Can I admit something a little embarrassing? Amid a global pandemic, when the integrity of our elections is under attack, and financial concerns are overwhelming, I’m having a lot of conversations about dating. This is partially because it is part of my job, but I’m also genuinely interested in how people are mating and relating. Maybe the constant anxiousness floating around right now has left me hyperaware, but I’ve noticed, in casual and serious conversations alike, it’s not uncommon to toss the term “red flag” around. It’s a shorthand way of saying, “Yeah, this is something that bothers me, and I think it might be a dealbreaker.”
Before I go further, I want to emphasize that noticing red flags is useful—looking out for them keeps you vigilant, which is a good thing. It’s always smart to pay attention to things that are dealbreakers about a potential partner, anything from a mismatch in values and beliefs all the way to potentially harmful behavior.
The best way to think of red flags, as far as I’m concerned, is as a sign that someone is absolutely not right for you. Let’s say that it starts to become clear that a person isn’t over their ex. Or they have wildly conflicting political views that absolutely feel toxic and borderline (emotionally) violent. In other words, a red flag is something that you probably can’t—or just don’t care to—work through.
But that incident where your date moaned after every time they finished a piece of pizza—is that a red flag or just a quirky thing about a person that’s stuck in your mind? If this is a behavior you absolutely cannot tolerate and have no intention of trying to, sure, it’s a red flag. On the other hand, if it strikes you as sort of odd but not terribly bad or annoying or offensive, maybe it’s less of a red flag—it might be a flag of a different color.
In fact, we’d all be better served if we found a more expansive way of assessing the things we notice about the people we date. Basically? We need more flags. What would happen if we opened up the conversation to include yellow and green flags too? I’m not the first person to think of this. I’ve read entire Reddit threads where people discuss flags that aren’t red. These threads exist for good reason: We need a way to talk about the significant issues that emerge in relationships, and we need language to describe the smaller problems too.
While a red flag could involve a relationship impasse, a yellow flag, for example, could be something that bothers you—maybe you hate the way the person you’re dating launches into giving advice when you want them to just listen as you vent—but something you think you can probably work through with your partner or on your own. Sure, your partner may have an annoying quirk that they should fix immediately (in your humble opinion), but you might need to work on your reaction to their quirk as well. Yellow flags are more difficult to identify than red, but that’s the point. Being more intentional about categorizing flags that aren't just red encourages you to stop and assess before reacting.
Having more flags at our disposal is helpful even before you start officially dating. When we’re swiping, more flag options might discourage you from writing off decent matches for insignificant reasons. And flags are incredibly useful when you’re in a more established or serious relationship. Day after day, as your exciting new fling becomes something more familiar, small annoyances can start to scare you. Suddenly, during your regular Thursday dinner, you’re wondering if you can deal with this chewing for the rest of your life or even just multiple nights per week. You watch them—breathing, chomping, and squishing their food—and ask yourself, Is this actually a red flag? Chewing seems like a five-alarm fire, but it may really just be yellow fabric flapping in the corner of your mind. Realizing it’s actually not a dealbreaker might not make it any less annoying, but it can help you from detonating your entire relationship over Chinese takeout.
Conversely, you might notice how snappy and sarcastic your partner becomes when work stresses them out, and you rationalize it away because it’s not exactly a red flag. Then—in a few weeks, months, or even years—you realize you’re drowning in yellow flags because you didn’t know how to discuss the little things that can become corrosive over time. How someone sleeps, travels, or behaves on their worst days gives you real insight. But not all insights are red flags. And having yellow flags as an option helps you figure out if what you notice is a discussion or a dealbreaker (or both).
The best thing about an expanded flag system is that it doesn’t have to be limited to things that bug you. There can be green flags, qualities in your partner (or potential partner) that make you feel safe. Noticing these can help keep small annoyances in check. I mention green flags because sometimes we don’t recognize them. If you’ve had a history of bad relationships or other forms of trauma, you might be uniquely attuned to spotting red and yellow flags and less in touch with the things that make you feel secure. Or you might perceive the absence of chaos as a lack of excitement or passion and mark that as a red flag because you’re bored. But feeling calm and secure might be a green flag (and boredom might be something you can address).
Most people are a mix of red, yellow, and green flags, and all the green flags in the world don't make really serious red flags excusable. When red flags aren’t dangerous or harmful, however, I’d argue that all relationships (romantic, platonic, and familial) are about acknowledging the bad and good in a person and the good and bad in the dynamic between you and other people. If the red flags you notice are relatively harmless and the green flags far outweigh them, it could be worth taking a breath and seeing the entire picture.
Let’s be honest, doing this isn’t going to make your partner’s chewing habit less annoying or their avoidant approach to financial planning less concerning. The flag system won’t fix dating or make your relationship perfect. But humans are way more complicated than a single-flag system can really capture. Deploying flags with intention can help us relate to each other better. And it can help you find the words to articulate what you’re noticing. In a world where dating and full relationships develop via apps or text messages, slowing down and thinking holistically can only expand our ability to connect more authentically. My hope? Adopting a personal flag system can provide a more nuanced way of relating to the people we’re sort of into. But whatever you do, don’t ignore the personal alarm system you already have. Only you know what makes sense for your happiness and security, but thinking with more than one flag can help make things a little clearer (at a moment when so few things make sense).
This article was originally published on Self.