“It should have been a red flag that … ”
I hear that so many times from both women and men who are heartbroken, abused or otherwise disappointed that a relationship or marriage didn’t work out. In hindsight, the information was there all along — they just ignored it because there were other qualities that were green flags. Plus, they were lonely, vulnerable, bored, or otherwise really wanted a partner.
“When there is suspicion and things don’t feel quite right, red flags should be waiving and alarms should be deafening We generally have a gut feeling about people and situations,” says Deborah Krevalin, LPC, LMHC, a relationship expert in West Hartford, Conn.
So, why do we purposefully choose to ignore those feelings, suspicions and warnings? “The fantasy is just too good to let go of — the promise of love and all that comes with that is overpowering and completely seductive,” Krevalin says.
News alert: Those feelings always rear their head later.
“As a psychotherapist I have worked with countless couples struggling with a myriad of relationship issues. Undoubtedly, there were always red flags that presented themselves, surprisingly soon, after the first date,” Krevalin says. The question becomes was the partner blind to them or did they choose not to see it?
In this post, therapists and other experts weigh in on which red flags to ignore, what negative behavior is or should be forgiven, and how to navigate dating in a heathy way:
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What is a red flag in dating?
First, let’s define a red flag.
Tina B. Tessina, PhD, LMFT, of Long Beach, Calif., considers a red flag to be indications of serious mental and emotional well-being issues.
“Most relationships, at the beginning have possible issues, but not red
flag, says Tessina, author of How to be Happy Partners: Working it out Together, and Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today.
“To me, red flags are indications of serious problems, indications that a date might have emotional problems, addiction problems, anger issues, tendencies toward violence, severe money problems or other non-workable issues that will emerge as the relationship develops, and won’t go away.”
Others consider a red flag general dishonesty, signs of narcissism, or bad habits that are a no-go for you personally.
“Anything that you don’t feel neutral or better hearing about is a potential red flag!” says Laurel Steinberg, Ph.D., a clinical sexologist and relationship expert in New York City and Adjunct Professor of Psychology Teachers College, Columbia University.
Lakeesha shared this cautionary warning to trust your gut:
I met a guy on Match several years ago. Good looking. Lots of flashy pics of travel and a very high-end education. We texted a bit. He was very bright and engaged but his answers about his business accomplishments were grandiose and made me uneasy. That made me suspicious and I started looking closer and his pictures in his dating profile closer and a few little things stuck out there.
We had a date planning to meet for drinks and I was so uneasy. I didn’t have his full name bust his username, which was AJ. So I dropped his picture into Google images and found his full name on LinkedIn. I was able to search him using his full name and location and found recent news articles on his financial fraud. He was facing 20 years. That was the biggest lesson for me about really listening to the other person AND paying attention to how I felt. I trust myself implicitly and if anything seems off I allow myself the time to dig in until I’m satisfied.
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Some red flags in online dating apps include:
- No photo? Skip.
- No or few details? Red flag.
- Super-sexy pics, next.
- First, get a real phone number, or first and last name, and google him or her. Check out any stories or facts with what you find on LinkedIn, Facebook or news articles.
- If the other person won’t share any of details that would help you understand who they are, red flag.
- Do you see a person on a hookup app? That may be a red flag. But then again, YOU are on the hookup site, so ….
No, you are not crazy if you do quick background check before a date! And Google is your friend!
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First-date red flags
Here are some typical behaviors that can certainly set the tone for a bad start of a dating relationship — if not be a deal-breaker:
- Being late for the date without good reason or an apology
- Rudeness to waiters
- Being disrespectful of your boundaries — for example, not taking ‘no’ for an answer in any way
- Showing no interest in you, and only speaking about themselves
- “I fall in love too easily.”
- Drinking too much
- Extreme mixed signals
Says Tessina: “Understand that your date is on their best behavior early in the relationship, and the behavior will not get better, it will get worse. Don’t make excuses for the person just because they’re attractive, or saying what you long to hear.”
Here are some first date red flags identified by women in the Millionaire Single Moms Facebook group:
- Bringing up sex before we’ve even met in person, or early in the date.
- Talking very negatively about an ex and/or ex in-laws.
- Mentioning right away that an ex cheated.
