Whether you're in a budding relationship or a well-established one, your well-intentioned, protective friends and family members might be quick to call out your boo's "red flags." In their eyes, your new fling's refusal to wash their sheets more than once a month or your partner's difficulty holding down a job might be clear signs that you need to drop everything and end the relationship, stat.
But behaviors perceived as red flags shouldn't automatically be deemed reasons to split up, says Rachel Wright, M.A., L.M.F.T., a psychotherapist, licensed marriage and family therapist, and sex and relationship expert. "A red flag could be [an indicator] that's something that's just off — not necessarily a red flag that you gotta run the other way," she says. In fact, a red flag — even one that feels problematic in the moment — can also be an opportunity to grow, adds Jess O'Reilly, Ph.D., a Toronto-based sexologist and host of the Sex with Dr. Jess podcast. "You can use them to work on communication, connection, or the relationship overall," she explains. (FTR, abusive behaviors and situations are an exception, says O'Reilly. If you believe you're in an abusive relationship or you notice common warning signs — such as your partner preventing you from making your own decisions, controlling all the finances without discussion, intimidating you, or pressuring you to have sex, use drugs, or consume alcohol — contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help.)
What's more, everyone's notion of what qualifies as a red flag in a relationship is different, says Wright. For example, a monogamous person's idea of a red flag may be different than someone who's polyamorous, she explains. "They're not universal, and it doesn't matter if someone else thinks that it's a red flag if it's okay with you."
Still, there are some general red flags that could potentially be a cause for concern or a reason to re-evaluate your relationship — and not just the intimate, fairytale-like ones Taylor Swift sings about. Both Wright and O'Reilly note that you can notice red flags in any type of relationship, including ones with friends, family members, colleagues, and more. Here, Wright and O'Reilly share the red flags in a relationship (primarily a romantic one) that may be worth looking into, and more importantly, what to do if you notice one of them. Spoiler: Don't instantly throw in the towel. (Related: How to Deal with a One-Sided Friendship)
Potential Red Flags In a Relationship
They want to have you all to themselves.
If your partner is super critical of your friends and family, tries to drive a wedge between you and your closest companions, or attempts to cut you off from your social circle, their behavior may be a cause for concern, says O'Reilly. "Perhaps they suggest that they love you so much and that they're trying to protect you, [or] maybe they say you're too good for anyone else," she adds. "Be mindful of a potentially controlling partner who views their attempts to isolate you as so-called love." These isolating actions can be a major red flag in a relationship, as they may precede potentially abusive behaviors down the road, such as controlling what your partner does, whom they see and talk to, where they go — and using jealousy to justify it all. These are all tactics that an abusive partner may use to keep their victims in a relationship, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. (BTW, that's just one sign you may be in a toxic relationship.)
They don't seem to recall happy memories of your relationship with fondness.
When your partner thinks back to a joyful moment that could be pulled straight out of a rom-com or blissful day such as your wedding, do they recall it affectionately or with bitterness or sadness? If those previously happy memories are now tainted for them, it could be a red flag that something's not totally right in the relationship. Your instinct might be to quickly call it quits, especially if your S.O.'s heart doesn't seem to be in it anymore, but first, "you may want to talk about how you're feeling in the relationship," says O'Reilly. "It doesn't mean that the relationship is doomed, but it might require some new approaches [i.e. couple's therapy]."
They're not taking care of themselves when they have the resources.
This potential red flag in a relationship could be a sign your S.O. doesn't value themselves, says Wright. "And that's something that could come up later as a projected thing and a relationship issue." Your boo's decision to skip their doctor's appointments or to not brush their teeth every night could indicate they don't value their health as much as you do — and if that's not something you're willing to openly discuss and accept (or compromise on), it may cause resentment toward your partner down the line. On the flip side, their poor hygiene may be a sign that they're struggling with mental health issues, such as depression, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Kenosha County. Translation: The so-called red flag may not mean you should break up, but rather start an honest conversation with them about any personal troubles they may be experiencing. (Related: Wait, Are Cavities and Gum Disease Contagious Through Kissing?!)
You've stopped engaging in conflict.
