Relationships, it’s safe to say, can be one of life’s most vexing challenges — for many people, it’s right up there with other anguish-inducing, soul-shredding things like infertility or job hunting. How can a savvy, smart gal avoid getting into an unhappy relationship in the first place? In many cases, it comes down to listening to your instincts when something seems off or troublesome, but there are also some specific red flags to watch out for, as well as specific types of people to avoid. I spoke to the experts to get some insight.
People who are controlling and jealous
Two of the biggest red flags to watch out for are jealousy and control. As the experts at Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida note, there’s a difference between mild jealousy and pathological jealousy: while mild jealousy is somewhat common and often motivates couples to protect their bond with their partner, pathological jealousy is destructive and consuming.
As clinical psychologist Andrea Bonoir, Ph.D., explained in Psychology Today, “A partner’s jealousy can be flattering in the beginning; it can arguably be viewed as endearing, or a sign of how much they care or how attached they are. When it becomes more intense, however, it can be scary and possessive.”
In these sorts of situations, a partner’s jealousy is often tightly intertwined with control, and as psychology professor Lisa Aronson Fontes, Ph.D., explained in a separate article for Psychology Today, this can sometimes cross the boundary into what’s called coercive control. In such situations, one partner uses coercive control to strip away their partner’s “independence, sense of self, and basic rights, such as the right to make decisions about their own time, friends, and appearance.”
So, then, what’s the best way to avoid finding yourself with a jealous or controlling partner? Bonoir recommends looking out for signs such as veiled or overt threats, making their love or attraction conditional on your behavior or appearance, using guilt as a tool of manipulation, spying or snooping, and making you feel unworthy of their love, among others.
Defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others,” people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can be, according to social worker Sherri Heller, among the most toxic types of partners, since “they are addicted to being admired and having control over their source of ‘supply’.”
The relationship with their partner is that source of supply, and, as Heller notes, “The narcissist will gaslight, rage, abandon, triangulate, devise smear campaigns and pathologically lie and cheat to achieve their ends.” These situations can be maddening to people in relationships with narcissists, and they often find that their self-confidence is steadily eroded by their partner.
So, then, how can you best avoid winding up with someone like this? Heller explains that “A major red flag with a narcissist is how adept they are at seduction. When a narcissist targets a source of supply, they will hone in on exactly who they need to be to seduce their prey.”
Heller also recommends paying attention to how you feel when interacting with your partner: things like doubting your own perceptions, for example, may be a sign that a narcissist is trying to gaslight you, as are “insinuations of abandonment or stonewalling” when you try to assert a healthy boundary. Ultimately, if someone seems too good to be true, they probably are.
Unlike NPD, high-conflict personality isn’t a clearly defined disorder — but according to the Psychological Care and Healing Center (a licensed residential treatment center based in Los Angeles), high conflict personalities “initiate and receive reward from conflict with others…. They appear to treat conflict as normal and expected in their interactions, to a point at which conflict becomes a defining aspect of relationships.” They are especially good at deploying tactics like escalating conflict and blaming other people.
As social worker and divorce lawyer Bill Eddy told me, this tendency to trigger, not resolve, conflict usually gets worse with time. Eddy explained that it is usually characterized by all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors or threats, and consistently blaming others. However, Eddy noted, “These characteristics aren’t always easy to spot.” Additionally, people tend to conceal these traits until a partner has committed to them, so they may be kind, charming, and wonderful until they feel the relationship is safe enough to let their mask slip.
Because it can take six to 12 months before you see these traits, Eddy recommends waiting at least one year before making any big commitments such as getting engaged, getting married, buying a house, or having a child. Eddy also told me that it’s important to listen to what your emotions — not your rational brain — are telling you about your partner, and to watch out for any attempts to justify treating people with disrespect or hostility.
Emotionally reactive personalities
Natalie Stanish, a marriage and family therapist, also recommends steering clear of emotionally reactive personalities — people whose behavior is defined by an inability to effectively regulate and manage their emotions. Such people, Stanish explained, are “easily triggered; they get very angry, frustrated, sad, irritable very quickly, and [they] make a very large fuss or cause a large argument over something that doesn’t warrant a large reaction.”
While sometimes a strong reaction is warranted, emotionally reactive personalities will have reactions that seem disproportionately forceful for the situation at hand — which, in turn, can make relationships difficult.
This is because it can be hard, if not impossible, to have productive discussions when emotional reactivity becomes an issue, notes clinical psychologist and marriage counselor Randi Gunther, Ph.D., in an article for Psychology Today. While there are many reasons why a person may have such disproportionate reactions, Gunther notes that “what is always true is that no real understanding or resolution is possible when reactivity is prevalent.“
People who fear commitment
When it comes to commitment-phobes, we all know the stereotype: any mention of commitment sends them running for the hills. However, Natalie Stanish, a marriage and family therapist, told me that it can be a bit more subtle. People can show their fear of commitment while still being in a relationship, and they do so by avoiding making long-term plans, having discussions about the future, putting a “title” on the relationship, or telling their friends and family about your relationship.
Dr. Berit Brogard explained in an article for Psychology Today that for people who avoid commitment, their “fear usually is connected with making a promise to another person.” She also expanded on Stanish’s list of things to watch out for, noting that “Making plans for the future that are not strictly required is a major cause of fear for someone who suffers from commitment phobia.” They may avoid conversations about defining the status of the relationship, and “even the relatively innocent words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” will signify more commitment than they are capable of.”
