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Recognizing unsafe relationships

This week as both SafeU Month and Domestic Violence Awareness Month come to their conclusion, red flags bearing relationship violence warning signs will be posted outside the Student Union, alongside green flags that display healthy relationship traits thanks to the Red Flag Project.

October is SafeU Month at the University of Utah, and there will be dozens of opportunities to engage in safety awareness, education and training opportunities on campus. See what’s happening throughout the month here.

As this fifth week (Oct. 28-Nov. 1) of SafeU Month and Domestic Violence Awareness Month come to their conclusion, red flags of unsafe and unhealthy relationships will be easy to spot. Thanks to the Red Flag Project, sponsored by the University of Utah Counseling Center, red flags bearing relationship violence warning signs will be posted outside the Student Union, alongside green flags that display healthy relationship traits.

It’s part of an effort to increase awareness of warning signs of relationship violence, says Christina Kelly LeCluyse of the Counseling Center.

“One of the most common phrases I hear in the trauma support groups that I run is, ‘I wish I had known what to look for. I wish I had known those red flags,’” LeCluyse says.

Whether or not violence has already occurred, anyone who feels unsafe in a relationship, or who suspects a loved one may be in an unhealthy relationship, can get help.

“You do deserve to always be respected and loved,” LeCluyse adds. “The Counseling Center and other agencies on campus such as the Center for Student Wellness are here to provide you with support when you need it, when you're ready.”


Lisa Diamond, professor of psychology, says that misconceptions persist about what domestic violence looks like. It’s not always a middle-aged couple, for example, where the husband is controlling and dominating. “I think a lot of young people have trouble imagining that they would ever find themselves in a circumstance like that,” Diamond says.

Most relationship violence, she says, is situational violence. “It's usually anger that spills over into aggression. It's more sporadic. It's a little bit more unpredictable.” In the early stages of a relationship, people may tend to dismiss such quickly escalating anger as something undesired but not a big deal.

“But it is a big deal,” Diamond says. “And that's the most common form of violence and abuse that exists in couples.”

LeCluyse says the rosy “honeymoon” phase of a relationship can mask some of the warning signs. “We do this thing of romanticizing jealousy and possessiveness as if that's a sign of actual healthy love when it's not. Those comments aren't seen yet as abusive.”

Warning signs

LeCluyse and Diamond offer some clear signs that elements of a relationship may be unhealthy and that a person in such a relationship should seek help:

  • Rapid escalations of arguments.
  • A feeling of “walking on eggshells” around a partner.
  • Messages from a perpetrator that “I wouldn't have done X if you hadn't done Y,” implying that the victim is to blame for their partner’s abusive behavior.
  • Possessive messages framed in loving terms, such as “Why do you have to go spend time with your family? I love you more."

Find more signs of unhealthy relationships here, presented by the One Love Foundation.

Or attend the “Escalation” film and workshop on Oct. 28, presented by the Counseling Center. The film presents a dramatization of an unsafe relationship “from its sweet beginnings to its tragic end.” The screening is limited to 40 people and is followed by a panel discussion. The film begins at 5 p.m. in room 234 of the Union.

Help is available

When should a person seek help?

The moment violence occurs, Diamond says. “Most folks really wait way, way too long. The moment that you think to yourself, ‘I don't know what to do about this. I don't know how to handle this. I feel lost’—that's the time to get help.”

“Coming to us at any time is really beneficial,” LeCluyse says. Typically, people come to the Counseling Center after the cycle of violence has played out, with the accompanying physical and emotional damage. “Obviously it's more than fine to come in then too,” she says. “That's what we're here for.”

The Counseling Center, staffed by trained, multidisciplinary trauma-informed counselors, offers a range of services including individual, couple and group therapy. “We start with where the client is at,” LeCluyse says. “We come from a perspective of a collaborative approach to counseling, wanting it to be a safe place for survivors to come and speak about their experiences and provide them not only with the counseling and support they need but also with new information and hopefully some skills to assist them in their process of healing.”

Among her other services, LeCluyse leads a nine-week closed group called Reclaiming our Voices, serving female-identified survivors of interpersonal violence. “It provides an opportunity for survivors to share their stories with one another,” she says. “And I find that to be perhaps one of the most healing aspects of the group.”

The center charges nominal fees for services, and has a sliding scale to ensure that finances are not a barrier to treatment. No eligible person will be denied service for financial reasons.

