August 22, 2021 — 16:01 PM
When dating someone new, it’s all too easy to look at the person through rose-colored glasses—and miss the glaring signs they’re not right for you. Often referred to as red flags, we’ve all seen these glaring signs before, but whether we ignore them, try to work with them, or walk away is up to us. So, we asked experts which red flags you definitely want to watch out for, plus what to do about them.
A red flag is essentially a signal that goes off when something’s not right, intuitively telling you to steer clear. In the case of relationships, they’ll show up when the object of your affection does or says something that rubs you the wrong way and makes you question the relationship.
As psychotherapist Annette Nuñez, M.S., Ph.D., explains to mbg, red flags “give you a funny feeling that something isn’t right.” Just as you might “flag” something that you want to come back to, a red flag is kind of like putting a mental pin in a behavior you want to keep an eye on.
Sometimes these red flags can be less extreme, and other times they’re a crystal clear sign to run for the hills. According to psychotherapist and relationship expert Ken Page, LCSW, they can range from “proceed with caution” to “absolutely don’t go there,” depending on the severity of the behavior, and your own relationship patterns and nonnegotiables.
13 red flags to look out for:
Great relationships start with great sleep.*
Any kind of physical abuse should be taken very seriously, Page notes. “If you feel physically scared by how the person is, or if they’ve ever behaved in ways that are physically abusive or threatening, that’s it. Give it an absolute, 100% no,” he says. (Here’s our detailed guide on how to leave an abusive relationship if you’re in one.)
2. Verbal and/or emotional abuse
Along with physical abuse, verbal and emotional abuse are also huge red flags, according to both Nuñez and page. “In a healthy relationship you support and encourage one another,” Nuñez says. “Anybody that makes you feel like you’re the problem, you’re crazy, or you’re causing them to act a certain way—those are all red flags.”
Another red flag Nuñez and Page agree on is active addiction. Watch out for behavior like frequent binge drinking or other substance abuse. Page says when it comes to someone who’s suffering from addiction, if you’re pursuing them romantically, “you want to know they’re in some kind of long-term recovery and are getting long-term support,” he notes.
4. Untreated mental health issues
Similarly, and often corresponding to addiction, is untreated mental health issues. As Page explains, that’s not to say those with mental health problems cannot have healthy relationships—they absolutely can. (On that note, here’s our guide on dating someone with depression.) However, when conditions are left untreated or unstabilized, it’s going to make a relationship very, very challenging. “It needs to be stabilized, and they need to be working on it,” he adds.
A healthy relationship should feel safe and consistent, not like a roller coaster. According to Nuñez, inconsistent behavior is a red flag indicating this person will not be a reliable partner. Whether they don’t call when they say they will, or go long periods of time without reaching out and then suddenly contact you with some excuse or apology (aka getting zombied), you’ll want to keep an eye on that.
Page notes possessiveness really ranges on a spectrum from normal to unhealthy. A little jealousy now and again isn’t the end of the world, but if their possessiveness toward you is connected with “anger, hostility, narcissism, threats, or rage,” Page says, that’s a red flag—especially if it gets worse over time. Nuñez adds that someone attempting to control you or isolate you from friends or family is definitely not OK. Watch out for all forms of manipulation.
Narcissism covers a whole variety of characteristics and behaviors, but generally speaking, watch out for behavior that indicates the person has a superiority complex, like entitlement, lack of self-accountability, lack of empathy, and so on. Even if someone doesn’t have full-blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), they can still exhibit narcissistic traits. According to Page, if you notice that somehow everything ends up becoming about them, this indicates they’re not going to have the ability to truly see you.
Gaslighting is a type of manipulation that’s used to maintain control over another person and involves actively denying that person’s reality. For the person on the receiving end, being gaslit can feel extremely disorienting and make them question their own emotions and intuition. Page notes this is a big red flag. If you’re upset about something, and this person tells you “you’re being dramatic” or “that never happened,” not only are they not taking accountability, but they’re trying to control you and the narrative of your relationship.
