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13 Dating Red Flags for Women

Moving on can be painful, but less so than holding on to a toxic relationship.

Key points

  • Often people will see red flags in a relationship but ignore them, wishing they were insignificant.
  • People more often miss subtle red flags rather than obvious ones such as verbal or physical abuse.
  • Subtle red flags in a relationship include not being able to share about oneself and lack of emotional investment.

“Men mess up and then we feel bad about it,” said one of my best friends in graduate school. She and I swapped stories, and too often this was the conclusion. One guy called a girl fat. Another said he was too good for the girl he was dating. These are obvious red flags and the women ignored all of them. The women normally wished that the flag was insignificant and not an indication of something bigger. When the relationships ended, the women felt bad.

No, the women didn't blame the guys who said these offensive words or treated a woman disrespectfully. The women blamed themselves—for choosing him, for 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 a shoulder to lean your head on is a nearly universal desire. Whether it’s the holiday season or Valentine’s Day or the magic of fireworks on the 4th of July, we know it’s the shared moments that are most special. Yet this desire can cloud judgment and lead to poor choices. Plus, starting over with someone new can feel like too much work. But deep down you have a nagging feeling that something just isn’t right.

Red flags are often obvious, he is verbally abusive or physically aggressive, but it’s the more subtle ones we miss. Below is a list of commonly encountered red flags that might help a woman to think twice before pursuing or continuing a questionable romantic relationship. While this post is written within a heterosexual 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 two-sided. While it’s wonderful that a woman can approach and ask a man for a date, there is also a delicate balance in the relationship. Both sides have to invest. Does he ask you to plan everything? Does he show little interest in making reservations, getting creative with activities, or does he expect you to 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. The speed at which a relationship progresses is a function of many factors, one of them being age. However, this can also vary. On average, however, it is more socially acceptable for a person in her later 20s to early 30s to ask 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 say: “Let’s end it now.” While it’s ultimately a power move, watch 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, is the keeper.

3) Can he apologize?

Apologies are tricky. 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 aren’t at all useful, neither is a staunch refusal to accept you might have stepped on one’s toes. The truth: 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 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.”

In some cases, text messaging can strengthen a pre-existing relationship, but in other cases, it can be easy to fall into the trap of assumed intimacy in a new relationship. The idea that familiarity and ease can build between your “goodnight” and “how’s your day” text messages can be false. These things occur over time. Not over the number of messages you exchange.

Although the relationship seems to be going great, stop and ask yourself, “but do I really know him?” It’s one thing to be in constant communication through 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? Can he share why previous relationships ended? 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 to know 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 where one came from can make the road ahead far less bumpy. Different people will have different comfort levels with opening up. Some people may just need more time. This is perfectly reasonable. But you can also tell when a person is avoiding these topics altogether.

5) You feel isolated in your relationship.

While there's a natural rhythm to when a new romantic interest meets friends, family, and others in the course of a relationship, there may 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 your boyfriend as he puts you down, treats you poorly, or is disrespectful.

And seeing through the rose-colored glasses of love, you don’t see anything differently either. In your eyes, he is flawless. This is why you need someone to help check your vision. Whether it is a friend, a sibling, or an 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 do you listen to while you are sorting out your own feelings? It might be helpful to limit your advisors to a couple of 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 do come up, your advisors may just help you through it. 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 anyone he considers an acquaintance? The adage that we are the company we keep often rings true. Getting a sense of a guy's social circle is collateral information. Maybe they are phenomenal people, or maybe they sit around and insult others. You don't know until you meet them. Furthermore, if you are constantly kept behind closed doors, it can be another indicator that the guy isn't seriously considering you as a partner. Do you really want to be a secret girlfriend or the girl who a guy actually wants to be affiliated with? Sure, you're no Prada bag to be shown off, but you also deserve to have a guy who is proud to hold your hand.

6) He never passed Communication 101.

Communication is just one key to a successful relationship. It’s easy in the early stages of dating— it feels like a walk in the park with the flirtation, witty banter, and small talk. 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 a difficulty? 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 bullying territory or be manipulative in the manner in which he communicates. When you feel like you are constantly walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting or agitating him, you’ve entered rough waters. Plus, is he trying to “punish” you or “teach you a lesson?” That’s the green light to move on.

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. Over time, these guys become more hazard than heartthrob. Although you may have been initially attracted to his hyper-masculine take-charge manner, you start to notice that he is just bulldozing over others. He may be neglecting the feelings of others to assert his own agenda; he is always right and you are always wrong.

When you share an idea about a new project you’d like to start at work, instead of supporting you, he makes a jab: "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 (in rare cases, perhaps you are dating a mental health practitioner; 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 do this we must have access to the whole story with concrete facts. This is much more difficult if the story is constantly changing.

In the context of a romantic relationship, it is a futile endeavor if the target is constantly moving. First, he’s not interested in marriage and children. But his parents support it. Therefore, he might 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. 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.

Laughter is one of the best parts of any relationship. Connecting on a light-hearted level, being silly, and having a heartfelt belly laugh 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 factors.

He claims he is just teasing or commenting on changeable factors: “If she’d exercise more she’d look better.” But this does not justify the comment. And later, the joke may be on you. Further, these people use humor to communicate an unsavory message that they wouldn't otherwise share. Even though he might constantly brush the humor 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 to identify, love’s naïve glasses can alter your perceptive abilities once more. The ability of 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 soft-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 a bit louder than she sometimes intends it to be. The right guy will love you just the way you are.

11) He can’t 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 where depth builds 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.

Community service may not be a priority for everyone. 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 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 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 the wise saying: 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 signs. Chances are you were onto them on the first date. Maybe he made a “fat girl” joke, and you uncomfortably changed the topic. Perhaps he made a joke about not being a very nice person. The Maya Angelou quote rings 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 the end. These ultimately poison us more than anything. Because 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 at 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.

More from Goali Saedi Bocci Ph.D.
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