When it comes to red flags in a relationship, in dating, and even in your friendships…
Have you ever heard the saying “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”?
A red flag is the smoke that no matter how much you try to fan away, choose to identify as fog, or spray with the air freshener of denial and keep walking through, it will always lead you to fire. You may be able to see past the smoke and keep moving for a while, but fire is one thing that we all can agree, you will never be able to move through or ignore into extinguishment.
All you can do is tend to your burns by adjusting your boundaries, understand that ignoring the red flags of others is a major red flag of your own, and make the decision to stop normalizing and personalizing smoke signals when they appear.
The emotional toolbelt you were born with did not come with a hose to put out the fires of relational arsonists.
And their fires/red flags are not meant for you to extinguish, take ownership of, or be “good enough” to change the color.
They are meant for you to get away from.
The problem with red flags in a relationship is that they are the easiest to identify in every relationship but our own. And when it comes to the red flags in our own relationships…
They only seem to be the most visible in hindsight.
What Is A Red Flag?
A red flag can be a character trait, a certain habit, behavior, or any kind of beliefs or core values of someone else that makes your intuition sound off. This can be an issue in the present moment or something that you may see as a potential problem down the line.
If you struggle with low self-esteem, abandonment issues, and a disease to please, any sign of smoke will make you feel like you have to work that much harder to prove you are “enough” for it to clear.
And when you eventually get locked in the vicious cycle of investigation opening, receipt collecting, truth chasing, instinct prosecuting, and reality questioning…
You will know that you got burned.
There is, however, a way to heal your wounds, right now.
For years, I would prosecute my gut feelings (that naturally came with exposure to red flags) down to nothing and write them off as self-sabotage. This was very convenient because it justified blaming myself and choosing the certainty (familiarity) of toxic relationships over my dignity (which was sadly, unfamiliar).
It was impossible for me to walk away based on a gut feeling that I didn’t know how to listen to as much as I did my fear of ending up alone.
There is a major difference between self-sabotage and the gut feeling that smoke is indeed, a precursor to fire.
Gut feelings are not subtle. They are very often felt in your actual gut and become stronger when you don’t listen to them.
What Is A Gut Feeling?
A gut feeling is when you pick up on a vibe that something is “off.” And it doesn’t add up or make sense in regard to the kind of person you think you’re with and the kind of relationship you signed up to be in.
Gut feelings are impossible to ignore – especially in toxic relationships where it feels just as impossible to walk away.
So, to get out of that uncomfortable limbo, we impulsively flip the switch on ourselves.
We write our gut feelings off as trust issues, self-sabotage, undealt-with trauma from our past, being “too harsh,” not giving him a fair chance, and overthinking. If you would not put up with dating someone who would dumb you down this ignorantly and immediately, you need to stop doing it to yourself.
This is not about everything that your ex told you and all of the conversations you had. It’s not about every detail of your relationship that you remember and the gut feelings you felt throughout. It’s about what you chose to ignore. And if you can see that you mistook crumbs as a sign of loaves to come, excused red flags, and can identify an overall pattern of convenient misinterpretation in your relationships…
It is your intuition that you keep turning a blind eye to.
Your gut feelings are something that you will never be able to afford the cost of ignoring because they are what your intuition is made of.
What Is Your Intuition?
Intuition is when you just KNOW.
He ignored your calls all night and even though this has happened once before, something feels different this time. You talk to him and you just know in your bones that something happened. The writing is all over the walls of your gut feelings. His explanations don’t add up but they also don’t make you demand receipts, start any kind of drama, or react this time.
That’s how you know this isn’t self-sabotage or insecurity you are acting on – it’s pure intuition. The fact that you feel this way is enough for you. And even though you’re in shock and heartbroken, you’re done.
You know that the relationship you deserve should never involve feeling this way. Later on, you may panic and feel like you need to go back to get the “facts” or gather more evidence but deep down, it doesn’t change the fact that you just know. And the reminders of that knowingness will be unrelenting until you have the courage to act on them.
Your intuition will always communicate with you clearly and calmly.
Unfortunately, it is just as difficult to act on as it is easy to prosecute.
But why is it so crucial? Because it is the only means of communication that your destiny has with you. To ignore your intuition is to literally rob yourself of what is destined for you in this life.
Unlike the gut feelings that red flags sound off, and the calm knowingness of your intuition, the voice of self-sabotage has more of an impulsive, chatty, and negative overtone.
