What are red flags? A ‘Red Flag’ is a sign or clue that something isn’t quite right in the situation and can be applied to any relationship dynamic. We see a lot of talk about identifying red flags in the other person, such as punching walls when upset or being dishonest. There are also relationship red flags that can be identified, such as spending more and more time apart, communicating less, or a decrease in intimacy.
Many of us will have similar red flags: infidelity, violence, lying, criticizing. Things that make us feel bad in our guts without any conscious consideration or debate. But red flags can be more subtle than that, and the way they show up in our relationships can be convoluted. This can make it tricky to identify red flags as actual warning signs that something might need to be addressed.
A great way to identify red flags is to notice when you’re using the word “but”:
- I love spending time with him, but he seems so distracted lately.”
- “She is so fun, but I feel uncomfortable when she has more than a few drinks.”
- “He is so kind and considerate of me, but he doesn’t ever take my side in family debates.”
- “When we’re together, we feel so close, but when we’re apart, they can take a long time to get back to me or drag their feet about making our next plan.
These are all examples of red flags: something about the relationship is good, but something is also causing some level of distress. There is a lot of culture around red flags; some people say that as soon as we see one, we should run! This kind of thinking can convolute our thinking about red flags and our willingness to spot and deal with them. In actuality, some red flags are (and should be) non-negotiable for you as far as exiting immediately. But many red flags are simply warning signs that something needs to be addressed and worked on if we are confident enough to do so.
Why is it hard to address red flags?
1. Fear of confrontation:
Very few people genuinely enjoy bringing up a problem with another person. When we know for sure that we have identified a red flag, we may delay bringing it up. We might fear that the issue will get worse if we do; maybe if we ignore it, it will go away? We might be afraid that bringing up the issue will lead to an argument. Depending on our experience with relationships and communication, this might be a very big struggle for us.
If we are not used to enforcing our boundaries, any sort of confrontation can be difficult. Knowing our boundaries is a great way to know our red flags, and enforcing our boundaries is a great way to stay well-versed in bringing up issues and talking them out. But for many of us, identifying a red flag can go hand-in-hand with discovering a boundary we weren’t aware of before. This can mean that we are now informing someone of a boundary and that they/she/he have crossed it. It can feel very overwhelming to do both at the same time.
2. False beliefs:
There can be a be-all-end-all attitude regarding issues in relationships, including red flags. The belief that “good relationships don’t have problems” is not only false but adds pressure and stress to these situations. You may think that if you have issues or differences of opinions about certain things, you and your partner are not compatible. This leads to fears that you and your partner are not meant to be.
We can sometimes find ourselves thinking that there is something wrong with us, or we are “asking for trouble” if we invest our time, energy, and love into a relationship or person with red flags. Therefore, we find ourselves denying the red flags to keep our relationship instead of dealing with the issues so that we can nurture the relationship!
In some cases, relationship counseling might be the best place to address our issues, but we can sometimes feel like we “shouldn’t need” to attend counseling with a partner in a healthy relationship. This false belief can isolate us and prevent us from resources that can strengthen our relationships.
There is a saying, “It’s hard to see the red flags when you are wearing rose-colored glasses.” When you can’t accept the flaws and imperfections in a relationship, it is easy to focus only on what you like and what works for you, even if that means you are in a situation that doesn’t work for you overall. Completely denying the presence of red flags and ignoring how they make you feel can go on for a long time; sometimes, you may even find that you don’t fully process them until a relationship has ended. Human attraction can be complicated, and finding someone who meets specific needs can blind us to the needs that aren’t being met or the unhealthy or hurtful habits that come along with that person. Denial, in any circumstance, can be a form of self-sabotage that stems from deeper fears or issues.
If you are aware of the red flags but you’re living with them, you might feel tempted to leave them be. You might think that trying to fix them isn’t worth the hassle if you’re mostly happy or happy most of the time, but that’s not the case. Why is it important to fix the red flags in a relationship? Because a red flag is a pain point, even if it’s a small one. It is a source of friction and can be a trigger for emotional and/or physical distance. It can build over time and eventually cause disconnection to a point where the safety of the relationship can be compromised.
