Red Flags: Early Signs That You’re In A Dangerous Relationship

Gary Diedrichs wrote about the tumultuous relationship of John Sweeney and Dominique Dunne, which ended in murder, for our June 1983 issue. This sidebar, which explores the likelihood of domestic violence, accompanied “You Always Kill the One You Love.”

Published June 1983

You’ve been in the relationship for a while. He seems like a nice, gentle guy. Except. There was that time, during that horrendous argument, when he hurled the vase you loved against the wall, smashing it into a million jagged shards. Afterward, you wondered. Would he ever hit me?

Such things are difficult to predict, a great many factors being involved, but there are several danger signals—red flags, if you will—that can mean that a person is veering toward violence. Unfortunately, most of us are good at paying them heed only in hindsight.

According to Westwood clinical psychologist Andrew Erlich, these are some things to look out for:

  • A person’s history of violence. Not easy to ferret out in casual conversation, perhaps, but an extremely important clue. An alarming number of abused children end up aping the model of their parents. “We’re very poorly prepared to deal with children and with marriage,” says Erlich, “and so we look to our parents’ example. We all have the potential to react violently, but theorists say and studies have shown that aggressiveness is a learned behavior. We use the ’vocabulary’ that we have, even if that vocabulary is violent. In other words, if the only tool you have in your toolbox is a hammer, then you’ll use that hammer.”
  • Recent emotional trauma. Naturally, a person under unusual stress is more likely to lose control.
  • Isolation. If someone seems to be removing himself from the social flow, losing the human connection, then it’s time to pay closer attention to him. Erlich notes that children, for instance, are more likely to become increasingly aggressive if they get locked into a pattern of social isolation. They can’t keep friends because of their antisocial behavior, they feel rejected by their parents, and, often, they turn to TV for companionship—especially to violent programming, which they will eventually confuse with reality.
  • Threats of violence. Don’t dismiss them as idle threats. Take them seriously.
  • Threatening behavior. Such as destroying the vase. If someone is acting in a frightening or threatening way, it may only be a matter of time until the violence is aimed squarely at you.

If several of these red flags are displayed, the danger may be imminent. Urge the person to seek advice and counsel from a psychologist, psychiatrist, clergyman, someone. In the vast majority of cases, it’s a matter of the person learning to rechannel his emotions in more constructive directions—of leaning a new vocabulary of nonviolence.

 “Education is the number-one antidote,” asserts Erlich, who notes that a mere five percent of the millions spent each year in the mental health field go for community intervention work of this type. “You’ve got to get people talking about their violent feelings, and you’ve got to get to the kids early on to teach them other ways to handle their frustrations.”