Red Flags in Relationships

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). 

2. Secrecy

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.

Lisa Marie Bobby: One of the best ways to increase your chances of having a good relationship is to avoid getting into a bad relationship. So what are the red flags you should be on the lookout for? That’s what we’re talking about on today’s show.

If you’re like basically everyone, you have been involved in at least one relationship that was not the best situation for you. Likely, when you look back at that relationship or those relationships, how they started, there were probably some early warning signs that things were a little bit off. Maybe it was the boss who turned out to be abusive. Maybe they were a little rude during the interview. Or maybe the person who wound up cheating on you seemed a little cagey on the first date. 

It’s really easy to beat yourself up after the fact and say, “Oh, I should have seen that coming. I should have known better.” But the truth is, we all learn this stuff the hard way through trial and error, and it can be easy to miss or dismiss the red flags that we should all be paying attention to. But luckily, there are some fairly reliable indicators that a relationship is not going to be the healthy one that you want and deserve.

Today, we’re going to be talking about how you can recognize those red flags and relationships, and then navigate them when they arise. So joining me for today’s conversation is my colleague here at Growing Self, Dr. Paige. She is a couple’s counselor, a relationship coach and individual therapist, and Dr. Paige has helped so many people get better at recognizing unhealthy relationship patterns and cultivating genuinely healthy and happy relationships. 

She has a lot of expertise in helping people recognize which relationships have potential to be fantastic, and which ones may in fact be problematic. Today, she is here to share her expertise with you. Thank you, Dr. Paige. 

Paige: Thanks, Lisa. Excited to be back.

Lisa: Yay. Well, I just loved our last conversation. We recorded a fantastic episode together a while ago around healing relationships that was just phenomenal. I should say got so much wonderful feedback from our listeners that they really valued all of the fantastic wisdom you had to share there. So I’m excited to have you back to talk about this really important topic — relationship red flags — so much to unpack. 

Paige: Yes. I have so many thoughts

Lisa: So many thoughts. I mean, clearly much to discuss, but where do you think we should start? Is there one kind of point of entry like a common relationship red flag that with your clients, you’re like, people tend to miss? What are the some of the big ones?

Paige: I think the really big ones, and I think they get missed because they can be very subtle at the beginning of the relationship. 

Lisa: Yeah, like real red flags. Like somebody gets up to go to the bathroom and steals your car. Those — got it, noted. 

Paige: Yeah. 

Lisa: But it’s the subtle ones that will mess you up, right? 

Paige: Yes. Yeah, so anytime anyone pushes a boundary. Again, this one gets tricky, because sometimes we don’t know we have a boundary until someone pushes on it, and then, it’s like, oh, that really feels not okay. But I mean, this can be anything from like, checking your phone or visiting you at work before you’ve talked about this being okay, or inserting themselves into areas of your life that you haven’t really talked about yet.

Lisa: Are we talking about like a romantic relationship in particular, or would this be more global? Because weird relationships can happen in any area of our life, but it’s certainly more impactful a lot of times if you’re dating or with a partner.

Paige: I would say global, right? Like if we had a friend pushing on a boundary or a work colleague, like probably bring up those same feelings. I also feel like any possessiveness or jealousy is another big red flag, which I think some people might get surprised how often that comes up in friendships. If someone is like really wanting to be your best best friend, or is feeling lots of feelings that you’re spending time with other friends, that would feel like a red flag to me. 

Then, I think the one that always comes up when we’re particularly thinking about romantic relationships, and maybe a red flag for violence, is like how people express anger, because anger is a fine emotion. All humans are going to feel anger at some point. But how are people expressing their anger? Is it becoming really nasty towards you? Are they punching a wall or throwing something? 

That would be a big red flag that there might be some emotion regulation struggles, which for me would just be, let’s pump some brakes here and evaluate how we’re feeling about that.

Lisa: Definitely. Okay, so these are all certainly things to pay attention to. I really liked your one comment about boundary pushing and how that can really come up in any situation. I actually have a good friend who is a professor at a university and who is actually involved in New Student Admissions and teaches courses and all this. She’s actually said once to me, she’s like, “I can always tell the students who are going to wind up being either difficult or not doing well on this program because they come in asking for accommodations, and wanting to make changes to various things, and essentially, like trying to push the boundaries of the program.”

So it’s really consistent across the board. Somebody just kind of showing a general disrespect for what should be healthy and appropriate limits and certainly keep things confidential. But I mean, what would be some examples of what that could look like? Because it’s one thing for you and I to say pushing boundaries, but like, what would be some examples, especially as you’re just getting to know someone of boundary pushing?

