Small (But Important) Red Flags to Look Out for Early On In a Relationship

Look closely.

by Natalia Lusinski
TZR/Shutterstock/Lyuba Burakova/Stocksy

Isn’t it the best when you instantly click with someone and actually want to see them again? That rush of infatuation and interest can come quickly, often making it difficult to spot those small (but important) red flags that can eventually lead to disaster later on. “In the first stages of a relationship — the romantic giddy period — there’s a natural tendency to focus on the good and the similarities,” Oliver Drakeford, a licensed marriage and family therapist and creator of the People Patterns personality quiz, tells TZR in an email. “We tend to marvel at all the things we have in common, and there’s an equal tendency to ignore differences.”

To be clear, healthy relationships are often a combination of having things in common and respecting each other’s differences, explains Drakeford. “It’s important to understand that not every red flag is indicative of serious characterological pathology — it could just be anxiety,” he says. “One red flag here or an odd comment or weird behavior there is very different from seeing (and ignoring) the same warnings.”

But if you are seeing the same small warning signs over and over again, the other person is showing you who they are as a person rather than something they are going through that might pass, he explains. The key here is noting a pattern. For instance, Drakeford had a client who was excited about someone new she was dating, but worried they had some political differences. “She reported that her potential love interest had sent her a news article that was essentially promoting ideas and beliefs that were vastly different from her own,” he says. “The following week, he started sending memes and other, more controversial political messaging. We discussed how one or two messages might not be a big deal, but the persistence and amplification of the messages could be showing something more important and might be a red flag.”

So how can you tell if a small red flag is actually an indicator of a bigger one? Ahead, relationship experts weigh in.


Too Much Too Soon

Even though you may want the person you’re dating to pay attention to you, too much of it — especially too soon — can be a bad sign. “‘Love-bombing’ [constant texts with gushing compliments and romantic declarations very early on] isn’t always obvious,” Frank Thewes, therapist and founder of Path Forward Therapy, tells TZR in an email. And this term can be related to neediness and the person wanting to check in a lot, too, he continues. “But all the attention is not necessarily a good thing because it can indicate that someone is insecure, lacks confidence, or that they are trying to draw you in before you have a chance to really get to know them,” he explains. “In the extreme, this could indicate that someone isn’t emotionally stable. If someone seems ‘too good to be true,’ it’s probably because they are — they’re hiding a lot of themselves behind the ‘lovebombing’ facade.”

Thewes says to keep in mind that adult love isn’t adolescent love — it’s based on mutual esteem and work, not on the rush of infatuation. “It feels nice to be put on a pedestal by someone, but we have to ground ourselves and remind ourselves we don’t really know this other person all that well,” he says. “Try not to mistake the intensity of the attention for the suitability of the match between you and the other person.”

Shan Boodram, certified sex educator, dating coach, and Bumble’s sex and relationships expert, agrees with Thewes. She, too, says love-bombing can be a crucial red flag. “In Disney movies, yes, fine — but in real life, when you’re just getting to know each other, no,” she tells TZR. “Life is not a romantic comedy. You do not have to wrap things up in an hour and 50 minutes.” Plus, it may make you think: “How am I deserving of all these things? You do not even know my last name.”

Underinvestment Or Overinvestment

Similarly, Boodram says red flags can also be underinvesting or overinvesting — not being vulnerable at all, being evasive — whether it’s about time commitments or what have you. She says there is a “Goldilocks effect” when it comes to self-disclosure: too much is a red flag and too little is a red flag. “It’s best to meet somewhere in the middle — gradual, mutual, and logical investment,” she explains.

For example, someone may bring up their student loan debt, which may inadvertently cause you to bring up your credit card debt. And perhaps the topic came up organically, because one of you mentioned President Joe Biden’s stance on student loans, so the topic was contextual, not out of left field. “It was a natural progression in the conversation — you’re both being vulnerable and opening up,” Boodram says. But the fact that you each have debt may not be red flags — you each may be paying them off, which is a good sign.

