Most of us will have at least one, if not a few, significant relationships during our lifetime. Our first intimate encounters may be more difficult or challenging because we're new to the experience of forming an intimate bond with another person, and may not really know what we’re doing and what to expect. But time and experience should help us navigate through future relationships in a much better way.
It’s essential to get to know yourself in every possible way before you move into a committed relationship. Often, individuals go in search of a relationship without this essential knowledge. But how can you ever hope to know another individual if you don’t know yourself first? How can you address another’s needs and desires if you're disconnected from your own? As obvious as these issues may appear, and as much as you may feel you understand them intellectually, it should come as no surprise that what initially seems unimportant may take on greater significance as insights occur over the course of the relationship. In retrospect, individuals are often baffled about their own behavior and expectations in a relationship.
A really good exercise I ask my clients to do is to write down every partner they’ve had a significant relationship with, and then, for each, answer questions such as: What attracted you to this person initially? Did the attraction last? Was your fantasy about this person—what you imagined or assumed to be true—validated in reality? How long did the relationship last? Did revelations during the course of the relationship change your mind? What was the deal breaker? Do any patterns, similarities from relationship to other relationships, emerge?
Learn to ask the hard questions out of the gate, the first or second time you meet someone, before opinions are solidly formed. Most of us seem to do much better when we have no real expectations of someone, because we hardly know who they are and are not yet trying to impress them.
And watch for red flags—indicators that something needs to be questioned or otherwise validated. Often these are clues that something may be trouble in the future. Here are 10 key relational red flags to look out for:
- Lack of communication. These individuals find it difficult to talk about issues or express how they feel. Often, when it would seem most important to be open and honest, they distance themselves emotionally, leaving their partner hanging, or having to deal with a situation on their own. Often, whatever is “communicated” is expressed through moodiness, and sometimes the dreaded “silent treatment.”
- Irresponsible, immature, and unpredictable. Some people have trouble mastering basic life skills—taking care of themselves, managing their finances and personal space, holding onto a job, and making plans for their life and future. Small crises surrounding the way they live their daily life may take up a lot of time and energy. If so, there may be little time and energy left for you and your issues. These people may still be working on growing up. In other words, it may be hard to rely on them for almost anything.
- Lack of trust. When a person has difficulty being honest with himself or herself, it may be hard for them to be honest with you. Some of this behavior may not be calculated and malicious but simply a learned way or habit of coping. However, being out-and-out lied to is a no-brainer. A person who holds himself or herself unaccountable for their actions lacks integrity and lacks respect for their partner. You may feel, and rightly so, that there are a lot of “missing pieces,” so much that you don’t know or that is purposely hidden from you.
- Significant family and friends don’t like your partner. If there is something “off" about this person that seems obvious to those who know you so well, you may need to listen to what they’re telling you. Often, in the throes of a new relationship, hearing criticism about your new “beloved” may not be welcome, but others may see things more clearly from an outsider’s perspective. At the very least, hear these people out.
- Controlling behavior. Similarly, a partner may attempt to “divide and conquer,” driving a wedge between you and other significant people in your life. They may be jealous of your ongoing relationships with these people or simply feel the need to control where you go and who you associate with, limiting your world to allow in only what is important to them. Sometimes, they may make you choose them over significant others as an expression of "love."
- Feeling insecure in the relationship. You may often feel that you don’t know where you stand in a relationship. Rather than moving forward, building on shared experiences that should be strengthening your connection, you feel uncomfortable, uncertain, or anxious about where the it's heading. You may seek reassurances from your partner, but somehow these are only momentary and fleeting. As a result, you may be working double duty to keep the relationship on track while your partner contributes little.
- A dark or secretive past. Behaviors that are suspect, illegal activities, and addictive behaviors that haven’t been resolved and continue into your relationship are obvious red flags. But you shouldn't ignore or excuse anything that strikes you as strange or makes you feel uncomfortable. (Of course, if a person has done the necessary corrective work and continues doing so for their own good and for the good of the relationship, that is a different story.)
- Non-resolution of past relationships. These include not just intimate relationships but those with family members and friends. If a person is unable to evaluate why past relationships haven’t worked out, or consistently blames the other party for all of the problems, you can bet with a great deal of confidence that the same thing could happen with your relationship.
- The relationship is built on the need to feel needed. Often we enter into a relationship strongly identified with our needs. The need may be that you, my partner, must do certain things for me to make me feel secure and satisfied, or that you allow me, your partner, to feel needed by fulfilling your needs. If this dynamic is the focal point of a relationship, however, there may be little room for real growth, individually or as a couple.
- Abusive behavior. Finally, and of course, any form of abuse, from the seemingly mild to the overtly obvious—verbal, emotional, psychological, and certainly physical—is not just a red flag but a huge banner telling you to get out immediately and never look back.
A red flag is a good intuitive image to help you process what you’re really feeling. At the end of a difficult relationship, people often say, “He (or she) told me who he (or she) was at the very beginning, but I just didn’t listen.”
Learn to trust what you feel. Your hunch is probably right.