy schedules your second date while you’re still on the first date. It’s romantic if a guy sends you flowers “just because.” But romance crosses the line into red flags when the pursuit is unwelcome. If you say “no” at any point, and the man ignores it, that’s a red flag. If you say, “Please don’t send me flowers at work,” and he does because “he just couldn’t help himself,” what he’s really saying is “I don’t respect your boundaries.” The minute a person disrespects my boundaries, I step away from him or her.
Pursuit: romantic when you’re both into each other, red flag when you have said no thanks at any point.
9. She makes jokes at my expense.
Self-deprecating humor is popular. And gently poking fun at your boyfriend or spouse’s quirks can be a healthy outlet for laughter and bonding. My boyfriend once broke a key in a lock and didn’t even realize it – so we laughed about it and called him “Hercules the key breaker.” It was all in good fun. But often, we put on a brave face, while we actually feel hurt. That’s the moment to speak up. Simply say, “Hey, I know it was funny, but can you not make that joke any more? I’m really embarrassed it happened.” At that point, if she continues to make that joke, you are in red flag territory. My personal rule is this: if my husband makes the joke first, then I’m allowed to make it again. The minute he asks me to stop making a joke, ANY joke, I shut my mouth.
Humor: Romantic when both parties are laughing, red flag when one party is hurt and the jokes continue.
8. He refuses to work with you on family finances.
This one is tricky, because money can play out so many ways and is such a volatile issue. It’s also an issue that often doesn’t surface until marriage. Basically, I would boil it down to two possibilities. 1. He manages the money exactly how he pleases, regardless of what you desire and ask for. 2. He refuses to take any responsibility for the finances, making you do all the work, but also refuses to limit his own spending. We often see a man who handles all the finances as being a “good provider.” Alternatively, a man who allows the woman to handle the finances can be seen as an “enlightened” guy who’s confident in his masculinity. The red flag here is the disrespect shown when he ignores your requests. If you ask him to reign in his spending and he refuses, or you ask him to handle bills a certain way and he refuses, that’s disrespect. Actions speak louder than words. If he agrees with you and then continues in his path, he disrespects you.
Money: Romantic when he treats you as a partner, red flag when he either keeps control or avoids any responsibility.
7. She sees your potential.
Look, part of love is seeing the best in your partner. All healthy relationships are built on people having faith in one another. It’s a cliché that women are attracted to “bad boys,” but it’s also true that some bad men can reform and become good men. Seeing the potential in someone and encouraging him to live up to that potential can be awesome and romantic. But it can also become extremely abusive and toxic. How? At some point, she needs to acknowledge not only your potential, but your current reality. She should love who you are in the moment, even the bad moments when you are grumpy and just lost your keys. Seeing a person’s potential can turn into constantly nagging him to change and grow and be different, which sends the message that he is unworthy. That’s an esteem killer and a big part of verbal/emotional abuse.
Seeing Potential: Romantic when you need encouragement, red flag when she never accepts you as you actually are.
6. He’s a manly man.
I totally get the attraction to alpha males. A man who stands up for what is right and can back it up with a strong punch is undeniably hot. Our culture has a real obsession with manly men. Cool, aloof men. Men who hit on a woman by insulting her. This is closely tied to the whole “bad boy” nonsense. There’s nothing wrong with finding a strong man attractive. A man who protects his girlfriend, who speaks up when something is wrong, that’s romantic. But far too often that machismo translates into dominance. Even if you subscribe to the belief that the man should be the leader in your home, leadership is not dominance. Submission, regardless of your faith, does not require you to do something illegal or immoral. Boom, red flag!
Alpha males: Romantic when strength is used constructively, red flag when strength is used to be dominant.