- “I’ve never met anyone like you. You’re so amazing,” in the first hour of chatting.
- Persistent victim mentality.
- Has children but clearly isn’t very involved by his choice.
- Can’t hold his drink.
- Lack of passion for something in life.
- Someone who doesn’t ask questions in a conversation or share anything about themselves.
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How to deal with mixed signals
In a perfect world, each single person knows exactly what they are looking for in a dating partner, knows themselves intimately, are great communicators, emotionally evolved, kind and direct.
In reality, we are all messy humans, and I would wager that all of us send mixed signals. Most of them are benign and unconscious, and reflect that each of us struggles with some insecurity, tender hearts, wounds and fears.
When you are a tender-hearted dater, another person’s mixed signals, no matter how innocent, can feel devastating. A wonderful first date full of connection and affection, followed by tepid texts, can feel devastating. Perhaps that intimacy was also very real for the other person, which made it scary for their tender heart. The resulting distance is a way for them to protect themselves — but is also deeply hurtful and confusing to you.
And so dating goes.
That said, do be mindful of extreme mixed signals. These can include:
- Love bombing, or extreme signs of affection and attention that are inappropriate for the newness of the relationship. Be prepared for this kind of intensity to be followed by distance, apathy or ghosting.
- The other person declares they are only interested in committed monogamy with you, but you find them on a dating app, Adult Friend Finder or otherwise actively on the prowl. This crosses a line into dishonesty and cheating.
- Generally saying what you want to hear, without real actions to support the words. They say they love kids, but don’t show interest in getting to know yours. They say they love all the hobbies you love, but don’t really.
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What to look out for in dating red flags
- Any kind of addictive behavior — signs of drinking too much or drugs, gambling, or money problems
- Inability to hold a job or manage money
- History of cheating on multiple partners
- Excessive anger at an ex — may be signs of an abusive personality or simply not being ready to date after a breakup
- Jealousy — of other men or women, your friends and family, or your own alone time
- Constant criticism or negativity
- Hints of criminal behavior [do a quick background check first]
- Hostile sarcasm
- Anger and hostility towards his or her family or friends
Sexual chemistry is a deal-breaker in relationships, according to Fran Walfish, PhD, a Beverly Hills, Calif., family and relationship psychotherapist, and author of The Self-Aware Parent.
“The one deal-breaker that cannot and should not be looked past is sexual chemistry,” Walfish says. “Most couples who move forward to a deeply committed relationship have their highest levels of physical attraction during the first three months of meeting, though it is not unusual for some people to develop chemistry during their courtship. If after the first 3-6 months of dating, good communication, and expression of verbal and physical affection there is no spark, the likelihood is that these two people do not, and will not, have sexual chemistry. It is a deal-breaker.”
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Red flags of a narcissist man or woman
“When you date a narcissist you are a spectator at his date with himself,” says Laurel Steinberg. “Some red flags include non-stop talking about himself without showing interest in learning about you, and him possibly telling story after story about how everyone else he’s known is stupid or a bad person.”
Other signs of narcissistic red flags in a relationship include, according to divorce lawyer Rebecca Zung, who has a course on how to divorce a narcissist:
- Love-bombing with excessive gifts and adoration very early in the relationship
- Having no or few friends
- Gaslighting — which can include making the other person (you) feel crazy for bringing up issues
- Empty promises
- False flattery
- Conversation hogs, talking about all of their achievements, etc.
- They don’t have any/many longterm friends
- They think they are right about everything
- Always blame everything on the other person when the relationship ends
- They panic and lash out if you try to break up with them
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Red flags in dating a divorced man or woman
Dating someone going through a divorce or messy breakup can be a red flag in and of itself — but not always. In some places like New York, where I live, divorces take a very long time, and lots of people date while they are still technically married, but emotionally moved on from their marriage. Here are some red flags when you are starting a relationship with someone recently out of one:
- Actually in the middle of a very messy divorce. Divorce, no matter how happy every one is to be ending the marriage, is emotionally, mentally and financially exhausting — and all-consuming. They may be looking for a distraction, or desperate to partner up again — but still in the middle of it. Red flag — at least for now.
- Consumed with their children‘s well-being. Noble, and understandable, but not a lot of room for a serious relationship until the family gets settled in their new arrangement. If you are happy being a fling or casual relationship, this is fine. But otherwise, take a pass — at least for now.
- They are really still married, but lying about a divorce. The situation may be ambiguous — maybe they are legally separated, or maybe they just haven’t spoken in years and have an agreement to live together but have separate lives. Perhaps they are taking a break but working on it. Lots of variants, but bottom line: your date is not really, fully single and not being 100% honest with you. Red flag.
- Refuse to introduce you to their kids — or insist on waiting a crazy-long time like 1 year or more.
- Perhaps your man or woman is totally divorced, the kids are settled, and they are single! But … this is their first dating relationship in decades. They have (understandably) trust issues. They feel unsure and insecure. All 100% human and normal. Also, may not align with where you are right now. Or maybe it does. But be aware.
If you’re interested in dating again, check out our ranking of the best dating apps and sites for single parents.
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Read our eharmony review.
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Do all relationships have red flags?
Laura Louis, PhD, owner of Atlanta Couple Therapy, says that within a relationship there is a difference between deal-breaking red flags and issues that need addressing.
“I don’t think that all relationships have red flags. But all relationships do have problems,” Lois says. “The difference is that conflict can be resolved while blatant red flags just harm you.”
Fran Walfish said that some red flags can be overcome when the couple otherwise has a strong relationship. For example, Walfish counts a lack of ambition as a deal-breaker.
However: “I have seen high-achieving professional women turn their heads when they meet a man who has all of their other fantasy qualities, but lacks ambition,” she says. “I have observed several of these couples over time establish, nurture, and create very happy, successful relationships in which the female partner becomes the primary breadwinner and the male partner brings in a significantly smaller figure income but shores up the difference by picking up extra load in homemaking, care-giving the child(ren), cooking, and other household duties. Each couple must find and create their own happy balance. The common denominating requirement is healthy open, honest, straight-talking communication.”
Ultimately, every date and person is loaded with reasons that someone will not want to date you — and vice a versa — and not all those reasons mean anyone is broken or unlovable. Every one of us has our triggers, our own list of things that are not permissible, or simply a good fit. Stephanie, a mom from the Millionaire Single Moms Facebook group, says for her, red flags include “someone who doesn’t share my values — political and otherwise.”
Other overall red-flags include:
Elisa: “The biggest one for me is ambition to life a happy life. I don’t need a man to make a lot of money or live a certain way … but if HE is not happy with his current situation, he can’t be just settling and complaining without a plan … he needs to at least be working towards changing the situation that makes him unhappy.”
Cameron: “I learned I struggle to relate to men who aren’t dads. And I prefer to date someone with a college degree and career going for him. Also that if a guy isn’t even remotely interested in travel, that’s a turn-off for me, and he’s just probably not a good fit because I want a guy who will travel with me.”
Emily: “A red flag for me is someone with whom I feel insecure. I dated over 150 men since my separation nine years ago, and that’s the one consistency I noticed. If I felt any sense of insecurity, there was always a reason behind it.”
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Relationship red-flag checklist
To understand your own values and what matters to you, Kirby Davis, LMHP, who is based in Nebraska, suggests this red-flag checklist. The more negative responses you get from your date or partner, well … you know the answer!
- How do they respond while they wait?
- How do they respond when their meal is wrong?
- How do they treat others that provide them a service (e.g., servers, clerks, maintenance workers)?
- How do they interact with and speak about their
- How do they treat their pet or your pet?
- How do they respond when they are told ‘no’?
However, Katherine Winny, Licensed Professional Counselor and relationship coach, says that you should look inward to monitor your own internal red-flag checklist.
“How you feel internally is one of the most important indicators you are dating someone with potential,” Winny says. “You should feel calm, able to be yourself and comfortable expressing your needs and opinions. One of the biggest red flags is your own anxiety, often triggered by hot/cold behavior from your date, which is a clear sign they are not ready for a relationship or are of an avoidant attachment style.”
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How do you deal with red flags in a relationship?
“Once you see evidence that there might be a red flag, you don’t ignore it, you double down on it,” says Tessina. “Ask questions about their previous relationships, and how they ended. If the date blames everything on the other people, that’s an issue to be concerned about. Before you get too deep into the relationship, meet your date’s friends and family. You will find clues there about whether there is addiction, anger issues, hysteria, legal problems, money problems or other difficult issues, like children from a previous relationship and a bad connection with the ex.”
