Romantic Or Sinister? How To Spot Predatory Behavior In A Relationship

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated February 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources. If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788. You can also use the online chat

Romantic relationships often involve vulnerability. People often wish to trust their romantic partners profoundly and look to them for emotional support. However, some individuals may seek to exploit that trust, using the outward appearance of love and affection as a tool to achieve their desires. This behavior can result in emotional pain and may progress to physical, financial, or sexual abuse as the relationship continues. 

Predatory actions in a relationship often start with subtle manipulations and progress to control, domination, or abuse. The aggressor might attempt to cut their partner off from sources of strength and support while undermining their self-confidence. Learning to recognize these tactics when they start could help you avoid becoming entangled with someone who sees you as a means to an end.

Is your partner showing potential signs of predatory behavior?

What is predatory relationship behavior?

There are no official diagnostic criteria to define predatory behavior. However, predatory behavior may look like an attempt to trick, manipulate, or control other people to get what one wants without regard for the harm it causes. 

In romantic relationships, predatory behavior often aims to obtain sexual favors, money, or resources, regardless of the other person’s desires or consent. Other relationship predators might seek material goods from the people they target. Some may also be motivated by the desire for the sense of power they gain by deceiving or dominating others. These motivations aren’t mutually exclusive, and it’s not uncommon for someone acting abusively to exploit their partner in multiple hurtful ways.

Mental illness and predatory behaviors

Engaging in coercive, deceptive, or abusive behaviors in a relationship is not necessarily an indicator of a mental illness. Some people who have no diagnosable mental illness display selfish and hurtful tendencies. Conflating abusive behavior or predatory actions with all people with a mental illness can be stigmatizing and harmful. 

However, a few mental health conditions may increase the likelihood of predatory behaviors. Researchers have found that “psychopathic” traits, often associated with conditions like narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) — may be correlated with a tendency to see predatory sexual actions as healthy or usual. These characteristics include the following:  

  • Lack of concern for the well-being of others 
  • Superficial social charm
  • Self-absorption
  • Limited empathy
  • Impulsivity
  • Manipulative tendencies

Signs of a predatory relationship

According to experts, abusive relationships often start with “seemingly minor” negative behaviors and build gradually. Individuals who are prone to predatory behaviors may be skilled at creating the appearance of a normal relationship in the early stages, only escalating their dangerous behavior once they’ve gained someone’s trust. However, the following warning signs may help you recognize negative attitudes or harmful intentions before they escalate. 

Intense, excessive interest in the early stages of a relationship

Some people who have experienced predatory relationships report that their partners initially seemed more attentive, caring, and charming than people they’d met in the past. This intense attention may seem flattering and exciting. However, in hindsight, it can be seen as a manipulation tactic to gain one’s trust quickly. 

One way to distinguish between ordinary “new relationship energy” and manipulative behavior is whether it seems to presume an inappropriate level of intimacy based on how long you’ve known the other person. Precursors to abuse can include: 

  • An overwhelming amount of texts, calls, and other communications
  • Gifts or offers that seem overly lavish
  • Unusually early declarations of love
  • Language that seems to assume a long-term commitment
  • Constant attention-seeking behavior 
  • Unrealistic, exaggerated flattery

Testing and crossing boundaries

People acting abusively may also test or stretch your boundaries. For example, they might appear unannounced at your workplace or home as part of a “romantic” gesture. They may also pressure you to participate in activities in which you’re not interested, such as drinking more than you’re accustomed to and becoming insistent when you decline.

A predatory individual may seem to frequently “misunderstand,” “forget,” or “fail to hear you” when you say no. This behavior could begin with seemingly minor situations, such as continuing to use a nickname you’ve said you dislike. Over time, it can escalate to more severe boundary violations, such as showing up at your house when you’ve broken up with them. 

Testing of physical boundaries can also be common among those who perpetrate abuse. Near the beginning of a relationship, this behavior might take the form of uninvited hugs, touches, or caresses. The severity can increase, sometimes progressing to sexual assault or physical harm.

