Most of us want to find that special someone to share our lives with and yet people feel challenged when it comes to identifying and cultivating healthy relationships. How is it possible that a once wonderfully intoxicating and passionate connection can turn into something painful and toxic? Red flags in a relationship can be challenging to identify because initially some of these toxic traits might make you feel special and understood.
Stories about toxic and unhealthy relationships that are sold as romance permeate our culture. Everything from fairytales to Hollywood movies selling the idea that romantic love involves obsession, passion, or fighting for something or someone that isn’t available or attainable. Some of our favorite stories are based on a lover that rescues the other (from a dragon, a captor, or their own self-sabotage), and through this experience, they are bonded for eternity. While these concepts make entertaining stories and movies, they also give us some very confusing information about what healthy relationships might look like and promote the idea that red flags equal romance.
Falling in love with someone who is charming, passionate about being with you all the time, so in love with you that they must know every detail about your life, and they desire to move the relationship forward without hesitation is romance…or is it? Or what about the person who will offer you so much love and acceptance that it feels as though they have the power to heal all of your own insecurities and past trauma without any effort on your part, or that you might be able to offer that to another. Is that true love or relationship red flags?
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Media might have us believe that these dramatic gestures are a good sign that maybe you have found the one. However, relationship experts disagree. These myths about romantic love can lead to people accepting toxic behaviors and even emotional abuse because they believe it will lead to a lasting connection when it is more likely to have a negative impact on your mental health.
The Difference Between Toxic and Romantic Behaviors
Healthy behavior in a romantic relationship are the actions that build a strong bond between two people. This includes ways of interacting that make us feel safe and secure. Our independence and autonomy is not threatened. Secure and supportive people can and do have conflict in their relationships, some even have to start over in a relationship due to conflict. However, the conflict is manageable and there are ways to move through it and find resolution without blame or shame.
Relationship red flags are ways of interacting that cause harm or disruption to our sense of safety and identity. Examples of this includes gaslighting (manipulating someone into doubting their own sense of reality), overly controlling behavior which may include trying to isolate you from friends and family members, belittling or excessive criticism, making threats or accusations of betrayal or infidelity, or being emotionally distant or unresponsive when you need support.
These actions can be damaging both mentally and emotionally, leading to insecurity, anxiety, depression, and other trauma-related mental illness. In an unhealthy relationship, you will feel like a lesser version of yourself or that your authentic self is not welcome. You will feel you need to adjust your life or who you are to manage your partner’s feelings and expectations. You may also experience diminished self-confidence and self-worth.
Warning Signs of Toxic Behaviors
Red flags in a relationship can be difficult to identify in the early stages of a relationship when you are caught up in infatuation and attraction, making it hard to discern between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one. However, there are common relationship red flags that you should never overlook. Anything that feels like you have to sacrifice your own well-being to stay in the relationship should be considered a major red flag. This could be behavior such as not respecting boundaries, exhibiting controlling behavior, anger management issues, substance abuse, physical harm or abuse, or any other deal breakers that create unhealthy dynamics in the relationship.
What is the most common red flag at the beginning of a relationship that people ignore?
Love bombing is a behavior used by some people to quickly gain control over a new relationship. They try to create an intense bond before they have actually gotten to know you. One of the most obvious signs of love bombing is when a new partner wants a commitment from you almost immediately after meeting you. If someone is pressuring you into making commitments before getting to know you there is a chance that their behavior is more manipulative then romantic. People tend to ignore red flags such as this because initially it feels so good to be the target of someone’s affection, attention, and desire.
Love bombing can turn into control and manipulation before the target even realizes what is happening. Love bombers want you to feel like you are always connected and on their mind even if they’ve only just met or been on one date. This often comes out in the form of nonstop communication via talk or text messages, emails, or social media posts. They also tend to disregard personal space. They may expect you to drop everything for them or pressure you into doing things that make you uncomfortable.
This one is tricky because it seems SO romantic initially, but it is a red flag that can end in disaster. Healthy relationships allow space to unfold naturally and for two people to get know one another and explore the relationship.
10 Red Flags that May Appear Romantic
1. Signs of Controlling Behavior
One of the most common red flags of an unhealthy relationship is controlling behavior. This type of behavior is often subtle, but it can come in the form of trying to direct your actions, decisions, or even who you hang out with. Control can also include manipulating emotions or gaslighting. You may find that it is difficult to set boundaries with someone who wants control because you feel that you are wrong or bad if you upset them.
Controlling behavior often begins subtly and slowly escalates over time. You may not notice on the first or second date. A common warning signal is that you start to notice that you are being monitored. If you are being checked up on frequently, actions such as excessive calling or texting or checking your browser history. They may also become jealous or possessive if they think someone else might be interested in you or when they feel threatened by outside influences such as family and friends.
They may also try to manipulate you emotionally. Warning signals of emotional manipulation can include be giving you the silent treatment instead of trying to find conflict resolution or playing mind games and withholding approval until you do what they want. They may also attempt to restrict your independence by limiting your access to money or transportation so that you are dependent on them, which is a form of domestic violence and should not be overlooked or tolerated.
2. Unrealistic Expectations
Another common warning sign of red flags in a relationship is when one partner has unrealistic expectations for the other person. They may hold them to a standard that they do not require of themselves. An example of this might be getting angry when their partner doesn’t anticipate their needs even though they have not communicated them or expecting emotional or financial support that is not reciprocated. They may expect that their partner your own needs to meet theirs and become outraged when they spend time with their own friends or attend to their own life in anyway. Unrealistic expectations are often linked with narcissistic tendencies, which can lead to physical, mental, and emotional abuse over time if tolerated in the relationship.
