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5 Relationship Red Flags You Have to Watch Out For

... and research into the high cost of ignoring them.

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It would be great if relationships came with warning labels, so you could avoid problems with partners who are not good matches for you before you get involved. But unlike prescription drugs, cigarettes, or other potentially hazardous substances with their bold-faced labels and listed side effects, when it comes to deciding on a partner, you’re largely on your own.

In the very rich area of relationship research, little work deals directly with warning signs. As reported by Kansas State University’s Nathan Hardy and co-authors (2015), though, such signs form part of the equation of determining relationship risk. The bigger and brighter the red flags, the higher the risk. And there are additional risk factors, such as how compatible you are with an individual and how committed each of you seems to be.

It’s particularly important to weigh relationship risk factors in the early stages. According to inertia theory (Stanley & Rhoades, 2009), the longer you’re in a relationship, the greater the inertia factor preventing you from leaving when it becomes emotionally unfulfilling or perhaps even dangerous. The theory also suggests that you’re best off making a conscious choice as you enter a new relationship: The more effort you put into the decision to get involved with a partner in the first place, the harder you'll work to keep the relationship strong. Even if you decide to disregard red flags and enter a relationship with someone new but risky, you will still be better prepared to handle the problems that may follow down the road.

Consider how you would make the decision to buy a car: You may realize that it’s got some weaknesses but decide to accept them, and, in fact, you may work that much harder to keep it in top condition, especially if you decide you're happy with it, flaws and all. It’s not the objective nature of the situation—the number of warning signs in a partner or the scratches on a car—but the fact that you actually put effort into deciding to make a commitment.

Using a sample of heterosexual couples living in mainland China, Hardy and his team tested the predictions of the risk model that paying more attention to warning signs would positively relate to behaviors in a relationship intended to keep it healthy and viable. They factored in attention to warning signs as indicated by responses to these 4 statements:

  1. I am able to recognize early on the warning signs in a bad relationship.
  2. I know what to do when I recognize the warning signs in a bad relationship.
  3. I know exactly what to avoid in a potential partner.
  4. I am quickly able to see danger signals in a romantic relationship.

The main question of interest in the study was whether affirmative answers to these questions would predict the ability of the partners in the couple to constructively handle relationship problems. Some of these constructive problem-solving indicators were: “We have little trouble in choosing a solution for a given problem";’ ‘‘Our quarrels often end up in discussions about who is right and who is wrong (reversed)"; and, ‘‘If my partner in one way or another has disappointed me, I talk to him/her about it.”

In putting together a statistical model predicting good couple problem-solving from attention to warning signs, Hardy and his team included another measure that turned out to be extremely important—the “marital confidence” scale, a set of questions that tap into an individual’s sense that a relationship will be a lasting one. All of these questions were given to both partners in the study's 200 couples.

As the Hardy et al. team expected, attention to warning signs did predict positive, constructive problem-solving methods of handling conflict. However, that factor took a detour through marital confidence. Attention to warning signs, for both men and women, predicted marital confidence, which in turn predicted those positive conflict resolution methods. In the words of the authors, the results show that “individuals who are conscientious about risks are actively working to keep their relationships safe.” The moral of the story, then, is that the effort you put into paying attention to warning flags will pay off in helping to promote your relationship’s quality and duration.

Now let’s take a look at what some of those warning signs might be. Although the Hardy and team study didn’t ask for this information, here are suggestions based on other studies in the relationship literature:

  1. Your family or friends doesn’t like the person.
    Other people can see what you can’t, so if you’re getting feedback from enough other people, listen to it.
  2. You’re getting a lot of excuses that don’t ring true.
    You want consistency in your relationship partner and you need to be able to feel that he or she is trustworthy.
  3. It's going too close too fast.
    Your partner wants to make commitments before you’re ready and pressures you to respond in kind. Lasting relationships start out more slowly.
  4. Your partner has very few friends.
    The potential for intimacy arises out of a set of stable long-term relationships. If your partner seems to be a loner, this might signal a lack of capacity for true closeness.
  5. Your partner is a heavy substance or alcohol user.
    A constant pattern of getting drunk or high suggests that a partner may be dealing with deeper psychological issues that may only continue or get worse in the future.

None of these red flags alone are deal-breakers; you may also have others that you’d like to add based on your own experiences. Further, just because you see a red flag doesn’t mean you have to get out of a relationship.

The Hardy et al study shows that putting more effort into a relationship in the early stages of transitioning into it means that you take these red flags seriously. It is then that you can enter into that relationship prepared psychologically to handle whatever challenges it presents over the long haul.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015


Hardy, N. R., Vennum, A., Johnson, M. D., Anderson, J. R., Luu, S., & Liu, W. (2015). Associations between attention to warning signs, marital confidence, and interactional problem solving among emerging adult couples in Mainland China. Emerging Adulthood, 3(3), 194-203. doi:10.1177/2167696814551385

Stanley, S., & Rhoades, G. (2009). Marriages at risk: Relationship formation and opportunities for relationship education. In H. Benson & S. Callan (Eds.), What works in relationship education: Lessons from academics and service deliverers in the United States and Europe (pp. 21–44). Doha, Qatar: Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development

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