One of my clients, Jessica, 38, began dating Dave, 42, after meeting on an online dating site six months ago and she is beginning to question whether or not they have a future. During the first couple of months of dating, she was elated because Dave is handsome, charming, and has a good job as a high school teacher.
However, recently, Jessica is noticing that Dave tends to make critical comments about the work she does at an advertising agency and calls her “superficial.” Although she’s proud of her work, she finds herself getting defensive when he asks her questions about her clients or meetings. Dave also tends to “shut down” when he’s in a bad mood and is usually unwilling to discuss what’s bothering him, which leaves Jessica wondering what she did wrong or feeling clueless about how to cheer him up.
The Honeymoon Phase
The honeymoon phase of any relationship is both exciting and enviable. A new romance inspires us and engages all of the long-held hopes and expectations we have when looking for love. Few things in life are more enthralling and intoxicating than the all-consuming emotion and promise of that special connection with a mate.
In a recent article for The Gottman Institute’s website, Marriage and Family Therapist, Elizabeth Earnshaw, takes a unique approach to evaluating the early stages of a relationship. With an eye toward fostering long-term happiness, Earnshaw observes that the very things that make dating so heady can also serve to blind us to red flags that might spell conflict down the road.
Indeed, many of the problems that arise in long-term relationships are present during the honeymoon phase — it’s just that they’re obscured by an emotional and physiological reaction dictated by human nature and our body chemistry. Our brains are programmed to have a chemical response to bonding and physical proximity to those we care about, and these factors can be enhanced in a budding romance.
Earnshaw writes about what she calls “Red Flags” and “Green Flags” — those signs that are predictors of both conflict and contentment. Earnshaw warns of Red Flags like criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling (or emotionally shutting out your partner) and contempt, which often take the form of belittling a partner to establish a sense of superiority in a relationship.
Among the Green Flags Earnshaw cites is a so-called “gentle start up,” which is an emotionally mature and even-handed approach to conflict and is driven by a desire to diffuse rather than escalate a disagreement. Additionally, Earnshaw advises partners in new relationships to look for “responsibility taking” in their prospective mate. No one is perfect, but if you can recognize humility, honesty and self-awareness in a partner early on in a relationship, it will contribute to sustained success.
On the other hand, if you like Jessica are aware that your new love interest is critical, controlling, defensive, or tends to shut down, pay attention to these “Red Flags.” After consideration, you might decide that the relationship will potentially become too conflictual or unsatisfying to pursue further and cut your losses by ending it in a respectful way.
As with so many pivotal aspects that contribute to the health and happiness of a relationship, being mindful is half the battle. Earnshaw makes clear that our awareness of these warning signs — both the good and the bad — is key to determining whether a young relationship has the legs to last. Conversely, if you’re able to see Red Flags even through those rose-colored glasses, this will help you realistically evaluate whether your new relationship has potential to develop into a healthy long-term one.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.
Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020.