Dating can be daunting and complicated.
It isn’t easy to find the balance between enjoying it and not letting it run our lives, between giving time to it and time to everything else that matters to us, between being open to possibilities and protecting ourselves, and between releasing our pasts and learning everything we can from our experiences. It requires time, attention and effort. There’s no one right way to do it, there’s no perfect recipe for a great social life. I found that what worked for me developed over time, with a lot of trial and error.
I think the hardest part for many of us, especially those of us who’ve made appalling mistakes in the past, is learning to trust our own judgment—again or for the first time. Every encounter and every person is different. How do we know for sure that we’re making the right decisions for ourselves?
Thinking about this recently, I decided to create a list of some of the red and green flags that I learned to watch for through the process of dating. These may or may not be helpful to anyone else, but they they gave me confidence and helped me keep my balance.
Red Flag #1: Love Bombing.
The other person overwhelms you with attention, compliments, praise and expressions of devotion. This is called “love bombing,” and anyone who’s experienced it knows how GOOD it feels. Suddenly you go from being alone to deeply attached, you belong to someone who adores you. All your free time is absorbed by them. They talk about the future—forever—love. They’ve never met anyone like you before, you’re The One. You’re breathless with excitement and giddy with romance, devouring every word. Before you know it, you’ve become dependent on the heady drug that is their affection, and find all your boundaries and values flying out the window in order to keep it coming.
The catch? It’s not real. No matter how quickly two people fall in love, if it’s a healthy and sustainable relationship, one person won’t overwhelm the other with attachment. Every relationship has its own pace, fast or slow, but the key is that both people are comfortable and clear-headed about what’s happening. If it feels like too much, too soon, then it is, and chances are this person wants something. To sleep with you, manipulate you, condition you, use you in some way to their advantage. No one ever needs to be love bombed in order to fall in love.
Green Flag #1: An authentic pace.
Sure, being swept up in romance is fun and exciting, it’s a natural high unlike just about any other. But what’s the hurry? This person is basically a stranger, no matter how great they seem. It’s a good sign if they make it clear that they’re in no rush. They show you that they want to get to know you better, but that’s it. They don’t have an agenda. This flag indicates maturity, integrity and respect, not a lack of desire or interest. You can let the relationship unfold as it will without stressing over it or feeling overwhelmed by it.
The flip side is someone who drags their feet, who does NOT show you that they’re interested, who leaves you guessing because they’re playing games or aren’t really sure what they want. Your best bet is to watch for the indications that they really do want to date you. They contact you and respond when you contact them. They follow up when they say they will. They end a date by talking about the next one. They don’t make big promises and don’t break the promises they make. Their actions speaking for their intentions. Beyond the almost unavoidable “how much does he/she like me?” question we all ask ourselves, you shouldn’t have to guess whether or not they’re interested in you.
For both of these flags, your own responses will tell you everything you need to know. Do you feel dismissed and confused? Valued and respected? Overwhelmed and anxious? Does this person frequently disappoint you, or consistently follow through? Are you deeply attached by week two, terrified that it will end? Are you willing to let the relationship unfold at its own pace, whatever that may mean?
Red Flag #2: Boundary Crossing.
You’ve just met a very attractive, charming man or woman who’s knocked you off your feet—maybe even love-bombed you, but it’s too late, you missed that red flag. Or maybe they didn’t love bomb, you watched for that, they courted you or responded to you in a mature, open way that clearly showed they like you. You’ve gone on one or three or five dates, and are starting to think that this could really have potential. And then something happens that makes you uncomfortable. They tease you—about something you’ve made clear is important, or belittle you in a teasing way. They make an unkind comment about your appearance, or job, or friends—as a joke, maybe, but it still hurts your feelings. They do something—flirt with a bartender, go a little too far physically, “accidentally” leave you with a big tab—that disturbs you and makes you uneasy and resentful. You may seem “over-sensitive” to someone who has different boundaries, but that doesn’t matter. You were made uncomfortable.
If you’ve already established for yourself what is and is not acceptable behavior and what they do falls squarely into the unacceptable category, now’s the time to cut your losses and walk away. There’s no value in rationalizing or making excuses—it’s appropriate to end it now, no matter how nice you thought they were. If their behavior is in the gray area for you, daunting as it may be, it’s probably best to address it head on. We have the right and responsibility to speak up for ourselves when our personal lines are crossed. Either it was an honest mistake and your budding relationship will be the stronger for the conversation, or it wasn’t. If the other person is defensive, plays the victim, blames you (or anyone else) or is in any way crazy-making, this is definitely not a good bet for a future partner. If speaking up scares them off, what are the chances you’d work through even bigger conflicts in the future?