3. Unhealthy Jealousy
Unhealthy jealousy is typically characterized by feelings of possessiveness, insecurity, fear of abandonment, and irrational thoughts about your partner’s behavior. It is natural to feel jealous at times when we are feeling insecure or uncertain about where we stand with our love interest. However, if you are constantly suspicious of your partner’s activities or become overly possessive of them you are experiencing unhealthy jealousy. Jealousy can be confused as romantic. At face value it may appear that this person is so invested in their partner that it causes them suffering when they perceive a threat. However, a healthy partner will manage their own insecurity and not blame their partner. They will also encourage their partner to have their own life and not feel threatened by their friends or family. When unhealthy jealousy occurs it is important to recognize it as a form of manipulation not romance.
4. Lack of Respect for Boundaries
It is important for both parties in the relationship to feel comfortable enough to say ‘no’ without feeling guilty. If you find yourself constantly feeling pressure from your partner, or that there is an expectation that their needs be met regardless of how it impacts your life, this could be a sign that there is a lack of regard for your personal needs within the relationship. Healthy relationships feel safe and partners feel comfortable enough to express their needs without fear or guilt.
5. Dishonesty and Deception
Honesty is also essential in any successful relationship; without it, trust cannot exist. Dishonesty can come in different forms. Not being honest about small things like making plans and not following through or bigger things like finances or past legal history might seem harmless initially, however these lies add up can erode trust between partners over time. Trust is gained slowly and lost quickly. Lying is a red flag regardless of the intention behind it. Deception is harmful even if it is intended to impress someone or win them over. Not being honest doesn’t allow each individual to understand what they are committing to in a new relationship.
6. Unwillingness to Compromise or Negotiate
In a healthy relationship, both parties should feel respected and have an equal amount of power. In relationships where one partner refuses to compromise, this dynamic can quickly become unbalanced. The partner who refuses to budge becomes more powerful than their significant other. This imbalance often leads to feelings of resentment and anger as the other partner begins to feel like they are not valued or taken into consideration.
7. Emotional Manipulation or Abuse
Emotional manipulation is a way of controlling another person’s behavior without using physical force. It is a form of psychological abuse that often goes unrecognized by its victims – who are typically left feeling confused, ashamed and guilty for not understanding what is happening in their relationship. Emotional manipulators use tactics such as guilt-tripping, gaslighting, and other forms of psychological intimidation to make their significant other feel anxious, powerless and unable to stand up for themselves.
The most common indications of emotional manipulation are subtle yet pervasive. The manipulator will often try to confuse you with their words or actions in order to keep you off guard. An example may include making threats or ultimatums, engaging in criticism or belittling behavior, taking advantage of your emotions (crying or getting angry in order to get what they want), using guilt trips, and creating an atmosphere of fear or insecurity in the relationship.
8. Disregard for Your Feelings and Needs
This can include things such as not listening or responding to you when you talk, talking over you when you try to express yourself, dismissing your ideas and opinions without consideration, or insulting or belittling you in any way. If your partner displays any of these behaviors consistently then they may not be respecting your emotions and needs in the relationship.
If you notice that someone is disregarding your emotions or needs in a relationship make sure that the person is aware that their behavior is unacceptable by speaking up and expressing how their words or actions make you feel. If the person continues with the same behavior then it might be time to consider whether the relationship. It could be beneficial for both people involved to seek guidance from a qualified mental health professional who can provide advice on how best to handle the situation.
9. Refusal to Take Responsibility for Actions
Refusing to take responsibility for one’s actions is a significant relationship red flag. It means that the person may be unwilling or unable to acknowledge the consequences of their behavior, which can lead to ongoing disputes and resentment in the relationship. The inability to take responsibility for one’s actions can also lead to a lack of trust between partners. “Defensiveness is a wicked game. But it’s winnable. If betrayal is about the question of trust and contempt is about the question of respect, then defensiveness is about the question of responsibility. That’s the antidote: accepting responsibility for your role in the issue.” explains Dr. John Gottman. To maintain a healthy relationship, both parties need to be willing to own up to their mistakes and recognize how their actions affect their partner.
10. Abusive Language
Abusive language is always a red flag. When someone experiences this level of intensity with another person and if they have a trauma history that includes abusive language or if abusive language was normalized in their family of origin, they might interpret this as passionate or normal. Language that takes the form of name-calling, mocking, put-downs, or insults is not romantic and may compromise both parties’ mental health and cause more harm and damage to the relationship.
How to Recognize the Difference Between Toxic and Romantic Behaviors
The best way to recognize red flags in relationships is to take time to practice self-awareness. It is essential to remember that red flags do not necessarily always mean the end of romantic unions. There are times when red flags can be addressed and discussed in order for two people to build a healthier relationship. People grow through the challenges that they experience in their relationships. Communication is key in any relationship and it is important to take steps toward understanding one another’s needs, wants, and emotions before making assumptions or continuing down a destructive path. This can also include seeking professional help, such as working with a licensed marriage and family therapist or dating coach.
Steps to Take If You Suspect a Partner Is Displaying Red Flag Behavior
If you suspect a partner is displaying red flags, the most important step is to stay safe. It is essential to pay attention to how someone reacts when you confront them about an issue or concern. If they become defensive, angry, or hostile, it’s a red flag. It’s important to trust your intuition; if something seems off or feels wrong, it likely is. A secure partner can take accountability and empathize with another’s perspective so that you can find resolution.
Strategies for Reducing the Risk of Falling Prey to Toxic Behaviors
Learn about healthy and secure relationships. You can work with a therapist or do your own research. Knowing how to be in healthy relationship or how to identify a secure partner might be a foreign concept if that behavior was never modeled for you. A basic understanding of what to expect from a secure partner and the how to identify manipulative or toxic behavior could spare you heart ache and loss in the future.