Sunday, 31 January 2016

How To... Spot Warning Signs In Your Relationship

So, last week in my incredibly romantic "How To..." guide (because nothing says "Valentine's Day romance" like rules and advice, clearly), I looked at How To Be NOTHING Like Christian Grey.  

Unfortunately, in Fifty Shades, a guy we're sold as a hot, sexy, brooding billionaire is actually abusive pond scum.  That would never happen in real life, right?!  Well, duh.  First of all, there are still millions of women who think Christian Grey is the perfect man, despite all the stalking, threatening, non-consensual controlling, manipulating and general douchebag-ery he gets up to.  Go cry over that for a while and then we'll continue...

...Feeling better?  No?

Well, that's cheered me up, anyway.

Secondly, of course this stuff happens in real life.  You can meet someone gorgeous and funny and clever and they can still actually be a complete and utter louse.  Sometimes, your knight in shining armour is just a dude in a tin foil hat and all that.

Now, sadly, having been in an abusive relationship, I have gained a somewhat depressing super-power.  I can spot a bad boyfriend/girlfriend a mile off.  I can usually tell when someone's "perfect" relationship is actually shoddier than a second-hand IKEA shelf-unit with half the pieces missing.  It might look okay, but it's wobbling like heck.  Like I said, it's a kind of depressing super-power, but, with great power comes great responsibility, so I feel like I ought to share some of the big red flags you ought to be looking out for.

Now, before we start, I don't want anyone to think I'm just some bitter old crone, silently judging everyone else's relationships, out of jealousy because I don't have one of my own.  For a start, I have better things to do with my life than cry over my lack of a boyfriend.  More importantly, I'd like to think that by sharing red flags, I'm actually helping people, rather than just being all "YOUR RELATIONSHIP IS BORDERLINE ABUSIVE, HA HA" like some strange Nelson from The Simpsons.

Before we kick off the list, let me just stipulate: if your partner does something on this list once, it might be worth sitting him/her down and talking about it, before you book them a one-way ticket to Dumpsville (aside from the last item on the list - if your partner does that even just once, ditch them and run).  Honest communication is really vital in a relationship and you'll have a much better idea of where things stand, once you've talked it through.  That said, if they do a lot of the stuff most of the time...  You might want to think about kicking them to the curb.  And if you're in any doubt as to whether your relationship might actually be abusive, please do speak to someone and find some help.  A guide to recognising abuse in a relationship is available here.

In the meantime...

1. Finding yourself making excuses for your partner.

"Oh, he's normally really lovely, he's just had a stressful week at work."

"She'd never hit me or anything, she just finds it hard to control her emotions and she snaps.  I probably wound her up."

Sure, we all have an "off-day," now and then.  Sometimes, your partner might act in a way that you know is out-of-character.  But if those days become more frequent and you find yourself having to defend or excuse your partner's behaviour to your family, friends, or even yourself, it's a really bad sign.  

It's not just your excuses you have to be aware of, either.  If your partner constantly blames other things (even you) for their behaviour, then it might be a sign that they don't want to take ownership of the things they choose to say and do and that is a major red flag in a relationship.  

The early stages in a relationship should be the honeymoon phase; there shouldn't be any fear of their temper, any concern that they might put you down or any unfair comparisons to other people they find attractive.  Any poor behaviour that does occur shouldn't be written off with a list of convenient excuses, either by you or them.  As time goes by and things get more serious, if any nasty personality quirks come to the fore, it's harder to acknowledge them, without remembering the lovely person your partner has the capacity to be.  But it's still not acceptable to make excuses for inexcusable behaviour.

At the end of the day, we have a choice as to how we treat the people in our lives.  And if someone isn't treating us right, we don't have to put up with it.

There comes a point where you have to try to accept that it might not be their job, their childhood, their fear of commitment or the fact that it's a month with an "R" in it.  They might just be an arsehole.

2. Not being able to reveal details about your partner or refer to them as your "boyfriend"/"girlfriend."

People can sometimes be a little freaked out by the start of a new relationship.  It's a big deal, going from being single (especially long-term single), to being one half of a new couple, especially when friends and family start clamouring to meet you, or see photos etc.  Some folk need a bit of time to adjust to their new situation and that's okay.  But if you find yourself in a position where, several weeks or even months into the relationship, your new partner is requesting that you don't use their name anywhere, or post photos anywhere, something iffy might be going on.  Same goes if they start telling you not to label your relationship with words like "girlfriend" or "boyfriend."

