How to Understand Relational Red Flags

Red flags are commonly described as signs that arise early in relationships pointing to a potentially negative or toxic pattern than can develop further if not attended to. A friend of mine once said, when you're in love, you see a person with rose-colored glasses. These glasses can make red flags just look like flags.

We've likely all encountered times in our dating lives when we have pushed aside the red flag warnings to develop a relationship regardless. Whether this was due to our own insecurities, a desperate need for connection, desire for sex, or just the heart-pounding invitation of "love at first sight," most of us come to find in due time that what was ignored rises to the surface and causes challenges in a relationship. Today, I'd like to explore some of the most common red flags to watch out for when beginning a new relationship.

  • Lack of communication - Healthy partnerships are nourished by an open path of communication between two or more individuals. If you're dating someone who has a hard time expressing how they feel, or pulls back at times when communication is most important, you may be fighting a losing battle in pursuing this relationship further. It can be easy to forget to talk about feelings in a relationship when one or both partners are busy with day-to-day logistics, but if partners aren't adequately expressing positive or painful feelings, that's a subtle sign of something troublesome arising. Expressing feelings to your partner is not just helpful within your relationship, but as a critical tool for getting the most out of all the interactions in your life.

  • Lack of Depth - Relatedly, you many be involved with a partner who is willing to communicate with you, but not in a way that is oriented towards growth and deeper understanding of yourselves as partners and individuals. While we all need time to talk about the simple things in life, a truly satisfying relationship may thrive on questions such as these: What are your values? What do you believe in spiritually? What gives you anxiety? What are you looking for in a partner? What do you love to learn about? What are your struggles? If your partner is unwilling to engage in questions such as these, there may not be enough intellectual sustenance to keep this relationship going in the long run.

  • Irresponsibility or Unpredictability - Some people have a hard time taking care of their own basic needs, whether that's in regards to work, self-care, family, or the home. If you're falling in love with someone whose personal life is a wreck, that may be a sign that they won't have the energy to invest in a relationship either. People like this need to focus on developing their own sense of stability before engaging in a relationship. So, if you find yourself in the midst of a hurricane with your lover, that may be a solid sign to take a step back. You may be grateful for the opportunity that it gives you to look inside your own life and see what you need to work on personally before diving into another relationship.

  • Lack of Touch - Touch is one of our most important sensations for connection between two individuals. Sexual touch aside, gestures of affection such as hugs, a gentle hand on the leg, and sweet kisses are signs that your relationship is in a connected place. As a relationship develops, we may lose touch with the sense of touch we had early on with our partner, when we couldn't keep our hands off of each other. While this is normal, if you and your partner are only experiencing touch through sex, or not at all, that may be a sign that your relationship may be losing something vital to its survival. However, these drifts can be repaired through a conscious focus on regaining that sense of physical connection, thereby re-activating the oxytocin that we thrive on to bond and feel alive.

  • Distancing and Lack of Presence - Experiencing distance or coldness in relationships can be related to a lack of expression of feelings. If you've fallen head over heels for a partner who is only sometimes available for you, that may be a sign that your relationship isn't developing in a healthy way. We all have things going on in our lives that can distract us from our relationships, such as a quarter-life crisis or work stresses. When these arise and start to interfere with your sense of closeness, it may be wise to inquire with your partner gently about what is going on. Distancing can create a lot of fears, insecurities and worries in the mind of the partner who is seeking closeness, which just adds unnecessary mental stress to one's life. You make seek fleeting reassurances from your partner, but these brief reassurances may only exacerbate your underlying anxiety about the relationship. If your partner is unwilling to communicate with you about what's going on in their life, that's a sure sign that your love is not reciprocated fairly.

  • Avoidance of Eye Contact - Eye contact is a subtle gesture of connection that leaves a big impact on relationships. If your partner is avoiding eye contact, it may be a sign that they are hiding something, perhaps out of fear or insecurity. Whether what's being hidden is fear, sadness, resentment, anger, or jealousy, lack of eye contact is a sign that there is a blockage in the relationship. Eye contact is the doorway to deeper empathy, connection & trust. Often regarded as the gateway to the soul, eye contact can be a conscious exercise in deepening a relationship. If you're frequently missing this form of contact with your partner, it may be wise to take care of yourself and either address the issue or walk away.

