Cat person? Red flag. No text back, but they’re watching your IG Story? Red flag. Doesn’t like ABBA? Serious red flag. As far as the internet is concerned, just about everything a person does could be be evidence of a red flag. Do you sometimes forget to text your partner back? It’s definitely because you are incapable of love, and certainly not the result of a culture in which we are expected to be socially available at all times.
Social media can undeniably be a great resource for dating and relationship advice. But one thing about online discussions surrounding relationships? It becomes extremely easy to focus on the negatives. When dating, we’re often warned to watch out for red flags. But does constantly being on alert for red flags cause us to sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot?
Throughout all contexts, the term ‘red flag’ signifies a reason to stop. Dr. Wendy Walsh, relationship expert, author and professor of psychology, says a red flag in a relationship indicates one of two things. “Either that the person does not have the emotional capability to have a healthy relationship, or they are in the game for a short-term relationship and aim only to extract sex,” she explains.
Across Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, the phenomenon of people ascribing red flags to everyday behavior is rife. It doesn’t matter how innocuous the trait in question: someone, somewhere, is eager to tell you that it’s evidence of you being a terrible person and/or partner.
These days, we’re all armchair psychologists—but could this do more harm than good?
It becomes extremely easy to focus on the negatives.
Janette Zeto has built a following of 148.9K on TikTok as a relationship expert and mindset coach. She believes the eagerness to declare ‘red flag’ and pull the plug is indicative of an avoidant attachment style. “This strategy protects people from getting into intimate relationships. This is because, a lot of the time, they come from a place of fear,” she explains. “We have these videos which tell us their behavior is probably a red flag, and we then use that as a crutch to push that person away.”
Dr. Diane Strachowski, licensed cognitive behavioral psychologist, has also backed this up in her research. “The problem with this discussion of red flags is the already-anxious people—46 percent of the population who were already nervous to begin with—are now more nervous.”
According to Dr. Diane, if you believe you are definitely going to get hurt, of course you’re less likely to give anyone a chance.
Online, people are quick to categorize just about anything as a red flag, but the highly-charged term is dangerous to throw around. Dr. Diane believes labeling any time you feel upset as a red flag only muddies the waters for genuinely concerning behavior.
Could we all act better at times in our relationships? Of course, but oftentimes that is the normal course of human interactions and doesn’t necessarily indicate a narcissist or abusive partner.
Red flags aren’t always indications of poor character, but of poor compatibility.
Currently #redflags has 2.3 billion views on TikTok, with people analyzing their own and other people’s supposed red flags for clout. Social media incentivizes reductive or sweeping statements, meaning that the way we talk about relationships often gets flattened. Limited to 60-second videos or 10-slide infographics, this content lacks the space necessary to tackle these topics with nuance.
Too often, online conversations equate possible red flags with being a bad person. However, supposed ‘red flags’ aren’t always indications of poor character, but of poor compatibility. Red flags are often used as a way to malign an ex or to talk trash about someone on a dating app, but they say as much about the person waving the flag as they do about the one with the so-called bad habit.
Dr. Diane identifies a further problem with the discourse: “If you’re walking around looking for the negatives, you’re also not giving a person a chance. To fall in love, you have to be curious. You have to have an open heart. These two things are juxtaposed. If I’m protecting myself and looking for what is wrong, I am not allowing the process to unfold, and then I’m going to get hurt. It’s confirmation bias. I’m looking for evidence to confirm my negative thoughts to begin with.”
For many, it is cathartic to open up online about the ways in which partners have wronged them, especially within a casual dating culture where feelings are often minimized or ignored. However, social media is an echo chamber. We are able to curate narratives as we see fit, with every like, view or comment seemingly confirming our own point of view. But really, all we’re left with is half-baked hot takes, fleeting dopamine hits and the internet who cried red flag.
To fall in love, you have to be curious. You have to have an open heart.
Of course, there are ways of critiquing these online cultures without reducing the importance of acknowledging genuine red flags. If someone is verbally abusive, physically aggressive or makes you feel unsafe, those are real red flags. By discussing red flags online, people with poor boundaries can learn what behavior is safe, healthy, and socially appropriate.
But it is important to differentiate what is really unhealthy and what is just normal human behavior. As Dr. Wendy Walsh says, “Most people who seek information about red flags are people who are unsure whether a certain behavior is healthy or not. Many of them may have been raised with a faulty model of love and have poor boundaries. ‘Red flag’ is shorthand for ‘Will I be hurt here?’”
It goes without saying that everything online should be taken with a pinch of salt. The rise in discussion of red flags online is an indication of a wider climate of anxiety when it comes to dating and relationships. While no one should ever stay in a relationship that doesn’t make them happy, it’s worth noting that you may do yourself a disservice by throwing in the towel too quickly.
The key to ensuring you’re giving potential partners a fair shot? Really assess whether that supposed red flag is a genuine issue or just a quirk you don’t love. Be safe, and remember: the course of true love never did run smooth.