A Lifestyle blog based in Sonoma County, in the heart of Wine Country. Amber is an outspoken voice for local activism, local wine tourism, and more.

Warning Signs | How to Identify Abusive and Toxic Relationships

How to read this post: The first portion was written over a series of anxiety attacks, after the ending of an emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive relationship. It's uncomfortable, it's raw, and honestly, it's not something I'm entirely sure I want floating around the internet. However after the outpouring of response to the original post, I realized that it was addressing something that is (unfortunately) very common.

The second portion of this post is a resource guide of warning signs that you, or someone you love/know may be in a similar situation to what I experienced: all warning signs listed below were pulled directly from my experience. This portion is updated regularly, with the most recent update made in July 2020. I am aiming for it to be a living resource guide for anyone who needs it. 

The third and final portion: further reading for a better understanding of what you or a loved one may be experiencing, how to find help, and how to begin the healing process.

If you have experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. I urge you to please keep reading. If you are here, it is because you need to be. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233. If you are local within Sonoma County, please contact the Family Justice Center to be connected with local resources.

I used to believe in absolutes. You run wild as a child - wild and free. You grow up, go to college, meet the love of your life, travel, graduate, settle down, marry, have children, and then live happily ever after.

Straight, linear, logical.

I am 30 years old, female, and single. It's an existence that goes against the grain of a social paradigm, and at times it feels like death. I live alone with my cat, and it is her, and not my (ex) boyfriend who greets me every morning, and who curls up next to me every night.  I stopped sleeping in January. Not all together of course, but I stopped sleeping well. I would rest my head on my pillow, watching the hours slowly tick by, tortured by the anxiety of loss and the unknown. In the months following, I had witnessed my "irrational" fears turn into reality: that I was unlovable, damaged.

I tried to stave off the hurt; I tried to find happiness, and in turn didn't give myself time to heal. I had thought that mercy had finally found me; that life would give me the love I so desperately craved and hoped for. It's all I wanted. It's all I have ever wanted.

But life had other plans.

I have made mistakes. Miserable ones. Unforgivable ones, I am told. Ones that left me in the merciless hands of others, out of touch, and eventually isolated out of fear. Ones that others make sure you pay for. Ones that send you to therapy. The kind of mistakes that leave you covered in shame from the names that others have called you. Ones that won't let you sleep...the phone...it rings at all hours of the night because I am worthy of anger and name calling but not simple necessities. I have heard the cries of others, ones who don't know better, ones who believe in fate, and those who don't believe in anything at all. They're not jaded yet. They don't know what it is to suffer beyond a certain kind of homesickness; To be left wanting, to be left alone with your love in the other room.

I used to fear being left alone. I used to fear my empty apartment, the blank screen on my phone, the tears at my desk. Now I fear making room for anyone trying to take up space. My bed once too big, is now much too small for anyone other than myself. I don't have the time for the 12:30am text: the universal cry of loneliness. Misery is adaptive. It evolves and attaches to the lungs, becoming a part of every intake of breath; but never an exhale.

I have felt misery and fear tighten itself around my wrist at 3am, calling me its crutch - and when it stormed out of my life without looking back, it left its harsh realities and residue in its wake...I must attract this. There must be something about me that attracts the name calling, the throwing of objects, the laying on of hands. I used to believe that was I gentle and kind, but what goodness attracts this kind of anger?

I have dreams. They are no longer nightmares, but rather ones where the anxiety is palatable. Dreams where I drive into the city in secret, trying to reminisce, trying to be happy, only to park my car in the wrong garage where immediately my bank account begins ticking down like the hand of time, as if to remind me that both my existence and finances are limited...All I experience in both life and in my dreams is panic.

If you have ever wanted to know what anxiety feels like, it feels like being stuck in traffic, strapped tightly to the seat of your car, only to see a semi-truck barreling towards you in the rear view mirror. Depression closes your eyes and waits for impact.

I have tried to believe that all floods go, but perhaps I carry this flood with me. No amount of pink noise, chamomile tea, or kava kava tablets is taking this dampness away. Nightly I surrender to the exhaustion of heaviness beneath a pile of feathers and down. Daily I fight myself and the inner voice that asks me why I was allowed to survive the single worst event of my life, only to find myself here: riddled with anxiety, solitary, and afraid.


