What Red Flags Should I Look Out for Early On?
"As we experience life, our brain begins to develop a sixth sense. Many times, we choose to ignore what we know to be true. Trusting your "gut" when you see red flags is one of the most important things that you can do for your emotional and physical health." – Aaron Horn LMFT
Red flags, or warning signs of impending danger in a relationship, are more complicated than they appear. Falling in love causes chemical changes in the brain that interferes with how we evaluate our relationship. The disinhibiting effects of love are most potent in the early relationship. It is important to assess the person you are dating consciously and honestly.
While it's true that everyone has flaws, red flags go beyond minor personality quirks or slightly off-putting behaviors. Red flags typically refer to a behavior or trait that will cause conflict or introduce instability into the relationship, although their severity can vary widely. At their most extreme, red flags indicate someone who could negatively impact your mental health or injure you physically.
Major Red Flags
Some red flags are highly specific to each person. What you find benign, harmless behavior could be a dealbreaker for another person. For example, if cleanliness is important to you, you might find a messy apartment a red flag. Another person, who's not bothered by clutter, might not even consider it at all.
This article is going to focus on the severe red flags that are common to most people. These are things that should be dealbreakers, no matter your personal preferences. A partner who lacks cleanliness habits is one thing, but a partner who displays aggressive behavior, lack of respect, or controlling tendencies is a far more significant concern.
Violence and Threats
Aggressive behavior is an absolute no-go. While physical violence rarely appears early in a relationship, shouting, aggression and other outbursts sometimes can. Aggression is one of the best predictors of violence later in relationships. Do not excuse shouting, aggressive posturing, or any behavior that makes you feel your safety is at risk.
Threats of violence, or any other type of harm, are also an absolute dealbreaker. Even if the threat is not delivered aggressively, it is still an inviolable red flag. Threats and aggression indicate that escalation is likely. Some people, especially those with troubled childhoods, will justify minor or even major aggression as normal and excusable. While it's true that everyone sometimes gets angry, it is not ok to present that anger in a way that makes you feel unsafe, scared, or uncomfortable.
If you or someone you know is experiencing dangerous or abusive behavior at the hands of their partner, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can help. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also seek assistance through the hotline's online chat.
Controlling And Coercive Behavior
While it is common for couples to desire extended time together early in a relationship, a partner who stifles you or doesn't allow you any time alone is a serious red flag. Whether motivated by jealousy or another form of insecurity, if your partner insists on spending every minute with you, it's likely problems will appear if the relationship continues.
Controlling behavior can also extend to how you dress, who you are allowed to see, and how you spend your free time. Controlling behavior is often motivated by jealousy, and extreme jealousy predicts a tumultuous romantic relationship. If your new partner is jealous to the point of dictating your behaviors and restricting your freedom, their behavior is unlikely to improve.
A particularly insidious form of controlling and coercive behavior is isolation. Over time, some partners slowly deprive their significant other of time with friends and family. The intention is to keep their partner all to themselves and limit their partner's ability to access their support network. Without a support network, their partner becomes dependent on them for support. While you may want to spend every minute with your new partner early on, make sure you are prioritizing time with friends and family alongside your new relationship.
Insults And Belittlement
Your partner cannot put you down or attack your self-esteem. Sure, teasing is ok in moderation, as long as you find it in good humor and are comfortable. Genuine insults, takedowns, demeaning statements, or other degrading behavior demonstrate a lack of respect. You may think they are just trying to be funny, but it isn't ok if it doesn't feel fun to you. Don't excuse demeaning behavior as a personality quirk. The put-downs take their toll, and insults and belittlement can be as harmful as physical abuse over time.
If your partner insults you, they may be attempting to lower your self-esteem. This is often to keep you from being confident enough to leave the relationship. Insults and controlling behavior often go hand in hand; if you don't feel confident or strong enough to make your own decisions, you're more likely to do what your partner wants.
