DASH’s early warning signs are meant to guide you in determining whether your relationship is healthy. In this series of articles, we will explore each warning sign in more depth so that you will have a better idea about what each sign means and if you need to address a problem in your relationship.
Control – He/she tells you what to do or how to act
Teen dating abuse is about control. It’s about your partner trying to control what you do, how you act, what you say. His/her control over you limits your personal freedom. There’s a fine line between expressing an opinion and requiring a person to act or do certain things. Telling the difference between an opinion and abusive behavior might seem easy, but sometimes it can be more difficult to interpret.
Abusive behavior follows a pattern; it happens frequently and is meant to make you question your own thoughts and feelings. It is meant to lower your self esteem. You may feel that you have to do things his/her way in order to keep the peace. He/she may challenge your ideas or actions telling you that the way you do things is “wrong”. Debating which is the better song or team or idea is something every one does, but if your partner insists that you think like he/she does your personal opinions are being limited . By questioning your ideas and thoughts, the abuser makes you vulnerable to his/her influence. After all, you just want to make him/her happy. You just want to show that you love them. When he/she confronts you, you feel that you can diffuse the situation by agreeing to do what he/she wants.
This warning sign is a signal that what your partner is doing is not love: it’s control. Let’s look at what you wear. If your boyfriend or girlfriend likes to see you wear a certain style of clothing, that may be fine. She may be able to give you guidance about your style or he may really like to see you in a certain color. But a line is crossed if you feel you have to wear a particular style to avoid a confrontation. He may tell you not to wear revealing clothing because he doesn’t want others looking at you. It’s just easier to put on the jeans than to wear the short shorts so he won’t call you names. This behavior can be abusive because it takes away your personal choice.
Your partner may convince you to drop your favorite activities or quit your job to spend more time together. At first being together all the time may seem romantic. He only wants us to be able to do more things together. She loves me so much that she can’t bear to be apart. But this is a sign of control. If he/she is with you all the time, he/she can keep tabs on you and control what you do. He/she can keep you away from other influences that might convince you that your relationship isn’t healthy.
Break the Cycle’s Power and Control wheel (at http://www.breakthecycle.org/dating-violence) lists various controlling behaviors that fall into this early warning sign category including:
- Telling you where to go, who to see
- Telling you what to read
- Limiting outside involvement and activities
- Treating you like a servant
- Making you do illegal things
You need to ask yourself these important questions to determine if your partner may be using controlling behavior:
Does your partner need to know where you are at all times?
Does he/she make all the decisions in your relationship?
Is your partner telling you to quit your job, favorite sport or activity in order to spend more time together?
Does he/she dismiss your opinions?
Does he/she mock your likes or dislikes?
Does he/she tell you what to think?
Do you feel pressured into doing things like sex, drinking or drugs that you would not normally do?
Insults you, calls you names
This may seem like an obvious warning sign. No one likes to be called names, even when it’s innocent teasing by friends. The increased awareness of bullying behavior has brought this warning sign more attention. The old rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” certainly isn’t true. Names, particularly if they are hurled at you by someone who claims to love you, can be terribly painful. If people you don’t really care about call you names, it may not be as upsetting. If that person is your boyfriend or girlfriend it becomes a whole different story. As in the first warning sign calling names is about control and humiliation.
We all have dealt with nicknames and insults, even among our friends. You might be a nerd, a jock, a popular and be proud about it. Having others call you names might roll right off you. You need to be able to tell the difference between a silly nickname and an abusive one. Any time your partner chooses to insult you, your appearance, your intelligence, your choices or opinions it’s emotional abuse. Yes, your partner can have his/her own opinions, but when they question your ideas to the point of insult or humiliation, it becomes emotional abuse.
It doesn’t matter if the verbal abuse takes place in front of others or not. An abusive partner will tell you that no one else will love you because you are fat, ugly, stupid – pick a word. Some partners may use the most disgusting references in order to crush your self esteem. There is no need to spell them out here; you can imagine what kinds of words they use. By insulting you he/she is making you more dependent. Many abusers will humiliate or embarrass their partners in public as a method of control to “prove” that only the abuser can love them. A victim of emotional abuse may start to blame themselves for the abuser’s behavior and come to believe what the abuser says. Constant criticism will compel the victim to “improve” him/herself. After all, if the person who loves you thinks you’re stupid then it must be true.
Remember, if the person you love is making you feel bad about yourself then he/she really doesn’t love you. A healthy relationship should be relaxing and fun. You should feel free to express who you really are with your partner. You shouldn’t feel that you need to fix yourself in order to meet your partner’s standard. Emotional abuse can happen to any one and it may eventually escalate to physical abuse if it isn’t stopped.
