Give me the benefit of your hindsight!
September 18, 2010 3:15 PM   Subscribe

If you have ever been involved with someone who turned out to be dangerous, what were the things you realize in hindsight were warning signs?

Most of us can probably point to at least one person in our lives that we wish we'd never met. Not simply because they were a downer, but because they ended up doing tangible harm in our lives, not accidentally or as collateral damage, but as a result of some character flaw that would have been discernible quite early if we'd known what to look for. Examples include, but are not limited to: the boyfriend that turns out to be a womanizer, the coworker that steals your idea, the friend that doesn't do any one dramatic thing but shows a pattern of behaviour that proves seriously damaging over time (say, subtle undermining that intensifies right when you need it least, such as before job interviews when you're unemployed and very demoralized).

In those cases, what are the earliest warning signs you can remember, and what are the reasons you did or didn't act on them? (e.g. benefit of the doubt/really needed the job so you took it regardless/didn't realize the significance at that point/etc.)
posted by tel3path to Human Relations (65 answers total) 121 users marked this as a favorite
My first serious relationship was with a pathological liar. I caught him in a couple of lies early on that I should have taken more seriously. I later found out that he had lied about essentially everything he told me about himself. The lies were often unflattering to him or so trivial as to be pointless to lie about, which made it harder for me to recognize the problem at the time.

When you care about someone, you give them the benefit of the doubt. You don't want to admit to yourself that a person you care about is capable of great harm, so you do a lot to cover that reality up. It becomes a referendum on you as a person- would you really date an [insert crazy here]?
posted by emilyd22222 at 3:30 PM on September 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Last boyfriend had a horrible temper and was definitely a splitter (in the cognitive behavioral therapy sense; he either put people on a pedestal or hated their guts). He thought it was funny to "troll" people.

I rationalized it as him being young, that he'd grow out of it, and that he didn't treat ME like that.

Funny, as soon as I did something he didn't agree with, guess who turned on me?
posted by saveyoursanity at 3:32 PM on September 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: In various situations along the lines of those you mentioned, if there has been one consistent thing, it's that the people seemed to have been very caught up in their images. They had to shine at work, they had to be desired by people, etc.

Regarding actions or lack of them, hindsight's 20-20, love has reasons that reason does not know, some battles aren't worth fighting, I'd rather end a friendship a little too late than a little too early.
posted by ambient2 at 3:34 PM on September 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

May I suggest some reading material? The Sociopath Next Door, and I Hate You, Don't Leave Me. Both sociopathic and borderline behaviors can really be damaging to the people that are involved with a person with these traits. (Hell, a person really flying the borderline behaviors can go through an entire small down like an emotional tornado.)

People with either of these traits can really cause the folks around them to begin questioning their own sanity. This is exacerbated by the subtlety of some sociopathic behaviors, and the sheer allure of folks with borderline traits.

I would go into detail of my personal experiences, but frankly, the idea of doing so just wears me out.
posted by thebrokedown at 3:35 PM on September 18, 2010 [14 favorites]

Clinginess, especially before you know each other very well.
posted by oinopaponton at 3:38 PM on September 18, 2010 [16 favorites]

I've known a few people with borderline personality disorder...they fall in love fast, become posessive, lie, stalk, are paranoid, friends think there is something wrong with them (and they are right), very needy, depressed, threaten suicide if you leave, call 500 times a day. At first all of these signs look like they are really in love with you but after a while, you find that they have serious issues!
posted by MsKim at 3:38 PM on September 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have a friend who habitually gets involved with the worst guys, and her choice of female friends/roommates has not been too stellar either.All her old friends see the warning signs shortly after meeting the person, but it takes her months, sometimes years, to admit to herself something is seriously wrong. Some of them have turned out to be abusive, one in particular, most are just unsuitable jerks.

One sign to look for is that at first they seem too good to be true, attentive, flattering, huge romantic gestures. But their interest in you soon becomes one more thing that is all about them, you being just a bit player in their self-scripted drama. Another danger sign is tales of past "bad luck" that was always someone else' fault. This can either be in relationships of work-related, but a long tale of those who "done them wrong" is not good. Many ex-friends or ex-lovers/spouses bodes ill, especially if there are few current friends. Extreme jealousy or the need to control is bad. Bipolar or manic kind of behavior is a warning signal too, as are signs of narcissism. Also, when you start to pull away and they use guilt to try to keep you there.

In my life, I had a friend for many years who I finally realized only liked me when I agreed with her on everything and was always there for her, but she felt free to leave me hanging emotionally and in working in a group we both belonged to. Several times she left me with a mess when she pulled out of a project because of her emotional problems. She also was the type who was always telling me and others "for your own good" what we did wrong, where we fell short etc.She has a very overbearing personality and I tend to be quiet and conciliatory, and she took advantage of this. I ignored a lot of signs for many years, but finally had enough and have cut off contact with her. But it took a long time and several reconciliations instigated by her, then soon she was doing the same things again.

If you are not sure about someone, it can't hurt to ask trusted friends what they think of the person, and take their advice seriously.
posted by mermayd at 3:39 PM on September 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

The bad ones (and there have been many) have nearly always been the ones I don't want to meet my friends because they "just wouldn't understand." Also, anyone I continually make excuses for is bad news.

(The first sign should actually be that I'm interested in the first place. I've got terrible taste in partners.)
posted by mollymayhem at 3:45 PM on September 18, 2010 [16 favorites]

In my experience with an ex who turned out to be a very dangerous character for me, and who I really wish I never met, some of the early red flags of instability that I ignored were:

- phone calls at inappropriate times of the day - hello? what's going on? I'm at work
- his overeating - hard to notice at first because a lot of it happened in private
- he would cook foods I was allergic to - are you forgetting? or ignoring the fact?
- he would suggest other people that I might be better suited for - I'm with you remember?

