‘Red Flags;’ the term given to describe behaviours in a relationship that could lead to harm, be it physically, mentally or emotionally. In short, red flags are literal warning signs. There are countless articles, videos, tiktoks that give us all the ‘hints and tips’ of how to spot red flags, obvious red flags we shouldn’t ignore, and even examples of ones that are harder to spot.
So why is it, with this wealth of information and resources at our fingertips, do we still sometimes deliberately ignore red flags?
Of course red flags can still apply to any relationship, be it friendship, professional or family members, but they are most often talked about in sexual or romantic relationships.
When we start dating someone, we don’t know them that well; nowadays most people meet through apps or online, and dating profiles give you such a tiny scope of a whole complex individual. It’s easier to ignore some more pink flags, let’s say, earlier on and brush them off as we don’t know the person. Sure, they’re often over 10 minutes late or change their plans last minute, but they say their job is really high-pressured and stressful with a long commute, so ‘it’s not a big deal, I don’t mind waiting’ you say, instead of ‘hey I’m finding it disrespectful that you are often late for us meeting, it’s as if you don’t value my time.’
We also usually quite like the person we’re dating, and especially in the early days of a budding relationships we don’t want to think about the negatives – we want to focus on the positives about them! Sure, they talk over me when I want to make a valid point in a discussion even though they asked my opinion, but ‘I’m sure they don’t mean it deliberately, they’re probably just really keen to add to the conversation – it’s nice to date someone who is passionate about things!’ is what you tell your friends. To yourself you think ‘Why would I bring up uncomfortable things now, I’ll just look silly and paranoid and then they definitely won’t like me anymore.’
People also, in what may possibly be a global phenomenon, don’t ever like to admit they’re wrong. We do not want to be judged, we do not want to be laughed at, and we do not ever want to hear the dreaded ‘I told you so.’ Seriously, no one enjoys that phrase except the person delivering it – let’s drop it. To be in a relationship that from the outside looked like a massive red stick of dynamite waiting to be detonated, is not a nice thing to realise, especially when on the inside everything seemed just rosy. We may have friends and family who can see the detonation waiting to happen but can’t really say much, or go the complete opposite way and tell you straight up ‘they’re vile, you should not be dating them.’ So when the relationship does implode, you feel embarrassed and ashamed, and ‘how could I have been so stupid?’ And go back to your friends, tail between your legs to say, ‘you were right.’
What all these things have in common though, is trust; specifically, a lack of trust in oneself and our own ability to judge someone’s character. ‘Just go with your gut’ is the universally applied phrase when it comes to relationships it seems, but it’s quite hard to listen to your gut when you’ve buried any pangs of uncertainty under deep layers of rationalisation. As a society, we are not encouraged to trust own judgement. This is especially true for women, minority groups, and LGBTQ+ individuals. We all know how crazy women are, how dangerous people of colour are, and how attention seeking it is to be queer. If a key part of your identity has been subtly but consistently attacked by the society you live in, how can you ever trust yourself? It’s especially horrible hearing it from people you do trust – we all have that one family member who tells you ‘no wonder you’re single you’re too fussy.’ How many of us have a close person in their life who contradicts this by saying ‘You have every right to be fussy over your basic emotional needs that convey personal respect’? I’d hazard a guess at not enough of us.
The only person who knows you best, is yourself. If your gut is sending those ‘something is not right’ signals, even over something minor, listen to it. Your gut is not tricking you, it is looking out for you – it’s your number one fan! Have those uncomfortable conversations early with a partner about your emotional needs, it may help you dodge a bullet now instead of a whole grenade later. And also, be nice to yourself. You will always miss the odd flag, especially when you are emotionally involved, and it is nothing to be ashamed about. The people who will laugh or sneer or say ‘I told you so’ are most likely the people who either miss the biggest flags of all, or are the biggest flag of all.
The people who truly care about you and your wellbeing won’t make you feel judged, or ashamed, or stupid for having dated someone who turned out to be toxic. It isn’t something that you should beat yourself up over either. Of course, when you look at someone through rose-tinted glass, all the red flags just look like flags (name that TV show). If anything, congratulate yourself on getting out of that situation, no matter how long it took you, who left whom, or if you had people intervene or not. It doesn’t matter. It’s over. And you won’t mistake that red flag for ‘just a pink one’ ever again.