There was a hot second last year where the red flag emoji was literally everywhere. It seemed as if people were collectively, feverishly tweeting, Instagramming, and TikToking all the things that they deemed to be warning signs, particularly when it comes to relationship red flags.
And while it may have been fun to jump on the trend and LOL about it, it seems like the term “red flag” has stepped into misuse territory. There’s a confusion between what constitutes an actual relationship red flag (e.g., lack of conflict resolution or overly jealous and insecure) versus just not vibing with them. Hey, just because you don’t mesh with someone doesn’t mean they’re a bad person! They’re just not your type of person, and that’s totally cool.
To help clear up the red flag confusion, below, Christie Kederian, EdD, LMFT, a psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist, shares five common issues that aren’t necessarily relationship red flags.
5 supposed relationship red flags that, in fact, may not be
1. Difficult or dysfunctional family dynamics
If someone experienced a challenging upbringing, lacked a healthy home environment, or had toxic family dynamics, people often think that is a red flag in a potential partner. However, Dr. Kederian points out that that’s not always the case. After all, your past doesn’t define who you are as a person or how you show in a relationship. What’s most important, she says, is how they have processed, grown, and healed from those negative experiences. Dr. Kederian says this is truly not a red flag if they’ve gone to therapy to process their childhood, attachment, and relationships and can speak authentically about their family without becoming emotionally dysregulated.
2. A nonexistent or extensive relationship history
If you’re on a first date with someone and learn they haven’t had many serious relationships in the past, that may raise some eyebrows. The same goes for the opposite. If they’ve been in too many serious relationships, people can interpret that as a relationship red flag. But again, Dr. Kederian reminds us not to judge someone by their past. “The reality is every person is different, and every relationship is different,” she says, adding that what’s most important is how they speak about their past relationships. “If they acknowledge the dynamic, personal responsibility, and the role they may have played, this is a good sign that it’s not truly a red flag.”
3. Practicing sobriety
Someone’s sobriety isn’t necessarily a red flag either. “Many people prefer not to date anyone that struggled with an addiction of any kind, and while that may be valid, they may be missing out on amazing potential partners that have done the work in a 12-step program and have grown, are more mature, and emotionally available than people who haven’t done the work,” Dr. Kederian says. She adds that you’ll know someone’s sobriety isn’t a red flag if they can speak openly about their recovery and they’re partaking in some sort of treatment or therapy or are actively involved in a community that provides support and connection.
4. Dislike their work or aren’t “successful” by societal standards
Looking for a partner who has a great job and career achievement is reasonable, especially if you prioritize those values. That said, Dr. Kederian recommends not being too quick to raise the red flag if they don’t quite measure up to those expectations—there still may be tons of love and relationship potential there.
“Sometimes people put too much weight on if someone loves their work or not, or has ‘arrived’ at some standard of success when often it’s people’s drive, ambition, and character [that] can be more important when it comes to a long-lasting and happy relationship,” she says. “Financial stability and responsibility is important, but it’s not so important that you should count someone out. If you notice that they speak passionately about their hobbies, can balance disliking work with having other goals, and are very well-connected otherwise, this isn’t a red flag.”
5. Have been in a toxic relationship
The fact that someone has been in a toxic and unhealthy relationship in the past isn’t in and of itself a relationship red flag. Here is what is important: “It’s more about the growth they’ve done to understand the experience and dynamics and healing they’ve received to be ready for a relationship,” Dr. Kederian explains, adding that the most-common reason a person stays in a relationship with a toxic ex is if they struggle with their own self-esteem and self-worth. So, according to Dr. Kederian, green flags include having done the inner work to move past the relationship in therapy, speaking highly of themselves, and being attracted to healthier relationship dynamics.
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