Warning: These Red Flags Signal Boundary Violations

Relationships are wonderful – and also difficult. Early in a relationship, it’s not easy to tell whether it will become abusive.

Romantic relationships have four stages, according to Charlotte Kasl, a psychotherapist and the author of Women, Sex, and Addiction: A Search for Love & Power:

The hunt – the attraction, infatuation and pursuit.

In love, in lust – the merging or joining together.

Warts and differences – the irks and quirks, the difficulties of confronting your differences (the stage of conflicts).

Resolution – working with, making changes or accepting your differences, and treating yourself and the other with respect – an ongoing process.

Domestic violence can happen to anyone of any race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic background, or educational level. Behaviors are abusive when they physically harm, arouse fear, prevent a partner from doing what she or he needs to do, or force them to behave in ways that they do not want to behave.

Abuse includes the use of physical and sexual violence, emotional abuse, psychological and verbal abuse, intellectual or mental abuse, economic deprivation and abuse, and spiritual abuse. Many of these different forms of abuse can be going on at the same time.

Abuse is often a gradual, but usually repetitive and escalating pattern of behaviors, against your wishes, to gain and maintain power and control of the intimate partner. A behavior that happens even once can be abuse. Warning signs, or red flags, of abuse depend on the frequency, intensity and duration of the behavior.

This is an incomplete list of boundaries and abusive behaviors. Some are overlapping.

Physical boundaries: Your physical being, your physical space, your “bubble” (including your kids, family or pets), your physical belongings (cars, keys, phone, mail, clothes, computer, furniture, etc.).

Red flags: Acting in ways that scare or hurt you, such as tickling, shoving, yanking, twisting, restraining, hitting, biting, slapping, cutting or burning; criticizing your looks, your body, your health or your eating; neglecting your physical needs; intimidating you with guns, knives or other weapons; destruction of your belongings; drug or alcohol abuse, or pressuring you to use drugs or alcohol.

Sexual boundaries: Sexualized touch and sexual intimacy.

Red flags: Pressuring you to have sex when you don’t want to or to do sexual things that you’re not comfortable with; cheating on you (if you’re in a committed relationship); unwarranted jealousy and accusations; insults about your body, gender, sex, or sexuality; forced sex, rape.

Emotional boundaries: Your emotions, your emotional reality, your feelings and what you value.

Red flags: Telling you that you’re not good enough, nitpicking, criticizing, blaming; manipulating, emotional battering, punishing, bullying, pressuring, discounting your emotional needs, violating your trust, giving you the silent treatment, or exploding with anger.

Psychological/verbal boundaries: Your right to be treated with respect, your sense of reality, your safety, your mental health and your right to privacy.

Red Flags: Bullying, intimidating, or threatening to harm you or your loved ones; telling you that you can never do anything right; screaming; isolating you; controlling what you do, who you talk to, where you go; shaming you with name-calling; lying or twisting reality, ignoring you; stalking; calling you crazy; being undependable; always having to be right; treating you as a servant or a child; pressuring you to do illegal or immoral things; threatening suicide.

Intellectual/mental boundaries: What you think, read, believe, how you understand yourself, your world, and others.

Red flags: Intellectually distorting, discounting

or manipulating what you think and believe; pressuring you to change your mind; reading your mail, email, texts, messages; using your computer or looking through your private papers without your permission; not communicating appropriately, overriding your decisions.

Economic boundaries: Your income, savings, credit, financial information and financial security.

Red flags: Controlling finances, violating your sense of financial security, taking your money, using your credit cards without your permission, ruining your credit, expecting that you pay more than is proportionately fair, put-downs about your income, preventing you from getting or keeping a job or education, being made to ask for money for necessities, or not being included in financial decisions or joint financial information.

Spiritual boundaries: Your sense of your sacred self, your spiritual beliefs, your principles, your values and guidance.

Red flags: Telling you what to believe; undermining, discounting or mocking what you believe; telling you you’re wrong; twisting or using your beliefs against you.

Red flags are difficult to cope with. They are not signs of love. They are signs of a troubled relationship.

If what once was an occasional quirk has become an ingrained, controlling, abusive behavior, beware. Please get help. Call a therapist, or call the hotlines listed below.

Relationships change over time. It takes two to tango, so it’s also important to look at how your behaviors might be contributing to the situation. If you or your partner are not willing to make changes, you may need to end the relationship. Your safety is of primary importance.

Maya Angelou had some sage words about lopsided relationships that we should keep in mind: “Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.”

Judi Howen, M.A., LPC, NCC, of Westport Growth Center, Kansas City, Mo., is a founding member of the LGBT-Affirmative Therapists Guild. She is committed to helping clients grow and improve their lives, while respecting their pace and process. She has been involved in LGBT issues since 1985.


Locally, for LGBTQIA people, contact the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project at 816-561-0550 or [email protected] for information and support.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is at 800-799-SAFE (7233) and www.thehotline.org.