written by: Kosjenka Muk
Incompatibility is fairly common in relationships, which means there are plenty of potential signals of incompatibility depending of one’s values and personal traits. However, sometimes you might not simply be incompatible with a love interest, but you might have stumbled upon a realistically toxic and possibly violent person. While red flags in such cases can be subtle and various, some of them are more common and often reported by people who got “burned”. I’ll list many of them below and roughly divide them into categories.
Remember: many of those signals don’t necessarily mean a person is “bad”, but you don’t have to see them as “bad” to understand that a relationship with them can be toxic for you. It would be easier if people were all good or all bad, of course, but it’s never so. Unhealthy people too have parts of them that are warm and worthy of respect… but if they hide them, ignore them or avoid expressing them, the end result is the same as if they never had them. Also, these warning signals don’t mean you shouldn’t even give a chance to someone – they mean you need to be cautious, stand up for yourself if needed, and avoid becoming too attached too quickly to such a person.
While you are in love and have high hopes for a relationship, it’s easy to tell yourself that a problematic behavior is “accidental”, “won’t happen again” or “with me, he/she’ll be different”. Keep in mind that, as a rule, where there is smoke, there is fire, and every action reflects at least a part of someone’s personality, values and beliefs. And, usually, love is not enough to change that.
First serious argument and how it’s resolved are often good indicators of what you can expect in the future. Does your partner listen to you, consider your words and communicate with honesty and appreciation? Or do they ignore you, belittle you, and try to control or manipulate you? In the latter case, do not hope that such a person would be different in the future and willing to see your perspective; people whose behavior shows lack of empathy won’t suddenly become empathetic, especially if they feel it would mean a loss of power and privilege.
Don’t criticize yourself if you’ve ignored relationship red flags in the past. Trust is not a sin. Sometimes we need experience to learn to pay attention to such warning signs. However, it’s also a good idea to learn something from other people’s experiences, not just your own.
Categories of relationship red flags:
Hurrying a relationship
(indicates: possessiveness / insecurity / transference / lack of healthy boundaries / wanting to use you sexually)– In the beginning, it seems “too good to be true”: they agree with whatever you want, they try hard to please you, they are full of promises and compliments, they put you “on a pedestal”. In other words: they are not authentic. When such a person shows their true face, it will probably be very different.
– proclaims love a few days after meeting you; talks about marriage within a month or less. A healthy person will take time to get to know you better and check if you are compatible. Rushing a relationship probably means that, whatever it’s about, it’s not about real you.
– floods you with text messages or phone calls soon after meeting you (and might blame you and become full of accusations if you don’t answer quickly enough or often enough)
Control freak– keeps demanding “good enough” explanantions for innocuous behaviors
– often checks you out and questions you about where you are, who are you with, and what you’re doing
– criticizes your friends and family for no big reason, doesn’t like you to spend time with them, with time might try to isolate you from them
– directly or indirectly criticizes your looks and clothes (you might feel they are trying to either make you fit a model in their head, or force you to be less attractive). This doesn’t include occassional neutral comment about what suits you well and such.
– emotional blackmail, inducing guilt (“if you really loved me, you would …” and such)
– has hard time accepting you doing things without them
– has hard time with you expressing a different opinion, including reasonable desires, expectations, and balanced criticism
– demeaning or jealousy of your intelligence, talents, education or hobbies
– makes decisions for both of you, without asking for your opinion
– whatever you do, they interpret it in worst possible ways
– tries to control your finances (might include insisting that you don’t work)
(Possible) emotional abuse– they exploit your mistakes, discomfort and other moments of vulnerability to increase their sense of power over you by unnecessary or exaggerated criticism, demeaning and similar
– they ignore your verbal or nonverbal expressions of disagreement, discomfort or displeasure
– no matter how hard you try, they find something to criticise
– expresses racism, nationalism, sexism or other -isms (pay special attention to sexism – sooner or later this will influence your relationship directly)
– selfishness in sex
– mean, “venomous” humor. Humor is a great quality if well-meaning and creative, but expressing malice through humor is something quite different – it’s passive aggression that shows one’s desire to feel powerful at the expense of others (and is often not particularly funny anyway). Be aware of the difference.
