The Red Flag

The Red-Flag Conundrum: To Deal or Not to Dealthe red flag conundrum in relationships

Week after week, year after year, clients show up to discuss marriages that are breaking down or, whether they realize it or not, have already irreversibly broken down.  They are sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed, often blaming themselves or their spouses for a process that began well before they began to address the issues, and one that now has a life of its own and may be beyond fixing.

In telling their individual stories and explaining why and how things got to this bleak, unfortunate place, there is often a particular kind of regret expressed around the theme “I should have known, I should have listened to my heart, I should have paid attention.”  Further discussion uncovers a common element in marital breakdown:  Red Flags.

These Red Flags are signals and signs which were evident and even consciously acknowledged by one or both partners during the pre-marital dating, courtship, cohabitation phase.  Sometimes the issues appear to be petty – ”He’s sloppy and messy.“  Sometimes they’re more obvious and troublesome – “She talks very disrespectfully about men.”  In any event, and for a number of very human reasons, the issues are not addressed, usually in the interest of avoiding confrontation. Often, the avoidance is tempered with a belief/hope that “Our love and commitment to one another are so strong that we’ll work around, figure out, overcome this small piece of who he/she is, what he/she does, what he/she doesn’t do.  Love will conquer all… and we will do whatever is necessary to remain in the ‘good 50%’ the still-married half of all couples getting married today.”  Would that it was this simple!

So the Red Flag Conundrum, the puzzle, is all about what happens when the nagging little doubts and reservations, the annoyances which occur early and often in a relationship that’s mostly quite good, are avoided and not addressed.

Usually, when we’re bothered by character traits, e.g. laziness, stinginess, sarcasm, self-absorption, we can be fairly certain that we’re in for trouble.  Character traits are character traits.  They’re part of who he/she is, how they’re wired.  We can’t love our partner enough to expect spontaneous or lasting change.  Not gonna happen!  If we address these characteristics early in the game our partner might feel attacked and may assume the no-win default position of “well that’s who I am” which is early-relationship code language for “Get the hell off my back!”  (Later on, the diplomatic veneer has worn off and only the “get off my back” message is conveyed.)

Red Flags also appear in relation to specific behaviors, e.g. personal hygiene, alcohol consumption, punctuality etc.  While no less important, these are generally easier to ameliorate because they can be identified, targeted and addressed with an infusion of attention, effort and perseverance.  New behaviors can be learned and old ones abandoned.  This is good news.

A third, and very significant area of concern, occurs when we see something that makes us uncomfortable in the relationship of the parents of our prospective spouse.  What’s most important here is the obvious connection between what we observe and internalize as kids, living in close proximity to role-modeling adults, and what we bring forward into adulthood.  “The Past is Prologue “is the key phrase here.  Thus, if your sweetheart’s parents are rude, disrespectful, mean-spirited, sarcastic, etc. pay close attention and maybe think about lacing up your running shoes, because you’re at significant risk to end up in a relationship that looks like what you observed in the behavior of the almost-in laws.  Not a good basis for optimism.

But, too often,  in the interest of keeping peace and moving inexorably forward to “Happily Ever After,“ we overlook, we excuse, we accommodate and alter our own beliefs, sacrificing our integrity… this is what’s known as Codependency… and we begin a long slow process of disappointment and disenchantment, leading to despair and often divorce.  Keeping our mouths shut may feel more comfortable, in the short run, but it will prove to be a very poor and regrettable decision over time.

Raising concerns about issues, conditions or behaviors with someone you’ve come to love and, hopefully, trust need not be a deal-breaker.  In fact, marriages are high-maintenance affairs.  Communication between committed, serious couples often is an evolutionary, learnable skill set.  While it might be uncomfortable… so is getting a tooth filled… it’s necessary for the health and growth of the relationship.

In golf, when a player considers a number of strategic options in selecting the next shot, the “Risk/Reward“ dilemma  comes into play… “If I take that particular risk, I might look like a hero but it’s so risky that I think a more conservative approach makes more sense.”  In relationship building, the same questions arise.

The Red Flag Conundrum, – i.e. do I address the issue or just leave it alone and hope that things will work themselves out – is almost universally common. How do I resolve the conflict and decide what to do?

Several considerations and elements should factor into the decision.

First, let’s start with the assumption that nobody has the right to “remake” anybody else.  If every behavior, every personality trait, every quirk is called into question, you can bet that resentment and unhappiness will not be far behind.  This will undermine the good will, support, love and hope upon which the young relationship is built.

On the other hand, some of these Red Flag issues must be addressed.  How to decide which ones?

Ask yourself “How important is this?”  “Can I live with this, or not?”  “Can this wait?”

“My partner hogs the car radio and only wants to listen to Country and I’m a Rock fan” may be a source of annoyance but it’s a small matter when compared to “My boyfriend has gambled away his paycheck twice in the last year and a half at the casino and can’t watch a football game on Sunday without having a bet on it.”  Big, important difference here, right?

Have the car radio discussion whenever the moment seems right… and do have it… but be absolutely certain to sit down (make excellent eye contact) and discuss gambling and the place that it will occupy in YOUR life.  No negotiation required here.  Losing your kids’ home to a bookie ten years down the road is an avoidable horror and it’s your responsibility to avoid it.  Don’t sweep this issue or others like it under the rug.  These are the marriage-killers and you have choices and options available to you that, for yourself, your partner and your yet-to-be-born children you are obligated to exercise.

The most important elements of this discussion are that Red Flags must be recognized and attended to.  They seldom, if ever, simply go away and, as time goes on, they usually become more deeply entrenched and more bothersome.  Some are more or less important and discretion may be applied in the timing and level of address.  Some, of course, e.g. the threat or commission of physical violence should be grounds to end relationships… battering is ALWAYS progressive and NEVER excusable.

Finally, understanding that relationships are complex systems that require constant monitoring, care and maintenance, give yourself permission to feel entitled to and positive about dealing with the data of daily life.  Address what needs to be addressed.

To Deal or Not to Deal is not a particularly valid question.

Deal!  You owe it to yourself and to the only life you’ll ever have.

- Mark B. Dunay, LICSW, LADC 1

On June 1, 2013, posted in: counseling, psychotherapy, relationships by
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