Paige: Yeah, I think some examples that I’ve seen is like not wanting to respect space. So maybe at the beginning of a relationship, it’s exciting. We were spending a ton of time together and someone’s like, “Oh, I want to be alone tonight,” or “I want to spend some time with friends.” Maybe this is a romantic relationship, and the other person is might be offended or like, “Oh, but I care about you. If you cared about me, why would you want to spend time with other people?” or just acting really hurt.

I think that maybe a more subtle way that people push on a boundary isn’t that they’re out and out saying, no, I won’t respect this boundary. But they’re either intentionally or unintentionally doing something to bring up guilt in you for setting that boundary by being really hurt or offended. 

Lisa: Like it’s not okay to have an… Yeah, sort of a little manipulative, uh-huh. 

Paige: Yeah. 

Lisa: “Oh, you’re gonna go out with your other friends. Okay, well, I’m just gonna sit in this dark room and be sad until you get back.”

Paige: Yeah, that’s one that comes up. I’ve definitely seen examples of that.

Lisa: Yeah. Okay, got it. So if we could talk for a minute and let’s talk, actually specifically, about new or developing romantic relationships. So, boundaries, anger issues — these things can all be big red flags. What are, in your experience, some of the most common reasons that people either miss red flags? I mean, in my experience, people will notice things happening, but will not kind of prioritize that information, talk themselves out of it, make excuses for somebody. Do you know what I’m talking about? 

Paige: Yes. Yeah. 

Lisa: What do you make of that? Why is it so easy to be like, wow. I want to see a green light.

Paige: I think at least a part of it is that honeymoon phase that’s very exciting in a new relationship. We’re experiencing way more oxytocin and endorphins and serotonin in our brain and those first wild lumps of a relationship and it’s just really nice to have a new person that we’re feeling connected to or sexual attraction to, all those things at the beginning of a relationship. 

So I think that’s part of it as we would have to change course when all the inertia is pushing us towards “Let’s stay in this,” and I think, also, I definitely experienced even in my own life pointing out like, “oh, this wasn’t okay.” Then, someone responding being really overly apologetic and like, “oh, I’m so sorry. It’ll never happen again,” and I think it’s much easier at the beginning or when it’s a smaller thing that just made us feel kind of not okay. 

Then it’s like, “oh, they said they’re never going to do it again,” and it’s easy to justify and rationalize that. It’s not a pattern yet. It was just one thing, and they’re an okay person. We start looking for all the evidence like you said. What are all the green flags? Like this and this and this is okay, so I can look past this one thing.

Lisa: Yeah. Oh now, these are all such great points. I really like what you’re saying about how the chemistry, the excitement, the newness, like that is really powerful stuff. So there are all these feelings. It’s like maybe your brain is saying, “but what about that?” There’s all this other part of you that’s like, “you are no fun, get out of here,” you know what I mean? It’s like kind of that conflict inside. Also that something does happen the first time, or even the second time in a new relationship, you don’t have a pattern established. It’s very easy to be like, well, it was a stuff. They were tired or whatever. Yeah.

This is a hypothesis of mine, and I have no hard data, but I would be interested to hear if you have noticed this, is that particularly for new romantic relationships, when I have clients who talk about meeting a new person where they are having a lot of chemistry, like more than they usually feel, that it’s somebody who’s making them feel things they’ve never felt before, and it’s like super intense and fast and it actually feels really, really, really good. 

To my jaded and cynical ear now, oh, my God, it’s so sad, but I always sort of hear like that in an old western movie, like a rattlesnake rattle in the background. I’m like, oh. Have you found there to be a correlation between extreme, exciting, awesome chemistry and a higher likelihood of actually it being, like that in itself could be a red flag in relationship? 

Paige: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, once you said it, I was like, oh, yes. I’m thinking of some instances where either it was like, and I know you talked about attachment on the podcast a lot, it was like physical subanxious attachment.

Lisa: “We found each other.”

Paige: We process through it. It was like, oh, wow. Yes. So some anxiety is producing some of this rather than like being backed up by tangible evidence of things. Then yeah, I just think when you’re in that kind of over the top, and it’s hard, because I do think some of our narratives around romantic love, like the movies really set us up for love at first sight and that kind of instant connection. Definitely. 

