How to Recognize and Address Relationship Red Flags

Crystal Jackson

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After a relationship ends, we either see all the red flags we missed or ignored along the way--or claim not to have seen any at all, in which case we’re usually still fully in denial. Sometimes, denial is a coping skill. It’s the state we stay in when we’re not ready to handle the truth.

But the truth is still out there.

Perhaps we just don’t yet have enough coping skills to face the thing we already know in our hearts.

The truth is that the first red flag is almost always the same for everyone. It’s so normalized that we don’t even realize we’re doing it most of the time.

The first red flag is making excuses for our partner.

Think back on any failed relationship. It’s easy to see the patterns once we’re out of the relationship, assuming we’re not busy writing a revisionist’s history. If we take an objective look, we can see that despite whatever other red flags were present, the first significant red flag usually happens when we notice a problem behavior and then make an excuse.

He’s a smoker, but he said he’s going to quit.

She checks my texts and emails, but it’s okay because I don’t have anything to hide.

It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. The very fact that we have to make an excuse for our significant other is a red flag that we are recognizing a problem behavior and trying to find a way to rationalize the relationship. It’s saying we’re fine when we know we’re not and trying to make others buy into the story we’re selling ourselves.

He doesn’t make time for me, but he works long hours.

She puts her phone facedown after messages come in, but she just values her privacy.

I’m not judging the makers of excuses because I’ve been one of them. Every behavior that made me uncomfortable required an invented excuse to help me feel better about it and to ease the discomfort of friends and family who might have noticed. The ex who would abruptly stand and leave dinners, wandering off in people’s houses, was just introverted- not rude and inconsiderate. The ex who was clearly getting high on pain medication had a medical condition that made it necessary. The ex who spent all his available time with his female best friend was just being a good friend, not cheating at all.

I could make excuses for nearly any behavior. I was loyal to a fault, and that meant I navigated relationship red flags like the obstacle courses I’m so fond of running. I would see them, and then I would begin inventing reasons that sounded rational so that I could avoid facing the truth.

There is a right way and a wrong way to handle red flags.

The wrong way to handle red flags is to make excuses.

To deny them. To ignore them. To pretend like we’re not seeing what’s there. To try to get our family and friends to deny, ignore, and pretend with us. To defend our partners when someone points out the thing we’re clearly trying to avoid seeing.

The right way to handle red flags is to confront them.

We’re clearly uncomfortable with the behavior, and in a healthy relationship, we would say that. We would speak up and call it out, not pretend it away or invent a reason for it.

We all have our reasons; that doesn’t excuse problem behaviors.

Maybe our partners genuinely aren’t aware of the negative impact of their behaviors. Maybe there’s something they can do to work on it. Maybe they’re willing to attend individual counseling or go to couples’ therapy to address the problem. Or maybe we’re making an assumption when there’s something else going on entirely. We won’t know if we don’t ask.

There’s a reason we’re not confronting the red flag behaviors.

That reason is that we are afraid we’re going to get an answer we don't like. That very fear often means that we know already the answer we’re going to get. We know already that this relationship isn’t the right one for us. Because of our attachment to the person and/or to the relationship, we choose the ignorance-is-bliss approach so that we don’t have to grieve the relationship, be alone, and start over in another relationship that could end the same.

We’d rather stay uncomfortable and in the wrong relationship than take the risk of being alone to make ourselves available for the right one. So we pull out all the handy excuses we’ve used over the years, and now we pretend not to see the skeptical looks of friends and family as they watch us engage in patterns they know all too well. They shake their heads as we make another bad relationship decision because we love our excuses more than ourselves.

If we loved ourselves more, we wouldn’t rely so heavily on excuses in our relationships.

This might sound like bullshit, but it’s true. When we love ourselves and know our worth, we don’t want to ignore red flag behaviors. We realize that it’s not our job to make excuses for our partners. We even accept that we shouldn’t have to make excuses for the people we’re dating.

There shouldn’t be behaviors happening that are bad enough that we have to excuse them.

We recognize that we are wonderful people with so much love to give to the right person, and we no longer have the tolerance for sticking around with the wrong person hoping that we’re wrong or that they’ll change. We know that our time is far too valuable to throw away on someone who requires all those excuses for us to feel comfortable in the relationship.

There’s a big difference between recognizing flaws and making excuses for red flag behaviors.

We all have flaws. We all have our imperfections. Noticing that our partner snores or that they can’t use their, there, or they’re properly to save their lives is different entirely from recognizing that they aren’t honest, kind, or trustworthy. Not being able to spell or having little patience isn’t the same as being bigoted or gaslighting us.

Any partner we have will have flaws, but the problem comes in when we start making excuses for behaviors that they are fully capable of changing. Part of the problem is thinking that people will change because we want them to, or hoping they will change because they love us so much. We want to see their potential while ignoring the reality of the situation.

The truth is that people don’t change just because they love us or because they have the potential to do so. Even if we call out the red flags, it doesn’t mean their behavior will alter on a permanent basis, although it’s still the right way to handle noticing red flags. We all need internal motivation for change.

If we’re with our partners because we love them for who they could be, we’re doing them and ourselves a great disservice.

We all deserve to be loved for exactly who we are.

We all deserve to be in the right relationships, not the almost-right ones. As long as we’re staying and making excuses, we’re preventing ourselves and our partners from being free to find the right relationships.

It’s a painful truth in the face of attachment. We don’t want to let go. It’s easier to make excuses and hold on. But it’s also a sign of a red flag that’s probably going to end the relationship and hurt us more later. We can keep denying it, but the truth isn’t going to go away. It’s not going to change just because we refuse to look at it head-on and do something about it.

The first red flag is an opportunity.

After my last spectacular fail of a relationship, I made a lot of promises to myself. I would love myself deeply. I would not give up myself for the love of any man. I would be uncompromising with my standards. I would find joy in being alone rather than chasing down a relationship. I would allow a relationship to happen organically and focus on myself, my children, and my goals.

I also decided that I was done with excuses. I held myself accountable. I asked my friends to hold me accountable. I asked them to be honest because some of them hadn’t been so honest when they recognized the red flags in my last relationship before I did.

When we recognize that the first red flag is making excuses, we can use this as an opportunity to be accountable and to hold our partners accountable. The first time we are tempted to make an excuse, we can examine the behaviors requiring it. We can be honest about what’s happening without adding in explanations or making assumptions. We can embrace the opportunity to change the way we’re dating.

If we can see those red flags early, in the form of the excuses we make, we can save ourselves time and heartache by moving on. We don’t have to forge ahead for a pretty face or because we like the idea of the relationship. We can choose not to settle for anything less than what’s right for us.

We will know when we find the right person.

We will know it in our bones, and that knowledge will settle in our hearts in a way that it never has before. We will trust that feeling, and we will know that this is the right relationship for us. That doesn’t mean that it will be without flaws or challenges, but the red flags we have been busy hurdling will be noticeably absent.

We won’t have to make excuses anymore. The right relationship doesn’t require them. If we figure this out, we’ll stop making excuses for partners who aren’t right for us to begin with and find the courage to start again.

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Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned writer. She is the author of the Heart of Madison series and a volume of poetry entitled My Words Are Whiskey. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Good Men Project, and Elephant Journal. When she's not writing, you can find her traveling, paddle boarding, cycling, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with one puppy and two wild and wonderful children. Crystal writes about relationships, mental health, parenting, social justice, and more. Never miss an update. Subscribe to emails: https://crystaljacksonwriter.substack.com/

Madison, GA
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