This week in our Relationships 101 series, I want to chat a bit about flags in a relationship.
If I do say so myself, I wrote a pretty smokin’ section on this in my book so if you’ve got access to “Food is not the Problem: Deal With What Is!“ I encourage you to check out Chapter 23. It’s got lots of good education and tools on communication in relationships.
I’m going to present an abridged and updated version of the section on flags here so you can get a good feel for the concept and begin to experiment with it yourself.
The Flag System
I am about to share with you a concept that is not in and of itself a communication tool. However, it is a fundamental tool for assessing the information you are receiving verbally and non-verbally from people in your life. Once you have assessed this information, you will be in a stronger and clearer place to determine for yourself how you want and need to proceed. By that, I mean whether or not you need to speak to the other person, and if so, what you need to say. (We’ll address the what to say and how to say it in the next 2 weeks of this series of articles).
All of our communications with others can be categorized in terms of flags: red, yellow, and green. In our ideal relationships, we have tons of green, a few yellow (which get immediately changed to green with some seeking to understand and open sharing) and almost never a red one.
Red flags indicate any words or actions which can be found on both the list of Unclear and Unhealthful Boundaries (Chapter 21) and on the list of Signs of an Emotional Abusive Relationship (Chapter 20). Learn about identifying Red Flags through the use of the handouts attached to this article. Red flags are dangerous to have in any relationship. Your sense of security and trust in the relationship will be compromised as long as any red flag is there: NO EXCEPTIONS. Also, if you hold certain values high, such as: monogamy, no use of drugs and spiritual growth, these values should be on your list of red flags in order for you to feel safe and respected in your relationship. In other words, whatever you value must be valued by key people in your life in order for you to have truly intimate and safe connections with them.
Yellow flags would be any non-red behaviours or words which make you feel uncomfortable or concerned about the values or intention of the person. They do not compromise your sense of physical safety, but they do make you question the integrity of the person or make you wonder if you are getting the whole story. A yellow flag creates a momentary doubt about your suitability and/or about the trustworthiness of the other person. Yellow flags can also speak to whether the other is a match for you, in terms of hobbies and interests.
Green flags are fabulous. The communication of the other is in alignment with their actions, and your values are aligned with theirs as well. There is no part of you saying, “Oh, I’m not certain about that.” Or “I’m not feeling comfortable about that.” Or “I sure hope he doesn’t do that with me!” It’s all good. It’s all a “go.” You feel peaceful and easy with this person, and things just seem to flow.
I’m going to show you how to quickly identify whether a relationship has the potential to be a green flag one or whether it will, at least at this time in your development, be choppy (lots of yellow flags) or downright bloomin’ stressful! (yep, you guessed it: Red Flag!).
Red Flag Example
*Please note* For this section, I am using an example of how to identify and handle a red flag situation in a brand new relationship. If you want to apply the red flag system to an established relationship, this example will apply with the exception that you should, unless it’s an abusive pattern, be willing to give the person 3 tries (assuming you remind them when they misstep – more on this next week) to change the pattern. This is because, it is highly likely that you have contributed to the establishment of this pattern and, just because you’re ready for it to end, doesn’t mean the other person knows how you feel about it, what you need, and how to meet that need. This takes a little practice, and we want to provide the people we care about with a little time to get up to speed and show us what they are truly capable of.
This is an example of a red flag in action: You are in a conversation with someone you are just getting to know, and you are telling them something that is very important to you and that you are quite proud of in yourself. The other person starts laughing and makes a derogatory comment about how silly your pursuit is and how they don’t get how anyone can waste their time on it. RED FLAG! RED FLAG! Criticism, judgement, contempt, ridicule, disrespect! Not good. Fortunately, you have some options:
1. You can say nothing. End the conversation, and never speak to this person again.
2. You can say, “I find your response to my sharing disrespectful and rude. I wonder what your intention is in saying that?” They better have a damned good response that lets you know without a doubt that they misunderstood your sharing, such as, “Oh, I’m really sorry. I thought you were saying you didn’t like that either.” Even then, you clearly have a serious communication problem, and you are best to move on. Now would be the time to make it clear to that person that you love that pursuit, you respect it and you couldn’t be in a relationship with anyone who didn’t. I fully, one-hundred percent, support this action as well. I’m all about courageous, self-respecting conversations. They are so good for your self-esteem and for building healthful connections. If the other person comes back to you with anything other than a sincere apology and a total change in their tune, you would be compromising yourself to continue in the relationship in any form.
3. Option # 3: Caution! This option should be used only if you do not want to have healthful self-esteem and a life free from food and body-image focus. You can continue in the relationship as is. You do have this option, but the consequences are great, and this is just the beginning! You see, to remain silent in that moment would be to send the other person a loud and clear message that they can ridicule you any time they want, and you will keep coming back for more. Not a good start. I do not support this option at all.