Boodram suggests, when you think about advancing the relationship, to not share more than 15% than you did the previous meeting. She said this is based on the 15 Percent Rule from Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues by David Bradford, Ph.D. and Carole Robin, Ph.D. That way, you’re not underinvesting or overinvesting and allowing the connection to progress at a healthy pace.

They’re More Negative Than Positive

Sure, we all have our bad days and bad moments, but if negativity seeps out more than positivity, it could hint at a bigger issue. “Complaining and/or negative language is something to watch for,” says Thewes. “If you see something early on in a relationship, like a pattern of consistently pointing out what they don’t like about someone or something — or many things always seem like a problem, hassle, or an issue — there’s a good chance you’ll see a lot more of it later on.” Also, look at their behavior, not just their words. “Look for signs of impatience and impulse control, such as how they handle minor everyday stressors, like waiting in line at a store, driving a car, or simple disagreements.” he says. “You want to try and assess if they seem to blow small things out of proportion frequently and how easily they hit their frustration limit.”


They Are Not Nice To Others

Thewes says to make sure to pay attention to how the person treats other people, too, from the waiter to the Uber driver to your friends. “You can learn a lot about someone by watching how they treat people other than you,” he says. “Sometimes how people treat us is because of how they want us to feel about them. They may not extend that to the other people in your orbit — strangers or friends and family. So, yes, pay attention to how this other person interacts with others. You will learn a lot about them in many of those casual moments.”

Everyone Else Was The Problem

Boodram says you also have to pay attention to how the person you’re dating talks about others, especially exes. “If ‘everybody’ was ‘crazy,’ ‘clingy, ‘narcissistic’ — they are actively choosing to invite them into their life,” she says. “They are bringing out the worst in people or overinvesting too early, so they have this skewed vision of everybody.” She says to remember that how they talk about others will be indicative of how they talk about you. “Look at the totality of someone’s life and how they relate to others and other relationships,” she adds.

They Hide Key Information

Lisa Velazquez, self-love coach, dating and relationship expert, and founder of Lisa Talks Love, says a red flag that may seem small, but isn’t, is if someone hides things from you. Sure, they don’t have to tell you where they are 24/7, but being evasive is not good either. “Be careful when they don’t want to share their whereabouts or won't share about past relationships,” she tells TZR in an email.

In the same vein is constant lying about seemingly little things. Let’s say you met someone on a dating app and they lied about their age, but they immediately told you their actual age. But then they tell another “little” lie, too. And another… While you may dismiss these as benign white lies, they may point to a larger issue. Any lying is not good, Velazquez says.


They Are Not Fully Present Or Do Not Engage

We all know people who are addicted to their phones, but there is a time and a place, right? Velazquez says someone not being present can manifest in different ways and be a seemingly little red flag that’s indicative of a larger issue. This may be when someone's always on their phone when you're on dates or at home together, she explains. “Or someone is all-in one moment, then emotionally disconnects the next,” she says. “Or they ghost you and then reappear — or gaslight you as if they've been around the whole time.” With the latter, it’s a manipulative tactic wherein they distort reality and you start to doubt your judgment and intuition.

Some ‘Red Flags’ Can Change — With Time And Effort

Keischa Pruden, therapist and owner of Pruden Counseling Concepts, says that generally, if a person has a personality trait or behavior they realize is a problem and sincerely wants to work on changing it, then that's a step in the right direction. “That would be considered a red flag that could be worked on or improved over time,” she tells TZR in an email. “Examples of behaviors or personality traits that can be improved upon include: punctuality, financial responsibility, cleanliness, and being considerate of others. A ‘bad red flag,’ on the other hand, is a behavior that is consistent and there is resistance to change. Or a person is aware of how their behavior affects their partner, but is not motivated to change. This behavior is possibly indicative of narcissistic personality disorder, which is most definitely a red flag.”

All in all, Velazquez says red flags are never to be taken lightly, especially early on in a relationship since that's when you're the most level-headed and can see them for what they are — warnings. “Red flags reveal signs that someone you're dating may have a toxic behavior, value, or pattern that goes against your needs, values, and desires in a healthy romantic partner,” she says. “They are there to protect you from danger, repeating toxic cycles, or just ending up being someone who is not ‘The One.’”