These are the red flags in a relationship you should never ignore

 A collection collage of red translucent dice with hearts on them, representing red flags in a relationship
A collection collage of red translucent dice with hearts on them, representing red flags in a relationship

From telling white lies to monitoring your social media, red flags in a relationship are warning signs of unhealthy or toxic behavior. 

Red flags may seem like something invented by social media, with red flag emojis popping up on Instagram and Twitter to signal problematic behavior - both serious and sarcastic - but they can be useful ways to determine whether or not a relationship is suited to you.

Some red flags in a relationship are minor while others can signal signs of a toxic relationship and the potential for much bigger issues down the line. Here, to explain what red flags are and the ones to really look out for when you're dating someone new, we've spoken to a trauma-informed positive psychologist.

What are red flags in a relationship?

Red flags are warning signs of a potentially unhealthy, abusive, manipulative, or generally toxic relationship. While anyone can display red flags in a relationship or see them in someone else, they're often spoken about in the context of romantic relationships.

The experience of spotting a red flag in a partner may feel a little disconcerting and lead you to instinctively second-guess the other person. Whether it's because you feel they might be lying, they are displaying a character trait you find offputting, or behaving in a way that makes you uncomfortable, it's important to pay attention to these moments as these are the flags waving at you.

Some people choose to acknowledge the red flag moment and end the partnership altogether or establish deal breakers in the relationship to prevent the red flag become a bigger problem. However, red flags aren't always recognizable. "People can mask their true behavior, which can make them dangerous. Over a period of time, the warning alert of a red flag gets louder and louder, it just depends whether we can see or hear it," says Caroline Strawson, an ICF-accredited, trauma-informed therapist and coach.

The opposite of a red flag is a green flag which, as the name suggests, represents signs that a relationship is healthy. "They are behaviors that show the person is thoughtful, kind, caring, and open to communication even if you disagree with each other," says Strawson, who is also a divorce and breakup coach. "Signs of a healthy relationship often include how well you navigate disagreements, as this can show up many red flags."

Common red flags in a relationship that you should never ignore

If you spot any of these red flags, they're definitely worth addressing. Alone, they're not signs your relationship is over, but if you're experiencing several of them or your partner doesn't acknowledge them when you bring them up, it might be time to rethink your relationship.

1. They don't listen to you when you're speaking

This one can be hard to spot but it's worth looking out for. "If you catch them frequently not listening to you when you're speaking and they pivot the conversation to make it about them, this is a red flag," says the therapist. "For example, you may start to share a story or an anecdote and they interrupt or immediately say how they've done the same thing but bigger, better, or more than you. "

If you're spending time with them and feel frequently unheard or dismissed, with their choice of conversation dominating your time together, it's time to have a conversation.

2. They call their exes "crazy"

The "crazy ex-girlfriend" is a narrative we've all heard before. Not every relationship your partner has been in before is indeed likely to have ended well, but shifting the blame onto the other person's behavior and potentially their mental health is a big red flag.

"If your partner is saying all their past relationships have ended because of 'crazy' exes, look for the common denominator," suggests Strawson. "It's them."

3. They talk about big milestones early on

"If the person starts to talk about living together, getting married, living happily ever after, and generally moving too quickly, this is a huge red flag," she says. While most people want to know that the person they're dating is invested in some kind of future, this is too much, especially if it makes you uncomfortable or crosses a boundary you have set with them.

Sure, they may just be excited about said future and jumped the gun a bit. There's nothing wrong with having serious discussions about what you're both looking for in the long term, but the suggestion that big moves like these happen in the next few weeks or months when you've just started dating is a step too far. "This is a huge red flag and it's a sign of a toxic relationship," Strawson says. "They want to hook you into something serious and are testing the waters to get your reaction."

4. They are pressuring you to have sex before you're ready

Consent is the foundation of any healthy, happy relationship, so if they make you question even for a second whether they value this, it's a red flag. This might be pressuring you to have sex or do sexual activities before you feel you're ready, but it also applies to other types of physical touching - like hugging, kissing, or touching your body in any way.

"They might use subtle language like 'it's because I like you so much' or ask 'don't you like me as much as I like you?'," warns Strawson, but this is indicative of much wider problematic behavior. When it comes to sex, she says, "they may think that if you're physical early enough, you'll be hooked into the relationship quicker."

Man and woman sitting next to each other at a table with wine, woman looking at man speaking
Man and woman sitting next to each other at a table with wine, woman looking at man speaking

5. You think they might be lying

Research from Maastricht University suggests that we all lie sometimes (about twice a day apparently), making it a fairly normal thing to do to some degree. Who hasn't told a white lie to avoid upsetting a friend or family member? However, catching your partner lying repeatedly is one of the biggest red flags in a relationship. How can you trust someone long-term if you never quite believe what they're saying?

If they're lying to potentially cover themselves, as they know they've crossed a boundary in the relationship, this is disrespectful to you. It's also very difficult to learn how to build trust in a relationship if you can't be sure what you're partner is saying is the truth.

5. Your partner wants access to your social media accounts

Social media provides people with access to the whole world at their fingertips. For those with jealous tendencies more severe than what's considered healthy or 'normal', a look at who their partner has been interacting with might be something they think they need.

This is one of the biggest red flags, says Strawson. "This is controlling behavior," she explains bluntly. "You should be able to have your own accounts and your own passwords. They may suggest it's about you and your behavior that's causing their jealousy, telling you you're acting suspiciously, this is a sign of an abusive relationship, gaslighting, and coercive behavior."

Why red flags are important to look out for

Red flags are important to look out for because they can tell you a lot about how the relationship might develop, whether it's a new situation or you're getting back with an ex. "They can be indicative of unhealthy and manipulative behavior," says Strawson.

The development of red flags into wider relationship issues is something the therapist has seen personally in her practice. "With all the women I work with, there are always red flags there, they just didn't acknowledge them. Red flags aren't always recognizable, sometimes they can even look like those the person is just keen on you, but this can turn dark and abusive quickly."

While there's no way to really predict if a red flag is just a personality clash or something more serious, Strawson suggests listening to your gut is the best way forward. If something feels wrong, it probably is, she says. "There is a lot of information that passes from the gut to the brain and vice versa but often we don't listen. Start to connect with a sensation in your body if one comes about and get curious about it. This is your internal warning system going off."