Early signs of an abusive relationship

When we sit back and daydream about the kind of relationship we want for ourselves, the reveries never involve emotional or physical violence. Instead, we all long to be loved, valued, and respected and, most importantly, every one of us deserves that. It's devastating, therefore, that so many suffer at the hands of an abuser.

The statistics are sobering. Every minute, 20 people are victims of intimate partner violence. Clearly, this is a serious and widespread issue. During my time working in crisis intervention, I was astonished by how many men and women, ranging from teenagers to senior citizens, admitted to being in an abusive relationship.

Over the years, I have wondered how so many had missed the warning signs their partner had exhibited. It wasn't until I worked with students that I realized that these red flags are rarely discussed with young adults. Too often, we describe abuse as full-blown violence but there are so many other ways that abuse can be detected. Becoming familiar with these early signs of an abusive relationship can not only save you from heartbreak, it could, potentially, save your life.

Your partner is extremely jealous and tries to isolate you

A little jealousy and clinginess can feel good in a relationship. There's something to be said for feeling wanted and it's nice to know that our partner is, at least, a little worried about losing us. This is a normal dynamic, especially in new relationships, and as long as it doesn't become bothersome, is nothing to worry about.

It's entirely different, however, when a romantic partner seems particularly possessive and seems to want to isolate you from your friends and family. They might also make wild accusations about your behavior while suggesting that you are untrustworthy. As I've advised my clients, a partner who calls to check up on you constantly, shows up unexpectedly to verify your whereabouts, or accuses you of flirting or cheating on a regular basis, is showing signs of abusive tendencies.

They are ready to commit really quickly

Most of us can relate to having been interested in someone only to have them drag their feet about making the relationship official. It's not uncommon for some to take their time before taking the plunge into couplehood. It's not a bad thing to spend some time getting to know each other better. That way, if and/or when it does happen, it will feel great to be exclusive and focus on deepening your bond.

It's a bit concerning, however, if within days of meeting, a partner comes on really strong and says things like "I've never felt this way about anyone before" or is really eager to formalize the status of your relationship. They may even begin talking about marriage. Many clients have described these types of scenarios and I've explained that, on its own, this doesn't have to be a bad thing. They may, in fact, be in the early stages of a fairy tale, love-at-first-sight kind of romance. Along with some of the other warning signs, however, it is best to regard these types of declarations with caution.

Your partner is controlling and monitors your cell phone, emails, and social media activity

Nowadays, almost everyone has some sort of social media account that they access from their smartphone. For the sake of transparency, some couples agree to share their passwords with each other in order to establish and maintain trust. The key here is that this is a mutual agreement that works for both parties.

It's potentially a problem if you feel interrogated by your partner on a regular basis. It can be hard to know where to draw the line since everyone's definition of "snooping" will be different but I've explained to clients that if their significant other goes through email, texts, or social media accounts without asking (or by force), they have a right to be concerned. You are entitled to privacy and should feel trusted in your relationship.

Other abnormal actions that I've observed include checking the mileage on someone's car to see how far they've driven, making their partner ask permission to go anywhere, or preventing their love interest from holding a job. These controlling behaviors are not healthy for anyone.

They put you down and have unrealistic expectations

We all want to look and be at our best as we make our way through the day. Many of us will take extra steps to try to impress our romantic partners and make them feel valuable. Little loving gestures can mean so much but sometimes things don't go as well as we'd like. It's important, therefore, that we know that when we make mistakes, we can be forgiven and that we have the support of our significant other.

For this reason, it's completely unacceptable for a partner to go out of their way to put you down or have expectations that seem completely unrealistic. No one is perfect so if they are pressuring you to meet some unattainable standard, calling you names, or degrading you in some way, that's a bad sign. Similarly, if your partner knows about some weakness or vulnerability from your past or present life and they use it against you, that's not love. That is abuse and will likely worsen over time.

They get angry easily and/or have mood swings

Some of us are better able to handle stress than others. One set of circumstances can seem mildly annoying to one person but can cause someone else to feel on the verge of a meltdown. As long as things don't get out of control, it's important that we understand and respect the fact that we all deal with life's challenges in our own way. That's not to say that we shouldn't encourage an easily irritated person (including ourselves!) to adopt better coping strategies but we also shouldn't accuse every cranky person of being abusive.

At the same time, it should set off warning bells if someone greatly overreacts to a situation and has mood swings that make you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. The same applies for a partner who whines and pouts every time they don't get their way. Healthy communication should never be replaced by subtle forms of manipulation. Don't ignore the inner voice that tells you to be cautious of someone who makes you question their stability. If you feel that your partner gets angry too easily or has unpredictable moods, believe your instincts. They are trying to protect you.