A trait or character flaw which is noticed at the beginning of a relationship will stand out even more as you get to know each other. That’s why any red flags, unclear boundaries, or major value differences need to be addressed as soon as they arise. You must set the tone for a respectful and healthful relationship by establishing clear boundaries about the things which raise a red flag from the outset. Any harmful, unhealthful, or abusive behaviour you witness in the other early on should be seen as a cue to distance yourself from the other person, and you should not proceed with the relationship at that time?if ever.
My rule of thumb around red flags is this: If I hear or see anything in the other person that is a red flag, I speak to it instantly (assuming it is not an abusive behaviour – there is no room in my life for that – and, while I might tell the person what I’ve witnessed, I would not be open to discussing any further connection with them).
The answer I get when I speak to a red flag, assuming it is not abusive, tells me:
a. If this is an unconscious pattern the other person is unaware of and unwilling to look at. If so, end of story, end of connection.
b. Or if it perhaps was unconscious until we brought it to their attention but now that we have, they are genuinely apologetic and commit sincerely to not doing that again. This would lead to a yellow flag where we take things a little slower and give this person a chance to prove their sincerity through their actions before we just trust them.
c. Or if it is a conscious pattern; the person is actively working on healing. If so, I set a clear boundary with the person about what my needs are and what I will and won’t accept in my relationship with them, and they get one more chance, that’s it. One more chance. I know, all too well, how much energy unhealthful connections take, and I respect myself too highly to have anyone in my life that is disrespectful or unsafe. I far prefer my own company to someone who is critical of me, demeaning, or untrustworthy.
So, I give one more chance, assuming, and this is key, that there are some wonderful green flag things about this person that make me see a huge benefit in the connection. I commit myself to following through. If the violation occurs one more time, that’s it, end of story, end of connection. I don’t need to articulate why I have ended the connection, although I can if I choose to. But it isn’t open for discussion. It was a red flag; therefore, this person/behaviour can’t be allowed to be in my life. There are far too many wonderful green flag people out there, and the more time you or I spend with red flag ones, the less time and energy we will have for the life-enhancing ones.
I mentioned earlier that fundamental value differences, such as: monogamy, spiritual beliefs (if they are important to you or the other person), substance use, and racial prejudices, for example, are red flag issues. If you need a monogamous partner and discover early on that your potential partner has had affairs in his last two relationships, this is about as big as a red flag gets. It needs to be spoken to, and you must know that he has had some time (and some mega therapy) between his last relationship and the one with you to heal this pattern. You have the right to ask what he has done to ensure this behaviour will not be repeated in his relationship with you. If he hasn’t done a big piece of work in understanding and healing this pattern, you are far better off just being friends. Don’t wait for him to “prove” that he has changed. Come to think of it, why would you want him in your circle of friends when his fundamental values differ vastly from yours? You see, if the pattern isn’t troublesome enough for him to be willing to work hard to change it, he doesn’t have the same value system as you and probably thinks it’s no big deal. Listen to this.
Pay attention to the red flags which you see and hear in the other person, friend, potential partner, colleague or teacher. All of the above are relationships and need to be approached from the perspective of only the green flags get to go forward! Otherwise, keep your distance until the red flag is removed and it’s a green. This will happen either by the other person actively changing their behaviour, or by you removing yourself from the relationship.
Something that is always a big red flag for me is how able and willing a person is to see their responsibility in past situations. For example, do they blame the boss for firing them or are they able to acknowledge that it wasn’t a good fit or that they really didn’t apply themselves? Or, do they make excuses for where they are in their life rather than freely acknowledging that they played a role in the choices they made? A person’s ability to openly step up and take responsibility for their life is a powerful indicator of how much responsibility they’ll be willing to take in our relationship. If they’re resistant to seeing their role in past connections or career situations, you can bet that they’ll do that with you, regardless of how nice and cute they may seem, unless they’ve done a lot of soul searching and had some counselling too.
Yellow Flag Example
An example of a yellow flag is this: You are having a chat with someone in the line-up at the supermarket. You start to wonder if you might form a friendship, possibly a partnership with this person, and then they say, “Yeah, I went heli-skiing yesterday, I’m going parachuting tomorrow, and next week my buddy and I are off to trek the Himalayas.” Well, unless you are an extreme-sport-mega-outdoor kind of person, you are not going to have a lot in common. This is a yellow flag.
It doesn’t mean they are a bad person, or that either of you are lacking in some way. A yellow flag is more a representation of the difference between likes and dislikes which, if they are too big or too many, makes a relationship a lot of work and very little fun. Noticing yellow flags doesn’t mean that you have to end the relationship, and it doesn’t necessarily say anything about the wellness of the other person, it just speaks to differences that need to be acknowledged and clarified before you can decide whether to proceed in the relationship and what kind of relationship (acquaintance, friend, dear friend, or partner) you can create with this person at this time.
