Every week, I get letters here at PsychCentral, asking for my advice about red flags in relationships. From my files:
“I love him very much, but he spends more time with his buddies than with me and he won’t introduce me to his friends. He won’t talk about it. He says he has to have his guy time.”
“I love her very much but we’re almost at our wedding date and she hasn’t quit smoking like she promised she would do before we got married. She just hides it.”
“I love this man more than my own life but he constantly sides with his mother when she disagrees with me. When I try to talk about it, he storms out.”
“I’m more in love than I’ve ever been, but my guy keeps going over to his ex’s house to ‘help’ her. He says she can’t manage without him. How can I get through to him that this isn’t okay?”
“I love this woman with all my heart, but her place is a disaster! There are always dishes in the sink; the cat box hasn’t been changed; neither are the sheets on the bed. I can’t stand the idea of living with her poor habits. No matter what I say she gets defensive and angry. How can I get her to clean up?”
I love her/him but, but, but… That “But” is a huge red flag. I think every writer of such a letter knows it. They have fallen in love with a person but not with their habits. They fear that pushing it will break the romantic spell or, worse, that they will trigger anger or abandonment.
They hope the problem will go away. They hope they mean enough to the person that she or he will change. They wish I could reassure them that love conquers all — even bad habits, even broken promises, even significant trust issues. They have the vain hope that “once we’re married” or “once we move in” it will be different.
Here’s the truth: Love is NOT enough to make a relationship last.
Love is romantic. Love is a high. Love is a wonderful, wonderful thing. But love can also make us stupid. Pheromones, great sex, and romantic dinners during courtship tell a person nothing about day to day living together life. Habits that maybe can be overlooked or hidden while dating are right up front and personal once a couple shares a space and a life.
However much alike people think they are at first blush and flush of romance, the reality is that people are different in many important ways. Once people are adults, their values and lifestyle are pretty well set. It takes a major effort for them to change.
Furthermore, every adult has a stated or unstated list of what is negotiable in a partner and what is not. What is non-negotiable is highly individual. Even if everything else in a relationship is perfect, if the love interest regularly violates a non-negotiable (whether on purpose or just out of habit) and won’t agree to some amount of change, the relationship is already in trouble. Great sex and fun times are great momentary distractions but don’t solve underlying problems that matter.
Much worse is establishing a relationship where one person “walks on eggshells” about a behavior they don’t like, lest the other becomes so angry that there’s just no reasoning with them. Explosive anger, physical violence, defensiveness, stonewalling, gaslighting, threatening to leave, etc., are all tactics that make the unhappy person back off. But that reaction is a guarantee that either the relationship will end or the person who is the victim of such treatment lives unhappily ever after.
So before making a commitment, the brain has to check in with the heart. Are the differences serious enough to be a “red flag”? Can they be talked about and worked through? Or is that red flag a warning that shouldn’t be ignored.
Sometimes, red flags can be a source of individual growth and increased couple intimacy, if the couple doesn’t ignore them and takes the next step — talking about them. Honest, in depth, communication is the key. Bridging differences that matter requires talking about them all the way through to a workable conclusion. That means sticking with the conversation, no matter how difficult, until there is a mutual, realistic, and genuine agreement about how to handle the issue. Setting a time frame for making it happen acts as both a motivator and as a check for whether the agreement can be kept.
Genuine agreement can take a variety of forms:
- The person who is upset can adjust his or her expectation and decide that the relationship is so good that the other’s troublesome foible or behavior is worth accommodating. Do wet towels on the bathroom floor really matter if everything else is perfect? Maybe not.
- The person with the behavior that is a problem for his or her beloved can make a genuine commitment to change. Change of habits or beliefs or lifestyle choices takes major personal work. If it proves too difficult to do on their own, it may mean going to therapy or to a support program for help.
- Both can give a little to get a little. “I’ll keep the sink free of dirty dishes; You take better care of your dog by walking him every day.” But both have to be comfortable with the deal they make and be truly committed to it. If the behaviors re-emerge and aren’t checked, their trust in each other’s word will be diminished.
True love that will last requires that the head as well as the heart be consulted before making a commitment. It requires the self-respect shown by not compromising on important personal standards. Equally important is respect for each other that is shown by the willingness to make (and keep) reasonable changes.