I didn't act on any of these early signs because he was very very charming, and very caring, and very present. He was so persistent and involved that he just became part of my life before I had time to reflect on if this was the right relationship for me or not. It all seemed to happen so fast.

The time I acted on them is when my roomate handed me this book.
posted by gillianr at 3:46 PM on September 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Men who tell you within the first few encounters about child abuse histories. People with boundaries, who aren't trolling for a "fixer" or a hostage, don't tell you about cold withholding fathers, physical or sexual abuse, or the tragic details of a parent's death on dates 1-3. Watch for anyone who tells you (explicitly or otherwise) that they can be healed by love and understanding from you.

For friendships: understand that anyone who tells you gruesomely personal or vicious gossip about her other friends to undermine them, is doing the same to you behind your back--or will.
posted by availablelight at 3:54 PM on September 18, 2010 [27 favorites]

I dated a pathological liar as a teenager. She wasn't dangerous, but definitely not a good thing ion my life. I didn't find out until after we'd broken up that pretty much everything she'd told me about her life was a lie. Her Dad wasn't abusive, and her Mom wasn't dead, she even staged a car accident while she was on the phone with me. After we broke up she even told everyone at her school that I'd raped her. I found out about all of this when our schools played soccer against each other and one of the guys on the other team told me that everyone already knew she lied about everything so, thankfully, no one believed her. The only thing that I could have thought more of in retrospect is that she never let me meet her dad or any of her other friends because it would have put many of her lies in danger of being exposed. That, and the outlandish amount of drama, bad luck and coincidence that would have had to exist in her life. But, hey, when you're 16 a cute girl with a cat-ear hoodie gets a lot of benefit from the doubt.
posted by cmoj at 3:57 PM on September 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "Sure, he can be a little [bad thing] sometimes but he makes up for it by being so [multiple very good things]."
posted by Rhomboid at 4:00 PM on September 18, 2010 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I had a roommate in grad school who was extremely controlling and probably a sociopath or a narcissist of some stripe. He was one of those people who's very charming and intense right off the bat, in a way that seemed very magnetic and you felt flattered and lucky to be around him. But early on, there were warning signs -- he was extremely critical and would form strong and unshakable (negative) opinions and conclusions based on the scantest of evidence in a way that I found pretty unsettling and intimidating. In retrospect, I should have backed out of our decision to room together early on, but since I was in a new town and didn't know anyone else -- and, of course, was already intimidated by him -- I figured I could stick it out.

As it turned out, of course, we were barely on speaking terms after a few months (except to get into screaming matches) and toward the end of our lease, I was just staying at friends' houses to avoid him as much as possible. It wasn't just that we weren't a good match, personality-wise -- it really was that he was crazy and creepy. For example, we were having a (civil) conversation one day over coffee or something about general thoughts/wishes/plans for the future. On the topic of having children, I remember starting to say something about how if I had children, I would have some anxiety about their well-being because -- and here he interrupted me to interject, "oh yeah, fear of not being able to stop yourself from molesting your own children, I know, I worry about that too." Stunned, I replied that actually, no, I did not fear that I would molest my children, but now that he mentioned it, I would be afraid of other people molesting my children. He just smiled sarcastically and said "oh, right. 'Other people.'"

I think that was the day I started staying at other people's places for good.
posted by scody at 4:12 PM on September 18, 2010 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Above all, trust your gut instinct, and don't feel like you have to be "nice"/"Christian"/"understanding." In every case where I've been burned, I had some sense early on that something wasn't quite right, but I didn't want to seem/feel judgmental....I flattered myself (because that's really what it is, at some level) by telling myself that while most other people might judge/misunderstand/snub someone, I wasn't so shallow and unkind and wouldn't reject someone just for being "a little different", or not having much in common with me, or whatever it was.

This is a common trait of those of us who survived a bit of bullying as children (not wanting to exclude others in the way we sometimes were in elementary school or whatever), and while it might be an asset in many cases, it's also something that predatory and abusive people can smell on you like chum on the water, and they know how to manipulate you around it.
posted by availablelight at 4:15 PM on September 18, 2010 [28 favorites]

tel3path: "but as a result of some character flaw that would have been discernible quite early if we'd known what to look for. "

I'm not sure about that, and honestly, while I'm sure it's not your intention this question arguably smacks of victim blaming. It's easy to say for example "Oh, if only I'd seen at the start how posessive he was" when you're walking out of an abusive relationship" but you know, at the start of a relationship, a lot of couples are mutually besotted and only want to spend their time with each other. Normally that eases off and everything is fine, but if you're in a situation where it doesn't that doesn't mean your judgement was flawed.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:16 PM on September 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Boss: she made terribly demeaning comments about everyone who had filled the job I was there to do (stupid, clumsy, ignorant, etc) and then after a few weeks she was making those same comments about me. From the very begining of my employment she had also made it subtly difficult for me to do my job. Mysteriously moving things. Not explaining the entire process of a task. Tearing carbon sheets out of my message pad and removing the originals from the doctor's desk/my pile of things to discuss with doc. Not giving me faxes addressed to me. These latter things took me a while to figure out, but I stayed at the job even after I had. Why? Because I had talked to the doctor and he promised he would make her behave, because he understood that her attitude was inappropriate. Months later, nothing was better and I was contemplating throwing myself off a landing in our stairwell so that I could go to the hospital instead of endure this woman for another day. Thankfully for me, I go in my car and drove home instead.

Potential boyfriend (oh there are many in this category):

One slagged off about me to a mutual friend. He got the ax before anything could go further.

Guys who blame me for their staring/groping/etc don't get a date with me. (Frankly, I'm surprised they even ask.)

