Red flags are those in-your-face warnings that a situation could be going pear-shaped in short order. And a lot of folks ignore those warnings, or aren’t experienced enough to perceive them in the first place. Here were some of the main red flags I missed in relationships and religion alike when I was Christian.
Like many of the metaphors people use nowadays, red flag originally meant an actual red-colored flag. It still does, too. People use them to warn others: imminent combat, danger ahead, wildfire risks, and more. As a color, red stuff seizes our attention like little else can.
In the 1970s, the phrase comes up most often in the context of being a literal flag or light, with only one 1974 use of the phrase showing up in Google Books in a relationship context. By the 1990s, we begin seeing it more often in the relationship sense. In 1996, author Susan Bradley wrote How to Be Irresistible to the Opposite Sex, which may have been one of the first self-help manuals to formalize the idea of red flags. In it, she advises women to keep a weather eye out for the signs indicating a future relationship disaster. And these days, of course, online sites offer checklists galore that people can consult to learn about red flags.
Conventional wisdom holds that really terrible people operate in surprisingly similar ways. They may try to hide their sheer awfulness, especially at first. But they can’t help leaking the truth in their behavior. Sometimes those leaks take extremely subtle forms, but in hindsight they’re obvious. If someone takes the time to learn to recognize the behaviors that mark a potentially bad relationship partner, so goes the thinking, they can avoid those people–and the drama that inevitably erupts in their wake.
Relationship Red Flags.
Of course, a lot of this wisdom must be acquired the hard way. Abusers, narcissists, and other such terrible people often seek out and groom victims who are either too young or too inexperienced to spot the cues that would instantly warn away older or more experienced people.
And that was me at 17. I’d dated a little, but not too much. In addition, I grew up fairly sheltered, all things considered. By contrast, Biff was two years older–in college–and from a markedly more permissive family than mine was. It might seem like two years isn’t much of a difference, and when the couple is older it isn’t. But the difference between me at 17 and Biff at 19 was huge. It took years for me to understand why women his own age wanted nothing to do with him.
I could fill a book with the red flags I completely missed. Some of them I simply didn’t notice. Most of the others, though, I explained away. I labored under this vision in my head of the Ideal Biff–him at his best, on his very best behavior.
When anything interfered with that vision, I found ways to neutralize it.
Relationship Red Flags: A Quick List.
Here’s some of what I ignored or hand-waved away:
- Constant and sometimes extreme tardiness–not only with me, but with groups. We all referred to this flaw as “Biff time.”
- Charm offensive behavior. Came on very strong, very quickly, and overwhelmed me.
- Never where he said he’d be. Never called when he said he would. Completely, utterly unreliable–and reveled in being so.
- Terrible temper. I’d have dumped him had he expressed it against anybody or anything, but until the very end, he restricted himself to outbursts.
- Could not accomplish a single household task without constant supervision. He always expected loads of effusive praise afterward. Even then, he muffed everything–very probably intentionally.
- Regarded some tasks as “women’s work” and thus shoved all of them onto me.
- A shockingly bad driver–inattentive, impulsive, reckless, and just completely incapable of driving safely. No road rage, but pretty much everything else.
- No impulse control at all, especially with money.
- Committed a constant stream of verbal and behavioral gaffes of the most shocking insensitivity and cruelty. He needed constant reminders that other people had needs and feelings.
- Lied constantly.
- Used pressure to gain affection and sex–handsy, guilt-trippy, and worse.
I look at this list and I cringe. How how how how how could I have been so starry-eyed, so dense? And all I can say is that I was a very different person back then.
I’d grown up thinking that all of this stuff happened in all relationships.
Everyone (I thought) had knock-down, drag-out screaming matches about everything under the sun. All couples struggled to stay together, fix each other’s flaws, and coast through the rough patches on the strength of the few good times they could cobble together.
I met Biff as a Christian. I’d dropped out of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI) by then, but I still identified as a Christian. That lifelong indoctrination had vastly informed my beliefs about relationships. Specifically, I believed all that complementarian nonsense about men and women, about how much labor women had to perform versus how much men shouldered, and oh, definitely all that sex-shaming. I never learned about consent or mutual respect. Christianity–from Catholicism to Pentecostalism–had taught me nothing useful there, but instead plenty that harmed me.
Beyond the lessons I’d learned at various denominations, I also observed my parents’ tumultuous marriage. And I’d absorbed countless songs, movies, and TV shows that reinforced all of those lessons.
Because I believed that Biff and I were soulmates put together by a real live god, I couldn’t imagine breaking up. One day, I’d fix him. I’d follow all the rules just right, and the stars would align/Jesus would step in/he’d understand. Then he’d become that ideal I held in my mind.
And then we’d finally be truly happy.
This Happens in Groups, Too.
We can extend the concept of red flags to groups as well as to individual people.