Self-sabotage is not about seeing something with feathers quacking in a body of water, having the gut feeling that it’s a duck, and acting on your intuition telling you that you’re not in the ocean. It’s about having genuinely good things around you and instead of embracing them, you pour poison on the seeds of opportunity so that nothing can grow. And if nothing can grow and survive, you won’t ever have to deal with the loss and sadness of death.
Unconditionally loving yourself is the only thing that will permanently knock self-sabotage off of your emotional shelf.
Gut feelings are much different than self-sabotage. They are instant responses that shake you to your core and make your internal security system sound off by activating your intuition – regardless of whether you struggle with self-esteem or not.
Gut feelings are a natural reflex of red flags. They are there to protect you from the fire that you need to stop walking toward.
Self-sabotage is an internal red flag that’s triggered by insecurities and ingrained patterns. It sounds like excuses, comes with little evidence, and is an all-around low-energy feeling that makes for a low-energy life.
What separates your gut feelings from any other feeling is that when the fire ran wild and finally dealt your relationship that fatal blow, you can now look back on those same feelings and know that you were right from the start.
Your intuition is the oldest part of your soul; it will always try to get your attention via your gut feelings. And the more you get to know, love, and accept yourself, the more able you will be to listen to and unapologetically act on the smoke (that always leads to fire).
Red Flags In Dating
In the beginning stages of dating, we all project our best selves. We are on our best behavior and give our best effort. Ultimately, we can’t help but return to who we truly are – good and bad.
Looking back on your relationship, you may feel blindsided that your ex could change like this, but many of the signs were there within the first few dates. The signs are very subtle at first, but they are always there.
It may have happened even sooner than that. When he was faced with unplanned problems, awkward social settings, too much alcohol, sudden run-ins, and the kind of life circumstances and situations that were not only beyond his control, but shined a light on everything that contradicted the guy you thought you were getting to know.
And you proceeded anyway, against your better judgment. Which is okay, we all have.
Instead of acting on the realization that there’s too much smoke to breathe/ignore, we see too much potential to pass up.
At this point, we are so desperate for it to work and invested in every way, we can’t make the connection that it is not possible for smoke to come from the very waterfalls we are chasing.
Red flags are the greatest gift because they give you the opportunity to see exactly who you are dealing with. And any emotional nostalgia that remains for his good qualities no longer has the power to mess with you. Thanks to the red flags, you can see how embarrassingly limited, illusory, and contradictory those qualities are.
Always go for actuality. Never wait around for the potential to actualize.
What’s the best thing to do when you come across a red flag? Immediately become more observant than you are invested.
If you loaned a friend money and on the promised return date, they ignored all your calls and didn’t pay you back, you would never continue to invest. You would halt ALL investment until the smoke cleared. And if it didn’t, you wouldn’t try to be a good enough friend for them to return your money. You’d cut your losses and close the door.
The same mentality needs to be applied to red flags.
Red flags are meant to be acted on. Not investigated and reacted to.
Just like you had the power to excuse and ignore, you have the power to identify, flush, and prevail.
Red flags are never about you but self-sabotage is. Stop sabotaging your life by thinking that your only purpose in it is to have to work for things like love, honesty, clear communication, and respect.
Relationship Red Flags And Deal Breakers
Going into a relationship with the mission to immediately uncover any and all red flags is not only a terrible idea, but it’s also annoying, unattractive, and destructive. It prevents the opportunity for a genuine connection to occur.
What is helpful, is being able to know when you are in the territory of smoke so that you can keep your antennas up and not get burned.
Red flags tend to reside in three main spots…
- Relational Values and Moral Code.
His relational value system and moral code are where many deal-breaking red flags hide and reside. This boils down to the things that he thinks are funny, respectful/disrespectful, exciting, inspiring, a turn-on/off; what he thinks is okay, and what he doesn’t think is okay.
I once dated a guy who would never send me photos of himself but would text me porn – throughout the day and without any other text leading up to or following it. I wasn’t offended, but to me, it felt inorganic, awkward to respond to, and odd. I felt bad because I could tell that he genuinely thought it was a real turn-on to send me multiple videos, every day, of strangers having sex. I’m sure there are some people who would be into this, but it didn’t do anything for me.
I think it’s important to be kind in your honesty – never brutal. So, I told him in a direct but very kind, non-embarrassing way that I wasn’t into the videos. He immediately said “oh, come on,” called me a prude, laughed at me, and then, over the next month…
He slowly iced me out.