Guys who joke about domestic violence. No date either. (Regardless of how they respond to my telling them that such jokes don't fly.)

People who behave unethically in their work lives are not people I want personal relationships with, but they don't usually come out and say that they're blah blah blahing. If they do, wow, bold!

I'm a big fan of the "people tell you who they are" mantra. If someone at work tells me that they're flaky, I believe them. If someone tells me that they hate women? I believe them? If someone tells me that they can't keep it in their pants? I believe them? If someone tells me that they always get what they want? (in or out of a context of, "I'm grateful for what I receive and consider myself to have a lucky and blessed life") I believe them.

I'm sure there are tons more that I can't think of right now because I have a new job and a huge personal trip coming up that's taking a lot of my mental energy.
posted by bilabial at 4:17 PM on September 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This might be another relevant thread (how to avoid people who need to be "fixed"). I posted in there too.

I personally don't avoid people with mental illnesses or bad histories or whatever, BUT, the key thing is that they use their knowledge of their weaknesses so that they can work around them and mostly keep them from affecting their life or their relationships. They have reasonably high expectations of themselves. They have good plans/supports in place.

Conversely, when someone can identify what they're doing wrong as a result of their mental issues, but they don't take steps to solve the problem or prevent it in the future, HUGE WARNING SIGN. If they expect you to go out of your way to accommodate their issues and blame you when you don't do so, HUGE WARNING SIGN.

Basically: people who feel powerless or out of control tend to behave as though they shouldn't be held accountable for their actions. "I couldn't help it" is really not something you want to hear except in extreme circumstances.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:32 PM on September 18, 2010 [21 favorites]

Person described family members as having a really tenuous grasp on reality and gave examples. Person's description of this seemed to imply a better grasp on reality; in the end this was not the case.
posted by beerbajay at 4:32 PM on September 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Guilt tripping. Guilt is a useless emotion. Generally, only people with hidden agendas do this. You’re not the bad guy; anyone who makes you feel like one doesn’t really love you.

Inspiring pity and being totally unashamed about it. Crying, looking pathetic, and enjoying the attention instead of being a bit embarrassed.

Asking little questions about anyone male that you happen to talk to, like when you’re telling a story about something that happened a while ago, and he interjects, “Did he hit on you or what?” or similar comments. (replace fe/male s/he as necessary)

Not remembering little things. This seems so innocuous, but it’s one of the clearest signs when a relationship is about to go sour in my experience. He forgets names of your friends, forgets you already told him that story, forgets that you don’t like pasta salad, or whatever. It indicates that he’s glossing over what you’re saying as not important and sees your presence alone as the means to his end (IE having a girlfriend in general, sex, whatever)

Always looking at you through the lense of him, saying things like “I learned from you.” “I like you.” “I do things for you.” Instead of you-statements “You taught me. You’re likable and interesting. You make me feel awesome.”

Making you responsible for his happiness first. "You hurt me! How could you? I was so happy." Instead of "I want you to be happy."
posted by Nixy at 4:35 PM on September 18, 2010 [35 favorites]

Example 1: A woman who moved into a close friendship with me very rapidly, meanwhile dissing on former friends. You can guess how that turned out.

Example 2: A guy my age (mid-30s at the time) who was just breaking up with his 20-year old wife. After we dated for a few weeks, he started dating a 19-year-old.

Hindsight is 20/20. However, I'd like to think that age and learning from experience have led me to make better friendship choices.
posted by matildaben at 4:36 PM on September 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh--another thing to watch out for.

Some people have different moral values based on the person they're interacting with.

Meaning, they think it's okay to be mean/abusive/deceptive to people as long as they are [X].

NO! You want to be around people whose morality is about them--the kind of person they want to be, no matter who they're dealing with.

Otherwise it's easy to find yourself suddenly on their bad side and then they think it's perfectly okay to be shitty towards you.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:41 PM on September 18, 2010 [17 favorites]

Response by poster: "I'm not sure about that, and honestly, while I'm sure it's not your intention this question arguably smacks of victim blaming. It's easy to say for example "Oh, if only I'd seen at the start how posessive he was" when you're walking out of an abusive relationship" but you know, at the start of a relationship, a lot of couples are mutually besotted and only want to spend their time with each other. Normally that eases off and everything is fine, but if you're in a situation where it doesn't that doesn't mean your judgement was flawed."

No, that's exactly my point. I've been the victim of dangerous people numerous times and I can see where I spotted warning signs but couldn't or wouldn't do anything about them.

I'm presently trying to claw my way out of an infatuation with someone who made a completely morally dodgy pass at me almost a year ago. I didn't get involved with him, but if the circumstances had been right (as in minimally morally acceptable) I would have leapt on him from a great height. This is despite all the WARNING WARNING SIRENS KLAXONS VERY VERY DODGY BEHAVIOUR ALERT. And I would have done it basically because I was desperate for a shag (garnished with other reasons, but that's it in a nutshell).

I've taken note of dodgy behaviour from bosses.One of them let me work myself into exhaustion while she took off on holiday; she was publicly sympathetic to the injury I suffered as a direct result, and offered to compensate me by allowing me to plan two free days off... after an upcoming seven-day week... as long as I made sure I got the work done the subsequent weekend. I gave her the benefit of the doubt that she was "just" disorganized and under pressure because her previous victim^^^^hhhh assistant had quit "unexpectedly". Of course, you have to be pretty organized to pull stunts like that. The simple explanation is that I wanted to believe in her good faith because I really needed the job.

So yeah, in the first case I "blame" myself, but it's also becoming more and more clear how deliberately manipulative that guy was, and it's not like I acted on my feelings. In the second case, I hold myself blameless because all I did was need a job, and wanted to believe I wasn't a complete fall guy while I was in that job.

