Red and green flags: The signs that it may be time to let a relationship go

‘Compassion for the other person, as well as yourself, is the beating heart in relationships,’ says Michaela Thomas

“Relationships are hard, and some say people come into your life for a season or a reason,” says Michaela Thomas, clinical psychologist, couple’s therapist and author of The Lasting Connection. “If it is for a season, what are the warning signs that it’s time to let the relationship go?”

Red and green flags are indicators of what we are looking for, and dodging, in our relationships, but they are not as black and white as we may believe.

Relationships are not linear and exist very much on a spectrum of personal wants and needs, which means preferred relationship attributes will be different for everyone. We may think of some of these qualities as universal red and green flags, but let’s not forget the complex nature of relationships and recognise the varying shades of yellow, and orange too.

In The Lasting Connection, Thomas highlights some of the factors which contribute to and threaten a lasting connection to develop love and compassion for yourself and your partner.


The making of a relationship with the varying green flags can include:

  • Friendship and mutual respect
  • Gratitude and appreciation
  • Empathy and compassion
  • Accepting differences
  • Adapting to change
  • Being attentive of each other
  • Self-awareness and taking ownership
  • Making space for each other
  • Raising complaints respectfully
  • Ability to soothe and create safeness
  • Caring for each other
  • Joint decision-making
  • Repairing a rupture and forgiveness

And the catalyst for the breaking of a relationship can include red flags such as:

  • Hostility and disconnection
  • Taking for granted
  • Mind-reading, assuming, emotional coldness
  • Trying to change the other person
  • Resisting change
  • Ignoring each other
  • Creating distance between each other
  • Criticism and contempt
  • Reactivity to threat, counterattacking
  • Competing with each other
  • Major life decisions just happening (sliding)
  • Burying past hurt, creating resentment

“Lots of green and red flags are the opposite sides of the same coin,” says Thomas.

“If there is strong mutual trust, it is a good indicator of a deep connection, and if there is mistrust and deceit, it is more likely that the relationship will crumble. If there is fondness and liking of each other, you’re more likely to invest time and effort to be with each other, and if there is a beginning of dislike and contempt, you will be repelled by each other.”

Red flags, while considered to be the most dominant, are not always so visible which is why being conscious of the varying blends of warning signs and the all-clear signs of green flags is necessary to help us navigate towards positive relationships.

“Once you go past the initial romance and infatuation of a relationship, you build a deeper emotional connection through friendship and mutual respect,” says Thomas.

“That’s difficult if you’re constantly fighting and criticising each other. Criticisms and put downs are red flags to watch out for, as they can erode your connection and your sense of self. One key indicator could be that the relationship has been costing you more than it’s worth, consistently, over time.

“Perhaps you have ignored the warning signs over and over, that this person drains you rather than sustains you. Your battery isn’t recharged in their presence, and they aren’t doing anything to reciprocate your kind actions towards them.”

While warning and all-clear signs are there to help us navigate our relationships towards what we need most in our lives and play a significant part in keeping away from toxic relationships, certain flags can lead us toward negotiating boundaries and figuring out if certain attributes are non-negotiable.

“It’s important to not jump ship too soon in a relationship – romantic or friendship – as most relationships can weather an occasional storm without falling apart,” says Thomas.

“If you cut ties as soon as the relationship feels one-sided for a bit, it might mean you are not showing compassion for what is going on for the other person. Just because they aren’t able to be there for you in this precise moment, precisely as you need it, it doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed or that they are inherently selfish. We all have things going on in our lives.”

We all have our own warning flags to watch out for. Our friends, partners, colleagues, and family members are also navigating their own relationship needs. There is a keen balance in knowing and finding what you need and being considerate of what the other person also needs in your relationship.

“Compassion for the other person, as well as yourself, is the beating heart in relationships,” says Thomas. “That means you care about their wellbeing, wanting to be there for them, but knowing to not do so at your own detriment.

“Compassion for others needs balancing with compassion for yourself. It means having the clarity and wisdom to know when the relationship has run its course, when enough is enough, and sometimes the most compassionate thing to both of you is to leave.

“We tend to overlook compassion and kindness, building a foundation of friendship and mutual respect, being more mesmerised by charm or perceived compatibility. It’s more important for a lasting connection to deal with your incompatibilities with compassion, than it is to be compatible and the same on all points.”

We may subconsciously choose to ignore the red flags that to others are glaringly obvious. We do this because of fear. We become attached to an individual and without them the risk of security and our future are triggered when we consider exiting the relationship.

We also stay attached to potentially toxic, dangerous, or manipulative relationships because of love. Love can make us do funny things and when it comes to our connections, we may choose to overlook certain aspects of a person because we choose to love them. However, a relationship like this with roaring red flags can open us to accepting and enduring relationship trauma.

When the warning flags are begging not to be ignored, we often move toward an attempt to change our partner or friend, but while people are capable of change, its not always easy to encourage someone to change their ways, so we must look towards ourselves.

Managing the red and green flags of our relationships again means knowing what we need and how can we establish our boundaries. When someone begins to respect our boundaries under a glaring red warning, the red may flash to amber. None of us are perfect after all and can learn to understand our flaws.

Red flags tend to get the most discussion, but it is important to voice the green flags in our relationships, such as a willingness to work on those flaws and prioritise our relationship. And the more we can communicate what we need in our relationship, the more we can respect each other’s boundaries.

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family