Why Do We Ignore the Red Flags in Our Relationships?

A couple sits looking away from each other on either side of a tree, with leaves scattered on the groundI hear from so many men and women whose marriages and relationships are in crisis. “How did I get here?” they wonder. We all know it takes two to tango. What we may overlook is our ability to ignore warning signs. Upon further analysis of the relationship in counseling, we may wonder what messages we missed and what we can learn from them.

Take, for instance, the woman who is thinking of divorce because she found out her husband is having an affair, one of many she has recently discovered. While her husband’s behavior and choices lend evidence to his lack of respect for her, we can also find small clues along the way that she may have dismissed—red flags, if you will, signaling danger.

One night, a few years back, her husband was on the phone late at night. When she asked who he was talking to, he gave a general answer about work. She immediately felt the hairs on the back of her neck go up, and her stomach flip-flopped. She had an intuitive feeling he was not being truthful. In order to keep the peace, however, she said nothing further.

The next time she felt that same distressing sense, he did not call her for his nightly check-in when he was on a business trip. She had already been uneasy that he was going to dinner with both female and male colleagues and having after-dinner drinks. When he didn’t call her as usual, she called him but got no answer. She texted him but got no answer. She stayed up extra late to wait for his response, but it didn’t come. A nagging feeling told her something wasn’t right, but when he came home and minimized the missed calls and texts as her “overreacting,” she felt foolish for thinking anything could be wrong with their relationship.

Another time, she found a gift of female lingerie in her husband’s gym bag. She chose to say nothing, hoping the lingerie would wind up being a surprise for her. She waited. And waited. She eventually brought it up and received a strange answer that didn’t sit well with her, nor make any sense. Yet she ignored her feeling that danger was near.

When she eventually found out he was having affairs, she exclaimed, “I knew it!”

So why do we ignore the red flags in our relationships? I think there are several answers, and all of them are complicated by love, devotion, and sacrifice.

Often, we don’t want to know the truth. We would have to change something—our lives, the place we live, our finances, perhaps even ourselves—if we found out the truth.

First, we ignore red flags because we are afraid they are telling the true, painful story. We may ask questions of our partner about their behavior and receive answers, but we leave the answers alone even if they don’t quite fit. Often, we don’t want to know the truth. We would have to change something—our lives, the place we live, our finances, perhaps even ourselves—if we found out the truth. That can simply be too exhausting to think about. Even if we are certain it’s happening, we don’t want our partner to say they are having an affair because of what that would mean for us, our families, and our lives.

Second, we ignore red flags because we think our intuition is wrong. It simply cannot be right. So we engage in denial and carry on as if nothing is wrong because it’s easier to deny than to go through the pain of conflict. Surely your beloved partner would NEVER do that to you, right? They vowed they wouldn’t. We ignore our gut feelings, signs of disconnection, inappropriate conversations, and foggy details. We assume, after hearing our partner’s explanation, that we must be “crazy” and their explanation is the complete truth. Challenging our intuition is a dangerous game because it blocks us from knowing primal truths.

Third, we ignore red flags because we have been indoctrinated to believe that marriage and committed relationships are hard work. As a couple, you are supposed to struggle and compromise, right? Marriage and relationships are indeed hard work, but they shouldn’t be so hard that you feel disrespected and at war with your own intuition.

When I ask people in counseling, “What red flags did you choose to ignore?” most often I get a puzzled expression that turns into a knowing look and then to acknowledgment. Upon reflection, most of us know what we ignored and allowed.

For a clearer picture of your relational distress, ask yourself what you are ignoring and denying. Are you brave enough to see the red flags? And finally, do you have the courage to do the arduous work of repair or healing?

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Angela Avery, MA, LPC, NCC, therapist in Clarkston, Michigan

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 10 comments
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  • lorna

    lorna

    October 24th, 2016 at 8:07 AM

    I have always been afraid that this would immediately end the relationship so I just choose to say nothing.

  • Pate

    Pate

    October 24th, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    Sometimes it can be a comfort level thing. Even though you know that there are problems, you sort of try to hide behind them or forget about them because choosing not to do that is going to be hard as well. Never mind what this is doing to the personal psyche, but we just usually think about the here and now and if it feels like it is outside of our comfort zone then there are many of us who are just content to let things stay just as they are.

  • curt

    curt

    October 25th, 2016 at 9:15 AM

    The repair work is always the hardest part

  • Lawson

    Lawson

    October 26th, 2016 at 9:33 AM

    I am always second guessing myself. Even when I know that I should just go with my gut instinct that is hard for me especially when it feels like I am accusing someone of something or I might not be right. I think that I have a pretty good sense of people but I guess I wait for them to prove me wrong and I wind up getting hurt because I should have just gone with what I suspected to be true all along.

  • TJ

    TJ

    October 27th, 2016 at 10:50 AM

    In many ways it is an admission that there is something that is wrong and most of the time people have a difficult time admitting when things are not always peaches and cream. They are either afraid to admit it to them selves or they are afraid to let other people know it.

  • gene

    gene

    October 28th, 2016 at 11:44 AM

    I felt like my wife was running around on me but I did not have the courage to confront her because I knew that once I did then things would likely be over.

  • Crystal

    Crystal

    October 29th, 2016 at 10:36 AM

    complacency

  • Freyja

    Freyja

    October 29th, 2016 at 7:31 PM

    I saw the red flags but my friends told me I was being paranoid and that he wouldn’t do anything like that. My gut instinct was right all along. Now, in a new relationship, I’m waiting for the red flags…

  • olivia

    olivia

    October 30th, 2016 at 12:43 PM

    Freyja- not every relationship will have those red flag issues. Don’t go looking for something that isn’t there. You could spend too much time worrying about what isn’t going on than you are nurturing what you actually do have.

  • June

    June

    August 22nd, 2017 at 11:22 AM

    Though people blame the “other woman” for the breakup of the marriage, it is my personal experience that the marriage RED FLAGS were there YEARS before the OW / OM came along. It is imply the DENIAL that there is a problem that makes the troubled relationship last years beyond its expiration date.
    People who spend regular time apart from each other due to work (i.e. truck drivers / military .. etc.) can EASILY extend a bad marriage past its due date.
    Bottom line .. the warning signs were there LONG before he / she walked out …. had an affair .. or any other number of break up scenarios.

    It is my belief that the longer you force a marriage to stay together (i.e. We’re gonna stick it out 10 more years to raise the kids) the WORSE the break up will be .. because now you may not even be friends any longer. In short, you are just holding each other back. Been there – done that.

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