Why You Shouldn’t Ignore the Red Flags Early On in Your Relationship

Spring is here and people are starting to think about romance. They’re looking to meet that special someone and fall in love. For those who’ve been through a number of failed relationships their hearts are filled with hope that this time, things will work out.

For anyone who has endured unsatisfying or frustrating interactions with a romantic partner, I can tell you that there’s one thing guaranteed to make you unhappy in your future relationships, and that’s ignoring the red flags you see at the start.

You can ask anyone who’s just been through a bad break-up what happened; you can question why they had to walk away from someone hurtful, or a commitment-phobe or a cheater, and it’s uncanny how many people will say the same thing. What they say is that the warning signs were there, right from the start, but they ignored them.

It’s a sad fact that far too many of us choose to see what we want to see as opposed to what’s actually in front of us. We don’t want to believe that the person we have a crush on could be hurtful, unable to commit, or unfaithful.

We want to think that the warning signs we’re seeing are flukes, aberrations, one-offs, and that the real person isn’t like this. We convince ourselves that the person is kind, committed and faithful even when they’re showing us, with their actions, that they’re not.

In psychology, seeing what we want to see as opposed to what’s actually there is called “magical thinking.” It’s like we fall under a spell that makes us see a whitewashed version of the other person; something that their in-the-world behavior contradicts. Of course, this can’t end well for us.

If we’re in denial of the other person’s coldness, selfishness, or insensitivity; if we refuse to acknowledge their obvious aversion to commitment; if we ignore their constant flirting or pretend that their frequent late nights at the office don’t mean anything, we’re going to get hurt. It’s that simple.

We can’t pretend to ourselves that the person we like, or love, is different from what they’re showing us. If any red flags pop up, we have to face them and deal with them, or bad things will happen.

As a psychotherapist, I’ve never once, in all my years of practice, heard a patient say that their partner’s bad behavior was a surprise to them. Every single person admitted to noticing one or two red flags, right at the start — most of these on the first or second date, in fact.

I’ve heard stories from my psychotherapy patients where the person across the table from them has said things early on like, “My ex hates my guts,” or “I don’t know why I’m in my 50’s and never got married,” or “I’m a flirt. You just have to accept that about me,” or even, “I’m probably going to hurt you; I seem to hurt everyone that I date.” And yet, my patients reported to me that they didn’t run for the hills.

Love is a complicated emotion. Attraction is just as confusing. These things make our brains go to mush and they compromise our decision-making process. For anyone contemplating a new relationship, it’s essential that they keep a clear head and acknowledge any warning signs that might come up early on.

We might want to believe that these red flags don’t mean anything but the truth is that early in every relationship, people show us exactly who they are, and it’s our choice whether to pay attention or not. What I want to reinforce is that we ignore these warning signs at our own peril.

We have more power and more choice in our relationships than we might think we have. We are equipped to recognize at an early stage the signs that the other person isn’t going to make us happy, and we’re able to act on what we see, preventing a whole lot of grief down the road.

Yes, we might be totally infatuated with this person. Maybe we find them irresistibly attractive, intriguing and charming. Maybe we’re desperate to believe that it can work between us. But we need to face the truth about this person now, when the stakes are at their lowest and before we’ve invested so much time, energy and love into a futile or damaging relationship.

It’s disappointing to walk away from a first or second date and realize that this person is an unsuitable match. Maybe it’s extremely disappointing. But, it’s going to be that much more disappointing to allow ourselves to get hurt in a relationship, yet again.

Instead of seeing the red flags as something to fear or avoid, we need to be grateful for this early warning system. It’s our best chance of protecting ourselves from yet another bad relationship.

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Writer, speaker, MD, and author of the Short & Sweet Guides to Life book series

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Marcia Sirota

Writer, speaker, MD, and author of the Short & Sweet Guides to Life book series