core values

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.

ignoring the red flags

My boundaries were crossed recently by someone I trusted, and uncomfortable as it was to go through, I’ve learned a lot from the experience. I’m still learning: as I’ve gotten some distance from the situation, I know that the person who crossed the line didn’t do it out of nowhere. She was, in the words of Charlie Murphy, “a habitual line-stepper.”

I just didn’t see it—or rather, I DID see it, I just didn’t allow myself to recognize her actions as red flags. This realization really surprised me, because I’ve been extremely wary and aware of red flags in dating since my terrible relationship with a narcissist ended. After it was over, I reviewed all the zillions of bright flashing neon red flags he waved at me, from our first conversation on. It was beyond mortifying, all the ways I compromised myself to be with this guy who showed me he was bad news from the start, but it was also really valuable. I took the time to define what was acceptable and unacceptable for me, and carried that with me like a magic talisman on every date, in every email exchange and conversation with a man.

And it worked. I could trust my intuition to tell me exactly what I needed to know in order to navigate through dating again. There were kind, smart, successful guys I knew just weren’t right for me—and there were charming, attractive guys who I could tell were toxic. I got so good at it, when someone really incredible crossed my path, I knew before we even spoke, just by reading his energy and trusting my instincts, that he was someone worth meeting.

I got pretty smug about it, thinking, “hey, I’ve really got this ‘gut’ thing dialed in! I’ll never trust the wrong people ever again!”

But no.

When a line was crossed, it felt like a punch in the stomach. My friend did something I never would’ve imagined I’d need to worry about a friend doing, making me so uncomfortable I was anxious and sick over it. I had no idea how to react, second-guessing myself, hoping it didn’t really happen. But it did.

After a few days of writing, thinking, and talking to other friends about it, I brought it up to her. I believed she had no idea, that she didn’t mean harm, and I needed her to know where my boundaries lay. Rather than listening with an open mind, respecting my feelings and working to clarify any misunderstanding, she went a very different route—angrily denying the whole thing, turning it around on me, calling me insecure and threatened, calling it “bullshit,” bringing up things I did wrong in the past, suggesting ways I could work on my psychological and personality issues… Your basic recipe for authentic, home-cooked crazy-making. It really stunned me; I’d encountered that kind of reaction from my toxic ex, but had never experienced it from her. Her response went so far as to tell me she knew what she was doing: her boundary-busting behavior was intentional, she just didn’t like me calling her on it.

I believed that she was a good friend, someone I could trust. I ignored a lot of red flags.

As a result, I was blindsided by something that was actually right in line with who she was.

Now, looking back at the three years we’ve known each other, I see she was showing me that all along. All the times she cancelled plans last-minute or left me waiting or stranded; her lack of self-awareness; the ways she taught me not to count on her; her ambiguous comments to and about me; her actions, lifestyle and choices—these were red flags, speaking volumes about her priorities and our differing values. She isn’t wrong, I’m not right—but I see that our closeness came from convenience and proximity when I desperately needed someone to turn to, rather than genuine compatibility. Something always felt off. I just wasn’t letting myself notice, disregarding my instincts like I had in the past.

Because of how she chose to act and respond, because she so clearly had no respect for me, and because I’ve learned not to accept what’s unacceptable, I chose to walk away from the friendship. I’m sincerely grateful for her friendship and support during a hard time in my life. Ultimately, though, what I believed about our relationship, and about her, wasn’t really true.

I don’t regret anything I said or did, but I’m not feeling especially proud of the blinders that got me here. For all my hyper-awareness of red flags in dating, I’ve ignored the fact that they can exist in any type of relationship, and ended up being hurt and disappointed by my own laziness and lack of perception. By believing what I wanted to believe and holding onto that.

The truth is, eventually everyone shows you who they really are. It’s up to us to choose whether or not we pay attention.

life with boundaries

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the past few weeks reading blogs and articles about boundaries. A lot of those writers speak to the issue of boundaries a whole lot better than I do, but thought I’d add my own experiences of how crucial boundaries are.

