One of the most common questions I’m asked during a coaching session is, “What are red flags? You say that if I’m suffering from relationship anxiety and I’m in a healthy and secure relationship without red flags then the anxiety is a manifestation of pain that needs attention as opposed to intuition that I’m in the wrong relationship. But what exactly are these red flags?”
It doesn’t matter that I list the red flags explicitly in my course and succinctly here on my site; people need to hear directly from my mouth that whatever particular hook they’re struggling with doesn’t constitute a red flag. I understand this completely. When fear takes hold, one of the stories it spins is that you’re unique and that the messages that you’re reading about anxiety don’t apply to you. Fear can do this around health anxiety, money anxiety, social anxiety, any anxiety. When fear sidles into the driver’s seat, rationality jumps out the passenger side window, and we become desperate for reassurance that we’re okay and that we don’t have to leave our loving relationship.
The confusing aspect is that flags and red flags can feel very similar. This is where the inner skill of discernment enters the picture, for we must be able to say clearly “yes, this is a red flag” or “no, it’s not a red flag, which must mean it’s my own flag”. To this end, it helps to have these terms clearly defined so that you can, at least for a moment, experience the sense of clarity that arises when fear is contained by the Wise Self and, as a result, shrinks even just slightly.
A flag lets you know that there’s more work to be done inside of you.
Some examples of flags are :
Intrusive thoughts about your partner: he’s not attractive enough; we don’t have a strong enough connection; she’s not intellectual enough. I’ve discussed intrusive thoughts repeatedly on this site and in the Break Free course. If you need to review those articles, enter “conscious-transitions + intrusive thoughts” into your search bar or just search for a specific intrusive thought. The work here is to learn to attend effectively to your thoughts, which means naming them as flags (not red flags) and asking, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?”
Somatic symptoms: Stomach lurching, tight chest, headache, can’t eat, can’t sleep . The work here is to name these symptoms as messengers of fear and explore what scares you about real love (aside from the fact that real love is inherently scary no matter what your history).
Feeling blank or numb: If you’re feeling blank or numb about your relationship I would venture to guess that you also feel numb in other parts of your life. Blankness is a sign of internal disconnection, and the work here is to learn how to drop out of the safety of your head and come back down into your body.
A red flag alerts you to areas in the relationship that need attention.
Red flags are the following:
Addiction: alcohol, drugs, spending, sex, porn
Abuse: emotional, physical, untreated rage issues, one person is deeply controlling around how the other person spends their time, behaves, etc.
Personality Disorder: shows signs of narcissistic personality disorder (is unwilling to sacrifice themselves for another person; isn’t willing to let go of lifestyle of a single person in terms of time commitments – i.e. doesn’t really want to be married and would rather continue in the free and unrestricted lifestyle of being single); compulsive lying; untreated borderline personality disorder
Irreconcilable differences in core values (having children, child raising practices, religion, how you handle money). Having different religious beliefs and different money styles are only red flags if you haven’t been able to come to agreements regarding how you’ll raise your children and other practices that may affect your family life.
Let me be clear: Even red flag issues don’t necessarily mean that you have to leave your relationship. If both of you are committed to working with the issue, having a red flag can often lead to more growth and intimacy. We typically learn through challenge, not through ease, and every relationship will hit challenge at some point. What matters foremost is that you’re with a partner who is willing to grow. Growth can manifest in many different ways and doesn’t necessarily mean going to therapy, but rather that there’s a fundamental desire to soften one’s edges, to learn, and to grow one’s capacity to love.