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In an intimate relationship, we deserve to feel appreciated and supported, just as our partner deserves the same from us. Sexual coercion within relationships tends to be part of a pattern of controlling behaviors. To protect yourself and your partner, whatever your respective sexes and genders, learn what a healthy relationship looks like—and which behaviors will never work. Take the quiz.
She wants to make out. You tell her you’re on an assignment deadline. What does she say?
A. “I get it. Thank you for taking care of yourself.”
This response is reasonable and respectful. Acknowledge your partner’s support, thanking her for allowing you the space and time you need to finish your work. Then figure out when the two of you can get some cuddle time (if you both want it).
B. “Sure, it’s always about you.”
This is a bad sign, if she’s serious, and especially if this is part of a pattern. You shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for doing the right thing. Having an unsupportive partner might be a red flag. In an unhealthy relationship, “your partner might actively sabotage your goals. Maybe you get a job interview but your partner deletes the email so that you never know about it,” says Casey Corcoran, program director of Futures Without Violence, an organization working to end domestic abuse.
C. “Is it me? Have I done something?”
Insecurity may be innocent. In that case, let your partner know that it really is about the deadline. Taken too far, however, insecurity can become manipulative.
On the other hand, “if her partner is constantly busy and makes it her problem, this could leave her feeling insecure,” says Dana Cuomo, a researcher in intimate partner abuse at Pennsylvania State University. Making it the other person’s problem: red flag.
Why is he reading your texts from other people?
A. “I’m driving. I asked him to.”
You win—twice. You weren’t texting while driving, and you communicated your needs to your partner. In healthy relationships, partners respect each other’s privacy and don’t pry without permission.
B. “He doesn’t like me talking about our relationship with anyone else.”
One in three college students has given their partner their computer, email, or social network password, according to a 2011 poll conducted for Love Is Respect. These students are more likely to experience digital dating abuse (when someone uses technology to stalk, intimidate, or harass another person). Reading your texts without your permission could be a way of controlling whom you talk to. “If he starts to notice that your family and friends are concerned about your relationship, he may be looking to keep you away from them,” says Dana Cuomo of Pennsylvania State University.
C. “I’m in a coma. He’s letting my friends and family know.”
In a dire emergency, it’s reasonable for your partner to take the initiative.
“If you love me, you’ll do this.” Why is she saying this?
A. She can be manipulative.
This could be a sign of the repeated pressure that can occur in abusive relationships. “When your partner doesn’t respect your decisions around sex, she may try to manipulate or blame you,” says Casey Corcoran of Futures Without Violence.
B. She asked me to clip her toenails. It was a joke.
If you can find hilarity in toenails, yay.
C. She’s reading aloud from a terrible novel.
[Breathless voices:]“Why are you doing this to me?” he growled.
Her eyes flashed. “Because I…love you!”
He’s driving and you want him to slow down. Why?
A. We’re approaching a speed trap.
This seems reasonable except that he shouldn’t be speeding in the first place. If he follows your advice and slows down, it sounds like he’s treating you with respect.
B. So we don’t miss our turn.
As long as this doesn’t lead into a fight about each other’s driving abilities, this type of dialogue is part of a healthy relationship.
C. I’m nervous, and he finds that funny.
Why is it that when we tell some people we don’t like something, they think they know better? This can be about the other person’s immaturity; if so, they should grow up and slow down. But sometimes when your partner makes you nervous or uncomfortable, it’s a deliberate power tactic. There’s no excuse for driving recklessly, especially with someone else in the car. If he’s intending to scare and disempower you, this is abusive. “In unhealthy relationships, your partner does things that are meant to make you fearful,” says Casey Corcoran of Futures Without Violence.
One minute she’s loving and sweet, the next she’s pulling away and yelling. What’s going on?
A. We’re watching the game. The other team just scored.
Gently point out that it’s not your fault and not a reason to withdraw affection. Such is life.
B. Another misunderstanding. I need to be more careful about how I say things.
Do you often feel like you’re walking on eggshells? Is your partner volatile and always blaming you? If so, this is a red flag. If you can’t ever be sure you’re saying the right thing, reconsider the relationship. “You may feel as though you are on a roller coaster all the time,” says Casey Corcoran of Futures Without Violence. “One minute everything is fine, and the next she’s yelling.” You can’t relax because you never know what to expect. Again, look for a pattern.
C. She stepped on a scorpion, or at least a large cockroach.
This is a good example of a fixable problem. Find an exterminator to get rid of the pests. As the pain subsides, your partner should return to her loving self.
He’s upset about your relationship history. What’s going on?
A. He was insecure that my previous boyfriend looks like Ryan Gosling. Actually, was Ryan Gosling.
This might unsettle anyone (except Ryan Gosling). Assure your boyfriend that he rocks those ripped jeans way better than Ryan does.
If jealousy is a real issue, see C.
B. I haven’t been 100% abstinent.
Is he concerned about the importance of shared values and intentions? This is important. But so is respect, and your history does not deserve negative judgment. If he’s angry or insulting, that’s a red flag. If there’s constructive discussion and shared goals for your relationship, you’re probably doing OK.
C. He really loses it when he gets jealous. We’re working on that.
“This can be a sign of a bigger issue, especially if your partner becomes physically or emotionally abusive when they lose it,” says Casey Corcoran of Futures Without Violence. You may find yourself in a situation where you’re out at the bar and run into someone you’ve been intimate with before, and when your partner finds out, he gets very upset: “This happens when the abuser sees you as their property,” says Dana Cuomo of Pennsylvania State University. “It is part of the pattern of power and control in abusive relationships in which you aren’t allowed to make choices about your own life.”
She buys you an extravagant gift. What’s the context?
A. We had a fight and she wants to make up.
Over-the-top gestures can be part of a pattern of abuse and making up. For example, “They might get so angry that they hit you during a fight. Then later they bring you a bouquet of flowers,” says Casey Corcoran of Futures Without Violence. These gestures often happen during what’s called the “honeymoon” stage in abusive relationships. “This is the time when the abuser tries to regain control,” says Dana Cuomo of Pennsylvania State University. “The cycle has three stages: The tension builds, it turns into a fight, and then they apologize and say they’ll never do it again.” For the other person, this is very confusing.
B. It’s our two-year anniversary.
C. It’s a brand new relationship and she’s totally into me.
Again, over-the-top gestures can be a red flag. An extravagant gift implies that you have an obligation to that person. In the early stages of a potentially abusive relationship, there might be pressure to say you love them, spend most of your time together, or make some other kind of commitment. Tread carefully.
He doesn’t want you to wear that outfit. What’s that about?
A. At first he liked this on me. Now he says it’s too flirty.
Sixteen percent of college students reported that their significant other had told them how to dress, according to a 2011 poll conducted for Love Is Respect. This behavior may be rooted in jealousy. He may be thinking that “if you‘re wearing something flirty, you’ll draw the attention of another guy and that will be your fault,” says Dana Cuomo of Pennsylvania State University. “It is very manipulative because it isn’t your fault at all; it’s because he doesn’t trust you not to act on another man’s advances.”
B. There’s a rip in the seam I hadn’t noticed.
This one’s a keeper.
C. He’s worried I’ll get a sunburn—and he’s probably right.
Ask him to rub sunscreen on you—a water-resistant sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays, with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 (American Academy of Dermatology guidelines).
Get help or find out more
The National Domestic Violence Hotline