Thriving

the reality of this moment

Yesterday I had one of those days that chews you up and spits you out. I got all caught up in multitasking on a bunch of complex and somewhat frustrating projects at work, as well as reading the news, as well as trying to get everything ready for my upcoming vacation. By the end of the day, I could tell that my fuse was much shorter than usual. I went home and sat down with some marinated mozzarella and a small tot of bourbon, all riled up but still aware that in order to be OK, I needed to recharge my batteries. After 10 minutes, I felt calmer and more at ease. I could laugh at my reaction to the day’s events. But I needed enough self-awareness to pamper myself first.

Now is the only reality we know. If it’s stressful, if it’s blissful, it’s all we’re capable of being fully aware of. It’s distracting and all-encompassing—even while it’s utterly transient. Now never lasts for long. Even hours of jury duty, even the worst date, the worst relationship, ends eventually. It might take time, months or even years, but ultimately the state we’re living in will change, end, transform and bring us to another state. More often than not, states last less than a day, to the point where we could look back in five days, five weeks, five months or five years and not remember what happened.

When I look back at the worst times in my life, drenching and awful as they were, I clearly see how they were also transient. They passed, though I couldn’t see the future at the time of their passing—they did pass. Most of my early adulthood was worst times and all-right times. There weren’t a lot of best times. Now that I’m in a better place, and can look back on the last four years as really, really good times, I don’t see it in terms of bad and OK. I see it as my life, with temporary periods, mostly days or partial days, when I’m not at my best, when I fight with my partner or fight a cold, when I’m cranky at work or things just aren’t going my way. But the baseline is good. The status quo, the reality of now, is good. I feel at home with myself, I feel free to create my life as I need to, I feel aligned with what matters to me.

This wasn’t always the case. And I have endless empathy for anyone struggling with a baseline, with a whole series of days or weeks, which doesn’t feel right. Doesn’t bring them joy, doesn’t open them up to greater understanding or compassion or gratitude. Which instead brings them pain and suffering—which they survive, like a post-apocalyptic Earth, scrambling for basic needs and hoping for a release. I lived through that with my ex-husband, who didn’t feel like he would ever measure up to thew world and decided not to try, eventually embracing the soothing torture of Oxycontin addiction to ease his pain. I lived it even more with my ex-boyfriend, a manipulative ex-addict who created drama for drama’s sake, stole from me and used me mercilessly to achieve his own ends. I lived it within myself, a person confined and smothered by the expectations and approval of others, unable to truly see or acknowledge myself.

Life will never be perfectly easy or purely delightful. No matter what we do, how much money we have, who we love, what we value, life challenges and irritates and surprises us. But we can live aligned with our values, and feel centered in that.

We can stand in our own truth, surrounded by those who support us, keeping at an emotional or physical difference those who don’t, and feel strong.

We can ride the news of each day with a balance of attachment and distance, recognizing that change is possible, that hope is not foolish, that united we are stronger, and each small step is valid—and now is not forever.

Now is our reality. Our consciousness only exists in this moment, for better or worse. We can’t go back, we can’t fast forward. Life is now, as we build it, as we create it, as we submit to it.

We can’t control it. But we can control the self we bring to it. We can determine how we act in it—not our reaction, necessarily, but the choices we make, what we say, what action we take.

The only way to thrive is to see, feel, and honor yourself in this now. Not to live only for now, because now leads to an endless series of nows, and one now’s impulse can create a lifetime of consequences. But to live within the now. To understand that it’s both transient and forever. To be self-aware enough to recognize the options and actions we’re presented with, to give ourselves the time and space to think through the consequences and sit with our inner wisdom.

It isn’t always possible, but there’s always another opportunity coming, another now, to practice in.

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Standing Up to the Storm

The moments I’m most proud of in my life are the ones when I stood up for myself. Really stood tall and strong in my values, stood firm in my boundaries and centered in my truth. These were pivotal moments that changed my life.

I can think of many times—many more times, in fact—when I did not stand up for myself. Mostly that was out of fear of not being loved, fear of rejection, fear of abandonment. Fear of rocking the boat and changing the status quo. I was afraid, and so I took the abuse or the unfairness, I was a passive and silent accomplice, I bent myself to the other person’s will in order to keep the peace. I was a pushover in every sense. I wanted everything to just be OK, and I believed that by keeping my head down and letting the storm crash around me, I had a better chance of getting through unscathed.