It may seem like never quarreling is a good thing (and, in some cases, it can be), but avoiding disputes because you've entirely given up on talking about important issues could be a red flag in a relationship, says O'Reilly. To determine if your lack of conflict may be a part of a larger problem, O'Reilly suggests asking yourself these questions:
Are you avoiding talking about important issues and allowing them to fester, or are you simply picking your battles and letting the small stuff slide?
Have you stopped engaging because you just don't care anymore, or have you simply come to accept that you can't resolve every issue?
Have you given up talking about heated issues because you feel your partner doesn't listen or value your perspective?
Just remember, "context is so important, which is why red flags aren't always universal," she adds. For example, if you and your partner bickered for a week straight about the "best" way to load the dishwasher but couldn't resolve the issue, dropping the disagreement, allowing them to arrange the dirty plates the way they want, and instead focusing on what truly matters (e.g. your finances, your education, etc.) can be a good thing.
They're unwilling to communicate.
If you wouldn't let it slide when your BFF blows you off and ignores your texts for days on end, why would you tolerate that in your romantic relationship? "If it's very important for you to have a relationship with someone who can talk to you, but they are shutting down and not communicating, then that would be a general red flag," says Wright.
Reminder: No matter how well you know your partner, you can't read their mind, and without open and honest communication about wants, needs, and expectations, hurtful misunderstandings and arguments are increasingly more likely to happen. Plus, poor communication is the most common reason why couples seek therapy and is estimated to have the most damaging impact on a relationship, according to a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
You've stopped having sex — and you're not talking about it.
First things first, it's perfectly okay to put a pause on your between-the-sheets activities, says O'Reilly. "Some people are happy to take a break, but for others, it's a source of tension and conflict," she explains. If you and your partner fall into the latter group and you're both pretending it's NBD, it could cause resentment in the moment and issues down the line, such as an inability to have healthy conflict. (Use these tips to talk with your partner about wanting more sex.)
They constantly talk about how little money they have — but they're big spenders.
This potential red flag in a relationship all comes down to a disconnect between what your partner is saying and how they're behaving. But when you first notice it, it's important to view their actions with empathy, says Wright. "It could just be that the person is feeling embarrassed," she says. "Maybe they just paid a huge medical bill and they're feeling insecure at the moment. We never know what is going on, so that's why a red flag to me is an invitation to have a conversation, not a reason to run away." If you have that convo and find out your partner has no concept of financial management and doesn't plan on taking the steps necessary to improve their spending habits, then you might know the relationship isn't for you, she adds.
What to Do If You Notice a Red Flag In a Relationship
In case you haven't pieced it together yet, you shouldn't necessarily walk out the door the second you spot a potential red flag in your relationship. First, ask yourself how you're feeling and reflect on it: "How do you feel about their behavior? What is it that you want? Does this issue matter to you? Why does it matter?" says O'Reilly.
Then, if you feel safe and comfortable to do so, gently bring it up with your partner in a way that's loving, kind, and curious — not confrontational, says Wright. For example, instead of sharply saying, "You never brush your teeth at night and that concerns me," Wright suggests saying, "I feel nervous about the fact that you don't brush your teeth most nights, because what that means to me is that you don't care about yourself, and I want to have a conversation about it. Would you be open to that?'" (Also read: 6 Tips for Healthier (and Less Hurtful) Relationship Arguments)
"Be honest about your vulnerable feelings — e.g. fear, insecurity, sadness," adds O'Reilly. "Relationships can be repaired in many cases, but if you hide your authentic emotions (e.g. withdraw to avoid feeling vulnerable), you're more likely to exacerbate the problem." Think about it this way: If you don't let your partner know exactly how their, say, lack of communication makes you feel and why that's the case, you may not be on the same page about the gravity of the issue — and thus have trouble fully resolving it.(See also: How to Build Intimacy with Your Partner)
From there, you both can decide if the red flag is something you can overcome or manage together or if it's an indicator that you need to re-evaluate your relationship. And if you still aren't totally sure, consider seeing a professional counselor or therapist who can help you address the issues, says O'Reilly. Regardless of the issue, know that these conversations likely won't be easy — but that's okay. "It can be uncomfortable, and uncomfortable doesn't mean bad," says Wright. "That's how we grow. We only grow when we're uncomfortable. It's very rare that we grow from the status quo."