Red Flags and the Diagnosis Dilemma

“Am I overreacting?”

“Isn’t it wrong NOT to give this person the benefit of the doubt?”

“He’s never hurt me physically, so I don’t think he’s abusive, so isn’t it the right thing to do to stick it out and try to make the relationship work?”

“Should I get out of this relationship, even though he hasn’t been diagnosed with any kind of mental or personality disorder?”

These types of questions are so common among people who are trying to figure out whether or not to get out of unhappy relationships. And these questions are valid, because they keep in mind our own motivations – are we being needlessly paranoid, or selfish, ourselves?

Yet there comes a point when these questions can keep a person in a state of paralysis. We are so concerned about being good people, doing the right thing, following the “Golden Rule”, that we forget that the “Golden Rule” is a two-way street. We also don’t see the insidious ways a disordered partner can influence us to put parts of ourselves “on the shelf” or drop our defenses in order to control us in the service of their wants and needs.

There are many great online resources that outline relationship “red flags” that, if we choose to notice them, can help indicate whether we are just going through normal relationship turbulence or if we are in a truly toxic situation.

Those of us who have been through poisonous relationships might define some of our red flags differently, but I am sharing mine, with how they played out. These are red flags that, in hindsight (and in my opinion), are serious enough to merit ending a relationship right then and there, in many cases, especially when these things are noted early.


I used to think that chemical substance abuse (drugs, alcohol) was the thing to watch for, but after a few more years on this planet and learning about more dysfunctional entanglements others have had, I now include anything that people do to mood-alter or self-medicate. We all have our issues, but addiction of any sort is something you must at least be aware of.

And on that note: Drop the savior complex and don’t take it upon yourself to convince that person to change, or support them in fixing their crap when it’s your idea that they need to change. Don’t convince yourself that if you just show them how much you love them, stand by them, accept them, that they will change. Change has to be a choice they make for themselves and enact for themselves. And sometimes the payoff in staying addicted is greater than sobriety – take, for example, an addiction to power.

I had that “Savior Complex” pretty bad with Psycho #2… I was almost ready to shell out $32k to buy him a new boat if he’d just quit drinking… and we were just dating. Thankfully I never voiced that (stupid, stupid) ill-conceived notion to him or acted on it. His next victim married him and gave birth to his child, so yeah, wannabe saviors will go to some crazy extremes banking on change.

I’ve seen some pretty demented behavior come from adherents to “The Secret” movement, as well. Fantasy thinking, basing one’s actions on what one wishes would be, in spite of a contrasting reality that is MUCH different and darker, just is bad news all around, especially when you’re dealing with adult men and women. If you’re unknowingly dealing with a narc, or worse, basing your evaluation of that person on what you perceive as their golden, shining “potential”, is like basing a calculation on bad data; they impression manage the heck out of themselves so what you see is only what they want you to see, or worse, what you’ve deluded yourself into seeing.


This goes beyond minor acts of stealing – though this is the behavior that you may notice first. (Even if it’s something small, almost inconsequential, be on alert, however.) Theft, as I am defining it, is the taking of things, services, etc. that would not be freely given to a person if he or she had engaged in full, honest disclosure of his or her intentions.

I went to a movie with Psycho #1 once. There were automated ticket kiosks, and he happened upon a receipt that someone had left in the ticket drop. He proceeded to take the receipt over to the manned ticket counter, and went on a tirade about how the machine had taken his money and not given him a ticket! Because of the scene he was causing, they handed him a ticket. I was too stunned to process what had happened at the time, and he was pretty self-satisfied. I didn’t bring up the matter with him, even though it didn’t sit right with me. Little did I know this was a small representation of how he operated – literally the tip of the iceberg in terms of the types of scams he was involved with. I didn’t understand the enormity of some of the things he was engaged in (if I knew about them at all) until long after his death. I should have walked away after the ticket fiasco, I’ll just leave it at that.

