• Britney Dehnert

Red Flags: Are You Trying to Appease an Abuser?

Relationships can be hard! We are a fallen people, and even when we try to do what's right, we sometimes still hurt one another. 

God has brought many people into my life to love. Many of them have been involved in abusive or difficult relationships. Some of them have turned out to be abusive themselves. Some are married, some are divorced, some are dating. The first time I really saw someone go through this was in college when a very dear friend of mine married a man who then showed his true colors and was emotionally, spiritually, and physically abusive to her. I didn't find out till she had left him after 10 months of hell. My eyes were opened in a new way to what manipulation can do in a relationship.

When I was teaching in a public high school, one of my students asked me, "How do you know if a guy really loves you? What is REAL love?" Well, that's a blog post for another day, but I could at least tell her that love is not just an emotion (that's attraction or infatuation, which often begins relationships); love is a commitment to the highest good of another person. I knew that she had a difficult background and had been through many relationships with some damaging guys, so I went home and thought about her question and what was behind it.

I came up with a chart that differentiated guys who were genuinely caring, guys who were manipulative, and guys who were basically losers. It was my first attempt to write on paper what I had seen my friend go through. It was a rough sketch, but my student appreciated my small efforts. I think she was more impressed that I had thought enough of her question to write it! 

Over the years,  I have come across more and more people (women AND men) who have been manipulated and abused by people who were supposed to love them. Often, the people who abuse have been abused themselves, so it's easy for their partner to excuse them and put up with the abuse. That is a mistake. It sends a clear signal to the abuser that they do not need to change -- they have an "out," and they WILL use it. If you love this person and want what's best for them, you will not put up with the abuse. You will stand up for yourself and let them know that it's not ok to act the way they do. I found a helpful article that relates specifically to this idea. Check it out if you'd like more information on this specific topic.


This is the important thing to remember: the manipulator wants control above everything else. They will apologize, send suicide notes/pictures, threaten, woo, promise to change, ANYTHING to get you back into their control. They feel helpless without control over you. So help them by cutting that off. If they truly have changed, generally, they will not contact you or try to be in a relationship with you anymore because they will have realized just how damaging they are to you, and if they truly care about you, they will know that they are not good for you and will back off. They will NOT try to win you back if they truly care. 

The person being manipulated is often confused because the person abusing them says they love them, and it really seems to be true. I will not say that no abuser loves his or her partner, but I will say that the abuser is not truly loving their partner if they are not acting for their partner's highest good. If you have to earn your spouse's love by acting the way they want you to, it's not true love. It's control. Remember Pavlov's dog. Think about it: if the actions you choose are determined by the punishment or "love" that you will receive in return, you're in dangerous waters. That's how the manipulator controls you. 




I took my little chart and developed it as God gave me the chance to love on more people in difficult relationships. Because both men and women can be manipulative abusers, I have included both gender pronouns alternatively throughout the list. At the end of this list is the cycle of abuse. I did not come up with this; Lenore E. Walker developed this social cycle theory in 1979. You can read more about the theory here. You can also google it; it's a widespread theory with very realistic implications. 


If at the end, you can identify with these red flags, take some time to think and seek counsel. If you would like to share your story in the comments, please do. It's good for people to know that they are not alone.


Relationship Red Flags: Signs of Abuse

Change in Relationship: He started out wooing you so perfectly. He was kind and brought flowers, bought you gifts and was so romantic. You’re a little confused by the way he starting to dictate things for you, but you feel that of course it’s because he's protective and loves you so much. You don’t want to question it, but he is starting to be pretty controlling. He tells you it’s for your good. He gets angry when you do something he doesn't like or if you do/say anything outside of his control. Then he apologizes and you feel that it was your fault. You don’t think he trusts you.  You start doubting yourself. You start fearing his reaction to things. He hits, pushes, kicks you (even once is a sign that it won't be the last time).


Drastic Change in Lifestyle: She has completely altered your lifestyle. She is stepping in and changing most of your routines, the way you do things. You’re not “allowed” to do things that you used to do.


Controlling money: She keeps you from getting a job, usually not overtly, but by keeping the car from you or encouraging you to stay home sick or telling you that you won't be able to perform the duties involved. "Do you really think you can handle that?" "It's ok if you don't get that job. I can handle it."  “You may not spend more than ____ without my permission. You may only carry ____ on your person.” “I am the only person who can look at the finances.” "You know I'm better at this than you -- I want to protect you from worry." "I'm the husband -- it's my responsibility." "I need to know where our money goes, so trust me and don't spend more than I tell you."