There were other times when I maneuvered around standing up for myself—I didn’t curl up into a ball mouthing abject apologies, exactly, but I wasn’t centered or steadfast, either. I allowed myself to be pushed to my furthest limit—even beyond it—and then mustered up the courage to push back a little. Still out of fear, still letting the waves and water move me from where I knew I should be. It never worked all that well.

These situations have ranged from petty to profound. Being bullied by friends or in the schoolyard, cringing with shame and fear. Or acting as mute witness to someone else being bullied—not participating, but not stepping in. Allowing those I care about most to manipulate me with guilt trips and silent treatments, feeling mortification for disappointing them and panic at their chilly rejection of me when I didn’t meet their expectations. Having the man who claimed to love me make unreasonable demands, one after the other, caught off-balance in his cycles of manipulation, love-bombing, fury and emotional abuse. Allowing him to effectively control, punish and use me, invading my home, claiming things I had already said “no” to, diminishing me with his very presence in my life. I didn’t truly stand up to him, not until the very last days of our withering relationship, when I finally realized I had nothing to lose by not giving in.

I regret every moment I accepted the unacceptable, cowed and inactive and miserable. It was never the right choice. It never created less conflict, nor inspired greater intimacy and understanding, nor changed anything for the better.

However, there were a few, critical times when I stepped forward—right out into the stormy waters, the thunder and lightning crackling above, the ocean black and roaring below. I climbed onto my rock and refused to move from it. Refused to be buffeted off by the winds of blame and guilt, refused to be frozen off by silent treatments and withholding of affection, refused to be frightened off by the storm of words or threats crashing around me. I stood in the center of my own truth, my own values, in the very center of myself, and refused to look away.

And every single time, without exception, it was the storm that failed and died away. The ocean that calmed. And my rock that remained dug into the foundation of the earth.

These moments created positive, lasting change—for myself, my relationships, my happiness. Not only that, but they didn’t cause the sky to fall. I didn’t lose the love or security I’d so feared losing. Because standing up for yourself doesn’t come at the expense of someone else’s values or truth. It only comes at the expense of their manipulations, bullying, boundary-crossing or other toxic behavior.

I’ve learned that there’s a huge difference between making reasonable compromises in friendship and partnership—compromises that respect both people’s needs, triggers and preferences—and compromising myself, my core values, my essence.

In one, I’m still standing in my own truth. No one is asking me to feel or be anything I’m not in order to satisfy their needs. There’s no angry or threatening push from either side. I can honor myself fully, and fully honor the other person, making choices and considerations that take both people’s comfort into account. No values are compromised. No one is giving up any truth.

In the other, I am asked or expected to compromise the very integrity of who I am, to relax, change or abandon my boundaries without regard for my comfort, to accept responsibilities and burdens that are not mine, or, at best, to find tricky ways to placate the situation that don’t exactly align with my truth—but hey, at least the boat stopped rocking.

You know something about that boat? Screw the boat. The boat can go to hell. I’ve spent enough time and effort carefully working to prevent that leaky little thing from shaking, failing miserably at every turn, frantically bailing water when the waves got restive and someone demanded more of me than I was willing to give.

The first time I ever leapt out of that useless boat, I found my rock there waiting for me.

I stuck myself in the boat again many times after that, imprisoned by the threat of loss or disgrace, felt myself being crushed against an unforgiving shore when even the boat failed me. And felt the weight of my fear holding me down.

I don’t allow that to happen anymore. I still get pushed at sometimes. I still find myself needing to find that center, seek out my rock, and stand there ready for the storm. I still have to separate my stories and triggers and fears from what’s really true and what really matters.

But these days, all it takes is remembering all those different moments. When I caved and crumbled and when I stood tall. When I honored another above myself, and when I couldn’t imagine doing so. When I chose fear over strength, and when I chose truth over keeping the peace.

I could continue to regret my choice to surrender, or I could celebrate my choice to fight.

And I will burn my damn boat rather than ever climb aboard again.

relationships and the space around us

“Sorry, babe, but I need some space.”

“Needing space” has become a clichéd reason for stepping back from a relationship, a generic phrase that basically equates to: “I want to give you less time and/or intimacy,” and possibly even “you have too many demands/expectations.” It lives right alongside the classic lines “it’s not you, it’s me” (=”I don’t want to be with you”) and “I’m just not ready” (=”I’m not interested in continuing this or moving forward”). Another glib excuse to break up that really means nothing at all.

But the more time I spend thinking about conscious dating, it’s become clear that space has actually mattered a lot in my relationships. Not just a safe and comfortable physical space, but a safe, comfortable and expansive mental and emotional space. Like having healthy boundaries, having healthy space just wasn’t anything I valued or even really noticed before.

A depressingly apt is example is that during the two-plus years I was involved with a toxic and manipulative partner, I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for space. I was heavily attached to him, while most of the time he was distant and withdrawn from me, even if he was sitting in bed beside me. It was a very lonely feeling. As far as I was concerned, I needed more from him, not less—more quality time, more affection, more everything.

I was wrong, though. Because the truth is, I had absolutely no emotional space with him. He crowded that from the moment he began love-bombing me, overwhelming my better instincts, zoning in on my vulnerability and kindness to achieve his own ends. And I allowed it. My gut told me that things were moving too fast, but I couldn’t seem to say no, even though nothing felt right. When I was able to take some kind of stock, I was already unbelievably entangled and had few boundaries left standing.

Added to that, my home wasn’t a safe space when we were dating. He moved in “temporarily” two months after we met, and temporarily turned into two years. Even when he wasn’t present, my apartment wasn’t mine. When he was there, I never knew what sort of mood he’d be in, if I’d find him in an icy rage or self-pitying funk, or if I’d accidentally set off the cycles of emotional abuse, crisis and seduction he excelled at. Home just wasn’t a comfortable place to be.

I was always uneasy, always watchful, always struggling against tides that I didn’t understand. I didn’t recognize that I was being crowded, suffocated and besieged, even though that’s exactly how I felt. Finally the tides shifted, circumstances began to change, I started to pay some attention to that strangled feeling and push back in small ways, and he cut his losses and agreed that it wasn’t going to work.

The day he moved out, I felt utterly, wildly free. I felt like myself. Suddenly there was space around me, all the space I could ever want. Emotional space to feel everything I needed without the exhausting burden of attachment or anxiety over his moods and drama. Mental space to clearly understand what had been going on, identify, process, evaluate. My home was a place of comfort and safety again, where I had full control over the emotional climate. I couldn’t imagine how I’d been surviving for all those unhappy months, or why I’d believed that he was worth everything I gave.

I relished my space. I dove into it and found peace. I was giddy with the freedom it offered. Space to grieve, to think through, to repair. To forgive myself. To imagine new possibilities.

Only when mine was restored did I start to understand how important space is, and begin to really notice and value it. It’s central to personal freedom and self-empowerment. It allows for true intimacy, creativity, growth, mental clarity and emotional well-being. It doesn’t stop us from being close to others, but does stop us from getting entangled with them in unhealthy ways.

Any relationship can push into our space if we allow it. When we feel like we just don’t quite have enough psychological “room” for ourselves, enough time to consider each choice, enough detachment from emotional burdens or expectations, or a safe enough environment, it’s much harder, if not impossible, to live an authentic life and be aligned to what matters most to us. We can feel trapped and smothered, anxious and exhausted, painfully aware that something just isn’t right.

Whether the crowding is innocent or intentional, whether we allowed it or inherited it, it’s not an easy thing to change. Recognizing the issue is probably the hardest part, since we almost never seem to value our space until it’s opened back up around us. Like all challenges in relationships and life, nothing changes until we do, until we’re ready to make the hard choices and take the hard steps.

Space matters more than I ever imagined it could, especially space between us and those we hold most dear. If we feel as though we’re emotionally stifled and entangled and have no room to breathe, desperate for some time alone or away to recharge and reset, that’s a pretty glaring red flag that our space has been compromised and we probably need to step back from the person or relationship, even just internally. It doesn’t have to mean the relationship is doomed or the person isn’t good for us, but only that we don’t have the space we need to thrive.

One of the most positive, empowering things about my current relationship is all the space I continue to feel around me. From the start I had unlimited room to react, analyze, process and make decisions that were right for me. It was beyond reassuring to feel that we could take our time and explore the possibilities freely and joyfully. Not once have I felt rushed or invalidated or anxious. I’m deeply attached to my partner, but that attachment has never put pressure on my emotional space.

