Rita and Alan, both in their 20s, have been dating for several months and subsequently, they started to make plans to move in together. At first, all was rosy, although Rita noticed that Alan was rather particular about how she dressed and the friends she spent time with. He would also put her down, saying that “she was lucky to have someone like him”.
“I initially dismissed it as him being overly concerned or even caring. But he started to get more and more controlling and dismissive of my feelings,” she says.
“Although he was never physically violent, he started restricting what I wore and whom I hung out with,” she adds.
Lee was thrilled when Chloe agreed to go out with him as she was his “dream girl” and to him, perfect in every way. But as time passed by, Lee realised that Chloe would only wear expensive designer clothing and carry branded handbags that cost thousands of ringgit.
“I wasn’t sure if I could afford her lavish lifestyle. When I gave her gifts, she would sulk for days because they weren’t ‘up to her standard’,” says Lee. “She also expected to go to expensive places and dine in expensive restaurants all the time.”
Sometimes, people get involved with each other without recognising red flags in the relationship, says Malaysian Association of Private Counsellors (MY Confidential) president Vishnu Priya Ravi Chandran.
The licensed counselling psychologist adds that red flags are “warning signs of unhealthy behaviours in a relationship or a partner that are harmful and can sometimes be a deal breaker in a relationship”.
At times, a person might not even recognise nor be aware of these red flags, which makes it more dangerous because the toxic behaviours might worsen over time. Some people even accept these red flags as part of the package and as a result, are subject to mental, emotional and sometimes, even physical harm.
Love and lust may also cloud one’s judgement when a relationship is new, making it difficult to see the red flags, she says.
Being aware of and dealing with such issues before getting into the relationship may mean healthier and happier relationships. And, awareness of what these red flags are helps one steer clear of people who exhibit toxic traits and keeps one from getting into toxic relationships, she adds.
Some common red flags to watch out for include narcissism; compulsive lying; excessive jealousy; manipulative/over-controlling behaviour; physical/emotional/mental abuse (which includes verbal abuse); anger management issues; frequent criticisms/putting one down; inability to resolve conflict; co-dependency/relationship addiction; and substance abuse/addiction or other self-destructive habits.
When you encounter a red flag in your relationship, it’s important to pause and think about how you want the relationship to proceed or if you even want the relationship to proceed.
Why are red flags often ignored?
Vishnu Priya says that society prompts us to “do certain things at certain ages as if there is a specific timeline that we must adhere to”.
“A lot of people get involved (in a relationship) and get married because that’s supposed to be what’s done by a certain age. Because of this, they might tend to brush aside or ignore these red flags,” she says.
“Also, a lot of people have a checklist of what they expect or want in a partner and there’s this idea that we have to compromise because there’s no such thing as a perfect or ideal partner out there. But just how much do we compromise?” she adds.
“Often, when people have affairs, it’s because there’s a need that’s not being met in their current relationship. And if you dig deeper, there might have been a compromise that was made previously,” she explains.
Another red flag that Vishnu Priya highlights is issues with communication.
“It’s not how often a couple fights, it’s what they fight about and how they fight about it. If there are very long cooling periods after the fight and they don’t resolve the issue, it could crop up again later. Having disagreements about every single topic is also a red flag. Even if opposites attract, there must be some common ground that binds the couple together,” she says.
In addition to red flags, there are also yellow flags, which may not be as severe but indicate that there are still issues that need to be dealt with in the relationship. These are patterns or behaviours that need to be changed in order for the relationship to flourish.
While red flags are difficult to fix, yellow flags might not mean the end of a relationship. But, they do require effort to resolve and if left unresolved, could lead to relationship problems in the future.
Some examples of yellow flags are: still keeping in touch with an ex, not communicating their feelings, being clingy and dependent, and being habitually late for dates.
On the positive side, there are green flags, such as honesty and trust, open communication, compatible core values and morals, validating each other’s emotions, and give-and-take, which indicate that a relationship is on the right track.
“When it comes to relationships, it’s like the Law of Cause and Effect – every action you take has consequences – whether good or bad. Going into a relationship does involve risks. There’s a chance you might get hurt but there’s also a chance it might work,” says Vishnu Priya.
Her advice to young people is to first build up their mental and emotional resilience.
“Many young people are afraid of getting hurt. But when you’re strong and healthy mentally and emotionally, your chances of recovering from it and moving on is better,” she says.
“Secondly, if you notice a red or yellow flag in the relationship or the person you’re dating, the best thing to do is to communicate about it with them instead of ghosting them or running away,” she advises.
“Once you’ve mentioned your concerns, you need to see if your partner acknowledges it and whether they’re going to meet you halfway to resolve the issue. Thirdly, if your partner doesn’t meet you halfway, then what’s next?”
“You also need to be aware that some things can be resolved with some effort, such as certain annoying behaviour (being late or disorganised), while others are very difficult to change such as a person’s character (aggressive and violent nature or womanising). In the second instance, unless the person who exhibits those traits acknowledges the problem and makes an effort to go for therapy to deal with them, it’s difficult to resolve,” says Vishnu Priya.
When you’re in a relationship with red flags, your mental health will be affected. You might find yourself drained or making excuses for them all the time, she says.
Fixing a toxic relationship is possible but both parties must be committed to trying. The relationship must become healthy and mutually beneficial in order for it to be worthwhile continuing. This is where professional counselling will help, says Vishnu Priya.
A professional counsellor helps provide a neutral ground where the couple can discuss issues safely without fear of judgement and find a solution. Singles who are contemplating entering a relationship can also seek counselling to prepare themselves, she concludes.