In any kind of relationship, it’s wise to move away from only considering the bad qualities or traits of someone—or red flags— and instead start looking for the good. And identifying green flags (things you actively look for in a partner), yellow flags (things that are neither desirable nor dealbreakers), and orange flags (things that rub you the wrong way) can help you assess the full picture of how you feel about a given relationship in question.
It’s key to keep this holistic information in mind because, as is the case with most things in life, flags in relationships exist on a spectrum rather than a strict binary. This means there are also different shades of green, yellow, orange, and red flags. And while there are some universal red flags, like forms of abuse, most flags will vary from person to person. Once you figure out what your personal flags are, you can start to figure out how to handle them as they arise in your romantic relationship.
What red and green flags mean in a relationship
“Flags are indicators,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Karla Zambrano-Morrison, LMFT. “Green flags are the good things that we’re looking for in our relationships, and red flags are the things that make our instincts go, ‘This doesn’t seem right.’"
While being able to identify what your red and green flags are is important for having an understanding of what you’re looking for in a relationship—and also avoiding—it’s also important to not be overly rigid. That’s because seeing things in only black or white—or, in this case, as green or red—can rob you and your potential partner of a learning opportunity, says licensed marriage and family therapist Erika Moreira, LMFT. That’s exactly where yellow and orange flags come in, says licensed marriage and family therapist Jacqueline Mendez, LMFT.
What yellow flags mean
“The yellows and oranges become a place where we can renegotiate our relationships,” Mendez says. “The yellow is more of a joyful [renegotiation], but orange is more of, ‘This is really close to being a dealbreaker, but it’s not painful yet.’”
“The yellows and oranges become a place where we can renegotiate our relationships.” —Jacqueline Mendez, LMFT
A yellow flag tends to be something that isn’t harmful or a serious threat to the relationship, but something that you don’t have in common with the other person and wish you did. For someone who enjoys music but whose life doesn’t revolve around it, for example, a yellow flag may be not having the same music tastes. This isn’t an issue in and of itself, so you can deal with it by going to concerts separately and by playing music that you both like. This same topic, however, can quickly creep into the orange or even red territory, depending on the role music plays in your life and how you and your partner go about handling the issue.
What orange flags mean
According to Mendez, orange flags tend to be an issue of power and control. To keep with the music example, the orange flag can look like a partner saying, “I don’t want you to ever play the Spice Girls in the house. I hate the Spice Girls.” In this case, one partner is asserting control by dictating what the other partner can and can’t do inside of the house, rather than having a conversation and respecting the other person’s taste. In addition to such personal preferences as music and movies, religion, children, and money are all components of life that are typically tied to power.
In addition to questionable power dynamics, Zambrano-Morrison says orange flags can also look like “spending less and less time doing things you enjoy, tip-toeing around your partner, or dismissing your own boundaries and beliefs, saying ‘it’s okay, it’s fine’ [when it’s not].” Basically, revolving your life and how you go about it around the other person, and prioritizing their needs and wants above your own, whether out of fear otherwise is an orange flag. One strategy to confirm something is an orange flag, Zambrano-Morrison says, is to “ask yourself if you’re focusing on the potential of what that person can be instead of what’s happening in front of your face.”
What’s the difference between red and orange flags, then? “A red flag means that somebody’s boundaries are being crossed—values, ideas, or your physical body,” says Mendez. Alternatively, an orange flag doesn’t necessarily reflect a crossed boundary, but rather evidence that it may soon happen. When your partner tells you that you can’t listen to the Spice Girls in the house and you think to yourself, “That’s fine. I’ll just listen to them in the car,” you’ve arrived in orange-flag country.
The telltale sign of a red flag—rather than an orange flag—relies on the way in which you communicate about the issue, or more aptly, don’t communicate. For instance, if playing the Spice Girls causes a fight (or silence) rather than leads to a productive conversation, then it may be a red flag.
How to handle red, orange, and yellow flags in a relationship
After you identify red, orange, and yellow flags in a relationship, what can you do about them? “I always like to start with [addressing] the red flags because it’s important for our ‘nots’ to be known,” says Mendez. “It’s crucial to establish your boundaries first.”
When our hard boundaries are presented to our romantic partners, we (ideally) open up a dialogue. If your red flag is that your partner bars you from listening to the Spice Girls, bring that up to them and observe how they react. Are they willing to negotiate and meet you somewhere in the middle? The flag remains red if your partner is unwilling to bend, Moreira says. At that point, you need to ask yourself if the red flag will remain a dealbreaker (at which point it could be best to end the relationship) or if it’s something you can live with.
Red flags, however, can turn orange when your partner is willing to listen and negotiate. After having an honest conversation, you and your partner agree: Perhaps you can blast the entirety of Spice World in the house, but only while they’re not around. As long as your partner is emotionally available to you, you’re in orange flag territory (even if their compromise isn’t ideal).
More negotiation turns orange flags into the less-serious and less-relationship-threatening yellow flags. There tends to be a higher level of communication, which gives way to a better compromise. This can look like your partner agreeing, “You can listen to the Spice Girls when you want, but try to be respectful of the fact that they’re not my favorite.” Both partners, in this case, agree to respect each other and their boundaries.
Hopefully the majority of the flags in your romantic relationship are green. This would mean, according to Moreira, that your partner is someone who knows their flaws and is willing to work on them. Another green flag might be a partner who prioritizes your perspective and understands that your tastes won’t always align. In these cases, it’s important to voice your appreciation of these traits so that your partner understands your likes as well as your dislikes, keeping you both out of the red-flag zones.
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