I believe successful relationships have their foundations in profound respect: respecting the other person as a whole, unique being separate from us. Respecting their time, privacy, belongings and money, as well as their thoughts, beliefs, perspective, experience and opinions. I respect my partner’s emotions and feel empathy without taking on his feelings or worries as my own. When we disagree or muddy the waters, there’s always space to communicate, listen, forgive and compromise.

Space to ourselves is also one of the biggest benefits of singlehood, something I took for granted in the past. As I’ve written about previously, consciously being single is incredibly empowering and revealing, giving us one of the best chances we’ll ever have to recognize and prioritize the things that matter most to us, the places we need to grow and wounds we need to heal. Having no romantic entanglements, or only casual ones, allows us to fully appreciate the space we need and ensure that we keep it in every new relationship.

Right up there with healthy boundaries and knowing what you want, noticing and valuing our need for space makes it possible for us to develop stronger, deeper connections with others and a more empowered, authentic self. And that’s definitely worth paying attention to.

 

why dating myself changed everything

It was a Friday at the end of July, 2013. The evening before, my two-year relationship had finally ended. I still think of that Thursday as my own personal day of liberation.

He was still living with me, would continue to live at my apartment for the next four days before he moved out to live with his parents in a nearby town. But I woke up that Friday morning with a weight off my shoulders, a feeling of such blinding lightness and release that I don’t believe I’ll ever forget. I don’t want to forget it.

Before I got ready for work, I wrote a group text to my closest friends letting them know what had happened. None of them were surprised, all were relieved and hopeful. We’d broken up briefly a few weeks before, at his pleading and promises I’d agreed to give him a second chance. He blew it, of course, and I was done.

The song lyrics to Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” pretty much describe the relationship and everything I feel about it, and him, now that it’s over. I’m not sorry it happened. It changed me and set me on a revolutionary course in my love life.

Once we’re out, the best thing that can result from a toxic relationship—or really any relationship, toxic or not—is a reevaluation of everything we believe about love and partnership. Clearly I didn’t know what I was doing, between my disintegrated marriage and my stint as punching bag and “sugar mama” (ugh) to a charming and manipulative thief. At first I was so giddy with relief and confused by the pain of detachment, I couldn’t think further ahead than a few weeks.

I read a lot of rich, validating books during those first months—books about breakups, about choosing yourself, about narcissists and emotional abuse and boundaries. And I realized that I’d never actually taken the time to think about what I wanted in a relationship. I mean, what did I actually want?? I knew what I didn’t want—a lying scumbag or a man-child like my ex-husband. But where did that leave me?

I came to the conclusion that the best thing I could possibly do for myself was not to date for a while. A long while. To remove myself from the dating arena entirely until I’d figured a few things out. But I didn’t want to be single by default again—killing time until the next guy showed up, using my energy to look or long for him. I wanted to be consciously single, to feel empowered by my choice not to date or enter a new relationship.

More than that, I wanted to date myself.

From my senior year in college on, I never had a chance to really be single—not involved with or distracted by a man or men. Between my boyfriend who became my husband who became my ex, to the men I dated while we were separated, to the man I ended up allowing to live off me for two years, I hadn’t ever truly taken a break from romantic encounters, and certainly not on purpose. I was a late bloomer in dating, didn’t have a boyfriend until college, but of course I didn’t spend those early years consciously creating a healthy sense of self-worth, I mostly had a series of crushes that went nowhere. When my husband and I split up, it would have been a great opportunity to take a long, honest look at myself.

Instead I was scared of being alone, lost without my married identity. I wanted to find what I thought I was lacking pronto—a new partner who would take me away from myself and all the unprocessed emotions from the last few years of crisis, loss and separation. So I ran headlong into the lion’s den and held myself an anxious, unhappy prisoner there.

In my heady sense of freedom when I finally got out, I vowed never to make those mistakes again. I had a second chance to embrace the kind of growth and self-awareness I could have prioritized after my marriage ended, and I was going to take it—joyfully, purposefully, powerfully.

I gave myself a year, though was open to ending that year early if I felt I was ready. But I intentionally set out to date myself for a year. This meant consciously giving myself all the time, effort, attention and affection that I’d previously given to men. Not being distracted by a lack of men or my interest in men, but focusing on what I needed—and giving it to myself. Recognizing what healthy partnership means to me and what I want it to look like. Loving myself in every way, learning what it means to be the partner I need. Identifying and writing down my core values. Writing letters and journaling to process pain, anger and shame from my past. I made an empowering playlist which I listened to while I walked my neighborhood, cleaned my apartment and sat dreaming in my living room. I learned to trust my instincts, to recognize and honor my own boundaries.