Some red flags are deal-breakers and indicate that a relationship isn’t meant to be. When we commit to investigating them, we find out for sure if that is the case in our specific circumstances. A lot of the time, a red flag is only a relationship-ender if it’s left unresolved. You can build good situations that have red flags, to begin with, or with people who have a few red flags. There is no reason why you can’t learn ways to spot them and fix them for lasting
Three steps to deal with red flags in relationships:
1. Know your Red flags:
It starts with noticing and identifying the red flags in your relationships. This means having a good sense of what and where your boundaries are. Whenever the conversation about setting boundaries comes up, one of the most common questions people ask is, “How do I know where to draw the line?” The best way to figure it out is to look at the way you are feeling. Yes, emotions are sometimes very good messengers. Specifically, pay attention to the times you feel resentful and/or angry.
These two emotions will show you that your boundaries have been violated and/or your needs are unmet. The red flags that make you feel bad will be obvious to you over time. You may also begin to notice patterns, smaller red flags that go hand-in-hand with behaviors or actions that cross boundaries for you. In reflecting on past relationships, you may begin to identify patterns. Without ruminating too much, you may want to think about what you might do differently now or in the future if you come across those warning signs. You may want to talk to yourself about if the boundary that is crossed in those situations is a deal-breaker for you, or you may want to prepare how you will address the issue as soon as possible.
What is a red flag for you might not be one for others, and vice versa. Ultimately, the goal is for you to be in tune with your needs to make the choices that are best for you. Your friends and family are probably not qualified to be offering marriage counseling, but they have a wealth of life experience to draw from and observe. In getting to know your red flags, you may want to pay attention to what others say are red flags for them and why. Their point of view may open up a dialogue or broaden your horizons. We are all here to help one another.
2. Address the elephant in the room:
If a good and healthy relationship is a value of yours, then you will have to put in the work. Relationships come in so many forms, with so many dynamics and ultimate goals. What all healthy relationships have in common, however, is open, honest, and safe communication.
It is important to know that no matter what you say, it will never be used against you – this is what I mean by safety. If you have different communication styles, or one or both of you has trouble communicating, being in couples’ therapy might create a safe and neutral environment where you can begin to address any issues you are having.
A great way to invest in healthy communication is by promising that you will always stay curious towards each other. I once heard this tip that in a relationship, the most important 3 words are not “I love you” but “Tell me more.” When you have nurtured a dynamic that makes conversations about relationships healthy exploration instead of an investigation, it facilitates addressing issues sooner and with less anxiety.
If a red flag comes up for you, you are doing your partner a service by addressing it outright. If you are both in the habit of being curious about one another, your partner will be glad to hear this information from you, as it will inform his/her/their knowledge about you. “I feel as though we haven’t been spending as much quality time together lately. Why do you think that is?” should not be received with anger or defensiveness. It is still direct and clearly states your perception, but it doesn’t place blame or come from a place of resentment. However, if you wait for weeks on end to bring it up, making yourself more available for quality time but not communicating your desire for it, you might bring up your issues in a different manner.
3. Create Green Flags in your relationship:
Yes, it is important to know what you don’t want, but we often place too much importance on that, especially when it comes to relationships. Being aware of your green flags in a relationship keeps you in a positive mindset and forces you to be specific about your ideas, goals, boundaries, and needs.
When creating your list of green flags, identify behaviors and traits that would make your relationship the healthiest it can be. Examples of green flags can include: “I feel comfortable being myself with this person”; “My partner and I make time for one another consistently”; “My partner’s behavior gives me cause to feel safe with him/her/them”; etc.
If there is a green flag on your list that isn’t present in the relationship, such as quality time without electronics, or open and consistent communication, you can craft that. Adding this behavior, ritual, habit, or routine to your schedule helps keep things moving toward something better instead of just being away from something bad.
We have all been in a situation where we looked back at someone we were no longer dating and beat ourselves up a bit, feeling that we “missed the red flags.” While it is always good to take stock of past experiences, reflect on them, and learn what we can, it doesn’t need to be a process in which we berate ourselves for not knowing better at the time. As life goes on, our experiences and opinions grow and shift; what we might have considered a cause for pause in the past may not be one anymore, and vice versa. Showing ourselves compassion and curiosity as we identify red flags will enable us to embrace our values rather than regret our perceived failings or weaknesses. This liberates us to address red flags with dignity and respect, both for ourselves and the other person.
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Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
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