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A Red Flag Means STOP!

Updated on February 5, 2014

Early Warning Signs of a Doomed Relationship

How often have you heard someone say, "I saw signs of problems, but I ignored them because...?" Maybe you've been there yourself. Heaven knows, I have! And the reasons usually sound reasonable. "Because I know that relationships take work, so I thought I'd wait and see." "Because I thought things would change once he stopped drinking." "Because she told me she was trying to change." We look back with regret at how much time and energy was spent in anguish.

Maybe you're there right now. You're seeing some red flags that hint at problems to come and you've stumbled onto this article as you ponder whether you should keep trying to work things out with your loved one. Well, friend, I'm here to help you figure that out by explaining what's really a yellow caution flag and what is a bright red banner that's telling you danger's up ahead.

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Red, yellow, green flags all signal our relationship's health.
Red, yellow, green flags all signal our relationship's health. | Source

What Counts as a Red Flag?

Even the most successful relationships have problem areas. It's been said that happily married couples will always have six or seven topics that they will never, ever resolve - things that will create disagreements every single time the subject arises. You know the ones. He really wants his laundry separated just so and you prefer to get it all done in one load. By itself, these aren't red flags or even yellow flags. They're just part of being half of a whole. What happens when these small differences crop up, however, can give you great insight on your relationship potential.

In a healthy relationship, the couple recognizes that it's natural to have some disagreements.There are even couples who bicker and argue constantly, yet report high happiness in their relationships! They accept their partner's views as being equally important. These arguments are usually short-lived, and they might even end with giggles and smiles without any resolution at all. They both see the relationship as more important than the subject they're arguing about.

Most relationships go through a power struggle stage as those feel-good brain chemicals get back to normal after the initial attraction settles down and the couple begins to notice their differences. This stage can start anywhere from two months to a couple of years into the relationship, and can be short-lived or endure for years. This period is the ultimate "make it or break it" for a couple. It can feel a bit like trying to move forward in an oncoming hurricane, and most couples who break up do it during this stage of love.

Recognize Early Red Flags

As a new couple starts seeing their differences, it's easy to deny red flags. They might even seem cute or fascinating.

Pearl D., for instance, enjoyed her boyfriend's boisterous sense of humor and his ability to socialize. On their second date, they went to see a movie. As the theater lights darkened and the audience waited for previews to begin, he loudly exclaimed, "I told you not to get an abortion!" She was shocked into laughing, and had the same reaction when, a few weeks later, they went to a local restaurant. Standing in the waiting area, he picked up the hostess's abandoned microphone and started singing a romantic song to her, delighting her and other customers. Ultimately, though, his sense of humor was the reason they broke up two years later. "He doesn't take anything seriously," she complained.

How can you know if something is really a red flag or not? Simple: It makes you uncomfortable.

That quiet voice in your heart whispers, "Could this be a problem?" while your head says, "Maybe it's just...." They are the things you quietly judge, even though you try not to. Even when they make you feel pleasure, as Pearl's guy's antics did, they also cause you to raise an eyebrow and wonder. Red flags don't mean your partner's a bad person, but they do mean you're not compatible.

Some common red flags that are often ignored:

  • Different relationship goals
  • Different libidos
  • Different work ethics
  • Different levels of financial stability
  • Different attitudes about spending/saving
  • Different personal habits about housekeeping
  • Different values on parenting
  • Different values on religion
  • Irresponsible behaviors
  • Dishonesty to others
  • Poor anger management (throwing things, blaming others, refusing to address problems)
  • Recent past history of abuse, fights, or criminal behavior
  • Recent past history of cheating / being cheated on

Two themes keep cropping up: "Past history" and "different."

Past history tells you a lot about who your partner has been. If it's not in the very distant past, it's likely still true. When it comes to being different, opposite traits can be good, but they can also cause tensions. Differences in what we do can bring spice to a relationship, but differences in the belief systems that guide our personalities bring strain to a partnership.

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last

Gottman's information is invaluable to understanding relationships.


When is a Red Flag not a Red Flag?

If you've wondered whether some couples have a secret to their success, the answer is "Yes!" The mystery is really pretty simple, though. Both people in those relationships think of the relationship as being just as important as their own well being.

When arguments arise, they care enough about the relationship to set aside their wants, at least for a little while. That doesn't mean they sacrifice their needs, though. The recognize the difference between what they want (which is usually to get their own way in an argument) and their needs. Everyone has the same basic needs - to feel valued, knowledgeable, desirable, capable, and to have a measure of control in their lives.

When a person's needs are repeatedly not being met, it's a huge red flag that should not be ignored. Ever. When this happens, it always means that one or both people are placing themselves above the relationship. "I am more important than my partner. I am more important than this relationship."

Early in the couple's journey, it's easy to put the relationship first, but over time, incompatibility will force them to acknowledge that their needs aren't getting met. When this happens, they realize they must make those personal needs more important than the relationship in order to get their needs satisfied. It's impossible to feel good about ourselves or our lives if our needs are consistently going unmet. It's impossible to get our needs met with an incompatible partner.