I first became aware of my boundaries in a toxic relationship with someone who trampled and dismissed any and all that got in his way. I didn’t really have defined boundaries at that time—nor had I ever stopped to consider what my core values were. I only knew that in this two-year relationship, I felt invaded, taken advantage of, disrespected and devalued, and I blamed myself for all of it. I felt totally unable to validate much less even begin to enforce my own sense of OK/not OK, I could just feel my trust being violated over and over again. It’s an experience that doesn’t get easier over time. My stomach still turns a little at the memory.

When I was finally able to surface and tear myself free of my user of an ex, I began to read books on break ups, narcissistic and covert manipulative personalities, self-forgiveness, codependency and healthy boundaries. One led me to the next, which led to the next. It was startling and mortifying to understand how accountable I was for allowing my values and self-respect to be compromised—I wasn’t responsible for my ex’s choices and behavior, but I was responsible for allowing it to be imposed on me. And not once, but over and over again. My continued acceptance of and belief in him was my tacit acceptance of his disrespect.

I realized it’s up to me to define what is and is not acceptable, to learn to read what my gut/instincts tell me and to act accordingly without second-guessing or rationalizing or ignoring. Looking back, I knew from the first date with my ex that he was dangerous and wrong for me. I saw big flashing red flags. Rather than trusting in my instincts, I managed to convince myself that I was crazy—and to nearly go crazy in the process of surviving the conflict between what I knew in my very bones to be true, and what I wanted to believe.

Emerging from that two-year struggle to deny myself was like coming out of a dirty, stuffy, smoke-filled room into clean fresh air. “I can breathe again,” I found myself thinking. “I’m me again.” I knew I’d never make those same choices again—but wanted to take some time to understand why I’d chosen to be with him in the first place, what I’d been looking for inside that toxic black hole. And what I learned was how to live by new rules, to understand and maintain my own boundaries, to define my core values, and to explore what in me had led me to desperately seek love and validation from a person who inspired me to feel only anxiety, fear and pain.

It would have been really easy to go too far with my boundaries after that, to create huge fortified walls to keep me safe from ever being violated again. I took a year-long break from dating, allowing myself that time to recover and discover some truths. When I did start to date again, I was extremely controlled and wary, having to consciously push myself to say “yes,” learning to listen to my gut over the voices of fear or lack. Boundaries require flexibility and commitment, awareness and adaptation. They need to be strong enough to protect us and supple enough to move with the changes in our lives and ourselves. They relate to our core values as people—how we’ve defined what’s most important to us through upbringing and experience. For me, integrity, loving-kindness, respect of others, personal accountability, self-expression, optimism and gratitude are all core values. That doesn’t mean I always live up to them, but my intention is to do so, and these are what help define my boundaries.

Recently I had the upsetting and disruptive experience of someone I trust—a friend of three years—crossing a very real line for me. I didn’t believe this person meant to do it, but it was disturbing all the same. I took a few days to figure out what was really bothering me, listen to my gut and confide in a few other close friends, and finally decided to talk to her about it. This wasn’t about my friend behaving in a way that was “wrong” or a chance to blame or condemn her, it was about the fact that her actions had violated a boundary, and because she mattered to me, I wanted to give her the opportunity to know that, to hear her response, and to find a solution that felt good for both of us. I needed to feel that my boundaries would be respected going forward, and was prepared to respect her wishes if she chose not to be my friend anymore. Unfortunately, rather than trying to empathize or understand what I was asking, she got angry and defensive and went on the attack. I was wrong for bringing it up and wrong about my reading of her behavior, and at the same time, I was insecure and threatened by that same behavior. After an uncomfortable and circular discussion, we left it there. Two days later she sent an email that ended our friendship.

It was extremely hard to read—offensive, condescending and dismissive. What she chose to write to me violated my trust even more by attacking my character and judgment, telling me my issues, and continuing to defend and excuse the original line-crossing, all in the name of friendship. I know it was written in anger, and we can all get hotly defensive when we feel unfairly (or even fairly) accused. The problem isn’t that she felt hurt and annoyed, the problem is she sent the email. She felt entitled to openly judge and demean me, to explain my situation and expose what she considered to be my insecurities, taking no accountability for the fact that her actions had affected me.

