I am accustomed to having clients ask me these questions.
I almost sit waiting for the moment they blurt them out. They usually come out in a rush, followed by a look of undiluted panic as the individual sits there stunned, realizing that somehow the words have escaped unbidden and Oh God! they have dared to ask the unaskable.
They sit trembling, waiting for me to respond, imagining me saying in harsh tones ‘well yeah, absolutely you are totally whacko. Because for sure it is completely normal that your partner wakes you up in the middle of the night for no reason, tells you, you are fat, ugly, and useless, and puts tracking devices on your phone. Yep, all perfectly normal. So yes, it must be you, you are totally bonkers.’
Whilst those behaviors may seem somewhat extreme, they are fairly common, and unfortunately, by the time a victim of a destructive relationship comes to see me, they are generally so far removed from reality, that they truly cannot see how bizarre their perpetrator’s behaviors are. They really think I am likely to say the above. Obviously, I don’t and that is usually a shock to them.
Living day in, day out with someone who is telling you that your sense of reality is misaligned is damaging. There is no other word for it. It warps all sense of what is normal so that even the most extreme abuse becomes seen as the responsibility of the victim. He broke her arm; she should not have said that. He sulked for 2 days; she should not have gone out with friends. He screamed at her in front of the kids; she should have had the children in bed earlier. The conscientious victim will always accept way too much responsibility.
Often those who have not been in an abusive relationship say things such as ‘how could they possibly put up with that?’ or ‘can’t they see how they are being treated?’ And the simple answers to these questions are: they do not know they are putting up with anything, and no, they cannot see how they are being treated. You see it does not happen overnight; it is a drip-drip-drip effect. Like Chinese water torture for the mind; slowly but surely changing the natural course of an individual’s thoughts.
Red Flags – tiny flags, not great big sheets
So how does it start? Well, it starts from the first moment of meeting, when the perpetrator is trying out their wares to see how strong the potential victim’s boundaries are. Now, this is what we refer to as ‘red flag moments’, the title of which makes it seem a hell of a lot more dramatic than it really is.
Let me explain. You say ‘red flag’ to most people, and they think in terms of explosive happenings such as screaming in public, or smashing something, or generally causing a hullabaloo. Now for sure all these examples are ‘red flags’ and, in some instances, will happen fairly quickly in a destructive relationship, but in most cases, the first signs are a lot more subtle and can easily pass under the radar.
Some examples, your potential new partner is explaining how they lost a girlfriend because she did not want to spend time with him, and he lost the plot at her. Now instead of thinking ‘Oh wow! She was so uncaring not to do what he wanted. I would be a much better girlfriend and never let him down like that’. You should instead be thinking, ‘Uh oh, why was he demanding all her attention?’
Maybe you have a pet, and he grabs that pet a bit too roughly. Instead of thinking ‘Oh he didn’t mean that. It was an accident. I know deep down he is a gentle person’. You should be thinking ‘Uh oh does this person have aggression issues?’
You are getting dressed to go out and he says, ‘Don’t you think that dress is a bit short? I don’t want other men checking you out.’ Now, this might even be delivered with a laugh but instead of thinking ‘He really is so protective of me around other men‘, the message you should be contemplating is, ‘Uh oh is he controlling how I dress? Is he showing me he has problems with jealousy?’
‘Uh Oh’ – My what big teeth you have
You see the issue with ‘red flags’ is that they are small moments in time. They are those moments when your internal ‘uh oh’ system pricks up its ears.
Imagine the ‘uh oh’ system as an internal watchdog. I like to think of it as an alert Alsatian. He is on guard 24/7 fully committed to protecting you. He sees, hears, smells, feels, notices everything. Nothing gets past him.
However, many potential victims are not fully aware of their guard dog, and even when they are, they do not listen to him. Instead, they immediately come in with a rationalization for their partner’s behavior – he is tired, he did not mean it, he did not understand, look how much he loves me and wants to keep me safe. Put in here whatever excuse floats your boat.
Now many clients ask me after they have finally gotten free of a destructive relationship – how do I keep safe?
They are understandably terrified that they are going to end up with another domineering, crazy person. And let me be brutally frank here, they have very good reason to be worried because if they’ve done it once they have got a very good chance of doing it again. The age-old heuristic of psychology is ‘the biggest predictor of future behavior is past behavior’. It is not that my clients want to have another destructive relationship, its more that they really just don’t know what they did in the first place that took them down that wrong path, so how can they avoid doing it again, if they don’t know what they did in the first place?
So, what to do, what to do?
Listening to your inner growl
Well, ‘red flags’ are where to start. You see the thing about ‘red flags‘ is they are a message to self. When old guard dog is growling, he’s saying ‘uh oh something here I do not like. Something here has made me feel wary. Something here has put my hackles up. Something is making me growl’. And the biggest first step is to listen to him before you allow rationalizations to simply over-write what has happened.
This is a good time to introduce the biggest rationalization of all: ‘all relationships have problems, so it’s crazy to expect everything to be perfect all of the time’. Let me deal with this one right off the bat. This is something you can use about interpersonal dynamics way later in a relationship, like a good year or more into it, when dealing with everyday ups and downs. However, this thought has absolutely no place in your thinking early on and if you are using it to excuse ‘uh oh’ moments, I am thinking ‘uh oh’ about you right now. This belief is what you will find at the core of what is meant when we say, ‘settling for less’.
