15 Subtle Caution Signs (& One Big Red Flag) That Should Never Be Ignored In A Relationship

A therapist explains why so many warning signs often feel like love.

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With all the information out there about relationship warning signs, trauma responses and codependency, it can be hard to know what to do when it comes to finding a relationship.

To help you navigate, I'm going to walk you through some basics.

Ideally, you have wonderful and supportive relationships — but building those takes work and a particular skill set. While relationships are one of our main vehicles for growth, they can also be one of our main vehicles for trauma.


One of the keys to avoiding toxic relationships is to learn to recognize and respond to those early caution signs.

What are the caution signs?

Red flags and yellow caution signs are warning signs in a relationship — they're signs that a relationship may be toxic or unhealthy or that the person you're building a relationship with is manipulative, abusive, or a narcissist.


Red flags are the opposite of green flags, which are the signs that a relationship will be healthy, supportive, and stable.

Recognizing warning signs is a skill that you can develop, and when you get good at this skill it's going to keep you from entering into abusive or toxic relationships.

How do they impact relationships?

When you ignore problematic behaviors they only grow as the relationship deepens. As time goes on, the behaviors progress because they need more and more control, and most of the time you won't notice that it's getting worse.

Many abusers seem charming and wonderful at first, and before you know it you're performing all sorts of mental gymnastics to justify what's happening.


Why can't I recognize caution signs and red flags early, like other people can?

Depending on your family dynamic when you were a child, you may have learned to normalize and work around red flags in order to get your needs met. We learn how to exist in relationships from our first caretakers, so if your up bring was fraught with instability, ineffective communication, or abuse then that dynamic becomes normalized.

Before you can even address these behaviors, you first have to learn to recognize them. What we definitely don't want to do is make excuses for these behaviors and overlook them and continue on our merry way into la la land thinking that everything is going to magically get better with time.

If your partner meets many of these red flags, you would also likely benefit from therapy, coaching or books so you can work on the skills you need to be a healthy partner and foster a healthy relationship.

(I will mark the ones that are absolute deal breakers with an **.)


15 caution signs in a relationship (plus a bonus red flag)

1. Disrespecting boundaries

Since most of us grew up in households where boundaries generally weren't allowed, this is a flag that most people miss since you've been likely taught for your whole life that someone disrespecting your boundaries is normal.

This first behavior can be very sneaky and this is one of the reasons that I actually advocate for testing someone you're interested in to see how they respond.

No, I'm not talking about some huge elaborate test, I mean setting a small boundary and watching how they react. I usually encourage my clients to change the time of the date, cancel the date, or set a boundary around not discussing a certain topic, like work.

When someone disrespects your small boundaries, I guarantee they will work their way up to disrespecting larger boundaries, until you're not allowed to have any say in the relationship and you are left with no choices except the ones they want you to have. Sounds pretty grim right?


This is why someone who disrespects your small "no" is dangerous because they learn that if you don't hold small boundaries — if they don't have to respect your small boundaries, then they definitely don't have to respect your bigger boundaries. Typically, by the time you realize that they never stop when you say no, they have already learned how to manipulate you and that there are no real consequences for ignoring your boundaries.

Small boundaries can look like asking someone to text before they come over, limiting the times of day you're available to talk, the topics you speak about, and how much information you share and when. There are hundreds of other examples, and the main takeaway from this first point is that if the person you're seeing refuses to respect your little "no" they will never respect your bigger "no."

Disrespecting your boundaries can look like begging/pushing you to change your mind, making it difficult for you to say no or punishing you for saying no, ignoring your no and pretending they didn't hear it, telling you that you're not allowed to say no or that you don't love them if you say no/don't do the thing, trying to control you.

If this is happening to you, my course Becoming Light is the perfect place to start learning how to stand in your power and how to set boundaries.


RELATED: 10 Hard-To-Accept Signs Your Relationship Has No Future

2. Active addiction and refusing to seek help**

First, let's define active addiction — as someone actively using mind-altering substances and experiencing negative consequences as a result. This is not the occasional weed smoker or drinker. I am talking addicted to a substance and that addiction is actively causing harm. In the era of legalized marijuana, I see so many people who are actively addicted but don't realize it's an issue because it's legal.

So yes, we are also speaking about marijuana here, not just hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, or meth. Many people also overlook alcohol, because drinking is so normalized in our society, so use your judgment here folks.

Someone who is in active addiction and is not currently seeking help for it will ruin your life. I say that as someone who has so much empathy for someone struggling with active addiction and fully believes that everyone deserves care and support and love and recovery. If your partner is currently using and isn't in a space to admit their drug use is causing problems or to seek help, I guarantee that your relationship will fail and you will lose yourself in the process.


