Red flag warning: What to look out for in your relationships

February 1, 2022 - 18 min read

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What are red flags in a relationship?

13 red flags in a relationship to look out for

Yellow flags versus red flags

How to approach red flags in a relationship

Human connection is an important part of our lives. Feeling loved and having a sense of connection contribute to our mental health.

But not all relationships make our lives better. Some relationships aren't good for us. They damage our well-being instead of making it better. Some can even be toxic, and it’s important to recognize the red flags.

What are red flags in a relationship? How can you identify them? And most importantly, what should you do if your relationship has reached an unhealthy state?

Here’s your guide to navigating red flags in a relationship.

What are red flags in a relationship?

Red flags are warning signs that indicate unhealthy or manipulative behavior

They are not always recognizable at first — which is part of what makes them so dangerous. However, they tend to grow bigger and become more problematic over time. 

Red flags are often used in conversations around toxic or abusive relationships. Toxicity can present itself in any close relationship: friends, colleagues, family members, or partners. 

Red flags can be signs of narcissism, aggression, victimization, or even abusive behavior. By becoming aware of some common red flags, you can avoid getting involved in a toxic relationship. 

When you encounter relationship red flags, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on the dynamic you really share with that person. 

Often, toxic behavior is subtle and insidious. It creeps up on us in moments of weakness, and if we cannot fight against it, it can take control over our lives. 

This can lead to both ourselves and those around us getting hurt. Cultivating self-awareness around red flags and toxic behavior can help us avoid them altogether. 

13 red flags in a relationship to look out for

Knowing how to identify red flags in a relationship is extremely important. 

Before you can address red flags, you need to understand what they look like and why they are dangerous.

Unfortunately, some people start to accept red flags as a “part of the package” rather than warning signals. They then become vulnerable to emotional, psychological, and sometimes even physical harm. 

Let’s look at 13 common red flags that can arise in any relationship. By learning what they look like and why they are harmful, you can put an end to toxicity before too much damage is done. 

1. Overly controlling behavior

Overly controlling behavior is a common red flag. People that try to control your movements, decisions, or beliefs are more concerned about what they want than what is best for you. 

In a healthy relationship, there is compromise and understanding around differences. Not one person controls the other person’s actions. 

2. Lack of trust

Trust is an important foundation in any healthy relationship. A major sign of an unstable relationship is when partners, friends, colleagues, or family members distrust you.

Of course, we all have doubts sometimes. But they shouldn't stop us from trusting the people in our lives to do the right thing. Healthy relationships require trust on both sides.

3. Feeling low self-esteem

The people closest to you should build you up, not break you down.

sombre-girl-sitting-on-couch-alone-red-flags-in-a-relationship

When you love someone, you are committed to supporting and uplifting them. If you do not feel that support from your partner, family or friends, something needs to change.

4. Physical, emotional, or mental abuse

Physical, emotional, and mental abuse are undeniable red flags in any relationship. Physical abuse is easier to pick up. But emotional and mental abuse can be just as damaging in the long run. And just like physical abuse, mental and emotional abuse can cause PTSD.

Nobody ever has the right to use you as a scapegoat for their own problems. Those should be dealt with constructively and fairly. Abuse is never an acceptable response to a problem. 

5. Substance abuse

Substance abuse is a clear red flag. It indicates that a person struggles with impulse control and self-destructive habits. Depending on the substance, any relationship can quickly turn toxic if addiction is present. 

With that said, substance abuse is an illness and your loved one might need help. If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for help.

6. Narcissism

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental condition that indicates self-obsession, a misplaced sense of importance. It can come across as delusions of grandeur, although not in a clinical sense. They are not experiencing a break with reality, although it might feel that way to the people close to them. Narcissists believe that the world revolves around them. And if anybody threatens this belief, turmoil and chaos tend to follow. 

Being emotionally involved with a narcissistic, ego-driven person can be exhausting and traumatizing. Their needs will always be considered more important than yours. 

7. Anger management issues

If someone you are close to has anger management issues, you might feel threatened or unsafe during conflict. Lack of emotional regulation is a definite red flag for any relationship. 

We all should feel comfortable enough with a partner or friend to tackle difficult subjects without fearing for our safety. Anyone who uses anger as an intimidation tactic is displaying toxic behavior. 

8. Codependency

Codependency and the ensuing emotional labor might not always present themselves as toxic. But codependency in relationships can be a pervasive pattern that causes issues such as emotional exhaustion and increasing mental load. 

Codependency, or “relationship addiction,” happens when two people rely on each other exclusively for emotional, psychological, and even physical support. This alienates them from their other relationships and can stunt personal growth

9. Inability to resolve conflict

People that avoid conflict might think they are protecting the relationship from ruin. But in the end, it only results in long-winded passive aggression. 

As uncomfortable as it can be, embracing constructive conflict is a crucial element of all relationships. Without productive conflict, serious matters can never be resolved. This can lead to resentment and wasted energy.

10. Constant jealousy 

It is natural to feel jealous when your partner or friend is spending a lot of time with others. However, that is not an excuse to let it cloud your judgment.

jealous-boyfriend-arguing-with-partner-red-flags-in-a-relationship

Someone who is constantly jealous of your connection with others cares more about what they want than your happiness. 

11. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a common tactic of manipulation. It is an insidious form of emotional abuse in which the manipulator will make you question your own sanity or judgments. 