Lack Of Healthy Communication
Healthy communication is the foundation of a healthy relationship. It is not optional. Early in your relationship, one of your biggest questions should be whether you and your partner can communicate with kindness, respect, empathy, and compassion. A passive-aggressive partner is a big red flag, as is a partner who avoids discussing issues or feelings.
Communication is a skill that can be improved, and establishing strong communication habits early on predicts success later in the relationship. Sub-optimal communication is not necessarily a red flag as long as the communication problems are minor and your partner is willing to address them. A willingness to improve communication is part of good communication, after all. However, if your partner's communication involves anger, excessive emotion, or withdrawal, don't bother trying to improve it. Take the red flag for what it is and move on.
Assessing Red Flags
When evaluating red flags, pay attention to how your partner treats you and how they treat others around them. Some people can hide red flags from you convincingly but may not do so around others. Paying attention to subtleties is important for staying grounded while in a relationship. Moving quickly and losing a sense of yourself leads to red flags being ignored.
While it is customary to look at someone with excess positivity in the early days of a relationship, it's important to remember that rose-colored glasses hide red flags. Take time to examine your relationship and think critically about what you see. While you can't always trust your intuition, doing so is essential while dating.
Love should not hurt, it should not cause anxiety, and it should not induce fear. If you find yourself becoming more anxious about your relationship or feeling uncertain, take the time to evaluate that feeling, there may be a red flag that you're not fully seeing.
Look for the Green Flags
If red flags mean stop, then green flags mean go. While it is important to watch for red flags to avoid potentially harmful partners, you should also be on the lookout for common green flags. It is great to see a green flag, and seeing one makes it likely that its opposing red flag isn't present. Let's briefly review some common green flags.
If defensiveness is a common red flag, taking responsibility is its green counterpart. A partner who takes responsibility will likely react to your concerns with kindness and compassion. Taking responsibility demonstrates personal security and a commitment to the relationship.
Your partner needs to be able to calm themselves down. Relying on you to calm them down after they become upset is a no-go. A secure partner can take a break, restore a sense of calm, and re-enter the conversation when they are no longer agitated.
If you and your partner have shared interests and values, you're much more likely to be happy in your relationship. Look for shared values early on. It can be easy to be swept up in the early days of love and find any excuse to justify a connection, but does your new partner really feel the same about issues that are important to you? Take time to have proactive, open discussions about things that are important.
Respect for Boundaries
Respect for boundaries is the green counterpart of controlling behavior. A partner demonstrates a lack of controlling tendencies by respecting your boundaries and not violating your limits. Of course, you need to be able to set healthy boundaries for them to be respected.
How Can Online Therapy Help?
Online therapy is an excellent resource if you need help sorting out your early relationship concerns. Maybe you've had rocky relationships in the past, and you want to be sure you're not moving too quickly, or perhaps you want to build self-esteem and confidence to set better boundaries. Whatever the case, an online therapist can offer guidance without the hassle of traveling to an office or being restricted to therapists who work nearby. Online therapists use the same evidence-based techniques as therapists who see patients in person, and these methods are just as effective when administered online.
"Sessions with Natalie are very insightful and give practical advice on implementing new habits and changes. Be prepared to engage and be challenged to think differently. I know that my partner and I can already see improvements in our relationship and feel more positive about working through our issues together."
"Austa has been wonderful thus far. She has helped my partner and I during an unimaginably difficult time... She has also guided us in communicating effectively and setting appropriate boundaries in our relationship. I was hesitant to pursue counseling initially, but I truly believe that it makes a difference in our relationship. Austa is easy to talk to, and she is a great listener. I would wholeheartedly recommend her as a counselor."
A relationship that begins by ignoring red flags will experience problems down the road. While red flags vary in severity, some can't be ignored. If your partner is violent with you, threatens you, insults you, or controls you, the relationship is not sustainable. You need to end it before it goes further. Communication is also important; if there are minor communication issues in your relationship, those may be fixable. Major communication issues, however, are a strong red flag
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