5. She’s super sensitive.
There’s a myth about sensitive feminine women. Women who blush if someone utters a swear word in their presence. Women who can’t stand talk about coarse or heartbreaking things. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. Some women are delicate and sensitive and that’s perfectly wonderful. Some men want that in a woman, and again, I can see the romance. You get to be her strong knight in shining armor. Where this turns into a red flag is manipulation. She may use her “sensitivity” as an excuse to restrict your actions. She’s afraid to be alone at night, so you’re not allowed to go on a camping trip with your buddies, or even spend the night with a sick family member. This is back handed dominance. In its most extreme form, it can manifest as the woman threatening to harm herself in order to get her way.
Sensitive flower women: romantic when you like to “be the strong one,” red flag when your actions are restricted by her weakness.
4. He’s super rational.
I like what Mindy Kaling has to say about this, because it expresses my own long held feelings perfectly. “Girls like Spock cuz Spock's like ‘logically I should not feel love’ and we're all like ‘oh yes you will, you little hot Vulcan bastard.’” While this is fine in the fan world, it’s not so good in the real world. Men who are super rational can be very attractive because they are calm and often conflict avoidant. I have been in love with Spock for as long as I can remember, and my husband is a very rational man. The problem comes when the guy has to deal with feelings. You know, big feelings: feelings about death, loss, illness, disasters. A super rational man MAY be suppressing feelings, or may only be capable of expressing those feelings in one limited way. Suppressed feelings only lead to bad results like explosive tempers, emotional withholding, or a simple inability to connect at any level.
Rationality: Romantic when he has emotional intelligence; red flag when he demonstrates no emotional awareness or ability to express emotions.
3. She’s a victim of circumstances
We all know people who are constant victims. Nothing is ever their fault. And sometimes, they truly are going through a bad time. It’s super romantic to come in and rescue someone. The red flag comes in when help becomes enabling. This is most obvious when dealing with addictions, but it can happen in other areas as well. Maybe she couldn’t pay her rent because her ex husband stole her car and she had to divert rent money to a car down payment. And so you help her get out of the financial hole. And then the next month she gets laid off, so you loan her a little more cash. But once she gets through the bad patch, there’s a pattern established of you helping her financially. At some point, she may become dependent on you, and there’s your red flag.
Innocent victim: Romantic (and noble) to help a person out once or twice, red flag when a pattern of enabling begins.
2. He’s devoutly religious.
I’m not going to apologize for this one. The sad truth is that many religions have been used to teach and implement systems that victimize and dehumanize women. In addition, men, especially in the US, tend to be less involved in religion than women are, so it can be exciting and romantic to find a man who is just as jazzed about faith as you are. The red flag comes into play if he happens to be part of one of the twisted sexist systems. How can you tell? Maybe he criticizes stay at home dads. Maybe he violently hates all feminists. Maybe he wants to “teach” you how to interpret your religious texts. He probably follows one or two teachers exclusively and won’t even consider listening to other viewpoints.
Religion: Romantic when you are well matched faith partners: red flag if he adheres to a twisted sexist form of faith.
1. She is SUPER into you.
Look, we all want to be adored. And in the first flush of any romance, there’s a crazy chemical reaction that makes us all a little crazy. It’s romantic: you think about the guy all the time, you read over his texts, your heart flips whenever you see an email, etc. Totally normal, fun, and romantic. At the beginning of a relationship, both people are probably really “into” each other. But maybe she’s SUPER into you. Like, she texts you at all hours of the night. And she asks questions about what you’re doing, joking about whether you’re with another woman, or asking why you want to eat alone when you could totally be eating take out at her empty apartment and then be there when she gets home from her workout. Everyone makes mistakes. And with texting and social media it’s easy to be in constant contact with your new crush. But there are still boundaries. If her behavior is just too clingy, it’s a red flag.
She’s just THAT into you: Romantic when the feeling is mutual, red flag when the recipient feels stalked, pressured, or suffocated.
A final note: I alternated pronoun use in this post deliberately. While women represent the majority of domestic violence survivors, men are also abused, physically, sexually, emotionally, and verbally. You can easily change the pronouns for my top 10 list and apply it to your situation. Let’s all walk away from the weird romance models the media offers us and create healthy love relationships!