Many books and blogs discuss conflict in friendship, and recommend speaking openly to your friend about what bothers you, using only “I” messages, so they have the chance to understand, own and modify their behavior. Most of the articles stop there, with a vague nod to “if the friendship is worth it, you’ll forgive each other and move forward together, trust will be rebuilt, good friends are rare, etc.” Very few go into what happens when the friend doesn’t own his or her own part in it, but decides instead to tell you exactly what your problems are, and that you need to just get over it. My friend made it clear that she would continue to behave the same way she had previously, because this was my issue to fix, and I had no right to draw this line. Even had she sincerely believed I was overreacting, and even had my other honest confidantes agreed with her, that isn’t the point. The damage had been done in the way she chose to respond.

The last time a friend lashed out at me that way, we were in the 4th grade. I’ve walked away from very few close friendships over the last 20 years. I’ve had friends pull away or stop talking to me without an explanation, and had others tell me that I hurt them by something I said or did. But never as an adult have I experienced the disrespect of feelings and betrayal of confidence that this woman felt was appropriate. It isn’t about forgiving her; I can forgive what happened. But I don’t see my way to ever trusting her again, and I really don’t want to try. This first conflict has shown me that our values are wildly different, as is our interpretation of friendship. So in the words of Natalie Lue, I “pushed my mental flush handle” and moved on.

It’s pretty horrible to be in the position of having to actively enforce our boundaries with those we care about, to have no choice but admit to ourselves that someone we trust has trampled over our feelings, intentionally or unintentionally. The thing is, the only other option—allowing it—is immeasurably worse, even if we’d rather chew staples than take a stand. So much of our experience is open to interpretation involving different perspectives and opinions, my intention in all of this was never to be righteous or play the wounded victim. I’ve crossed lines both knowingly and unknowingly and felt awful afterward; we all fail and flounder at times. If I hadn’t learned my lesson the hard way, I’d have avoided a confrontation entirely, believing that my friend meant well and deserved the benefit of the doubt, suppressing my anxiety and disappointment.

But that’s not enough. It doesn’t work to close our eyes tight and hope for the best. It only tells people that we’re willing to negotiate on what matters most to us, that we aren’t truly committed to honoring ourselves or our feelings.

And I’m no longer prepared to compromise my values or my self-respect by allowing anyone, no matter who or in what context, to violate my boundaries. It’s my responsibility to draw the line for myself, whether or not others decide to respect it.

conscious dating

About a year after my last relationship ended, I finally tried online dating. I’d given myself a lot of time to enjoy being alone, to relish having no drama in my life after an extremely toxic, dramatic, life-draining person finally exited the stage. It was a fantastic choice to make for myself, empowering and affirming, and one that I’d never made before. Between my marriage ending and the toxic person showing up, I was either dating or involved somehow with guys, barely giving myself a chance to breathe on my own. I was scared to—I’d been with my ex-husband for 12 years, it felt unnatural to be alone. So I attached myself to someone who wasn’t good for me rather than face those fears.

As well as never choosing to be alone, I realized I’d also never dated consciously. What that means to me is keeping it light, having a sense of adventure, watching my triggers and reactions, adapting the process as I go and putting myself first. I’d always approached dating haphazardly and intensely, usually plunging immediately into serious relationships, allowing myself to be swept away in a wave of Romance. All things considered, it had never worked all that well. So when I signed up for Match after my year without dating, I committed to a different approach this time.

I didn’t meet anyone online I wanted to date long-term, but I met some extremely nice men. I went on a lot of first dates and several second dates, was rejected a few times, and really listened to what my gut told me about each guy. I didn’t let myself get swept up in a wave of flattered attachment, but gave myself time to think through each encounter and write about it. I trusted my instincts over my emotional reactions—emotions are fleeting and can be charged up by alcohol or attention. They can lie. My instincts, on the other hand, are usually right on.