Warning signs you are in an emotionally abusive relationship with a narcissist, sociopath, psychopath, or manipulative partner

Do they want all of your time?
In the beginning of a relationship it can be easy to mistake the need to be in constant contact as sweet, or endearing. But be careful and watch for signs where the person starts becoming upset when a reply isn't sent right away, or if you need to give updates or reasons as to why you aren't able to reply. Needing to know your schedule, or when you're in a meeting as an excuse as to why you are unable to reply right away is red flag of controlling behavior.

Are you being isolated?
Does your partner acknowledge your friends? Sometimes people have different personalities, and that's ok. But if your partner becomes increasingly jealous of your friends, actively works to limit your time with friends and family, and even begins to plant seeds of doubt about those you know care about you, please recognize this as a dangerous warning sign.

Is your partner empathetic?
Do they treat others, including wait staff with kindness? How do they treat interpersonal conflict situations? When an argument starts, are they quick to blame you, or someone else for the fight? Be on your guard if an argument or disagreement is never their fault. Listen for phrases like "I'm just reacting to what you said." Or, "If you hadn't said that in that tone..." If they constantly have an excuse for why they are acting angry or cruel, this is a warning sign in their behavior.

How do they treat strangers?
Do they always have something demeaning, cruel, or mean to say about someone's appearance, ethnicity, or status - whether they know them or not? This is another sign that they are lacking in empathy. I once witnessed the person I was with explode at a waiter because he didn't bring him his beer. It's in the small behaviors that many warning signs are often found. 

Do they use fear to control you, or others?
How do you feel when your partner becomes upset? Do you feel anxious? Nervous? Afraid? Does your partner seek to publicly embarrass you? Sometimes abuse isn't always about leaving a physical mark. Words can be incredibly damaging. An emotionally or verbally abusive relationship can wreck havoc on the person who is receiving the abuse. Signs and symptoms include: loss of appetite, loss of sleep, exhaustion, or the constant feeling of being tired, 'overreacting' to tense situations, feeling inexplicably anxious or nervous, constant seeking of approval from the abuser, and the need to feel that you must be 'perfect' in order to not upset them.

Are you constantly on edge?
Are you constantly on edge, but also trying to please or impress them at the same time? Do you feel the need to be "perfect"? How do you react when you see a text message from them, 5, 10 minutes after it was sent? 

Broken promises
Has you partner made promises or apologies, and told you that they will change the behavior (lying, drinking in excess, drugs, etc.) that has hurt you, and then done that very same thing, again? Please remember that promises without direct, purposeful change is manipulation. Your partner is showing that they are willing to say anything in order to keep you around, but not actually make the changes needed for a healthy relationship. 

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation. When you hear the phrase "master manipulator" you are usually dealing with someone who also uses gaslighting techniques. It is a form of consistent manipulation that will cause the abused to question their own sanity and sense of reality. Examples of gaslighting behavior: your partner has become angry and called you a terrible name. Later, when you confront them about it, they say they "never said that".

Trauma Bonding
Trauma bonding occurs, well, from trauma. It happens when a traumatic event is forced upon someone via abuse, and then promises of improvement quickly follow. For example: a partner drives erratically with you in the car as a response to something they didn't like: but then shows up with flowers, lunch, or an even larger "grand gesture" to apologize and ask for forgiveness, all while promising changed behavior. This is how the abuse cycle continues

Does your partner drink in moderation? Do you find yourself on edge, or trying to confirm with them ahead of time that they won't "go overboard" with alcohol? Is your partner the same person when they drink? A partner is always themselves - whether or not they are drunk. If your partner is scary or makes you uncomfortable when intoxicated, it is important for you to know that your partner is scary, and makes you uncomfortable. Alcohol does not excuse behavior. 

Personal space
Does the person respect your space? Asking for the pass code to your phone, social media accounts, or for a detailed summary of your private therapy sessions, or asking you to drop a pin of your current location are all direct violations of personal space. Worse yet: if they become angry, judgmental, or suspicious when you decline to share this information. Even if they offer their private information as a trade, it doesn't make it okay.

"Signs you are in an abusive relationship"
Have you typed this phrase, or something similar into Google because you were starting to wonder? If you have to ask, you are.

Has your partner threatened you? Or threatened to use personal or private information against you? What about private photos? Do they ask for private photos, and refuse to delete them, even when asked? Blackmail, be it emotional, digital, or physical is very real. Women especially are often shamed into keeping quiet about their abuse, because they are shamed by their partners for private photos, or information shared in confidence.