Pretending to be the one being harmed

Some predatory people may appear to believe that they’ve been hurt, betrayed, taken advantage of, or overlooked. They may struggle to accept that the difficulties in their lives are their fault and may believe they are justified in mistreating others. This belief could indicate “vulnerable narcissism,” a personality trait that some studies have linked to a propensity for physical and sexual abuse. 

It may be helpful to pay attention to how a person talks about their past relationships. Do they seem to have persistent and bitter grudges against many former partners? If so, this might be an indicator of hostility and entitlement.

Isolating you from others

A person with predatory intentions may seek to isolate from other sources of support. This behavior may serve multiple purposes:

  • Keeping you from people who might notice the predatory behavior  
  • Making it more difficult for you to seek support  
  • Creating a sense of social, emotional, or financial dependency

The other person might seem resentful when you want to spend time with your friend group, claiming you’re neglecting them. They may also attempt to sow uncertainties about your close relationships by suggesting that loved ones or friends are jealous of you or don’t trust you to think for yourself. 

Supervision and control

A common feature of predatory relationships is that the abusive individual may insist on knowing what their partner is doing at all times. They may “check in” frequently whenever you’re away from them and show up unannounced to confirm where you said you would be. 

Demands for digital communications can also be warning signs of a predatory partner. People acting in predatory manners often insist that the people they’re dating divulge their social media passwords or allow them to read their text messages and listen to their voicemails. In time, this behavior can be followed with attempts to dictate your actions in all areas of life, such as:

  • Telling you how to dress
  • Restricting with whom you can associate
  • Requiring you to get their permission before going anywhere
  • Discarding your possessions
  • Insisting that you speak or act in particular ways

This pattern is often known as “coercive control,” and researchers and survivor advocates are increasingly recognizing it as an integral aspect of relationship abuse. 

Power differentials

People with predatory intentions may selectively pursue people with less social, financial, or physical power than themselves. This disparity can make it easier for them to assert control in their relationships. The less powerful partner may be afraid to speak up about what’s happening to them, or they may depend on their partner.

It could be a red flag if the person seeking a relationship with you is 

  • Significantly older than you
  • A superior of yours at your workplace
  • In a position of legal authority over you (such as a parole officer or guardian)

Someone acting abusively might also cultivate a power differential through financial dependency. If you’re having money troubles and a new partner offers to cover your living expenses or pay your debts, a sense of caution may be appropriate. They might hope to put you in a position where you can’t refuse their demands.

Degrading your self-esteem

Although over-the-top flattery may be common in the early stages of predatory relationships, this behavior may shift over time to a pattern of belittling and undermining. Some perpetrators of abuse attempt to wear away their partners’ self-esteem, using constant negative remarks and criticism to make the other person believe they are unworthy of healthy love. 

Do you often have more negative thoughts about yourself after spending time with your partner? Have your self-image and confidence declined since the relationship began? If the answer is “yes,” it may not be accidental.

Is your partner showing potential signs of predatory behavior?

How to seek help in a predatory relationship

If your partner is hurting, controlling, or scaring you, you can get help through the National Domestic Abuse Hotline. Trained and empathetic volunteers can offer advice 24/7, either online or through the hotline listed at the beginning of this article. You might also find it helpful to speak with a mental health professional about what you’re experiencing. Therapy can help you rebuild your confidence and sense of self-worth after emotional damage inflicted by a predatory partner. 

If you’re concerned that your partner might monitor your location and movements, online therapy may be more available and safer than visiting a counselor in person. If you have safe internet, you can connect with a therapist digitally at a convenient time through a platform like BetterHelp. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions, giving you control over how you receive support. 

Research indicates that online therapy can effectively treat various psychological challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression resulting from intimate partner violence. A 2021 randomized trial found that Internet-based therapy had significant positive effects on symptoms of these conditions, with results similar to in-person studies. 

Takeaway

Predatory relationship behavior can take many forms, some of which may initially seem benign. Watching for actions that cross your boundaries, cause you to doubt yourself, or establish an unhealthy power dynamic with a partner can be helpful. These types of manipulation can be the precursors to more overtly controlling and harmful behavior.
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