There is no reality where someone is actively in addiction and refusing to seek help for it makes a healthy relationship. Now, if they are willing to do the work and seek help, there is hope but even then it's a very long road and you are going to need a whole host of skills to get through it with minimal damage.

Active addiction looks like problematic use of any substance and the presence of negative consequences. Those consequences can look like trouble at work, trouble in relationships, not being able to function/cope without that substance, using getting in the way of enjoying life, managing their emotions using substances, or being physically dependent on that substance.

This is an issue because when someone is in active addiction, their ability to prioritize anything except for their use is pretty much non-existent and their ability to be stable is also pretty much non-existent. This means they cannot prioritize you or the relationship.

3. Refusing to feel their own emotions

When your partner doesn't allow themselves to feel their emotions, it also means that they can't process them or move on from their experiences. Feeling and processing emotions are integral to health and to healthy relationships because long-term healthy relationships require that conflicts are worked through in a healthy way.


Without the ability to feel, those emotions can't be released, and so they get stored which then causes all kinds of problems later on.

If your partner doesn't allow themselves to be sad or hurt or angry, that means they also can't work through any hard conversations when those same emotions will come up.

If your partner uses substances (the most common are marijuana and alcohol) to numb their emotions or as their only coping skill for stress, they can't have healthy relationships because they don't have the skills to work through problems.

RELATED: 9 Signs Your Relationship Isn't Just Failing — It's Already Over

4. Stonewalling conversations

Stonewalling is when someone refuses to interact with you or to discuss a topic/engage in a conversation. Most often this looks like you bringing an issue to your partner's attention and them flat out refusing to talk about it or making such a scene that you never work through it and also stop bringing it up.


Stonewalling is a manipulation tactic to get you to stop talking so that your partner never has to actually change anything.

At its core, the goal of stonewalling is to get you to shut up and never bring up the subject again, which means that nothing ever gets resolved and nothing improves. This can either be because your partner doesn't know how to effectively communicate or work through conflict, or their goal is to control what you're allowed to bring up (spoiler alert, nothing) so they never have to change or take accountability.

Stonewalling can look like flat-out refusing to discuss something, leaving the conversation physically via walking away or storming out or ignoring you, escalating to the point that you feel scared, changing the subject every time, or giving you an ultimatum about bringing up the topic.

5. They have a history of cheating**

This flag is an absolute deal breaker if they cannot honestly tell you why they cheated or if they haven't worked through their relationship patterns.


I have had clients who have cheated to get out of abusive relationships (it was the only way their abusive partner would allow the relationship to end), and they did the work with me in therapy to assess their motivations and how they have changed those behaviors.

So while this is a deal breaker, if your partner is aware of why they cheated in the past and has done work to heal those wounds, once a cheater is not always a cheater.

If however, your relationship is the product of them cheating, it's a deal breaker. If they have a history of cheating on every partner they have ever had, as much as you tell yourself that you're different and they'll love you enough to stay, they won't. It's so attractive to convince yourself that you will be good enough for them to stay, but if they haven't done the work to heal why they cheated, it's only a matter of time until they cheat on you.

RELATED: A Couples Therapist Reveals The One Trait That Means A Relationship Will Last


6. Refusing to seek help for their problems**

This is a sneaky one that I added in because I have seen the refusal to grow and heal ruin many relationships. Relationships, ideally, are one of our primary vehicles for growth and sometimes one partner is in a growth phase and the other partner is in a stable phase - that's normal and to be expected.

That level isn't what I mean when discussing this flag. Refusing to seek help or guidance when it's needed or someone who doesn't believe in seeking help is the issue I'm speaking about here. This flag is usually wrapped up in others like refusing to feel their emotions — if they never admit anything is wrong then they never have to seek help, which will often lead to stonewalling and not taking accountability.

Someone who refuses to seek help will stay stuck, and when you choose to seek help you will outgrow them. At that point, you have two options — keep growing and healing and eventually outgrow the relationship, or stop growing and healing and keep yourself suffering so you can keep the relationship.

Intuitively you know which one is the better option, but you'd be surprised how long people will prolong their own suffering just to stay in a relationship that they're not happy in any way.


This can look like someone refusing to go to therapy or work with a coach, refusing to change behavior for whatever reason, putting the responsibility to change all on you, or just refusing to change something that's not working for them.

7. Talking badly about their ex

I have never met a person who has all "psychotic" exes who weren't the actual problem. Like, Bud, if all your exes were crazy psychos, you're the common denominator. People who have healed from their past relationship and are ready to build a healthy relationship should be able to talk about their partner with nuance.

Yes, perhaps they were crazy or psychotic (don't love those terms because people literally do experience psychosis and that doesn't make them bad partners), or abusive or cruel but relationships are two-way streets.