Sometimes we look past what are our values here. What are we actually looking forward to relationships, does this actually line up? I’ve definitely worked with couples where that’s how it started, and it was intense and fast and furious. Then a year or a couple years later, they’re in therapy of how did we get here, and we go back to the beginning. It’s like, yeah, we never took stock of is this working for us, or how would we like this to be. We just kind of rode this wave of infatuation into commitment.

Lisa: Yeah. Oh, that’s a really good point. I love that what you do riding the wave of infatuation to commitment rather than kind of slowing down and think of some of the stuff that probably feels more boring at the time, like values, do you want children. Yeah, I mean, that bigger things, and okay. No, that’s a great point. So then, there are a lot of reasons why we could miss red flags. 

In your experience, what does that trajectory look like and for romantic relationships? I mean, clients that you’ve had as a dating coach or relationship coach, or maybe they’re coming to see you individually, and either in a relationship that is no longer working for them? Sometimes, I think, especially in our practice, we have people coming in to process the trauma of having been in a really toxic relationship. 

Sorry, this is a meandering nine part question. So excuse me, but I’m curious if you could describe for our listeners for their benefit, what you kind of see is the trajectory. It’s exciting at first, maybe a couple of things happen, easy to blow off, then what is kind of a predictable outcome? Where does it go?

Paige: Yeah, I only think those smaller things become bigger things. When they don’t get addressed, when they’re smaller or changed, then, either like there’s more tolerance for the so now I can do this behavior in a more intense way. Maybe it was a little bit of boundary pushing, and now it’s like “I don’t have to respect your boundaries because you’re not really pushing back on me here.”

I think even things that were like, oh, that’s giving me like a little bit of a feeling in the beginning. Like over time, those become big problems, where maybe it was a quirky difference that we had in the beginning of the relationship. Then over time, it’s like, “yikes, this is really not what I want,” or “this really isn’t working for me.”

I think, unfortunately, as it progresses, the longer we stay in a relationship, the more constraints we have to stay in that relationship. Either financial constraints, because now we’re living together and sharing expenses, or more of those intangible constraints, like now I have developed more love for you, because I spent more time with you, and I understand you better. 

Lisa: Yeah, attachment. 

Paige: Yeah. So then, this is a huge problem, but now we’ve got all this history, which I think makes it really hard to leave, and really hard to address, because sometimes they are things that have been around in some level from the beginning, when we didn’t address them early on. So now we’re trying to like change course what have you got. 

Lisa: Right, all this time? 

Paige: Yeah. 

Lisa: That is such a good point that it’s almost like feeling do I have the right to now demand that my partner be fundamentally different, because even though maybe I knew these things about them, when we were on the on ramp, decided to overlook them. Now, I have decided that it is a real problem for me — is that almost even fair of me to do? Like a second guessing, I think. Yeah, hard to leave, but also that second guessing of, what if this is just who this person is? 

Paige: Yeah. Yeah. 

Lisa: Yeah. That’s a really good point. Also, we should say there are kinda like different levels of severity when it comes to relationship red flags.

Some red flags can be related to almost like irreconcilable differences, Maybe the red flag isn’t a sign that this person is actually a sociopath who is going to con on your grandmother out of their life savings, but there are red flags that it’s just not a good fit in terms of long-term partnership.

Can you speak a little bit of those like values mismatch, life goal mismatch? Are there ways that you can kind of understand what some of those things that you would pay attention to earlier on?

Paige: Yeah, and I think the tricky part with that is that being a person going into a relationship, you would need to have some sense of what your values are and what you are looking for out of life. I think the big ones are like, is marriage important to you. Do you see yourself having kids one day? Big problems if we aren’t aligned on those types of things. But ones that I see come up with my clients all the time are how do you want to spend your leisure time. 

Is it important for you, and I’m in I’m in Colorado, so I think of like to get up early and get up into the mountains hiking, or do you want to sleep in on a Saturday? How would that look for us over time if we had really different ideas like how we wanted to spend our leisure time? I think there can also be some careers that might be mismatched of like, am I a person who can be flexible to work or to be in a relationship with someone who has a really weird work schedule or works nights or is on call and might get called away? 

I’m thinking also of someone in the military who might be deployed? Like, am I really going to be okay with that long term? Or if we have to be long distance for a time, how is that actually going to be for me and my personality? I think those are the ones that are trickier because as a therapist, I can tell you like it’s bad if someone checks your phone without talking to you like, hard stop. 

But those ones are more like, I don’t know, you’re gonna have to tell me if that’s something that’s going to be workable for you, or if that’s going to cause some problems.