Blames everyone else for their problems

When things go wrong, it's normal to want to deflect blame away from ourselves in an attempt to minimize our own suffering. Who wants to admit that we've caused our own pain, right? As long as we aren't doing this all of the time and, after a reasonable amount of time, accept responsibility for our actions, this isn't anything to worry about. Most of us will try to protect our ego at some point!

If, however, you are dealing with someone who consistently refuses to be accountable for the hurt or problems they've caused but want to pin the blame on you or others, you should take that very seriously. In counseling sessions, I've heard people say things like "you make me so angry" or "I wouldn't be in such a bad mood all the time if you'd just..." to their partner. This is an attempt to shift responsibility away from themselves and can be a sign of emotional abuse. Don't be their scapegoat!

They are cruel to animals and children

Not everyone loves animals and kids. In fact, there are plenty of normal, healthy, sane people who don't want a pet and choose to never have children. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. After all, we are all entitled to make our own choices in life.

If, however, you notice that your partner does mean things like teases kids until they cry, expects them to behave in ways that are too advanced for their age/ability-level, or is unnecessarily rough with them (or animals), you should consider this a very serious warning sign. How we treat the most helpless of creatures is a real sign of who we are as people and, if your partner is cruel, nasty, or unkind to children and animals, you have every right to be concerned about your relationship (and safety!).

You feel pressured to have sex

It might be fun to engage in some risqué role-playing from time-to-time as long as both parties feel safe and secure while adhering to some ground rules. Being intimate with a significant other should feel reaffirming, empowering, and loving while strengthening your bond. These private moments are a great way to connect and share on a deeper level.

It's not fun at all, however, to feel like you are being pressured into having sex, especially if your partner uses manipulation, intimidation, or physical force to engage in unwanted acts. If they frequently mention enjoying rape fantasies and the idea terrifies you, set some clear boundaries. If they don't respect those boundaries, it could be a sign that they simply enjoy having power and control over you. That's not an equal partnership.

I have noticed, also, that my clients have missed more subtle forms of pressure. If your significant other says things like "if you love me, why don't you want to show me?" or "don't you want to make me happy?" while suggesting sexual activity, understand that this is not normal. A loving, supportive partner will only want to engage in intimacy when you both feel the time is right.

They have rigid traditional gender role expectations

The Leave it to Beaver-style household where the man goes off to work every day while the woman stays at home and focuses on raising kids and preparing meals remains appealing to some. There's nothing wrong with being "old-fashioned" in some ways, as long the couple agrees on the expectations.

The way that men and women interact is changing, however. There are households where fathers stay home and raise the children while mothers take on the role of breadwinner. There are men who do all of the cooking and cleaning while women handle the bills. Of course, there are same-sex households where the chores and responsibilities are also distributed in way that works for the couple.

The point is that society's gender-related expectations are changing. If your partner wants you to fit into some predetermined, antiquated mold and either makes you feel bad or punishes you for deviating from their vision, you may need to reevaluate this relationship.

They make threats about being violent

Everyone can make an off-color joke or remark and say something stupid but, most of the time, you can tell by the tone that someone isn't making any serious threats. In those instances, you can probably shrug off the comment unless it becomes a pattern.

If your partner makes statements like "I could kill you right now" or "I could break your neck" and you get a chill through your body, again, trust your instincts. Take this even more seriously if they admit to having been violent with partners in the past (even if they say it was the other person's fault) or has been violent with you. One of the best predictors of future behavior is past behavior and, while you might want to give someone the benefit of the doubt, you also don't want to end up being their next victim.

In these situations, my advice to clients has been very clear. Never become confrontational with someone who may respond with violence. Keep your calm, remove yourself from potential danger, and then address the situation.

Put yourself first

We all want to find love and, when we have, most of us try to do everything we can to protect our relationship. Sometimes, we put the other person ahead of our own needs. It's totally fine to compromise as we work on issues but it's also important that we don't put ourselves at risk in the process.

If you identify any signs of abuse in your relationship, it's crucial that you take the right steps to address the situation. If your partner wants to work through things and seek professional help, it is entirely up to you to decide whether you want to stick around and support them. Don't let anyone intimidate you into staying in an unhealthy relationship.

At the end of the day, you should focus on what is best for you. You deserve to be happy, respected, and adored – even if you have to do that for yourself!