No Green Flags Is a Huge Red Flag


About a year ago, I was dating a guy I’d met online. We’d been seeing each other for a few months, had agreed to be exclusive and had booked a weekend away together. I was feeling pretty good about him and us, and had let myself start thinking about what a longer-term future might look like with him.

Then, out of the blue, he sent me a text and broke it off. The reasons he gave were odd — he had been battling a recurring throat infection and seemed to think I was the one giving it to him (despite me not actually being sick), and he thought he should just take some time to get well. And avoid me.

I was upset. I hadn’t really seen it coming, and rejection is rejection however you dress it up. I was confused about the real reasons behind the break up, and replayed countless scenarios in my head about what I did wrong. For the next 3 days, I felt heavy and sad. On day 4, I decided to take myself out on a run to try and lift the fog a little. By the time I returned, I had completely shaken this guy out of my system. This surprised me — I had really liked him, hadn’t I? I’m not one to wallow but surely it would be a gradual getting over across at least a few more days? Instead, it was a sharp flick of the switch. I felt ambivalent about him and our short-lived relationship. Actually, I felt relieved.

I was baffled by this. Of course I was glad to be over it all so quickly, but I started to wonder if my history of divorce and heartbreak had broken me. Am I a heartless robot now? It wasn’t until I was breaking it all down with a friend that it occurred to me.

My friend: ‘What was it about him that you liked so much?’

Me: ‘He was just normal, and nice. You know? No red flags.’

My friend: ‘Sounds great, but honestly a little unremarkable.’

I thought for a minute. She was right. It was unremarkable — on the face of it. But I realised that while I hadn’t picked up any red flags, there actually weren’t any green ones either.

And when I look at it like that, the absence of green flags was so much worse than any single red one.

It’s the job of our nervous system to keep us safe. If something feels unsafe, it let’s us know. Heart races, stomach turns, breath shortens. Red flags in dating and relationships are called red flags because they send a very strong signal that something is wrong. They’re a warning. We pay attention to them.

Green flags, on the other hand, don’t elicit as noticeable a response. At least not for me, who spent the better part of a decade in flight mode in a toxic marriage. Red flags were all I knew. I’ve worked really hard to rebuild my nervous system after that, but am still learning what safety feels like.

So I dated this guy for 3 months, and because I didn’t feel like I wanted to throw up from anxiety after every date, I thought it could really go somewhere. What I failed to notice is that there was nothing, and I mean literally not one thing, that I could name as a green flag. Or, worse still, I had mistaken behaviour and actions that should just be standard as signs that I should definitely pass go with this guy.

He invited me over and made dinner for us — great, but also just basic treatment of any guest.

He had two young daughters similar in age to mine — a nice alignment, but doesn’t say anything about him as a person.

He had ambition in his job — appealing, but doesn’t actually relate to how he is in a relationship.

If he had been misogynistic, racist or emotionally manipulative, for example, I would have immediately sensed danger. Those red flags would have done their job and told me this was not the guy for me.

But when I look back, did I feel like I could express myself freely? Not really. Did he ever reflect on his role in conflicts he was having at work? No. How respectful of my boundaries with time and sex was he? Moderately, but not entirely.

These were all opportunities for green flags, and they simply never showed up. And I didn’t notice. But you know what? I suspect my very clever nervous system did. I reckon that’s why it took 3 days and one 30 minute run to get this guy out of heart and head. The other amazing thing about our systems is that they can learn new things. So now, if I’m considering dating someone, I’m not just avoiding the red — I’m looking for a sea of green.

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