Lisa: So what you’re talking about now are kind of red flags that are your personal red flags, and what I think I’m hearing you say is that in order to be able to see those and manage those, first, you have to be clear about what some of those personal, I mean, to use the word deal breaker, right, to know what some of those are.

Paige: Yeah. 

Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and I know that, again, I do not want to put you on the spot. Because I think as a therapist, as a coach, we spend a lot of time, over many, many weeks or months really helping our clients develop clarity about themselves through like a growth experience. For somebody listening who was like, “I should probably get some clarity about what my red flags might be before I get back into the pool,” are there just two or three easy things that you might suggest that people could do to begin to understand their own limits or values that they should really probably be prioritizing in relationships? 

Paige: Yeah. Well, I think reflecting on previous relationships that haven’t worked out is a great place to start. Maybe once were feeling more healed, and some of those feelings have become less intense. Maybe not in the first week after the relationship is over. But we’ve got some time and distance to think back on like, what were the things but it might start with like, this wasn’t okay to me, and then kind of following that to its logical conclusion. 

Why wasn’t it okay for you? What things are playing into that? Is it beliefs and expectations about relationships or relationships that were modeled for you that you always thought this is how it would be, and that isn’t how it was? Now, you’re realizing, oh, yeah, that actually matters to me. Just like with boundaries, sometimes we don’t realize something matters to us until it’s not there in a relationship or is different. 

Then, we’re like, oh, actually, I really care about that. There’s also really good values lists online that I always send my clients is like, this is a good place to start. This doesn’t encompass all of it, but…

Lisa: You know what, I have a values list that I put together. I’m going to make that PDF available on this page of the show for our podcast. Let’s see. Let’s put it at growingself.com/relationship-red-flags, and I’ll make sure that there is a little downloadable PDF, free, of the values sheet that I use with my clients. That’s a great idea, Paige. Thank you for suggesting that.

Paige: Yeah. From Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, one of their worksheets is just in the different areas of my life. So my romantic life, my work life, my social life, my family life, my leisure life, they just have all these different areas, and then you kind of put your values, different words into those and not at a place I would think about are your romantic relationship is only a part of your life. 

All those other lives or parts of your life as well, what are your values there? I would prioritize a little bit like what are those, “deal breakers”? What are things like, “this would be a preference.” If they liked dogs, that’d be great. I would love to get a dog one day. But it wouldn’t be a huge problem if we didn’t have a dog. Whereas it might be I really want kids or I have had some trauma from my own family of origin, and I really can’t handle it when people yell. That’s a big trauma response for me. Let’s put that right at the top of someone who can express anger without yelling.

Lisa: Absolutely. This is awesome. So just to spend some time thinking deliberately about your values and what you need in relationships, and I actually love that you brought up a values inventory that looks at other domains of life, because I think it’s easy to get over focused on romantic relationships with this conversation, that’s certainly important. But again, like what kind of relationship do I need to have with a co-worker or an employer or friends or family. It’s all over the place, so that’s really good.

I also loved your reminder about how helpful it is to do almost like a relationship autopsy, right? Certainly, many people, I think, again, come to our practice, because they’re in the depths of heartbreak and like really “just how do I get over this situation?” But I think it’s so valuable, especially in our dating coaching work, when people can come in and be like, “okay, I’m thinking about putting myself back out there, and I need to spend some time figuring out these patterns. What were those common elements?”

I have found, I think sometimes people can beat themselves up a little bit if they have a few relationships that didn’t work out. It’s so valuable to have a few of those under your belt, because that’s actually how you learn about what works for you, and what doesn’t work for you. So just to reframe it and use the opportunity. Thank you so much, Paige, for bringing that up. That’s super.

Okay. So, talking a little bit more about those personal red flags, are there others? I mean, if it goes into deal breakers that might be very real for you, you brought up “because of my history, I cannot be with somebody who easily yells, even if they’re not trying to be mean. This is just sort of the way they communicate. That’s not going to work for me.” Are there other personal red flags that you would encourage people to think about?

Paige: Yeah, I think just in like the general structure of how your life looks, which I feel like we’ve talked about, Maybe going off the yelling example a little bit more. Even if you haven’t been in many long-term relationships, you might have experienced some by watching the adults in your life when you were a child. So thinking through like, what are the things that you admired about those relationships, and what are the things that were a problem? 

I think in my work with individuals recovering from like childhood trauma, they usually have a list. “These are the things my parents did.”

Lisa: Right. 