That is not me saying that anyone deserves abuse, no one does, but that is me saying that we all play a role in our relationships — even if that role is allowing someone who mistreats us to stay in our lives.


This particular behavior does a few things. It makes you want to be different and to show them that you're different than their other partners who hurt them, which naturally makes you go above and beyond for them.

It makes you want to show them that love is kind and love can heal them, which sets you up to be their savior (a very attractive prospect if you have your own wounding/trauma around love and relationships). It subconsciously makes you afraid of what they will say about you if you break up, which I have had to work through with many clients who are in bad relationships.

As a rule of thumb, how they talk about their exes is how they'll talk about you.

RELATED: 4 Distinct Patterns That Determine How Long A Relationship Lasts


8. Violating your privacy**

Violating privacy is something that has become so normalized and most people don't realize that it's actually a huge boundary violation, especially if you grew up in a household where you weren't allowed to have privacy. Sometimes I have clients tell me they look through their partner's phones all the time or that they let their partner look through their phones, and I always cringe inside because it's a symptom of a much bigger problem.

My darling, if you feel the need to go through your partner's phone, there is a much bigger problem. One of the foundations of a healthy relationship is trust, and that includes respecting your partner's privacy.

A partner not respecting your privacy can look like going through your phone/messages (with or without your permission, but it's a huge red flag if they do it without your permission), forcing you to give them the information you're not ready to share yet, snooping through your things, or asking people in your life for information when you don't want to share.

9. Isolating you from your support**

This is always, always, always about power. The goal here is to make you easier to control because someone with no support is less likely to push back or leave. Without support, you have no one to turn to, no one to tell you when things are not okay and you become easier to manipulate.


Isolating starts out really small and typically builds over time, and by the time you realize your loved ones have stepped out, you have no one else to turn to but your partner who surprises is now the source of your pain and your only comfort, which makes you much much easier to manipulate.

This may look like your partner telling you that you spend too much with other people/your friends/your family and there is no time for them; that the people in your life don't support this relationship or they may simply throw a tantrum and make it too much trouble to spend time with your friends or family.

They will erode all of your relationships over time, and if you're thinking "oh yeah I haven't actually seen my friends/family in a while and my only friend is my partner" then this may be you.

RELATED: There's Only One Good Way To Know He's Officially Your 'Boyfriend'


10. Making you responsible for their emotions

Someone who is unhappy and refuses to take accountability for it will often try and project the responsibility onto others. Think about someone who you know who is always complaining, or saying that if only X would happen, then they would be happy. That's a total lie right because no matter what happens they are still miserable.

Likewise, making you solely responsible for their happiness or mental health is not only unrealistic but it's also guaranteed to fail for a few reasons.

For one, we are responsible for our own happiness. Secondly, that thought process puts you on a pedestal and puts too much pressure on you to behave in a way that always protects/uplifts/manages them when you aren't responsible for anyone's feelings but your own.

Thirdly, it becomes a control thing, if you are never allowed to do anything that upsets them then they always have ammunition for why you "shouldn't" do something and that list will continue to get longer and longer. When they make you responsible for their happiness, it's a means of control because then they also never have to take accountability for their moods, actions, or reactions. It quickly becomes "well if you hadn't upset me, I would never have done that."


We are each in charge of our own happiness, and while a partner can certainly add to your happiness, your partner (or anyone else) is never responsible for your happiness or any other feeling. The goal is that each partner keeps a nuanced understanding of what is their personal responsibility and then both of you (or however many are in your relationship #Iseeyoupoly) work to contribute to the happiness of the other and to infuse joy into the relationship.

11. Breaking and throwing things**

Read this as many times as you need to. People who slam doors or hit things are making sure you hear how much they want to hit you.

This is violence, and it's a threat. The person doing this chooses to escalate to this level because they want you to cower and back down. I can prove that this is a choice by giving you a few observations. Someone who breaks things never starts here, this is a behavior that shows up only when it "needs to," in that they only use it as a threat when you won't drop something.

Someone who breaks/hits things wants you to be afraid, they want you to focus on the thing they are breaking or hitting so you stop talking about the topic you were talking about. Their only goal is to get you to stop, and they will do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal. Someone who does this will absolutely hit you if this level stops working. That's why this behavior is an absolute, no questions asked deal breaker.


Often when I have a client who is describing their partner doing this, they justify it by saying their partner was angry and "lost control" and they shouldn't have made them angry.

Violence is always a choice, and even if someone is angry they can still choose to be kind or calm or patient. I always point out that my clients get angry and don't slam things or hit anything, because they don't need to — they're not trying to scare their partner.