– “blowing hot and cold” is a form of emotional control. Warmth gives you hope; coldness confuses you; both are emotionally bonding.
– scorns or withholds expressions of love, support and warmth
– generally shows lack of empathy (whether for you or other people)
– tries to make you jealous
– tries to convince you that you are lucky to be with them and that nobody else would want you
– your self-esteem suffers in their company (while it usually doesn’t happen around other people)
– you feel uncomfortable expressing your feelings and opinions around this person; you learn to plan in advance or censor your communication and behavior more than you normally would. You keep analyzing yourself trying to figure out what you’re doing wrong.
(Possible) affairs and promiscuity
– contradictions and unpredictability in words and behavior
– unreliability, cancels plans in the last moment, or leaves suddenly with unconvincing excuses
– avoids introducing you to their friends, acquaintances and family
– goes into another room to talk on the phone; hides their mobile phone and social media from you
– complains about “those crazy guys/girls” who “don’t want to leave him/her alone”, but “doesn’t want to hurt their feelings”
– is suspicious or jealous without a clear reason (projection of their own behavior onto you)
– suddenly ceases to communicate, and suddenly starts again
– you have a “gut feeling” that they are lying to you
Possible physical violence– has history of violent behavior
– finds excuses for their own or anybody else’s violent behavior
– gets angry easily
– when angry, comes physically close to you, block your way out, kick furniture or break things
– generally impulsive and lacking self-control
– you feel like “walking on eggshells” around this person
– you are afraid of how they might act if angered
Other (general immaturity, selfishness, lack of integrity and similar charming traits)– self-pity, perceives self as a victim, blames others for own problems
– very low self-esteem OR self-aggrandizing, overconfidence and arrogance (usually compensation for hidden lack of healthy self-esteem)
– talks scornfully and vindictively about ex-partners, or talks about them excessively
– unable to keep a job, financially irresponsible, dependent of their parents
– overly close (bonded) to one or both parents, especially if parents interfere in their lives and want to make decisions for them
– non-verbal behavior and posture that feels weird: stiff, nervous, unusual tone of voice (monotonous, for example)… especially if combined with other red flags. Might stare at you intensely (especially if they want something) or avoid eye contact.
– their words don’t match their actions (they don’t stand behind what they say)
– they are not happy about your success; they seem in better mood when you are feeling down
– demands a lot; gives little
– refuses to talk about problems in the relationship and find a solution together with you
– most if not all of your friends are warning you against them
– they are rude, scornful or aggressive to their own parents, especially the opposite sex parent. This is not the same as defending one’s boundaries or sometimes being angry with parents. Even if parents are toxic or violent, one doesn’t need to follow their example. The boundaries can be established with dignity: by reducing or ending communication, or by calm confrontation. As people often project their old feelings for their parents on a partner, hate or scorn for the opposite sex parent will likely later be projected onto you.
– they seem more interested in what they can get from you, than in what kind of person you are
– they don’t have quality family or friendly relationships
– can’t admit a mistake, apologize or express gratitude
– they ridicule your dreams, ideals and life values
– no matter how much you idealize them, or try to justify their behavior, your intuition keeps telling you something is wrong
– you keep hoping they’ll change, or that they are “not so bad inside”
– you feel embarrassed being with them in public
Listen to your inner voice. Do not feel guilty for having criteria and wanting a happy relationship. Don’t think you couldn’t find something better. Here’s what you could have instead:
– a relationship in which you feel free to open up emotionally and be fully yourself
– a relationship in which you feel respected and your opinions and desires are heard and taken into consideration
– a relationship in which your qualities are recognized and appreciated, while your faults can be constructively discussed
Would you feel guilty if you leave an immature partner? It’s an indication that perhaps you perceive them more like a child or a parent than as an equally able adult, and perhaps you were conditioned by guilt in your early family. The best way to help (potential) abusers and toxic people is to not enable them to practice their power games on you (or others). If they don’t experience unpleasant consequences, they can only be motivated to continue in the same ways. If they do experience consequences, they just might be motivated to change their values and treat their future partners better. So, allow them to feel the consequences. It’s a form of love.
Suggested reading: “Working with abusers and abuse victims”