3 Most Destructive Red Flags We Ignore In Our Relationships

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couple hugging

By Nina Rubin

The red flags. You know, the markers that blink, flash, and sound like fire alarms that you just can’t ignore.

When looking back at relationships and evaluating what went wrong and what went right, it’s always the red flags that were there from early on that ended up biting you in the back.

Or, at least that’s been the case for me.

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In one long relationship, which occurred during the Bush years (we began around President George W. Bush’s second inauguration and ended when President Obama got elected; go figure), my then-boyfriend unwittingly described the difficulty he had in expressing himself.

Initially, I found it somewhat endearing and decided to overlook his ability to get closer to me. Well, what do you know? After one year, two, three, and finally, four years of teeth-pulling and talking to a wall resulted in our ultimate demise.

Another boyfriend if I can even call him that (refer to this post) was so non-committal about everything in his life that when it was time to define ourselves, he used vague language and spoke in cliches. Naturally, because so much of his life seemed fluid, it turned out to really frustrate me and I ended the relationship.

The biggest, widest, largest, worst red flag to wave its fabric all over a relationship occurred after a few months of dating someone else.

We took an awesome vacation and he spoke of a real future with me. Our conversation at a beachy dinner turned into questions of fidelity.  He revealed that he’d been unfaithful in most of his prior relationships and that he’d dated someone for six years who was married.

My eyes popped out of my head, my heart started racing. I didn’t listen to my fear response and ignored the gut sensations that were present. I didn’t think it could or would happen to me. Well, the physical sensations were there for a reason and told me to run, don’t walk, far, far away.

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Two years later, I’ve looked back, walked, and finally bolted into a sprint so I can finally concentrate on the red flags that flew for a reason. Just like I suspected, the red flags served a purpose that I finally heeded.

Red flags are all around us, from the moment we interview for a job to the first or second date.

Though it can be tempting to overlook the red flags, or wonder how you even wound up in the mess you’re in now, think back to the earliest warning signs.

Chances are you caught wind of them on the first or second date. Maybe he made a joke at your expense which you fake-laughed at but uncomfortably changed the topic.

You wondered if he could really be this insensitive. The answer is probably yes. Perhaps she talked at length about her cute obsession with spending money on expensive shoes and you wondered if she could really be as materialistic as her comments. Yes, most likely, she probably is.

But why don’t we believe the red flags? Why don’t we pay close attention to them?

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Here are the 3 most destructive red flags we ignore in our relationships:

1. Incurable romance

We want our date (or boyfriend/girlfriend) to be different than what they’re expressing or showing. We stay because we have dire hope that everything will work out. Let’s face it: dating is hard. Sometimes it most certainly feels easier to give people the benefit of the doubt or stay in a mediocre relationship than to leave and go back to square one.

It’s common to see the flags with a pinkish hue rather than in the primary color scheme. You may tell yourself that the problems you’re experiencing are really not that bad; maybe these red flags are really just pink. What if I’m being too judgmental? I can probably learn to live with this. Smile and nod. 

NO! Don’t do it. You are worth it to be in the relationship that works for you. You can have it all: a healthy relationship with someone who treats you kindly, but it starts with you.

2. Incompatibility

We often turn other people’s flaws into our own problems but blame ourselves. We settle because everything else is great. It’s the except for that one thing phenomena. Oh, you know, he’s great, funny, clever, tall, but he cheats. If only he didn’t lie about his whereabouts last night, we’d be perfect. It’s very difficult to acknowledge that a flaw is actually a deal breaker and not just a minor inconvenience.

Each person has a different threshold for what works in relationships. Maybe you can accept a person who is sarcastic and caustic with her words, whereas someone else absolutely can’t handle that type of humor. In dating, it becomes each person’s responsibility to check in with herself and ask questions like can I live with this? Does this behavior or philosophy of life jive with how I see myself? Do I feel comfortable? In reality, we’re likely not too difficult and it is imperative that we recognize red flags rather than telling ourselves that we’re the problem.

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3. Some red flags seem minor

This week, one of my clients and I discussed a recent date he had, which was a set-up by a mutual friend. He told me how he felt during the date and described it as “20 questions in a deposition.” He was disappointed with the way it turned out and had hoped it would have been more fun and conversational. His date didn’t seem easygoing, a trait that is important to him. Like most of us, he wondered how he could have made their connection better.

During our processing, we came to the realization that they were not a match. His date seemed smart and thorough, but not a good fit for him. Her interrogation served as a red flag that she would probably nitpick or try to find the angle, rather than talk things out in the manner that works better for him. Yet, despite all of this, he initially ignored the red flags and considered having a second date. He wanted to seem polite and hoped to put forth effort since it was a set-up.

We discussed this and decided that the first date was enough, great even. No love was lost, no hearts broken, and it’s okay to recognize that we’re not always fit with everyone we meet. We trivialize chemistry and connection, the most important aspects of relationships. Their connection was not there and he did not have a reason to pursue anything further with her.

Sometimes red flags do not feel large enough and we find ways to live with the annoyances. Even though they nag at our souls, we excuse the potential problems because they are not egregious. I’m not talking about punitive issues, but real challenges that you’d be hard-pressed to find ways to make acceptable in long-term relationships.

When I realize that the red flags are still waving, I know it’s time to leave the courtship or relationship.

Too often we see something and wish it was a small drawback, rather than an indication of something bigger. Let yourself find something or someone better.

You are worth it. Let the waving flags or the blinking signs serve as alarms for you.

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Nina Rubin is a writer, psychotherapist, and Gestalt coach.