Here are a few catch phrases that I will now keep in my mind as “alerts” that I am about to be parted from something important to me. This is not limited to money but may include a place to live, credit, sex, using your good name to raise his own credibility, to get close to your friends and family so he can exploit them, and so on:

-“Social engineering”
-“Do me a favour”
-Any flattery early in the relationship (many salesmen use this tactic)
-“These are modern times, women shouldn’t expect men to buy meals for them” (meanwhile Psycho #1 thought nothing of taking advantage of my generosity at restaurants)
-“I forgot my wallet”
-Never buy ANYTHING from ANYONE unless you have done independent research on the item’s worth
-Receiving a put-down (be careful, these can be very subtle but may also extend to displays of rage) when asserting a boundary, saying no, or calling a person on questionable behavior
-If you ask that person directly if their motives are not mutually beneficial, and they flip the conversation around to make it seem like you are accusing them or otherwise implying their motives are less than pure (and thus pressuring you to drop the subject), you are probably being taken advantage of

The list goes on.


This tactic ensnares many an empathically-oriented individual. Martha Stout, in her fascinating book, “The Sociopath Next Door”, says that this is one of the most telling behaviors that you dealing with a sociopath.

The pity play, from my experience, happens relatively early on. You are told tales of woe – the death of a parent, an upbringing with an abusive, alcoholic father, a nasty boss or hostile work environment, money woes, a broken heart, yada yada yada. In the cases of both psychopaths who abused me, these pity plays were interspersed with some pretty grandiose statements or implications indeed – such as proclaimed professional success, financial stability, expert knowledge, etc. Both seemingly attempted to simultaneously aggrandise themselves in your eyes, yet make you feel sorry for them… Maybe for purposes of disarming you, or getting you emotionally involved, or invested in “solving their problems”.

Psycho #1 had a female accomplice in some of his undertakings, and she did some of the same things (I, too, believe she is likely a psychopath). I believe Psycho #1 functioned somewhat as a “procurer” of victims for the female – going online, befriending and/or bedding multiple women (and men), gaining their trust and creating an emotional bond (ensuring loyalty) and then swooping in to both manipulate his victims himself, and allow the female to gain access to exploit the same victims (to their mutual benefit, in some cases). Psycho #1 was very convincing – he could have you offering to buy him dinner, while he had an enormous, brand-new flat screen TV in his home, though you had nothing to your name that expensive. The female was a con artist who would enlist your cooperation, then cleverly reframe her maneuverings to make you think you were helping someone by what she was asking you to do. The female also used flattery, attention, tales of woe, etc. to gain your trust and try to manipulate you. Together they created a high-pressure, yet no-pressure tactic to get you to do what they wanted – Psycho #1 had you so bonded to him emotionally, dependent even, because he targeted people very much alone and vulnerable – that you wouldn’t dare question some of his (or their) actions or risk losing his “friendship” or have him question your sanity. He used gaslighting extensively. At that time, I was a prime candidate for exploitation, is all I can say.


Both my psychopaths had, in hindsight, an annoying habit of pitting people against each other. I can laugh at it now, like at an oversexed dog humping a random person’s leg, but at a time when you still are still emotionally invested, it is pretty painful. Both of these idiots engaged in almost identical tactics.

Psychopath #1 would tell me stories about the new woman he was seeing – stories that would make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The things he was saying about this woman (the woman he eventually married, who found him dead of a drug overdose in her basement less than a week after the wedding) were enough to make me fear for his safety – he very artfully wrangled up my protective side and pretty soon I was sending emails urging him to be careful with this apparently very unstable woman. I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect he was engaging in similar smear campaigns about me with her. A few months before I opted to go No Contact with Psycho #1, I attempted to disengage from their drama; I told him that I sensed very strongly that his new girlfriend didn’t like me and that I would be keeping some distance from him/them out of respect for their relationship. That night I got a threatening phone call from his new woman (voicemail, thank goodness) berating me for saying nasty things about Psycho #1 and so on, telling me to leave them alone until I was willing to apologize and behave like an adult or something to that effect (?). Trying to disengage from the drama only got me into more of it; I was so floored by this voicemail that I didn’t sleep that night, and phoned Psycho #1 the next day to try to understand what the hell happened. He told me he was going to keep things on the down-low with his new woman for the time being regarding him and I still talking, and I was roped back in for a few more months.

