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Breakups are never exactly ~fun~. But even worse than a regular breakup? One that you never saw coming.
Feeling totally blindsided by a split is actually common, though, says Terri Orbuch, PhD, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great—especially if you were in that all-consuming phase of the relationship where you can't pay attention to, oh, anything besides how head over heels you feel.
Of course, all blindsided fiascoes are not created equal. And experts stress that what may be a red flag for one person—say, a lack of desire to talk about politics—may be a breath of fresh air for someone else. But there are "absolute" red flags that shouldn’t be ignored, says Callisto Adams, PhD, founder of HeTexted.com, and a dating and relationship expert and coach. She says being cautious (not paranoid), and trusting your gut feeling and instincts is key to spotting a red flag. "It saves you time, tears, and experiences that won’t feel good when you look back at them," she adds.
While cluing into red flags might not change a breakup being in your future, it can prevent that deer-in-headlights feeling of being surprised in the worst possible way.
Ahead, discover the signs experts say most commonly indicate you're heading for some rough waters—and exactly how to address them. Hopefully, you can save yourself some heartache and focus on the things that bring you joy.
What is a relationship red flag?
Again, relationship red flags vary, but a blanket understanding of what they are can be helpful so you can notice them when they crop up in your relationship or situationship (it’s a thing). “Red flags represent the early warnings of unhealthy traits that could potentially be damaging to the person or people involved in the relationship,” says Adams. “They’re tiny signals that make that inner voice say, ‘there’s definitely something off.’”
In addition to relationship red flags, dating and relationship experts also point to the concept of relationship yellow flags. “A yellow flag is more of a warning sign that an issue may develop from a difference, difficulty, or area of struggle," says Adams.
For example, early on in a relationship, a yellow flag might be that someone you're dating isn't available to spend enough time with you, says Rebekah Montgomery, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships. This could be more circumstantial (maybe something's going on at work) or turn into a longer-term issue (it signals that they can't make you or the relationship or priority across work and other contexts).
Another yellow flag is someone who doesn't share their feelings early on in your relationship. In some instances, they may simply be someone who takes time to open up to others, versus being someone who, months into the relationship, is still unable or unwilling to share how they feel about you. “Identifying yellow flags is important!" she says. "This way, you don't feel blindsided if things don't work out. But you also don't have to feel as though every area of difficulty means you should end it with someone."
Bottom line: If you think you’re encountering a relationship red flag or yellow flag, bring it up ASAP and nip it in the bud. Or, if you identify it as a deal-breaker, get the heck out of the relationship.
How to address relationship red flags.
The best way to address flags in a relationship is to express your worries and ask the other partner how they feel about the situation, says Montgomery. “For example, ‘I feel worried that we don't spend enough time together. Do you feel like we get enough time together?’ Or ‘I'm worried we haven't had sex in a while. I know there can be lots of reasons for it, but I like feeling connected to you in that way. How do you feel about our sexual connection?’”
If you know the red flags are enough for you to want to GTFO of the relationship, it's time for merits a mature, responsible breakup talk. “Let them know you don’t see you two being a healthy fit for each other anymore, and that you respect and appreciate the time you two shared together.”
One caveat: If the red flags you spot make you feel as if your safety is in danger, you can skip the talking and just end things.
1. There are sustained difficulties in your sexual relationship...
...And you’re not talking about it. At all. Or, if you are, it’s just in passing as a joke and not getting the actual attention the lack of time you’re spending between the sheets deserves. “There will always be ebbs and flows with sexual connection, but if you can't talk about it, and it becomes chronic, it can really harm the relationship,” says Montgomery.
As she emphasizes, all relationships have difficult periods. But the critical piece is: Can you openly discuss it? “Does the other person care about your perspective, share their feelings, and want to address your concerns?” she adds.
2. You’re witnessing toxic behavior.
“The word ‘toxic’ has been used a lot, so much, that it is almost just normal to label even the simplest things as ‘toxic,” says Adams. But if your partner is exhibiting true toxic behavior such as manipulating, gaslighting, dishonesty, and lying, it will end up draining the hell out of you. Feeling fear towards (or because of) the partner is another red flag that indicates toxicity in a relationship, she adds.
If you ever feel afraid to discuss issues with your partner, fear for your safely in their presence, or are worried that they’ll accuse you of something, it’s time to move on, and potentially seek professional support. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available at 800.799.SAFE (7233).
3. You stop doing the little 'just because' gestures that show your partner you love them.
It doesn't take a relationship expert to figure out that saying "I love you" regularly and then stopping out of nowhere is a warning sign. But if you used to bring your S.O. something from your coffee run just because—and now you don't—that can be just as worrisome, says Orbuch.
The same goes for if your partner used to be in the habit of texting you cute throwback photos of the two of you on the regular but hasn't done that in a while.
That's because couples express love and affection with their actions just as much as they do by saying the "L" word, explains Orbuch. So if showing your partner you love them isn't as top of mind for you lately, you might need to do some soul searching and think about why.
4. You don’t tell them about that awesome thing that just happened at work.
Sure, it might not seem like a big deal if you don’t immediately think to tell your partner when your boss gives you extra kudos. But if you notice that tendency to confide in other people first—and maybe even skip your S.O. altogether—becomes a pattern, it could be a warning that you don’t feel supported in your relationship, says Orbuch.
