Relationship Red Flags: 4 Strategies People use to Never be Wrong & Keep us Apologizing.
I have always believed that there’s really no reason for relationships to end.
If both people are committed to each other and the relationship, are able to self-reflect, own up to their part in any difficulties, say sorry and promise to amend their behaviour, then there’s really no problem too big to overcome.
That’s the approach I take in my personal life and in the work I do when I counsel couples.
But as difficult as it is to accept, some relationships simply must end. But at what stage does one make that decision? How do you know when that time has come? What signs or “red flags” do you look for to help you make that difficult decision?
So here’s the thing: when you’re in a healthy relationship and you experience a bump in the road—for instance, something has happened and one or both of you are upset and hurt and you want to resolve the situation—the process of reconciliation is pretty straightforward.
Healthy Rules of Engagement.
In a healthy relationship, both people feel safe expressing their thoughts, feelings, and needs, knowing their perspective will be validated, honoured, and respected. Apologies are offered effortlessly. Forgiveness is easily extended without conditions or delay. And, amendments are made to behaviours when necessary so the same scenario is prevented from happening down the road.
Basically, the relationship is important to both people and the proof is in how they show up in the relationship—their words, actions, and behaviours will demonstrate how important they are to each other. There is a willingness to solve the problem, no matter what.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m the first to admit that there are oftentimes hidden elements that make communicating effectively very difficult. As a person who helps couples resolve issues that they otherwise have not been able to resolve, I’m fully aware that trauma, emotional pain, and triggers create all kinds of barriers to effective communication.
But the point I’m trying illustrate here is that healthy, emotionally mature individuals are capable of dealing with the problems and, because of that, the situation can be resolved without excessive drama or stress.
Entering the Twilight Zone.
So what’s going on when you find yourself trying to resolve an issue with someone and no matter how hard you try, the problem somehow ends up being bigger than when you started the conversation?
I’ve experienced this personally and the situation can be so confusing and disorienting that I end up not knowing which way is up. I’m not perfect, by any means, but I don’t have a problem being wrong, saying sorry, changing my behaviour, or doing whatever it takes to make things better.
But with certain people, the conversation goes off into the ditch, and I end up doubting myself, thinking my points are not valid, or that my judgment was totally wrong—I get confused and bewildered and it feels like I’m living in “The Twilight Zone.”
The Conversation Hits the Ditch.
So, at what point does the conversation go off into the ditch?
It is at the point where I hold up the metaphoric mirror and ask the other person to self-reflect and own up to their part in the problem.
When you’re dealing with someone whose trauma from the past has made it too threatening for them to be flawed, make a mistake, or be wrong, and when saying “sorry” seems impossible or downright exhausting, that’s when the conversation becomes unreasonably and unnecessarily difficult, and a resolution likely won’t happen any time soon.
When someone can’t say sorry or own up to their part of the problems, they’ll sometimes use strategies to squirm away from being held accountable for their behaviours. They’ll pull out every trick in the book in an attempt to make you forget they had a part to play in the problem in the first place.
Their goal isn’t necessarily to resolve the problem; their goal is to ensure their flaws and inadequacies are not a topic of conversation—they want to keep the flaws hidden.
Unhealthy Rules of Engagement.
Here are some of the common strategies these individuals might use to avoid being held accountable for their behaviours:
Red Flag #1: Dismissing your concerns.
This strategy is used to convince you that the problem you want the other person to address is so small or insignificant that it’s not worth discussing—that you’re being silly or irrational for bringing it up in the first place.
They may say things like:
“Why would you make a big deal over something so small?”
“You’re sensitive about this because of your past. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Or, they may say that they don’t remember it even happening—as though it’s so small and insignificant that they can’t even remember doing the thing you’re upset about.
Chances are, you’ll drop the conversation, believing you were overreacting.
Red Flag #2: Disarming you so you drop it.
This strategy is used to convince you that your problem with them is totally off base and unreasonable. They often use passive-aggressive or aggressive communication techniques in order to disarm you or throw you off of your point. They may turn on the tears, get overly dramatic and upset, or become overly aggressive and yell or cause a commotion.
They may apologize, but the apology has little to do with the thing you want them to apologize for. They may say something like “I’m sorry I’m such an awful person!” Or, “I’m sorry for everything I’ve ever done to hurt you!”
Their goal is to get you to feel bad for bringing up your concern, to convince you that you’re unreasonable for even thinking they did something wrong because they are innocent. In the end, you may feel like you’ve been mean or harsh for having a problem with their behaviour.
Red Flag #3: Deflecting the focus.
This strategy is used to switch the focus of the conversation and get you spinning your wheels on a non-related topic. When they notice that you’re highlighting a character defect of theirs, they will counter your concern with a concern of their own.
This is where they focus on the things you’ve done wrong or the things you’ve done to hurt them. And even if they have a valid point and you have done things wrong or hurt them, their goal is to ensure the focus of the conversation stays on your character defects and not on theirs.
You likely will leave the conversation having apologized and promised to amend your behaviours, altogether forgetting your initial concern with them and their behaviour.
Red Flag #4: Justifying the behaviour.
This strategy is used to make you think that their behaviours are justified and valid. Their goal is to convince you that even if they have done something wrong, their behaviour is warranted and no apology is needed.
This might be as close as they will get to admitting they’ve done something wrong, but it won’t mean much because in the end, you will likely let them off the hook anyway. They’ll have convinced you that what they did was valid and made sense.
Abusers use this strategy to convince their victims that the abuse was justified because of something the victim might have said or done to bring the abuse upon themselves. This strategy isn’t solely reserved for abusive people, however.
A person who uses these strategies is someone who is very fragile emotionally and unable to address problems in a mature and effective way. Their ability to grow, evolve, and change is limited due to their inability to be accountable for their actions. In reality, their ability to create mutually loving, healthy, and respectful relationships is limited—their relationships often remain tumultuous, unfulfilling, and emotionally disconnected.
Do they realize they are using these strategies? Chances are they don’t, but they are so wounded, so vulnerable, and so scared to be flawed that they will do anything in their power to avoid accountability, whether they realize it or not.
Can they change? It depends on the individual. It takes a great deal of inner strength and emotional maturity to deal with the trauma that made it so difficult for them to be flawed in the first place.
And it takes a great deal of strength, on your part, to see through their tactics and stay focused on the point you need them to address. Yet, even if you are successful in accomplishing that, the situation might not get better—it can go one of two ways: they will either own up to their part, or the strategies they use will get even more aggressive and things could become even more difficult.
Is it Time to Say Goodbye?
Resolving challenges may not be easy, but the conversations should never feel overwhelming, disorienting, confusing, or impossible to navigate.
Building a deeply intimate, loving, emotionally connected and satisfying relationship takes commitment and dedication but it’s not impossible—it just takes two people who can look in the mirror and change what needs to be changed to make things better.
Is it time to say goodbye?
Perhaps you already know the answer to that question.
Author: Joyce Schafers
Image: Flickr/Scio Central School
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton
Social Editor: Callie Rushton