Have You Overlooked These 2 Undercover Relationship Red Flags?

Sometimes, the line between love and control can be fine. Here's how to know if your relationship is on the right side of that line.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 28, 2024

One of the most universally enthralling experiences is the beginning of a new relationship. The feeling is like no other. You've just met someone new and special, and the chemistry is electric. Suddenly, you've been swept off your feet in a whirlwind of romance. They lavish you with affection, shower you with compliments and pose as your knight in shining armor.

Dreamy, right? They seem eager to commit. They're spontaneous and romantic. They're protective and caring. In the heat of the moment, this can feel like a picture-perfect romance. However, research shows that these behaviors could be potential red flags in disguise. As intoxicating as a budding romance may feel, it's important to remember that sometimes love can wear rose-tinted glasses—ones that make red flags appear as green.

1. Love-Bombing

Picture Sarah, who has just started dating Alex, and was swept off her feet by his overwhelming affection. From the moment they met, Alex bombarded Sarah with grand gestures of love and affection. He sent her flowers daily, wrote her love letters and constantly reassured her of his undying devotion. Sarah, smitten, felt like she was living in a fairytale. She enjoyed the excitement of being showered with affection and feeling cherished by Alex's passionate displays of love.

Many in Sarah's position would assume that Alex is a catch; feeling loved and appreciated is something that anyone desires. However, this endearing behavior may not necessarily be a green flag. In the early stages of a relationship, excessive grand gestures and demonstrations of attention and affection could be a sign of love-bombing: a major red flag in disguise.

According to research, individuals who engage in these excessive displays of affection may be grappling with insecurities rooted in their attachment style. Those with insecure attachments may seek validation and reassurance from their partners as a means of filling a void or soothing underlying anxieties.

The researchers found that many love-bombers actually have low self-esteem. Because of this, they may view excessive displays of affection as a way to bolster their sense of self-worth and stave off feelings of inadequacy. From this perspective, love-bombing serves as a coping mechanism and a guaranteed source of assurance.

Further research shows that love-bombing can be indicative of much darker intentions, and can serve four dangerous functions:

  1. Attachment. To show how strongly the person feels and how committed they are to the relationship, as well as to track and record the development of a strong, pervasive bond.
  2. Virtue signaling. To prove how pure, authentic and well-intentioned the love-bomber is.
  3. Gaslighting. To place the target in an immersive bubble in which they are manipulated into believing in a shared fantasy—almost a cult-like experience.
  4. Inciting addiction. To draw the target into a self-focused illusion where they are idolized, creating an addictive cycle that reinforces the love-bombers control.

Once the relationship has developed, love-bombers might intermittently withhold affection from their target. Placed in a perpetual cycle, the target may become addicted to the thrill of regaining the love and affection that they were once given unconditionally. The constant switching between the cold shoulder and adoration may trap the target in an emotionally manipulative relationship.

At the start of a budding romance, it's crucial to trust your instincts. Pay attention to the subtleties of your interactions. Genuine love is consistent, patient and respectful of boundaries. Most importantly, genuine love is something that grows slowly over time; the speed at which your relationship moves should always be closely watched. Remember, love is not about grand gestures or constant reassurance, but rather the quiet moments of connection and support.

2. Overprotectiveness

Imagine Michael, a devoted boyfriend who always put his girlfriend, Emily, first. He cared for her fiercely, constantly worrying about her whereabouts and always volunteering to accompany her wherever she went. Emily felt flattered by Michael's attentiveness. She appreciated his protective nature and the sense of security it provided, and both cherished and valued his unwavering commitment to her safety and well-being.

In Emily's shoes, it's easy to see Michael as a dream partner. After all, who doesn't want to feel cherished and protected? Yet, this seemingly ideal behavior might not be as reassuring as it seems. Michael's seemingly desirable actions could actually be a sign of a deeper issue, camouflaged as a caring concern.

According to research, there is a fine line between protectiveness and overprotectiveness—and crossing it may lead to possessiveness and mistrust. An overprotective partner may try to rationalize their behavior by downplaying its negative implications, emphasizing that they're "just looking out for you" or that it's "what any good partner would do." While this is an enticing narrative, it is also one that masks the underlying issues at hand.

While caring for a partner's well-being is undeniably important, it's equally important to acknowledge when protectiveness veers into the realm of control. Genuine care shouldn't start and end with safety and watchfulness. It also involves respecting boundaries, trusting a partner's judgment and supporting their autonomy. In contrast, controlling behaviors seek to restrict freedom and independence, ultimately eroding the foundation of a healthy relationship.

In a whirlwind romance, it's all too easy to turn a blind eye to red flags waving furiously in front of us—especially ones that seem green at first. Perhaps it's out of fear of hurting our partner's feelings, or the nagging fear of being alone, uncertain if we'll find someone better. Whatever the reason, ignoring these warning signs can lead us down a path of eventual heartache. In doing so, we bet against ourselves and risk our own happiness and well-being in the process.

Unsure about the signals you've been receiving in your relationship? Take the evidence-based Relationship Satisfaction Scale to gain clarity.

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