Red flags in a relationship might not be obvious. While some are very clear, many might present more as a clue or a hint that there’s an underlying problem. Also, it can take some time for a red flag to present in a relationship.
People talk a lot about red flags in relationships, but what does that term mean exactly? Are all red flags the same for everyone? And are they a reason to walk away, or does it ever make sense to address the red flag and mend the relationship? This article will answer these questions and outline some of the most common red flags in relationships to be aware of.
What Are Relationship Red Flags?
Throughout all contexts, the term “red flag” signifies a reason to stop. Red flags are thrown in sports when a game is halted because of a foul, and they are waved on race car tracks when conditions are too dangerous to continue down the road. Red lights signal us to stop our vehicles on the road, and red tape cautions us from going beyond a certain point.
“In relationships, red flags are signs that the person probably can’t have a healthy relationship and proceeding down the road together would be emotionally dangerous,” explains Dr. Wendy Walsh, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships.
Relationship Red Flags vs. Yellow Flags
It’s important to understand the difference between a red flag and a yellow flag. Ultimately, red flags indicate a reason to cease or back away from a relationship, while yellow flags are less severe and instead caution us to slow down. Often, yellow flags vary according to your personal needs and wants in a relationship while a red flag is more universal in nature.
“[For example], a yellow flag might include difficulty with emotional communication that the person is aware of and working on,” says Dr. Walsh. “A red flag might be someone with a history of domestic violence, chronic cheating, or substance abuse.”
Relationship Red Flags to Be Aware Of
If your partner displays any of the following red flags, it’s time to have a conversation with yourself, and them, about the future of your relationship. While all scenarios are different and there’s always room for nuance, a red flag indicates a deep problem that the other person must address to have a healthy relationship with you, themselves, and anyone else.
Alcoholism & Drug Addiction
“Drinking daily or drinking until inebriation a few times a week can be a red flag for a drinking problem,” says Amber Trueblood, LMFT. Reliance on drugs to handle daily life or its ups and downs is also concerning.
If alcohol or drugs are impacting your partner’s life in a negative way—be it their work, health, or relationships—that is a sign of addiction.1 Similarly, if your partner relies on substances to get through the day, week, or a tough situation, this is indicative of addiction and signifies they haven’t yet figured out how to cope without altering their mental state.
If substance use ever leads your partner to harm you physically or emotionally, that is a clear sign to walk away.
Someone who demonstrates violence toward you, loved ones, strangers, and even animals is a serious red flag. It indicates they haven’t developed a healthy way to properly channel their emotions. In some cases, it could also be indicative they lack empathy for others.
Mismatched Relationship Goals
Dr. Walsh says that if your relationship goals are at odds, this could be a sign that it’s time to walk away. While this is less of a red flag in the sense that it’s a personal issue to work on, it is a red flag for the future of your relationship.
If they say, for instance, that they will never get married and that’s something you desire, then believe them.
Other misaligned relationship goals include where you want to live, whether you want to have children, and how you plan to tackle finances.
Persistent Jealousy and Distrust
“Another common red flag is jealousy and distrust,” says Trueblood. “Often, the red flag of a very insecure partner looks like attentiveness at the start of a relationship, but there’s an underlying control problem beneath all the attention. Later in the relationship, it’s easier to look back and reinterpret that constant attention or overboard generosity as desperate insecurity.”
History of Infidelity
Even if your partner has demonstrated change, you must ask yourself if you feel comfortable pursuing the relationship, knowing they have a history of cheating. Some people may not be bothered by this, but if you are, recognize that this factor will affect your ability to trust your partner completely.
A partner who is controlling in any way likely has deep personal issues they must work on. Rethink your relationship if your partner tries to control who you see, who you talk to, where you go, how you spend your money, what you do online, what your body looks like, what you eat, or even what you wear.
Stories of “Crazy Exes”
Talking about old flames is common, especially when you’re first starting to date someone new. Do pay attention to the language your partner uses when discussing those they’ve dated in the past. This sort of perspective deflects any responsibility and demonstrates a lack of respect for the people they once cared for and loved.
If a potential mate describes their exes as crazy instead of taking 50% of the responsibility for any craziness that may have existed in past relationships, [there’s a good chance you could] become their next ‘crazy ex.
If your partner struggles to make and maintain relationships, this could indicate you will also struggle to connect with them.
Try to understand why your partner has struggled to build connections with others. If you discover a deflection, no personal culpability, or lack of drive, then you will likely experience the same treatment in your relationship.
They Give You All Their Time
This red flag can sometimes tie into the last one. When a partner doesn’t have other relationships, hobbies, or goals, that is a recipe for an unhealthy, unfulfilling relationship.
Lack of Emotional Intimacy
One of the best parts of being in a romantic relationship is connecting deeply and authentically with another person. For some, emotional intimacy is challenging but it should always be the goal. A partner who shows no interest in opening up and bonding is a death knell for a relationship.
Gaslighting is when a person says and/or does things to make you question your own sanity. They might lie, tell you you’re forgetful, distort history, accuse you of overreacting, and employ other manipulative tactics to make you seem and feel mentally ill. The goal of this type of emotional abuse is control.
People with narcissistic or borderline personality disorders, among others, typically engage in love bombing—manipulatively showering someone with praise and affection to gain (or regain) trust quickly.
Someone who is breadcrumbing is leading you on with little morsels of encouragement—just enough so you don’t give up on the relationship. Move toward this person and they’ll move away. But if you withdraw, the person will ramp up their breadcrumbing again. A breadcrumber doesn’t like or intend to commit.
This list of red flags isn’t exhaustive; there are surely others. Ultimately, it’s important for you to trust your gut and walk away from a partner who demonstrates one or more cautionary signs. In some cases, it might make sense to try to salvage your bond. But if your partner shows no sign of self-correction, it is probably best to walk away. If you ever struggle with knowing what to do, speaking with a therapist can help.