9. Emotional unavailability
Someone who is emotionally unavailable may indicate so in a variety of ways. As Nuñez notes, maybe this person only wants to see you late at night or when it’s convenient for them, or they aren’t taking appropriate steps to put in effort in general. And according to Page, other things like difficulty talking about feelings, or saying they don’t want a relationship, are also signs that someone may not be emotionally available.
10. They make you feel less than
Going back to verbal and emotional abuse, get clear on how this person really, truly makes you feel inside. Are they demeaning and talk down to you, or do they lift you up? Nuñez says it’s not in your best interest to entertain a relationship with anyone who makes you feel less than.
No relationship is perfect, but ultimately, a healthy relationship should add to your happiness—not take away from it. “Constant fighting over little things that are just insignificant, especially if you’re newly dating somebody,” Nuñez notes, is a red flag.
Similar to fighting, take note of any anger problems, Nuñez and Page say. If someone is very quick to anger, has frequent explosive outbursts, or switches emotions quickly (i.e., happiness to rage), this shows a lack of ability to regulate emotions in a healthy way—and is ultimately just unpleasant (and even frightening) to be around.
13. Unequal input & output
Last but not least, Nuñez says it’s important to look at how much both of you are giving and receiving in the relationship. There should be equal give and take from both of you, and “if you’re giving more than what you’re given back, that’s a red flag,” she adds.
When to address it vs. when to get out.
If your gut is telling you loud and clear that this isn’t going to work, walk away. Full stop. Don’t stick around forcing a square peg into a round hole.
If you’re not quite sure, though, there are a number of things to consider, and it requires a degree of wisdom, according to Page. “We have to grow our capacity to discriminate, which basically means to trust ourselves,” he says.
Do you recognize your own relationship patterns? Nuñez and Page both agree this is crucial. If you find yourself repeating the same old patterns and attracting the same kinds of people, don’t assume this time around is going to be any different. Similarly, you want to recognize your own triggers if you’ve been hurt before. What you might perceive as a red flag could very well be a projection, Page notes.
It’s also important to understand the difference between workable differences and nonnegotiables, Nuñez explains. It can help to get clear on what your nonnegotiables are, plus what your “green flags” are. If a relationship has some minor challenges but meets all the nonnegotiables and green flags you’re looking for, you may be able to work through it. Know you deserve what you’re looking for and never have to settle, Nuñez adds.
Page recommends leaning on your support system and talking to friends or loved ones you believe have a good sense of what a healthy relationship looks like. Their insight can help you see things clearly when you’ve got your blinders on, he adds.
With all these things considered, it then comes down to communication. When you bring up your concerns with this person, how do they respond? Are they willing to work on it—and actually follow through? Can they communicate effectively and display emotional intelligence? If not, Nuñez and Page say it’s unlikely to be a successful relationship.
Sometimes, we’re so desperate to “make it work,” we wind up abandoning ourselves, and if this is happening, Nuñez says it’s time to walk away. Again, healthy relationships involve equal give and take and should add to our happiness, not take away from it.
She adds that often the red flags we identify early on turn out to be significant problems in the relationship. Without professional help, like couples’ therapy, she says, it’s not uncommon for red flag behaviors to get worse.
Long story short: “If you’re not sure, talk to the person,” Page says. He offers his best mantra for communication, which is “Say what you mean; mean what you say, and don’t say it mean.” And if you do that and they don’t respond well, “that’s a sign of what your future’s going to look like,” he says.
Not every red flag has to mark the end of a relationship, but understanding your own nonnegotiables will help when deciding whether to stick around. As Page says, when dating someone new, ask yourself, “Does my soul feel safe with this person?” If the answer is not a basic and essential yes, “this is not a relationship where you’re going to find the happiness you’re looking for.”
If you are in immediate danger, call 911. For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.