How much attention should you pay to relationship 'red flags'?

Jenna Birch
Contributing Writer
What to do about red flags? (Illustration: Hannah Jacobs for Yahoo Lifestyle)

Reader question: “I met someone briefly through business and asked her if she’d like to go out. She said yes, so I called a few days later to make a date. I had to leave a message. She called back and left me a voicemail, saying she’d follow up on Friday or Saturday to set it up. Two weeks later, she called me on a business matter, with no mention of the date. When I asked her why I hadn’t heard from her, she said a friend was ill. I am a big believer in reliability in relationships and decided this was a clear lack thereof … but am I being too ‘strict’ in applying my values, or did I save myself from future problems by paying attention to this red flag?”

Some might say this is an easy answer. “If she didn’t follow through, then take the hint and don’t ask her out again!” But I have a different take on situations like this, which stems from my experience with the modern dating landscape and a general distaste for classic advice.

Let me go back and paint the picture. Once upon a time, I thought I could conquer dating like I’d conquered all my other major life goals. If the goal was to find a lasting relationship, then I needed some rules by which to navigate and find it. If the entire dating field was a system, then I was going to uncover the most efficient operating mode!

To summarize years into two words: I tried. I adopted “rules” that made sense. I knew all the red flags to watch out for. I knew all the classic dating advice. I knew what I “should” do to make smart romantic decisions. Yet none of this resulted in a relationship that felt right.

With that, I did a complete 180 on my “if, then” approach to dating. Now, I hate rules and the word “should.”

Lots of us approach the dating field looking for reasons to rule people out as romantic prospects, instead of building a relationship. We make rational choices, when love itself (the reason for dating) is a fairly irrational thing. We focus on “what” (a relationship) and “how” (dating by the book) instead of “who” (a promising person) and “why” (because we feel a connection worth pursuing).

The truth is, everyone has red flags in isolation; there is also no one way to relate to humans, each unique, dynamic, and complex. In order to find the love you want, you have to balance your head with your heart and gut; all deserve a say. You also often have to take risks that make you vulnerable to lost time and a broken heart.

So what should you think about early in the game, if the person has “red flags” or imperfect characteristics and behaviors? Do you have to completely write off someone whose consistency is spotty to start? Here are my top tips for how to deal with red flags.

#1: Look at behaviors in the context of the bigger picture.

When you first meet a prospect, they don’t factor into your life much — not to mention, they’re usually one of many dating prospects in your bubble. It’s a really different romantic landscape than ever before. Options are everywhere, and people are actively aware of this reality. So if something pops up to prevent a date — like an illness, a work problem — it’s easy to let potential dates fall by the wayside.

Daters tend to put themselves first early on, especially if they are not actively looking for a relationship. This might seem insensitive, but it’s rarely personal. If you can’t get over that red flag feeling, it’s fine to move on; no need to feel peeved going on a first or second date. But I wouldn’t take one red flag, communication issue, or failed follow-through as a referendum on how the person always acts.

I wound up missing the first and second (tentative) drink dates with my ex. I was ill for our first scheduled date, and then my laptop crashed (and I had a big project due) when we had scheduled our second. When he followed up with me again, I explained all this, and we eventually did meet (and couple) up. It’s totally OK to keep tabs on someone you want to see, until your schedules sync up — even if there are a few missed connections.

#2: Is the person in question exhibiting a pattern of effort?

Just as people tell you not to write someone off because you don’t feel epic sparks on the first date, similarly don’t write someone off because the early days aren’t seamless. Some people have developed poor dating habits, which can be due to bad relationship experiences, having a lot on their plate, or just personality quirks. You’re always free to stop dating someone for any reason, but I’m a big believer in looking for consistent, positive patterns, and those can only be established over time.

People don’t always behave exactly as you want them to, and will sometimes talk themselves out of following up with a potential date if they feel like they dropped the ball. However, these same people will usually respond positively to a simple initiative on your part, if interested.

Almost everything in life can be boiled down to a cost-benefit analysis. If reliability is a must-have, as it seems to be for our reader, then it makes sense to filter out those who don’t seem to show the specific quality they feel they need — though I’ll argue that in this case, we can’t really determine how reliable the potential date is because a pattern hasn’t been established.

As one dating expert recently told me, “The dating field is too crowded and chaotic; you have to keep up with the ones you like!” The risk of a simple gesture is low, and the potential benefit is high.

#3: At every stage, you have to weigh “How much do I like this person?” against “How much do I want someone to display ideal behaviors?”

When we date, we’re often ambivalent; research shows that people usually don’t know whether to break things off or keep going when contemplating a split. Often, this is because we’re struggling between how we feel and what we think we should do on a rational level. It is hard to meet someone with whom you feel a great connection and who is also totally free of red flags.

That means, early and often, you are measuring the potential you feel with a person against the trajectory of your ideal relationship. If you want a relationship with a totally emotionally available partner, then you can always eliminate prospects with those red flags — a missed date, a busy schedule, someone who’s slow to open up or make things official. Some people want to wait for that steady, stable upward trajectory. But this can also be a defensive dating strategy, designed to prevent vulnerability.

The flip side is that you can follow your gut in regard to connection until you know for sure whether or not it’s going to work. You can be patient, work with someone, and build a potential relationship where you feel the gain is worth the risk of heartbreak or lost investment. I’ve seen plenty of great relationships (a ton, in fact) form from imperfect beginnings.

In a culture that rewards “mistake avoidance,” it’s hard to counter that mentality when you date. But don’t be so quick to discard someone if you feel something special. Some people take a little more time, and some red flags in isolation aren’t what they seem.

If your rules aren’t working, break them. Better yet, throw them out.

Jenna Birch is a journalist, a dating coach, and author of  The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column appears on Yahoo every Monday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to with “YAHOO QUESTION” in the subject line.

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