Have you ever had a moment in which it dawned on you that something was seriously wrong between you and another person?
Perhaps you realize that you’re extremely unhappy in your job. Perhaps you realize that your friend has no respect for you as a person. Perhaps you realize that the potential buyer for your car is trying to take advantage of you.
Either way, you wonder why you didn’t see it right away. The red flags were huge, and you turned a blind eye. Why?
As social creatures, we like to assume that other people have our back and have our interests at heart. Deep down, most of us believe that other humans are (mostly) good. And depending on how, when, and where we were raised, most of us assume that others have good intentions.
That’s probably true. Most people are not malicious or psychopathic — only about 1 percent of the population. By the same token, most people are not entirely self-absorbed or narcissistic — that’s another 1 percent. In other words, 98 percent of people probably do care about others around them and favor healthy relationships. It makes perfect sense to assume the best when you meet a new person.
That said, there are many red flags that I wish I’d known before getting into some of my worst relationships. If only someone had prepared a manual for life that guides you on what to look for and how to avoid having your heart broken and soul crushed!
I hope this essay might be a start. Let’s look at the most common red flags in relationships, whether friendships, business deals, intimate relationships, wherever.
Guilt-Tripping and Controlling Behavior
Ever felt compelled to do something — or not do something — because someone else made you feel like you’d be a total asshole otherwise?
For example, perhaps you bought someone an expensive wedding gift because you wanted to try to preserve your friendship even though she’s getting married. Perhaps you cut a client a big discount because you felt like you would lose them if you didn’t. Perhaps you avoided going out with friends because your husband insisted that you stay home with him.
None of these situations are particularly healthy. Why do you feel like you would lose your friendship? Why do you feel compelled to lower your rates? Why do you feel nervous about leaving your husband home alone?
Of course, context is important. If you know that a Keurig would really make your friend happy and you want to demonstrate your friendship by giving her the perfect gift, that’s one thing. But if she’s been constantly making remarks that you don’t appreciate her enough and wondering aloud if she’ll even see you after the wedding, you might have been guilt-tripped into buying that Keurig.
If your client is a long-time client who’s having some struggles or needs to do a payment plan, compromising on the rate or schedule of pay or doing a bit of pro bono work might go a long way toward maintaining the relationship. But if the client is questioning your skills right out of the gate and angling for a discount, you might be getting manipulated into cutting your rate.
And if your husband really wants you to stay home with him for a romantic evening and skip out on your weekly girls’ night, it might be a nice change of pace. But if you feel like you can’t leave the house or else he will text you every five minutes and demand to know if you’re cheating on him, you’re being controlled — and abused.
It can be hard to identify guilt-tripping or controlling behavior because it’s typically done with gaslighting, in which the manipulator attempts to make you deny your reality. An abusive friend will try to convince you that you don’t appreciate them, making you feel compelled to prove your love with expensive gifts. An abusive client will try to convince that you’re not worth a lot and that you’re being greedy for asking so much, leading you to devalue yourself. And an abusive partner will question your loyalty in order to keep you jumping through hoops to prove it — and thus trauma-bonded to them.
Red Flags for Guilt-Tripping and Controlling Behavior
Here are some surefire signs that your date, potential friend, or prospective client is trouble. These red flags can be applied to anyone with whom you’re thinking of engaging in a personal or business relationship.
Random, unfounded criticism of you, your skills, your appearance, etc. Includes “negging,” underhanded compliments, offensive remarks disguised as “advice” or with the phrase “I tell it like it is.” Healthy people offer genuine compliments and offer any advice in a constructive way.
Excessive self-praise. Includes declarations of their own greatness and complaints about other people who don’t “appreciate” them. For example, anyone who says “all my exes are crazy” is to be avoided at all costs. Healthy people understand that they may have had some role in a relationship ending.
Abnormal levels of interest in your past, personal beliefs, or the other people in your life. Includes slut-shaming, inappropriate questions, or massive assumptions about your qualifications or personality. Healthy people treat others with respect, even if they privately disagree with others’ choices.
One or two instances might not mean anything, but once you learn to listen for these things, you’ll quickly pick up on patterns and may even hear multiple instances in a single conversation. Which brings us to…
Ever kicked yourself for saying the wrong thing in a conversation — or not saying the right thing?
It’s one of the cruelest rules of the Universe. Without a doubt, you think of the perfect comeback hours later while you’re driving, or you realize the next morning in the shower that you could have said something much more coherent. It seems like we can never find the right words while we’re in the moment.
