Stick To Your List; Know Your Red Flags
After abuse, self-advocacy is one of the most important yet challenging skills to master. Leaving an abusive relationship can feel nearly impossible. It requires a person to recognize that their boundaries are being broken while their nervous system is responding to trauma. There is usually a heavy amount of psychological manipulation involved in these matters as well, which makes it even more difficult to gather the self-confidence to demand respect or walk away.
When a person does finally get out of an abusive situation, it can be complicated to identify the often subtle differences between a healthy and toxic relationship. If a person is used to accepting abuse, there are many red flags that can fly under the radar if they’re not so blatantly violent.
After my abusive experiences, it took me a while to figure out what I was looking for in a partner. It confused me to try to think about my needs and desires when I’d never even received bare minimum respect.
One day, I had this idea that if I were to specify the types of behavior that I will not accept anymore, it might get me closer to knowing what I do want. I noticed that after brainstorming about the toxic relationships I’d had, naturally, my mind would drift toward more appealing circumstances. Once I organized my thoughts around these principles, my vision became clearer. Knowing exactly what a red flag looked like for me made them much easier to spot in the beginning stages of a relationship. I listed these standards in my journal so that I can always refer back to remind myself of what I deserve. Listed below are 9 of my red flags and why I think they’re important to consider. 1. Lack of Accountability Being accountable in a relationship means acknowledging the effect your behaviors have on your partner and owning the fact that improvement is necessary going forward. Before establishing interest in someone, I pay attention to how they react when they are met with criticism. In a relationship, there will be uncomfortable conversations that require both parties to take responsibility for problems. I will not be with someone who is unwilling to recognize when they’ve made mistakes. It is extremely immature to be stuck in that stubborn mindset. Nobody is perfect! As long as we take steps to solve the predicament and better ourselves, there is nothing scary about admitting fault. I need a partner who views these oversights as learning opportunities. 2. Inconsistency It is incredibly confusing to be with someone who doesn’t know what they want. We’ve all been faced with this common scenario. A person seemingly shows a convincing amount of interest but will make excuses about their busy schedule when they repeatedly cancel/reschedule. Or maybe they spontaneously disappear for a week without notice after you’ve been on a few dates only to pop back up when it’s convenient for them. Cue the apology and their promises to make it up to you the next time they decide to grace you with their presence. To me, this inconsistent behavior indicates that the person is unreliable and that it would be a struggle to establish a sense of stability within the connection. I’ll admit, this is one of the most difficult elements on the list for me to identify because I’m always giving people the benefit of the doubt. The trouble is, while I’m questioning their interest, there are usually just enough positives for me to hold on to. Overthinking it made it more complicated than a simple black or white decision. It has taken me so long to recognize that, yes, a person may be busy, but I am busy as well! The difference is that I’m setting aside my time and energy to try to make something work. If they aren’t doing the same, there shouldn’t be much more to think about. Ambiguity in regards to commitment just breeds unnecessary anxiety in a relationship. I’ve realized it’s not worth it to give my time to people who aren’t able to explicitly demonstrate that they want to be with me. What I need is a partner who wants to clearly define the relationship and back up their words with consistent effort. Trying to justify their uncertainty is just excusing their disrespect. It’s a mistake I’ve made far too many times before and won’t be making again. 3. Manipulation By now, I am able to spot even the slightest sign of gaslighting, projecting, or deflecting. These are behaviors that stem from insecurity or a need for control, as most toxic habits do. I try to call them out immediately, which can be awkward, but I find it necessary. A common example would be if, during an argument, a partner tries to twist the facts about an event that happened, leading you to question your own memory (gaslighting). Another example would be if you voiced a concern to your partner and they immediately attempted to guilt you about how your point is making them feel or brought up a separate unrelated issue about you (deflecting). It’s worth stating that we’re all guilty of these behaviors from time to time, so as long as a person takes responsibility, I am reasonably forgiving. But a consistent or aggressive pattern of this behavior is my cue to hit the road. 4. Condescension As a woman, being talked down to is a fairly banal occurrence. Unfortunately, we are still often automatically assumed to know less and require guidance in most situations. What makes it more irritating is that the specific type of sexism I’m referring to is rather covert and can sometimes be unintentional. The worst example that comes to mind was when a past partner of mine actually mansplained to me about feminism after I spent weeks researching the #MeToo movement for a piece I had been writing. Yes, this really happened. But there are other examples that aren’t so obvious to pick out, such as a partner who cuts you off as you’re giving him directions in order to demand that you look it up on the GPS. I’ll admit that in the past before I was aware of how the behavior affected me, it was tricky for me to call people out for it. After years of dealing with these microaggressions, I’ve decided that I will not accept a partner who patronizes or even underestimates me. I have weaknesses as all humans do. However, I’m capable of taking care of myself, and if I’m telling you something, it’s because I know about it. Also, I’m a total badass in general. Any future partner of mine will know this. 5. Emotional Immaturity I enjoy a partner with a child-like spirit. However, emotional immaturity is something I will not put up with anymore. I truly believe that it is the most unattractive quality in a person. Being in a relationship with someone who isn’t in touch with their feelings is like playing an emotional guessing game. I’ve had partners who would avoid or suppress their concerns until they inevitably bubbled up to a dramatic outburst. There were also connections I’ve had where anything resembling an argument would nearly end in an explosive breakup. I’ve been with people who didn’t know how to articulate or show their affection because they were afraid of vulnerability. Some would purposefully back away when things started to get serious. I don’t have the energy or patience for that again. A lot of us have emotional work to do, and I’m not perfect either. But from now on, I will only emotionally invest in a partner if they are at least working toward self-awareness. 