Many people may come to therapy when they feel that their partner is exhibiting red flags—behaviors or characteristics that signal the presence of problems within a relationship. They may say things like:
- “My partner doesn’t seem to want to spend all their time with me. Maybe they’re losing interest?”
- “I have entirely different interests than my partner. Does this mean we’re incompatible?”
- “We often disagree with one another. Is our relationship doomed?”
When in a loving relationship, it’s entirely natural to fear the emergence of dynamics or traits that, if misunderstood, may raise concerns about the stability or future of the connection.
However, this natural reaction may cause some to overlook the positives in situations that are mistakenly seen as negatives. By exploring insights from psychological research, we come to learn that what we sometimes perceive as a red flag in the moment could actually be a green flag in disguise.
1. Independence And Personal Space
When a partner shows a desire for independence and personal space within a relationship, feeling a blow to your ego wouldn’t be an abnormal reaction. Knowing that your partner doesn’t depend on you entirely to fulfill their needs can certainly stir feelings of insecurity. However, if you’ve noticed this growing independence in your partner, research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that this isn’t necessarily a red flag.
Displaying independence while in a romantic relationship is both natural and healthy. If your partner values the occasional solo pursuit or personal space, it may be a good idea to follow in their steps; this positive expression of independence is a great way to contribute to personal growth outside of your relationship. However, this independence should always be coupled with an acceptance of both partner’s dependency needs.
Balancing personal pursuits, friendships and individual goals is crucial for both partners. But, it is equally important to be attuned to one another’s needs for shared time together. From this perspective, recognizing the importance of individual space and maintaining a healthy level of independence does not appear as a red flag at all. Rather, it’s a positive sign of mature and well-rounded partners, as long as you’re always there for one another. So, enjoy your time apart. This way, when reunited at the end of the day, you can enjoy a greater appreciation for the reasons you chose to be together in the first place.
2. Individual Differences
Partners with different interests, tastes and hobbies can, at face value, appear as incompatibilities—and having totally different opinions in these regards can initially raise concerns. However, evidence suggests that these differences don’t necessarily raise any red flags. Instead, research from the Journal of Personality shows that differences in life values, personality, affect and family attitudes are far greater predictors of relationship satisfaction.
Two partners who have entirely different ideas of what is right and wrong, personalities or opinions on family roles may have lower relationship satisfaction. However, if you and your partner share these values, then diverging in ideas on what to have for dinner, which movie is the best or which album deserved a Grammy should not be a concern. Having diverse interests and perspectives isn’t a red flag, but rather an opportunity for a more enriching and dynamic connection.
Embracing this inconspicuous green flag allows both you and your partner to expand your taste and knowledge. Consider using these individual differences to learn from and about one another. Enjoy new activities, foods, media and hobbies that neither of you would have encountered otherwise. This open-minded approach can instill a thrilling sense of adventure in your relationship, allowing you both to capitalize on the beauty of your individualities.
While disagreements and arguments are a natural part of life, they can still feel incredibly threatening to the stability of a romantic relationship. However, having occasional or even frequent disagreements with your partner isn’t an automatic red flag; it’s only a red flag if they are dealt with poorly.
John and Julie Gottman, renowned clinical psychologists, emphasize that since conflicts are an inherent phenomenon within relationships, the manner in which they unfold is really what makes or breaks a relationship. According to them, there are four destructive ways in which conflicts can be dealt with—which they refer to as the “Four Horsemen”—and four respective antidotes for each:
- The first horseman is criticism, where individuals attack their partner’s character instead of addressing specific behaviors. The antidote to criticism is to instead express feelings and needs using “I” statements and focusing on the particular behavior without making global character attacks.
- The second horseman is contempt, characterized by expressions of disrespect, mockery or disdain. The antidote for contempt involves cultivating a culture of appreciation, finding common ground and regularly expressing fondness and admiration for each other.
- Defensiveness, the third horseman, involves avoiding responsibility by making excuses, playing the victim or counterattacking. The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility for one’s part in the conflict, actively listening to the other’s perspective and responding with openness rather than resistance.
- The fourth horseman is stonewalling, where individuals withdraw from the conversation, shut down and refuse to engage. The antidote for stonewalling is to take a break when feeling overwhelmed, commit to returning to the conversation at a specified time and use self-soothing techniques to manage stress during the break.
It’s easy to view the differences you have with your partner as red flags. Yet, these contrasts are often the building blocks of a vibrant relationship. Fearing divergence in your respective interests and personalities could be more of a red flag than the differences themselves. Instead, challenge the notion that a perfect match requires complete similarity. By viewing your differences as opportunities rather than hurdles, and being kind and empathetic to one another when addressing them, you can shift the flags raised from red to green yourself.
Are you still feeling uncertain about the quality of your relationship? Take the evidence-based Relationship Satisfaction Scale to learn more.