“When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.” — Bojack Horseman
Chloe Dykstra hit the news recently when she published an essay on Medium, detailing the emotional abuse she suffered in a previous romantic relationship. She did not name names, but the ex-was quickly identified as Chris Hardwick, popular podcaster, TV show host, and founder of Nerdist.
Chloe’s story makes two points very clear.
First, emotional abuse IS abuse, just as much as physical battering is. Dykstra was emotionally devastated from the treatment she received, developed an eating disorder, and required years of therapy to get to the point where she can speak out about what happened.
Second, emotional abuse is insidious. Someone punching you in the face is unambiguous. But someone who undermines your self-esteem and controls your behavior by manipulation can be much harder to spot.
The best time to figure this out and take action is in the earliest stages of the relationship. It’s easier to bail out when things are still fairly casual. There are no messy entanglements of financial and living arrangements. Most importantly, you protect yourself and avoid deep scars.
So if you are in the throes of infatuation with a new partner who seems like they may be Mr. or Ms. Right, it’s a good idea to slide the rose-colored glasses down for a moment and check out the flags. Are there red ones? Look for these:
1. They Move Fast
Survivors of abusive relationships often describe the early courtship as “a whirlwind”. A new partner may shower you with gifts, affection, and attention. They want to be with you all the time, or at least in contact with you. They seek assurances that you are feeling the same way about them. They may proclaim love after just a short time together, and quickly want to take things to the next stage, which may be becoming exclusive, moving in together, getting engaged, or even having a child.
There are plenty of wonderful, healthy relationships that also begin this way, so this alone may not be a danger sign. But with an abuser, the head-spinning pace is intentional. They are overwhelming you and holding your attention with a seemingly endless stream of positive experiences. Don’t fall too fast — and watch out for this next sign that inevitably accompanies this “honeymoon period”.
2. They Are Jealous
Part of the whirlwind approach with an abuser is that your new partner wants you all to themselves. They are jealous of any attention you receive from other potential romantic interests. An angry reaction that you may be talking to someone else is a clear danger sign, but also watch out for jealousy disguised as insecurity (a common tactic is to say they worry because of their ex-was a cheater) or jokes that don’t really joke.
Their jealousy extends beyond potential romantic competition. A partner who wants to monopolize all your time and doesn’t want you to spend any with other friends or family is someone who is trying to isolate you from others in your life. This helps them gain control of you more easily, and make you dependent on them emotionally because there isn’t anyone else.
3. They Are Mean
Just as an emotional abuser uses positive treatment to suck you in, they use negative treatment to keep you where they want you. It can take many forms, but the best word to describe the various tactics is “meanness.”
They may directly insult and criticize you in an angry way, or they may berate others in front of you, sending the message that you don’t want to get on their bad side. Or they may couch it in terms of “helpful” critiques of your weight, your wardrobe, your social skills. Often they disguise deeply cutting remarks as jokes or sarcasm. They may tell you, “That’s just the way I am, I bust on everyone. Hey, I only tease people I like!”
Of course, there are plenty of non-abusive people who are sarcastic and teasing. But if you are a constant target and it doesn’t feel funny to you, it’s a problem.
The real test is when you express to them that your feelings are hurt. Do they take that seriously, apologize, and change their behavior — not just for a few hours or days, but long-term? Or do they brush it off and keep right on doing it? If the latter, they are telling you loud and clear: your emotional well-being does not matter to them. In fact, you feeling bad is the intended outcome.
4. They Run Hot and Cold
Another way abusive partners keep a victim unbalanced is to turn their affections and attention on and off like a spigot. One minute you are the light of their life and the only thing in the world they care about. The next, they are flirting with everyone else in the room while you seem to be invisible to them. Or if they do notice you, it may be only to make a cutting remark or humiliate you in front of others.
On the other extreme, they may give you the silent treatment. They go from enthusiastic communication on every topic to sullen monosyllables. The ghost you on your phone and social media or stand you up for a date. If you ask what’s wrong or if you did something that bothered them, they may tell you exactly what you did, or they may say nothing and continue to sulk.
Either way, they are sending the message that you have displeased them, and you are being punished. They want you to understand: you are responsible for their behavior. If you don’t like what they are doing, then change what you are doing so they don’t “have to” act that way.
This is where making the early stages of the relationship so wonderful pays dividends for the abuser. If you thrived on that intense loving attention, when it suddenly disappears, it feels terrible! You desperately want that good stuff back, and you will do whatever it takes to get it. And if your partner has convinced you to combine your housing and finances with them and isolated you from friends and family, the stakes are even higher.
5. They Are Controlling
Control of you is the ultimate goal of the abuser. Wooing you with good experiences and punishing you with bad ones are the tools to gain that control.
The abuser wants a partner who perfectly fits their own needs, and uses these methods to shape you into that person and keep you there. Their tactics combine into a cohesive strategy to train you that your main focus in life is to please them and to fear the consequences of their displeasure.
To the abusive partner, you are not a complete person with needs, hopes, dreams, and goals. You exist only as an accessory to them. As Chloe Dykstra wrote, “What I wanted was a partner, someone to confide in, someone to share things with, someone who wouldn’t judge me, someone I knew would be there for me. What I felt that this man wanted was a woman who would feed him, sleep with him, and go to events with him.”
Once you are enmeshed with an abusive mate, the controlling never stops and becomes more and more serious. There may be physical violence, or threats of it spoken aloud or implied. They will make you financially dependent on them if they can — Chris Hardwick insisted that Chloe Dykstra works for the company that he owned.
And finally, they will do everything in their power to prevent you from leaving, once you have had enough. They will promise to change. When that no longer works, they will turn to threats: to ruin your reputation, stalk you, hurt or kill themselves, hurt or kill you. And the worst of the worst follow through on those threats.
Most abusers eventually give up without going to such extremes. Still, ending the relationship and recovering from it is long, messy, and painful. An emotionally abusive partner leaves deep and lasting scars even if they never make a mark on the skin.
In the early stages of a romance, it’s far easier to end things quickly and easily, and it’s likely that the potential abuser will simply move on to an easier target and leave you alone. Chloe Dykstra would be the first to tell you: watch out for those red flags, and walk away fast when you see them.
Note for editor: Chloe Dykstra’s Medium essay is not indexed on the Medium site and cannot be found directly via Google. It is only accessible via a direct link, therefore I am including it here so that any purchaser of the article can link it if they want to: medium.com/@skydart/rose-colored-glasses-6be0594970ca
5 Warning Signs That Your New Bae is an Emotional Abuser