Seeing the warning signs of a toxic relationships

Grand Forks Herald/May 10, 2016

In the flush of a budding romance, a person may dismiss or minimize the telltale signs that warn of future relationship problems.

That person may minimize or dismiss bad behavior because "he's so good-looking" or "she doesn't act like that all the time." Or, worse, they blame themselves for their partner's destructive actions.

Don't ignore these signs if you're serious about finding that special someone, experts say. In the end, when you're asking why it all went wrong, it's usually those "red flags" that were your first indication to move on.

Some signs of domestic problems are obvious — blatant infidelity or physical violence — but others are more subtle, said Maren Richards, crisis intervention coordinator for the Community Violence Intervention Center in Grand Forks.

"Name-calling, verbal put-downs, humiliation or making a person feel like they're worthless or crazy" are common tactics of an abuser, she said.

Another prevalent attitude that the man should be in control weaves through the cases of many victims of domestic abuse.

"We see a lot of abusers using their 'male privilege,' that belief system that says males are dominant and should take charge," Richards said. "They treat their partner like a servant — to care for the children, do the housework — and say, 'I'll make all the big decisions.' "

Some people are content "to go with the flow," she said. But sometimes, if their opinions are never heard, they just give up.

Warning signs

Here are some signs that can help you determine if you are, or someone you know is, in a toxic relationship:

1. You're always walking on eggshells.

One of the first signs of a toxic relationship is when one partner is always controlling, but that doesn't always mean physically threatening or violent. It can simply be that you feel frightened to share your opinions — you're constantly walking on eggshells because you're afraid of your partner's emotional reactions, experts say.

It's also about emotional safety. Partners should be able to express themselves without fear of what's going to happen when they do.

2. Your partner tries to control you.

Control and emotional manipulation are hallmarks of domestic abuse.

The abuser uses guilt to shift blame for poor behavior, Richards said. "They'll say, for example, 'If you wouldn't have made me mad, I wouldn't have done it.' And the person will believe it and think, 'Yes, I really did make him mad. I guess it was my fault.'

"It's an ugly cycle, and the further you get into it, the harder it is to see what's happening," she said. "I hate to use the word 'brainwashing,' but it changes the way they view themselves and the way they think."

3. Your partner punches a wall or throws objects during a fight.

Not only are these unhealthy ways of regulating emotions, but they could escalate to actions that really do cause harm. This kind of behavior is meant to intimidate another person.

"Even a look — like the one moms give their kids in a grocery store — that says, 'Get in line' " can be an attempt to intimidate, Richards said.

Physical actions — such as grabbing someone's arm and saying, "Get back here, I'm not done talking to you" — can be early indications of abuse. But that may not happen early in a dating relationship.

"If someone hit you in the face the second time you go out with them, it's easy to walk away," Richards said. And the abuser knows it.

"Generally, there's kind of that buildup. It may start with a push. It rarely immediately escalates to a higher level."

4. You're being isolated from family and friends.

The abuser may take steps to control who you spend time with, as part of a subtle effort to manipulate you, Richards said. "They control who you see so they become the sole influence (in your life), and it's harder for you to leave."

They also use finances as a way to control their partner, she said. "(For example) they may keep you from working.

"One of the largest barriers to leaving is being financially dependent. It may feel overwhelming — the person may not see how they can make it on their own, especially if children are involved."

5. You've been lied to.

"Honesty is an important facet of healthy relationships," Richards said. "If someone has lied to you, you'll want to figure out what this person's intentions are."

Was it to engage in some behavior they knew you wouldn't be on board with or supportive of? If so, that might be a strategy they'll continue to use.

"Little white lies," especially when used to protect someone or spare their feelings, are probably not a sign of abuse, Richards said. "But if they're lying about what they're doing, who they were with, or where they were, that's an indicator that something unhealthy is happening."

6. Your family and friends tell you something's wrong.

You may not realize you're in a toxic relationship until things get really bad, especially if things have slowly gotten worse, or it's gone on for so long it seems normal, experts say.

It's important for family members to identify a domestic abuse issue, Richards said. "You could say something like, 'I'm concerned about you; I think (the relationship) may be unsafe.' But you have to be careful not to be too pushy because you may push them to further isolation. It's about finding that fine line.

"You can make the offer, show concern, and let them make the decision about what to do," she said. "It's a tough thing to support someone who's in this situation. It's kind of like addiction in that the person has to be ready to make that big step."

Help is available "if you're not sure about your relationship," Richards said. "You can come in (to CVIC) to talk.

"We see a lot of people come in and say, 'I'm not sure I should be here,' but they usually are in the right place. They don't recognize how bad it might be, but we do, because we work with this every day.

"It's hard to come to terms with (the fact that) someone you love would do that to you."

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