by Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D
It would be great if relationships could come with warning labels. You’d be able to head off problems before they materialize with partners who didn’t turn out to be such good matches for you. Unfortunately, unlike the choices you have when you buy prescription drugs, cigarettes, or hazardous substances with their bold-faced risks and side effects, you’re on your own when it comes to deciding on a relationship partner.
In the very rich area of relationship research, there’s a surprisingly small sector of the literature that deals directly with warning signs.As reported by Kansas State University’s Nathan Hardy and co-authors (2015), those warning signs form part of the equation in determining relationship risk. The bigger and brighter those red flags, the higher the risk. Adding to the red flags, additional risk factors include how compatible you are with your partner and how committed each of you seems to be.
It’s particularly important to weigh relationship risk factors in the early stages of the game with a potential new partner. According to inertia theory (Stanley & Rhoades, 2009), the longer you’re in a relationship, the greater the inertia factor that prevents you from leaving it when it becomes emotionally unfulfilling or perhaps even dangerous. The theory also suggests that you’re best off making a conscious choice as you enter a new relationship. You’ll work harder to keep that relationship strong the more effort you put into the decision to get involved with your partner in the first place. Even if you decide to disregard the red flags and go ahead anyhow with a commitment to the partner, you will be better prepared to handle the problems that may follow down the road.
Think of it the way you would make the decision to buy a car. You may realize that it’s got some weaknesses (a couple of dings and dents here and there). However, you’ve decided to accept those and in fact you may work that much harder, according to this model, to keep it in tiptop condition from there on out especially if you decide you love it, flaws and all. It’s not the objective nature of the situation (number of warning signs in a partner or scratches in a car) but the fact that you actually put effort into deciding to make the commitment.
Using a sample of heterosexual couples living in mainland China, Hardy and his team tested the predictions of the risk model that paying more attention to warning signs would positively relate to behaviors in the relationship intended to keep it healthy and viable. They factored in attention to warning signs as indicated by these 4 questions:
- I am able to recognize early on the warning signs in a bad relationship
- I know what to do when I recognize the warning signs in a bad relationship
- I know exactly what to avoid in a potential partner
- I am quickly able to see danger signals in a romantic relationship.
The main question of interest in the study was whether affirmative answers to these questions would predict the ability of the partners in the couple to handle problems constructively in a relationship. Some of these constructive problem-solving indicators were: “We have little trouble in choosing a solution for a given problem,” ”Our quarrels often end up in discussions about who is right and who is wrong (reversed),” and ”If my partner in one way or another has disappointed me, I talk to him/her about it.”
In putting together a statistical model predicting good couple problem-solving from attention to warning signs, Hardy and his team included another measure that turned out to be extremely important. This was the “marital confidence” scale, a set of questions that tapped into the individual’s sense that the relationship would be a lasting one. All of these questions were given to both partners in the study’s 200 couples.
As the Hardy et al. team expected, attention to warning signs did predict positive, constructive problem-solving methods of handling conflict. However, that factor took a detour through marital confidence. Attention to warning signs, for both men and women, predicted marital confidence which in turn predicted those positive conflict resolution methods.
In the words of the authors, the results show that “individuals who are conscientious about risks are actively working to keep their relationships safe.” The moral of the story, then, is that the effort you put into paying attention to warning flags will pay off in helping to promote your relationship’s quality and duration.
Now let’s take a look at what some of those warning signs might be. Although the Hardy and team study didn’t ask for this information, here are suggestions based on other studies in the relationship literature:
- Your family or friends doesn’t like the person: Other people can see what you can’t, so if you’re getting feedback from enough other people, listen to it.
- You’re getting a lot of excuses that don’t ring true: You want consistency in your relationship partner and you need to be able to feel that your partner is trustworthy.
- It’s getting too close too fast: Your partner wants to make commitments before you’re ready and pressures you to respond in kind. Lasting relationships start out more slowly.
- Your partner has very few friends: The potential for intimacy arises out of a set of stable long-term relationships. If your partner seems to be a loner, this might signal a lack of capacity for true closeness.
- Your partner is a heavy substance or alcohol user: A constant pattern of getting drunk or high suggests that your partner may be dealing with deeper psychological issues that will only continue or get worse in the future.
None of these red flags alone are deal breakers, and you may have your own that you’d like to add based on your own experiences. Furthermore, just because you see a red flag doesn’t mean you have to get out of the relationship.
The Hardy et al study shows that putting more effort into your relationship in the early stages of transitioning into it means that you take these red flags seriously. It is then that you can enter into that relationship prepared psychologically to handle whatever challenges it presents over the long haul.
Hardy, N. R., Vennum, A., Johnson, M. D., Anderson, J. R., Luu, S., & Liu, W. (2015). “Associations between attention to warning signs, marital confidence, and interactional problem solving among emerging adult couples in Mainland China.” Emerging Adulthood, 3(3), 194-203. doi:10.1177/2167696814551385
Stanley, S., & Rhoades, G. (2009). “Marriages at risk: Relationship formation and opportunities for relationship education“. In H. Benson & S. Callan (Eds.), What works in relationship education: Lessons from academics and service deliverers in the United States and Europe (pp. 21 – 44). Doha, Qatar: Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development
Thanks to Sott for this article