Six Relationship Red Flags

Woman and man looking at one another across a cactus

The One Love Foundation was founded in honor of Yeardley Love, a student at the University of Virginia, who was beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend. Kate Hood refers to Yeardley’s death as a “tragedy no one saw coming”. She goes on to explain that there were indicators of danger, which her family and friends might have noticed, had they known what to look for. Knowing relationship red flags will help you identify, early on, the warning signs of trouble ahead.

In abusive relationships, one partner seeks to gain, and maintain, power and control over the other. This is accomplished through the use of various manipulative tactics.

Here are just a few…

These Six Manipulative Tactics are Relationship Red Flags

Love Bombing

Love bombing is often the first relationship red flag. It involves showering someone with flattery, affection, and nearly constant communication and attention. As the other person is swept up into a dizzyingly fast-paced relationship, they often feel as though they have found the ideal partner.

“I miss you!”

“Can I see you again tonight?”

“I feel like I’ve known you forever.”

“I’ve never felt like this before.”

“Are you there?”
[five minutes after the initial text]

Relationship red flags are signs are a warning of escalation ahead
Relationship red flags are signs are a warning of escalation ahead.


Unfortunately, in abusive relationships, those same traits that were praised during love bombing are later devalued. This devaluation may come in the form of insults, criticism, contempt, belittling, patronizing, sarcasm, mockery, or jokes at the other’s expense. One of the early signs of an abusive relationship is the devaluation of former intimate partners. 

“You’re going to wear that?”

“You wouldn’t understand, it’s too complicated.”

“I suppose some people might like their food burnt…”

“You let every little thing get to you.”

“Grow up!”


Triangulation is used to pit two or more people against one another. This can occur in a number of ways. The abusive partner may display, or allude to the existence of, a romantic rival to stir up jealousy and insecurity. Conversely, acting as a “go between,” spreading rumors about multiple people to one another, in order to become the source of “accurate” information, also constitutes triangulation. Abusers actively recruit people from outside of the relationship to take their side in conflicts.   

“Everyone agrees with me about this.”

“You can’t trust them. They want to see you fail.”

“They aren’t really your friends. I heard them talking trash about you, yesterday.”

“Alex is a nice person, but so clingy…”

“Even your best friend is concerned about how you’ve been acting.”

Triangulation is a manipulative tactic used frequently in toxic and abusive relationships
Triangulation is a manipulative tactic used frequently in toxic and abusive relationships

The Compusult

Compusult is a word that I created to reference one of the more common variations of triangulation. Someone is complimented, in front of another person, in a way that is meant to insult the listener.

“It’s nice to be in a car with someone who knows how to drive.”

This statement was meant to compliment the driver, while simultaneously “taking a stab” at the other passenger.

When two people are involved, and have a history, complisults can be very subtle, hidden, disguised.

Someone who has an intimate partner who recently gave up on their dream of becoming a photographer may covertly make them feel inferior by raving about someone else’s photographs.

An abusive partner who shows disapproval, or even disdain, for a physical attribute or trait in their partner may deepen the wound by praising the same attribute or trait in others, while in their presence.

Brandishing Anger

Sudden or explosive displays of anger might be used to intimidate a partner. When anger is used as a weapon to silence someone, shut down a conversation or topic, or push someone to behave in specific ways, it is called brandishing anger.

Manipulative anger can be distinguished from natural anger by looking for patterns in when the anger arises, and also by noticing how abruptly the anger dissipates once the partner complies.

Tears can be used, or brandished, for the same purposes.

They get angry, or cry, whenever you:

  • ask them to help around the house
  • bring up finances
  • want to go out with friends
  • ask about what happened the night they didn’t come home
  • are considering ending the relationship

Shifting Expectations

Abusive partners are constantly increasing, suddenly shifting, or setting unachievable expectations. In the Disney movie Cinderella, when the stepmother told Cinderella that she could go to the ball, but only if she completed all of her chores, she was setting an unrealistic expectation. The stepmother was intentionally setting Cinderella up to fail. This was one of the many relationship red flags depicted in their relationship.

“This is not what I wanted!”

“You cleaned the house, but not the car.”

“I would like all of this done by tomorrow.”

“I suppose this will have to do…”

 “Anyone can get lucky once in a while.”

“I’m shocked this worked. I truly expected you to fail.”


Gaslighting is a potent form of emotional abuse, used in toxic relationships, to manipulate someone to such a degree that they question their memory, perception, and ultimately their sanity. The abusive partner will lie, deny, and distort the truth to cause uncertainty and doubt. The impact of this technique is dependent on the consistency with which it’s applied. What’s called into question may range from where the person just set their keys down, to whether infidelity or physical abuse has happened.

Gaslighting is not just a relationship red flag, it is a potent form of emotional abuse
Gaslighting is not just a relationship red flag, it is a potent form of emotional abuse.

“That’s not how I remember it.”

“That didn’t happen”

“I never said that.”

“I wasn’t even here last night.”

“I swear, I never touched it. You must’ve lost it.”

Relationship Red Flags Don’t Support Healthy Relationship Rights

We all have rights and responsibilities in our relationships.

Everyone has the right to:

  • have their boundaries respected
  • express their thoughts and feelings
  • feel safe
  • have their privacy respected
  • spend time away from their partner
  • decide to end the relationship

If You Notice Relationship Red Flags, Reach Out to Resources

If you, or someone you know, may be in an abusive relationship, if you notice any one of these relationship red flags, there are resources that can provide information, options, and support, including:

Love is Respect

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence [NCADV]
What is Domestic Violence

National Center for Victims of Crime
Dating Violence

No More
Know the Facts

National Network to End Domestic Violence [NNEDV]

Office on Women’s Health [OWH]
Domestic or Intimate Partner Violence
The National Domestic Violence Hotline