I tried everything to get his attention and prove that I wasn’t as lame as he thought I was. Besides feeling humiliated and ending up even more rejected, I got burned.
Looking back, the videos were the smoke that put his value system on display, which led me to the eventual fire of his response (that was just as obnoxious as his texts).
What ended up burning me though was not him. It was ME being so triggered, I tried to be “good enough” to extinguish a fire that I had decided to take ownership of both starting and stoking. (Instead of realizing that the only one who could put that fire out was him).
If your partner thinks something is hilarious that you find disturbing, sexy that you find a total turn-off, or respectful that you feel is disrespectful and it does not coincide with YOUR own relational value system and moral code… You need to identify it as the smoke that it is and stop investing.
Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. The fact that you feel this way is enough to at least acknowledge the presence of smoke.
This also includes how he lives. And it has nothing to do with being materialistic or superficially obsessed. It has to do with preferences, values, and lifestyles. If he is happily living a certain way that would make you miserable, require a tetanus shot or the maturity of an eleven-year-old to proceed… that’s your sign to fold – not your signal to renovate.
- Family, Friends & Exes.
Red flags hide out in these relationships and we excuse the inappropriateness for many reasons. It may shine a light on the lack of closeness in our own relationships and sometimes, the lack of close relationships in our lives (which breeds shame). It’s also difficult to bring up because you never want to be the uncool girlfriend who’s giving her partner a hard time for having a relationship with someone that matters to him. Most of the time, I would write off my own gut feelings in situations like this as insecurity. I de-pedestaled myself by ignoring my gut feelings and subsequently, pedestaled his perceived maturity and incredible relationships that “I just didn’t understand.”
Pay very close attention to how he talks about, and the relationships he has with his family, friends, and exes (if he is still in contact with any). Notice if he acts like a different person, seeks their validation, or gets off to being a fixer/rescuer for them.
If he has a relationship with a family member, a friend, or an ex that at best, makes your stomach turn and at worst, has you questioning your place in his life, your relationship with him, your value, his values (and/or sexuality), and your reality…
Keep your antennas up because the most deal-breaking red flags hide in these dynamics.
The ability to spot/act on red flags in relationships goes hand-in-hand with your ability to do what the majority of people cannot: look beyond the superficiality of good looks, words, actions, and even personality.
A winning personality can be addicting because it feels just as good as it looks on paper. You can talk all night, finish each other’s sentences and laugh for hours. The conversation back and forth is seamless and the flirting, the chivalry… everything makes sense and feels incredible. None of that matters though without character and integrity backing it up. There is nothing sexier than a person with character and integrity. And the only way to attract someone with character and integrity is to exude the very same character and integrity that you had to abandon in order to even give toxic people one chance, let alone multiple.
Winning the genetic lottery does not require any talent or effort, nor does it last. It won’t last more than a few minutes if ugly, divisive, unintelligent, inconsistent, and contradicting words are coming out of a beautiful mouth.
And just like looks mean nothing without a good personality backing them up, words mean nothing without action backing them up. But there is one more element to this that for years, I failed to see…
An incredible personality supersedes looks, actions supersede words… and patterns supersede action.
Everything you ever wanted to know about someone’s character, ability to evolve, and emotional intelligence can be found by taking a look at their patterns. Actions are great but remember… ANYONE can do something chivalrous.
Anyone can make a buck, spend a buck, book a flight, open a door, buy a ring, send flowers, write a card or physically show up. Personality and looks change and fade with time. Character and integrity are the only things you will ever be able to grow old with because they are immune to the stamp of time.
Character is about the moral qualities that distinguish you. Integrity is the level to which what you say and the actions that you take, match a pattern of those qualities.
The ability to recognize patterns is what allows you to separate the emotional nostalgia that’s tied to the grandiosity/chivalry of his actions from the truth (red flags) of his patterns.
What Are Red Flags In A Relationship?
* As all of my posts are, this is applicable to all genders and orientations.
- He labels himself.
People cannot help but communicate who they are through their actions and patterns but sometimes, it’s their direct words. If he straight up tells you that he’s immature, undecided, keeping his options open, too good for you, can’t give you want, is a commitment-phobe, etc., that’s not your cue to try to be the exception to a rule that is so deeply branded in his being, he has no problem communicating it.
