When a relationship ends or isn’t going well, it’s natural to reflect and wonder whether there were signs — or red flags — that your partner wasn’t a good match. You might find yourself thinking:
Did I miss something?
Were there signs that this relationship wasn’t going to work out?
Why do I keep dating the wrong people?
I had a gut feeling something was off. Why didn’t I trust my instincts?
How can I tell if someone’s a good match for me?
What red flags should I be aware of?
What are relationship red flags?
Often there are red flags or warning signs that this isn’t the right partner for you. And learning how to spot these red flags can help you avoid a heartbreaking or dysfunctional relationship in the future.
There are three types of red flags that I want you to look for:
- Concerns about your partner’s behavior, personality traits, beliefs, and values. Does he or she treat you, others, or him/herself in harmful or unhealthy ways? Do you agree with his or her values and beliefs?
- Concerns about the ways you interact with each other. Are there hurtful or unhealthy relationship dynamics?
- Concerns about your own mental and/or physical health. Has your mental or physical health deteriorated during this relationship?
If you notice that many of the following red flags are true for you and your partner, try to be curious about them and explore them further rather than feeling like you need to defend your choices or your partner.
Relationship red flags include:
- Inability to resolve conflicts. You have recurring arguments that are never resolved, your partner refuses to discuss certain issues or acknowledge your concerns.
- Controlling behavior or a lack of trust. For example, your partner wants to know where you are and who you’re with at all times or insists on knowing your phone passcode before you’re ready to share it. These behaviors reflect a lack of trust and respect.
- You don’t feel like you can be fully yourself. As a relationship progresses, you should feel more comfortable with your partner and share more of yourself. It’s a red flag if you either don’t feel increasingly safe to share your experiences, interests, thoughts, and feelings or you feel judged or criticized when you do and begin to hide or suffocate parts of yourself that your partner disapproves of.
- Your friends and family members have expressed concerns about your partner or relationship. Certainly, other people’s opinions of your choice of partner aren’t the end all be all. However, sometimes they notice red flags that you yourself can’t see. It’s worth considering their opinions, especially if multiple people who you respect have expressed concern.
- You’re conceding rather than compromising. Healthy relationships require some give and take by both people. Conceding, or giving in, on a regular basis creates an unbalanced relationship. If you’re constantly prioritizing your partner’s needs and wishes above your own, perhaps to keep the peace, you’ll eventually become unfulfilled and resentful.
- Difficulty sharing feelings. Sharing our feelings is the root of intimacy. If either one or both of you are unable to identify and appropriately express your feelings, communication and intimacy will always be challenging.
- Giving up your friends, interests, or goals. A relationship should add depth and joy to your life; it should make you feel more alive – more yourself. It shouldn’t diminish who you are and what’s important to you. And while it’s normal to spend a lot of time with a new partner at the beginning stage of a relationship (and consequently less time with friends or family), it’s a red flag if you feel like your partner would be angry, jealous, or critical if you spent time with your friends and family. Giving up things that were once important – perhaps a dance class you loved to take or your plans to go back to college – is another red flag.
- Pressure to become too serious too fast. This can include feeling pressured to have sex, move in together, or get married. For a relationship to be mutually satisfying, it needs to meet both people’s needs. It’s a red flag when your partner isn’t listening to your needs or attentive to your ambivalence about taking the relationship to the next stage.
- Lying or breaches of trust. Most people would agree that trust is an essential component of healthy relationships. Infidelity is one of the biggest and most hurtful forms of betrayal. Being unfaithful or not honoring the relationship agreements about having other partners, is a big red flag. However, the warning signs may seem less obvious when it comes to emotional affairs or online affairs. Often the harm is minimized by comments like: “It’s no big deal. We didn’t have sex” or “We’re just talking online” or “It’s just flirting”. If your feelings are hurt, you feel betrayed, abandoned, or rejected, and your partner doesn’t care or minimizes them, that’s a red flag. You should also be wary if you notice a pattern of lying or half-truths about other issues. Often, it’s impossible to know for sure if someone is telling the truth; you need to trust your instincts and look at your partner’s behavior in its entirety.
