Why do people—maybe a person like you—get stuck in unrewarding relationships? There’s one understanding that throws huge light on this.
Can I tell you a quick story? There’s this woman, no longer a young woman now. Been married for years to the same man. A very, very overbearing, controlling man. Abusively so. Also a very rich man who’s given her a fabulous lifestyle and who, in his way, is quite charismatic.
She chose him, and stayed with him, because of the ways she tied herself into knots trying to balance the pros and cons of being with him. The red flags against the green flags.
As a result she condemned herself (that’s how she put it!) to a lifetime of verbal abuse and stress and misery.
How did this happen? she asked. How did I allow this to happen?
A lifetime of misery—like hers—can easily, and tragically, come from a basic mistake in how we process things.
In this case, we proceed with pros and cons, green flags and red flags. Weighing the good against the bad as if that will show us, when you add it all up, whether we’re in positive or negative territory. If there are a hundred things adding up to 100 and one thing adding up to 95, you think you might be good to go.
Except it doesn’t work like this. Not at all.
Here’s how it really works. Suppose you were looking for your dream house and you thought you’d found it. Except for one thing. There was a vicious, indestructible rattlesnake living in that house. You couldn’t get rid of him, but he’d be making it his business to get rid of you, and there’d be nothing you could do about it. Would you take the dream house?
I don’t think so, unless you really, really liked rattlesnakes.
But we do this in the relationships we choose or stick with all the time. A woman I know sent me a piece from Buzzfeed about the red flags that negate the green flags. I had to laugh. A sad, bitter laugh, because I knew about how for 45 years my waiting room has been filled by people who saw these red flags, and others, and ignored them, because of all the lovely little green flags.
Here's the list from the Buzzfeed piece:
Having a victim complex and being rude to people
Extreme outbursts of anger
“Littering, like, blatantly.”
“Cheating. Disrespect toward me. Disrespect toward others. Disloyalty.”
“Absurd possessiveness, as in ‘You can’t wear that.’ ‘You can’t go there.’ ‘You can’t talk to that guy.’”
Bragging about how lucky you are to be with them
“Over-the-top-solipsism. That ‘I don’t perceive it that way, so it can’t be true’ mentality”
“Possessiveness, unkindness toward people or animals, gaslighting or other manipulative dishonesty, rage problems, irresponsible financial habits, excessive bathroom humor”
“He doesn’t see his kid”
They don’t respect boundaries
Feel free to add to the list!
Some of these items, like smoking, might not be an issue for everyone. Some of these are hard to define, like abuse, being two-faced, or not respecting boundaries. But here’s the crucial issue.
Things like these aren’t red flags at all. A red flag is something like the person’s being currently unemployed. Not a great sign. Something to give you pause. But not at all necessarily the sign of a loser. Lots of terrific people have gone through a period of unemployment.
Instead, things like those on this list are DEAL BREAKERS. They’re like you’re size 7 foot in a size 4 shoe. Won’t work. Can’t be done. No matter how many green flags the shoe has.
This is not rocket science. But it does involve a heart-breaking (but life-saving!) realization: there are things about other people that will destroy your ability to be happy with them, no matter how many green flags there are. Otherwise movie stars and billionaires would never be getting divorced, where in fact they’re getting divorced all the time.
What makes something a deal breaker or not?
You’re starting up with a guy and he’s going bald. Not your preference. Fine. But otherwise he’s a great guy and great for you. Well, guess what? If you otherwise find him attractive, 99 out of 100 women will tell you you’ll be able to get over his being bald just fine. It’ll recede into the background.
On the other hand, you’re starting up with a guy and, let’s say, it’s soon clear to you he’s a Donny Downer. Always glum, bummed out, bumming you and others out. Not getting joy from things and spoiling your joy. But other than that? Green flags! Well, guess what? You’d be a very unusual person if living with a Gloomy Gus didn’t get you down. Recede into the background? On the contrary, it’ll loom larger and large as ordinary evenings and happy big occasions were spoiled by his attitude and behavior. And affection will sour into resentment and animosity, with or without green flags.
You’ve got to get this. To accept this. It’s a painful truth that points the way to a happy future. That frees you from things that can’t work and bring misery and that allows you to embrace a future free from things that are unfixably bad.
For the all-time classic on deciding whether to stay in or get out of your relationship, there’s only one choice: Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay.