The Red Flag Diary #1: How To Know If Your Pain Is Justified Or If You Are Overly Sensitive
Recently, I read Tim Urban’s WaitButWhy article How to Pick Your Life Partner. At 29, I’m kicking myself for not having found and read this back in 2014 when it was published. But I think it’s a testament to how much I’ve learned from my failed relationships that it looks pretty similar to my own list. I highly encourage anyone looking for romantic success to read both parts of that article.
It can be easy to know what you’re looking for in a life partner. Okay, maybe not, considering it took all of my twenties to halfway figure it out. But perhaps even harder is knowing what you are NOT looking for. We all know about red flags. What we have so much difficulty with is being able to tell the difference between a red flag and a flaw. When we really like someone, we ignore the red flags or we classify them as flaws that we should overlook if we are to be reasonable human beings who do not expect anyone to be perfect.
So often I have struggled with the question every empathetic ruminator encounters in the aftermath of an argument: Am I justified in my hurt feelings or am I being overly sensitive and unreasonable?
The problem is a strong loyalty to either feeling can be a cause for catastrophe. Maintaining that your pain is justified leads to a stubbornness that ends up hurting your relationship even more, and invalidating your pain leads to a decreased sense of self-worth and self-esteem as you begin to blame yourself for everything wrong and/or become a pushover in the relationship.
I’ve suffered both sides of the spectrum. When this happens, you start to lose confidence in who you are, your qualities, your values…in essence, your identity. And I will argue that losing your identity is worse than losing any relationship.
It can feel like an impossible situation then. You’re not right in feeling one way but you also shouldn’t feel the other way. So far, this dilemma I’ve laid out has been internal. So where does the other person come in? After all, this whole storm of feelings started because of an interaction between two people.
This is now my number 1 red flag because perhaps it is the most important gauge for whether the other person is right for you. The most important predictor of the outcome of all of your future conflicts (which let me be clear, right for you or not, you will have).
When you are hurt by something your partner said or did, they will typically react in one of two ways:
- Do everything they can to make YOU feel better, OR
- Do everything they can to make THEM feel better (all the while lying to themselves that they are really trying to make you feel better, because it is really hard to admit otherwise)
Partners who hold THEMSELVES responsible for your well-being…
(which is sign of a securely attached individual *look up attachment styles*) will first and foremost attempt to understand you and where you’re coming from. You will know this is what they’re doing when they:
- Ask you what’s wrong or how you are feeling (a desire to understand)
- Make it as comfortable and safe as possible to share what you are feeling — that means they are facing you, giving you full attention, speaking in a non-aggressive tone, and their facial expression shows concern
- Every verbal and non-verbal cue tells you it is safe to express yourself with this person. Whether you feel safe or not, this is a feeling that you do not need to justify. Why? Because humans communication goes beyond words. It is body language, gestures, facial expressions, vocal tones, touch, stance.
These partners will not make you question whether you are justified in your feelings or if you are being unreasonable. Because they have chosen for you: your feelings are justified. Your feelings are their priority. They show respect for you by not questioning your sensitivity. They trust your feelings are genuine and do not exist to make them feel bad about themselves, so they do not need to defend.
Partners who hold YOU responsible for your well-being…
will prioritize one thing: protecting themselves. They will become defensive to protect their pride. They will deflect blame. They will get angry at you for hurting them with…your hurt feelings. Sometimes, it isn’t so obvious because they will do things that seem to be for you but deep down, it’s for them. This looks like:
- Not asking you what’s wrong or what you’re feeling or why you’re feeling this way. But they will apologize. Whether or not they understand your emotional state, they haven’t bothered asking you. They think that by saying sorry, they are already giving something up to you. But everyone who has ever been hurt knows that an apology alone is not enough — your real need is the sense of caring that comes from knowing the other person wants to understand what is happening with you.
- They feel entitled to your forgiveness, as long as they have gone through the motions. They believe that by apologizing and/or groveling, that should be enough to make you feel better. (What more do you want from them? They’ve done all they can.) If they have done all of that and you still do not forgive them, then the problem has to be you. This is when the power shifts in their mind, and they start to blame you for their guilt. Never mind that you were the one hurt in the first place. Now it’s about them.
If they care about you at all, they want to make you feel better. But they want to make themselves feel better more, even if they don’t realize it. Unless you’re a psychopath, NOBODY feels good from having hurt their partner. Everyone experiences this guilt. It’s a horrible feeling.
But it becomes a red flag when that person starts doing everything they can to stop feeling the guilt. Because they feel like “the bad guy” and it feels shitty, their brains will work overtime to stop being the bad guy. How? By making YOU the bad guy. This surfaces in a few ways:
- The more you cry, the angrier they get. They no longer see your tears as a sign of your inner turmoil but rather as a tool of manipulation used as punishment or an attack against them. They may not realize that this kind of reaction to your display of pain is a problem they need to work on. If you are the one crying, this behavior is perplexing because you expect sympathy from a partner who sees you in this much pain. How are you supposed to believe they care when they give you the exact opposite?
- They ask why you can’t cut them some slack. Normally, this isn’t such an unreasonable request. None of us are perfect at all times. But the problem is, by suggesting “cutting them slack” as a solution to the emotional drama at hand, they are telling you that the problem was never what they did but rather your expectations. It’s another way of telling you your needs and expectations are unreasonable. It’s indicating that they may not believe you are worth every effort or that you deserve to get your needs fulfilled. Instead of trying harder to do better on their part, it is on you to lower your standards.
- They ask what about all those times they showed you they care. Why must you focus on the negative things? Again, not a totally unreasonable request. Except that it is. Like the last point, this is victim-shaming. It’s saying YOU are the unreasonable one and instead of any change of behavior on their part, YOU should check yourself. Never mind that relationships are not made up of tally marks of everything you did that was good or bad and that there is no such thing as “cancelling out” the positive and negative. By bringing focus to their past good deeds, they are invalidating your current pain, as if to say you do not have the right to feel what you feel because look at all those times they did the right thing. If you were reasonable, you would suck it up and forgive them immediately. This is just…wrong. I believe everyone should be allowed mistakes. The problem here, once again, is their focus is on THEM. They’re not worrying about your feelings if all they can think about is how to get you to stop blaming them.
It doesn’t matter what they did. You made them feel bad about themselves. So now you’re the bad guy. At this point, anything they do (whether that’s yelling at you, saying more hurtful things, walking away and leaving you to deal with your pain alone), they believe they are justified. Their protective and defensive mechanisms will tell them they are right, and you are the problem.
You might even fall into the trap of believing they are right. Maybe you were too hard on them. Maybe you did overreact. Maybe what they did should not have objectively hurt you so much. Maybe this fight was your fault and could have been avoided if only you hadn’t been so sensitive, or so stubborn, or remembered everything they’ve ever done for you.
If your partner leads you to question everything and start believing the cause and continuation of your pain is YOUR fault…that is GASLIGHTING. And it is toxic.
I believe that many of us carry demons that prevent us from truly caring for another person in such a way that we prioritize their needs over ours. It’s not to say that that person doesn’t care about you or isn’t trying really hard to show you they care about you. It’s saying that until they deal with those demons, you may never receive the kind of selfless love that you want, need, and expect from them.
And so I have learned that this is the #1 red flag I cannot and will not compromise on in the future.