Northwest College

All campus buildings are open to the public; face coverings and social distancing required. COVID-19 updates

Prevention and Risk Reduction

Relationship Red Flags

Relationship red flags are the early warning signs of an unhealthy relationship. Understanding them is an important part of dating education.

According to the National Institute of Justice, approximately 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner each year in the United States (NIJ).

The term intimate partner violence describes physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. This type of violence can occur among heterosexual or same-sex couples, and it does not require sexual intimacy (CDC, 2016). 

How Do We Get Into Abusive Relationships? 

Most abusive relationships commonly do not begin with abuse. Abusive people often have many good qualities, such as warmth, kindness, and humor. These qualities can stand out early in a relationship.

Fortunately, most abusers demonstrate warning signals before their abuse escalates. Being able to recognize those warning signals, the relationship “red flags,” is an important part of dating education.

What "Red Flags" Do We Need to Pay Attention to?

The following early warning signs come from Lundy Bancroft, author of Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. Pay close attention if your partner….

  • is controlling
  • demonstrates a sense of entitlement
  • acts superior to you
  • is manipulative
  • strives for a good public image and often comes off as “charming” early in a relationship
  • is possessive
  • speaks disrespectfully about former partners
  • is disrespectful toward you
  • treats you differently around other people—treating you well when others are watching but treating you poorly when you no one is around to witness the abusive behaviors
  • gets serious in a relationship too quickly
  • does favors for you that you do not want
  • shows generosity that makes you feel uncomfortable
  • does not accept being at fault
  • is self-centered
  • pressures you for sex
  • intimidates you when angry
  • appears attracted to vulnerability (Bancroft, 2002)

When is it Abuse?

Almost everyone yells at some point and expresses anger in a relationship. People may call their partners a hurtful name, interrupt them, act selfishly, or act insensitively.  Though such behaviors are hurtful, they aren’t all abusive.

So when is it abuse? Such behaviors are abusive when they are part of a pattern of abuse (Bancroft, 2002).

Abuse is about power. One person is taking advantage of a power imbalance to exploit or control someone else.

The defining point of abuse is when one person starts to exercise power over the other person in a way that causes harm and creates a privileged status for the abuser (Bancroft, 2002).

What Can We Do If We are Seeing Relationship Red Flags and think Our Relationship Might be Turning Abusive? 

Lundy Bancroft offers the following advice:

  • First, make it clear to your partner as soon as possible which behaviors or attitudes are unacceptable to you and that you cannot be in a relationship if such behaviors continue
  • Second, if the behaviors or attitudes happen again, stop seeing your partner for a substantial period of time. Don’t keep seeing your partner with the warning that this time you “really mean it.” You partner may interpret that response to mean you don’t mean it
  • Third, if it happens a third time, or if your partner switches to other behaviors that are warning flags, chances are that your partner has an abuse problem. If you give too many chances, you are likely to regret it later (Bancroft, 2002)


Video Illustration:

Check out this video to see relationship red flags in action and the effects dating violence has on the victim: Can you See Me?


If you are in need of local resources to get help with an unhealthy relationship, please consider the following options: