“Men mess up and then we feel badly about it.” One of my best friends in graduate school used to say this. As we swapped stories, too often this was a conclusion we came down to. A guy called a girl fat. Another said he was too good for the girl he was dating. All obvious red flags, and all of them ignored. Women wishing it was a small drawback and not an indication of something bigger. Then when it didn’t work out they’d feel badly…about themselves. No, not the guy who said all of these offensive things or treated a woman disrespectfully. They blamed themselves—for choosing him, not ending it sooner, for texting him back when they should have remained silent, the list goes on.
Wanting to find a life partner, spouse, or someone whose shoulder to lean your head upon are a nearly universal desire. Whether it’s the holiday season or Valentine’s Day or the magic of 4th of July fireworks, we know it’s the shared moments that are most special. Yet this desire can cloud our judgment and lead to poor choices. It can even feel like too much work starting over with someone new. But deep down you may have a nagging feeling that something just isn’t right. While often red flags come in the more obvious forms (he is verbally abusive, physically aggressive) it’s the more subtle ones we miss. Below is a list of commonly encountered red flags that might want to make women think twice before pursuing or continuing such a romantic relationship. While this article is written within a heterosexist frame, many of these same concerns can apply to same sex relationships as well.
1) He expects you to do all the work.
Relationships are a two-sided affair. While it’s wonderful that women can approach and ask out a man without waiting for him to do it, there is also a delicate balance in the relationship. Both sides have to invest. Does he ask you to plan all the dates? Does he show little interest in making reservations, getting creative with activities, or expect that you’ll do this for him? The investment factor seamlessly leads to an even more important type of initiative.
2) Is he really emotionally invested?
You ask him any iteration of relationship check-up questions and he’s either unsure, needs more time, or tables the topic entirely. It’s completely fair to ask if he sees long-term potential in the relationship, his view on commitment and marriage, and other “big picture” questions. It’s natural that the speed of relationships progress as a function of many factors, one of them being age. However, this can also vary. On average however, dating in the later 20s to early 30s tends to make it somewhat more socially acceptable to ask these more serious questions earlier on.
Furthermore, listen to your intuition. If you think he’s not emotionally invested, there is a good chance he’s not. Many times in the heat of an argument one partner might throw out the “let’s end it now” card. While it’s ultimately a power move, see your partner’s reaction. Is he so egotistically-driven that he won’t take a second look back? Will he say ending the relationship is “your choice?” No one needs that. The guy who fights for you and the relationship? That’s the keeper.
3) Can he apologize?
3) Can he apologize?
Apologies can be a tricky thing. At their most basic level, they involve setting your ego aside. Apologies aren’t actually about who is right and who is wrong. It’s about acknowledging your partner’s feelings and validating them. While fake remorse and sorrow isn’t the name of the game, neither is a staunch refusal to accept you might have stepped on one’s toes. The truth is a simple apology is easy. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. That was not my intention.” It can end right there. But will he let it?
4) He’s a little too private.
In the dance of dating, the process of getting to know someone occurs over time. However, in this day and age of technological connectivity it can be easy to get to know a person at turbo speed. Dozens of text messages can be exchanged within a day expressing everything from the mundane “I’m having pizza for lunch” to the extremely personal “I’m scared of ending up alone.”
While in some cases text messaging can add to or strengthen a pre-existing relationship, it can be easy to fall into the trap of assumed intimacy in new relationships. The idea that a familiarity and ease can build between your “good night” and “how’s your day” text messages can be false. These things occur over time. Not over quantity of messages or contact.
Although it may seem things are going great, stop and ask yourself, “but do I really know him?” It’s one thing to be in constant communication and have superficial conversations. It’s another to know one’s motivations, thoughts, and feelings. Is he willing to truly open himself up and share his life story? Or does his story eventually end up being deflected back to you? Does he avoid talking about family, friends and the things that describe his background? Can he identify what he is looking for in a relationship and why previous relationships ended, or does he reply with something vague and general such as “I just like to see where things will go” or “it just didn’t work out."
Don’t feel like you are prying or being too inquisitive. To make a relationship work, you need a sense of the areas for growth. Both of you will have them. Coming to a common understanding of what makes you both tick or what went terribly in a previous relationship can help strengthen the current one. Of course the point is not to gossip about exes or fixate on past relationships. But having a sense of the road one came from can make the one ahead far less bumpy. Different people will have a different comfort level with opening up or need more time. This is perfectly reasonable. But you can also tell when one is avoiding these topics altogether.
5) You feel isolated in your relationship.
5) You feel isolated in your relationship.
While there is a natural rhyme and rhythm to when one meets friends, family and others in the course of a relationship, there can also be a level of exclusivity that can feel stifling or unbalanced. No relationship can thrive in a vacuum. In fact, overly exclusive relationships where partners don’t want to include others are a hallmark characteristic of abusive relationships. No one is there to witness it when your boyfriend is putting you down, treating you poorly, or being disrespectful. And seeing through the rose-colored glasses of love, you don’t see any differently either. In your eyes, he is flawless. Which is why you need someone to help check your vision. Whether it is a friend, a sibling, or other acquaintance, it can be helpful to include a larger community in your relationship for the purposes of safety and balance.
In some collectivistic cultures, families can be at the forefront of relationships—so much so that they interfere with the natural progression. Or they provide so many opinions that it starts to get confusing who to listen to while you are sorting out your own feelings. As such, it might be helpful to limit your advisors to a couple close friends or family members. There is no need to poll the entire audience. But getting another pair of eyes on your relationship and its health can help. After all, when disagreements eventually do come up, it can often be others who help you talk through it, apologize and make up. They can encourage you to see if you are being unreasonable, and at what point it can be helpful to walk away.
Finally, have you ever met his friends or any one who he considers an acquaintance? The adage that we are the company we keep often rings true. As such, getting a sense of a guy's social circle is collateral infomation. Maybe they are phenomenal people, or maybe they sit around and insult people. You don't know until you meet them. Furthermore, if you are constantly kept behind closed doors, it can be another indicator of a guy's lack of seriously considering you as a partner. Do you really want to be some sort of secret girlfriend or the girl that a guy actually wants to be affiliated with? Sure, you're no Prada bag to be shown around, but you also deserve to have a guy who is proud to hold your hand.
6) He never passed Communication 101.
Communication is one of the keys to any successful relationship. It’s easy in the early stages of dating when there is flirtation, witty banter and small talk to feel like it’s a walk in the park. But what happens when there is a communication breakdown? Relationship longevity is not measured by when things are going well, but rather when the strife enters.
Does he give you the silent treatment instead of trying to talk through it? Does he make passive aggressive statements (“you know, Bob broke up with his girlfriend because she wasn’t spending enough time with him…”)? Does he make threats (“you’re gonna regret it if you don’t tell me right this instant!”)? At some point, your partner could be entering bully territory or be manipulative in the manner in which he communicates. When you feel like you are constantly walking on eggshells to not upset or agitate him, that’s when you know you’ve entered rough waters and that there may be very choppy seas ahead. Further, when you feel like he is trying to “punish” you or “teach you a lesson,” that’s pretty much the green light to move on.
7) He talks down to you.
7) He talks down to you.
There can be something attractive about the bad boy. The guy who is a bit aloof, the one who is not waiting on hands and knees for you. But over time these guys can become more of a hazard than a heartthrob. Although you may have been initially attracted to his hyper-masculine take charge ways, you start to notice that in doing so he is bulldozing over others. He may be neglecting the feelings of others to assert his own agenda. So pretty soon he is always right and you are always wrong.
Perhaps you come up with a new project you’d like to start at work, and instead of supporting you, he makes a jab at how you’re not cut out for it. Or when you attempt to reason with him, your views are “unhealthy” “abnormal” and any other false clinical diagnosis he makes despite his obvious lack of mental health expertise (although in rare cases, perhaps you the reader are dating a psychologist/mental health practitioner which in that case, my apologies that he doesn’t practice what he preaches). If he is constantly trying to make you “understand” as though he is the professor and you are the pupil, you deserve better.
8) The rules change all the time. Actually, the rules are arbitrary.
For better or worse most women are socialized to be good listeners. Additionally, we are often the mediators and conflict resolution specialists in disputes among family and friends. However, to be able to do this we must have access to the whole story and concrete facts. This is much more difficult if the story is constantly changing.
In the context of a romantic relationship if the target is constantly moving, it is a futile endeavor. First he’s not interested in marriage and children. But his parents support it. So he might also be into it. But he also might not be. He doesn’t actually see the point of marriage. But on second thought if children are involved then it is a necessity. However, he doesn’t really like children all that much. So then if a=b=c; a= relationship, b=marriage, c=children; then a will not actually equal c. Difficulty with basic algebra much? Relationships shouldn’t be complex equations to solve. They either work or don’t. Don’t waste your time following a nonsensical formula.
