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Relationship Red Flags: Clues and Consequences

Relationship Red Flags: Clues and Consequences
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By Stephanie Schroeder

General indicators that a partners’ behavior needs to be questioned in a primary intimate relationship are relatively simple, according to Denver-based psychologist Janet M. Roberts, Ph.D.

“If we want to protect our children, we teach them about “good touch” and “bad touch,” i.e., good touch being what feels comfortable and right and bad touch being what feels uncomfortable and scary or confusing. We can use the same kind of rationale in approaching adult relationships,” says Dr. Roberts. “For example, does our relationship feel, for the most part, comfortable and right, or is it often uncomfortable, scary, and confusing? In the beginning of most romantic relationships, we are infatuated with one another and easily overlook or “explain away” the troubling, uncomfortable, scary, and/or confusing aspects of a potential partner. Instead, we might be well-advised to pay attention to these feelings.”

While most people are not looking for signs of bad behavior, many “red flags” present themselves early on. And, as boomers who’ve been around the block a time or two, perhaps those in the cocktail hour demographic will heed feelings of uncomfortableness, even when in love with our partners, and be compelled to seek outside help. This might come from a therapist, friend or family member who can provide a reality check about a partner’s behavior and your relationship status in general.

“We might feel scared or confused, but then minimize these feelings. If the feelings persist over time (e.g., weeks), it is probably time to look for a ‘second opinion’,” says Dr. Roberts.

“There are always “clues” about people,” says Dr. Roberts. And certain behaviors existing in the present can be clues that there may be trouble in the future. It is not noticing and paying attention to these signs that gets us into trouble. For example, if a person treats us courteously, but is rude and contemptuous of others, we should be noticing, not excusing or explaining away the “bad” behavior.”

In the above example, you might ask why the person was discourteous. The response will tell one a lot about that person. “If, for example, the person calls the target of their rude behavior names, or makes excuses about how much the other “deserved” to be talked to in that way, be assured that they will verbally abuse any one with whom they disagree,” Dr. Roberts says. “If, on the other hand, they are apologetic, realize they got carried away, and try to make amends to the offended person, there is less reason for concern.”

The Seattle-based Gottman Institute, which studies marriage and other couple relationships, including making predictions about divorce, provides a list of detrcutive relationship behaviors co-founder Dr. John Gottman calls “corrosive” negative behavior patterns and terms them “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Specifically, Gottman identifies these behaviors as the following:

  • Criticism: stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s partner’s personality, i.e., giving the partner negative trait attributions. Example: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”
  • Contempt: statements that come from a relative position of superiority. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated. Example: “You’re an idiot.”
  • Defensiveness: self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood. Defensiveness wards off a perceived attack. Example: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late; it’s your fault.”
  • Stonewalling: emotional withdrawal from interaction. Example: The listener does not give the speaker the usual nonverbal signals that the listener is “tracking” the speaker.According to Gottman, “These predict early divorcing – an average of 5.6 years after the wedding. Emotional withdrawal and anger predict later divorcing – an average of 16.2 years after the wedding.”Is there a difference in behaviors based on gender or sexuality boomers should watch out for? “Making generalizations based on gender or sexual orientation is probably not useful, as there are likely more ‘within group’; variations, than ‘between group’ variations,” explains Dr. Roberts. “A key word in the question is ‘expectations.’ It is expectations and assumptions about another person (or group of people) that lead to most problems in relationships, even long-term ones. For example, many folks are reluctant to ask a long-time partner about their offensive behavior, stating, “I know what they’ll say.” Quite often, when the person agrees to ask a question in a different than customary manner, they are surprised by the answer! Bottom line: don’t assume, ask.”A general rule to keep in mind is that any behavior that restricts or violates the rights of others is a “red flag” for potential abuse. Dr. Janet M. Roberts’ Top 5 List of Relationship Red Flags:
  1. Unsolicited advice – even if delivered in a caring manner, it is often a veiled attempt to judge, influence, or direct another’s behavior. It is a person’s right to judge and direct their own behavior and to choose whether or not to solicit or receive advice, rather than have it foisted upon them.
  2. Rude, discourteous language – this not only demonstrates disrespect of others, it shows that the person delivering the diatribe likely has poor self-control, little self-respect, and/or feels the need to devalue others, in order to feel better about themselves. It is only a matter of time before the “loved one” becomes the target of this kind of verbal abuse.
  3. Attempts to limit one’s contact with supportive others – this can start out in seemingly benign ways, such as begging off of social occasions, and then asking one to stay home “to keep me company.” This often escalates into criticizing one’s friends and family members and questioning why one would want to talk to/visit them anyway. Taking up all of a person’s free time, constantly calling and texting, and questioning one’s actions and motives are other kinds of “interference” in one’s personal life and independent choices. Isolating a partner, however flatteringly, and interfering with their independence, is abuse.
  4. Attempts to control or unduly influence another’s behavior – This can start out in subtle ways as well. For example, saying something like: “I love you so much. I think we should spend every moment together,” or “Why wouldn’t you want to…….?” or “You never do what I want to do.” Holding, blocking, or otherwise interfering with a person’s free physical movement is also abuse, even if done “in jest.”
  5. Explosive, angry outbursts – People engage in angry outbursts for a number of reasons. One is that by getting angry, they intimidate others and “get their way.” Another is that it has the effect of deflecting responsibility, as in blaming others for one’s poor choices (e.g., “you made me do this, I had no choice”). Yet another is confusing the issue and avoiding responsibility so they don’t have to deal with the problem. Some folks get an adrenaline rush that makes them feel powerful. Some use anger as a substitute for undeveloped social skills, as when they simply “don’t know what else to do.” Finally, some engage in “sneaky anger” (you know, that sarcastic, backbiting, passive/aggressive stuff). All of these are abusive and should be considered “red flags.” Responsible adults express anger calmly, in words, and try to resolve differences, rather than yelling and “acting out” their feelings.

Finally, when in doubt, it might be wise to consult a professional, either alone or with a partner. Prevention is the BEST medicine for potential abuse!

 

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