Suicide Threats
Does your partner threaten suicide, or threaten to hurt themselves, or you if you attempt to leave the relationship? This is emotional and mental abuse: and it is an attempt to intimidate you to stay. And, the threats could be very real. Please be careful. 

Are they the "smartest person in the room"? Do they keep tabs?
This is a huge red flag. Everything will be a contest to a narcissist. They will consider themselves to be the smartest person in the room, on any subject; even if they're not. They will keep every conversation, email, and text from a past relationship as "insurance" should that ex ever decide to speak out. This includes photos sent out of trust (i.e. 'nudes'), or other forms of communication that were exchanged in trust.

Do friends and loved ones express concern?
It is natural for those who care about you to be curious about your romantic relationships, and you should feel free to share with them what you are comfortable sharing. A warning sign is when loved ones express concern over your mental health, safety, and emotional well being because of whom you are partnered with.

Name calling
Has the person called you names? Names like liar, the c-word, bitch, whore, dumb, stupid, worthless, slut, are all incredibly damaging to the psyche. Especially if this person claims to love you.

Does your partner seek to embarrass you in public as a means of control?
One of the more mortifying experiences I had was being grabbed in a very sexual manner, in public, in a city park. Another, was being told "If you are going to act like a child, I'm going to treat you like one." while dining out at a restaurant. The couple next to our table stopped their conversation all together and looked in my direction. What brought on the tongue lashing? I had forgotten to eat that day, due to anxiety. Then I was called a liar. The anxiety of course was brought about from being in an abusive relationship. That's the thing: in an abusive relationship, you cannot win. You can only survive until you are able to get out.

Do they hurt you, or force you sexually?
Has your partner ever pushed you down, or forced themselves on you, or hurt you in a sexual act, even after you asked them to stop, or told them no? Has your partner ever filmed you without your consent? Has your partner been accused of rape, sexual misconduct, or sexual force by previous partners? If so, run

Know your resources

Make a Clean Getaway, if you can
Most people are able to get away from an abusive relationship, once. And it is usually the first time. I cannot stress this enough: sometimes the only chance to get away or out of an abusive relationship is the first time. The endless cycle of breaking free, only to return, only to try and leave again is usually called "endless" because it usually continues until a death has a occurred. I'm not being overly dramatic. Check the stats. In 2019, 65% of all murder-suicides involved an intimate partner; 95% of the victims of these murder suicides are female.

Go to the police station.

Find a shelter for domestic violence.

Understand that family and friends may not be your most trusted resource.

Clear your history
If you believe you are in an abusive relationship, I highly recommend deleting your browser history and cookies, or using a public library computer.

For concerned friends
Thank you for being here. Thank you for loving and caring for your friend so much that you are willing to research this scary topic in efforts to help them the best that you can. As someone who has been on "both sides of the fence" I can very much empathize with a desire to simply just grab your friend and run, and bam! have them out of the abusive relationship...

But you are here because you know things are not that simple. First things first: your friend will not leave the abusive relationship until they are ready. You, as their friend, need to understand that they may never be ready - and that you cannot force them to choose otherwise. Attempting to do so may very well leave you without a friend, and them angry and isolated, and still in danger - maybe even worse danger than before. For everyone's sake, please proceed carefully.

What your friend needs the very most right now is someone they can trust. If your friend has hinted that she/they trust you, this is huge. Right now your friend is probably feeling like they cannot trust themselves, or their feelings, and they certainly can not trust their partner (though they may not be able to admit this). I have linked some articles below that will assist you in communicating with your friend:

Supporting Someone Who Keeps Returning to an Abusive Relationship

Final thoughts:

If you believe yourself, or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please proceed with caution. Often people want to help, and in their desire to "save" themselves or the one they care about, react quickly without first considering the consequences of their actions. For friends and families who suspect a loved one is in danger, I beg you to think through your actions first. If your friend is not willing to remove themselves from the relationship, you may make things more dangerous for them. While yes, it is imperative to act quickly to remove oneself from abuse, it is also as equally important to be as safe as possible. A great resource for help is the YWCA.

Further Reading and Resources 

Anxiety Disorders Typically Caused by Exposure to Narcissistic Abuse

Self-Esteem Versus Narcissism 

30 Red Flags of Manipulative People

7 Stages of Gaslighting in a Relationship

Emotional Abuse in the Sociopath and Narcissist Relationship

Diversion Tactics Highly Manipulative Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psychopaths Use to Silence You
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