9) His sense of humor is a little too biting.
9) His sense of humor is a little too biting.
Laughter is one of the best parts of any relationship. Connecting on a light-hearted level, being silly and having truly heartfelt laughter is a path to forging shared interests and affection. Witty humor, often associated with a higher intellectual punch factor, can be a favored form of laughter for some. However, what happens when that same humor starts to translate into slight insults and hints? Although it might be one thing to laugh at an awkward interaction at a restaurant with the waitress, it’s another when a guy makes a joke about someone else’s weight, looks, education level, or other demographic factor. Even if he claims he is just teasing or commenting on changeable factors (“if she’d exercise more she’d look better,”) it does not justify it by any means. And later, the joke can turn out to be on you. Further, many use humor to communicate an unsavory message that they wouldn't otherwise share. Even though he might constantly brush something off as a joke, listen for patterns. Sometimes there is something more there.
10) He talks about changing…you.
Though this seems to be the easiest red flag in the book to identify, love’s naïve glasses can alter your perceptive abilities once more. The ability for both partners to identify areas for growth is important. One might learn to not let the dishes pile up, while the other learns that the other needs time and space when coming home immediately after work. Changing the little things can do a lot for a relationship. But you can’t change a personality.
Don’t make apologies for who you are. Does he want a princess with done up nails, perfect hair, a classy wardrobe, and who is softly spoken, obedient, and affectionate on his terms? Maybe you like tattered jeans, streaked hair, the chipped nails of a woman who can get her hands dirty and speak her mind even if her volume is bit louder than she sometimes intends it. The right guy will love you just the way you are. Don’t forget that.
11) He can’t he risk acting a fool.
There is certainly an appeal to a man who is composed and self-assured. But the ability to let loose and try out things where you might look completely ridiculous can be integral to showing vulnerability. You are not perfect and neither is he. Perhaps in your imperfect state together you can come to a shared understanding of unconditional acceptance. These are the moments that depth is built into a relationship. Maybe it’s as simple as bowling or a funky yoga class. You don’t have to do improvisational theatre together to connect. But keeping things formal or otherwise on the straight and narrow can keep you from discovering the other aspects of one another.
12) He doesn’t value giving back.
12) He doesn’t value giving back.
Community service may not be a priority for all. However, service can be a means of tapping into your shared power as a couple to impact positive change in yourselves and the community at large. Service projects can be a great means of opening up the dialogue on shared interests and values as well as spending time together doing good for others. Furthermore, the ability to put others first is a metaphor for one’s relationship. Can your partner later prioritize your needs over his? Can you do the same for him? If you are looking to have children, will he be able to make sacrifices for the family at large? We don’t lose anything by sharing more love with a greater community outside of ourselves. The ability to emphasize giving back to others when things get busy can be the sign of a great relationship.
13) You don’t glow.
There is an exhilaration that comes with good relationships. You are perpetually in a good mood and feel like you could walk on water. Granted, these are the early stages of a relationship commonly known as the “cocaine-phase” where all those feel-good neurotransmitters are firing. This can last a few months until reality sets in. But sometimes, your relationship never even hits this phase. It goes from playful banter to arguments, tension, and resentment. However, your desire for a relationship rings so strong that you ignore all the warning signs. I once heard a great wisdom that said you either cry now for losing the guy, or cry later because you kept him.
Though it can be tempting to overlook the red flags, or wonder how you even wound up in the mess you’re in now, think back to the earliest warning signs. Chances are you caught onto them on the first date. Maybe he made a “fat girl” joke which you uncomfortably changed the topic away from. Perhaps he made a joke about not being a very nice person. The Maya Angelou quote rings very true, “the first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.”
Entering and exiting relationships can occur with grace and gratitude. There is no reason for anger, hatred and bitterness to signal their end. These ultimately poison us more than anything. Because truth be told, rarely does the other person even know how they impacted us. Relationships can be like a shooting star. Things of beauty they may be, burning bright, inspiring awe for the briefest amount of time. But in that moment they are falling fast into oblivion, perhaps serving nothing more than a reminder of the love and light that is out there, whoever we may find that with.