Non-abusive ’red flags’ that predict intimate partner violence

Research statistically shows behaviours that are typically considered to be non-
Research statistically shows behaviours that are typically considered to be non-violent prior to the abuse happening. (Valentin Antonucci/Pexels)
Researchers from Western say it’s rare for someone to go on a first date and experience intimate partner violence immediately. It takes time and during that time, people become more committed to their partner. As the relationship progresses, tangible and intangible elements of a relationship like moving in together, getting married or falling in love can make it more difficult to leave.

With this knowledge, former Western law and psychology researcher Nicolyn Charlot set out to find warning signs that can be spotted early in a relationship before violence occurs and before one becomes too invested in the relationship. Some of these signs include, when a person feels they can’t say no to their partner, their partner acts arrogant or entitled, or their partner tries to change them.

Much of the existing literature on warning signs for partner violence focuses on signs that are visible when people are already in an abusive relationship. The study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science is one of the first to statistically show behaviours typically considered to be non-violent prior to the abuse happening. The study was led by Charlot during her time as a social psychology PhD candidate at Western and co-authored by psychology professors Samantha Joel and Lorne Campbell and funded by Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Nicolyn Charlot "One thing that really stood out to me was finding the number of different warning signs that people experience and the frequency with which they experienced them, which was also a strong predictor of abuse. It really ties it together because if you see multiple warning signs that connect it’s relatively easy to communicate," said Charlot.

Charlot presented participants from Canada and the U.S. with a list of 200 abusive and non-abusive thoughts, feelings and behaviours based on existing research and asked them to identify which ones they have experienced. The ones that were most important for predicting abuse were the ones considered to be warning signs.

The first pilot study was conducted to determine which behaviours should be considered abusive or non-abusive. The second pilot study was conducted to determine which of the behaviours were most likely to emerge in early stages of a romantic relationship.

In general, these warning signs do not guarantee that partner violence is going to happen. She says being able to recognize these signs can help people take a step back and reevaluate their relationship or proceed more cautiously.

Charlot also stressed that no one is to blame for their abuse.

"If somebody notices warning signs and they choose not to do anything, it is not their fault if they experienced abuse. This is very much meant to just inform people and not to be allocating blame," said Charlot.

The study identified these 16 early warning signs predicting violence in a romantic relationship:

  1. You and your partner have sex even though you’re not in the mood.
  2. You feel like you can’t say no to your partner.
  3. Your partner doesn’t admit when they’re wrong.
  4. Your partner compares you to other people.
  5. Your partner reacts negatively when you say no to something they want.
  6. Your partner disregards your reasoning or logic when it doesn’t agree with theirs.
  7. You find it difficult to concentrate on work because thoughts of your partner are occupying your mind.
  8. Your partner creates uncomfortable situations in public.
  9. Your partner acts arrogant or entitled.
  10. Your partner tries to change you.
  11. Your partner is unsupportive of you.
  12. Your partner criticizes you.
  13. Your partner has unrealistic expectations for your relationship.
  14. Your partner avoids you.
  15. Your partner does something you asked them not to.
  16. Your partner threatens to leave you.

Charlot says experiencing these warning signs identified in this study does not mean you need to leave or end your relationship, but partners can consider seeking counselling or explore ways to grow the relationship in a healthier way.

A warning sign Charlot noted as important but did not emerge with statistical significance in study, is trusting one’s gut or intuition.

"I think it’s a big warning sign that survivors talk about. If your gut is telling you something is off, listen to it and home in on that."

Joel says she was surprised by how effective these warning signs were at predicting abuse over time.

"Charlot’s work will be useful for researchers looking to develop primary intervention tools that target interpersonal violence.-

Future research

The researchers emphasized that additional research needs to be done, particularly for at-risk and marginalized populations, and hopes that when the findings are replicated, they can be integrated into intimate partner violence prevention efforts, sex-ed classes and anti-violence campaigns.

In the future, Charlot recommends it would be beneficial to have research looking at warning signs specific to predicting coercive controlling violence, which is what people tend to think of when they think about intimate partner violence. It’s much more frequent, more severe and heavily one-sided.

"Within these studies, I suspect that the aggregated violence that was experienced by participants is more representative of something called situational couple violence, which is less frequent, less intense and usually comes from communication difficulties," said Charlot.

"While situational couple violence is also severe, it seems most of my warning signs are probably predicting that kind of lower level, in relative terms, form of violence. But the coercive controlling violence because of its severity, I think would be important to identify warning signs that are unique to it to help people who are at much higher risk for a much more severe form of violence in their relationship."

Being aware of the warning signs identified in this study provides a chance for individuals to evade partner violence before it occurs and before they become too invested in the relationship.

If you are experiencing violence in a relationship or feel yourself at risk of violence:

  • In an emergency, call 9-1-1.

  • In London, Ont.,  Anova  offers counselling and various other support such as emergency shelter and second-stage housing.  Atlohsa Family Support Centre  provides support for Indigenous women and families. The  London Abused Women’s Centre  provides community-based programming and counselling.

  • Nationally, Canadians can find a suite of family-violence resources and services at this  .

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