I digress, back to ‘red flags‘. So, you have had that weird ‘uh oh’ feeling.
Now here is the rule: work out why.
Yeah, ok. Er. What?
Who are you responsible for exactly?
Look the problem is at the point most of us experience a ‘red flag‘ we turn our attention externally to the other individual. We start to try and work out their motivation and their reason for doing what they are doing, and that is completely the wrong thing to do. Quite honestly who cares what their motivation is.
At this point you have only been seeing this person a short while, so it does not matter if they have had a difficult childhood, have got a mental boss, have not slept well the night before, your guard dog is growling and it has only one job, your safety. So that means you should be looking inwards and asking ‘what about this bothered me? Why do I feel uncomfortable?‘ Was it their tone of voice? Was it their words? Was it the way they treated other people?
Why did I not like this?
You see early on in a relationship your task is not to be ‘lovely, accessible, amiable’, it is to be ‘evaluative, considered, selective’. You are collecting information and evidence about how this person behaves, especially under pressure. Remember you are measuring this person up for potential relationship suitability. You are not, therefore, going to them with your begging bowl out saying ‘please, please like me’.
The fact is the person you see in those early days, that is who you are getting involved with, so you cannot come back later whining when they do not change to be who you want them to be. They have shown you who they are. They have done their tests of your boundaries. Your guard dog has told you something is wrong but it’s up to you to put your big girl knickers on and act on his warning, and if you do not well, you have no-one to blame but yourself. If you have accepted these invasions to your standards, what you like, feel comfortable with. or even to what makes you feel frightened – you have, in essence, signed up for this oncoming rollercoaster of hell.
But all is not lost, because you can turn this around. You see the only thing stopping you from saying ‘Oi buddy I didn’t like that’ is not because (as you tell yourself) you are being uber-polite, understanding, or even passive-aggressive. What is stopping you is the fear that if you do tell him what you think, want, or feel, he will turn around and say, ‘Well sod you then, I’m off’ and oh Lordy Lord now you are on your own. You are internally running a dialogue that says, ‘A crap relationship is better than no relationship’ – Titanic’s My Heart Will Go On is the jukebox theme song of your life. Yeah, metaphor intended; your ship really is sinking.
So, let me assure you, this is nonsense. You have agency and you have choice. You cannot blame other people when you have purposefully ignored the ‘red flags’ early on. Now I will be straight, not every ‘red flag‘ means some potential partner is a homicidal maniac, but people are showing you who they are from the minute they walk in the door of your life and they might be showing you, that they are just not compatible with you, which is bad enough. Don’t try and squash stickle bricks to Lego, it doesn’t work. Instead, it is your job to pay attention to ‘uh oh’ moments because your goal is to find a fulfilling healthy, relationship, not one where you continually feel you are nagging to get your needs met.
Might as well face it you’re addicted to love
At this point, I would like to add a specific warning for the Love Addicts reading this. You know who you are. You fall ‘in love’ after 2 dates, you are planning the wedding after a week and are sending him texts 24/7. You live in a neurochemical rush, constantly thinking this one is ‘The One’ and all of that is seriously clouding your judgment. But relax, your guard dog is still operational, it just means you are going to have to work much harder than non-Love Addicts to wade through your ‘high’ to engage with your thoughts as to what is really happening around you.
Because here is the thing it takes a minimum of 3 months before you know someone well enough to decide whether they are for you. Anyone can be on their best behavior at the beginning (with the occasional telling slip) but by the time you are hitting 3 months you have got a pretty good handle on what you are taking on, should you choose to. Any love you feel before that, that is your hormones, nothing else. Sorry to burst your ‘love at first sight’, rom-com bubble. During that initial 3 months, your sole task is to do nothing more than have some fun and evaluate. If there is no fun, just a lot of drama, you do not need to know anymore – just get out.
Throughout this time, you are repeatedly checking in with your guard dog and you are chasing up every lead he gives you. Every ‘uh oh’ moment he alerts you to is a chance to work out is there something about this person I feel uncomfortable with; what is they did that made me feel uncomfortable; and is that behavior that gives me discomfort something that I really should be getting the hell out of my life? Remember at this point, you are not concerned with his motivations; they are not relevant as you are neither his therapist nor his mother. Your sole task during this time is making sure that this person is first and foremost safe and makes you feel good, as they present to you right now. You are not looking at them as a ‘fixer-upper’ or as part of any ‘work in progress’ fantasy.
Do you hear my underlying message here?
To remove any confusion, I will spell it out: Do not try and change anyone who makes you uncomfortable, simply get rid of them early on.
Your power in any relationship is not the ability to tutor, cajole, blackmail, or manipulate someone into change.
Your power is having the choice to wait to fall in love with someone who ‘fits’ with you as they are. You do not have to dive headlong into another pool of misery because you are deluding yourself that someday he might, just might become Prince Charming (read: never gonna happen). Instead, take your time, find out who he really is, accept him as he really is, and then decide what you do based on those facts.
Your guard dog has the most important job there is. He not only alerts you to ‘uh oh’ moments but every time he does, you are learning something about yourself. What you like, what you don’t like. Rely on him, engage with him, speak to him and every time you do you are moving one step closer to knowing yourself deeply and finding a healthy, wonderful relationship. He will be your best, truest friend and will keep you centered on who is most important in this journey, you.