• Relationships that start like fairytales can end up being abusive

  • Cathy Press, who specialises in working with issues of domestic and sexual abuse with young adults, shares her warning signs

  • We have therapists who specialise in working with abuse survivors – find them here

When we first get involved in a relationship, we never imagine that it will turn bad; it can be confusing to understand what happened when the relationship doesn’t work out. Here are some toxic relationship warning signs to look out for. All of these warning signs are context-dependent: one or two of these individually may well be those of a kind partner, but combined together they can paint a picture of a relationship that you might want to reconsider.

Is your partner a Charmer?

The Charmer might spoil you by giving you gifts, saying “I’ll get you anything you want; you only deserve the best”. You may think that if they spend money on you or treat you, they must think highly of you. 

The truth is this behaviour is designed to convince you to think more highly of them. Are the Charmer’s gifts a genuine treat, or are they given to make you feel indebted? Charmers will make you feel you owe them something and more often than not they would prefer you to repay them with sex and intimacy.

The Charmer love-bombs you, constantly telling you they love you and that you mean everything to them: “You’re my soulmate; you understand me better than anyone else”. The Charmer builds you up and puts you on a pedestal, only to later pull you of it by picking you apart.

The Charmer might draw you in with a sob story, prompting you to feel empathetic. They might say they are struggling with a situation at home; they are stressed; they have a problem controlling their anger. In these stories, the Charmer is never to blame, everyone else is. 

They may later turn the tables on you and make you feel responsible for the way they feel. But everyone is responsible for their own behaviour and your partner doesn’t have a right to punish you personally in response to feeling badly about themselves.

Is your partner a Mindmixer?

The Charmer puts you on a pedestal at the beginning of the relationship, with comments designed to make you feel great and boost your confidence. But the Mindmixer will pull you off that pedestal through a gradual process of putting you down and dismantling your sense of self. 

They will make comments about the way you think, look and behave: “You could make a bit more effort; you’d be really attractive if you changed the way you look”. 

They plant seeds of doubt in your mind about yourself by saying things that seem normal but are steps to undermine you: “You’re being so stupid; you can’t get anything right”.

The Mindmixer may appear to change their mind all the time, commonly known as changing the goal posts. One minute they’re laughing and being sweet with you and the next they are being mean and picking on you for something you have or have not done or said. It is confusing when your partner insults you and puts you down with a grin on their face. 

Put simply, the abusive partner will gaslight you, play games with your mind, making you feel stupid for feeling confused and causing you to worry that you are going mad. For example, they may tell you they didn’t say what they did say; they didn’t laugh at you when they did; they didn’t put you down when they did etc.

Is your partner a Bully?

The easiest way for the Bully to intimidate or coerce you, is to look angry and scary. Along with behaviours like squaring up to you or blocking your exit from a room and glaring at you. 

The Bully might inflict physical harm on you, from pushing you to using a weapon or choking you. They might smash things or thump holes in the walls. They might frighten you by driving too fast or slamming the brakes on suddenly.

A common passive-aggressive behaviour of the Bully is to not communicate at all when they have an issue or problem. They might first sulk or be miserable. They might then kick off for no apparent reason and you will be blamed for it. They may even push you into feeling angry and then turn the tables on you and make it look like you are the one with the 'anger problem'.

Is your partner a Keeper?

The Keeper might text or message you all the time. This might seem attentive and a sign that they and are interested in you; however, they will expect you to message them frequently too and will appear to get angry if you don’t do this immediately. They might ask for pictures of where you are or who you are with, or even ask you to call them from every place you go. 

In some situations, they may have enabled a GPS tracker on your phone or have access to apps that show where you are at any given time; also called digital stalking. They might justify this behaviour by telling you they have ‘trust issues’ with family or previous partners, meaning they can’t let you do anything alone or with your own friends and family.

The Keeper can turn you against your friends and family in order to make you reliant on them and their attention. They might tell you that your friends have said rude things about you behind your back or your friend came on to them or tell you that “your friends don’t understand you like I do”. Why would you doubt your partner?

Is my partner a Taker?

The ultimate aim of the Taker is to be sexual with you without forming a truly healthy relationship; they will stop at nothing to get what they want. The Taker will disregard what you want and coerce you into pleasing them and giving in. They might say: “If you don’t have sex with me right now then you don’t love me” or “I’d do it with you if you wanted to”.

The Taker might be very sexual towards you alone or in public. They might ask you to take ‘sexy’ photos of yourself, saying that they are missing you and want to see your body or filming you both when having sex. This may appear to be part of your relationship and something personal but can also be potentially used to blackmail you when they threaten you to share the images on social media for all your friends and family to see.

What if I want to leave?

Leaving an abusive relationship is never an easy thing to do, whatever your age, but it can be done. 

If you are ready to end the relationship, talk it through with someone supportive who you trust, as you may not know exactly what level of danger you may face – you may not be aware of how far your partner is prepared to go to prevent you from leaving them. You partner may make it very hard to leave them and utilise any of the behaviours from the characters above.

  • Use hand signalling if you are online with a friend or family member but are unable to speak to them directly. Hold your hand up to the camera with your thumb tucked into your palm, and then fold your fingers down trapping your thumb in your fingers to indicate that you are trapped
  • Call 999 and talk to the police if you have been threatened and/or have concerns
  • Call 999 and then 55 if you need police support but are not safe to talk
  • Use the Hollie Guard app, which is activated by a shake of the phone and will alert your chosen contacts, pinpointing your location as well as recording audio and video evidence to their mobile phones
  • Contact the Suzy Lamplugh Trust for information on stalking and staying safe from violence and aggressive 
  • Visit www.refuge.org.uk or www.womensaid.org.uk which offer help and advice to those who identify as female and are experiencing or have experienced an abuse from a present or current partner
  • Visit www.mesadviceline.org.uk or www.survivorsuk.org which offer help and advice to those who identify as male and are experiencing or have experienced an abuse from a present or current partner

Cathy Press specialises in working with domestic and sexual violence and abuse related issues with children, young people and adults. Her new book When Love Bites is out now.

Further reading

What do teens today understand about sex and consent?

Spotting the signs of emotional abuse

What is gaslighting?

Setting boundaries will set you free: beating codependency

Are you an abusive person?