Despite what tweeters waving their red-flag emojis across the internet may suggest, red flags in a relationship aren’t merely (hilarious) pet peeves or conflicting preferences—leaving used floss around the house, hating dessert, not liking cats, really liking cats. But they’re not always obvious deal-breakers, either. Yes, some red flags are redder than others, and certain signals always mean you should stay far, far away (more on that below), but a lot of red flags can be hard to spot.
Red flags are behaviors that give you serious pause (or should give you serious pause)—and that could sometimes indicate a larger pattern, Philadelphia-based practicing couples counselor Folashade Adekunle, M.Ed., tells SELF. A partner who forgets your birthday once? Irritating, yes, but a red flag? Not necessarily. The partner who repeatedly forgets important dates, however, is likely revealing something about who they are and what they value. One reason red flags can be tricky to identify is that so much else in the relationship could be going well. On top of that, it can be hard to pinpoint what, exactly, is making us feel uncomfortable, Adekunle says. Along with noting repeated behaviors, she recommends paying attention to your gut feeling when certain behaviors arise and asking yourself these questions for deeper reflection: Does this behavior make me feel unsafe, uncared for, or bad about myself? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, you’re in red flag territory.
Dulcinea Pitagora, Ph.D., New York City-based psychotherapist and sex therapist, agrees that red flags in a relationship typically show up first as feelings. They recommend checking in with your body to see what physical sensations arise when you contemplate a potential red flag situation—for example, maybe you feel tightness in your chest or your heart rate increases. “It’s also okay if you’re not sure why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling,” Dr. Pitagora tells SELF. “It’s enough to know that something doesn’t feel right and needs to change.”
The bottom line: If your partner’s behavior makes you feel iffy, it’s a sign that something needs to be addressed—either with yourself, with them, or with a therapist. (Or some combination of those options.) Regardless of whether that process leads to a breakup or a breakthrough, it’s important to honor your feelings in order to build self-trust, Dr. Pitagora says. So, on the topic of listening to and trusting yourself, we asked therapists for common relationship red flags worth paying attention to. (If you’re looking to get in a relationship, check out some of the best dating apps).
1. They rush a new relationship forward too quickly.
Popularly referred to as “love bombing,” this red flag isn’t necessarily about the new partner who says “I love you” too soon or who wants to move in together after five dates. Love bombing becomes worrying when “one person is trying to manipulate the other into a situation of dependency,” Adekunle says. If your person is saying things like, “I can’t live without you,” or seeking to isolate you with the fierceness of their affections, those are very concerning signs. Adekunle points out that a fast-moving relationship can be fine so long as it feels right. Remember to check in with your body: If you feel anxious about your partner moving at warp speed, it’s probably a sign to pump the brakes and examine where your feeling is coming from.
2. They describe all of their exes as “crazy.”
Some relationships end so badly that we’re still sour about an ex years down the line—but if your new partner spews vitriol at any and all of their “crazy” former lovers every chance they get, it’s a good clue that they are the problem. When your new partner can’t identify some way that they caused some of their past breakups, that is reason to use “extreme caution,” Gina Senarighi, Ph.D., couples counselor and dating coach tells SELF. “The odds are good that they’re going to lack that same kind of insight now with you,” Dr. Senarighi says. In other words, if you end up dating them, you’ll likely one day join the ranks of those “crazy exes” too. Knowing how to get over a breakup is helpful before moving forward in a new relationship.
3. They’re rude to people in the service industry.
The good news is that this one should be clear early on before you’re invested in a relationship. Dr. Senarighi explains that because our culture undervalues service industry workers, the way your date talks to the waiter or the Lyft driver will give you great information about their views on social structure, their sense of entitlement, and how they respond when they’re in positions of power. In short, do you want to be with someone who feels it’s their right to be rude to the bartender? If not, order your martini to go.
4. Their dating profile doesn’t match who they really are.
In dating, we all want to put our best foot forward, but “there’s a difference between presenting your best self and being inauthentic,” Dr. Senarighi says. If your date calls himself “an avid hiker” but it turns out that he only wants to walk the paved paths along the golf course, it’s worth taking note. Does he lack self-awareness? Is he trying to present an idealized version of himself because he really wants to be that person? Either way, it’s worth exploring because a lack of self-awareness combined with incongruence between words and actions can cause problems when it comes to conflict resolution down the line, Dr. Senarighi says.
5. The way they express anger makes you feel unsafe.
Anger is normal and if you’re in a relationship, it’s pretty much guaranteed that there will be times when you want to bury your face in the nearest pillow and scream. That said, if your partner gets so angry they punch a wall or break household items, Adekunle notes that they have the potential to escalate those behaviors in the future. Because anger management issues can segue into abuse, Adekunles says that they are often surefire signs to end the relationship immediately.
6. They don’t listen to you.
And we’re not talking about your partner forgetting to pick up eggs or needing to be reminded of the name of your Aunt Beverly’s new husband again. This is about those significant aspects of yourself that you share with your partner, like your interests, your traditions, and the people in your life who make you feel whole. Adekunle says a good question to ask yourself is, “How does this person show care about my interests and the things that are important to me?” She also notes that this red flag can “become yellow” if your partner exhibits change. Communication is key: If you feel like you’re not being seen or heard, Adekunle advises asking your partner, “Do you understand how important this is to me?” If that leads to improvement, great! If not remember that someone who isn’t willing to grow isn’t worth your time.