While online dating was a positive experience overall, getting me out of my routine, forcing me to interact with different men, making first dates feel normal rather than terrifying, I found it also required a large amount of time and effort, and ultimately felt somewhat contrived. Instead, I took a month off to focus on myself, and then started to get out into the world more. A single friend and I agreed to try to go out once a week—to happy hour, a concert, a new restaurant, an art show. Now when I go out, I smile at men and talk to strangers of both sexes. Maybe one to two out of every 10 interactions with men turn into a possible date, but that’s about the same ratio as I was experiencing online, and it feels a lot more easy and natural.

Whatever way we choose to meet people to date, it can be challenging to keep it light and not get caught up in societal pressures or ego games. Dating brings up our deepest doubts about ourselves, and it makes us vulnerable to getting hurt. Sometimes it’s all too easy to forget that it’s supposed to be fun to socialize with the opposite sex. As I continue to navigate this process, these are the things I’m continually reminding myself to do in order to date consciously.

Stay clear. Clarity keeps me honest, aware and centered. I’ve learned to limit my drinking on dates, to watch and listen carefully, and to think before I make promises or agreements. I’m clear on what I want beforehand and write down my thoughts about it afterward. If something is disturbing or disconcerting me, however trivial, I take the time to look at why, and make choices accordingly.

Be authentic. If I’m not comfortable being myself, flaws and all, there’s really no point to any of it. We all want to be liked, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of our authentic selves—which means honestly expressing what we feel and believe and who we are. (Added bonus, self-confidence is extremely sexy!)

Don’t rush. It’s all too easy to feel the pressure of time pushing me forward, counting down on some kind of doomsday clock for singles—until I remember that there’s no rush. There’s no need to rashly jump into a relationship before I know it feels right, even if I like the guy a lot. Being alone is just fine—the world is not going to explode if I don’t get paired up tomorrow. If I find myself in a slow period with no dates, I enjoy it, to the point where I’ll even schedule time off from dating.

Know what you want. I believe that taking the time to clearly establish what you want in a partnership and partner is critical to finding it. Rather than specific demographics or traits, though, I focus on core values, feeling that true compatibility will come down to that. If we both value kindness, we’ll be kind to each other. Laughter, we’ll laugh together. Family ties, personal accountability, friendships… and so on. If we share our core values, the outer details will most likely fall into place.

Define acceptable and unacceptable. We all have deal-breakers in terms of behavior and boundary crossing. One person’s acceptable might be another person’s unacceptable. I trust my instincts and experience to tell the difference.

Remember it’s not personal. Being rejected sucks, nobody enjoys it. Unfortunately, it’s an unavoidable part of the process. In order to open ourselves up to new people, we run the risk of being rebuffed or dismissed. I remind myself that it really has nothing to do with me and is out of my control. When I’ve rejected men, it hasn’t been because there was anything wrong with them, I just didn’t feel like we were compatible.

Trust your instincts. It’s all too easy to get swept away by emotional or physical responses, or to get caught up in our yearning to be loved. As powerful as these feelings are, they don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart, but our instincts always do. Underneath the fast-beating heart, the pull of attraction, the longing, there’s a wise, kind, rational voice that will lead us to make the best possible choices for ourselves.

Pay attention. Just as I always try to make sure my actions are matching my words, I’ve learned (the hard way) that it pays to watch and listen to others. A person may be fulsome in their compliments and earnest in their expressions of interest or devotion, but ultimately hurt, disrespect or betray you—and whatever they said to the contrary, their actions were showing you the truth all along.

Be happy going in and happy going out. I still get mildly nervous right before each date. There’s a self-conscious, socially-awkward teenager inside of me who desperately wants to be liked. What helps most is to remind myself that it really doesn’t matter. That may sound strange in such a personal thing as dating, but it’s true. Big picture, each date is just an experience. If it’s good, that’s great, it might lead to another date, and it’s nice to connect with someone. If it’s iffy or uncomfortable, that’s fine, I don’t have to see that person again. When we aren’t attached to an outcome, any outcome will be the right one. Before every date, I state my intention of being happy going into the date, and happy when it’s over, whatever happens, and find that it ends up being the case.

Though my eventual hope is to build a caring, authentic partnership, that’s a long-term outcome, not an agenda I apply to dates. Instead, I try to embrace the benefits of my singlehood, enjoy the process of dating, and stay balanced in the experience.

We’ll see how I do.