Why Red Flags Don't Look Like Red Flags When They Feel Like Home

Photo: Jacob Lund /
Pensive woman sips coffee in a car

These are some sentiments I hear time and again from clients and divorce support group participants:

"Why didn't I see it? I feel so stupid."

"My romantic relationships never last. I do everything to make them happy, and they leave me anyway."

"I want love like everyone else, but why is it so difficult and painful for me?"

Then I read a phrase that felt resonant, one sometimes shared as a quote. It is simple, but quite poingnant:

"Red flags don't look like red flags when they feel like home."

Sometimes what is familiar is extremely unhealthy. Because it's familiar, it may not look like a red flag at all.

Why some relationship red flags seem 'normal' to us

As individuals share their stories of what led to the ending of their intimate relationship, I guide them back to what began it. In reflection, they gain clarity about themselves, their partners, and their circumstances.

Often, what is revealed has to do with unhealed emotional childhood trauma that has kept them in similar relationships to those they experienced at home. And those relationships were abusive in some way, with unhealthy dynamics and hurtful behavior, whether subtle or robust.

RELATED: 12 Relationship Red Flags You Should Never Ignore

Warning signs shouldn't be ignored

A woman recently shared her story in an online community that struck a chord with many readers. Some were appalled at her husband's behavior in the incident she describes.

Others surmised from her story that she was in an abusive relationship with her mother as a child and is now in one with her husband. She did not validate anyone's comments but updated the community that her husband had apologized and that all was now well.

But is it really?

Red flags are warning signals in someone's behavior that imply "danger" and that you should "stop" engaging. However, traumatic childhood experiences distort vision and perhaps hearing, so these signals are missed, misinterpreted, or minimized.

When you learn as a child that "love" includes abuse, you accept it from anyone and everyone. Why? Because we all want and need connection and to be loved. I've even had clients tell me they would rather be in an unhealthy relationship than be alone.

And when abuse feels familiar, it becomes comfortable even though it is not good for you. Even though your well-being is sacrificed, like an old, tattered, smelly wool blanket, it may be scratchy and give you a rash, but it's yours, and so you hold onto it.

RELATED: 5 Traits Of Sweet, Committed Men — That Seem Like Relationship Red Flags At First

Lingering childhood trauma is a factor

As a child, whatever you experienced was your 'normal' and became your imprint. Many of you became excellent at performing under punishment-reward parenting styles. And you learned to seek approval until you got it. If you could just be good enough.

And now, as an adult, that programming shows up as you accept and tolerate, ignore and overlook red flags to earn love.



Until you awaken. Until you consciously choose to change it and break the negative patterns that keep repeating themselves in your life. And, the solution doesn't have to be a long list, formula, or complicated strategy.

RELATED: 4 Subtle Ways Childhood Trauma Affects You As An Adult (Even If You Think You're Over It)

Here's how to make future red flags more obvious, even when they do "feel like home":

Redefine love

You must change your definition of love. Hold it sacred and protect it with boundaries. Every interaction must be held accountable to your new definition.

I am not suggesting this is easy after the way you have been programmed to seek, show, and feel love. But if not, you will continue to discount your worth and discard your desires and happiness from your deep, desperate need for a relationship. Just to have someone. Anyone. And that's dysfunctional and toxic, like the smelly blanket that gives you a rash.

If you have learned what love is in a dysfunctional environment, time to trash it!

Let go of what you know and be willing to learn something new. Yes, throw away the proverbial security blanket! It isn't good for you.

And yes, that leaves you standing, uncovered and vulnerable. Change is hard. But change is worth it. And so are you.

RELATED: 4 Ways To Cope With Life Changes — Good & Bad

Live without a security blanket

As you stand there without the old security blanket, naked and free, you can choose to see what love can be. Your eyes, no longer blinded by the cover, can open to the possibilities that exist.

You recognize it can be like that luxuriously plush, soft, warm fleece blanket you have walked by in the store so many times, thinking it is too expensive for you. It must be for others. Then, you calculate what the old one has cost you and realize that when you stop investing your time and energy in it, the new one will be available to you.

It becomes clear what love is not. It is not abrasive, rude, angry, demeaning, draining, taunting, belittling, humiliating, isolating, punishing, toying, demanding, victimizing, antagonizing, frightening, worrying, lying, embarrassing, guilting, loathing, or harming.

And with a clear understanding of what love is not, even though you missed having authentic love modeled for you, you can now recognize the red flags in relationships because they feel like home.



Take ownership of your life and step fully into adulthood with new awareness and commitment to break your trauma pattern. Choose you! Do your healing work. A professional will take you on a learning journey of self-love, unlocking your true nature to live your best life.

You have an infinite capacity to love and to be loved, but your time and energy are limited. Invest them wisely. The child inside you is ready to be free!

RELATED: 6 Things That Make You Feel Deeply Loved — But Are Actually Red Flags

Ann Papayoti, PCC, is an author, speaker, educator, and coach helping people untangle from their past and heal their hearts at SkyView Coaching.