Not long ago, I met a very attractive single mother of two at a dinner party in Sag Harbor, New York. We were seated next to each other — a "soft" setup — and by dessert, we were punctuating our stories with little touches: her hand on my forearm, mine on hers. Good signs.
Then the first of her two children, a boy of about ten, descended from an upstairs TV room. In each hand he clutched an action figure. This in itself was not disconcerting. It was the way he slammed the action figures into each other, his upper lip curled in a sneer, that gave me pause. That, and the adoring look his mother chose to bestow on him as he did.
Still, despite the child's bizare behavior, the boy's mother, Diana, was definitely worth a follow-up. A few days later, I drove over to the waterfront inn where she had encamped with her children for a brief summer vacation. The plan was a swim in the inn's pool, then lunch at a nearby restaurant: a little ersatz family outing. Diana ushered me into her room and announced the obvious fact of my arrival to her children.
Neither the boy nor his sister, two years older, looked over from the droning televsion. Not a word emanated from either one's lips. Diana told them to turn off the television and change into their swimsuits. They ignored her. So Diana pretended she hadn't asked them and went into the bedroom to change. Only when the grownups started to leave did the children drag themselves, sluglike, behind us.
The swim was bad enough, with both children glowering at the grownups from their pool chairs. But lunch was worse. No sooner had the waiter taken our order than the girl seized one of the action figures from her brother's fist and threw it across the restaurant. The boy screamed in outrage, hit his sister with the other action figure, then ran over to get the first one so he could hit her with that, too. As the sister returned fire with her fists, I turned to see what Diana would do. "Now, come on, children," she said gently, lovingly, pleadingly. "Now, come on ... ."
Ten years (and one marriage) ago, I would have excused all this somehow, put it aside, and pressed on with a next date, because the mother, after all, was hot. No more. Well, all right, to be perfectly honest, I did ask her out on one more date hoping her demon children would be more agreeable in their city home. They weren't. So that was that. After decades of ignoring red flags, only to sail into disaster each time, I've finally realized that no matter how gorgeous and alluring the new stranger is, you have to quit when a red flag goes up. As soon as it goes up.
This isn't as easy it sounds. For starters, you have to learn how to distinguish red flags from mere quirks and annoyances. If a woman on her first date with you wears an orange-striped top and you hate orange or stripes, this is not a reason to bail. If her cell phone rings during dinner and she takes the call at the table, this is annoying—to me, very annoying—and will need to be addressed at some opportune point (not the first date). But it's not a dealbreaker. If, however, you take a woman to a restaurant that serves fancy pizza, as I did once, and she eats the pizza by scraping the cheese and tomato off the crust, leaves the crust on her plate, then lights a cigarette, smokes it, and grinds the butt out on the crust, this is a red flag.
This really happened, by the way, and if you work for a fashion magazine, you know who this was, so I'd better not say more.
A thoughtful reader may have already concluded that the greater challenge of red flags is their subjectivity. Another man, that is, might have yearned to provide the fathering that D—'s children so clearly needed. Or have been charmed—even turned on!—by the grinding of that cigarette butt onto the pizza crust.
So what can one do but act on one's instincts and hope for the best? Not true, not true, not true. Happily, I can report after three decades of romantic misadventures that there are, in fact, 12 red flags that everyone should watch for: clear, specific dating warnings that mean Danger Ahead, Turn Back—no matter who you are or what you find charming. Read them here, then clip this page and carry it in your wallet or pocketbook for the rest of your single life, to be unfolded and re-read by the light of a public bathroom stall on every date that gives you doubts.
As clear as all this ought to be, I have to admit that sometimes—very occasionally—a red flag turns out not to be what you thought it was at all. It's still a red flag, that is, but somehow it's become ... part of the appeal. In the heat of last year's election season, I would have said, as a fervent Democrat, that a woman's being a Republican was the biggest red flag of all. I haven't changed my political views, but I did recently meet a very smart, very attractive journalist who came with a warning: She's an ardent neocon. The flag is still waving, but we're having a lot of fun, so I'm just ignoring it.
Will this end up as another object lesson in my own theory? Or does love mean never having to pay attention to a red flag? I'll have to get back to you on that one.
The Dirty Dozen
Watch out for the Fling-o-matic, the Parent Trap, the Anger Hum, and these other stop signs.
For clarity,"chronic" here means "three dates in a row." If your date arrives more than ten minutes late each time, don't wait for his (or her) fourth arrival. Be gone. No doubt your date will have wonderful excuses, and one or two may even be sound. But three in a row is a pattern, and what the pattern says is: I don't want to get into this. So neither do you.