Solid, universal relationship advice from Laura Louis: “If you notice any red flags, attend to it, and state your feelings without attacking the other person. Use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements, which just make the other person defensive and less likely to listen.”
Remember, not every discomfort is a deal-breaker or an insurmountable red flag. Conflict can point to your insecurities, those of your partner, normal sums of fear or trepedation. In other words: Make room for humanity in your dating relationships.
What may feel like a red flag or deal-breaker may really be old trauma rearing its heads. Jill, from the Facebook group, says that her boyfriend’s healthy attachment at first turned her off — but helped her heal from a divorce.
“With my current relationship, I tended to see red flags when there weren’t any. They were actually signs of a healthy relationship. I didn’t realize it until I met my boyfriend, but my ex and I were very codependent,” Jill posted. “My ex always praised me and put me up on a pedestal, and also needed me to be with him all the time. When my boyfriend didn’t do those types of things or need the same things from me, I thought it was just because he wasn’t that into me. I’d worry that he would just find someone prettier or with a less complicated life. But my boyfriend just accepted that I love him and want to be with him, and that was all he needed. He just doesn’t need constant attention and assurance like my ex did, and like I used to.”
Krevalin said that within a relationship, struggles often point back to red flags early on — but can be overcome.
“Trust reigns supreme and it will always be the most important ingredient in successful, loving and meaningful relationships. Trust, or the lack of it — is the ultimate red flag, if we choose to see it. Does your partner put you first? Are they accountable? Are they Kind? Caring? Can you trust them? Here’s your barometer: Trust is knowing that your partner has your best interest at heart. This is something we can discern quite early on in a relationship— but only if we acknowledge red flags.”
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When to call it quits: deal breakers for women and men
Among the women and men and therapists experts, lying is definitely considered a deal-breaker and a red flag when dating, and an emotional affair is reason to call it quits when in a relationship. Jealousy is a red flag for women when dating, and extreme jealousy during a relationship is reason for a breakup — including one’s own jealousy. “I have to trust him,” Jess said.
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Signs of an abusive relationship
- Extreme highs and lows; if they are so into you and extremely passionate this is usually a sign (like “no one else could ever be as good as you, if you ever leave me I can’t live, so insanely in love”).
- Moods change quickly.
- Make or say threatening movements or words during an argument.
- Extremely jealous.
- Blame you for their terrible reactions.
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Reasons to break up but not red flags
- Bad hygiene: don’t shower enough, don’t clip fingernails and toenails.
- Communication is off.
- Sex sucks and/they won’t take gentle guidance to get better.
- Don’t stick up for you when needed.
- He lives with his mom — because he never moved out in the first place is a deal-breaker.
- Think you are bragging when discussing good things happening to you (an ex actually did that … he patted my back when I was talking about business. At first I was really confused then realized he felt like I was bragging when I just wanted to share accomplishments).
Dating deal-breakers from Tasha:
- What started out as a joke is now a question I ask all the time: “Were you ever arrested?” More guys than I thought were arrested for domestic violence. From, “I kinda slammed her against the wall and she called the cops on me,” to, “I punched the window with my fist because she didn’t want to open the door” .
- Another red flag is asking about my kids. A casual conversation is great, but pretending to be obsessed (or actually being obsessed) with meeting my kids is a deal-breaker. It seem guys follow this script for single moms, but it’s kinda creepy to be honest.
- I strongly dislike when men say they live in different states than their children, don’t get to see their children much, see their children when they can.
- I would never again be with someone who has seemingly burned all of their past relationships. I’m not saying they need to keep in touch with everyone they knew, but when there is an excuse that everyone is banned… the most common denominator is the true issue.
- Lying about the little stuff. There was no reason to lie, it was one of his hobbies though.
- If someone calls you crazy … nope.
- Needing action/exciting stuff all the time.
- I wouldn’t consider someone with debt, but I am picky about that.
- Just porn sex, bleh.
Need to work through some of your dating hangups before getting out there again? Online therapy is affordable, safe and very convenient. BetterHelp is our No. 1 recommendation for online counseling, though you can read reviews of all the major online therapy platforms.
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