  • Abusive or Controlling Behavior - Now this one is a big red flag. If your partner is trying to separate you from close friends & family, or trying to control aspects of your life such as work or your personal life, then you've just encountered a sign of a toxic behavior in your partner. Being controlled in a relationship decreases freedom, individuality and your overall sense of energy & well-being. If your partner is physically, sexually, verbally, or emotionally abusive to you, then it is of the utmost importance for you to get out of that relationship as soon as possible. This is more than just a red flag; please remember to take care of yourself and remove yourself from any relationship with control or abuse indicators. One common pattern to note that can lead to instances of abuse is if every conversation you have escalates into an argument or violence. Remember to find solace and healing in friendships or with your therapist if you find yourself a victim of abuse.

  • A Sense of Heaviness or Hard Work - Every relationship has its challenging moments, and many of these challenges can be avenues for deeper growth and development as individuals and as partners. However, if from the very start, your relationship feels like a duty or obligation with a sense of heaviness to it, that may be a sign of an overarching dynamic that will exhaust you more than it will nourish you. If you feel a consistent sense of a lingering gray cloud on your relationship, take note of that sign and ask yourself, is this what I deserve?

  • Significant Friends or Family Not Liking Your Partner - Friendship can be one of the most pure bonds between individuals. If you start to notice that most of your friends or family are worrying about your relationship with a certain partner, they may be seeing some red flags that you are not able to see at the moment. Take steps to listen to your loved ones, receiving their input about your partner, and make your decision as to whether to continue in your relationship from there. If you truly love and trust your friends and family, their sagely wisdom may help you out of a tricky relationship before things get ugly.

  • Addictions or a Dark, Unresolved Past - Early on, you may start to notice some things about your partner that feel off. Perhaps they have been in some troubling relationships that they haven't fully resolved. Maybe they've experienced some addictions that are still currently ruling their life. Or perhaps they were involved in criminal activities that you could get looped into. Any of these behaviors or patterns are a sign that you may be entering into an energy-draining relationship. If something strikes you as rather strange, try not to ignore it, but rather, keep it in your mind's eye and assess whether or not this is an energy you want to bring into your life. More likely than not, you'll find the answer is a solid no.

  • A Relationship Built On Feeling Needed - We often engage in relationships to fill some sort of lack in our lives. This can be a natural pattern, but not the most ideal for a growth-oriented relationship. If the focal point of the relationship is fulfilling each other's needs instead of our own, it may not have the type of lasting foundation that individual and partnership growth is based on. Check in with yourself as to why you are choosing to engage in this relationship. Are you trying to fill a void, or expand on what you already have in your life?

Dr. John Gottman has an excellent model of the primary red flags that commonly arise in a relationship, which he calls, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," noting the beginning of the end of a relationship.

The first sign that Gottman states as a red flag is criticism. Telling your partner that there is something wrong with them or using phrases that begin with "you always" or "you never" are over-generalized sentiments that attack, rather than connect. An antidote to criticism can be utilizing 'I' statements about how your partner's behavior impacts you, or making a complaint that is not generalized to the whole person.

The second horseman is defensiveness. As a response to criticism, we may respond with a counter-complaint, or find ourselves whining like an innocent victim. Defensiveness takes away from each partner's ability to take responsibility for their part in the situation. An antidote to defensiveness would be to hear your partner's side of the story and try to take responsibility for what part you played in it.

The third red flag that Gottman points out is contempt. When your relationship moves to a point of contempt, you are placing yourself on a higher ground than your partner, looking down at them as less-than. Examples of contempt can include mockery, snide remarks, and eye-rolling. Commonly, contempt arises after criticism and defensiveness, and it can destroy any sense of fondness you had for each other. It is not easy to re-build a sense of appreciation for each other from this stance, but it is possible, with time and awareness of your reactions, which can be explored in couples counseling.

Finally, the fourth horseman is stonewalling. This is when conversation and the ability to discuss problems evaporates, leading to one partner either physically leaving the conversation, or refusing to speak. Stonewalling can be a response to overwhelm in a discussion, and it is a sign of calming down the self. This may appear as otherwise to the partner pursuing conversation, which leads to a feedback loop of frustration. It may help to learn to identify the signs of experiencing overwhelm in a conversation, and to discuss the possibility of mutually taking a break from the situation.

Many of us have experienced red flags that we've ignored, including myself. Writing this piece was healing for me in terms of understanding what I am really looking for in a relationship, and I hope that it will be a valuable tool for you as well.

Gregory Tilden, AMFT, APCC is an Associate at The SF Marriage and Couples Center. Greg provides sliding scale couples and individual therapy at our Duboce Triangle District office in San Francisco.