Relationship red flags: why we ignore them and how to stop

At the end of a relationship, we often reflect and try to understand what went wrong in the hopes of not making the same mistakes again. I have heard people say time and time again, “I ignored the red flags.” In hindsight, actions, statements, and situations can take on meaning that we did not pick up on at the time. However, once we have become more experienced in relationships, we begin to ignore potential problems, the red flags, because the possible payoff of a relationship that lasts can be too great to pass up. Then, when the relationship is over we ask ourselves “why didn’t I pay more attention to that?” That part at least is simple. The vast majority of us want love, companionship, affection, regular sex, all of which we hope to find in a lasting relationship. It can be as simple as wanting to ease loneliness that may have lasted for far too long. We long for acceptance, to be “known” by another person. Relationships fill a great many needs in us.

However, if you find (as I so often have) that time and time again relationships that have ended seem clearly doomed from the start in hindsight, you may be meeting needs that you are not actually aware of.

I have an ex who I had briefly met a couple times prior to our first true interaction. She came home one afternoon to find me crying on her front steps. I had been dating her roommate and that relationship had ended with drama that blindsided me; I had retreated out to the front steps so that the people involved in the demise of that relationship did not see me cry. It was January, and I did not have a coat on. I will never know what was going through her head at the moment she approached me, took off her coat, placed it around my shoulders and sat next to me on the steps. I was virtually a stranger to her, but she wanted to comfort me. By choosing to date me, not long after that day on the steps, she was ignoring a great many red flags – that I had been involved with the woman she shared a house with; that I was getting out of a relationship that had ended in a way that clearly traumatized me; that my prior relationship had ended only minutes before our first interaction beyond a friendly “hello”; any one of these is a big enough red flag to not pursue an emotional entanglement at that time – but this ex has a need that she has only recently acknowledged. She has “white knight syndrome” she loves “rescuing” a damsel in distress. She’s attracted to women in crisis, who need help in some way. Unfortunately, women in crisis who need help in some way are not usually going to be people that you can forge a lasting partnership with, at least not at that moment in their lives.

However, this need more than any other need prompted her attraction to a woman, which made relationships difficult and short. What we say we want, and what we actually want can be totally different and it may not even be clear to us, if we have not taken the opportunity to truly examine why we may not be getting what we want out of relationships.

When I started dating the alcoholic, I would’ve told you that what I was looking for was a stable, long-term relationship with a person who lived fairly close to me (less than one hour by car), who had a job and a pretty good idea of who they were, what they wanted out of life and how they were getting there. Instead, I started dating an active alcoholic who did not have a checking account, who had no car or license because it was was suspended for DUI, who was lying to her probation officer about attending AA meetings and thought getting away with this was indicative of her charm and intellectual superiority to others. She was a lapsed college student who bounced from apartment to apartment barely holding down a job as a server and lived over 1,000 miles away from me, 16 hours by car – pretty much the antithesis of everything I said that I wanted. There were needs that the relationship met for me that I was not aware of, one being that I too am often attracted to people in crisis, wanting to somehow heal them with my love.

How we stop ignoring red flags is a little bit more complicated than simply beginning to uncover needs that we are unaware of. That is an important piece of it, but part of it also comes from accepting life alone. It becomes very difficult to end a relationship that is unhealthy for us if we are not ok with being alone. Even people who are strong and independent, who do not feel they need a relationship to “complete” them succumb to loneliness. Often, dating someone that we know it cannot last with who might make us unhappy is preferable to the loneliness that comes from being single. It is perfectly natural to not want to be lonely, we are made to need other human beings. Being in a bad relationship, even for perfectly valid reasons like not wanting to be lonely, being afraid of being alone while completely normal (check out this Huffpo article “Divorce study shows couples are unhappy but too scared to split) is not healthy and will keep you from meeting someone who you could actually have a happy relationship with. You deserve more, we all do.

So how do you know what a red flag is? Some are universal, but most are as personal as why we are attracted to someone in the first place. Some universal red flags are:

  • Long history of relationship-hopping/serial monogamy. I.e. going from one serious relationship to the next with little to no time in between. (This is every lesbian you’ve ever met, still doesn’t make it healthy!)
  • When he/she talks about exes it is never positive; often blames break-up on them, says all problems were the other person’s.
  • Long history of job-hopping and he/she is over the age of 25. Yes, we live in a difficult economy with underemployment, but if this person quits a lot of jobs, usually because of an unfair boss that hates them or is out to get them, that is not a good sign.
  • Lives with parent(s). This may or may not be one these days, since so many people are losing jobs and having to move in with family or roommates but pay attention to the reasons why they’re back at home. Is it the economy or is it them?
  • Makes it abundantly clear he/she hates “drama”. You know who hates drama and wants nothing to do with it? People with a lot of drama in their lives. People who aren’t constantly surrounded by chaos, turmoil and emotional disturbance don’t have to tell you they dislike it. My Ok Cupid profile doesn’t let people know I’m not a heroin addict, I don’t need to let them know that because it’s assumed I’m not. Beware those who make sure you know they hate and will not tolerate drama, because they are always involved in drama.

I could go on and on. One of mine is the answer to the question “Do you think that you are fundamentally bad or evil?” Sounds like a weird question to ask a person doesn’t it? I learned the hard way that when someone answers that question with “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” or “yes” that bodes very very badly for the relationship. I learned to ask it after a volatile relationship where the person once told me they felt that way, and in all the three instances that someone has been unsure as to whether they are fundamentally bad or evil it has been a very unhealthy relationship for me. The bottom line is this, we might not always see the read flags, but when we do it’s up to us to take a step back and assess. Does that mean end the relationship? After red flag one, maybe not; after red flag 18, maybe so. Red flags eventually become issues, no matter how much we desperately want to, and try to, ignore them.

What are some of the red flags you have ignored in relationships? Comment below to share, if you’d like to discuss.

red flag


2 thoughts on “Relationship red flags: why we ignore them and how to stop

  1. Pingback: More on red flags | Lady Lamia

  2. Pingback: Unicorns and healthy relationships, part 2 | Lady Lamia

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