Paige: These are my no goes. But I think it’s important to be very clear because there can be a tendency for people who have been in those types of environments as children to view them as pretty normal and comfortable as adults. Then, they don’t realize till they’re in it. “Oh, actually, this is really not working for me.”

So I think it’s helpful outside of the context of a romantic relationship to think through like the adults I watched go through relationships, or maybe like watching friends go through romantic relationships. What are things that have been like, “oh, yeah, I think that would work well for me,” and what are the things have been like, “yikes,” that was either really uncomfortable for me to go through as a child, or I’ve seen how it’s impacted.

Lisa: Yeah, but like to bring that into your consciousness. Paige, I’m so glad that you just brought this up. But I think it’s very, very true. Particularly if you were raised in an environment of unhealthy relationships, somebody who shows up and has you know, red flags, like flat out like rockets all over the place, is actually going to feel familiar to you, is probably going to feel good to you in some ways. So you can’t trust your feelings to warn you about red flags. You have to be thinking of them very consciously. Because that got scrambled a little bit.

Paige: If you developed a bunch of coping mechanisms as a child to make it through that situation, you might be like almost the perfect partner for that kind of person because you learn to be very in tune with someone’s emotions and accommodate their emotions, or you learn to make yourself very small or invisible when someone else was very big. They might be very attracted to you as well because you’re complimenting and because you learned how to survive it as a kid. 

If you’re ever noticing those sorts of things for yourself, I think it’s a great place to work through it with a therapist, maybe some support, because that can be kind of scary or overwhelming to sort through on your own. 

Lisa: It really can. And just even with that, if you have the choice to not be in a relationship at all, be in a relationship with Dr. Paige and figure some of that out. Oh, my goodness. So while we’re on the subject, and then I really want to also shift into some of the signs of when a relationship has potential to be a healthy one, versus how to know for sure that it really is probably toxic and needed to leave. I also want to talk with you about some exit strategies because that can be hard for people to do.

But before we do that, can you speak now a little bit more? We’ve been talking about, sort of milder kinds of red flags or things that are maybe problematic feeling for you. Can you speak to any signs that you’ve developed over the years? Or things that you would look for, say, somebody who could very well cheat on you? How about that one? Let’s go there. 

Paige: That’s a good one. Honestly, it’s less about how many relationships, how many friendships this person might have with a gender they’re attracted to or how extroverted or friendly they are in general. I think it’s much more about secrecy. If they’re trying to not let you in on certain things, this is a general red flag, but I think it comes up with situations that escalate to cheating pretty regularly. 

In the beginning, we’re talking about things like this pushes a boundary for me for you to hang out with this person or talk to this person, and then that person is making you the problem. Like it’s your problem that you’re feeling feelings about this. Not that I’m actually doing anything that’s pushing a boundary, I feel like that’s a big one, deflecting it right back onto you. Like, “no, you’re just insecure and jealous.”

Whereas someone who was a sign of a very healthy relationship might be “Oh, like, I don’t want to make you feel insecure and jealous. Let’s talk together better understand where you’re coming from, where I’m coming from. Let’s hash this out.” Versus, “No, you need to get over it.”

Lisa: Gaslighting is what you’re talking about. 

Paige: Definitely.

Lisa: Okay. So, a failure to take responsibility or acknowledge or validate how you might be feeling. Now, in my experience, one that I’ve seen are people who are very quick to feel like victimized by others. It’s like, I don’t know, they are always feeling persecuted by people or that they’re not getting enough for other people. So, they’re justified in their actions of doing questionable things. 

I’ve found that one to be true, other red flags about infidelity, betrayal. Well, a history of betrayal and previous relationships, there’s always that, many others because I think that’s a real fear for a lot. I mean, that’s like, the worst is somebody’s gonna betray them. 

Paige: Yeah, I’m thinking about something that I definitely was reading this in some research of people who have more rigid expectations for a relationship and what’s okay, and sometimes that’s gendered and sometimes that’s not but a lot of “what does my partner owe me in a relationship?” I think sometimes when those aren’t being met, then it feels okay to get that somewhere else. So I’ve definitely seen that one in the in the research cheating.

Lisa: See, that too. But I wonder just as we’re talking about it, like a correlation with an avoidant attachment style, which has lots of reasons why other people aren’t quite good enough. There’s somebody else better so they can kind of shift allegiances. So avoidant attachment style, I think it would be a red flag. That’s hard, though, to figure out because it takes time to get to know people and it’s only after you’ve been in that particular ring for six months. You’re like, oh, okay. 

Paige: Yeah. 