But blame is really tangential to what I'm getting at here. We'll all be tempted, and one of the ways people manipulate us is by using something we desperately want or need. What I'm trying to do is increase my insight and thereby my resistance to temptation.
posted by tel3path at 4:45 PM on September 18, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, and, in case it wasn't clear, I don't think most people embark on abusive relationships because they're gaily disregarding obvious warning signs. I think they get drawn in because the abuser has successfully fooled them by masquerading as someone really nice and lovely. But even the very subtlest can give themselves away early enough that you can escape, so another way of wording my question is, what are examples of how they've given themselves away?
posted by tel3path at 5:01 PM on September 18, 2010

Back in the days when LoveLine rocked, Adam and Dr. Drew spent a lot of time telling people with histories of getting involved with abusive, terrible partners to avoid the people who seemed "shiny" or compelling and run toward the supposedly boring characters and give them a chance. It could be less about the obvious signs than your picking mechanism...when you're internally programmed for drama, you tend toward drama like a moth to a flame.

That said, magnetic charisma is my #1 warning sign. Like...hyperbolically, insanely, scarily (in a thrilling way) charismatic. Not to say there's anything wrong with charisma, but no good has ever come out of my relationships with those people.
posted by mynameisluka at 5:03 PM on September 18, 2010 [18 favorites]

Best answer: People I've found to be toxic for me have exhibited some of the following early warning signs:
- were charming in public and changed to belittling or controlling in private after a short initial period of acquaintance
- tried to discourage me from staying in touch with friends and relatives
- had close relatives or close friends I was uncomfortable around, not always for reasons I could easily describe in words
- tried to assume a high degree of familiarity very quickly
- tended to assign blame and guilt to anyone but themselves
- did not respect explicit boundaries I set
- had significantly different values (including work ethic or moral code) than my own
posted by thatdawnperson at 5:06 PM on September 18, 2010 [23 favorites]

Best answer: Not remembering little things. This seems so innocuous, but it’s one of the clearest signs when a relationship is about to go sour in my experience. He forgets names of your friends, forgets you already told him that story, forgets that you don’t like pasta salad, or whatever. It indicates that he’s glossing over what you’re saying as not important and sees your presence alone as the means to his end (IE having a girlfriend in general, sex, whatever)

This is something I have also experienced, and which is one of those things I haven't heard anyone else mention, but which I think could be an important warning sign.

Forgetting little things about you that someone who is truly your friend/boyfriend, or even just an interested stranger actually listening to what you say, is a warning sign.

I had someone who professed to be madly in love with me for ten years who:

-never knew my birthday
-couldn't remember the basic timeline of our friendship
-could not remember the name of my best friend

I think in general, there is an appropriate level of detail that people know/remember about you for each level of closeness of a relationship. Knowing/remember too much could be a sign of obsession or stalking. But not knowing or not remembering the basics is also a bad sign.
posted by Ouisch at 5:22 PM on September 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

Forgetting little things about you that someone who is truly your friend/boyfriend, or even just an interested stranger actually listening to what you say *would know, is a warning sign.
posted by Ouisch at 5:24 PM on September 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The most dangerous person I ever dated early on professed jealousy for my cat. He disliked how fond I was of her. I found it odd, but continued to date him for a few more weeks until he hit me. Luckily, it was the last time I ever saw him.
posted by msali at 6:14 PM on September 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

Had a friend in our friend group who turned out to be a total drama queen who manufactured a crisis between she and her best friend in our group and tried to get everyone to take sides and when we wouldn't, friend-dumped us all.

Another friend said, in retrospect, "I always thought it was weird that she had NO FRIENDS from earlier in her life." I thought this was insightful. And, yeah, I've drifted apart from people over time, I only have a couple friends from high school (say). But she had NO friends from high school. NO friends from college. NO friends from work. NO family-friends (like female cousins). Because this was her modus operandi, to make a bunch of friends, go along for a year or two, and then have a huge dramatic explosion leaving shards in her wake, and to go around telling everyone what horrible people her new ex-friends are/were. (Which, in a town this small, has been awkward for all of us from time to time.)

Thinking about other kinda crazy people in my life, this is a pretty good metric. If they HAD friends but no longer HAVE them, NONE from prior times in their life, that's a red flag. I can think of good reasons for that, but the bad reasons are much more common.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:32 PM on September 18, 2010 [7 favorites]

It seems pretty obvious, but anyone who has a lot of burned bridges. "Oh I used to be friends with Bob but then X happened." "Yeah we're not talking anymore..." At first I thought, oh what a shame, this guy just keeps meeting all these shitty people. Turns out he was the shitty one.

People who are extremely persuasive. What seems like charm and persuasion is really just them refusing to take your NO for an answer.
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 6:36 PM on September 18, 2010 [12 favorites]

The thing common to charming sociopaths is that they can always blame someone else's nefarious behavior (or incompetence) for every single thing that has ever gone wrong in their life.

This shows up in casual getting-to-know-you talk, long before the inevitable high-drama crazy making.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:47 PM on September 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Guilt tripping. Guilt is a useless emotion. Generally, only people with hidden agendas do this. You’re not the bad guy; anyone who makes you feel like one doesn’t really love you.

Inspiring pity and being totally unashamed about it. Crying, looking pathetic, and enjoying the attention instead of being a bit embarrassed.

Not remembering little things. This seems so innocuous, but it’s one of the clearest signs when a relationship is about to go sour in my experience. He forgets names of your friends, forgets you already told him that story, forgets that you don’t like pasta salad, or whatever. It indicates that he’s glossing over what you’re saying as not important and sees your presence alone as the means to his end (IE having a girlfriend in general, sex, whatever)

Always looking at you through the lense of him, saying things like “I learned from you.” “I like you.” “I do things for you.” Instead of you-statements “You taught me. You’re likable and interesting. You make me feel awesome.”