Isolation – Keeps you from spending quality time with friends and family
Sure, it’s romantic and fun to spend lots of time together. You just want to be with each other and wrap yourselves up in each other. You don’t want to pay attention to anything or anyone else. It feels nice to have someone pay attention to you exclusively. This behavior can become abusive when one partner won’t let the other partner do anything with anyone else. If you want to hang out with your friends at the mall, or go on vacation with your parents, the abusive partner becomes jealous. He/she may complain that you aren’t spending enough time together even if you think you are. The abuser may convince you to quit your job, favorite activities or hobbies so you can spend more time together. After all isn’t that what being in love is all about?
Isolation from friends and family is a key controlling behavior. If you are with your partner constantly (or you are in constant contact with your partner) he/she can keep tabs on you. The abusive partner can control where you go, who you see and what you do. You may feel that it’s easier to give up spending time with others in order to keep your partner happy. But you deserve to be happy, too! Spending too much time together can stifle your individuality making you live a life your partner determines. Our relationships with friends and family help keep us grounded in what really matters in life. The hobbies and activities we enjoy give us a sense of purpose that is integral to our well being. An abuser just wants to keep you under control.
Your partner may be isolating you from people who realize that your relationship is abusive. He/she doesn’t want you to be influenced by others. Your friends may have already voiced their concerns about your relationship. Your family will notice the changes in your behavior as you make excuses for missing events and giving up favorite activities. Your partner may allow you to spend some time with others, but it will be limited by what he/she wants. He/she will keep checking up on you via text or phone calls. He/she never trusts you enough to let you do anything without his/her being there.
Ask yourself if the time you are spending together is quality time. Are you actually doing things you enjoy or just sitting around all the time, never leaving the house? Do you only socializing with your partner’s friends? Has he/she decided that you don’t need that job or that friend? Has he/she convinced you that none of your family or friends cares about you, that he/she is the only one who loves you? How does he/she react when you are with other people or when you pay attention to others? If you are not “allowed” by your partner to do the things you like or see the people you love, it is a red flag of abusive behavior.
The best advice in this situation is to listen to what your friends and family are telling you. You may not agree, but they only have your best interests and safety at heart. You may not be ready to leave the relationship or you may be too afraid to attempt it because of your partner’s threats. Don’t dismiss the jealousy, isolation and control as something that will get better if you just spend more time together. Abuse escalates. An abuser wants to have complete control of you.
Blames you for his or her anger
Being angry is a normal part of being human. A person can be angry over little irritations or huge problems, but it is the way that person deals with those feelings that can reveal a potential abuser. Has your partner ever said something like “You made me hit you” or “You just make me so mad” or “If you wouldn’t make me jealous, I wouldn’t be so angry”? This kind of reaction is a classic sign of abuse – blaming you for the anger he/she feels. Your partner’s reaction to situations is important to understand.
We’ve all been late. We’ve all had misunderstandings. We’ve all said things we didn’t mean. We’ve all been angry over petty things. Yet, most of us let the anger slide after cooling off a bit. An abuser will not take responsibility for his/her own actions and reactions. An abuser who cannot control his/her anger will lash out at the one thing he/she can control: you. Your partner will claim that YOUR actions need to be changed. If your partner gets angry when you are late (especially through no fault of your own), he/she will berate you about it. If your partner is jealous when you spend time with friends, he/she will demand that you stop seeing those friends. If you try explain a misunderstanding, your partner will dismiss your reasoning. In all these scenarios, an abusive partner blames you. (Notice that many of the early warning signs we wrote about earlier build upon one another.)
As a result of placing the blame on you, the abuser feels entitled to his/her reaction to the situation whether it is physical or emotional abuse. The partner then blames you again for “making” them abuse you. It becomes an endless cycle. Even if you do everything in your power to please your partner, there is always something that will set him/her off. You end up living your life to avoid your partner’s “triggers.” You give up favorite hobbies, hanging out with friends and you begin to think that your partner is right – you are to blame for all the problems in the relationship.
Anger and abuse only escalate as the abuser gains more control over you and the relationship. If these examples sound like something that’s happening in your relationship, take a step back, confide in a trusted adult, and educate yourself about teen dating abuse.
Threatens or intimidates you
You may think that if your partner threatens you, he/she doesn’t really mean it. You may think that they were acting out in the heat of the moment. It’s only talk. Maybe your partner has never followed through with a threat. Unfortunately, it is only a matter of time before something does happen. Threatening and intimidating you is another form of control.
You certainly know what a threat is, but you may not know what intimidation means. Webster’s online dictionary (www.merriam-webster.com) defines to intimidate as:
to make timid or fearful : frighten; especially : to compel or deter by or as if by threats.
Intimidation forces you to change your behavior, opinions or interests through fear. Fear of losing the abuser’s “love”, fear of pain from physical abuse, fear of harm to your family, friends or pets makes you accept the abuser’s behavior. If a partner is using fear to control you, it isn’t love.