- Abuse of any kind (emotional, verbal, physical, sexual, financial, gaslighting). We all know that abuse is a red flag and yet we often make excuses for it. If you’ve been abused in previous relationships (or in childhood), you may have a hard time labeling abuse as abuse because you’ve grown accustomed to it and have learned to blame yourself for it. You may also be swayed by an apologetic partner or one who convinces you that “it’s all in your head” or they’re doing it because they love you. Don’t discount “minor” abuses, such as derogatory names, pressure to have sex when you don’t want to, or telling you what to wear. Abusive behaviors tend to get worse and more frequent, not better, over time.
- Increased symptoms of mental or physical health problems. Your body, mind, and spirit are all interconnected, which is why symptoms of stress, depression, and anxiety show up in our bodies as well as in our thoughts and feelings. Be sure to notice new or worsening health problems, increasing feelings of anger, resentment, fear, and stress and consider whether they may be related to your relationship.
Why do we ignore red flags?
Below are six common reasons we ignore red flags. Often, several, if not all, are at play at the same time.
That wonderful euphoric feeling you get when you fall in love is the result of a flood of hormones released by your body. As you know, these chemicals feel amazing, like a natural high, because they’re activating the pleasure center in your brain, but they also cloud your judgment. You become obsessed with your new lover; it’s hard to concentrate on anything else; you want to spend every minute together, and it feels right to run off to Vegas and marry someone you just met a month ago. These powerful chemicals create an intense attraction that’s hard to resist and they help to bond you to a new partner. They make you feel so good, connected, and loved that it’s hard to see red flags or that your partner has any flaws at all.
We move too quickly.
This infatuation stage — when your brain is highjacked by love and pleasure hormones — lasts for about six to twelve months. If you intertwine your life with your new partner (by moving in together, getting engaged or married, getting pregnant, getting a pet together, co-mingling your finances) while these chemicals are flooding your brain, it becomes even harder to acknowledge the red flags. Denial can be a powerful force and you may unconsciously not want to see the warning signs. And by the time you see them, you’re in so deep that it’s hard to get out. Dating for a full year before making any of these significant life changes can help you spot red flags.
We’re stuck in wishful thinking.
Sometimes you get caught up in wishful thinking. You want it to work so badly or you think your partner will change so you disregard the red flags. In this case, your fantasy of what the relationship is or could be, prevents you from seeing things as they really are.
We don’t like to admit we were wrong.
Let’s face it, no one likes to admit they were wrong, that their relationship didn’t work out, or they misjudged someone. Pride and fear of failure can keep you in a relationship even when it’s gotten dysfunctional.
We don’t trust ourselves.
One of the biggest reasons for missing red flags is that we don’t trust our own judgment. Perhaps you sense that something is wrong, but proceed anyway. Or, even when you have concrete evidence that your partner or relationship is dysfunctional, you might tell yourself that you’re overreacting or focusing only on the negatives. When you do this, you’re betraying yourself and what you know to be true.
The red flags seem minor.
Minimizing red flags is another form of self-betrayal. When you’re in love or want to think the best of someone, you’ll make excuses for their harmful behavior. As I said earlier in this article, dysfunctional relationship dynamics and abusive behaviors tend to escalate as relationships progress unless serious efforts are made to change them. It’s important to notice red flags even if they seem small, especially if they are part of a pattern of disrespectful, hurtful behavior or unhealthy patterns in the relationship.
I hope this article has helped you identify relationship red flags and some of the reasons you might miss them. You might find it helpful to create your own individualized list of relationship red flags to help you gain even more awareness of your relationship patterns.
If you are in an abusive relationship, I urge you to seek help from a local organization, The National Domestic Violence Hotline (USA) at 1-800-799-7233, or National Domestic Violence Helpline (UK) at 0808 2000 247.