Making you responsible for his happiness first. "You hurt me! How could you? I was so happy." Instead of "I want you to be happy."

This is a fantastic summary. I've never been involved with anyone dangerous but I have been involved with one man who drove me nuts and wasted several years of my life. He wasn't a horrible person, in fact I think he wanted a good relationship very much, but I finally concluded that he didn't a conscience or normal human capacity for guilt or empathy and cut him loose. He didn't set out to hurt people but he also didn't have much interest in them beyond what they had to offer him. I know he loved me as much as he could but it's hard to live with someone who never feels wrong or sorry about anything they do or understands other people's pain or anger over his actions. He did feel sorry for himself when there were consequences though and expected everyone else to sympathize with him, even the people he'd hurt.

He's a likable guy in many ways and we are still friendly so I can see how this problem continues to affect his life and the lives of those close to him. I am VERY glad we're not together anymore. I do feel bad for him; I think he would change if he could because he never understands why everyone is angry at him all the time. You can tell him it's because he's acting like an inconsiderate asshole as much as you want but it'll never click inside his head. If you combined a less nice guy with his lack of conscience, lack of consideration for others and complete inability to empathize he'd probably be a really dangerous person.
posted by fshgrl at 7:09 PM on September 18, 2010 [8 favorites]

My list of things to look out for look similar to some of the ones listed above, but I thought I'd share anyway.

In my experience, warnings signs looked like:
-Insecurity and jealousy about activities that did not include the other person from the very beginning of the relationship.
-Trying to convince me that my family was trying to "control" me and that I needed to spend less time with them.
-Acting hurt or depressed when I spent time with friends.
-Calling often and expecting a response immediately (or they would begin to get suspicious of who I was with).
-Belittling what I was wearing/telling me I wanted other male attention/saying that other people had told them that I was dressing to get attention, but not telling me who these other people were.
-Lying about bizarre things.
-Showing up at odd hours at my house or where I was housesitting/sitting in front of the house for long periods after leaving/being seen watching my house from a side street while I was with friends.
-Not respecting boundaries.
-Insisting on sharing phone plans and internet accounts (with the purpose of "keeping an eye on me")
posted by I_love_the_rain at 7:15 PM on September 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In general, I think one should always pay attention to the reactions of his/her body. Someone giving you a headache? Your skin crawling? You know what to do.

Other flags (not necessarily based on personal experience):

-activities always have to take place on his/her turf - no effort is made to come to you ("Let's meet in my office")
-suspicious/offensive comments are made in response to TV, movies, news, etc. ("That Anne Coulter sure knows what she's talking about")
-disappearing acts - only around when convenient
-if lovers: refusing to contribute to birth control, financially or practically, and/or lack of support (trip to clinic/doctor, money) if a pregnancy results
-s/he could not tell someone else what it is you do for a living or what you're studying in school
-your personal preferences are somehow framed in such a way as to imply you are not progressive ("All the other women I've dated didn't have a problem with it...")
-s/he throws a pop can in the garbage when there is a recycling box a few feet away
posted by analog at 7:18 PM on September 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Usually there's this moment early on where I get a really creepy feeling, and then I override it. I find that first image I get in my head when I first meet someone (e.g., small person who is very afraid) often turns out to be more accurate. But let's see, you want external behaviors. It's helpful to imagine that they'll eventually talk about you the way they talk about others, so for instance, the guy who blamed others for things that went wrong, then cut them out of his life while labeling them toxic? Eventually did that to me.

I also find it very helpful to listen to what people say. One person jokingly said he probably wouldn't show up on my pictures because he was an "emotional vampire." Another agreed he didn't really like to have fun.
posted by salvia at 7:21 PM on September 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

Treating peripheral people poorly; this was not immediately apparent, but I paid insufficent attention to a few early incidents. Poor manners with store clerks and waiters, work reviews re. lack of respect for support staff, tendency to shout at customer service people on the telephone, etcetera.
posted by kmennie at 7:23 PM on September 18, 2010 [11 favorites]

When someone tells you they are a "reformed" Satanist, RUN for cover. And yes, the family cat did, in fact, come home with a six inch gash in its stomache & have to have its entrails washed off & re-inserted by a vet, one week after I had a restraining order taken out on him. Written off as a farm accident by the vet. I, however, will never stop wondering.

This is the thing: People love to talk about full disclosure. But in hindsight, I think any sane person who was truly a "reformed" Satanist would do their level best to make sure their past never saw the light of day. There are some things that, even when people tell you it's in their past, you should run away from very fast. "Paying your debt to society," "growing older & wiser," all that VERY careful when people start talking about really freaky stuff and saying that they're past it now, because bad people have no qualms whatsoever about lying about where they're at now.
posted by Ys at 7:24 PM on September 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

People who self describe as being surrounded by crazy/dramatic people are often crazy/dramatic.
posted by anaelith at 7:25 PM on September 18, 2010 [11 favorites]

I once got briefly involved with a guy who, years earlier, had been described to me by mutual friends as "a good guy, but so messed up with women." I heard a story about seductions and then quick abandonments. Sounded bad. But years later, I became friends with him, and I liked him a lot. We talked all the time and I liked him more and more and thought he had just been misunderstood and there must have been other sides to what I heard. Then he made his move, and then very soon after, he was gone. He'd done to me what I knew he had done to other people.

Listen to what people say about other people. Gossip can be mean but it has a purpose.
posted by millipede at 7:41 PM on September 18, 2010 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I assume the opposite of people who say nice things about themselves. Or that they are at the least jerks. For example, "I'm a really generous person," "I never hold a grudge," "I treat my friends well," "I always keep a promise." Why would anybody need to broadcast that sort of stuff?
posted by halonine at 8:36 PM on September 18, 2010 [23 favorites]

In every case where some person has turned out to be "dangerous" to me, in whatever way, I saw or heard about them being dangerous to other people in those same ways, long before they behaved that way to me.

