Worried you might be in a toxic relationship? How to talk about your situation and get the support you need

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  • According to Elaine Parker, CEO and founder of Safer Date, the world’s first dating app that requires ID and background checks for every sign-up.

    Trigger warning – themes of abuse and toxic relationships.

    Imagine your partner abusing you on the night of your engagement party – someone you love, admire and respect, turning into someone you don’t know before your eyes.

    It’s difficult isn’t it? Because if you’ve agreed to marry someone, you likely trust them more than anyone else in the world. That’s why Elaine Parker founded Safer Date, the world’s first dating app that requires ID and background checks for every sign-up, after she discovered her fiancé was abusive.

    This comes as, earlier this year, the Regional Economic Crime Coordination Centre (RECCC) issued a warning on the importance of staying in touch with friends and family when they are dating, but in particular, when they are dating online. Why? Because while the stats on toxic relationships are difficult to gauge, online dating crimes have risen by 382% over the last five years and “romance fraud” – when someone is duped into sending money to a con artist who trick them into thinking they love them – was up 40% last year and equated to £92m in the UK alone.

    “On top of this, 10% of known sex offenders use online dating sites to find their victims,” shares Parker. “All of this needs to change to protect people.”

    Marie Claire is working in partnership with YSL Beauty and Women’s Aid’s “Abuse is Not Love” campaign to highlight the warning signs and empower victims to escape toxic relationships.

    Here, Elaine Parker shares her story, plus her top tips for talking to a friend about a toxic or abusive relationship. Read our guides to how to deal with a toxic parent, a toxic workplace, and low grade depression, while you’re here.

    What is a toxic relationship? 

    Toxic relationships come in many forms, but the main signs to look out for, Parker explains, are:

    • Controlling behaviour
    • Lack of trust
    • Jealousy
    • Financial control
    • Isolation.

    “The relationship usually starts out great and you’ll likely be showered with gifts and compliments – also known as love-bombing,” she explains. “Then, things quickly change.”

    Has your partner ever started controlling who you see, isolating you from family and friends, checking your phone to see who you’ve been talking to, or withholding money so you can’t go out? “These are all signs of a toxic relationship,” explains Parker.

    Why do those in toxic relationships struggle to talk about them?

    For friends and family on the outside looking in, they just want to see their loved one happy without upsetting them, shares the CEO.

    “Telling a friend that you have concerns about the new love of their life could destroy the relationship. It’s a really difficult conversation to have, but it’s such an important one,” she continues.

    Did you know? Online dating sites can be the ideal place for criminals, shares Parker. Why? Because there is no legal standard for the industry to conform too and a distinct lack of checks in place.

    5 ways to speak to your friends about a toxic relationship

    Telling a friend or family member that you have concerns about their new partner is an extremely difficult thing to do. The last thing you will want to do is upset or alienate them – especially when they may seem really happy – but it’s so important that you do not ignore your feelings.

    1. Don’t ignore your feelings

    First things first: always trust your gut. “If you feel something isn’t right and you are concerned, please don’t ignore it.”

    2. Start by talking

    Next step: open up. “Talking is definitely the right place to start,” shares Parker.

    3. Or if you can’t, write it down

    Writing about this topic is also a way to communicate your concern or broach whether your friend is experiencing a toxic relationship.

    “Whether you’re stuck in a dangerous relationship or you’re a friend or family member desperately wanting to voice your concerns but not knowing how to do so without upsetting anyone, it can be a softer way to help,” she goes on.

    Toxic relationship: Two women talking

    4. Use Clare’s law

    Do you really feel that it is too difficult or that your friend won’t listen? Try Clare’s Law.

    “Clare’s Law was set up in 2014 to let people find out if their partner, or a friend’s partner, has a history of domestic violence,” explains Parker. “Some of my friends and family have told me that they tried to tell me their concerns about my ex-partner. I clearly didn’t listen or agree, but if a Clare’s Law check had been done, there’s simply no way I could’ve ignored all of the information the police had stored. The domestic abuse, violence, stalking….it was all there to be found.”

    Where to start? You can request a Clare’s Law check through your local police force by visiting a police station, phoning 101 or contacting your local police via email. “Most police forces also have an online application process available through their websites. The process is very simple – I used it a couple of years ago for a friend who had met someone online and I recognised so much of her new partner’s behaviour. It turned out that he had a history of child abuse and she was in danger of having her own daughter removed from her care if she stayed with him.”

    “Yes, it was an awkward conversation to have, but I’m so pleased that I did it and she was able to end the relationship without him discovering the checks.”

    5. Make sure you can offer them the right support

    And finally, know that when you do broach the topic, you’ll need to be able to offer the right support, too.

    If you need support or need to know how someone else can get the right support, try the following:

    • Women’s Aid: Email helpline@womensaid.org.uk
    • The Freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247
    • Men’s Advice Line: 0808 8010 327
    • ManKind: 0182 3334 244
    • Galop: 0800 999 5428
    • Karma Nirvana: 0800 5999 247
    • Respect: 0808 802 4040.

    “The relationship moved quickly – but why didn’t I see his toxic traits?”

    Elaine Parker founded Safer Date after she survived an abusive relationship. Here, she shares her story. 

    “I started using dating apps online in 2016. I had been a single parent for years and I was terrified of dating again. Despite my strong sense of independence and good social circle, I felt as though something was missing from my life. A few of my friends met their partners online and are still very happy with them to this day, so I decided to give it a go.

    “I tried a very popular free dating site thinking I had nothing to lose. I chatted to a few people. There was a mix of strange, boring and downright weird folk on there, but then I received a message from someone that stood out. He was charming, asked about me, could actually hold a conversation, and that’s where it all began.

    “To cut a long story short, we met up for our first date, clicked, and I felt on top of the world. I literally had no idea that what I was experiencing was a thing called ‘love-bombing’. I’d never even heard of it.

    “Unfortunately, it worked. The relationship moved quickly. He moved in and we later got engaged. It was only on the night of our engagement party that his true colours really emerged and from there it went from bad to worse. I then had to endure domestic abuse, sexual assault, rape, stalking and harassment. What makes matters worse, he had a long history of domestic abuse and was very practised at this behaviour, yet still, unbelievably using dating apps.

    “He’s now in prison for what he did to me, but why didn’t I see his toxic traits? Did anyone else see them? Did they try to tell me? It’s such a difficult conversation to have, but it is so important, so I want to explore different viewpoints to help anyone else in this kind of situation.”


    If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, contact Women’s Aid and connect to a support worker with its new instant messaging service.

    Read more about “Abuse is Not Love”, and YSL Beauty and Women’s Aid’s partnership @ MarieClaireUK.

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