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8 red flags in relationships: Couples therapists share common examples and what they mean

Ashley Laderer,Sara Rosen   

8 red flags in relationships: Couples therapists share common examples and what they mean
Insider Picks6 min read
  • Red flags in a relationship include excessive jealousy and frequent lying.
  • You should also be wary of a partner who frequently criticizes you or puts you down.

We're always told to steer clear of people who exhibit red flags in relationships, but exactly what common signs should we be looking out for?

Whether you're dating a new guy or girl, a long term boyfriend or girlfriend, or even in a marriage, you may not be aware of the warning signs. Red flags like constant put-downs can signal a kind of emotional abuse, which is relatively common.

It can help to know which red flags to look out for so that you can proceed with caution or cut things off if necessary.

What are red flags in a relationship?

Relationship red flags are warning signs that there may be unhealthy patterns or behaviors between you and your partner.

Oftentimes, especially in new relationships, lust and love can cloud your judgment, making it difficult to pick up on red flags.

More well-known red flags may be abusive behavior and aggression. However, some red flags in relationships are easy to miss. Toxic behaviors like manipulation, gaslighting, and narcissism, can slip under the radar.

We spoke with couples therapists to learn more about relationship red flags, why they're easy to miss, and what to do if you notice them.

1. Frequent lying

Constantly catching your partner being dishonest isn't a good sign.

"We are all guilty of telling white lies; however, if you notice that your partner is consistently deceiving or getting caught in lies, it is a red flag," says Samara Quintero, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Choosing Therapy.

These can be small lies, like being dishonest about where they're going — or big lies, like not telling you how much debt they have.

Being lied to over and over again can make it difficult to build a solid foundation in the relationship or destroy one that you've already built, which can lead to a shaky future, Quintero says.

2. Constant put-downs

A partner frequently criticizing you or putting you down, even if it's in a subtle or passive-aggressive way, can affect your self-esteem.

"This is a form of emotional abuse that can lead to feelings of anxiety and insecurity in the partnership," Quintero says.

She says some common examples might sound like:

  1. "You're lucky I'm still with you because you'll never do better than me."
  2. "You sound so ridiculous when you try to be funny."

A 2013 study suggested that emotional abuse could be just as harmful as physical abuse, both contributing to depression and low self-esteem — so this red flag should certainly be taken seriously.

"Addressing this behavior with your partner is imperative, and if they refuse to take responsibility or express a willingness to change, it might be time to reevaluate the relationship," Quintero says.

3. An unwillingness to compromise

If your partner isn't willing to compromise even when it comes to the little things, you should proceed with caution.

"If you're in a relationship with someone who seems to make everything one-sided, you may end up over-compromising and wind up feeling resentful, hurt, misunderstood, and unsatisfied," says Emily Simonian, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the head of learning at Thriveworks.

In healthy relationships, it's crucial that you consider each other's needs and desires and that compromise isn't a one-way street.

4. A tendency to run away from difficult discussions

A partner who lacks the emotional or behavioral skills needed to cope with problems and runs away from them instead can harm your relationship.

Some examples are walking away from arguments without hearing you out, or ignoring you for days at a time when things get rough.

People who have trouble tolerating difficult emotions tend to lash out or flee when the going gets tough, Simonian says. Even healthy relationships will go through rough patches, so you want to be sure that your partner will communicate effectively with you instead of running away when things get hard.

5. Controlling behavior and excessive jealousy

If your partner is very jealous, this may lead to controlling behavior.

For example, they might feel jealous when you have a social life outside of your relationship, Simonian says. A jealous partner may also suffocate you with excessive calls or texts and try to control what you do.

"Attempts to control usually start off subtly but eventually increase in intensity and can often leave you feeling as though nothing you do is 'good enough,'" Simonian says. "If you notice yourself feeling smothered or consistently altering your behavior in order to appease their jealousy, it could be a sign of bigger issues to come."

A 2010 meta-analysis found that as jealousy in a relationship increased, the relationship quality decreased, indicating that jealousy harms romantic relationships. Additionally, a 2014 study suggested that people in relationships where a partner acted too possessive in the early stages were more likely to have an unhealthy communication style later in the relationship.

6. A lack of healthy open communication

A partner who turns to passive-aggressiveness, blaming, or expressing emotions in an aggressive way is exhibiting ineffective communication, Quintero says.

Communication is a foundation of a relationship, so if you both can't communicate openly and healthily, you're going to run into problems.

"A healthy relationship provides a safe place for both partners to speak openly on their emotions without fear of judgment or criticism," Quintero says.

A 2017 study suggested that communication early in a relationship might play a role in future relationship satisfaction and that satisfaction with communication in the beginning of a relationship might result in a more amicable partnership later on.

7. They don't have any friends

If your partner doesn't have any friends of their own, this can be a red flag for many reasons.

They may be unable or unwilling to create and maintain friendships with others. This could mean that they lack social skills, have a difficult personality, or a negative view of other people.

Another issue with a partner who has no friends is that they may be clingy or demand too much, if not all of your time. They may not understand your desire or need to spend time with your friends, which could turn into resentment.

8. They don't show support for you or the relationship

According to a 2014 analysis of nine studies on the topic of couple relationships, commitment and support for your relationship and partner is needed to maintain stability.

It turns out that "wanting" the relationship to last isn't enough. Instead, people need to actively engage in behaviors that show support for their partner and the relationship as a whole.

If your partner doesn't actively show support for you and the relationship, this could be a red flag. This lack of commitment could cause problems down the line.

Yellow flags vs. red flags

Yellow flags are also warning signs of potential problems to come. However, they may not be as noticeable or as insidious as red flags.

Yellow flags might be issues that can still be resolved, and don't have to turn into red flags with the right communication. However, you should be cautious of yellow flags, as they can lead to relationship problems in the future.

A few examples of relationship yellow flags include:

  • Taking criticism poorly
  • Talking to their ex
  • A lack of long-term relationship experience
  • They don't share their feelings often

Yellow flags can be annoying, but they aren't exactly deal-breakers.

What to do when you notice red flags in your relationship

When it comes to relationship red flags, the best way to handle it is early, honestly, and fairly. Open an honest dialogue with your partner, express your concerns and feelings, and let them do the same.

Keep your needs in mind, communicate clearly and often, and try to keep your emotions in check. In some cases, you may want to seek the help of a professional, like a marriage counselor or therapist.

It's always important to be honest with yourself throughout the process, and to lean on family and friends if you need to.

Insider's takeaway

When you notice red flags early in a relationship, take note of them.

Whether you're running into lies, experiencing possessiveness, or being put down, you should take the situation seriously and consider how it might affect your relationship not just in the near future but also down the line.