It’s a similarly bad sign if you find out that your partner isn’t running to fill you in on what’s going on in his or her life.
“One of the ways partners bond and become close with each other is to share personal, often confidential, information with each other,” says Orbuch. So if you’re not doing that, well...
5. You don't want to introduce each other to your inner circles.
There's a reason that first meeting with your parents is such a big deal: It helps give your partner a sense of your past and a deeper connection to your life, says Orbuch. While no one expects you to go on a double date with your brother on the second date, if you find yourself preventing run-ins between your close friends and your S.O., that's a problem.
And if the situation is flipped and your partner won't introduce you to anyone in their life, it could be a sign that heartbreak is on the horizon.
6. One of you switches from saying 'we' to 'I.'
As much as you might roll your eyes when your friend starts dating someone new and turns into a “we” person, there’s a perfectly good reason this happens, says Orbuch—it’s a sign you see your lives as intertwined and that you consider yourselves on the same team.
If you or your partner have crossed that relationship milestone of using the “w” word—but then you notice that stops—it’s an indication that the person with the change of lingo may be having a change of heart, as well.
7. They're tight-lipped about past relationships.
“One of the ways partners bond and become close with each other is to share personal, often confidential, information,” Orbuch says. So, if you ask your partner about his ex or something similarly personal—say, what they envision for your joint future—and they brush off your questions, it could be because they don’t see your relationship as being that serious.
Granted, that's not necessarily a reflection on you—they just might not be ready for a relationship. But if you are, it’s better that you catch on ASAP.
A ton of people lie to their partners about their past sexual relationships:
8. You don’t consult each other before making big decisions.
When someone sees their relationship as serious, they might consult their partner before making major moves in life, says Orbuch. It’s not about approval, but a sign that they want to make choices together—and that they see a shared future with you.
If you keep something like the fact that you’re looking for a new job from your partner, on the other hand, it could mean they’re not a priority for you.
9. They have a lot of solo plans.
In healthy relationships, couples don’t do everything together. But if your partner is headed to a party and they don’t even give you a heads-up and normally would, there could be something going on, says Jane Greer, PhD, a New York-based marriage and relationship therapist and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. At best, failing to include you was an oversight. But it could be another indication that they don't feel comfortable letting you spend time with their friends or family.
And if the tables are turned and you find yourself enjoying time spent away from your partner more than you do with them, that's a pretty good clue that it's time to cut them loose.
10. You stop seeing their quirks as charming.
If minor habits you used to be indifferent to—or even found endearing—start annoying you, Greer says this means you’re losing patience with the relationship. You might say you've got the ick.
Accepting your partner (loud phone voice and all), is key to a healthy relationship. So if you find yourself losing your temper over little things, you might want to consider whether the dirty dishes are the actual reason you’re angry—or if it’s because you don’t want to be with your partner anymore.
11. They’re suddenly showering you with gifts and attention.
“A partner who is suddenly much more attentive and complimentary or who starts buying you gifts for no reason may be feeling guilty about something,” Greer says.
Coming home to prepared dinners when that isn’t the norm could be a clue they feel guilty about something—and so they're overcompensating by fawning over you. Granted, a nice gesture in isolation is nothing to freak out over. But if it coincides with other warning signs, that's when it really might mean something's up, says Greer.
12. They start putting you down.
This one may seem obvious, but it's worth saying—mostly because you definitely deserve better than a partner who's emotionally immature enough to create distance by criticizing you.
“The goal here is to make you feel bad and get you to back off so they don't have to break things off themselves," Greer explains. The tactic is designed to make you feel so bad about yourself and the relationship that you’ll call it quits and do the hard work for them. Our advice? Lose the low-life—and any guilty feelings you might have about dumping them.
13. There’s a change in how your partner spends money.
If your S.O. starts splurging at the mall and that's totally out of character for them, they might be dealing with some emotions or stressors they’re not telling you about. Even if it's unrelated to you and your relationship—like the loss of a job or a bad investment—not sharing the reason behind their impromptu shopping sprees could mean that your partner doesn't feel comfortable telling you the truth. Not a great sign.
Similarly, if your partner is suddenly stingy or strict about how you (or they) spend money, Greer says, it's another tip-off of insecurity in the relationship.
14. You switch up your style.
Have you started adopting your partner’s style of dress or found yourself doing your hair in ways you know they like, but you don't love? Lillian Glass, PhD, author of He Says, She Says: Closing the Communications Gap Between the Sexes, warns this may be a red flag that you're losing sight of yourself in the relationship. Take a step back and ask yourself if you're giving more than your partner is (and be honest). If you are, this imbalance is a sign that you guys will have to recalibrate—or call it quits, says Glass.
15. Their body language gets...different.
Sure, something like a stressful week could have your partner more fidgety than normal. But Glass says that differences in your partner’s mannerisms could also indicate that they're less comfortable in the relationship. Something as simple as an eye roll, or avoiding eye contact—if it happens several times—can be a relationship red flag, Glass says.
Do they seem to be using more agitated gestures than normal? Feel free to ask if something is up with your S.O. to try to head off issues before they become any bigger.
The bottom line: Think about your relationship norms, and if you notice changes from that baseline—on your partner's part or on yours—that could be a sign that one or both of you is starting to feel less secure in your bond. That said, there could be something else at play, so it's always best to try to approach the issue via an honest and open conversation with your partner.
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