Victims of gaslighting are made to feel guilty regardless of whether or not they did anything wrong. Gaslighting is a clear red flag in any relationship. 

12. Lack of emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive and manage emotions. 

People with a low level of emotional intelligence are unable to pick up on your feelings or empathize with you. This often results in unnecessary conflicts or forms of manipulation. 

13. Negatively affecting your relationship with family and friends

For many of us, our family and friends provide an important sense of community. It’s a major red flag if someone in your life is negatively affecting your relationship with those you love. Healthy relationships should never come at the cost of other healthy relationships.

Yellow flags versus red flags

Yellow flags are similar to red flags, only slightly less severe. A red flag is a clear warning sign. In contrast, yellow flags indicate a problem area that needs to be addressed. 

There are bound to be imperfections and areas for improvement in any relationship. However, no relationship should cause more harm than good.

Yellow flags are signals that point towards patterns or behaviors that need to be shifted in order for the relationship to flourish. 

For example, a red flag might be when a partner forbids you from going to events without them. A yellow flag could be them becoming grumpy or angry when you do.

woman-talking-to-her-partner-red-flags-in-a-relationship

Yellow flags are not necessarily a reason to end a relationship. But they require mutual acknowledgment and input from both sides to resolve. 

Anything about a partner, friend, colleague, or family member that has the potential to cause friction over the course of your relationship is probably a yellow flag. 

If something about someone in your life directly threatens your health or well-being, it is probably a red flag. 

Not every relationship problem is detrimental. But many of them can pile up and create an avalanche if left unchecked for too long. Knowing the difference between these yellow and red flags can help you identify the right course of action. 

How to approach red flags in a relationship

Like with any delicate social situation, addressing red flags in a relationship requires: 

Taking care of yourself should be a top priority in life. If a relationship is coming between you and your happiness, something needs to change.

If you notice some red flags in your relationship, here’s how to approach them.

1. Acknowledge your own needs

You should never have to sacrifice your own needs for someone else’s. Yes, compromise is healthy. But it isn't worth it if it comes at the cost of your happiness and subjective well-being

Acknowledge your needs with a self-care plan. This can give you insight into what you really want out of life. And it can encourage you to speak up and be more direct about important relationship changes. 

2. Communicate

Communication is at the center of all healthy relationship dynamics. Without the freedom to express how you feel, very little progress can happen. 

Sometimes, a partner or friend is unaware of how their actions affect you. You need to communicate with them openly before any changes can happen. 

3. Avoid being overly emotional

There is nothing wrong with having or expressing feelings. But not using the right emotional regulation skills can cloud your judgment and trigger irrational responses. 

When tackling a difficult subject within your relationship, maintaining a calm mentality can help you reach a solution as effectively and kindly as possible. 

4. Seek professional help

There’s only so much effort you can put in before you need external support. 

Clinical psychologists and social workers are there to help people going through difficult stages and phases of life.

woman-talking-to-a-psychologist-red-flags-in-a-relationship

If you are dealing with an issue within your relationship and feel under-equipped to handle it, seeking professional help can make a tremendous difference. 

5. Be honest with yourself

Managing a series of red flags with your friend or partner is going to be much more challenging if you are not honest with yourself. 

Conflict resolution is easier if everyone involved is being open and honest about how they really feel. Be honest with yourself, and don’t shy away from the truth. 

6. Set boundaries

Setting boundaries is one of the most important parts of a healthy human connection, regardless of whether it is with a friend, colleague, family member, or significant other. 

We all need boundaries to protect ourselves and keep our relationships as sustainable as possible. You should clearly state your needs, boundaries, and deal-breakers with a loved one. 

For example, if your colleague is demanding, don't be afraid to put down your foot and ask for some personal space.

7. Reconnect with friends or family

Whether it is a friendship, a work relationship, or a romantic one, negative relationships can be isolating. The more isolated you are, the harder it is to have perspective on yourself or see alternatives.

Although a bad relationship can strain your other relationships, spending time with the people who have known you for a long time can help you reconnect with your core values. Seek out people whom you respect and trust, even if you've been out of touch for awhile. Let them know that you miss and value their friendship.

Spending time with others can help you feel accepted and supported and remind you of your strengths. 

8. Know when to leave

Not all relationships are meant to last. While this can be a difficult truth to accept, understanding the importance of leaving a destructive relationship is the ultimate act of self-care. 

You can’t reach your full potential if you are stuck in a relationship that drains your energy and prevents you from growing, doing your best, or finding joy. Have the courage to cut ties with toxic individuals and focus instead on repairing your relationship with yourself. 

This can be more difficult in work relationships. But it’s still possible to set healthy boundaries and even reach out to HR for help.

Red flags in a relationship need to be addressed

It doesn't matter if it's a romantic relationship or a new relationship with a colleague. Knowing how to identify red flags is important.

Toxic relationships can be a vacuum of energy and happiness. But there are ways for us to learn defenses against these unhealthy dynamics. 

Relationships can only thrive when everyone involved is being met with the same love and kindness that they are giving out. 

From the office to the playground, navigating healthy social dynamics is a fundamental part of the human experience. 

If you need help improving your self-awareness and building stronger, more satisfying, relationships with others, contact BetterUp. We’d love to help you build a foundation for healthy relationships and personal growth.

strengthen well-being - coaching for individuals
Published February 1, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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