Hear me when I say this — they will turn this on you. They will hit you. Do what you have to do to get out.

RELATED: 27 Things Guys Do That Subtly Say "I'm Husband Material"

12. Hurting you and refusing to address it**

Taking accountability requires that you change the behavior you take accountability for. If your partner never takes accountability for their role in a dynamic, you cannot help them and nothing will get better because it allows them to continue to believe that none of the problems are in any way their fault.


Growth in a relationship depends on both people putting in the work to heal and change their patterns and show up in a better way for the relationship, if you're the only one doing the work you either outgrow them or you stop growing and remain miserable. I have watched clients do both of these things, and I can tell you that while both are painful, outgrowing a partner who refuses to take responsibility for their actions is the better outcome.

When someone refuses to acknowledge that they play a role in the problem, they never have to do any work. It behooves them to cry ignorance and tell you that the issues are all your fault because it means they're off the hook, forever.

Someone like this is very unlikely to change because the amount of work they would have to do to make the relationship healthy is more than they want to do. They'd rather make the relationship fail, blame you and cry about what a horrible ex you were to their new victim and then repeat the same pattern forever.


13. Acting hot and cold with how they feel about you

Being hot and cold is a manipulation technique, and to understand this I need you to learn something about why gambling is so addictive. Gambling works via variable ratio schedules, meaning that you win after an unpredictable number of responses — sometimes one, sometimes 30. This schedule is extremely addicting and puts your body into not only fight/flight, but craving the reinforcement. 

In terms of someone being hot/cold with you, they literally put your brain into an addiction cycle where you crave their positive reinforcement and feel absolutely devastated and will do anything to avoid the negative feelings. Hence, being obsessed with your partner and doing anything to keep them.

Someone adoring you one minute and ignoring you the next can also activate attachment wounds, which create a trauma bond that is also extremely addicting. Now, the goal isn't that someone is obsessed with you 24/7, it's that they are consistent and both of you keep your independence while building a connection.

RELATED: 15 Men Describe What Makes A Woman Girlfriend Material


14. Lovebombing

Love bombing is not the same as someone being excited about you. In the early weeks/months of a relationship, it's perfectly natural to look at your partner with rose-colored glasses and to think they're OMG the cutest, that's to be expected.

Love bombing is excessive adoration, attention, and affection with the goal of making you dependent on them for validation and self-worth. It's not someone telling you that you're amazing and they're excited to get to know you, it's someone telling you that you're the most incredible, perfect, wonderful person they have ever seen and put you on a pedestal that you will inevitably fall from.

The goal is that you become addicted to their praise and live and die by their opinion of you, which then makes you easier to control.

Once someone has your self-worth wrapped up in their words, they can use those same words to destroy you and control you. Once they are done love bombing you, they will typically flip the script and become controlling and difficult and almost impossible to please, which then naturally makes you long for the dynamic you had in the beginning, and pretty soon you're doing anything and everything you can to make them be that person you "fell in love with" again.


The problem is, the person you fell for is fake, they love bombed you to get you to fall for them, and who they really are is the person you have now. It's a very addicting switch, and make no mistake, it's intentional.

RELATED: 9 Signs Your Casual Dating Relationship Could Be Marriage Material

15. Being inconsistent with the truth**

Lying seems so small right? They didn't tell you they were going somewhere or who all would be there or that they didn't go to college. The problem with lying, and the reason that I made this a deal breaker — is that cowards lie, and lying can always be justified.

"But sometimes I lie," I hear you say. I stand by what I said. Someone who lies and justifies lying will always justify lying to you.


Now, if someone has no right to know the information they're asking for, then you have a right to protect your information however you wish.

Think about this in terms of your relationship though, why would your partner want to lie to you when they could simply tell you that they're not comfortable answering that question yet? Having a partner you can't trust only breeds anxiety, misery, and fights.

And one red flag: They are jealous and use that to be controlling.

Jealousy is a perfectly normal human emotion. I feel jealous every time I drive by a beach house or when I see someone taking a really amazing vacation. The point is, jealousy tells us that we want what that person has, it points us toward our desires and that is insanely useful.

Jealously in a partnership, especially when it's used to be controlling, is insanely not useful, and when it's allowed to exist it's toxic at best and abusive at worst. When your partner makes you responsible for catering to their jealousy and feelings of security in the relationship, then they never have to work through their issues or change anything (notice a pattern here?) and again, they can use those feelings to control you.


If you're experiencing these, and this post is causing anxiety, there are some really good resources for you.

RELATED: If He Sends These 20 Mixed Signals, He's Not Relationship Material

Amanda Chils is a licensed therapist who specializes in helping people heal from trauma and build better lives. Outside of one on one therapy, she creates courses to support others healing journeys.