Controlling location: After awhile, you realize that you are isolated. He encourages you to criticize or dislike other people and the company of others. He humiliates you in front of other people, so you don't like to be around those people. You move a lot. “I have to know where you are at all times.” “Where are you? Why didn't you tell me?” Feeling guilty if you haven’t checked in with him in a while: “He’ll be so mad if I don’t text him right now…”


Controlling wardrobe: “Go change. You can’t wear that.” You see yourself as a modest dresser, but you have to check with him almost every time you get dressed. He demands to see the wedding dress so he can approve the style. His reaction is anger when he sees you wearing something he doesn't like. You constantly feel guilty about your wardrobe.



Controlling outside communication: “Our relationship is our business. You can’t talk about our relationship with other people. It’s our relationship.” “You can’t talk to that person without my permission.” “I have to be here if you’re going to call them.” Feeling like you can’t be open with other people or she will get mad. Saying to others, “Well, I need to ask him if I can share that with you.” She limits time on the phone, Facebook, etc.


Oppression of Emotion: You go through a cycle. There are times when he is so kind and loving, and you feel so lucky to be with him. Then, you disappoint him. He gets angry, he is frustrated with you. He lashes out, either in words or actions. He limits you. You feel sad, depressed, anxious, and you don't know why. You just want him to be kind and loving again because you LIVE for those times. He blows up. Then, it's over. He's kind again. It's like nothing ever happened. The cycle begins again.  In the bad part of the cycle, he or she puts you down -- to your face and to your friends, family, and even in public places. You feel like you need his approval. You feel like you’re walking on egg shells because you don’t know what will upset him because it changes day to day. Why are you such a bad person? Aren't you lucky that you have him to make you a better person? You feel guilty often. (Truth: God does not use guilt as leverage.  Neither will a spouse in a healthy relationship!) When you confront him about anything, he ends up making YOU apologize. You feel bad afterwards because you end up feeling like you’re at fault. He tells you that it’s your fault for provoking him and you often believe him, or you live knowing that you need to give in just to have “peace”. He is NEVER WRONG.(If you cannot think of a time that he admitted being wrong without caveats, that’s a huge warning sign.) There’s always an add-on to an apology: “I’m sorry, but you know you can’t do this or I have to react like this. When you do that, you make me feel _____ and then I can’t help myself.” He finds your weak point and uses it. “You know that you sin like this. This is your temptation, and I’m helping you overcome it. I’m actually being very patient with you.”  “You promised to love me and be my spouse no matter what.” “I’m mentally sick – that’s what makes me act this way – and you promised to be with me in sickness and in health!” He insinuates, or you get the idea, that he would love you more if you were better, more submissive, less trouble, easier to live with. You are constantly trying to grow his love for you. You feel you have to prove that you’re a good spouse/person or that you love him. You wish often that you could measure up. (Truth: God loves you as you are currently. His relationship with you is what grows you. He is not standing over you with a whip, trying to make you better. Your husband/boyfriend/girlfriend should not either. It’s not his/her job. It’s his/her job to love you and point you to Christ.)

(This a good article on emotional abuse.)



Intimidation:  Making you back down by acting dangerously or threatening you, your children, your family, etc. Throwing things, shouting. Threatening suicide, sending you pictures of their cut wrist, etc.


There’s no standard for your relationship: You have not seen any other happy couples doing these things, saying things like this, living this way. You have to follow more rules than she does. You’re always second place in your home/relationship. You feel like your relationship is unique instead of looking to godly examples of relationships. She is the boss of your relationship. You must never question what she says. You’re not on equal footing. Your relationship doesn’t feel like a partnership where you bounce ideas off each other and learn from each other. Her word is law. That law can change based on a whim. 


Suspicion: “Why did you hug that guy? Who is he? You can’t hug other men!” “Who are you talking to on the phone? Why? What do they want? Why are you laughing?” “Where were/are you ? You’re making me worry about you. You know you shouldn’t do ____.”


One-sided morality: He is allowed to do things that you are not. He has dictated this. He has a reason for why he is allowed to do this but you are not.  “You’re not allowed in my office because I don’t want you to worry about the business side of the home. I don’t want you to feel burdened by that. You know you idolize money, so I’m helping you overcome that.” “I can talk to other women because you know that’s simply not a temptation for me. I don’t need protection from other women, but you need protection from other men. I’m looking out for your best interests.”


Submission demanded: Submission is, by definition, a choice of the woman to the Lord. If the man is ever demanding submission, that is a huge warning sign. It’s not his job to demand submission. It’s his job to LOVE as Jesus loves us sacrificially. He/she should show you that he/she adores you, not try to fix you. Look at Jesus’ example of loving people on earth. Is your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend reflecting Jesus to you? Or is he demanding submission and standing over you as a dictator, not as a king loving and cherishing his queen?


Ephesians 5

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

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