Red Flag Alert: The Difference Between Self-Protection and Paranoia

common red flags in relationshipsWhenever I ask a friend about a new love interest, I usually hear something along the lines of “He or she is great.” Then I wait for the inevitable “But …” The rest can range from the worrisome “He’s cheated on his past five exes” or “She’s going back to rehab next week for an addiction to prescription drugs” to the less serious “He refuses to try yoga” or “She doesn’t eat organic.”

That’s followed by a sigh and the question: “Do you think that’s a red flag?”

Being able to spot a red flag is an important part of dating. It’s an act of self-preservation, an attempt to identify the risks of getting involved with someone before you put your heart on the line. You may have berated yourself after your last breakup for not recognizing a red flag that didn’t seem like a big deal in the beginning – but was most definitely a big deal in the end. “I’m going to be smarter this time,” you tell yourself. “I will never ignore a red flag again!”

The danger is that you can find a red flag about anyone, and over time you’ll get so good at spotting them that you can convince yourself never to fall in love with anyone. You’re not helping your chances of romance when you approach your dates with a mental tally of everything that could go wrong with them.

On the other hand, thinking about red flags helps you sort out which parts of a person’s personality work for you and which should send you running.

Here are some tips to make the most of red-flag hunting:

1) Know your red flags from deal-breakers

Red flags are reasons to be worried because you’re not sure how they’ll play out in the future: Does that comment she made about her ex mean she’s not over him? Does his joke about credit card debt mean he’s financially unstable?

They’re different from deal-breakers, which reflect your core values. If you’re not sure about which category your concern belongs, your gut is a clue. If the issue, such as learning he doesn’t see kids regularly or that his wife left him a week ago, makes your stomach lurch or brow sweat, that’s an indication this person isn’t for you.

2) Realize you might not have all the information

If you’re undecided about the significance of a red flag, you owe it to yourself to probe a little more before you send the “Thanks, but we’re a not match” email. Not loving the fact that he went back to school at 45? Maybe he made a wise move to switch careers after he realized that owning a record store wasn’t a profitable business. Wish she didn’t live with her mom? Maybe she’s helping her mom through cancer treatment. The point is that we don’t know everything that’s going on in people’s lives, especially what’s selectively revealed during the first few dates. Don’t judge a person until you know the bigger picture.

3) Distinguish dating rules from red flags

There are so many dating rules out there, but breaking them doesn’t always translate into a red flag. There are millions of people who talked about their exes on the first date or got too physical too soon. Only you know what feels right to you. The other potential red flags, such as treating you poorly or drinking too much, will reveal themselves over time.

Unfortunately, no matter how much you refine your red-flag radar, you still can’t protect yourself from getting hurt. We can make the best decisions possible with the information we have, but we still have to take the plunge into uncertainty. You may end up full of regrets. But then again, you might not.

Do you think about red flags and look for them when you are on dates?

About the Author:

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Slate and Salon.

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