red and white flags on brown wooden boat during daytime

The behavioral science behind why we ignore red flags

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Mar 25, 2024

Welcome to the reality of relationships, where seemingly perfect partners reveal their quirks and idiosyncrasies, leaving us to question whether we've stumbled upon a diamond in the rough or a disaster in epic proportions.

Have you ever found yourself swooning over someone, only to realize they're always late, obsessed with their phone, or have an aversion to basic hygiene? Eurgh. These quirky (or downright undesirable) behaviors, though sometimes irritating or humorous, can and often serve as early warning signs in relationships.

In this exploration of red flags, we'll sift through the different shades of red, separating harmless annoyances from genuine causes for concern. We’ll navigate the minefield of dating dilemmas, aiming to answer one burning question: when should we heed the warnings and when should we simply laugh them off as quirks of human nature?

Disclaimer: the red flags referred to in this article do not cover abuse and abusive relationships. If you suspect that you or a loved one is in danger, please contact the corresponding hotline for your country.  

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Early Warning Signs

So what is a red flag? Commonly, this is a metaphor used to describe any warning sign of a problematic behavior from a partner. Think of this as a reality check after the rose-colored glasses have worn off and you catch a glimpse of your partner’s true colors. And sure, flaws are normal—in fact, expected—but when should we start worrying about it?

Surprisingly, for many people, their partner’s problematic behaviors don’t immediately ring any warning bells. Possessiveness feels romantic when it can be interpreted as commitment. Jealousy looks cute when it also looks like desire. Whether or not you have love goggles on, it’s difficult to contextualize these traits as dysfunctional behavioral patterns when there seems to be rational, even prosocial, reasons for them in the first place.

When the Going Gets Tough

You probably have your own barometer of what defines a good relationship versus a bad one. This is your personal set of requirements and boundaries, both negotiable and nonnegotiable, that helps you navigate relationships with the ultimate goal of being happy. 

More importantly, you probably don’t seek out relationships with people who are problematic at first sight. The same is true for the other person in the relationship; neither of you was searching for a chaotic relationship to begin with. Once the going gets tough, it’s easy for both of you to interpret red flags as merely warning signs—or hopefully just false alarms. 

People are generally determined to stay in relationships because commitment is a fundamental part of all human relationships. This social norm can be lax or strict depending on who you are and where you’re from, but generally, people don’t create connections intending to break them so soon—this would seem self-contradictory otherwise.

So if red flags aren’t an immediate sign to run for the hills, what happens when you start playing the absurd game of capturing the (red) flag? It’s reasonable to work through problems because, after all, conflict resolution is a necessary skill in all relationships. 

However, navigating the complexities of red flags requires a delicate balance between optimism and pragmatism. While it's natural to want to overlook flaws in the name of love, it's equally essential to recognize when a red flag evolves from a minor quirk into a serious concern. After all, a relationship should be a source of joy and fulfillment, not a battlefield littered with warning signs.

When the Tough Gets Going

Early in the relationship, flaws might not be so apparent. Commonly, people are engaged in a peacock dance to acquire and maintain the attention and company of their partner. Initial expectations in relationship rituals can vary per context, but it’s generally expected to put your best foot forward—and that means hiding your flaws.

There’s even a name for this part of the relationship: the honeymoon phase. Everything looks and feels good: your friends tell you you’re glowing, and the experiences are new and exciting. You’re high off in cloud nine, but at some point, your feet will have to touch the ground. Flaws that were either hidden or ignored are now less likely to be overlooked.

Self-help articles always underscore the importance of communication in relationships, especially after the honeymoon phase ends. What do I need from you? What do you expect from me? But often we don’t ask that question directly—or, if we do, we might not always receive the right answer (or the one we were hoping for, anyways). The relationship has been good so far, and depending on our personal barometer, we either confront the issue or continue to ignore it. (Another option is that we do confront the issue, but we are not so skilled at doing so.)

This kind of relationship inertia can keep you from ending the relationship because maybe “it’s not that big of a deal,” or your partner hasn’t fully crossed your boundaries yet (but just has one foot over the line). You convince yourself that the status quo is still okay. Again, if your relationship barometer isn’t spinning out of control, then there’s no reason for you to leave the relationship. (Right?)

Misery Loves Company — But So Does Joy

So now you have to face reality. It’s not perfect, and that kinda sucks, but it’s real. More importantly, it’s manageable. You understand that for relationships to last, compromises have to be made. That does not necessarily mean changing your fundamental value system (granted, some people do), but it does mean that it will take time and effort for expectations to be met, regardless of which side they’re coming from.

It’s not that we don’t trust our own judgment in the face of red flags, it’s just that we’re sometimes wired to think of the most plausible answer without having to change too much about the current state of things. Denial is a convenient option, even if it’s not always the most sustainable one. And even if we do make the hard decision of leaving, we can still blame ourselves for not doing it sooner, or even entering the relationship in the first place. 

The uncertainty of the unknown can frighten us more than the obvious dissatisfaction of what is currently known. Even the thought of breaking things off can put us into heartbreak without having to make any decisions. Our attachment to the relationship, and not necessarily to the person, is also a whole matter to contend with.

Drawing the (Silver) Lines

The silver lining here is that not all red flags signal the impending doom of the relationship. But then again, relationships can result in ways we don’t expect them to. People and circumstances change, and relationships have to weather those changes. 

The flaws we find in our partners are not always indicative of their fundamental disposition, even if it can seem that way. Plus, it’s already a measure of relationship success when you can identify red flags in the first place. This means that you are emotionally aware enough to deal with signs of harm. Going through behavioral changes to address those red flags (whether on your part or your partner’s) is a significant undertaking in and of itself, regardless of its level of success.

But if one thing is for sure, it’s that the presence of red flags is often unavoidable. Two contradictory themes can be true at the same time: you can have good intentions and yet still irritate a loved one. 

Our personal relationship barometers ensure that there will always be things we do not consider “good” in relationships. While where we draw the line in the sand is negotiable, the need for that line is not.

About the Author

Jyn Moriles

Jyn Moriles

Jyn has a degree in communication and media studies whose interests are in development work using research and data analytics. Her previous roles include providing consumer behavior insights to FMCG clients using panel data for Kantar and promoting financial literacy through investor education for the Philippine Stock Exchange. Outside of her work, she enjoys all manner of storytelling.

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