Green Flag #2: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Self-respect in dating matters. Coming from a strong place where you value yourself and believe that your wants, needs, opinions, feelings and ideas are important is the best guarantee that you’ll choose similarly strong people to date. One way to recognize this is that you feel utterly respected by the person you’re dating. You know they value who you are—not who you could be if you were more successful or skinnier, not you with less flaws. But YOU. They show respect for your time, your priorities, your family, your responsibilities, your choices. Making plans with them doesn’t require you to rearrange your life, and vice versa.
We all know when someone is disrespecting us. Crossing boundaries, consistently showing up late or cancelling plans at the last-minute, trying to negotiate when we say “no” or convince us that we’re in the wrong, playing any kind of mind game. No matter how attracted we might be to them, disrespect is disrespect. You deserve better than that—and someone who starts out disrespecting you probably won’t stop.
It’s on us to own our own boundaries and self-worth. We deserve to feel empowered to define our deal-breakers and enforce them, to recognize when someone has crossed a line and decide for ourselves what to do about it, and to only let people into our lives who show us unwavering respect, who we respect in return. Without a strong foundation, a relationship will crumble, causing far more heartbreak and stress than speaking out or ending it early on would.
Red Flag #3: Your Gut Says “No.”
Whether it’s the first date or the fiftieth, there’s one very simple and beautiful way to decide if someone is right for you—whatever “right” means at that moment in your life. Your gut will tell you. Even those of us who have made some truly horrible decisions when it comes to dating can trust our instincts—there was nothing wrong with what they told us, what was wrong was that we didn’t listen to them. Haven’t we all kicked ourselves, saying “I KNEW I shouldn’t have done that,” and we were proved right? Our instincts are our best friends, best guides and best allies. They only have our very best interest at heart. There’s nothing complicated about our instincts, they don’t have conflicting loyalties. They have one job: to lead us to make the choices that are aligned with who we really are. That’s it.
Maybe by the third date, you believe that the man or woman you’re dating is pretty awesome, but something inside you is saying “Nope. No. Not.” Instead of accepting this and open-mindedly investigating why, you argue with it—”But she’s fabulous!” “He’s such a nice man!” Say you’re successful (as so many of us have been) and manage to ignore and override your inner guide, pushing yourself forward into a relationship regardless. What good can come of it? You’re never going to change your instinct’s mind. Something is telling you not to be with this person. Maybe they’re actually a sociopath, or maybe they’re a fantastic person who just isn’t right for you. Either way, your gut will be your best resource for deciding whether or not to pursue a relationship.
Green Flag #3: Your Loved Ones Say “Yes.”
This is much less important than listening to your own instincts, but it’s still a good indication of relationship potential. Not everyone in your life has to love your significant other like you do, but it’s a big flashing green flag if those in your inner circle, the people who love and value you the most, like what they see when you’re with this person. They should see you being yourself, feeling comfortable and confident, remaining committed to your values and priorities. Sure, a relationship requires us to make some compromises, but a healthy relationship never requires us to compromise ourselves. Our partner should share our core values, not challenge or negate them.
Whether or not a relationship is meant to work out long-term, having the support and enthusiasm of both partners’ friends and families will only add to what you bring to each other. If your partner can be friends with your friends, and you with theirs, that’s an extremely positive sign—because if they can’t, or they aren’t interested in building those connections, what does that mean for their friendship with you?
There are a lot of forces pushing on us when we’re single. Society wants us to be paired up, as if we all have sell-by dates and will expire if we’re not happily partnered. The world at large favors couples, outside of our own desire for companionship. So we’re really good at talking ourselves into and out of things, often with the help of our advisers, often just in our own minds. We might pass up a potential date because she or he doesn’t fit our projected ideas about who our partner “should” be. We might get married against our instincts because we rationalize that it’s better to be with someone than to be alone, convincing ourselves that we’re in love. We might date the wrong person for years, just because we don’t have a logical reason not to.
The point is, this is your life, you live with the consequences of your dating decisions—not your family, not society at large. Whether or not you’ve made mistakes in the past, you get to learn the lessons offered and start again. In this complicated thing called dating, your instincts, your values and your awareness are the most dependable tools for finding the right balance, and right partner, for you.