Brogard also noted that people who are afraid of commitment tend to not have many close friends, can be unpredictable, and use a lot of modifiers — such as “maybe,” “probably,” and “possibly” — when talking.
Rigid, close-minded people
Stanish also told me that people who are rigid, inflexible, and closed-minded are folks who don’t make ideal partners. As she explained, such people have extreme, black-and-white opinions about many things, tend to quickly shut down or dismiss your ideas, and will avoid asking about, or getting more information on, your opinions, thoughts, or beliefs.
As a result, she said, “these people won’t be very willing to compromise or work together.” Since compromise and teamwork are fundamental aspects of a healthy relationship, it’s worth staying away from people whose rigid, inflexible thinking patterns keep them from being able to do this effectively.
Furthermore, according to a Psychology Today article written by Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., being in a relationship should expand your world, not shrink it. For people with rigid beliefs and behaviors, constriction can quickly become the name of the game, to the detriment of the relationship.
“It actually hurts the relationship when we stop being free and open to developing new shared interests,” Firestone writes. “It can foster real resentment between partners. While no one should force themselves to do things they really don’t want to do, shutting down the part of ourselves that seeks new experiences and responds to a spark in our partner can drain us of our aliveness and spontaneity.”
There’s a big difference between constructive feedback and nitpicking criticism, and social worker Kristen Okrzesik says that if your partner is constantly telling you what not to do — or, conversely, not supporting what you do want to do — then “this can be a sign that they want to change you to their liking.”
Furthermore, people who put you down, make fun of you, call you names, or otherwise criticize you in ways that are denigrating or make you feel bad are, most likely, not people with whom you’ll have a healthy relationship. Okrzesik recommends paying attention to how the other person makes you feel: “when you are hurting, stressed, or dealing with frustration, are they supportive, or do they make you feel worse?”
Stephen Stosny, Ph.D., explained in Psychology Today that criticism can cross the line into being destructive when it focuses on character (as opposed to a specific behavior), infused with blame, not focused on improving a situation or behavior, based on only one ‘right way’ to do things, or belittling.
Such criticism often “starts out on a low key… and escalates over time,” Stosny writes, but this pattern can send a couple into a downward spiral filled with ever-increasing resentment: “the criticized person feels controlled, which frustrates the critical partner, who then steps up the criticism, increasing the other’s sense being controlled, and so on.” So, if your partner seems to find little ways to criticize you, be forewarned: this can escalate into a bigger problem.
Social worker Sheri Heller told me that martyrs are another type to watch out for: “Always victimized and persecuted, the martyr will implicate you along with the rest of the world, for their troubles. Martyrs wear suffering like a badge of superiority. No one has it worse than them. They are sitting on a mountain of repressed rage.“
Why do martyrs do what they do? In a Real Simple article, Dallas-based psychologist and life coach Pam Garcy, PhD, explained that “They overdo it because they want their personal world to feel better…. They’re seeking fulfillment, connection, and a sense of importance.” In the same article, Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist in San Jose, California, said that “typically, martyrs don’t know how to validate and love themselves very well…. They feel that their value is in serving others — so if they stop doing that, they will have no value.’”
How can you avoid getting involved with a martyr? As Heller noted, “red flags to look for are excessive self- virtue, feigned innocence so as to avoid accountability, glorifying suffering, paranoia, passive-aggressive maneuvering.“
Aaah, charmers: confusing beyond all reason, and often equally destructive. Charm — especially superficial charm — can be used to mask dark, dangerous traits like narcissism and even psychopathy. As Heller told me, “the charmer uses veiled contrivance to entice their target into satisfying his/her agendas. People who are cloaked in charm conceal their vulnerability and awkwardness.”
In cases of narcissism, the charm is used to throw people off and keep them from questioning their partner — but in cases of psychopathy, it’s even more insidious. Psychopathy is marked by a lack of conscience, and for these people, “their game is self-gratification at the other person’s expense,” wrote Robert Hare, the psychologist whose research led to the creation of the Psychopathy Checklist, in a 1994 article for Psychology Today.
What differentiates normal, everyday charm from the kind that should set off alarms? As Hare noted, psychopaths are often highly talkative and seem to have an amazing way with words: “They can be amusing and entertaining conversationalists, ready with a clever comeback, and are able to tell unlikely but convincing stories that cast themselves in a good light.”
As Heller also told me, “Charm used to manipulate is intimidating and passively aggressive. If you are in the presence of a charismatic, alluring person and feel pressured to yield and succumb to their ‘requests,'” then you may find yourself in the company of a manipulating charmer. Again, if someone seems too good to be true, they probably are.
Oluwole Olusanya is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of one of the fastest-growing lifestyle and entertainment website in the country. He is a banker, writer, blogger, public affairs analyst and a tax consultant. He anchors Trending Topics on SHEFFA where he shares his thoughts and opinions on trending issues.
He is currently studying for a Master’s Degree in Business Administration at the University of South Wales, Wales, United Kingdom. He has diplomas in Banking and Finance, Investigative Journalism, Creative Writing, and Linguistics from Lagos State Polytechnic, Isolo, Lagos, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland and The Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom.