Red Flags in Relationshipss
Red flags in relationships aren’t always easy to spot. Even when we do pick up on them, they can be easy to dismiss. If you’re a hopeful, optimistic, generous person, you’re probably pretty good at making excuses for questionable behavior from others, and at thinking of opportunities to improve difficult situations when it would really be in your best interest to walk away.
Furthermore, you may have a hard time spotting red flags in relationships because of your own personal history. Sometimes, our past experiences can distort our natural sense of what’s good for us and what’s not, which is a problem that working with a good counselor or a qualified life coach can help you resolve. By learning to trust your own instincts and recognize red flags, you can choose healthy relationships that add joy and love to your life.
This article will give you some actionable advice for noticing relationship red flags, and navigating them when they do arise. I’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. My guest is Dr. Paige M., a couples counselor and individual therapist on the team at Growing Self. Dr. Paige is sharing some insightful tips that can save you a lot of stress and heartache — you don’t want to miss this one. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
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Red Flags in Relationships
Red flags are usually pretty subtle at first. If you’re getting involved with someone who’s dishonest, or disrespectful, or God forbid abusive, they will likely be on their best behavior when you’re just getting to know them. It’s only when you’re “in deep,” emotionally and practically, that they’ll feel secure enough to let the more obviously problematic behaviors show.
We may also miss red flags because we’re seeing what we want to see, and ignoring what we don’t. If you get an unsettled feeling around your new boss, you might dismiss it because the job pays well (perhaps even suspiciously well) and it’s exactly the position you’ve been looking for. You may overlook some flakey behavior from the person you just started dating because they’re cute and fun and you’re focused on the chemistry when you’re together (which is totally normal).
Another barrier to catching red flags may be your own personal history. If you were raised in a family where unhealthy patterns were playing out left and right, some toxic behaviors that should set off alarm bells for you may feel familiar, or even attractive. You likely developed some strategies to manage unhealthy relationships, and you might slip into those old strategies rather than setting healthy boundaries or calling it quits in a relationship. Working with a good therapist can help you shed those old habits, and learn to trust your own feelings about which relationships are good for you and which are not.
This episode of the podcast is packed with insight that will help you begin to recognize red flags and handle them appropriately. Here are a few to be on the lookout for:
1. Pushing Boundaries
Boundaries in relationships are essential. Without them, it’s hard to know where your own responsibilities begin and end, and easy to be trampled by the needs and wants of others. But some people are difficult to set boundaries with. Rather than respecting your boundaries, they may push them, and that can be a relationship red flag.
Pushing boundaries may look like inserting themselves into parts of your life where you haven’t invited them yet. (For example, if you just started dating someone, and they started chatting with your mother on Facebook without discussing it with you first, that would be pushing a boundary). It can also look like not respecting your requests for space to yourself, showing excessive jealousy in your relationship or possessiveness over you, or exhibiting controlling behavior.
What matters even more than the particular boundary that’s being pushed is how they respond when you assert your limits. We all accidentally step on other people’s boundaries from time to time, but it’s usually unintentional, not because we don’t respect their right to set boundaries. If someone tries to make you feel guilty or ashamed for having a boundary, that’s a red flag. (In general, if you are getting to know someone and you notice guilt or shame coming up a lot, for reasons that don’t feel quite right, that can be a sign of manipulation, which is a big red flag).
People often ask marriage counselors how they can identify someone who’s likely to cheat early, before they get hurt. There’s no perfectly accurate test, but looking out for secrecy is as close as it gets (aside from uncovering a history of infidelity).
Secrecy is more than a desire for privacy. It’s actively hiding relevant information or even working to give a false impression. For example, you may start dating someone, and then catch them lying to you about going on a date with someone else. This is a red flag even if you aren’t in an exclusive relationship yet and they aren’t technically cheating. For one reason or another, they don’t want you to have an accurate picture of the relationship you’re having with them — they’re being secretive.
Another red flag can be how they respond when you raise trust issues with them. Maybe the person who lied about having a date would apologize, tell you they felt awkward and didn’t know what to say when you asked what they were doing Friday, and then they begin a conversation with you about what the boundaries of your relationship should be. Or, maybe they emotionally invalidate you, and make you feel guilty for even suggesting they did something wrong. There’s a world of difference between these two responses.
Secrecy can also be a red flag outside of romantic relationships. Is your new workplace appropriately transparent, or are you noticing things happening covertly? That can be a sign of a toxic workplace that you wouldn’t want to miss.
3. How they Manage Anger
Anger in itself is a normal human emotion that is neither good nor bad. But the way someone manages their anger is really important.
If the person you’re getting to know gets angry easily, or becomes scary or intimidating when they’re angry, that can be a red flag. Being exposed to unchecked anger over a long period of time can be toxic for you, especially if you are easily triggered by other people’s anger because of past experiences.
On the other side of the coin, a friendly outward demeanor coupled with passive aggressive behavior can be another red flag. While they look very different from the outside, both of these approaches to managing anger show an unwillingness or inability to take responsibility for one’s own feelings and to communicate about them in a way that’s emotionally safe and respectful.
4. Intense Chemistry
Every experienced dating coach has heard some version of this many times:
“Ok, I know it’s only been a few dates, but he/she is SO GREAT. I’m feeling good — like really, really good. I thought that I had been in love before, but I have never felt so happy or excited about anyone in my entire life!”