The role of friends and family

Diamond says that friends and family members can be important observers of relationships.

“You know your friend well,” she says. “It's often easier for friends to see, ‘Wow, she is kind of submissive to him in a way that she wasn't really submissive to her last boyfriend. Like something's kind of weird there.’” But it’s important, she says, to be humble and begin by asking questions rather than offering observations.

“You can't control what they're going to do. The most important thing that you can do is make yourself available as someone who can support them in improving the relationship and getting help.”

“We always have to be respectful of the will, volition and ability to act of the survivor,” LeCluyse says. “It's really trying to express no judgment, no shaming, no blaming comments. That's enough of what the survivor gets in the abusive relationship.”

Overcoming stigmas

Stigmas about therapy can hold people back from seeking help. “Relationships are complicated,” Diamond says. “If yours is going poorly, it's not your fault, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. People struggle with these issues at age 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70. The sooner you build those skills and learn how to advocate for your own needs and be a good partner, then that just gives you more of a lifetime to enjoy healthier relationships.”

“The people that we see are fellow human beings that are struggling with the experience of being human,” LeCluyse says. “Coming to seek therapy is about finding a safe space to be listened to. It’s a nonjudgmental way to be provided with support, with resources, with information to help you sort through what might feel like a really messy time in life.”


Find the University Counseling Center here.

Find other resources for seeking help for yourself or for a loved one in an unhealthy relationship here.

This is the fifth list of books available through the Marriott Library that are related to safety issues being highlighted during October, SafeU Month—which coincides with Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Each week has featured a new list.

  1. “Moonroot v.2,” Debbie Hu, Cindy Tadeo, Eva B. Gubat, May Young, Ching-In Chen, Vikki Law, Zena Chua Hardt, Hei Kyong Kim, Jackie Wang, Phuong Vuong, Eva Song Margolis, D'Lo, Amy Dewan, Tabitha Sin, Elaine Castillo, Alison Lin, Phira Rehm, and Naazneen Diwan
  2. “Moonroot v.3,” Esther Kim, Caro Reyes, Jess Kealiihoalani Toshie Mease, Julz Ignacio, Mina, Rory Jacobs, Anna Vo, Claudia Leung, Mimi Khúc, Joua Lee, Xiao Laohu, Mai Doán, Miyuki Baker, Zabeleh, Ffrog, and Devyn Manibo
  3. “Can't Take That Away: Notes on Surviving Sexual Violence”
  4. “Trauma Castle,” Billy Starfield
  5. “The Sexual Trauma Workbook for Teen Girls,” Raychelle Lohmann & Sheela Raja
  6. “Speak,” Laurie Anderson
  7. “The Hunting Ground: The Inside Story of Sexual Assault on American College Campuses,” Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering
  8. “Healing from Trauma: A Survivor's Guide to Understanding your Symptoms and Reclaiming Your Life,” Jasmin Lee Cori
  9. “Trust After Trauma: A Guide to Relationships for Survivors and Those Who Love Them,” Aphrodite Matsakis
  10. “Coping with Trauma-Related Dissociation: Skills Training for Patients and Therapists,” Suzette Boon
  11. “Treating Trauma-Related Dissociation: A Practical Integrative Approach,” Kathy Steele
  12. “Evicting the Perpetrator: A Male Survivor's Guide for Recovery from Childhood Sexual Abuse,” Ken Singer
  13. “Written on the Body: Letters from Trans and Non-Binary Survivors of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence,” Lexie Bean
  14. “The Body Keeps the Score,” Bessel van der Kolk
  15. “The Revolution Starts at Home,” Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, Leah Piepxna-Samarasinha
  16. “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” Boston Women’s Health Collective
  17. “Color of Violence—the INCITE! Anthology,” edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
  18. “Octavia’s Brood,” Walida Imarisha, Adrienne Maree brown, Sheree Thomas
  19. “Healing the Trauma of Domestic Violence,” Mari McCaig and Edward Kubany
  20. “Trauma and Recovery,” Judith Herman
  21. “Scars Across Humanity,” Elaine Storkey
  22. “Violence & Society,” Larry Ray
  23. “After the Crime: The power of restorative justice dialogues between victims and violent offenders,” Susan L. Miller
  24. “Crazy Love,” Leslie Steiner
  25. “Little Book of Restorative Justice: A Bestselling Book by One of the Founders of the Movement,” Howard Zehr