Relationships are hard. When everything goes well at the beginning, it can seem like true love. You know, you spend some quality time together, eyes are locking, sparks are flying, conversation is flowing... and then, they do something unforgivably douchey. They could ignore your clearly stated sexual boundaries. Or disappear from the face of the Earth after you've slept together. We've all been there, thinking that we've met the one only to discover that he or she is a potential psychopath. But how do you identify these poisonous people from the get-go and avoid a toxic relationship altogether?
In Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Toxic People in Your Life , author Wendy L. Patrick, Ph.D., sets out a game-plan for identifying toxic people, particularly while dating. During the can't-keep-your-hands-off-each-other stage, it can be really difficult to see past an attractive package. Unfortunately, falling for a toxic person can lead to heartbreak, dysfunction, or worse yet, get you trapped in an abusive relationship. Patrick, a Deputy District Attorney and team leader in the Sex Crimes and Stalking Division of the San Diego County District Attorney's Office, has 20 years of experience identifying toxic people. Through scientific research and first-hand experience, she lays out how to eliminate these people from your life and avoid them in the future. Her purpose, she writes, is to "help you understand why bad people often look good."
Although not every person who looks too good too be true actually is, knowing how to recognize the bad eggs will help you go forth and date confidently. Herewith, seven warning signs to help you identify a potentially poisonous partnership, because you deserve a healthy, happy, toxin-free relationship.
You Feel Like It's Happening Too Fast
Falling in love can feel like an emotional and physical whirlwind. But it shouldn't feel like your new SO is tearing through your life like the Tasmanian Devil on crack. Sure, it's super nice to be wanted, but the minute you feel the other person trying to isolate you, control your environment, or monopolize your time, run like hell. Dangerous, manipulative people "often instigate emotionally intense whirlwind courtships designed to sweep women off their feet and prevent them from seeing red flags signaling danger," Patrick writes.
If it feels like things are progressing too quickly, it's important to make sure that the person isn't trying to speed-date you into a dominating, controlling relationship. "[T]he speed with which they move in forming relationships is a red flag indicating shallowness as opposed to true love," explains Patrick.
You Find Yourself Distracted From Their Bad Behavior By Their Hotness
Before you laugh this one off, just know that science has proven people actually excuse bad behavior in the name of, yes, hotness. Patrick calls this the "halo effect," writing that "Attractive people are consistently regarded in a more positive light than their less attractive counterparts." And, get this, we subconsciously "view good-looking individuals as honest, intelligent, and kind."
There's nothing wrong with thinking your date is ridiculously good-looking, but if you also find yourself forgiving the fact that he failed to make a reservation and was an hour late because OMG his eyes are so blue and just look at his sexy smile, you need to step back and reevaluate. There are plenty of attractive people out there who are also respectful and considerate, so don't sell yourself short for a pair of pretty peepers.
...Or Their Over-the-Top Flattery
As Patrick so bluntly writes, "Flattery gets you everywhere." The simple reality is that positive attention is often the most effective form of seduction. Normal, non-toxic people use it all the time, but Patrick explains how attention can also be used to camouflage sinister motives. Whether the end goal is to seduce you into debt or an abusive relationship, accept compliments graciously and with a grain of salt.
Spending time with someone who makes you the center of attention can make you feel like you just scored the last denim pencil skirt at the J. Crew sample sale. Just be aware of your conversations. Does she tell you you're ravishing every time you ask where the relationship is headed? Or maybe she claims she only has eyes for you after she finds out you're an investment banker? You want to identify whether you are "really the focus of someone's attention, or [if they are] more focused on what you can do for them" writes Patrick. You are beautiful and sexy. You don't need some creep to feed you B.S. lines in an effort to exploit or trick you.
You're Turned On By Their Bad Behavior
It's hard not to find a little bit of badness sexy. One explanation for this that Patrick offers is "that women are attracted to 'bad boys' who are prone to risk taking and exude hard-headedness and confidence." Unfortunately behavior that is initially perceived as passionate or protective can turn out to be motivated by deep-seated possessiveness, violence, and anger. This is how people get caught in abusive relationships, "a significant percentage of recipients of aggression interpret it as evidence of the perpetrator's love," writes Patrick.
Most of us are lucky enough to get that whole you-make-wrong-look-so-right thing out of our systems relatively painlessly. Even if these people aren't violent, they are often immature and kinda incapable of being in a real relationship. Admire the bad boys from afar, and pursue a relationship with a grown-ass man.
Your Relationship is "Forbidden"
There are a number of reasons people pursue "forbidden fruit" as Patrick calls it — because they're bored, dissatisfied, seeking adventure, or simply because it's wrong on some level. And even though we all know better, "good people sometimes seek bad relationships," writes Patrick. This is because "our desire to engage in prohibited behavior is heightened by restricting our freedom to do so." Which explains why some people become involved with their married boss, friend's partner, or some other inappropriate person.
Although it's natural to be "tempted by the taboo," as Patrick writes, it can be seriously damaging. Men and women who consistently cheat often seem charming and sincere, but the likelihood of them ending a marriage or relationship to be with you is small. Honestly, you're probably just going to be another notch on the belt.
You're Chasing a Wild One
The thrill of the chase is only heightened when the object of your affection is a sensation-seeker. However, like the "bad boys" and girls mentioned above, the wild ones are rarely relationship material. As Patrick writes, the thrill-seekers are usually going to view you "as a playmate, not a soul mate."
If you're just looking to have a good time, maybe the wild child is the right one for right now. Just be careful not to engage in any potentially life-threatening or illegal activities, because as Patrick points out there's "the possibility of adopting the negative qualities of a romantic interest." According to Patrick, you're likely more attracted to the aura of excitement than you are to the actual person, and you probably have little in common. Think twice before you invest your time and feelings in a developmentally arrested wild child, because you are never going to change their crazy ways.
You're Following the Leader
Take it from Monica Lewinsky, people: power is one hell of an aphrodisiac. "Power people are often viewed as physically attractive, extroverted, dominant, and charismatic," writes Patrick. Unfortunately, these relationships can be a breeding ground for toxicity. They have a tendency to be mutually exploitative, with the power-holder taking advantage of the other person's youth or dependence, while that person may only be in the relationships because of the status boost or access to valuable resources.
If you are considering dating someone who is in a powerful position, be sure that you actually like the person for who they are. Do you really want to date someone who routinely hits on subordinates? Are you attracted to her sense of humor and brilliance, or her beautiful clothes and habit of ordering bottles of Bollinger? As Patrick writes, "it is the inner motivation of how people use what they have that is most revealing of their true ambitions and character."
So now that I've totally freaked you out and convinced you that the dating world is full of psychopaths and narcissists, rest assured that there are plenty of normal, awesome men and women out there. However, you should know the warning signs of a toxic relationship, because the control freaks, charming manipulators, thrill-seekers, bad boys, power brokers, and cheaters will only hurt you and waste your time. As Patrick writes, although the world is full of potentially adoring partners, "it also contains enough shrewd manipulators to keep people like me in business for an entire career." Learning how to detect the poisonous people means you can devote your energy and feelings to someone who actually deserves them.