In fact, just as I missed or explained away the red flags I (inconsistently) perceived in Biff, I did the same with Christianity. Here are some of them that I can easily recognize now:
- Insistence on having the one perfect universal truth.
- Use of threats and extortion to gain compliance and buy-in. Retaliation utilized frequently.
- Adherents never measure up–are never good enough. There’s always a way to blame them.
- The group prescribes severely lopsided power dynamics between members. Informed, enthusiastic consent is not only not valued, but actively denigrated.
- No accountability or transparency in how members’ donations are used.
- Members look alike, dress alike, and talk alike; no dissenting opinions or customs permitted. New recruits get pressured to conform to those standards.
- The group can’t eject bad apples; also, way more of them exist than seems reasonable.
- No way exists to convince any group member that they’re wrong about anything
- Social life increasingly centers around the group and its activities; social connections shrink to be only fellow group members. The group paints outside activities and friends as threats.
- Members idolize leaders, who can do no wrong. When someone accuses a leader of wrongdoing, the group rallies around the leader–not the victim(s) involved.
- The group demonizes and vilifies perfectly normal human desires–then demonizes and vilifies anybody who seeks unapproved coping mechanisms for dealing with those desires.
Not all of these red flags exist in all harmful groups. But it’s surprising how often we encounter them, no matter what the group’s focus might be.
The Common Thread.
Whether we’re talking about red flags in the context of groups or relationships, it seems to me that the most important thing to know is that they all speak to the same absolute dealbreaker.
That dealbreaker is, ultimately, trampled boundaries.
This isn’t some innocent goof or an instant of momentary thoughtlessness. We have words for people who do that all the time: Narcissists. Manipulators. Emotional vampires.
It’s no accident that abusers gravitate to people they think they can abuse. They specifically seek people who will be good prey for them–a ready supply of drama, adoration, resources, and power-trips. And sometimes their victims supply tangible resources, too: money, free labor, even recruitment and member-retention assistance.
But it’s not as easy for abusers to find new victims as one might imagine. That’s why they go to such terrifying lengths to keep those victims from escaping once they’re ensnared. And that’s also why they must move quickly to figure out if their potential victim will be a lucrative one–or one who’ll easily escape, or even not bite the bait at all. It’s not fun for an abuser to set up a new supply; it requires them to do all kinds of things they don’t enjoy doing. Bear in mind as well that during the time they’re setting up that new supply, they aren’t receiving it in full yet. They have no time to waste.
In the first few crucial minutes, hours, and days of a blossoming new relationship, the abuser must establish just how firm their intended victim’s boundaries are. (Relevant xkcd.) It’s no different from the way that a con artist quickly susses out just how much money a potential victim has. If the abuser senses too much resistance, they’ll just vanish to the next potential victim. All the while, the minutes tick onward, agonizing moment by moment.
Once the abuser gets a victim in place, the offenses become more than simply annoying or weird. The abuser begins to draw their much-needed supply. The behavior escalates–gradually at first; egregiously by the end.
I’ve no doubt that many of the victims of these abusive people and groups never figure out what’s happening. It’s not their fault. Christian groups falsely market themselves as being safe for the people stripped of power within their sheepfolds. Abusers seek to falsely present themselves as our perfect partners. The cues revealing reality can be very subtle indeed. And the lifelong indoctrination that leads someone to be so trusting can be hard to question, let alone reject.
You can’t fix a person or group that exhibits red flags. To people who want to trample your boundaries, you’re not a partner–or a member in good faith. They’re operating a whole other game, one that happens entirely at your expense and whose rules you’ll likely figure out only in retrospect. You will always be a supply in some fashion for them. Whatever dreamy vision you might have about them, even if it’s an ideal they really want to achieve (as long as achieving it can be done by magic and without losing anything they value), it was always an illusion.
And it’s an illusion cast for a purpose. People like that can put up with some blowups, some arguments, some anger. That lack of harmony doesn’t bother them because harmony was never the goal.
When it comes to engaging with the people waving red flags, we can take a page from the 1983 movie WarGames: “The only winning move is not to play.”
NEXT UP: We’ll look at the way Christians blame all the wrong people for their problems. But first, I want to show you one of the weirder magic spells in the fundagelical grimoire: the hedge of protection. See you soon!
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Final Closing Note: I am now seven years older than the age noted in 1983’s Wargames as “old.” I was 13 in 1983, and I already knew I’d be 30 in the year 2000. It just seemed so totally impossible then to be so impossibly old! And one of my favorite chefs on Instagram helpfully let his followers know that today’s kindergarteners are like the Class of 2031. So yeah, feelin’ kinda old right now. If you need me, I’ll be listening to 80s pop on Spotify and playing SimFarm on a DOS emulator for the night while playing an idle tap game on my tablet….