We always hear about red flags, warning signs that signal a relationship is unhealthy. The problem with red flags is much like the problem with a red light. If we only see it after we passed it then it doesn’t offer too much protection. Is there a way to avoid this? Are there earlier, subtle warning signs that could spare us the pain of a full blown alarm bell.
Picture a Thompson’s gazelle peacefully munching on some grass, feeling the wind against its fur, a slight breeze tickling its nose. Suddenly it raises its head, tenses, legs ready to spring into action. It looks around and seemingly there is nothing wrong. But the air, it just doesn’t feel right. This first whiff of danger, an inkling that something is off, is what I like to call the yellow flag. For the gazelle, this yellow alert is, more often than not, a sure sign there is a cheetah, lion, leopard, or other predator in its midst. It faces a choice, ignore the hackles it feels causing its skin to twitch in apprehension, be more attentive and seek a safer position, or outright bolt.
Now you might think this analogy doesn’t apply to human relationships. After all, if we are constantly on alert and suspicious that in itself is a bit of a red flag to a potential mate. However, there is an underlying nugget of truth to the notion that before a new partner exhibits a classic red flag, say putting you down or making fun of you, there was something that was already happening. Whatever that was is the yellow flag.
What are some of these early, understated warning signs?
1. Moving too quickly
Moving too quickly can reveal itself in many ways. Rapid gift giving may be appropriate for a cricket that serves up a delicious spermatophore, but this is analogous to buying dinner on a first date, not an expensive watch. I recall a man that showed up for our second date with Gucci perfume. If you ignore that he obviously wanted women to wear his favorite perfume (huge red flag) and simply focus on the gift giving, it was disproportionate to the stage of the relationship. Another sign of things moving too fast? Prematurely giving you a nickname, including bae, babe, sweetie, pookie, etc. If, after the first few dates, someone is giving you a nickname or calling you their girlfriend/boyfriend they are attempting to claim you prematurely. While it might seem flattering, cute, or even humorous, it’s really like a fruit fly that covers a mate in a chemical designed to make, in this case the female, smell bad to other potential mates. It’s appropriate for fruit flies. Humans? Not so much.
While we don’t want someone who is so rigid in their opinions and decisions that they are inflexible or unable to adapt to change in a healthy way, indecision and uncertainty creates anxiety and tension. Even when other species face uncertainty over whether or not a certain patch will yield enough food, they make a decision. Someone who doesn’t know what they want, never wants to make a wrong decision, or wants to leave all the heavy lifting (deciding) up to you is not going to make a very strong partner. Indecision has a time and place in forming who we are, but that’s just it, a successful partnership is grounded by two people who already know who they are or are prepared to make decisions and accept the risks involved. Thus, if your date’s answer to everything is, “I don’t know where we should go eat or perhaps we can see each other sometime” it is a subtle signal that they aren’t ready for a relationship.
3. Difficulty making eye contact and/or physically twitchy
Unless you are dragonfly or have the metabolism of a hummingbird constantly fidgeting signals a level of discomfort. Assuming they do not have a disease that causes this, someone who is behaving this way is not comfortable or at ease in their own skin, in the situation or context, or, let’s face it, they aren’t focused on their date. In humans and other species staring is unwise as it signals a challenge or threat, but making eye contact is different from staring. Avoiding eye contact is a universal signal of withholding something, usually information or attention. For example, chimpanzees that have found a valued food item and do not wish to share it become secretive, stash the prized food item, and then have trouble looking at their peers (and not looking at the item!). In other words, they become shifty-eyed and physically agitated. We use eye contact for important social information and cues. If your date is constantly looking elsewhere, just like a rhesus monkey you will too because you're going to want to look at what they are looking at. This will leave you feeling confused, uncertain, and slightly anxious. Yellow flag.
There are more yellow flags, such as incessantly comparing oneself to others (a sign of insecurity or resentment) and a lack of curiosity which signals little interest in learning. However, the above are my top three. We often end up getting into trouble because we tend to ignore these early whiffs that register somewhere in the pit of our stomach or we explain them away. Maybe we do this because we really want the relationship to work, or we’ve been led to believe we are too picky and no one is “perfect”, or we aren’t confident in our ability to discern when something is a problem and when it’s a quirk. We use our senses to gather and process information all the time.
You may think your ability to sense certain things is limited, and sometimes it is. Bats, for example, can hear at frequencies topping 120000 Hz, while we are limited to a top range of a measly 20000 Hz. Don’t be discouraged though! Elephants can sense vibrations through their toes due to the abundant presence of sensors call Pacinian corpuscles. We have them too. The difference between us and elephants? Well they have more of them and they don’t wear shoes and clothes that interfere with their ability to perceive things around them. We also don’t practice using all of our senses. Whether or not you wear shoes, it takes practice to sense yellow flags. The more attuned you becomes the easier it will be to pick up on these and other subtle signs early on- before yellow turns red.