The mistake was believing that there was some exceptional circumstance that justified their behaviour to those other people, and that they would never turn on me like that. Or, in some cases, not believing the rumours I had heard.
posted by lollusc at 8:48 PM on September 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

In my (limited) experience:

--Constant self-labelling and re-framing of the views they perceive others to have of them. Example: "I'm the beloved asshole."

--Disregard for keeping things on an even keel. I go to college in the same city where I grew up and where my ex-boyfriend lived (lives). Though I wasn't allowed to have a car freshman year, every time we would see each other I had to call my mom, who would bring me the car, I would drive her back home, then drive to BF's house, then drive back home and have my mom drive me back to campus. Reason for all this inconvenience: he just didn't have the money for gas to drive all that distance (7 miles each way).

--Placing thing-X (friends, alcohol, etc.) above spending time with you, consistently and unapologetically.

--Backhanded compliments. Example: "You did your makeup really well. I can barely see that pimple anymore."

--Unearned and continuing disrespect for others.

--Acknowledgement of mental/emotional issues, but no attempt to correct the behaviors they cause. In some cases, my ex would actually look at these types of things as virtues.

--Making you feel your expectations are unreasonable, and that they are behaving well within the norm.

Sorry for the length, I think I may have some venting left to do.
posted by hoperaiseshell at 9:25 PM on September 18, 2010 [11 favorites]

halonine, yes yes yes. And this includes non-dangerous statements like "I am a gourmet cook." But if someone states repeatedly, "I am an honest guy" or "Trust me" or my favourite, "I never lie," RUN.
posted by uans at 10:04 PM on September 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Some great advice here. What little I have to add:

Beware of anyone who consistently chalks up their failures to others' problems, especially if they claim that others are motivated by jealousy. (This is my number one warning sign, outside of "actually has a literal, smoking-wick bomb for a head.")

Beware of anyone who seems intent on cutting you off from your friends and relatives, especially if they couch this in the terms of a systematic, flattering favor.

Beware of anyone who systematically distracts you with phony, overblown, and manufactured crises, especially when these crises have the funny habit of arising whenever you either need to do something or it becomes apparent that you can enjoy a healthy life without that person.

Beware of anyone who consistently leaves you feeling emotionally drained, especially with a frisson of guilt or a need to "fix" the other person.

Beware of anyone who calls at all hours and expects an instant response. Beware of anyone who talks but does not listen.

Beware of anyone in denial of a substance abuse problem. Beware of anyone who would like you become part of that problem.

Beware of anyone who expects some sort of justification as to why you're doing something completely normal. If you ever find yourself jumping through hoops to behave like an autonomous adult, then something bad is happening.

Above all, listen to your gut. Don't let yourself get manipulated by a charming and sympathetic person who convinces you that things aren't what they seem and that it's you who's the bad guy for going against them or not dealing with their monkey business or whatever.

And when I say "listen to your gut," that entails your having a decent gut to begin with. Be wise and care about yourself. The time in my life when I was the biggest asshole was when I took the worst care of myself - leaving me equal parts manipulable and insufferable. You'll be much more resilient when you have some direction and a healthy amount of respect for yourself and your loved ones.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:32 PM on September 18, 2010 [21 favorites]

Echoing halonine and uans, the most egregious lying I've ever heard began with the phrase, "To be perfectly honest with you..."
posted by lilywing13 at 12:25 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

The potential boss who several times during my final interview made seemingly good-natured comments about my pretty hair and eyes, began to sexually harass me pretty much as soon as the ink was dry on my paperwork. Because he was a good 25 years older than me and very friendly I had assumed he was just a harmless older fellow trying to be charming.

My second clue should have been that he started calling me at home before I even started, wanting help with things like picking out curtains and furniture for his new apartment (he was also newly hired and was moving to my town for the management job, so it didn't seem wildly inappropriate, but still.) Then when I returned his phone call, his brother answered the phone and as he handed the phone to my boss he made what sounded like a ribald comment about me, which prompted laughter by everyone in the background, and then my boss thought it would be a good idea to explain that they’d been joking about his cute new secretary sitting on his lap, and something about my being the future mother of his little redheaded babies. Ewwwwwwwwwww.

I’m pretty sure dyed red hair isn’t hereditary anyway, but I digress.

By this time, however, I had given notice at my other job. The town I lived in was very depressed economically, good-paying jobs were few and far between, and I was in the middle of a divorce and needed to be able to support myself. The guy seemed cluelessly creepy and annoying but not menacing so I wasn’t scared of being assaulted or anything. But I hadn’t realized until I was already stuck in the situation that a big part of why sexual harassment by a supervisor sucks so much is because you are put in a position of having to reject someone who could fire you from a job you need if you piss them off. It was really stressful having to constantly try to fend him off without making him angry.

So having learned that lesson, I would now be extremely wary of any potential employer who seemed too interested in my appearance during an interview, was flirtatious at all or who gave any other indication that they lacked professional boundaries.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:43 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Former boyfriend - He was deeply into the writings of Marquis de Sade. As in seriously believed de Sade had a viable moral philosophy, which transferred (in his case) as an intent desire to put me on a pedestal as someone "good" and "pure" a la Justine in contrast to his corrupting influence. I didn't pay attention to this as much as I should have as were were both studying literature and I've gone through phases where I got a little too deep into the readings. Until the relationship began to escalate into verbal abuse and attempts to control my "immoral" behavior when we went out in public
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 5:44 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh that reminds me, beware of anyone who seems to think they resemble a character or archetype that is unpleasant. In fact, the fictional characters people identify with might tell you a lot about what they think about themselves or who they want to be.

