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Why People Ignore Red Flags of Trouble in Their Relationships

How to avoid buyer’s remorse in your love life.

Key points

  • Good first impressions when dating color one's later perceptions as they seek confirmation of their first impressions.
  • People often tune out red flags to maintain positive illusions about their dating partners.
  • If you can't live with the character flaws of which red flags are indicators, move on and don't treat your partner as a fixer-upper.
New Africa/Shutterstock
Source: New Africa/Shutterstock

Relationships and marriages start with high hopes for a lifetime of happiness but often end with bitter recriminations and blame. We thought our partners were kind, but they turn out to be mean-spirited. We thought our partners were responsible, but they turn out to be careless. We thought our partners took good care of themselves, but they turn out to have health-compromising bad habits. The list goes on and on. Our partners seemed to be great when we fell in love with them, but we end up with buyer’s remorse when it turns out that they are almost the opposite of who we thought they were when we first met. Were they just superb con artists or do we just have poor judgment when it comes to picking our romantic partners?

The Power of First Impressions

We put our best foot forward when we start dating someone because we want to make a good first impression if we hope to get a second date. We do the best we can to present an idealized image of ourselves and hope our dates find that idealized self-presentation irresistible. Research suggests that this is a wise move because first impressions are powerful for a variety of reasons. The first is what’s called “the primacy effect.” We make a snap assessment of who that person is and that first impressions color all our future judgments. We know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but that is exactly what we do.

Once we form a first impression of someone whom we are dating, something called “the confirmation bias” kicks in. We selectively look for evidence of everything that confirms our first impressions. And if we have doubts, we get our friends to confirm and validate what we already believe about our new love interest. We selectively ignore anything that challenges our first impression and calls it into question. That means we start to ignore the red flags. We start to make excuses for anything that doesn’t fit the idealized image of someone with whom we are beginning to fall in love.

These cognitive biases are driven by what’s called “motivated perception.” We are highly motivated to believe in the idealized image we have formed of our dating partner. We are tired of being single, lonely, and sexually frustrated. So, we are highly motivated to find a desirable life partner and to believe in the idealized image that our dates put forward, especially if it flatters our egos. Wishful thinking clouds our better judgment.

Why We Ignore Red Flags

Does this mean that our initial impressions are entirely untrustworthy? Maybe we should just keep our guard up and never trust anyone because we might be duped. Research suggests that we do indeed see and register the red flags, the signs of potential relationship deal-breakers. Most of us wouldn’t want to date someone who was likely to cheat on us, abuse us, divorce us, sexually frustrate us, cold shoulder us, etc. A red flag is leakage of those tendencies despite our date's efforts to put their best foot forward while hiding their capacity to break our hearts. We do notice this stuff despite the primacy effect, the confirmation bias, and motivated perception that help us tune this stuff out.

The problem is that we all possess relationship beliefs that influence how we interpret the red flags that we can’t simply tune out because they are discrepant with the positive illusions we have developed about our romantic partners. One relationship belief is that people are fixable. The assumption is that relationships are work and if you work on it, people can change. So, philanderers can become monogamists, abusers can become kind, narcissists can acquire empathy, addicts can go into recovery. Dating partners are diamonds in the rough and if you polish them enough, they will brightly shine to your liking. The other belief is that people are who they are. Their basic personality is their basic personality so people don’t get fixed and resent being treated as a fixer-upper. If personality does change for the better, it only changes very slowly and incrementally over years, if not decades. So, what you see is what you get. If you can’t love your partner warts and all, it might be best to move on.

Red flags are indicators of likely relationship problems to come. Yet if you believe that you will be able to successfully confront and fix those relationship problems as they arise, those red flags won’t prevent you from moving forward in the relationship. That makes you vulnerable to discovering that the problems are much more serious than you thought and possibly beyond fixing. But now you might be stuck in a bad relationship that’s not so easy to extricate yourself from because you're married, because you have kids, because you are financially and emotionally dependent, and you can’t bear the thought of starting over.

Looking at Red Flags Mindfully

The key in dating is to learn to look at the red flags mindfully. Don’t tune them out or make excuses for them on the one hand and don’t catastrophize on the other. If every time you see a red flag you assume the worst, you’ll never end up with anyone. Nobody is ever as good as their idealized self-presentation once you get to know them. On the other hand, if every time you see a red flag you assume the best, you end up with buyer’s remorse. Mindfulness is just to see what you see without judgment and with compassion.

A red flag is an indicator of the character flaws you will need to learn to live with in the long term if this person becomes your life partner. You can feel compassion for your dating partner because ultimately, we all suffer our own character flaws and none of us is perfect. The real question is whether you can still love this person despite their character flaws if their character flaws prove beyond fixing. If the answer is yes, move forward. If the answer is no, move on.

Facebook image: New Africa/Shutterstock

References

Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Assocation.

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