I invested in a relationship with myself in a way I’d never imagined possible.

About midway through this year, on a particularly festive New Year’s Eve out with two friends, I ended up kissing a stranger at midnight, who then asked for my number. I gave it to him—not because I wanted to, I didn’t, but because I hadn’t prepared a response. He texted the next day and asked me out, to which I never replied. I was hung over and full of chagrin, and took stock of where I was. I hadn’t meant for that to happen, but did it mean I was ready? If not this guy, would I want to say “yes” to the next one?

The answer was a very emphatic “no.” I wasn’t ready to give this up yet. I wasn’t ready to stop pouring my energy into me—relishing my alone time—living my life without the drama that dating and relationships bring. Of course there were lonely moments, but I had friends, family and pets to help me through those—not to mention myself. I lived through holiday weekends alone, I learned from the lonesome moments. I thought about a future partner, but I didn’t feel the lack of one.

Eleven months after my breakup, I went to a Match.com rafting event with a girlfriend. I enjoyed it, and found I was interested in what online dating could offer me. I was ready to dip a cautious toe in the pool—but this time I was prepared. I was going to do this differently and I knew exactly what that meant—conscious dating, open to adaptation as needed. I wrote my New Rules in Love and read them over daily. When I started communicating and going on dates with men, I listened to my gut—my best and truest ally—and never doubted or second-guessed what it told me. If it said never see this man again, I would tell him it wasn’t going to work and move on. I journaled before and after almost every date, keeping a clear perspective on every experience, discussing my reactions openly with friends.

And it was fun. I had fun meeting different men—always a little nerve-wracking right before the date began, but once it started I was fine. I allowed myself to say both “yes” and “no” frequently, dating from a place of strength and abundance and confidence, rather than fear and lack. I took breaks from dating for weeks at a time, hiding my profile and giving that energy back to myself. I eventually stopped online dating after six months, it was just too time-intensive for me, but it was a good way to get back in the game. After that I met men in the real world, which took intentionally accepting invitations to social events and creating my own opportunities to go out and talk to strangers.

When I met the man I’m with today, I knew immediately and instinctively that he was a good person. We chatted, exchanged numbers, met up casually at a concert the next week. Eventually I texted him first—but not out of desperation; I had another date that week with another man I’d met. After my first date with my current partner, I knew something was very different—and even then, we both took our time. We didn’t rush, nobody got love-bombed. Every step of the way going into this relationship, I used my conscious dating techniques. I continued to remember what mattered to me, to invest in my own wants and needs first. Even as my life opened to include him, even as we compromised and became closer, I made myself a priority. We’ve been living together for more than six months and I’m still doing that. It’s the healthiest relationship I’ve ever had—because I’m also still in a great relationship with me.

I believe he and I work because we share the same core values—ultimately I think that’s what creates the best chance for compatibility long-term. We have our issues, we talk them out. I see us building a life together, and I feel hopeful and excited about the future.

But at the same time, I know I’ll be OK no matter what happens. I’m not afraid of losing him. This isn’t cynicism or pessimism or denial; it would be devastating and heartbreaking beyond belief if we broke up. But I’d still have me. I’d still have a full life and as many chances for happiness, fulfillment and joy as I do with him. I’d still have a whole identity, something I never understood or valued before.

Dating myself was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I wouldn’t be the partner I am now without that experience, wouldn’t be in the relationship I am, wouldn’t be the person I am. Whether we’re on our own by choice or not, we don’t have to just live through singlehood because that’s what fate handed us, to sit resignedly in the Singles Waiting Room until we can board the next dating train. Societal pressures aside, being single has advantages we often fail to appreciate, not the least of which is a chance to intentionally prioritize ourselves.

If we redirect the energy we’d give to a partner or dating into ourselves, instead—into our ambitions and desires, our growth, our finances, our friendships, our hobbies and travels—for even one month, it might just lead to some pretty amazing results.

Dating ourselves isn’t solely a means to building a better, healthier love life in the future. It’s a radical and empowering re-imagining of our beliefs about love, partnership and fulfillment.

And that changes everything.

six bright red and green flags of dating

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.