Relationship Red Flags: Are You Dating an Abuser?

August 21, 2018 Kristance Harlow
Couple sitting against a wall

So, you’re in a relationship, and something feels off. You don’t know what it is, but you have an inkling that something isn’t quite right. If you’re like me, you may have spent your whole life being taught to distrust your intuition. You might be as good at lying to yourself as I was and immediately go into denial mode.

Or maybe you’re facing something new and it’s so out of your range of normal that you don’t have any reference point for the behavior you’re confused by. So, you may swing into peacemaker mode, believing that if there is a problem you’ll be able to fix it or it’ll work itself out if you’re just patient enough.

Give yourself the benefit of the doubt, and listen to that feeling. At the very least, see if your intuition is trying to make you aware of red flags popping up in your relationship. Whether a budding romance, or a partnership that you’ve been in for a long time, trust yourself. No one deserves to be in an abusive relationship. No one.


“You know I’m right”
  • Doesn’t take no for an answer, and will continue to debate the issue at hand.
  • Uses rationale to explain why their way of seeing things is the right way.
  • Will work to convince you that they know what’s best for you.
  • Always needs to be right.
  • Will not let something go, unless you give in.
  • Tries to normalize their behavior by saying things like “this is just a discussion” even though it’s one-sided.
  • Tells you that “we’re compromising” even though there is no middle ground.
  • Gets you to change things about yourself (like your hair, or your clothes, your friends, your job, etc) by convincing you to do so.


“It’s us against the world”
  • Always claims to be the victim.
  • Every situation that goes awry with friends and family is someone else’s fault.
  • Believes that other people are trying to control your relationship.
  • Thinks he is the subject of conversation for other people.
  • Believes others are overly concerned with his life and his relationship.
  • Accuses people of gossiping about him or his relationship.
  • Is threatened by your past, such as being convinced that you slept with every person you knew before.

Such a Gentleman

…in public
  • Behaves differently in public than in private.
  • In public acts like a real gentleman.
  • Uses being a gentleman as a socially acceptable way to control you.
  • Guides your choices and movements by making decisions for you.
  • Always sitting directly next to you no matter the scenario.
  • Insisting on being with you to when you don’t need or want it, such as always accompanying you to and from work when you don’t need or want that.
  • Makes you feel guilty because they are doing all these things “for you.”


“Stay with me, here”
  • Discourages you from visiting your family.
  • Drives a wedge between you and others by insisting that they just make you miserable and they’re no good for you.
  • Gets you to move—literally—to a more isolated location further away from your social network.
  • Believes and tries to get you to believe that the people who care about you are not good people.
  • If your partner and you used to have mutual friends, and those mutual friends are somehow gone now.
  • Encourages you to keep your relationship private and doesn’t want you to discuss your relationship with other people.

Lack of Privacy

Always “we” never “I”
  • Goes through your phone, with no remorse or shame about doing so.
  • Convinces you to stop using your own phone when you’re together because why do you need two phones when you’re always together?
  • Agreeing to commitments or canceling plans always in the form of “we.” Never saying anything like, “I will ask Jack if he can get the night off” or “I’ll be there but Sheryl isn’t going” or even “I’m sorry, I am going to cancel. Jonny ended up getting tonight off, so we’re going to have dinner together.”
  • Always speaks for you.
  • Screens your online interactions.
  • Goes back through your old emails/texts/photos and confronts you about content from before you were together.
  • Always comes up right next to you, wherever you are, interrupting any conversation to do so.
  • Assumes and acts as if their presence is always necessary wherever you go.

Subtly Undermines

“Jokes” that sting
  • Uses “jokes” to humiliate and criticize you.
  • Undermines your character, your choices, your values and morals, your relationships, your career, your education, your language, your ethnic heritage, your nationality, your family.
  • Might quietly snap at you for bending over with low rise jeans, undermining your body autonomy.
  • May become accusatory because you happen to be looking in the direction of women walking past the two of you on the street, undermining your existence in the physical space you occupy.
  • Tells you to sit up straight, cover your shoulders, pay attention, can be patronizing and condescending.
  • Questions your moods.
  • Dismissive of your feelings.
  • Devalues your qualifications, education, or work history.
  • Criticizes your ethnic background or your nationality.
  • Is condescending even about topics in which you are more well-versed.
  • Tries to “correct” things about you that are core features of your identity.


“Or else”
  • Insists that you make choices based on a limited set of options.
  • Draws lines in the sand and forces you to choose a side.
  • May say something like, “If you ever tell anyone this, I’ll never speak to you again.”
  • Sees things in life only in black and white with little or no middle ground in between.
  • Wants you to choose between them and your friends, or them and your job, or them and your hobbies
  • Similar to abusive persuasion, ultimatums are demands masquerading as choices.


Beck, J. G. et al. (2011) Exploring Negative Emotion in Women Experiencing Intimate Partner Violence: Shame, Guilt, and PTSD. Behavior Therapy, 42: 740-750. doi: 10.1016/j.beth.2011.04.001

Home Office. (2015) Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. The Home Office, London. Available at:

Meghanm. (2018) Early Warning Signs: Identifying DV Red Flags. BTSADV. Accessed August 21, 2018,

NCADV. (2015). Facts about domestic violence and psychological abuse. PDF available at

New Hope for Women. Red Flags for Domestic Abuse. Online. Accessed August 20 2018,

NNEDV. (2017) Red Flags of Abuse. Online. Accessed August 21 2018,

Stosny, S. (2008) Are You Dating an Abuser? Psychology Today. Accessed August 21 2018,

Last updated December 14, 2019

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  1. William Lynn on August 22, 2018 at 6:03 am

    A extremely good article. It is important to remain “self” in any relationship. The issue of “denial” is the one that is the key here, I think. But through it all be aware of “self”.

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