Ketchup on eggs.
If one of those first dates is brunch, and your new friend reaches for the ketchup to put on her eggs, RED FLAG! I realize this may seem arbitrary or fussy. Or perhaps you think I'm making a class judgment here. Well, maybe I am! What's wrong with that? All I know is: Nothing good ever comes of ketchup on eggs. And it's really gross.
Rudeness to waiters.
And taxi drivers, and any-one else in a service job. I shouldn't even have to explain why this is a dealbreaker. Just remember that it is.
Scary divorce stories.
It's amazing how much a new prospect will tell you about her life on a first or second date—much more than she knows she's saying. The question is: Do you hear it? If she launches into the story of her messy divorce, is her ex the villain in every respect? To me, that's a red flag right there. Anyone who's emotionally grounded should be able to see that two people, not one, contributed to a divorce.
A deep attachment to disturbing pets.
A golden retriever is fine, and cats are all right if they don't do much. But I'm still haunted by the memory of an ancient, hairless dachshund that would manage to jump up on the bed during inopportune moments and bay. Not until the dog-owner chose to disengage herself from me and comfort the dog instead did I know that this was trouble.
During a first, incredibly romantic lunch with a new prospect some time ago, I mentioned that my most recent relationship had ended after a year. "A year," my new friend marveled. "That's so impressive! All of my relationships end after three months." Of course I resolved to be the exception. Over the next weeks, which happened to include Christmas and New Year's, we had an amazing time, both in New York City, where she had a charming Hell's Kitchen walk-up, and at my house in the Hamptons. One Sunday, after I'd put her on the train home, I came back to find the most tenderly romantic note on my pillow, something about soul mates joined. The next week, for no outward cause, she called to break up with me. No argument, no terrible time, just end of story. Only later did I realize it was week 12. Lesson: When a woman over 35 tells you all her relationships have ended after a few months, RED FLAG.
Children with an issue or two? Maybe. Children who hate you? Watch out. Hopelessly spoiled or angry children, like D—'s? Head for the door.
Money stirs up so many issues, conscious and unconscious, far more than any magazine article can cover. For now, let's just list two red fiags you can spot early on. One: If a man suggests splitting the tab on a flrst date, the woman should pay—then bolt. I don't say this is fair, especially if, for instance, the woman is a CEO and the man is a freelance writer. But it's the way it is, and any man who tries to worm out of his society-given role as tab-picker-upper on the first (or second or third) date for the sake of saving a few bucks is a creep to be ditched. For men, an early red flag about money may not start waving until the third or fourth date. A lot of women begin life as daddy's girls; a few stay that way. They feel men should provide them with the lifestyle to which they've grown accustomed from other men who did just that. If you're a sugar daddy yourself, have fun. If not, back off. Over time you'll only be despised—and dropped.
The Parent Trap.
Powerful emotions about one's parents—positive or negative—are a huge red flag. For men, mother-worship is relationship death. One 50-year-old man I know has dated every single woman in New York and found, to his bafflement, that none is good enough—for his mother, that is. (She's still calling the shots at age 85.) One of this guy's many castoffs is a very attractive, successful woman of 42, whom I later dated myself. Now that I know both, I can only wonder who was the first to reject the other. It must have been like two gunfighters at the O.K. Corral. N— rejected me after three really nice dates because she decided my eight-year-old daughter, whom she hadn't yet met, would be an "encumbrance" to our relationship. (Since she hadn't met her, she couldn't claim my daughter was a demon child.) Only after we became friends did I learn how much she resents both her parents. Coincidence? I don't think so.
I don't need to go into detail here, do I? Except to say that bad sex may get better after a first, fumbling time, but bad sex two or three times in a row is sex that only gets worse. Don't fool yourself into thinking that sex is just one part of a relationship, that laughter and shared values are as important, etc., etc. They're not. Red flag. BIG red flag.
Dirty underwear and socks.
Your mother was right. They have to be clean. Dirty underwear is the hallmark of a secret slob, and every secret slob has many worse habits you don't even want to think about—but will all too soon get to know if you don't leave now.
The Anger Hum.
As he or she talks, not just about past romantic relationships but about work, friends, and family, listen for a low hum of anger, like a third rail running along the tracks of your new prospect's life. For reasons I never quite figured out, I used to be attracted to women who had that vibe. Maybe it seemed sexy; maybe it reminded me of my mother. But I now know how to recognize anger—not shows of temper, which may be healthy in moderation, but the deeper, more destructive hum—and to back off when I hear it.