My ex was like very into a certain amorality-is-justified-and-awesome reading of Nietzche. Total amoral creep who would do anything he could get away with. Around the time we were breaking up he started getting into child porn. Ugh.

His attitude rubbed off on me a bit and made things like lying seem a lot more normal, which made me suspicious of other people. It tweaked my moral compass in a bad way. I did things I'm not proud of while we were together. Worst part (part 2) is that I ended up playing the role of "he's not THAT bad, here's an excuse". Even if it was mostly just to myself. Really wrecked my self-image as someone who does the right thing.

Luckily I never did anything that I can't forgive myself for--but what if?

My other ex thought the spin guy in "Thank You For Not Smoking" was brilliant and a role model. Lied his ass off constantly, thought other people were dumb.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:12 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It would be much easier if all this was just tattoo'ed on someone's forehead in invisible ink and, could be read with special glasses. I'd have to say in a nut shell its a pattern of behaviour that screams guiltless, loveless, but even then there is no sure fire way to know for sure because some people are really good at hiding the fact they're narcissists, or psychopaths.

Very rarely do I get the gut instinct that says run. There was a guy in high school who made me feel leery to be around him (he was part of a larger group I hung out with), but I couldn't put a finger on it. I can't remember what happened other than grabbed my arm when he didn't like what I had to say, hurt like a sommabitch too. I steered clear of him after that.

Another guy I ditched after going out for supper with him because despite my assurances hair twiddling wasn't a veiled come on he refused to believe me despite all the other body language I was sending his way which screamed, "I'm not interested in you that way." (soo NOT my type) Felt very much like there were no shades of grey in his world.

And, then there was the guy who stayed with us for awhile. There was nothing about him that screamed "run fast in the other direction" who about a year later, after moving out of our place, went on to stab someone to death during a heated argument.

I'd like to think I'm pretty good at reading people, but sometimes you just can't tell.
posted by squeak at 7:41 AM on September 19, 2010

Best answer: Once upon a time, I dated a fellow who verbally professed to love his mother *very, very much* but would then be verbally demeaning and argumentative towards her or about her. He also had a group of friends (four guys) who all belittled whichever one wasn't present (if three of them were having a beer together, they'd dish out some really awful gossip about the fourth, picking on anything from his mannerisms to his style of dress - they were worse than any group of women I've ever associated with). He idolized his father, despite being aware that his father had been abusive towards his mother (hi! big red flag!).

I dismissed all of these traits... and now I can't think of why I did. Perhaps because I was young, dumb and desperate to be loved. Yep, let's go with that reasoning.

The end result of that relationship was that I dropped out of college, told my mother I never wanted to hear from her again, got embroiled in a Single-White-Female movie-type situation with the fellow's mistress and endured some physical/emotional/verbal abuse at his hands. It was messy, physically dangerous and full of drama. Getting out of it was just as bad: he stalked me for a long time after I left him, despite the fact that he was already engaged to another woman at the time. He nearly got me fired from one job because he showed up with a copy of every card, note or letter I'd ever given him and was insistent that I needed to "be back in the mindframe you were in when you sent these!" He broke into my apartment and vandalized my car; he physically abused one of my cats.

Now, I'm much more careful to watch how a guy interacts with his friends, what he says about his family and friends, and just generally am more aware of 'bad behavior' - belittling language, possessiveness, physically inappropriate behavior (he started with pinching and 'tickle sessions', both of which I told him I hated).
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 8:35 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the ability to "read" others correctly in terms of this type of circumstance is possessed in direct proportion to one's own self-esteem. The more you value yourself, the better able you are to guard against threats to your safety, both physical and emotional. If you value yourself, you can see them coming.

So many of the poor judgment calls I see reflected in the previous posts and in my own life seem directly related to ignorance of warning signs in order to feel loved/valued/worthy. We want so badly to be loved and appreciated we send out signals that tragically, are best received and acted upon by those who would leverage that knowledge against us.

I'm somewhat ashamed to say that my own life could spawn numerous example of this very behavior. Ironically, the signs I most often ignored were the very things that, when shown in the harsh light of reality, were true dealbreakers in terms of relationships and caused me the most emotional trauma.

For example, I despise messiness and disorder above MANY MANY things; I cannot function if my environment is cluttered, disordered, DIRTY. Yet I flat-out ignored someone's cesspool of an apartment because his attention elevated me, made me feel important, spoke to my need for recognition and attention. I look back and wonder, today, how I ever could have set foot in that place. what was I thinking??

Years later I wonder why we fought constantly about cleaning and clutter to disastrous consequences. I wonder why he was incapable of understanding how angry I got when things were not tidied to "my" level. People tell you who they are every day- not only in words but in actions. My own neediness subverted one of the strongest drivers I possessed. Did I learn? Not right then. I blamed him.

That may not be the best example, but it can be extrapolated accordingly. Know who you are and what matters to you, and never let yourself be placed in a position where sacrificing those ideals becomes a requirement for the continuation of the relationship. As soon as the other person begins to require that of you, even to a small degree, step back and reassess. How I wish I had known this years ago!
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 8:55 AM on September 19, 2010 [28 favorites]

Here's another one. (It's two guys, but it's the same type of controlling attitude)

A guy had lots of friends. He hung out with them a lot. I was not invited along, yet I was invited to "stay home and relax." (I lived in the dorms at the time) My plans to go out on my own or with friends were discouraged. Yes, he was already sleeping with somebody else when I met him. Why do you ask? Oh, right. I didn't know about her until a little bit later.

Also bad news was the guy who wouldn't come out with me and friends, or even with me alone. He only wanted to hang out at his place. Then he wanted me to cook for him at his place, and then he was yelling at me on the phone for asking why I needed to go hang out with my friends, why couldn't I be with him all the time? Didn't I know he needed me?