Lisa: So, okay. Then I do also just want to touch on this a little bit. One of your areas of expertise that is very, very important is related to domestic violence in particular. So, can you just share some of the warning signs or things that people would want to be extremely just like, “and we’re done” if they see any of these things coming? I think you mentioned explosive anger might be one…

Paige: Yeah, explosive anger would be a big one. Any monitoring, anything that’s getting close to stalking, like someone showing up where you weren’t expecting them to be or following you. That’d be a big one. We’re like shutting it down. Anytime sexual consent is not respected, where you clearly said no, and someone’s trying to convince you or force you. That’d be a big one for me, as well as like any physical violence to you. That’s a really hard one to come back from, so I would shut that one down.

I think also something that we see, and I think this relates to other red flags as well, is this cycle of violence that happens. So there’s a cycle. There’s these three stages, where there’s tension that is building, and it builds and builds to an explosion. Then, there’s this honeymoon phase where we’ve made up and this person has said they’re so sorry, and it’s never gonna happen again. 

“I need you and you can’t leave me. Who am I without you?” I have seen that with my clients with red flags that were red flags for physical violence or sexual violence, but just red flags for something pretty toxic of like that’s not accountability. When we’re taking accountability for something we’ve done, we’re not saying “oh, my gosh, I’m the worst person. I can’t believe I would ever do this. I’ll never do this again. You’re an angel on Earth, and I need to in my life.”

We’re saying like, “oh, wow, I did do that. Let’s talk about how we got there.” So I think that is something that’s really important with all red flags is like if you’re addressing something, how is that person treating it? Are they able to take accountability? Are they able to apologize? Not be like, “well, I’m sorry you were hurt by that thing?”

But actually, I’m sorry you felt feelings because of something that I did. I really care about you, and that can be tricky, because conflict, in general, is a way, like healthy conflict does bring us closer to our partner. We work through things, and we express our love and our care, but there’s a different feeling when it’s desperate or it feels really charged. 

Lisa: Yeah, completely. I love that you’re talking about this cycle. We think of it around domestic violence, but this same cycle happens with a lot of toxic behaviors. So what you’re saying is the red flag that you’re stuck in that situation, rather than having a productive conflict where we can grow, right, is that in those that honeymoon phase, it is still about that person. “I am the worst person in the history of the world. Will you ever be able to forgive me? Oh my god, I’m so terrible.” Like me, me, me, me, me right? So that in itself is a red flag to pay attention to.

This conversation was also making me think of another recent podcast that our listeners might want to check out on the apology languages and talking about exactly, I think, what you’re saying of how it’s not the words that you say even, although certainly communicating empathy for the other person’s feelings, but really like tying that to, and here is why it is going to be different going forward, tying it into actions, tying it understanding of why it happened in the first place, like evidence of that it could be different and will be different going forward. That would be an important sign for whether or not this can grow and turn into something better.

Are there other signs you’ve seen if somebody is trying to evaluate like, okay, is this a red flag and I need to get out of here? Or is this something that we could potentially use to grow together? I mean, because nobody’s perfect, right? I mean, think things happen. What are some of the other signs that somebody could be accountable and that change is possible versus signs that is not going to happen?

Paige: Yeah. I think in addition to how the repair happens with the apology or coming together, maybe how the conflict is happening. Is someone able to, even in a conflict, talk about how they’re feeling and avoid putting you down or swearing at you or if there’s any other like red flags you have in terms of how conflict happens? But yeah, are they able to stay somewhat grounded in themselves to have a discussion about a hard thing versus being so sensitive or so overwhelmed by emotion?

Lisa: Freaking out on you, falling apart, right?

Paige: Yeah, and it’s true. I can even think of for myself, like some bad relationship moments that I was the one it was doing the thing. They gave me a second chance or chance to explain. Yeah. I like to have things very quantified and tell you the thing, but I think there is a gut feeling when something, when it’s too desperate, when the emotions are just a little too big for this situation, or like you said, it’s still about that person, even as you’re trying to move forward.

Lisa: It’s so hard. I think for women, and also caring and lovely men and people of every gender, because I think that there are these messages to in our culture about forgiveness, about compassion, about giving people second chances, about grace, and these are very positive things. So I think it can also be really hard, especially if you care about somebody, to get to this place. It was like, “no, f*** you. I’m not doing this with you anymore. Get out of here,” right? So it can really be that process of figuring out, and it can take some time. 

Paige: Yeah.

Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Then if over that time, you’ve had the experiences and come to the conclusion that “Yeah, this is probably a toxic situation for me, and I need to be done.” Are there any, I don’t know if strategies is the right word, but that idea of exiting any ideas or things that you’ve had clients remind themselves that, in your experience, have made it easier for them to feel like their decision to not participate in this anymore is legitimate? People really worry about hurting others, right, and self doubt. What makes it easier?

Paige: I think going in with a lot of intention for some of my clients — let’s write it out. What are all the reasons? Let’s be very clear. Why is this not working for me? Reminding ourselves of these are the reasons because I think sometimes there is like, with clients I’ve worked with, there’s a worry that like, well, what if they say no, like, they don’t want to pre cuff, and then what am I going to do? 

So, let’s be prepared with. Let’s make this a very intentional decision. I think planning it and having the time set aside and even thinking through when would be the best time for me, when would I have the most internal resources. So if I’m a morning person, let’s not schedule this talk at 10 o’clock at night, or if I have a really stressful job, maybe we schedule this for the weekend. 

I think with some of those fears about like being mean or hurtful, I think it’s helpful to remember that overall, staying in a relationship that you don’t want to be in just to appease someone’s feelings is not very kind in the long run. Everyone deserves to be in a relationship with someone who wants to be in that relationship with them. 

So I do remind my clients that being honest in a not cool way is kindness. Remembering that if we’re choosing to stay in a relationship that isn’t quite working and trying to fix it, or end that relationship, we are choosing to options that are painful. So if we’re thinking, “I can just avoid feeling hurt or sad or lonely” like there’s no choice, avoid that.

Lisa: Yeah, couldn’t take that one away from you. Yeah, but well, and I also like that reminder. I mean, if you are really staying in a relationship because of your fear of hurting that person, you’re really not doing that person any favors in or yourself in the long run. That’s a good reminder because I think sometimes that internal narrative can be like, we’re being kind or something. 

As we’re talking and I’m reflecting so my own relationships, relationships that I’ve stayed in probably longer than I should for personal reasons and some work relationships, I think sounds weird, but it’s like sometimes the most positive things that can really keep us stuck. I’m a very optimistic person by nature. On my little strengths and virtues inventory, it’s optimism is one of my top strengths and also, being merciful, so optimistic and very easy for me. 

That has messed me up because so many times because I always think that well, it’ll get better, and they had a hard day. So yeah, I think the point is to notice what your little cognitive traps might be, what are the things that have kept you stuck in the past, and how to how to deal with them to extract yourself from weird situations in the future.

Paige: Yeah, yeah, and I think this came up on one of the podcasts. I don’t remember who is doing it, but talking about a breakup as an attachment wound. I think we can prepare for that. The other people in your life that are providing a good strong attachment, like preparing yourself, scheduling time to be with other people. Just knowing, like even if it’s not working, if I end this, I’m going to feel some attachment pain, so where can I get some of those attachment needs filled that isn’t in this relationship I don’t want to be a part of anymore?

Lisa: Yeah, thank you so much for saying that. That even if you want to end a not so great relationship for very good reasons, you can still expect to feel bad and sad and miss that person. I think that that often is very confusing for people because they think that, well, if I’m ending a bad relationship, then I shouldn’t feel like heartbroken and sad and miss this person. 

So well, then I must love them, and we should be together. No, you’re going to feel that way when you’re leaving a good relationship or not so good. 

Paige: Yeah. 

Lisa: Yeah. Thank you for that reminder. I think that can be surprising to people, but very helpful for them to know that. Okay, I did just want to circle back around really quickly, before we end to your experience about red flags with employers or work situations, because I mean, and especially any of our career counselors in our practice routinely work with people who’ve had really been quite traumatized by toxic work environments, or power dynamics with bosses that turned out to be really just awful to them, and can be any situation just for years, right? I mean, it’s a big part of life.

Do you have any insight into things that you would advise people to look for be thinking about as they are maybe interviewing for a new position or with new leadership coming in? What are the signs that red flags?

Paige: Yeah. Well, I think some of the ones we were talking about with romantic relationships still apply, like boundaries, for sure. But I also have the same feeling when we’re talking about like someone talking about their new partner, and it’s like, oh, there’s all this chemistry. I also feel a little weird when a workplace is a little culty, like when people love it so, so much. Like we’re a family. 

Lisa: Oh, I hate that. Anybody uses the F word, family, I’m like, they are being so manipulative to you right now. You need to like get out of there. Okay. Yeah, that is not your sister.