7. They push your physical boundaries, even in “innocent” ways.
Does your partner refuse to stop tickling you when you tell them to knock it off? Do they continue to touch you in seemingly innocent ways (like hugs, shoulder rubs, or even repeatedly poking you in the arm like a sibling) when you ask for personal space? “Like with all boundaries, we want to ensure that someone is respecting the ways in which we tell them how to treat us,” Adekunle says. The concern here is around escalation. If a partner is pushing physical boundaries, Adekunle advises that it “might be a sign that this person won’t respect these boundaries over time. We want people to be able to hear ‘no’ and ‘stop’ and take us seriously.”
8. You’re hesitant to introduce them to your friends.
Being nervous to introduce your new partner to the other people in your life is normal, but if the thought of bringing everybody together makes you want to hide in the bathtub, that’s worth exploring, Adekunle says. She notes that red flags aren’t always immediately “definable” and that it’s okay if you have to sit with your feelings for a while before you identify what’s making you feel uncomfortable. Why are you avoiding introducing your person to your friends? The answer might help you pinpoint some deeper trouble or concern. You should also consider whether your hesitation really has to do with your partner. Maybe it’s more about your own insecurities or superficial concerns (“What if he wears cargo shorts to brunch?”)—a sign that you may need to work on these issues.
9. Your friends don’t want to spend time with them.
Love can be unobservant, so if your friends aren’t wild about your new partner, that can be a great reality check, Adekunle says. She recommends asking the people who know you best: “What are you seeing about this person that’s giving you pause on wanting to spend time with them or getting to know them?” Be prepared: The answers might be hard to hear, but ultimately important to know.
10. They put you down, even in a teasing way.
“It was only a joke” are not magical words that erase hurtful insults. Excessive sarcasm, a mean sense of humor, or jokes that regularly point out your flaws can represent “a nonconsensual way to leverage power in the relationship,” Dr. Pitagora explains. Adekunle agrees and says there is an important difference between couples who “roast” each other in a consensual, fun way and a partner whose jokes make you feel bad about yourself. Especially concerning: If you tell your partner, “This hurts my feelings,” and their behavior doesn’t change. In that case, this red flag becomes a “non-negotiable,” Adekunle says.
11. They gaslight you.
Gaslighting is emotional manipulation where your partner twists reality, making you doubt your perceptions through denial (“I never said that”) or by blaming you (“You’re too sensitive”). Not only is it abusive, but it’s also very difficult to identify. “The partner waving this red flag may use the other partner’s vulnerabilities against them, making the gaslit partner believe that they are to blame for whatever the problem is, and making it difficult to know whether they’re actually seeing a red flag or not,” Dr. Pitagora says. Because gaslighting can leave you second-guessing yourself, Dr. Pitagora advises seeking the support of people who make you feel safe—like a therapist or trusted loved one—to discuss what you’re feeling and get more clarity on your partner’s behavior.
12. They’re prejudiced.
Whether your date peppers you with microaggressions (“What are you?”) or expresses more overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic views, this red flag can fall into the category of abusive behaviors, Dr. Pitagora notes. How you choose to respond in the moment depends on the situation and how safe you feel. Dr. Pitagora advises that those “without the comfort, energy, resources, or support to speak up about someone’s offensive behavior” can end the interaction and should not feel beholden to explain why. You can say something like, “This isn’t working for me” and leave it at that. “With unsafe folks, it’s okay to ghost them,” Dr. Senarighi says. If you’re comfortable with the other person, however, you can tell them that their comments are harmful and see if they’re willing to address and correct their behavior. If they’re defensive and unwilling to grow, yep, that’s another red flag.
13. They respond poorly when you take time away from them.
We’ve all been in that fluttery stage of a relationship when spending every moment together feels like you’re living inside the “Crazy in Love” music video (remember those?). But what happens when that fades? Dr. Senarighi notes that spending too much time with your partner can make you lose your sense of self and your support systems. Taking space for yourself in a relationship is healthy, as is paying attention to how your partner responds when you do. If they pout or guilt-trip you or get angry, Dr. Senarighi says those behaviors could represent an inability to manage discomfort, or point to possessiveness. Your partner could also simply struggle with meeting their own emotional needs, which isn’t a crime but is something they’ll have to resolve if they want to be in a healthy relationship in the long term.
14. They rely on you as their sole support for serious mental health issues or past traumas.
“It’s not that people with trauma can’t have great relationships, they absolutely can,” Dr. Senarighi notes. The same goes for people with mental illness. And, to be clear, it’s not that people with trauma or mental health issues can only have wonderful relationships when they’re completely “healed,” or some other similar and potentially unattainable benchmark. It’s more about aspects like: Are they self-aware about how their trauma or mental health issues affect themselves and others? Are they receiving some kind of support or otherwise trying to heal? Seeking this kind of help can look like going to therapy, attending support groups, progressing through mental health workbooks, or even forging strong friendships outside of your relationship.