Going back to the supermarket example . . . Let’s say you were interested in the guy in the check-out line-up, and then he says those things about his activities. If you were to honour your Authentic Self, which would be saying “I don’t like those activities or that much intensive activity,” you might say: “Wow! It sounds as though you really enjoy being active and doing extreme things.” He may say, “Yes!” And you now know that the two of you are not a match. You can like him. You can find him sexy. You can think he’s a great guy, and you can know that he’s not right for you because of the yellow flag that isn’t going away.
Or he may say, “Actually, I don’t really. My friend and I won this contest, and they take you on all these adventures for two weeks. Normally, I just go for a bike ride if I want some exercise.” You happen to love cycling, and now you’re talking! The yellow flag has been removed from the road, and it’s all green (for now, anyway).
So, yellow flags are meant to spur you to clarify what you are hearing and witnessing, and then compare this new, clarified data with who you know yourself to be and what you like. If you don’t like clubbing, but someone you just met and like, goes dancing each evening until 3:00 a.m., this is a big yellow flag, and you are best to either have a very casual friendship or nothing at all. This person is not relationship material for you, as a friend or partner.
As soon as you notice a yellow flag, you must check it out. In any relationship, save yourself time and energy by speaking to what you see that concerns you. Always keep in mind that most of the time, the issues we have in relationships with others are simply miscommunications and misunderstandings and not truly irreconcilable differences or intended harm. The way the other person responds will either clarify the issue?making the road all green flags again?or show you that there is cause for concern. If the latter is the case, you would discuss this with the person, and the two of you would discuss how to navigate this concern in the relationship. If you can’t come to an agreement, I encourage you to seek an outside support person: a couples’ counsellor, for example. Clear up these yellow flags, a.s.a.p. Most marriage counselling fails, according to numerous studies, not because the counsellors aren’t skilled, but because the couple wait too long to seek help: typically seven years!! after an issue has become contentious. The sad thing is that many of the issues that break up marriages are yellow flag issues and not red ones, but they’ve been left for so long, and there is such an emotional charge around them, that they have become red flags and are hard to overcome.
So, if you are already in a committed relationship, start speaking to anything which you experience that doesn’t feel good or comfortable to you and anything which makes you think that it doesn’t feel quite right. Name it to the other person. Use some of the communication tools you’ve already got in your toolkit or those we’ll be discussing in the next 2 weeks, and get talking. You may never have had one, but you absolutely deserve a green flag relationship. And if yellow flags surface in a green flag relationship, they are dealt with immediately and respectfully, and you are quickly back to all green again. That is how relationships remain open and loving and how couples stay in that honeymoon phase decades into their relationship. Clear the air respectfully and immediately and fully, and the sweetness between you remains forever.
In a healthful interdependent relationship, yellow flags will surface, but not very often. You are two separate individuals from two different backgrounds. There are bound to be some differences and some confusion from time to time. What makes the difference between a safe and healthful place to be and one that will only bring you more of the old harmful patterns and co-dependency is that in the safe and healthful place, you are free to speak to your yellow flags and to have your concerns acknowledged, respected and attended to by the other person. In the old harmful pattern, you do not feel free to share what isn’t working for you, and there is no respect and acknowledgment of your needs and feelings when you do. This is the slippery slope to that excruciating experience of being in a relationship but feeling lonely. Ugh! You deserve better and you can have better, often with this very person who is driving you bloomin’ bananas!
One last piece that is absolutely fundamental:
Just because you have a partner or friend who is able to hear you when you share your concerns, this doesn’t mean the yellow flag or red flag is gone. Their behaviour absolutely must change as well. The ability to hear concerns and respond respectfully is a good sign for sure, but it doesn’t count for anything if the person is going to keep doing the same thing the same way. Often times, if we are challenging old beliefs and co-dependent patterns in our relationships, the simple act of asking for what we need is so frightening that, when we do receive a reasonably respectful response and feel heard by the other person rather than judged and criticized, we feel so relieved that we think the job is done. It isn’t. You still must see the behaviour of the other person change?consistently, not just for a while. Otherwise, they are simply paying lip service to your concerns and not really “getting” it.
I look at the Flag system as part one of a three-part process:
- Part one is the identification of a red or yellow flag; first to yourself and then to your friend/partner.
- Part two is the respectful receiving of your sharing by the other and the mutual creation of a plan for how this need will be met or, in other words, how this behaviour will be changed and when. This is the boundary-setting part, where you let the other person know exactly what you need and what you expect in order to make this flag turn to green. To do this most effectively, use Non Violent Communication or the concept of Intention and Seeking to Understand (Chapter 23 of “Food is not the Problem: Deal With What Is!”).
- Part three is the actual change of the behaviour.
Remember, all of the pieces must be there in order to turn a red or yellow flag to green.
And Baby, you deserve a green flag life!