6. Stigmatizes Mental Illness It’s my job to improve and communicate my symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. I will lay it all out for someone so they know what to expect in case they decide it wouldn’t work for them. That’s ok with me because I know that I need someone who is not only understanding of these issues but is also patient. If they are the type of person to feed into the stigma that depression makes me lazy and anxiety makes me cowardly, they are not someone I want in my space. I refuse to feel like my symptoms of mental illness are burdensome to my partner. I’ve felt like a liability in so many relationships. I now know that it’s something I should never tolerate. My partner should not be the one to make me feel guilty for something I can’t change. If I begin to feel this way with someone, I know it's time to go. Continuing our involvement would be stressful for both of us. 7. Controlling Personality I will do all I can to support a partner’s journey to self-love and affirm them through genuine affection. That being said, I’ve vowed to never again allow my partner to project their issues onto me. As someone with deep insecurity and trust issues, I’m aware that these things are difficult to deal with in a relationship. I am therefore frequently reminding myself that these are my problems to work on and never the responsibility of another person. I would expect the same consideration from my partner. If a person does not have a handle on their own feelings of jealousy or suspicion, it often causes them to put the burden onto someone else by trying to control them. I once had a boyfriend who was so insecure it seemed he’d stop at nothing to gain power over my life. His pattern of overbearing behavior included instances where he would invade my privacy by monitoring my social media and devices. He would also become upset and start a fight whenever I couldn’t spend time with him, which revealed his codependent habits. Another example would be his excessive criticism in regards to most of my personal decisions, such as my clothing, diet, fitness routine, or social life. These behaviors are a colossal sign of boundary issues and a lack of emotional awareness. I knew at the time that his behavior was not right, but I kept telling myself that it’s just because he was hurt in the past. I now know that there’s no excuse. It is not my job to sacrifice my autonomy in order to coax a partner’s fragile ego. 8. Bad Listener Communication is one of the single most significant elements of a relationship, in my opinion. I’ll admit that I’m relatively talkative and often prone to rambling. That’s why it’s important to me that my partner is an active listener. One of my struggles is feeling like no one will ever understand me. I tend to overexplain myself to the people I become close to. If it’s clear that they aren’t interested, it can be hurtful to my self-esteem. Everything I share is something I would want my partner to understand. Anyone who doesn’t want to hear my perspective doesn’t have to. They will be shown the door. 9. Selfish or Lacking Empathy There’s simply nothing that compares to selfishness when gauging the complexities of making a relationship succeed. There are a lot of components that can be worked on, but if a partner is only thinking of themselves, it will never go anywhere. Luckily, this quality can show up in many different situations and is relatively easy to spot if you’re focused enough. A partner could be inconsiderate of my needs by expecting me to adjust myself to their life but are unwilling to do the same. Relationships require compromise. Trying to level with a selfish person feels like a never-ending guilt trip. A person could show self-centered behaviors in social situations as well. I pay attention to how tactful they are while conversing with friends or coworkers. Do they consider the feelings of others while speaking to them? Are they actively listening and making sure the people around them feel heard? The answers to those questions can tell on a person. You can also learn a lot about a partner during a sexual encounter. Actions (or lack thereof) in the bedroom most definitely translate to behaviors outside of the bedroom. I can teach an inexperienced lover, but I can’t change an inconsiderate lover. I’ve been with several selfish people before, and I have absolutely no desire to be with one again.
As I was growing up, I learned (falsely) from rom coms that finding love is something I should prioritize. These fantastically amorous tall tales conveyed to us viewers that love is the answer to all of our problems.
As a survivor, I fell very easily into this belief in order to cope. The idea led me to settle for relationships that had nothing to offer me in hopes that it would finally be the one to save me. But I failed to realize that acts of self-love, such as prepping myself to advocate for my likes and dislikes in a relationship, were what I needed to become whole. The key to healing does not lie within a relationship or a person. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to agree with the phrase “you must love yourself before you love another.” I will say, though, that if you are depending on love from someone else and not at least taking steps to recover on your own, romance is going to be a hot mess for you. I’ll admit that even after I made this list, I didn’t believe that there was anyone on Earth that would fit my specific standards. I definitely second-guessed myself and pondered whether I was expecting too much. Fortunately, I didn’t lower my standards. Instead, the type of relationship that suits me started to become something I could envision, which made it easier for me to navigate the tedious world of dating after trauma. Ultimately, I met someone in real life who is everything I could’ve hoped for. This list is still incredibly useful, and it has become something I refer to when my partner and I communicate about our boundaries.