Sorry dude, you're not going to die without me.
posted by bilabial at 9:10 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A few years ago, LittleMissCranky wrote, "A psychiatrist friend of mine jokes that if he comes out of a patients room and he either wants to punch the person in the mouth or give them the keys to his car, the patient is probably borderline." Like thebrokedown and others, I've learned the hard way that it's a good idea for me to steer clear of people with borderline traits.

If I'm so thoroughly charmed that I'm all but dizzy with it, and/or I find myself wanting to drop everything to help someone, that's bad news. It's been a sign that I'm dealing with a desperately hyper-emotional person who specializes in manipulation. That's not appreciation or connection; it's somebody getting my number and punching my buttons. Not much good has come of getting involved with people who are a little too good at gaining my involvement.

Double that if they fail to keep small promises.
posted by sculpin at 10:08 AM on September 19, 2010 [8 favorites]

This happened to me: I had a charming friend who seemed to have a problem of pathologically lying to others. I thought it was a codependency issue that would clear up with enough reassurances. As you can probably guess, eventually I found out she was confiding to someone else about lying to me.

My lesson: people will eventually do to you what they do to others. Don't expect them to treat you differently.
posted by mirileh at 10:59 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

A person's showing a great deal of contempt for his or her parents.

It's one thing to have less-than-stellar feelings about one's family, or to be mad at certain family members, or to need to distance oneself from the toxic behavior of particular parents or siblings-- but when someone treats their parents as being too stupid or limited to care about, or as being Not Our Class, Darling, it's a bad, bad sign.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 11:35 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

People who won't take no for an answer. If they sorta-kinda do, but keep pushing the issue, or keep pushing without hearing your no, or insist that you said yes... BAD BAD BAD SIGN.

If they give you the creepy vibes when you meet them, just avoid them if you can.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:36 PM on September 19, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Corollary: I'm a guy, and whenever I've started to have those jealousy urges, but then talk myself out of them because I'm not a jealous nutbag, a few weeks later I learn that I was correct.
posted by gjc at 3:55 PM on September 19, 2010

Competitive people. Not all competitive people are bad, in fact in many settings it's a good thing. But it's NOT a good thing when that person is your roommate or friend or anyone else you have a close relationship with. When you get that gut feeling that someone is not truly happy that something good happened to you, DO NOT DISREGARD IT!
Just about every toxic friendship I've had (and sadly, there have been plenty) was because I disregarded the above and, with my crappy self-esteem, it didn't even occur to me that I had something that that person really wanted. Then that person would undermine me or put me down in ever-so-subtle but oh-so-cunning ways to keep me in the crap shoot.

And I wholeheartedly agree with the comment about making excuses for people. If many others don't like them, don't waste your time making excuses for the poor "misunderstood."
posted by Neekee at 7:56 PM on September 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

oh, and people who never admit their wrong. Everyone makes mistakes, period. The ones who go around making lengthy rationalized excuses for their behaviors, at least in my experience, have turned out to be dangerous to me in some way or another.
posted by Neekee at 8:05 PM on September 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Indifference when something great has happened to you.
posted by brujita at 9:45 PM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Watch how they treat other people who are powerless. A friend once had the best dating advice, passed down from her mother in China: "Watch how a man treats other people while you are dating, because one day, after infatuation wears off, you too will be just another person."

In business settings, watch out for the co-worker who treats support staff at other companies like shit and asks incredibly obnoxious questions in forums demanding an answer that could be found out with 5 minutes of reading the manual.
posted by benzenedream at 1:02 AM on September 20, 2010 [9 favorites]

Some collected anecdata from one ex:

-- Everything is stupid.
-- Freely admits hating people and the world at large.
-- Words and actions at odds, like saying, "I don't mind if you go out with your friends" while moping and acting abandoned.
-- Manipulating you away from family and friends, even under the guise of caring. Words like, "Your mother doesn't understand what you and I have. She doesn't know you like I do, just cut her off if she's going to be difficult" are a warning; contrast with words like, "Your mom might be a piece of work, but she loves you. Give her a call when you calm down."

And from another:

-- Excessive jokes about child porn and pedophilia. It's just not funny.
-- Ignoring boundaries, both in words and actions.
-- Verbal abuse. Don't excuse it, ever. I once let a man berate me for twenty minutes after I got confused over one-way city streets. It ended badly and publicly with a verbal heap of vile abuse in front of my friends in a nice restaurant.
-- Constant accusations of hurting his/her feelings while simultaneously ignoring yours.

And in both cases, alcohol abuse. It's tempting to excuse it as "relaxing after work," or "having a good time on the weekend." But you know it when you see it. Don't try to rationalize it or get invested in fixing them, just walk away.
posted by motsque at 7:51 AM on September 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: There are some great answers here, and some fab answers. I have designated an answer 'fab' if it's a trap I have been in danger of falling into in recent memory. But they're ALL true. Some of the signs that seem less subtle are ones I would have excused when I was a lot younger... but I don't want to be dead before I'm wise enough!

Ooh, ooh, and... I know a good one! When someone says to me: tel3path, you're too honest.
posted by tel3path at 1:44 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Another tipoff that I have never seen fail: on entering a new workplace, the first person to complain "the politics in this place, OMG," is ALWAYS the most Machiavellian political shit-stirrer in the place.
posted by tel3path at 4:15 PM on September 20, 2010 [6 favorites]

I did some webwork for a friend's friend and he was a total psycho: calling me at odd hours and threatening me. In hindsight I should have Googled his email address. I did afterward and found all kinds of comments he left on blogs threatening to sue people!
posted by melissam at 4:23 PM on September 22, 2010

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