Unfortunately, some people take advantage of that and conduct their conversations as though they’re in a boxing match. They come out of the gates with an aggressive, entitled approach, such as telling you that they’re too busy to talk yet interrupting everything you say. You can’t respond without them saying, “Now don’t be offended/defensive/mad.” They say things like, “I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life, but…”
These are all huge red flags. People who can communicate normally don’t need to rely upon these tactics. They know that their ideas can stand up on their own. To good communicators, the natural flow of conversation is to alternate between speaking and listening. They’re good at making you feel heard, even if they disagree with your views. Rather than imposing their opinions on others or filtering everything through their bubble, they contextualize their thoughts and say only what needs to be said.
Aggressive communicators, however, know that it’s hard for you to respond well in the heat of the moment — the heat that they’re generating, I might add. They’re counting on you to be taken aback by a “conversation” that bucks conventions. So, they’ll deliver their thoughts in a format that places the burden on the other person. For example, they’ll phrase everything in terms of the other person, e.g. “Don’t be offended, but … “ or “I know you think X, but…”. They’ll talk continuously so that the other person has no chance of actually participating in the conversation. And they’ll constantly express how busy/confused/angry/disappointed/whatever they are, rather than permit any dialogue that allows understanding to develop.
Red Flags for Aggressive Communication
Many of the red flags listed under Guilt-Tripping and Controlling Behavior take place during conversation and double for this section as well. However, there are some particular tactics that may indicate a potentially bad relationship, if not outright controlling or guilt-tripping behavior.
Assumption of your perspective or understanding. Includes phrases such as “This may be hard for you to understand” and “I know people like you don’t X” Healthy people ask questions, such as “Do you understand?” or “Am I making sense?”
Bulldozing through the conversation. Includes incessant talking and frequent interruption, bringing up red herrings, what-about-ism, and derailing the conversation. Healthy people stick to the topic at hand, give others a chance to talk, and only transition to other topics when appropriate.
Entitlement to others’ time. Includes conversations that happen only on their schedule (e.g. calling a meeting then talking the whole time and taking off before anyone has a chance to respond), and demanding that other people drop everything to take their calls. Healthy people don’t insist upon others’ time and allow space for others to participate in the conversation.
You’ll notice a lot of these tactics used by trolls on social media, as well.
We’ve discussed entitlement quite a bit, but it’s worth noting that entitlement isn’t just part of conversational aggression or controlling behavior: It is its own dimension of bad behavior.
If you’ve ever worked customer service, you’ve seen entitlement in action. And depending on your country or culture, you may not have been in any position to respond adequately to it. I’ve had customers threaten violence to me because I couldn’t accept their coupon. It’s hard to know what to do with that level of entitlement.
However, knowing the red flags can help you identify problematic people in advance and steel yourself against any tactics they might use. For example, the most successful customer service workers are able to take control of the situation when customers are upset. Likewise, you’re much more likely to come out of a selling or trade-based relationship ahead if you can identify the common tactics of entitled people.
After selling dozens of things, including my car, earlier this day, I learned how to quickly sift the healthy buyers from the entitled ones. When I began freelancing, this superpower helped me avoid bad clients by identifying those who would suck up my time and energy yet pay pennies.
Red Flags for Entitlement
Unfortunately, you may not be able to fully avoid a relationship with an entitled person, especially if they’re a customer. But you can be prepared to quell any craziness.
Insistence upon their terms. Especially when you’re selling or pitching something, entitled people expect you to respond immediately to their messages and accept their (low) offer. Your best tactic is to stay firm — or simply ignore them. Without fail, I ignored “buyers” who would message me “$5” and then send three followup texts within the hour. I’m a busy person, damnit.
Insistence that rules be broken for them. This one’s pretty self-explanatory and is fairly common in the service industry. Your best tactic is to seek compromise rather than promising an exception to the rule. Once you establish that you’ll bend rules for someone or inconvenience yourself to convenience them, you’ve permanently lost ground.
Bossiness. Includes attempts to “supervise” you or assume a managerial role over you even though they’re not in such a position, followed up by the phrase hated by customer service workers everywhere: “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Your best tactic is to stand your ground. Don’t be aggressive, but be assertive. Clearly and calmly ask questions to get where you need to get.
Ultimately, trust your gut. If something feels off in a relationship, whether it’s a short-term encounter or a long-term thing, it’s worth looking for red flags. Even though red flags aren’t necessarily death sentences for relationships, knowing what they are prepares you for when someone tries to sideswipe you. You’ll be better empowered to seek resolution for any conflict, as well.
By taking a tactful, calm approach, you can take back control in these situations and avoid the miserable “I should have said that!” moments later in the shower. Remember, you deserve respect. With this guide in hand, I hope that you can easily identify situations in which you’re being manipulated — and put a stop to it!