Abusive relationships don’t begin with bruises. If they did, it would probably be a whole lot easier for people to plan to leave.
The reality is that relationships transform over a period of time. Abusive partners don’t start out that way — they’re often charming, romantic, and seemingly supportive at first. Then, things start to slowly change. Abuse isn’t about sporadic, out-of-control violence — it’s about gaining and maintaining power and control over another person.
Being sweet and thoughtful at the beginning helps abusers gain that control over someone, because you’re much more likely to be loyal and defend someone who has spent time gaining your trust. So, when things do start to change, that early, dreamy, romantic context can make it much harder to recognize that bad things are happening, and you may start to justify those abusive behaviors.
Early warning signs of abusive relationships can take many forms, from isolation techniques to financial manipulation to unhealthy conflict behaviors. Know that abusers aren’t only straight, cisgender men — people of any gender or sexuality can be abusers or be abused.
Here are 10 unhealthy behaviors to watch out for. As a disclaimer, someone who does some of these behaviors isn’t guaranteed to become physically violent (and some abusive partners may never become physically violent). However, all violent partners engage in one or more of these behaviors before they start physically harming.
Regardless, none of these behaviors are okay or healthy. Read on for why.
1. Controlling who you hang out with
Abusers cultivate power over people by creating a narrative that they know what is best for you and that everyone else is someone to be suspected. This often takes the form of controlling who you hang out with; by limiting your social circle, an abusive partner can get away with more without someone else sending up a red flag. Having relationships outside of your romantic or sexual relationships is important to a healthy partnership. If your partner only wants you to spend time with them, talks often about not liking your friends or family, and pressures you to not talk with them as much, they may be trying to limit your social circle.
2. Pressuring you to have sex
Sexual pressure is something so common in movies and television that we often forget that it’s not an okay thing to do. Here’s what’s healthy: If one person wants to have sex, but another person isn’t feeling it, say “okay, thanks for letting me know.” Maybe you’ll want to do something else instead, or maybe you want to take a quick masturbation break. But your partner making you feel guilty for not wanting to have sex (or have the kind of sex they want to have) isn’t okay. Even if you’re in a relationship, you don’t owe your partner sex. Ever.
3. Putting you down
Whether it’s about your appearance, your personality, or little habits that you have, putting you down isn’t okay. If it’s happening often or with any type of regularity, it can lead you to feel less confident, which ultimately makes it harder for you to advocate for yourself.
4. Managing your money (without your oversight)
Many people in partnerships share finances in some way, and that’s okay as long as everyone’s cool with it. What isn’t okay? Lack of transparency about financial health and someone else having complete oversight over your money. If your paychecks go into a joint account (or even an account in your partner’s name), it makes it more difficult for you to be financially independent, which can make it harder to leave — especially if your partner is building up debt under your name.
5. Asking you to rank their importance in your life
Ranking importance comes hand-in-hand with guilting you about how those things or people ranked. You don’t need to award someone a first-place trophy to let them know they’re important in your life.
6. Restricting your birth control usage
Or, controlling if you can use birth control at all – including condoms. Limiting your birth control options (or tampering with your birth control) is called reproductive coercion, and it’s one thing abusers do to subtly show that they have authority over your body. If you worry about your partner tampering with your birth control, there are covert methods you can turn to, like Nexplanon (the arm implant), an IUD, or Depo-Provera (the shot).
7. Shaming you for past sexual partners or experiences
The number of people you had sex with and the type of sex you had before you and your partner started dating is, ultimately, irrelevant. Just like you shouldn’t be put down for your looks or personality, you shouldn’t be shamed for your sexual history. As long as you’re having open and honest conversations now about what you like, what your boundaries are, and what safer sex practices you want to keep up with, that’s all that matters.
Forcing you to make a choice between two things is a pressurizing tactic that people use to try to subtly get you to choose their side. It’s also something that, like sexual pressure, is so normalized that we might even think it’s more romantic if our partners give us an ultimatum. But here’s the thing: Ultimatums work to remove your ability to consider all of your options by creating a false choice between two. Know that if you’re being given an ultimatum, you don’t have to choose either thing — it’s your life, and you get to decide what all of the options are.
9. “You’re so lucky to have me.”
This could be a tongue-in-cheek joke made after someone just did 2 consecutive hours of housework, but it can also have a more insidious tone. The phrase “you’re so lucky to have me” is often followed-up with “other people wouldn’t put up with this kind of behavior from you” or “no one will love you like I do.” This is an isolating technique used to make you believe that you are lucky to be in this relationship, because who else would want you?
10. Breaking things around the house in anger or frustration
If your partner gets angry or frustrated and then breaks things or hits walls, that’s a pretty big red flag. Showing physical aggression toward objects demonstrates that your partner doesn’t know how to properly manage their anger. Sometimes, breaking things is a way for abusers test the waters and see how you’ll react. If this happens, it’s best to not engage — leave the house for a bit and talk with someone you trust about what’s going on.
If you’re experiencing any of these 10 things, or if your partner is physically abusing you, know that you aren’t alone and there are people who can help support you. Talk with a trusted friend, therapist, or get in touch with the National Domestic Violence Hotline through confidential online chat or at 1-800-799-7233.
About the Author
Cassandra Corrado is an independent sex educator who teaches at colleges and universities across the United States. Formerly a victim advocate, she mostly teaches on topics related to un/healthy relationships, violence prevention, LGBTQ+ health, and sexual pleasure.
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