At the end of the day, unless you're dating a member of MI6, you should be able to say "my new boyfriend, Adam, is really lovely" on Twitter, without it causing a massive security breach.  If "Adam" is putting his  foot down and saying he doesn't want his name/face to appear anywhere on your social media posts, nor does he want to be referred to as your boyfriend, it might be that "Adam" isn't all he's cracked up to be.  In fact, Adam might be a nob.

If any of this sounds familiar, then once again, it's probably time for a conversation about why this stuff is such a big no-no.  It could be that your new partner had a bad experience in the past and talking it all through might get to the bottom of the matter really quickly.  Your partner could have really valid reasons for not wanting to be named, seen or labelled as your significant other just yet and you won't know what those reasons are until you've talked about it.

But on the other hand, if, several more weeks or months down the line, they're still refusing to let you name them on social media, tag them as being in a relationship with you, refer to them as your boyfriend/girlfriend or post pictures anywhere, it could be a massive iceberg to the Titanic of your relationship.  They might have another partner somewhere.  They might be a commitment-phobe, who's trying to keep their options open by appearing single.  Either way, it's worth finding out, before you get too emotionally invested.

3. Never knowing which version of "them" you're going to get.

True story: towards the end of my relationship with my abusive ex, I started to dread seeing him, because I never knew which "him" I would get.  Would it be the charming, funny, sexy one?  The tormented, "you don't know how hard my life has been" one?  The angry, unpredictable one I was actually scared of?  Or, the one who took obscene pleasure in criticising my body, looks and life in general, whilst praising all the other women he was sleeping with behind my back?  Oh, it was a fun game, trying to work it out, I can tell you.  If by "fun," you actually mean "something I would rather stick razorblades in my underpants than ever have to live through again."

Pro-tip: if you walk on eggshells around your partner, never entirely sure how he or she might react to things, or which version of the person you originally fell for you might get at any given time, do not try to tell yourself that you can "fix" them.  Do not listen, when they tell you that you can fix them.  You can't.  It takes a professional to do that.

Instead, if you're in a relationship with someone whose moods fluctuate to a wild degree and who leaves you questioning yourself over and over... Run like HELL.

4. Possessiveness.

It's lovely to be a part of a couple (yes, shockingly, I do still remember that much), but feeling possessed is less enjoyable (for most people, anyway).

If your new partner starts referring to you as "mine" after just a couple of dates, it's a subtle warning sign.  If they start texting you constantly, asking where you are, it's more of a flashing red light.  If they start trying to control where you go, what you do, who you see or how you dress, without your consent to do any of those things, then consider it to be a massive red flag, wrapping itself around you and eating your face.  You don't have to belong to anyone and you are free to have a social life, opinions and a career outside of your relationship.  Anyone who doesn't respect that needs to be binned, pronto.

5. Emotional distance

Alanis Morrisette once wrote a song called "So Unsexy" and it contained the line: "Your hand pulling away and I'm devastated."  For a long time, I couldn't stand to hear that song, because damnit, when you've been in love with someone who pulls away at every given opportunity, it's physically painful to be reminded of it.

Not everyone is touchy-feely and that's okay.  But your partner shouldn't be recoiling from cuddles, refusing to hold your hand or rolling over every time you try to initiate sex.  "People need love," as Abba once sang (man, this is a particularly musical entry) and physical affection is important in a relationship.  If you feel as though you're not getting any (allow me a dirty laugh, here, because I wrote something that could mean sex, hu hu huur), then it's time to ask yourself why.  Has the chemistry faded away already?  Are they withholding affection because they feel guilty about something?  Again, there could be a perfectly valid reason, but it's definitely worth talking about.

See also: finding excuses why they can't see you.  It's one thing to not want to get too physically close all the time (like I said, some people just aren't as touchy-feely as I am *HUGS INTERNET*), but if your partner is evading opportunities to spend any time together, it's a pretty worrying sign.  If they genuinely have to work, that's one thing.  But if it's the third or fourth weekend in a row and you know they're free, but they can't catch up with you because their second cousin once removed's hamster died and they're in mourning, it might be time to wake up and smell the coffee.  Mmm.  Coffee.  Milk, no sugar, please.

6. Lying by omission/refusing to open up

Alright, let's get real for a minute.  *clicks fingers in sassy sort of way*

We real?  Okay.  Now, we all come with baggage.  Mine is mainly purple.  But seriously, how and when we choose to open up to a new partner about our deepest secrets is totally up to us and that's how it should always be.  BUT we should never be in a position where we feel that our partner is keeping things from us on purpose.  If you've been with someone for a while and they're clamming up any time the conversation gets serious, that could be a sign that perhaps there's not enough honesty or trust in your relationship.  If it gets to the point where your partner is purposefully evading questions on certain subjects (the past, their feelings, whether kermit and Miss Piggy should get back together; you know, the biggies), then it's time for, ironically, a more serious conversation. 

