Relationship Red Flags

Posted on June 6, 2013


I will let someone else do the heavy lifting this week and I will make some comments.  I thought this was an interesting article on Relationship Ending Red Flags by Chelsea Kaplan:

This article is directed mainly to dating couples.  Usually by the time they get to me they are working through marital issues or sometimes seeking premarital counseling.  For most distressed married couples, the negative cycles that cause the emotional disconnection and distress developed over time.  As part of understanding the issue it is helpful to go back to when things were good and what initially drew them together.  Occasionally, a couple will report that the relationship had always been distressed and the issues they are dealing with now are the same ones that were there when they were first dating.  It changes therapy from a process of finding emotional safety and secure connection again to a process of trying to establish emotional safety and closeness for the first time.  I would agree that it is a good thing to pay attention to some of these “red flags” earlier in the relationship rather than after a marriage is in distress.  Whether you choose to stay in the relationship or not, it is better to not bury one’s head in the sand.

Let’s look at Kaplan’s red flags.

  1.  “…differing views on family.”  This is certainly an issue that would be better discussed and worked to some resolution before marriage rather than after.  At the same time, I would not view this as necessarily a deal breaker in many cases.  If it is a deal breaker for you, it is better to work it out beforehand rather than leave it unresolved or try a “bait and switch” where the rules change later in the relationship.
  2. “partner has a history of being unfaithful.”  This is something at which you both should take a hard look.  Affairs don’t usually happen in a vacuum.  There are a variety of beliefs and attachment issues that lead up to affairs.  Not everyone who has an affair is a sex addict or love addict, but it is worth examining.  For a quick assessment, go to and take the Sexual Addiction Screening Test (SAST).  It takes about five minutes and can give a view to sexually compulsion behavior.  Additionally, it is pretty easy for an affair partner to capture one’s heart.  When you meet someone who thinks you are great, and you don’t have to argue about bills, kids, and who is doing the dishes, of course that relationship seems better than the one you have.  Whether it is you or your partner with the history of affairs, it is a good idea to understand how the affair developed (e.g. what needs were being met) to avoid similar situations in the future.
  3. “Your partner’s been caught engaging in risky behavior.”  This goes hand in hand with #2 and in some ways is more alarming.  These behaviors likely point to some deeper wounding and some tendencies toward addiction.  Healing the underlying wounds generally requires therapy.   If you are the partner who is exhibiting these behaviors, getting help sooner rather than later would be a good choice.  If you don’t you may regret it later.  It is usually a crisis that drives someone to seek therapy for their risky behavior.  Do yourself a favor and find some help before the crisis.  If it is your partner exhibiting these behaviors, your love won’t change him or her.  You cannot fix your partner.  It speaks volumes of your partner’s willingness to change if he or she will go to therapy.  If not, that too speaks volumes.
  4. “Your partner is unable to handle conflict or stress in healthy ways.”  There are a number of factors that can come into play here.  Some of this involves skills that can be learned.  Gottman identified negative patterns of interaction among couples which were so damaging to the relationship that he labeled them “the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse.”  These are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (see my post on the 4 horsemen).  If the horsemen are coming out when you have an argument, it is harmful.  Some couples can learn to control these just by becoming aware of these patterns.  Others require therapy.  If conflict escalates to abuse, this can be potentially dangerous (even deadly).  The signs should not be ignored.
  5. “Your family and/or friends really dislike your partner.”  Ah, the star-crossed lovers thing.  It can really drive people together early on, but rip them apart later.  There are a couple of issues here.  First, if your partner does not fit into the rest of your life, it is difficult to create a functional life together without abandoning your own support system.  Second, there may be a real reason why the people closest to you are concerned.  Those who are not in the grip of infatuation may be seeing things more clearly.  You might do well to hear them out.

If you have a pattern of ignoring red flags early in relationship, it is a gateway to a codependent relationship.  Can the relationship be saved?  That depends if you are both willing to do the work to grow and make the changes.  It will probably require therapy.  Is it worth saving?  That is a question you need to answer for yourself.  My supposition would be that at the beginning of a relationship it is easier to say “there are other fish in the sea” than later when your lives are thoroughly intertwined (possibly including children).