“YOU,” the Netflix show that has recently released its third season, may not be a likely candidate for our date night binge with our significant other.
However, it might be a helpful way to learn about warning signs and red flags to look out for in a relationship.
The show tells the story of Joe Goldberg, a serial killer who is also a hopeless romantic. There’s a lot to love, watching how engaged he is with the objects of his affection. Joe is easily obsessed. He spends his free time carefully crafting a connection with each and every woman of his dreams.
What’s not to love?
He is overly attentive. He studies people’s habits, needs, and likes; this allows him to anticipate and accommodate them. He becomes a caretaker; this can be easily seen in his caretaking, even “parenting” the children around him. But this doesn’t make him charming; it makes him a master manipulator who knows how to hide his true self.
When he is looking for love, he stalks his love interest, carefully noting her patterns. He hunts her on social media, learning her favorite people, places, and things. He has engineered a persona that is sweet and unobtrusive. When they finally meet, he has skillfully tailored himself to get the lady to fall for him in a way and place chosen by him. When things go wrong, he uses violence, kidnapping, and murder, to make things go his way.
The chances are good that our current lover is a fairly decent person, without any skeletons in the closet. However, some behaviors are worrying in any relationship, as demonstrated in “YOU.” So let us consider some of the attributes that may serve as warnings for our own Joe Goldberg’s out there.
Six warning signs and red flags to look out for in a relationship:
Beware the desire to get too close too quickly. Some people who suffer from psychopathologies like borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder (among others) will idealize enmeshment. Also, individuals with an anxious or insecure attachment style may prefer enmeshment.
Being enmeshed means that the person in the relationship truly feels that they don’t know where they end, and their partner begins. What’s most important is that they want to feel this way. It makes them feel safe until it doesn’t, and then it makes them feel smothered. Being suffocated drives them to demonstrate angrily, sometimes even violently, their desire for distance. This may go on for hours or days. Then, of course, when their “independence fix” is over, they’ll be right back to enmeshment.
This can make the partner feel like they’re yo-yoing back and forth in a relationship that doesn’t make any sense. Do you want to be close? Or do you want to be left alone? Do you like my attentive affection, or do you want me to wait for you to make the first move? Do you want to be an open book or a closed-up mystery?
One of the telltale signs of this kind of behavior is the back and forth of it. If we constantly feel that we’re being pulled one way and a week later we’re in the opposite direction, we may be in the “push me-pull me” cycle. One minute we’re being love-bombed, told how amazing we are, and smothered with affection, and a few days later, we’re told we’re clingy, that we need to do more, and that we’re the lucky ones in the relationship.
2. Isolating dependency.
People who suffer from some psychopathologies and anyone with an insecure attachment style will isolate their partners. At first, this may feel like wonderful doting attention. However, in this isolating dependency, one partner requires constant love and affection that is only for them.
If the partner has been in the dating game for a while or is particularly good at attracting and keeping the opposite sex around, they may have learned to do this in a subtle way. Non-subtle partners will accuse their lover of being more interested in friends or family, throw a tantrum at being left out of gatherings with friends, or become upset at being informed of an upcoming girls’ or boys’ night.
More sophisticated manipulators learn that they can have more long-term success by instilling jealousy in their partners, making their lovers feel inadequate, or playing on their boyfriend or girlfriend’s desire to be a hero or “good.” A skilled version of this isolation will see the manipulated partner winnowing out their own friends and family over several months or years in favor of the person manipulating them.
In “YOU,” Joe Goldberg kills the people who get in the way of the idol he is pursuing, but that is after he cannot successfully pry the object of his affections away from their tribe.
If we decide to have a drink after work with a (non-romantic) friend and don’t think twice about it, but then experience a tantrum from our lover, we might want to think about what is going on for them. Now, I’m not suggesting that a tantrum is automatically a sign of psychosis. The partner could have been cheated on before or have past traumas, but mixed in with other behaviors, there is cause for alarm.
A tendency toward isolation doesn’t have to be murderous to be effective. That is not to say that people don’t tend to spend more time with their lovers over long-term relationships. Indeed as we are in longer relationships, or after marriage and kids, we spend a lot more time away from friends in favor of family.
If we are being encouraged, however subtly, to choose our partner over friends and family, then we should be careful that we are not being encouraged to isolate ourselves in favor of our lover and our lover alone. We may be experiencing an isolating dependency.
3. Lies and deceit.
Narcissists can lie with a straight face, usually pretty well. That is because a part of them is so committed to believing the lie that they will do just about anything to ensure that their worldview is not questioned, shaken, or narrowed in any way. One need not be a full-blown narcissist to engage in these behaviors; those with narcissistic tendencies will also engage in similar world creation and support. This can be a pathological means of externalizing an internal world. If it goes too far, it can be a sign of psychosis.
People who need a match between their imaginative internal world and their external one are often experiencing a psychotic delusion. That does not mean that everything in the delusion is fiction. As we see in “YOU,” Joe adroitly manages to get the girl, often. He deludes himself (and sometimes the audience) into thinking that the whole love story is organic, blithely forgetting or omitting that he has engineered the romance from the beginning.
Lies and deceit are important indicators of personality disorders and psychosis. When the partner deeply believes the delusional or hallucinatory idea, it has moved out of the realm of the addressable and become dangerous.
This one should be obvious, but just in case, let’s make sure that it gets on the list. Any violent behavior should be disqualifying. In “YOU,” Joe uses violence when reason, sweet talk, or persuasion fails. This is, of course, the premier indicator of someone who is a narcissistic sociopath.
When they can’t get what they want through normal channels, they will use violence, force, intimidation, or other forms of domination. What’s worse, like Joe Goldberg, they will try to convince their lover that they are doing it out of love because their partner wouldn’t otherwise listen, cooperate, or participate.
Run for the hills—this behavior will not get better without years of therapy.
5. Attachment styles.
Individuals with a secure attachment style can be close, vulnerable, loving, comfortable with closeness, and feeling confident in the relationship. This allows for tolerating of difficulties in a relationship, trust in their partner, understanding and validating a partner’s feelings, and feeling secure when they are with their partner
So why are we attracted to people?
Think about it like a tuning fork. A tuning fork plays a particular note when we strike it, and any other tuning forks (or lamps, piano strings) tuned to the same frequency will also vibrate simultaneously. If we have a similar background, approach to life, hopes for the future, interpersonal needs, tastes, we may resonate when that other human tuning fork is around.
Too often, we mistake the resonance we feel for “falling in love.” This recognition is often the meat and potatoes of love at first sight. And it is the breeding ground for predators like Joe Goldberg.
Resonance doesn’t have to be avoided, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for love. Resonance can open doors to deep intimacy and create shared understanding. But relying on it for the connection between two people is dangerous. It is not a substitute for the commitment, curiosity, and commonality of love.
6. The truth of the false self.
The false self isn’t always pathological, but it almost always is dedicated to protecting us from vulnerability. The false self is often preoccupied with what we have, what we look like, what people think of us, what group(s) we belong to, and how much money we make. It doesn’t have to care about all of these, or it may care about different external things. But the false self is concerned about only one thing—”me.” Am I getting enough love, money, sex, respect? Anything that can fit into that spot is feeding the false self and the false self alone.
So, what do we do when there are no warning flags in sight, trying to figure out how to be in love with our boo?
We can be vulnerable, flexible, and honest. We can ensure that we invest in our well-being and the well-being of our significant other.
And finally, we can enjoy “YOU”—with a critical eye, snuggled on the sofa, with a bottle of Malbec, relieved that we don’t have that many psychological problems.
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