Threats can range from the simple to the deadly serious: I won’t call you; I’ll break up with you; I’ll mess with your car; I’ll hurt your dog; I’ll hurt your family; I’ll kill you. An abuser will not just threaten you or your stuff. Your family, friends, and pets are fair game in an abuser’s mind because an abuser knows that you will do anything to keep your loved ones safe, even at the risk of your own life.
DO NOT take any threat lightly, especially those against your life or safety. Even if an abuser has never followed through, abuse escalates. Someday an “idle” threat may be followed by action. In fact, threatening your life is number one on the list of Lethal Warning Signs (see the list above). Don’t hesitate to tell someone if your partner has made any kind of threat against you or those you care about.
Has a history of discipline problems (“bad” boys)
We love our rebels – guys and girls who go against convention, who won’t let anyone tell them what to do, who break all the “rules”. The rebel seems exciting and interesting. Life with a “bad” boy or girl is certainly never dull, but it can be dangerous.
Rebellion in teens is a normal part of the growing process. It’s natural to question what society says is normal or accepted. Most of us outgrow the rebellion and come to an understanding about how the real world works. We may hate school, but we realize that we have to go because it’s the law and we need an education to succeed in life. We might not want to go to work, but we’ll get fired if we don’t. We know we can’t start a fight with everyone who makes us angry. Rebellious behavior can escalate into violent behavior toward others and toward you.
If the rebel in your relationship has problems that have led to suspension from school or jail time it’s time to step back and think about the situation. A bad boy (or girl) will convince you that if you really love him, you’ll accept him no matter what he does. He will talk about how everyone is against him; you’re the only one who understands him. All the problems in his life are someone else’s fault. The rebel is always innocent of the charges. It’s all very exciting until you find yourself having discipline problems of your own. Listen to those who truly love you and want the best for you.
Don’t fool yourself – no matter how much you love a rebel, you won’t be able to love the “bad” out of them. If a partner had discipline problems because of his/her behavior, you are at greater risk of being abused. See the pattern here. Dating abuse is about control. If a rebellious partner can’t control his/her own life (resulting in discipline problems), they are likely to try to control you. A person who is willing to turn to manipulative, intimidating or violent behavior to deal with his/her problems is likely to use the same tactics to control you.
You’ve been taught since elementary school that drugs and alcohol are bad news. With good reason, your teachers and parents have tried to impress on you the dangers of substance abuse. These dangers can escalate when your dating partner is under the influence.
Someone who uses drugs or alcohol can become more violent and paranoid. A person under the influence does not have the same control over his/her emotions or reactions as when sober. A small issue or incident may get blown out of proportion. Whatever “little” things bother him/her will suddenly become big things. You may be caught in the cross-fire of a paranoid reaction. You are the one your partner may take his/her frustrations out on. If your partner exhibits other warning signs of dating abuse (threatens you, insults you, tells you what to do), he/she will only become worse under the influence.
Judgement becomes impaired when someone is using drugs or alcohol. Your partner may drive under the influence putting others (and you!) in danger. Your partner may decide to engage in risky behavior like “car surfing”, “Jackass”-style stunts, or gun/knife play. Your partner may make unwanted sexual advances. He/she may try to get you to use drugs or alcohol with him/her. If both of you are using, your relationship can be volatile. These behaviors endanger both of you in ways you may not realize including the escalation of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Because substance abuse alters the brain, you cannot love the abuse out of your partner. A partner using drug or alcohol, even if you think it’s only “recreational”, is someone who needs help from a professional. “Recreational” use leads to addiction which can lead to dating abuse. Substance abuse often occurs when someone has underlying emotional issues. The best thing you can do for your relationship with a substance abuser is to tell a trusted adult who can get your partner the appropriate level of help.
A history of violent behavior
Like our sixth sign, a history of discipline problems (bad boy), a history of violent behavior should be a red flag in any type of relationship. A person who uses violence in trying to solve problems is someone who should be avoided. The violence may not even be physical; it could be yelling and screaming, throwing things, punching the wall, or slamming doors. Everyone loses his/her temper once in a while, but it is the pattern of behavior that is the key. If your partner continually loses his/her temper or is known to be violent when confronted with problems or difficult situations you must be willing to step back and assess your relationship.
Did your partner have a reputation for violent behavior before you began dating? Was he/she considered a rebel or known for rebellious behavior? As exciting as it seems to be involved with someone who is a”bad boy”‘ or girl do not take their reputation for violence lightly. Someone who has been violent with others will likely be violent with you.
Watch how your partner reacts to difficult situations. Does he/she lose control if something doesn’t go his/her way (whether or not it has to do with you)? Does he/she get angry easily? Does your partner react by using violent behavior like yelling or throwing things? Remember, everyone gets upset once in a while, but if your partner gets upset at every little thing it’s a warning sign.
