Dating and Relationship Advice

The phrase "red flag" is being used so much in the dating community that it's almost meaningless. Similar to the wide range of the definition of "ghosting," "red flag" is being used to refer to everything from someone being five minutes late even if they've texted to let you know to verbal abuse. Before we consider whether the size of someone's social circle should be a red flag or not, we need to talk about what is appropriate to label a red flag. Neither someone who is five minutes late but texting to let you know nor verbal abuse are red flags. The first is a fact of life; it will happen to you more than once, and you will do it to someone else. Married people will do this to their spouses, and friends will do this to friends. Expecting perfect punctuality is more a red flag than someone texting to let you know they will be five minutes late.

The second is far beyond a red flag. It is a stop sign at the first incident. Some people might use "red flag" this way, but technically, that's not what a red flag is. The term is probably initially taken from football: a coach can use a red flag when he wants the previous play reviewed by the referees. (Many people think red flags are for penalties, but, in football, that's what yellow flags are, and the referees use them). The red flag stops the clock so that previous occurrences can be reviewed. It does not halt the game forever. Since then, the term red flag has morphed into a phrase meant for a general warning. Still, I think that's doing the dating world a disservice, and returning to a meaning closer to the term's original meaning would serve us much better as we seek to date effectively and healthily.

This would look like pausing to review a behavior or something that happened either within yourself or with a trusted friend and the other person when appropriate circumstances. A red flag is a pause for a review, a chance to understand something better before deciding what actions should or should not be taken. It is not the behavior itself; it is a request for an opportunity to process a certain behavior either with the person or on your own. This is not to advocate being a doormat or letting things go that really do not work for you. It is to take our fingers off our triggers in our dating life, slow things down, and really get to know both ourselves and other people as we seek whatever we're seeking from dating.

There is precedent for some of this: there is the practice of crowd-sourcing a list of red flags. In dating groups on Facebook and on podcasts related to love and relationships, I regularly see and hear different versions of the question, "What are some red flags for you?" or "Is [specific thing X] a red flag?" While a list of red flags is individualized, some people might find video games a red flag while others might see them as a green light. For example, dating in a community is generally healthier and more effective than dating in isolation. Especially for those who have gone through abusive situations in the past, it can be challenging to see behaviors that are not generally appropriate or loving or merit further conversation and inquiry.

Which brings us to a question that is coming up more and more in the conversations I'm part of: is a small social circle a red flag if you're interested in dating that person? In the NEW definition that I discussed above—that is, a behavior or circumstances that merit review for understanding, not an automatic end to the relationship—then I would say yes. And I say that as someone who has gone through various phases of social-circle shrinkage myself and who has dated people with varying sizes of social circles. In some circumstances, the small social circle was not a problem: someone very close to me has a small number of friends, and it's been that way her whole life. She is simply very introverted and thrives with a lot of alone time. She is not avoiding people, nor is she stagnating in her growth, and she is not unhappy.

Conversely, during one of the periods in my life that my social circle started to shrink, it was actually a red flag to me. I had historically understood myself as an extrovert, or at least someone who really desired friendships and being with people. Why was I withdrawing from what I had thought for so long that I wanted? I took the time to pause, reflect on my inner and out life, and identify some things I needed to change in my current schedule and routine and a few tough conversations I needed to have.

Small social circles thus can indicate a lack of emotional wellness or simply a preference. They can indicate a lack of accountability or merely a reflection of a person knowing who they are and owning their needs for protecting their own energy. Few friends can tell selfishness, or it can indicate a desire to build deep, close relationships, which most humans can't do well with many other people.

I don't think a small circle should automatically be assumed to mean that the person with few friends is unlikeable by others and, therefore, would not be a good partner. The person I mentioned above who has had few friends her whole life has been happily married for almost 50 years. Remember that "few" does not mean "none." As you encounter potential dates with a few friends, pause and consider the whole picture before ignoring it or dismissing them. As with most red flags, especially with the new definition, I propose we start using more; it depends on the circumstance and the people involved.

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