Psycho #2 was a lot more subtle, at least with me… He did flirt with other women all the time when we were “dating” but I didn’t care. Even the woman he dumped me for didn’t faze me much. As with Psycho #1, I tried to avoid drama when I recognized it, and I am not terribly prone to jealousy. But Psycho #2 liked to occasionally imply that “I wanted what I could not have” (meaning him, of course, the narc idiot), and I am pretty sure he implied this to his new girlfriend – maybe not that I was direct competition, but that I was waiting in the wings, hoping. (Not true, but he is entitled to his delusions.) The new girlfriend admitted being jealous of me near the end of my contact with them, so obviously, he was successful. I didn’t bite, I just ended the relationship with him, but as evident from the way his girlfriend did an about-face, despite having come to me for information about Psycho #2, I am pretty sure he must have slammed me to her.

At any rate, if you find yourself in these weird little triangles, the person at the center of the conflict is likely up to something naughty and is playing puppet master for the purpose of distraction.


The above behaviors are by no means exhaustive, and they are just what I’ve noticed from my own experience, but they were definite signs I kind of saw but didn’t act on when I should have. I describe them so that maybe you will see parallels with your own experiences.

As screwed up as these behaviors are, the questions at the beginning of this post still come up. Because we are human, and capable of attachment and empathy, we don’t want to accept the reality that this person we love and perhaps have committed to is doing these things.

Some feel their significant other should have a proper diagnosis before a decision is made about staying or leaving.

But this is the thing: a diagnosis is unlikely, ever. Most psychopaths and narcissists don’t necessarily get caught doing what they’re doing, even if they are engaged in illegal acts. A lot of the time, they simply operate in a “grey area” of legality or morality, and often do a lot of their interpersonal damage when there are no witnesses. (Both psychos were very adept at this.) The majority of therapists aren’t well versed regarding psychopathy and narcissism, either, which is problematic when a victim goes for counselling with a disordered partner. The narcissist or psychopath apparently can be so suave and charming that the frazzled victim looks disordered. Not good. So what is a victim to do?

It’s a complex issue with no easy answers, but getting people talking about this stuff is one way to get the word out that people who manifest manipulative behaviors are best avoided as much as possible. Even seemingly minor acts or issues, like the ones I describe above, can portend or obscure more egregious things that person is up to.

Don’t wait for a diagnosis. If something isn’t sitting right with you, don’t be afraid to take a step back, delve deeper (there are a few times in my life I wish I’d hired a private investigator!), or even walk away.

2 comments on “Red Flags and the Diagnosis Dilemma

  1. Again, you don’t seem to realise that once you stop playing their game and reject them in any way, they freak. HE manipulated that woman and told her you said those nasty things to punish you for ‘rejecting him’….. you were right to get out….Think yourself lucky that all you got was a nasty phonecall….Other psychos like a bit of vengeance and would have stalked and harrassed you… When freaky people shout at you for something you havent done you have to know that it isnt your fault and that you’ll get over it..Be glad you are out and you did the right thing getting out, whatever nasty little repercussions there were….never expect a narc to go ”so you are going NC – ok thats fine!!! i wish you well!! Love you!!!” ….Think of it like pulling off a plaster…band-aid…you know what I mean….

    • LOL, the funny thing is, it is really hard sometimes to see the toxic drama you are in, until you are out of it for a while. I think most people who are entangled with master manipulators also go through a fair amount of time blaming themselves for the problems in the relationshit, or slipping into deep feelings of inadequacy, which can make it hard to see the situation and narc behavior for what it is. No Contact with them now for over three years (and particularly the narc/sociopath), and my life is infinitely better for it. While I still think the therapist is a twit, and that I would have been better off following my gut at the time, the big “explosion” ultimately helped me define better boundaries for myself. Thanks for stopping by!

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