A Psychologist Explains: How Do You Recognise Red Flags in a Relationship?

4 Sep ‘23
5 min
Lisanne van Marrewijk
Reviewed by psychologist Judith Klenter
vrouw is op een date met een red flag


Someone who lies, someone who is manipulative, someone who gives you the ‘silent treatment’ during a conflict are all examples of red flags in a relationship. 


The above may sound logical in black and white, but recognising these red flags in your own relationship or when you are dating someone is not always so easy. Especially if you viewing the relationship with rose-tinted glasses and may not see the obvious signs. 


In this guide, psychologist Judith Klenter explains how to recognise red flags in a relationship or while dating. In this article, we will explore:

• What are red flags?

• Which red flags should you not ignore?

• When do red flags occur?

• Why do you sometimes fail to see them yourself?

• How do you talk about them together?

• What about green and orange flags?

What Are Red Flags?


A red flag is a warning signal, says psychologist Judith Klenter. “A red flag is behaviour that indicates that a (potential) partner does not suit you. That behaviour can be a number of things, such as someone who constantly talks about an ex-partner on the first date.” Are these red flags the same for everyone? Yes and no, Judith believes. “There are red flags that are, or should be, fairly universal. Think violent behaviour, being overly jealous or controlling and any behaviour that has a tendency for abuse or manipulation.”


At the same time, something that is a red flag for one person may not be a problem for another. “In a monogamous relationship, it’s a red flag if your partner is on a dating app, but in a polyamorous relationship, you may have agreed to this.”


💡 Also interesting: How to Get Your Relationship Needs Met


Which Red Flags Do You Definitely Not Want to Ignore?


Recognising red flags encourages you to take a step back, investigate these behaviours and consider how they impact you. Judith: “If your partner or date’s behaviour is questionable to you, you can ask yourself whether you see a danger of escalation in this. Once you identify a red flag, you can assess how this behaviour is impacting you, its impact and consequences, and how you want to proceed.”


Red flags you want to watch out for in a relationship or while dating:


• Being dishonest 

• Not keeping their word

• Not having empathy

• Any kind of abuse and violence (emotional, physical, or sexual)

• Does not respect your time (e.g. always cancels last minute)

• Tries to isolate you from your friends and family 

• Does not respect your boundaries (e.g. keeps convincing you to agree with what they want)

• Over-controlling behaviour

• Inability to resolve conflicts together

• Tries to manipulate you (gaslighting)

• Constant jealousy/lack of trust 


And What About Green Flags?


Conversely, there are also green flags: signs that a relationship is safe, healthy and positive for your mental well-being. TherapistAid made and list of signals that indicate a relationship is healthy: 


• Being able to be yourself

• Respecting each other’s boundaries

• Space for each individual’s goals and interests, separate from each other

• Mutual physical and emotional connection

• Words and actions match

• Taking responsibility for individual actions

• Understanding towards each other’s perspectives (even if you disagree)

• Respecting each other’s wants and needs

• Being able to openly discuss goals, values, and needs

• Commitment to the relationship, in both time and energy

• Respecting each other (and being able to express this to each other)

• Balance (you get energy from spending time together and apart)


💡 Also interesting: A Psychologist’s Guide to Having Better Relationships


What About Orange Flags?


And of course, not everything is always black and white. Or green-red, in this case. There are also orange flags, or intermediate cases. Judith says: “With orange flags, it’s important to keep an eye on whether they become red flags or not.” Think of a partner who is very clingy at first. “Maybe it’s just infatuation and that person wants to spend a lot of time with you, but if this turns into isolation from others or if they make you feel guilty about spending time with others, it’s a red flag.”


When or How Do Red Flags Arise?


A red flag can arise at any point in a relationship. Some are there from the beginning and you might not have realised before, but they can also arise later. Judith: “Relationships are constantly changing, because people are constantly changing. In relationships that end in abuse, it is often the case that this only happens at a later stage in the relationship and not during the so-called honeymoon phase.” This is exactly why it is extremely challenging for people who experience abuse in their relationship to talk about it. Those around them know the other person as a fun and sociable person. Just as the relationship was once a fun one. 


“Chances are that the person being abused thinks: it’s probably a phase, it will get better soon,” Judith explains. And so weeks, months, or sometimes years can pass before someone asks for support or help. And unfortunately, sometimes an abused person never asks for help. 


Why Don’t We Always See Red Flags?


Seeing and recognising a red flag is important, yet it is not always obvious. For example, you may have accepted a red flag and waved it away with ‘that’s just the way the person is’. In addition, the first months of falling in love can blind you. “It is quite normal to idealise or romanticise someone in your mind in the first months,” Judith explains. “You mainly see the positive traits and pay less attention to the (potential) red flags at this stage.”


Another red flag to look out for is when someone showers you with non-stop gifts, compliments, and affection, so they can control the relationship and manipulate you to stay – even if their behaviour turns manipulative or even abusive. This is also known as love-bombing. If you are finding it hard to recognise (or admit) that there are red flags in your relationship, remember that this is normal. After all, you are with your partner for a reason. You love the person. It is perfectly normal not to perceive every negative trait as a problem. 


“But if you notice a negative trait, it is good to reflect whether or not this is a red flag. Check whether this behaviour has happened more often without you noticing it. Discuss it with your friends or someone you trust to gain some more clarity on the situation.” Sometimes someone a little further away from the relationship sees what is going on clearer. 


How Do You Talk About it Together?


How and whether you talk about a red flag depends on how heavily it is weighing you down. Keep in mind that everyone has different boundaries and needs, and some red flags may be orange for someone else. Judith recommends: “If you feel that something is not right and you want to discuss this, bring it to the table from your own point of view. For example, don’t use extreme terms, such as toxic or the word red flag itself. Instead, share how you feel. How does the other person’s behaviour affect you?” An example: “If you don’t communicate with me all day after an argument, it makes me very insecure and I start to worry a lot. Can we talk about how to handle conflicts in the future?”


Remember that your safety, happiness, and health always come first, even in a relationship. Be honest with yourself and seek help where necessary. OpenUp’s psychologists can also support you through your relationship if you feel the need.

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