Back when I was a middle school counselor, I talked a lot with teens who were just starting to explore romantic relationships.
This was a pivotal time for them, when they were deciding what relationship behavior they’d accept, and what crossed a line. But many of them had never had an open conversation with an adult about healthy relationships, and sometimes they had a hard time telling the difference between romantic and unhealthy (even abusive) behavior.
Here are a few common relationship behaviors I saw that are actually major red flags for abuse.
1. Your partner asks for your passwords
The behavior: Your partner asks for your phone’s passcode, social media log-in information, or other personal password. When you hesitate, they accuse you of hiding something, lying, or not trusting them. Maybe they make it seem like a form of intimacy: “We could do [this] together, but you won’t let me into your account!”
Why is this unhealthy? A healthy relationship is built on trust. If a significant other is blaming you for setting boundaries, then you can’t trust them to respect your individuality. That’s worrying. This behavior tells you that your partner has a difficult time trusting that someone will value them enough to be faithful. Instead of working through that insecurity, they are tasking you with proving your loyalty by giving up your privacy.
2. They try to catfish you
The behavior: Your partner pretends to be a cute person who starts flirting with you via text or private messages on social media in order to “catch” you cheating.
Why is this unhealthy? This is an attempt on your boo’s behalf to prove that their insecurities are real. Unfortunately, people who see things in a pessimistic way can be really good at making those negative thoughts come true. This is a self-fulling prophecy. Your partner is so scared that you will cheat on them that they try to recreate all of the ways they think you might cheat on them. Remember: The burden of working through and healing those insecurities falls on them, not on you.
3. They sulk or get angry if you don’t respond right away
The behavior: When you don’t immediately respond to your partner’s texts or phone calls, they get angry and accuse you of cheating or not caring about them. They may say that they just needed to know that you were safe.
Why is this unhealthy? It’s possible that your partner tends to worry, or that they’ve been through something that makes them especially concerned for your safety. But again, your partner’s emotions are not your responsibility. Having to check in this way is controlling and unhealthy. Your partner’s sense of safety and peace should never depend on someone else. They need to accept responsibility for working through their feelings.
4. They threaten you, themselves, or your things
The behavior: You and your partner get into a disagreement, which turns into a screaming match. They threaten to dump you, hit you, or ruin your new shoes. They might throw their phone, punch the wall, or even shove you. Once, they threatened to hurt themselves. You’re worried that unless you agree with them, they might go through with it.
Why is this unhealthy? All of these behaviors are abusive. It’s important to realize that behaviors like these are not normal. You deserve to feel safe in your relationship. It’s possible that your partner thinks this is an ok way to express themselves because it’s how their parents or caregivers behave. But even if their anger comes from a place of pain, it’s still not ok. A caring adult, like a counselor, can help them learn to cope with their emotions in a healthy way. Again, your partner’s emotions are not your responsibility and it is not ever on you to change or “save” your partner.
5. Your partner is jealous of your friends
The behavior: Your girlfriend has started telling you that you can’t hang out with your best friend because they’re a girl. Or your boyfriend sulks and gets angry every time you make plans with another boy.
Why is this unhealthy? Your significant other is indicating that they don’t trust you or respect your need for other relationships. As we’ve said before, relationships are built on trust and respect. This behavior is also controlling and serves to isolate you from the people around you. In healthy relationships, both partners make time for their own friendships.
What can you do if you’re worried about a friend?
If a friend’s partner acts in any of these ways, tell your friend. Check in with them, but don’t tell them what to do. If you tell them to break up, they might tell their partner, who may further isolate them from you. Tell your friend how you feel: “I’m worried—I noticed they’re really pressing you for your password. How does that make you feel?” Help them weigh the pros and cons. You can also ask them if they feel safe, or have ever felt scared around their partner. Make sure they know that it’s always ok to say no. Encourage them to talk to the school counselor or an adult you both trust, or offer to go with them.
Figuring out boundaries and navigating relationships is HARD. If you think you might be in an unhealthy relationship, you are not alone. If you’re 10-22 years old and live near NYC, you can come to the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center to talk to a counselor for free. You can also speak to a counselor at school, your parent, or another adult you trust. If you don’t feel safe or aren’t sure what to do next, you can call the Love is Respect hotline at 1-866-331-8453 or text “loveis” to 22522. They can connect you to resources in your area.
Zuleyma Rivera, LMSW is a clinical social worker with a specialization in children, youth and families, and in treating trauma in adolescents. Zuleyma has worked in community-based preventative services agencies and outpatient substance use disorder clinics, and as a home-based family therapist and school-based clinician. She is currently an outpatient clinical social worker at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in Manhattan.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.