And when we hear this, we’re usually thinking … “Uh oh.”
That’s because, while falling in love is always an exciting experience, super intense, knock-your-socks-off chemistry is often a red flag. If nothing else, it can blur your judgment and keep you from thinking critically about whether this is a relationship or a partner that aligns with your values and your life goals. Many couples ride a wave of infatuation straight into commitment, only stopping to consider whether or not their lifestyles or personality types are compatible once their lives are already deeply intertwined and they’re experiencing problems. At worst, this kind of intense chemistry can be the product of love bombing, which is a hallmark of narcissistic relationships and other toxic relationship patterns.
No matter how sparkly and exciting your new crush is, you’re better off taking things slow and really savoring the experience of getting to know them, while keeping your own values, relationship goals, boundaries, and needs in the forefront of your mind.
5. A Cycle of Toxic Conflict
Conflict is not a bad thing in and of itself. In fact, healthy conflict helps relationships grow. But there are some conflict cycles that are not healthy, and that are in fact red flags.
An unhealthy conflict pattern starts with a period of mounting tensions, when there is frustration simmering under the surface of every interaction. You may be walking on eggshells, and you may even suspect that the person is trying to bait you into an argument. Eventually, there will be an “explosion,” when tensions spill over into a nasty fight. Once you make up, there will be a honeymoon period, in which you will actually treat each other incredibly well. You may even feel a little elated to be back in the difficult person’s good graces… until you once again feel tensions mounting and the cycle begins all over again.
Healthy conflict can also be cyclical, but it doesn’t have the same emotional charge. The people involved may get heated or raise their voices, but they’ll also take accountability for their actions, make a good apology when it’s appropriate (hopefully in their partner’s apology language), and work together to fix the problem. This process can be messy, but the end result is a relationship that works better for you both.
Toxic conflict is different. The emotions are bigger, both during the conflict and during the make-up period. If it feels like an endless cycle where nothing is ever truly resolved, you might be getting caught in a toxic conflict pattern.
Finding Your Red Flags
There are a few universal red flags that apply to every relationship, but there are many red flags (or, simply signs that a relationship would not be sustainable or healthy for you) that depend on who you are and what you need.
To figure out your own red flags, you need to be tuned into your values. What’s important to you in a relationship? What do you need from a partner (or from an employer, or from a friend?) What kind of relationship would actually fit in with the other goals you have for your life? If you’re not clear about your values yet, I recommend using this values list to begin exploring them. It’s also helpful to create a list of relationship “green flags” that you do want to see in a potential partner. That mindset can help you take a more positive approach to dating rather than feeling like you’re only looking for reasons to reject the people you meet!
We all miss red flags in relationships, and it’s tempting to beat yourself up. It’s something that happens to hopeful, optimistic people who see the best in others, and the opportunities in every situation. Working with a trusted therapist can help you get clear about the red flags that are most important for you to keep in mind, and tune into your own feelings in relationships so that you can spot them next time.
If you enjoyed this conversation, check out another fantastic episode featuring Dr. Paige about the power of healing relationships.
P.S. If you’re interested in more tips on creating healthy, happy relationships, check out our healthy relationships collection.
Episode Highlights: Red Flags in Relationships
[02:26] Silent Red Flags in a Relationship
- Many people miss the biggest red flags because they are often subtle at first.
- These include pushing boundaries in relationships, possessiveness or jealousy, and how they express anger.
[08:19] Why People Ignore Red Flags in a New Relationship
- People often ignore red flags because of the positive feelings they have in a new relationship.
- It’s easier to ignore when no pattern has been established.
- You may develop more tolerance for the behavior over time.
- The longer you’ve been in a relationship, the more constraints there are to stay in it, despite the red flags.
[17:47] Values Mismatch or Personal Red Flags in a Relationship?
- You need to have a sense of your personal values to find a healthy relationship.
- Reflect on your previous relationships.
- Identify your “deal breakers” and preferences in different areas of life.
- You can apply a values inventory to all your relationships.
[25:51] Red Flags in Your Relationship and Other Relationships
- You may have a list of values or red flags based on what you’ve seen in other people’s relationships.
- If you’ve been raised with dysfunctional family roles, someone with red flags may feel familiar or good to you.
- You may appear to be the perfect partner for them.
[30:17] Signs and Red Flags to Look for in a Relationship
- On infidelity: secrecy, deflecting, gaslighting, and the avoidant attachment style.
- On domestic violence and toxic behavior: explosive anger, monitoring, stalking tendencies, when sexual consent is not respected, repeated cycle of building tension-explosion-honeymoon phase.
[38:34] Turn Conflict into Growth
- Are they able to take accountability for their actions without making it about them?
- Are they able to discuss things in a respectful way?
[41:11] Leaving a Relationship Riddled with Red Flags
- Make it an intentional decision.
- Plan and write your reasons.
- Staying in a relationship to appease someone’s feelings is not kind to them or yourself.
- It’s valid to feel sad after leaving this relationship.
- Building community and healthy friendships can help you heal.
[47:27] Red Flags at Work
- Red flags also apply to the workplace, such as not respecting boundaries.
- “Family-like” and “cult-y” workplaces also tend to be manipulative.
- Consider asking questions about work-life balance, work expectations, safely giving feedback.
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Red Flags in Relationships
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
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Music in this episode is by Art Feynman with their song “Slow Down.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: artfeynman.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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