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When a Victim of Abuse Experiences “Red Flags”

Have you ever wondered why victims of abuse stay in relationships with their abusers?  Is it because they’re codependent?  Is it because they’re masochistic?  Are they weak?  Are you in an abusive relationship? Do you wonder, “What is wrong with me that I stay in this crazy relationship?”

If you or someone you care about is in an abusive relationship of any sort – physical, emotional, verbal, etc., think about any “red flags” you’ve noticed about the abuser and write a list. For example, here are some typical “red flags” that abusers have displayed:

  • He/she is very jealous
  • He/she is possessive
  • He/she cheated on me
  • He/she lied to me
  • He/she gave me the silent treatment
  • He/she accused me of cheating
  • He/she yelled at me
  • He/she humiliated me
  • He/she slapped me/hit me

When asking a target or victim of abuse what he/she did with the red flag situation, you will find the following responses:

  • Minimization – making statements such as, “It was no big deal.” Or, “Everyone has disagreements.” Or, “No one’s perfect.” Not only does the victim minimize the abuse, so does the perpetrator, further reinforcing this defense mechanism’s effect.
  • Denial – Somehow the abusive incident never “registered” with the target.
  • Giving the abuser the benefit of the doubt, for instance, “He doesn’t mean to hurt my feelings by his behavior.” Or, “She doesn’t realize how this affects me.” Or, “He’s just lashing out because he’s hurt.”
  • Excuses it – This is similar to the benefit of the doubt, but includes a rationale for the person’s behavior, such as, “He only acts like this because his father treated him this way.” Or, “If I would have been home on time she wouldn’t have yelled at me.”
  • Internal Bargaining – “As long as I do this or that other thing, then I’ll be okay.” This strategy is a way for the victim to believe that he/she can handle bad behavior as long as they do a particular thing, such as stay sober, get an education, only have fights when the children aren’t around…
  • Doubting Oneself – “Maybe I’m over-reacting.” Or, “I’m too sensitive.”
  • Taking responsibility for the abuser’s behavior – After all, abusers blame the victim so often, he/she becomes accustomed to taking responsibility.
  • Taking on a parental role. The victim often views the perpetrator as a child who just doesn’t know any better.  He/she also does things for the abuser, such as a mother or father would do for their child. This is similar to the point above, “taking responsibility.”

In addition to the above, many victims of abuse seem to idealize their abusive partner, believing that the two of them have a special bond and a unique partnership.  The victim often believes that he/she is the one who can rescue his/her troubled loved one, and that if he/she can just prove the depth of his/her love and commitment to the abuser, then he/she will finally be able to relax in this love and stop resorting to their abusive ways.

If you find yourself ignoring or overlooking red flags, practicing any of the above (or other) listed coping mechanisms, and believe in an idealized version of your partner and your relationship, then here are some steps for you to take to find healing from this abusive relationship:

  1. Identify all the red flags your partner displayed to you during your entire relationship. Write them down so that you can see them with clarity.
  2. Now, identify all the different ways you allowed yourself to make sense of the red flags. This is very important because you need to learn how to change this pattern in your life. You cannot change your partner, but you can definitely change yourself.
  3. Your list will most likely grow over time as you ponder your relationship and all the different aspects of it. As you continue to break out of your denial, more will be revealed and your red-flag and coping strategy lists will get longer. This will help you to continue to live in reality, which is a necessary ingredient for growth.
  4. Notice how you romanticize your relationship, hold on to false hope that your partner will finally “see,” continue to idealize the good times and minimize or “forget” the bad; this will help you snap out of your denial. You also need to know your weaknesses when it comes to your partner, and prepare yourself accordingly to avoid setting yourself up to be further abused.
  5. Take action. Noticing, writing lists, and contemplating all that you do and need to do is one thing, but making changes in your relationship and life only comes with action. Take all of the information above and develop a “personal recovery plan.” This plan should include boundaries you will set for yourself, and steps you will take to protect yourself from further abuse.


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When a Victim of Abuse Experiences “Red Flags”

Sharie Stines, Psy.D

Sharie Stines, Psy.D. is a recovery expert specializing in personality disorders, complex trauma and helping people overcome damage caused to their lives by addictions, abuse, trauma and dysfunctional relationships. Sharie is a counselor at LIfeline Counseling & Education Inc., in Southern California ( Lifeline Counseling is a non-profit organization 501(c)(3) corporation. Sharie is also an abusive relationship recovery coach -


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APA Reference
Stines, S. (2017). When a Victim of Abuse Experiences “Red Flags”. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 11, 2018, from