Sometimes, you'll begin to realise that your partner always changes the subject if you talk about a certain topic.  Or, you'll find that no matter how many times you ask a seemingly innocent question, it never gets answered.   That's when you have to ask yourself whether the person you're with is being entirely open and honest with you.  And if they're not, cut them loose.  Or whatever slang the cool kids are using for "dumped" these days.

7. Being hung up on their/your ex.

Ah, the ex.  Nobody really wants the ghost of girlfriends/boyfriends past lurking around their new relationship.  If, every time you do something, your new partner's eyes glaze over and they lovingly sigh "aah, Jesse used to do that," then they're not ready to be with someone new (and yes, "Jesse" was the only name suitable for both a guy or a girl that I could think of at that particular moment).

In much the same vein, if you're watching your partner and wishing they were your ex, then do the kind thing and tell them you're not ready for a new relationship.

Go out there and get Jesse back!!  Whoever the heck Jesse is...

8. Your friends don't like them/they don't like your friends.

Friends are awesome.  Let's just take a moment to think of our friends and how fabulous they are.  Seriously, your friends were in your life before your new boyfriend/girlfriend and if it all goes tits up, they're the ones who are going to take you out and get you drunk once you're past the "crying in the bath whilst listening to Mariah Carey" phase.

Your friends - and also your family, obviously (in fact, this sometimes counts double for family, depending on how close you are) - are often the first people who will give you their honest opinion on your new relationship.  If they meet the brand new love of your life and they seem unimpressed, don't just casually dismiss their view as jealousy or nastiness for the sake of it.  We trust our friends to know what's right for us and if they unanimously begin to show signs of believing that your Mr(s) Right is actually Mr(s) Wrong, there's probably a reason for it.  So, ask them and really listen to what they tell you.

Similarly, if your new beau is rude about your friends and family and starts making excuses not to hang out with them, ask yourself why they dislike them so much?  Could it be because they can tell your besties can see through their disguise to the idiot beneath?!  Besides which, if a new partner isn't excited about meeting your family and friends - and doesn't care about making a good impression on them - it's really not a good sign.  If they're not interested in the other people who are important to you, nor do they care whether those people like them, it's a pretty big warning that they're not taking this relationship seriously.

9. They don't make you feel special.

Look, we all know the honeymoon phase doesn't last forever.  There comes a point where your partner's going to fart in front of you, burp, scratch, pick their nose and demand control of the TV remote.


It's absolutely normal that things stop being all cutesy-wutesy and eventually become, well, absolutely normal.  However, it's not okay for your partner to stop bothering completely with you.  If you suddenly never get told you look nice, never go anywhere together, never laugh together and never feel like you're even important to the person you're meant to be in a relationship with, anymore, then seriously, love yourself enough to dump that person's ass.  

A person doesn't have to shower you with compliments every second of the day, whilst buying you flowers and continually saying "I LOVE YOU, NEVER LEAVE ME," because let's face it, that might be scary.  But if they suddenly stop caring altogether, you need to walk away.

Being lonely without a relationship might seem scary, but being lonely in one is much, much worse.

10. ANY form of non-consensual violence or sexual activity.

Yes, they can help it. 
Yes, it's abuse, even if it's the first time they've ever laid a finger on you.
No, you are not to blame.

There are people out there who can help you if you are ever hurt in this way.  Don't stay, thinking you "owe" it to your partner.  Don't think you deserved it.  Tell someone and get help.

I think we'll stop at ten, because that's a nice, even number.  

Seriously, love is awesome and brilliant and makes you feel like you're walking on rainbows and farting perfume.  But it can also make us blind to the very warning signs of trouble in Paradise that we should be looking out for.  I'm not saying that you should be keeping tabs on your relationship like some kind of creepy romantic ninja, but you should be aware of what is and isn't acceptable behaviour and take steps to sort out problems before they fester.  And if they can't be sorted, don't drag out the inevitable.  Kill that relationship.  Kill it with fire.  But not literally, because... Death, prison, take your pick.

Next week, I'll be writing a hopefully funnier blog: "How To Avoid Being Annoying In A Relationship."  I know, you can't wait.  Neither can I.

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