The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

Warning Signs of Dangerous Relationships

Why we ignore them on first, second and third dates

Looking back on my single days, here are just a few of the red flags that waved bright and early on my dates with various bachelors:

  • During a third date, he asked me if I had a boyfriend. (Why would I be on a date with him if I was already involved with someone else?)
  • During dinner on a first date, he regaled me with stories of how “messed up” his recently departed ex-girlfriend was and, by dessert, had asked me when I was going to move in with him.  (Why would I move in with someone I didn’t even know and who didn’t know me?)
  • A first date joked several times how “cool” it would be to date a psychologist since he’d never, ever see one professionally. (Psychotherapy was my business, not my relationship strategy).
  • He took me back to his house to show me his new lab puppy and proceeded to scream and smack her because she had peed on the floor after being locked in the bathroom for 8 hours.  (Not only am I a big animal lover, what did this say about his ability to control his temper or feel compassion?)

Red Flags 

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I wish I could say that I paid to attention to all of these the very moment they happened, but I’d be lying. Most of them I did; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or psychologist) to see a potential link between animal abuse and other kinds of violence, or understand that a man who asks you to move in the minute you meet is likely so consumed by his own needs that he’ll never be able to see you clearly.

On the other hand, it took me longer than it should have to realize a man who wanted to date a psychologist (but not see one) might be looking for a caretaker instead of a partner, or that a man who still wonders if you’re committed to someone else when you’ve been on three dates with him might have an interesting view of monogamy when it came to his own ability to be faithful.

All of these red flags felt wrong at the time. The internal jarring I felt signaled that something needed to be reevaluated, adjusted or removed before I got deeper into the relationship. That’s the purpose of intuition; it alerts us to other potential issues or that normally we would be wary of or not accepting. These are normally issues (fidelity, honesty, kindness) that we don’t want to compromise on.

The Fantasy

Dysfunctional relationships are often intense from the very beginning.The attraction is instantaneous and extreme; our new partner feels like (or pretends to be) our soul mate. And it feels so good

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if we still went slowly and used caution; but who wants to put the brakes on when the ride is so exciting? So, we relax, we trust, we let ourselves "fall" in love, trusting it’s for real even as we know deep down it takes more than a matter of weeks to establish a deep, meaningful, committed relationship. But—oh—that illusion is so seductive.

The Need

While the good feelings might be the reason we first tie our intuition up and throw her in the basement, it’s our need that keeps us there. Every time I’ve put my head in the sand at the beginning of a relationship it was because I needed something more than I wanted the truth. When I first met the do-you-have-a-boyfriend love, I had moved 500 miles away from home, the love of my life had broken my heart six months earlier, and I was lonely. 

Maybe it’s our need to have someone—anyone—so we don’t have to be alone. Maybe it’s our need to protect the emotional investment we already have in someone or our need to “change” or “fix” him/her. We’re not stupid; we just want or need something so badly that we’re willing to ignore our gut and sacrifice our intuition to get it. We’re so focused on a future outcome—happily-ever-after—that we either ignore the danger signs or convince ourselves that we have the confidence, strength, or love enough to fix whatever is wrong.

The Bottom Line

Most of the time, it’s not that we don’t see the red flags waving early in our relationships; it’s that we need or want something more than the truth.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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