These early red flags can predict a partner's likelihood of becoming abusive, study finds

Couple fighting, woman with head in her hands
Multiple early red flags can signal whether a new partner will become abusive, a new study has found. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Kristen Rogers of CNN

In the early days of a relationship, being in the throes of passion can make someone chalk their new partner's questionable behavior up to a bad day. And all too often, what a person dismisses as minor can snowball into abusive treatment that makes them feel desperate to leave the relationship - yet trapped because they've invested so much.

This common scenario is why researchers from the University of Western Ontario in Canada aimed to find out whether there are indicators that reliably precede and predict intimate partner violence - physical, sexual or psychological violence enacted by people toward their romantic partners, according to a study published Monday in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

"It's one of the very first studies to identify behaviours which are predicting abuse but are not themselves abusive," said the study's lead author Dr Nicolyn Charlot, a researcher associated with the psychology department of the University of Western Ontario. "Violence doesn't typically appear super early on. It's rare that you go on a first date and experience intimate partner violence. 

"By the time that violence is happening, people are often invested in their relationships," Charlot added. "Leaving can be difficult. So, my idea with this study was that if people were able to see red flags, warning signs, in advance of becoming invested, of moving in, of whatever - that might let them kind of take a minute to reevaluate the relationship, to proceed more cautiously, before that violence occurs."

From a review of existing research, the authors derived a list of 200 non-abusive and abusive thoughts, feelings and behaviours. In a study with 355 participants, the authors narrowed their list to 16 warning signs that predicted violence that occurred within six months - many of them having to do with entitlement, arrogance, control and emotional immaturity.

"A lot of times when we're in these patterns and relationship dynamics, it feels like we're the only ones that are experiencing this, like something is wrong with us," said Dr Duygu Balan, a psychotherapist specialising in trauma and attachment wounding in the San Francisco Bay Area. Balan was not involved in the study. "One of the takeaways (of this study) and why it's important, is that it normalises it."

Early warning signs of domestic violence 

If you're experiencing any of the following behaviours the study identified, you may be at risk for being abused later - especially if any of them are done repeatedly, or if you're often seeing more than a few at a time, Charlot said:

  1. You and your partner have sex even though you're not in the mood.
  2. You feel like you can't say no to your partner.
  3. Your partner doesn't admit when they're wrong. 
  4. Your partner compares you to other people.
  5. Your partner reacts negatively when you say no to something they want.
  6. Your partner disregards your reasoning or logic when it doesn't agree with theirs.
  7. You find it hard to focus on work because thoughts of your partner consume your mind. 
  8. Your partner creates uncomfortable situations in public.
  9. Your partner acts arrogant or entitled.
  10. Your partner tries to change you.
  11. Your partner is unsupportive of you. 
  12. Your partner criticises you.
  13. Your partner has unrealistic expectations for your relationship.
  14. Your partner avoids you.
  15. Your partner does something you asked them not to. 
  16. Your partner threatens to leave you.

"The warning signs you see in our lists were what were most important in each study, but that doesn't mean that there are not other warning signs that are also important," Charlot said.

Other common early red flags include a partner saying all their exes were crazy, being rude to waiters, harming animals or resisting getting to know your loved ones, Balan said. Coming from abusive households, discouraging hobbies that nurture you, being unable to soothe their own emotions or closely following what you're doing online are other signs.

Charlot and her team didn't study what may cause early behaviours that may seem harmless to culminate in abuse, she said. But partners may simply put their best foot forward at first, experts said, and the extent of power or control someone desires can grow over time. 

A partner feeling entitled to you or devaluing you could indicate a narcissistic personality, Balan said. Others may be dealing with their own trauma or insecurities, making them unable to regard someone else's feelings.

But "with all of this being said, (no victim) is to blame for their abuse," Charlot said. "These warning signs are very much meant to inform people and give them help, but it's not meant to allocate blame. And nobody should be responsible for their abuse, even if they notice a warning sign and don't do something."

Your next steps

If you're noticing just a couple of these behaviours in your relationship, it may not automatically mean you need to break up, unless you just want to, experts said. 

"But it might be worth slowing things down a little bit, like getting to know somebody a little bit better before making big investments," Charlot said. Maybe your partner would benefit from therapy, she added, or couples counselling could be valuable.

You should also be clear from the very beginning about your boundaries, expectations and standards for the type of relationship you want, Balan said. Communicate about how you won't be spoken to or how certain actions make you feel.

Some signs may need to be further investigated, Charlot said. "If my partner blames their ex for everything, I don't think I'd immediately be like, 'OK, I'm gonna break up with them,'" she added. "But maybe I'll ask a friend, 'Hey, do you know this person's ex?' if that opportunity naturally arises."

If your friend agrees the ex was horrible, you'll know your partner was being honest. But if your friend has no idea what your partner's talking about, that could be reason to take pause, Charlot said. Always trust your gut with what you're seeing, she added. 

"If actual abuse is happening, then I would very much suggest looking to professional resources," she added - such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline or the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, known as RAINN.

Where to find help and support

  • Shine (domestic violence) - 0508 744 633
  • Women's Refuge - 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)
  • Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737
  • What's Up - 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)
  • Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
  • Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email or online chat
  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666
  • Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Shakti Community Council - 0800 742 584