He seemed sweet at first. In fact, he had many sweet moments. But then there was the other stuff …
Abusive behavior isn’t as simple as we, as a society, want it to be. We often think that the kinds of signs that tell you a man could be abusive are very obvious. We imagine monsters, overtly misogynist thugs. We think of extreme physical violence as being the key – or the only – signifier. But often the violence doesn’t start until a relationship is already established – sometimes not until after a woman has moved in with her boyfriend, marries him, or becomes pregnant. In fact, the leading cause of death in pregnant women is domestic homicide, which is to say they are killed by their intimate partners. If we limit our understanding of abusive behavior to physical violence, we risk ignoring other red flags we should be heeding.
Abusive relationships are about more than physical violence and usually involve emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse as well. While it is never the responsibility of a victim to somehow “avoid” abuse, it can be useful to learn about some behaviors that tell us a man might become abusive down the line.
Here are some red flags I experienced in a relationship that told me I needed to get out:
1. Irrational Jealousy: Jealousy isn’t always just about your partner worrying you’ll cheat or feeling insecure about people you might be attracted to. What I didn’t realize right away was that jealousy can show up just because you pay attention to someone or something that isn’t your partner. An ex of mine once – no joke – got jealous of my dog, becoming angry and anxious that she was trying to “keep us apart.” Once at a party he grabbed my wrist and pulled me away from a female friend I was talking to because he felt angry I was focused on her instead of him. He was irrationally obsessed with the idea that I was cheating on him and when he started accusing me of “picking fights” so I could sneak off to have sex with my ex, I knew things had gone way too far. But the warning signs were there all along.
We sometimes think of jealousy as a flattering display of love. Abusive men will often tell you that they feel jealous because they just love you so much and want to be near you at all times. Alas wild, irrational accusations or displays of anger or aggression when you pay attention to your friends, your pet, your child — or even when you talk to other men — isn’t about love. It’s about control.
2. Anger: Temper tantrums, outbursts, getting irrationally angry over small or insignificant things are signs that a man has anger issues and can’t (or won’t) control his behavior. An ex once tried to force me to stop wearing a piece of jewelry given to me by another ex-boyfriend. It wasn’t something that held any emotional significance — just a piece of jewelry I liked, had picked out myself and had been wearing every day for years. He demanded I take it off. When I refused, he flipped out, threatened to break up with me, and then said: “It’s either me or the ring.” I told him I didn’t do ultimatums, that it was an inappropriate demand and that his behavior was controlling. He had no choice but to let it go, but looking back, that was an early red flag.
When men lose their temper in extreme ways over small things on a regular basis it can function as a control mechanism, forcing you to walk on eggshells around him. My ex did a lot of freaking out and storming off early in our relationship over things that felt completely ridiculous to me. He often seemed out of control when angry, screaming things at me that made no sense. If your partner seems to have a kind of “Jekyll and Hyde” personality – meaning that he displays extreme personality changes, rendering him like a totally different person — it’s a bad sign. It’s also common to most abusive relationships. Being hypersensitive and overreacting is a way abusers can control you (by provoking a response) and force you to try to cater to their mood swings.
3. Blame: My ex tried to convince me that I needed to develop various tactics to keep him calm: from telling him to “calm down” during his outbursts to changing my posture and facial expressions in order to prevent him from feeling angry and losing his temper and/or becoming verbally abusive. Yes, it was insane! But this kind of thing is common in abusive relationships. Making you responsible for their behavior or blaming you for “pushing” them to the edge – whether that be calling you a “cunt,” threatening you or becoming violent – is very common in abusive men. And it is straight bullshit. The only person responsible for an individual’s behavior is that individual. There isn’t anything you can do to avoid being called misogynist names or getting hit. That’s on him. Asking you to change your behaviour in order for him to control his own, thus making you responsible for his behavior, is a bad sign. Healthy, respectful adults know better than this. Find one of them to date instead.
4. Control: Control is a common factor that weaves its way through all abusive relationships and, therefore, through all the red flags I discuss here. But there are a number of particular behaviors you should watch out for. Making comments about your clothing is one example. When an ex questioned why I “needed” to wear a low-cut shirt I asked him if he was from the 50s and told him to never make a comment like that about my, or any other woman’s clothing, again. What’s behind those kinds of comments is both that he’s also trying to make you feel badly about yourself/self-conscious (which is not something a loving partner does) but also remind you idea that your body is for him. As in, no other man should be “allowed” to see my cleavage because it’s his cleavage now. Not cool.
Other behaviors like showing up at your house uninvited can be a red flag, too. Does it feel like he’s checking up on you? Looking over your shoulder to see who you’re texting? Demanding to know details about where you’ve been and who you’ve seen during the day? Bad sign. Get out. There’s a difference between being interested in what you did throughout the day and monitoring your movements. By the time I ended this particular relationship, I was feeling constantly monitored, like I had to report what I’d done during the day and like I was being watched when we were out together. I knew I was a trustworthy person and didn’t deserve that.
5. Physical aggression: This is an obvious one but sometimes it can be subtle at first, to the point where you excuse it or he does. Aggression with other people, even other men, is a bad sign. In my case there were small incidents of physical aggression that I temporarily forgave him for because he felt so awful about it (and actually sought counseling). But at the end of the day, I couldn’t trust someone who acted out in that way and knew that this kind of behavior almost always gets worse as time goes on. Pushing me away aggressively, grabbing my wrist so hard that it hurt, kicking things in my apartment, lunging at me in a threatening way but without actually touching me – these are all signs that a person does not have control over or is unwilling to control their anger. They also function as little threats that tell you he is capable of more. It’s like telling you to “watch out.”
Some of these behaviors simply made me uncomfortable. Others were behaviors I knew were unacceptable. Looking back, I see some pretty big warning signs that, especially when all connected, make me wonder why I didn’t leave sooner. Though my partner sought counseling, the behaviour didn’t change enough to convince me I was safe in that relationship and by then I’d already lost trust. I don’t want to waste time with someone who doesn’t respect my boundaries, independence, or displays abusive or controlling behavior. If these behavioral patterns sound familiar to your relationship, then you might want to, either.
[Image of a controlling boyfriend via Shutterstock]