This is where things can get confusing, so let's look at a pretty common scenario:

Stanley and Sue have been dating for two years. Sue's ex-boyfriend is a Facebook friend. One day, he writes "I sure miss being with you. Remember when we went to the beach?" Stanley sees it and feels threatened. He wants Sue to delete her ex-boyfriend and to stop communicating with him.

"It's disrespectful," he says.

Sue, on the other hand, has never been unfaithful to Stanley. She feels angry that he doesn't trust her. "I have no control over what he writes," she tells him. She also believes she should be able to be friends with anyone she wants to, and that her boyfriend is trying to control her by wanting her to delete the ex.

The way it plays out will be a red flag, a yellow flag, or a green "It's all good."

What Red Flag Will Do to Your Relationship

If either of them resorts to criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling, the relationship is in trouble. These are what relationship expert John Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for relationships. (Gottman, 1984. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.) Let's look at each of these red flags in a bit more detail:

  • Criticism is a statement about the person, rather than about the issue. If Stanley says, "You just don't care how it affects me," he might be feeling unimportant, but he's telling Sue that she is an uncaring person. The statement has nothing to do with the Facebook comment and instead of presenting a possible solution, it introduces a new problem to be fixed. When phrases like "you always," "you never," or "it's just like you to..." come into an argument, criticism is complicating matters.
  • Contempt is similar, though it is specifically designed to hurt the other person or gain an unfair advantage. Name-calling, mockery, hostile humor, and disrespectful body language are signs of contempt. When contempt enters a relationship, criticism has already been present. The remaining two symptoms may or may not also be evident.
  • Defensiveness prevents the participants from understanding each other. They're too busy defending against attacks (even if they only perceive an attack) to seek solutions. They feel victimized. When people are defensive, they lash out with complaints or criticisms that only introduce more problems.
  • Stonewalling may be physical or psychological. Silent treatments, walking out, or giving short answers that don't work toward a solution are signs that a person feels powerless and hopeless. This shouldn't be confused with a brief time-out to let emotions cool. Stonewalling is done with an intention to send a clear message that the stonewaller is not participating because their partner is not their equal.

These late-stage red flags signal deep problems in the relationship and should never be ignored. If you're experiencing these with a partner, you may be asking if your relationship would benefit from counseling. You may already be seeing a therapist. Personally, I'd recommend saving your money if you're not already married or have children together, because these red flags are very difficult to eradicate if your partner doesn't see the relationship as critical to his or her well-being.

One or both of them may resort to blame. This isn't quite a red flag, but it can become one very easily. Blame is often the doorway to contempt and defensiveness. It's a yellow flag and should be treated with caution. Yellow flags mean "slow down and use caution" as much as red flags mean "stop." When blame crops up, it's a good time to evaluate what your partner's real complaint is. Is it about who you are or is it about something that happened? If it's really about who you are, you're actually seeing a red flag.

Stanley might say, "Well, you're the one who keeps wanting to be friends with someone who obviously wants to be with you," in a blaming manner. But when Sue asks, "Are you saying that I don't love you enough?" he replies, "No. I just don't like the way he acts like I don't exist." Stanley's not criticizing Sue. He's really just complaining about a choice she has made.

The green light argument includes complaints but not criticism. It ultimately includes both people in the solution. At its conclusion, they each feel like they were heard and cared about, even if they compromised or did not get what they wanted.

When Sue says, "You know, Stanley, it makes me feel good to know someone thinks of me that way, but I'd rather have our relationship stay strong. I'll tell him to stop talking that way," Stanley may not be thrilled.

He may ask Sue, "If it happens again, will you delete him?" and she may agree.

Neither of them got their way, but both are content.

If you are having some quiet doubts, don't try to reason them away! Recognize them and ask yourself whether those differences can introduce criticism or blame to your relationship.

A yes answer means that you are incompatible with your partner in an important way. Pay attention now if you don't want to look back and think, "Why did I put up with that for so long?"

Have you ever ignored red flags? How did it work for you?

Submit a Comment

  • jellygator profile imageAUTHOR


    3 years ago from USA

    Thanks, Realtalk247!

  • realtalk247 profile image


    3 years ago

    Great advice.

  • jellygator profile imageAUTHOR


    5 years ago from USA

    Thanks very much for your kind compliment! I appreciate it, Theresa!

  • Theresa_Kennedy profile image

    Theresa Kennedy 

    5 years ago from Minnesota

    This is probably my favorite hub on this topic. Thanks for the link! I'm linking back to this one as well!

  • jellygator profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from USA

    Thank you, PC! I'll certainly do my best to highlight things I've seen and experienced along the way to happy permanence!

  • PoliCommandments profile image


    7 years ago from DeKalb, IL

    This is very good advice. There are many relationships (especially seen by younger groups) that go through these signs, and continue on unhealthily. Such advice should be directed toward such an audience. Keep up the good research and great writing!


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