It’s your cue to fold.
- He is the victim in all of his past relationships.
If he’s going to spill personal details, gossip, and talk poorly about an ex/exes that he is the victim of, don’t think that you will ever be immune.
- Controlling and Gaslighting.
Gaslighting in relationships is all about gaining power and control. It’s a form of manipulation in which the gaslighter slowly, methodically and passively breaks down another to a point that they start to question their reality and sanity. If you are being made to feel crazy for what your eyes, ears, and instinct are experiencing in real-time, that isn’t true love.
If you casually and respectfully ask him a question and his defensiveness seems very strange, unnecessary, theatrical, and disproportionate to the question and energy with which you asked, this is a major red flag. Especially if he deflects and makes you feel immature, accusatory, or “mean” for asking.
If he is addicted to something and either refusing or not getting help …or even worse, if he’s in denial, this is a heartbreaking but deal-breaking red flag.
- Future Faking.
If he always talks about your future together but there’s never any progression…
You need to become more fearful of wasting time (that you will never get back) than you are of missing out on a future that he isn’t capable of actualizing.
Future faking is used to cheaply and very quickly, maximize the intensity of your relationship with little to no effort. It’s also used to get you so excited about the future that you will enthusiastically check every box on the list of his selfish, present-day needs (without any current or future reciprocation).
- He is a walking contradiction; there is always a double standard.
And when you respectfully address any contradiction in a non-accusatory way, he has a bulletproof excuse. This makes you feel like a fool and less inclined to bring anything up to him again.
- He is selfish and shows little interest in your life (but expects you to be his on-demand cheerleader, motivational coach, and armchair psychologist).
The only time he shows any interest in whatever you have going on is prior to getting a need met. Or, if there’s something in it for him.
In the beginning, he’s going to be on his best behavior with you.
Use this time to be very aware of how he treats everyone around you – animals, the elderly, children, friends, co-workers, people who are helping him, serving him at a restaurant, etc. Especially those who can’t do anything for him.
- Empathetic Bankruptcy.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. If you find yourself empathizing with a man who is unable to empathize with you, this is a major red flag.
If your empathy for him becomes a detriment to your mental health, have some empathy for yourself and walk away.
- He gets off to making you jealous and keeping you on your toes.
Because you never feel like you have “all” of him, you are in a constant state of trying to get all of him. If you feel like you have to compete with other women, his ex, his family, job, etc…
This unfairly de-pedestals you, obnoxiously pedestals him, and redefines your definition of a relationship as something that you have to compete for to experience.
- Lies and Unreliability.
Whether it’s a compulsion to lie (about big and/or small things) or deeper rooted in his pathology, you don’t have the time or power to heal someone out of their own immorality and delusional facade.
And if you can’t trust him, there is no way you will ever be able to rely on him.
- When he says that he’s “trying” with the basics.
Regardless of relational experience, no one should ever have to “try” to love you, be honest with you, respect you, commit to you, value you, stay monogamous, and be a grown-up.
Aside from very basic and less-specific qualities like honesty and kindness…
If they seem eerily similar to and remind you of an ex or either one of your parents, this is a red flag.
If he tells you that he’s cheated on everyone he’s ever been with but won’t cheat on you, fold. He is telling you that he has a history of a repeated toxic pattern. Don’t stick around to see if you can be the one who turns around an immature and disgusting standard.
Let someone else be the crash dummy if they want. You’re out.
- He repeatedly says, “I’m just kidding” to hurtful “jokes.”
“Joking” in this manner is such a joke. As long as he’s “joking” and you have an adverse reaction to it, you just “can’t take a joke.” As long as he’s kidding, he can be cruel and get away with it because “it’s just a joke.”
He is the joke here and you need to be done.
- He has an allergic reaction to your success.
If your success requires you to give him more attention during your moment, that’s a huge red flag.
If you’re made to feel bad and apologize for your success, this is because your success shines a light on his lack of it. And anyone who can only amplify their light by dimming yours is not worth your time.
- His definition of love, monogamy, honesty, and respect are not the same as yours.
You deserve a man who defines these things in the same (or an even better way) than you do. Think of how you would advise someone you care about and do the same for yourself. Walk away from this red flag. If you don’t… How are you any better than your ex?
Just because you aren’t directly hurting other people (like he has), that doesn’t make you any better for hurting the one person you will never be able to afford turning your back on – yourself.
Written by: Natasha Adamo