The Difference Between a Warning Sign and a Red Flag
Making the distinction, setting boundaries, and knowing your limits.
I’m in the third year of my current run of singlehood following my second divorce. Yes, second. I’m a slow learner.
I’ve thrown a lot of fish back in the ocean and I’ve been tossed back just as many times. If I’ve learned one thing about dating, it’s that the longer we do it, the pickier we get. It’s okay. We’re earned that right.
The hardest lesson for me to learn in these last few years is how much attention to pay to my gut. It seems like a simple concept: your gut tells you something, you follow your gut. Happiness ensues.
Somehow, I have messed this up more times than I care to admit. I have quickly dismissed someone by finding fault with them for something small and then hyper-focusing on it until it becomes a big deal. This is what we affectionately refer to as relationship sabotage.
Conversely, I have seen huge glaring issues that I have convinced myself aren’t really an issue. Things like the fact that one guy moved back in with his ex-wife. How I managed to sweep that tidbit under the carpet is still beyond me.
After many trials and many errors, I started seeing patterns. This is a huge clue to us that whatever hard work we are doing on ourselves is paying off.
What I’ve realized is that warning signs are real and we owe it to ourselves to let those register in our brains. We hold them there and work to figure out if the warning is an annoyance, pet peeve, prejudice or whether it will grow into a full-blown red flag.
We have to start by understanding the difference between the two.
Warning signs aren’t necessarily bad. Warning signs let you proceed with caution. But, we need to actually be cautious. That’s hard when we get all googly-eyed over some exciting new person.
Red flags end the race. Once these appear, moving forward may not be in your best interest. This is where you need to be able to establish your own boundaries to know if they are being respected or encroached upon.
Let me give you a few examples using some pretty common issues.
Warning Sign: They’re messy.
I’m not a neat freak, but I like my house to look nice and be clean. I have a hard time with messy people. I think the time limit for how long a dish goes unwashed is 24 hours. Dating someone who lives with a pile of clothes permanently located on his bed is not a deal-breaker. It’s just annoying. Tossing a perfectly decent man or woman, who treats you kindly and with respect, back in the ocean because they hate to pair socks together seems harsh.
Red Flag: They’re incapable of adulting.
Being messy is one thing. Not understanding that we, as adults, have certain responsibilities, is another. If the disorganization is limited to the folding of laundry, okay. If the disorganization spills over into things like forgetting to pay bills, going 18 months without an oil change, or not going to see a doctor when you’re supposed to, there is a responsibility issue. There’s a lack of adulting happening and that’s going to continue to manifest itself all over your relationship.
The difference between these two similar issues is that one is a symptom and another is a disease.
You can always treat symptoms. Minus a disease, symptoms often go away. A disease can’t always be cured and you’re not a doctor. It’s not your job.
You can encourage someone to be neat. You can’t teach a grown adult to be an adult. That ship has left the harbor.
Warning Sign: They have drama
No one escapes life without having days that are fraught with a bunch of drama we don’t want to deal with but have to. Sometimes, we hit a rough patch. We lose our job. We have a panic attack. One of the kids has to move home. Someone gets sick. This is just life. Life is drama. When we’re in a relationship, we have to understand bad times will happen. They’re followed by good times. Wait for those.
Red Flag: They are drama
If you’re dating someone and the drama never stops. You may have a bigger issue. It’s like the old adage that if you meet one person who is a jerk throughout your day, they are a jerk. If everyone you meet is a jerk, you are the jerk. If the drama happens as a result of their actions and happens often, you will get sucked in. And yes, avoiding action to stave off a reaction will bring just as much drama. Hard pass on that, too.
The most important question to ask yourself is whether something is a permanent station in life for the person you’re dating, or not. Warning signs get diminished when someone realizes they have an issue and actively works to decrease its presence in their life.
Those are good people. They see opportunities where they can. It’s continual growth. I like flawed people with a growth mindset. Those folks have potential.
*Dating often feels like a we’re fighting a tornado. It doesn't have to be that way:
Dating Other People Is a Stupid Concept
I don’t have time for that nonsense. I won’t do it.