Notice how he/she treats other people especially teachers, counter help, waiters/waitresses, the elderly etc. Is your partner polite when dealing with people who work in stores or restaurants? Is he/she patient even when the situation is frustrating (a slow waiter, poor service)? Can he/she discuss a problem without getting angry or raising his/her voice? The way a partner treats other people is an important clue to their character and how that person will treat you (particularly when there are problems).
Violent behavior should not be tolerated from anyone in your life. You deserve to be treated with respect and love. Take a closer look at your dating relationship by reading about how to evaluate your relationship and defining a healthy relationship.
Threatens others regularly
This early warning sign is simply an extension of the other early warning signs we’ve featured. If a person is willing to threaten others regularly, whether or not they actually follow through with any actions, that person is just as likely to threaten you. We can’t say it enough: a partner who threatens others will eventually threaten you!
As in our other warning signs, watch for the pattern. An occasional outburst is probably normal. Everyone gets frustrated by others and may wish that they could get back at the person. Threats toward others (or you) need not be physical. Threatening to expose a “secret” or an embarrassing situation via social media is still a threat. If this behavior is constant in your partner, you will need to take a hard look at your relationship.
Watch how your partner reacts to others. Does he/she get angry if someone cuts them off in traffic? Sure, we all get upset by something like that. But, watch the way your partner responds – does he/she get mad, then let it go or does he/she chase after the offending driver? Does your partner seek “revenge” for perceived slights? Is he/she constantly in the face of those he/she doesn’t like? Does he/she always seem to be involved in fights? Is he/she always planning how to get back at someone else? Is your partner always in a bad mood? Does he/she lash out at others (or you) when questioned about his/her mood or behavior?
Asking these kinds of questions about your relationship can help you determine if you are indeed in an abusive relationship. A partner who will bully another can easily turn that anger toward you. You may also be in danger if you try to step in to solve the conflict between your partner and another person. Your partner may consider your intervention as “siding” with the other person.
You may wish to review these related early warning signs articles that can help you assess your relationship : Threatens You, Violent Behavior, and “Bad” Boys. Please consider reading all of our Early Warning Signs articles if you believe that you (or someone you know) may be in an abusive relationship. Knowledge is power.
Has trouble controlling negative emotions
As all the other signs we’ve highlighted build on one another they add up to this final early warning sign. Anger, frustration, sadness, and jealousy are all normal emotions. How a person reacts to these emotions is important in determining if they are out of control. Most of us know how to calm ourselves down if we become angry or frustrated without resorting to violence. We may yell or stomp around, but we don’t hit someone or try to injure someone by throwing things. We may walk away from the situation or change the conversation to help diffuse the emotions. A person who cannot control his/her emotions, especially emotions that arise from anger, jealousy or fear, may lash out in response. If you are dating someone who reacts negatively to even the slightest emotional upset you become the target for your partner’s anger even if you aren’t involved.
People who cannot control negative emotions embroil everyone in their drama. Your partner cannot calm down with your best efforts. Your partner pushes you away when you are doing your best to help. Throwing things, punching walls, slamming doors, abusing animals or any kind of violent reaction is a warning sign. As we’ve stated before, it’s normal to have feelings of anger or jealousy from time to time. What’s not normal or acceptable is for a partner to use violence (whether directed toward you or not) in response. You must realize that as much as you love and care for your partner, he/she may need professional help in controlling his/her emotions.
You need to protect yourself in your relationship because a partner who cannot control his/her emotions becomes more dangerous as the relationship grows. Extreme jealousy, fear of breaking up or anger about perceived slights only increase in someone who cannot control these emotions.
Even if your partner is not directing violence towards you, his/her violent outbursts are still dangerous for you. It is only a matter of time before you become the target of the violence. It is only a matter of time before your partner becomes upset with something you’ve done (or not done). It is only a matter of time before he/she thinks that YOU are the problem, that YOU are to blame for his/her negative response to the problem (see Warning Sign – Blames You for His/Her Anger.). It is only a matter of time before your relationship becomes a case of teen dating violence.
If you determine that any of these warning signs are part of your relationship, remember: you are not alone. You may not know how to get help. You may be afraid to leave the situation. Abusers know that they can control you emotionally because no one wants to admit that someone else has treated them so poorly. Do not be ashamed. Dating abuse is not your fault. Recognize the signs of dating abuse and get help if your relationship exhibits any of these characteristics. You don’t have to handle this alone. Sharing can save your life. For confidential help, please call the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474.
loveisrespect.org, a collaboration of Break the Cycle and the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, can now answer your questions and concerns via text message. Simply text “Love Is” to 77054 for confidential help. Normal texting fees apply.