Red Flags: Signs of Potential for an Unhealthy Relationship
One of the goals of this website to help steer singles away from relationships which may lead to unhappy marriages. Personality traits, relationship habits, or separation issues that could play out in controlling, manipulative, or passive aggressive behaviors may often be detected while dating or during an engagement. It is important, however, that the single and/or parents know to read the signs.
In addition, singles or their parents, should be willing to trust their “gut instinct” if they feel uneasy about the dating partner/fiancee, rather than rationalizing certain behaviors away. This may not mean breaking off the shidduch, but it is essential to check out the situation more carefully and perhaps bring in outside help.
Serious Grounds for Concern
It is strongly recommended to seek professional help if the dating single shows the following signs:
• Personality changes that seem worrisome to those who know the single well
• Denial of certain things about the dating partner that are obvious to everyone else.
• Loss of interest or involvement in activities previously enjoyed
• Panic, to the point of irrationality, at the prospect of the relationship not working out,
• A compulsion to have excessive contact with the dating partner, which s/he does not seem to actually desire
The section below is written from the point of view of single girls. In truth, however, women may also be abusers, controlling and manipulating their date/fiancee; therefore, single men may find it useful to read this too.
Behaviors of Potential Abusers
Some “red flags” that may indicate that the boy has serious problems relating to women are listed below.
Contempt/Disrespect: The boy seems to looks down on the girl, her family, her friends, or women in general. He treats the girl with condescension, putting her down and making her feel incompetent. The boy may treat the girl differently in public than in private.
- Pressure to Change: The boy pressures the girl to change: her dress, her career, her schooling, etc. He may ask her to stop doing activities that she enjoys or ask her to do things she does not enjoy.
- Isolation: The boy persuades the girl to spend less time with her family or friends, cutting her off from her social support system.
- Suspiciousness: The boy needs to know what the girl is doing and where she is, when they are apart. He may act suspicious, too, interrogating her repeatedly in order to find out “where she really was”.
- Authoritarian: Everything has to be done his way; he is not willing to give in. The boy insists on making all decisions himself, without taking the girl’s input or preferences into account.
A boy may also have a tendency to duck responsibility for problems. It’s never his fault when things go wrong. He minimizes his negative behavior, shifts the blame and never apologizes.
- Overreaction: The boy/girl cannot tolerate frustration or stress. S/he gets angry easily and starts yelling, cursing, punching the wall or breaking things.
- Physical Intimidation: Screaming in the girl’s face, threatening her physically, pushing, grabbing, or even hitting.
Changes in the Girl
- Isolation from Family: Parents may notice changes in a daughter who is involved in an abusive relationship. They may find that their daughter is more distant with them, does not seem to trust them, and finds reasons to avoid their company, always making excuses. (It should be understood, however, that the girl will spend less time with family/friends as she spends more time with her future chosson)
- Fear of the Boy: They may also notice that their daughter feels that she has to “work around” the boy’s tendencies, since she’s very worried about upsetting him. She may constantly make excuses for him and taking on herself the blame for his inappropriate behavior.
- Abrupt Changes: Girls in such relationships often hesitate to tell even close family about how the boy treats her. However, outsiders may notice deterioration in her appearance (e.g. sudden weight gain or loss), her performance (lower grades), or life goals (dropping out of school).
It may not be clear cut whether the boy’s behavior truly matches the profile described above. Parents and their daughter may need to consult with a professional to find out how likely the relationship is to be harmful. A mutually respected Rav with experience in Shidduchim or counseling young couples may be a very good resource here.
If the Boy/Girl Matches the Profile…
A scenario can arise in which a single gets so involved with the person s/he is dating or engaged to that s/he doesn’t realize that this is an unwholesome situation. The shidduch prospect may gain so much influence over him/her that s/he does not want to listen to the parents’ concerns. In such a situation, parents need to intervene carefully.
Mirel Goldstein (MS, MA, LPC, psychotherapist and marriage counselor) advises parents to avoid criticizing the match directly, since this may provoke a defensive reaction from their son/daughter. Instead, the single should be encouraged to air his/her own feelings. A parent may help the process through reflective comments, along the lines of “It sounds like s/he makes you feel very protected and understood and that you like that, but other times you are afraid to say your own opinion and that you are worried about that.” This allows permits the single to reflect on what s/he herself is saying and draw his/her own conclusions. In contrast, statements such as: “I really don’t have a good feeling about him/her." or " I don’t like her/him and I’m really worried about how much you seem to like her/him…” may be counterproductive.
In addition, it is helpful to guide the single into becoming aware of the process between the two of them, aside from the content. Comments such as the following encourage thinking about the process:
- If the two of you will have different ideas about the children, how will you deal with that?
- Can s/he see your point of view when you disagree?
- Do you find yourself not saying certain things? What things are those? Why don’t you say them?
It is important to empower the single by taking his/her ideas seriously so that s/he feels supported in trusting her instincts. This also gives the single the confidence to bring up troubling issues. Criticism by the family undermines the single's self esteem and may lead the single to second guess him/herself rather than challenge mistreatment by the dating partner.
Mirel Goldstein MS, MA, LPC is a psychotherapist and marriage counselor in NJ. Her blog on relationships can be accessed at GoldsteinTherapy and she can be reached for questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If their child persists in wanting to continue a potentially abusive relationship, parents can try to persuade them to go for pre-marital counseling. In the end, parents may have no choice but to stay connected with their son/daughter and be there to help deal with the consequences. If they issue an ultimatum and the son/daughter nevertheless maintains the relationship, their child may have no one to help should s/he want to leave a harmful situation later on.
Project SARAH and Shalom Taskforce are two organizations whose mission is to prevent abusive relationships and to provide help for women who are trying to escape from such relationships.
This post was prepared with help from Rabbi Raffi Bilek, LCSW, BaltimoreTherapyCenter