The other day my five-year-old and her friend were excitedly planning their next get-together. Mine said, “And we’ll play hide and seek!” and her friend said, “And we’ll think all the same thoughts!”
This longing for magical closeness does not fade with age. But finishing each others’ sentences (or sandwiches) is not always all it’s cracked up to be – as Anna (in Frozen) learned the hard way. Sometimes, the longing for closeness can lead to problematic compromises and unhealthy relationships. While the risk is higher when one or more party is desperate (e.g., Anna), anyone can find themselves accepting things they shouldn’t, for the sake of friendship or love.
How to do love and friendship so it’s good for you? The general guideline is that a relationship should make you be more (of yourself), not less. It’s okay – and often necessary – to make compromises. But these compromises should not compromise you, if you know what I mean.
Some relationships are built on a bad foundation. And even good, or potentially good, relationships can slide in a bad direction. Here are some of the most common red flags that my clients have told me about.
- gossiping or talking bad about people
- controlling or manipulative
- blaming, defensive, attacking
- only a taker; everything is all about that person
- invalidating, dismissive, one-upping
- clingy, needy, hyper-sensitive
- too good to be true
- doesn’t follow through or keep promises
- closed off or shut down
- doesn’t respect boundaries
Since nobody is flawless, we’re left to form our relationships with imperfect people. That doesn’t mean we have to form relationships with everyone who comes along. Nor does it mean that we have to accept every imperfection at face value; some things can be negotiated. Here are the steps I recommend.
1. Pay attention to the red flags. If a prospective friend or romantic partner is all red flag, best to pass on this one. The following examples may seem obvious, because they are. It’s important to actually walk away from these people.
- You go on a first date and the other person only talks about themself the whole time.
- A new friend keeps on trying to push you into activities you don’t want to do, ignoring or dismissing your objections.
- A new friend tells you one story after another about how everyone they know is such a horrible person.
2. Address the red flags. If someone is a good prospect, and your relationship is progressing, that does not mean that you should overlook or excuse the red flags. Address them, and see how the other person responds. For example, let’s say your friend puts you down in some way, and you tell your friend, “When you said that, it hurt my feelings.”
- Perhaps your friend says, “I’m sorry. Can you explain what hurt your feelings, so I understand better? Then I’ll be better able to avoid doing that again.” That kind of response indicates someone who will try to avoid putting you down as a habit. Not that they will be perfect about it, but at least will make a reasonable effort. Of course, you’ll want to track the follow-through.
- Perhaps your friend says, “Lighten up. I was only joking. You don’t have to make a big deal out of nothing!” That kind of response dismisses your concern and counters it with a further put-down. That lets you know that this person is not willing to respect you, but is only willing to relate to you in an abusive manner.
It can be so tempting to let the red flags slide. You may not want to rock the boat when you’re otherwise enjoying the ride, and hopeful about the destination. But many of us have learned by now, from hard experience, that both the ride and the destination are much improved when we pay attention to the red flags, and respond accordingly.
And if you find that you’re not able to follow this advice despite knowing better? That might mean that you’re desperate like Anna, and over-riding your own good judgment. When people are willing to accept harmful conditions in their relationships, this can indicate emotional wounds (from past experiences) that have created strong negative emotions and beliefs. In which case, try therapy! Because life is better when your friendships and romances make you more, not less.