Paige: Yes. We should be a healthy— we get along, and we respect each other, and we work well together, but we’re not a family. This is a workplace, and we need to have some of those boundaries. So that’s a big one for me is when it getting into that. Like, this is where too positive about it. We’ve lost reality. I would also think about, particularly in interviews, and I’m not a career coach, but I have helped a couple clients think through some values around this lately, and we’ve talked a lot about, like what are some questions that we can ask to evaluate work-life balance. 

Are there going to be expectations that we are working longer than our contracted hours? If there’s an unlimited time off policy, for example, how often are people actually taking the time off? Because if no one else is taking time off, even if I have unlimited PTO, I’m gonna feel real weird taking that time off. So some of those things, and maybe some of that is my personal values with what I care about. 

But I would encourage people to also think about how is feedback given. How would you as an employee give feedback on a superior? Is there a process that you would be able to talk to someone about a problem and feel safe doing that? Because my experiences with people in toxic work environments is there’s some trappedness of “I can’t change this. I can’t talk to anyone about how this feels.”

Lisa: Okay, now that is great advice. So culty, using the family word, but also that the boundary pushing that people are routinely being asked to work longer hours than they really agreed to. Yeah. If it’s a little too sparkly and shiny, coming in ready talk to the receptionist about what’s really going on. Okay, excellent. Anything else that you would like to share just generally on the subject of red flags or if we talked about it?

Paige: I think the only like last thought I would have is I think often people are much too harsh on themselves for not seeing red flags, for not responding to them. I don’t think there’s anything naive or stupid about wanting a relationship to work or having hope and optimism that it will work. I think that’s a very human impulse. So often with my clients, we have to kind of work on showing compassion, because we’ve all been in situations where we thought it was going to work out or we thought it was going to be okay. 

Then, something shifts, or we get to a new situation, and that’s just a part of being in relationships with other people and not a reflection on you, even if it takes a while to leave or change it. There are many reasons that we either don’t see the red flags or we persevere through them. My experience has been that it’s mostly really positive intentions from people.

Lisa: That keep you in those relationships for after the fact in retrospect, maybe longer than you should have been. But in the moment, it’s good intentions and a lot of reasons. So, yeah, the one last thing, I know that in your work here at Growing Self, and unlike our previous podcasts, you are are often speaking about the idea of healthy relationships, how to create healthy relationships, and also how to either avoid or heal from unhealthy relationships. Why is this particular subject so important for you?

Paige: Oh, I’ve definitely had my own share of unhealthy relationships. Maybe that’s why they became important…

Lisa: You’re outing us, Paige.

Paige: But I have found that it is personally, and this is, again, this is my therapist coming out. I just see all these situations with humans so messy, and there’s so much nuance, and it’s so rarely that it’s a bad person and a good person in a relationship. It is a flawed person and a flawed person. Sometimes, the way that our flaws interact with each other is very toxic. So for me, helping someone think through what were the red flags? What was I contributing to that? What are some of my red flags that I might be putting out into the world? 

Because I do so much trauma work, if that’s coming from a place of trauma, we could just kind of go back and heal that. But I view that as really meaningful is like helping people be prepared to engage in healthy relationships, because I think of all the trickle down effects. So if you’re watching a really good friend be assertive and set boundaries, that could inspire you to be a little more assertive and set boundaries. Or if you are a parent who has really worked to heal your trauma, that you’re breaking that cycle of passing that trauma onto your children. 

Or if you are the co-worker that is like sticking up for your rights, there’s just ways that I know it’s impacting people beyond just my therapy room. That’s where my optimism as a therapist comes through. It was like hopefully my clients are learning how to do this. They’re inspiring other people are helping them in their journey of healing.

Lisa: Yeah, that’s so cool, Paige. Thank you so much for sharing that and I totally get it. It’s that not just as your work helpful and healing to your one person but just knowing and for our listeners too, that the work you are doing on yourself is also then healing and touching and helping a lot of other people. So thank you. What a wonderful note to end on. Thank you so much for joining me today, Dr. Paige. This was wonderful. 

If you guys would like to learn more about Dr. Paige or her practice, you can check out her profile at growingself.com, and listen to her previous podcast episode on healing relationships. Do you have an article on our blog yet? 

Paige: Not yet, but it’s coming. It’s coming soon.

Lisa: Oh, do you know the topic?

Paige: It might be red flags and relationships. I can’t remember. I got the email yesterday, but yes, I am on the work.

Lisa: Good choice. We’re working on that again. So anyway, well, thanks again.
Paige: Thanks for having me.

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