You know, when it comes to dating advice, people tend to overly focus on red flags — negative things to watch out for. This is understandable in a certain light. After all, people are predisposed to overly weight negative information over positive.
But within the past year or so, there’s been a growing movement to increase awareness of the red flag’s opposite — the relationship green flag. I’ve seen a lot of qualities mentioned as green flags:
- Accountable and willing to admit mistakes
- Has other hobbies and interests
- Respects your boundaries
- Is able to be vulnerable
- Has long-term meaningful friendships
- Cares for self
- Supportive of you, your interests, and your goals
- Being a good listener
- Good sense of humor and enough humility to laugh at themselves
- Good with children and animals
- Can take other people’s perspectives
But when I think about the people I know and have grown close to (in all manner of relationships — whether they’re friendships, romantic, familial, or professional), I think the biggest relationship green flag might just be empathy.
Impression Management in Early Dating Makes It Hard to Spot Flags of Any Kind
Okay. Cool. Just look for an empathetic person, right? Should be easy to spot, right?
Dating would be so much more straightforward if people went into acting it authentically. But a lot of folks don’t. Instead, a lot of people engage in pretty severe impression management when they’re newly dating someone. And many times this goes far beyond trying to make a good impression and can easily involve people trying to be what they think the other person wants them to be.
I’ve talked at great length with folks who employ this strategy, and the basic idea is this: They’ll roll out the unpleasant or incompatible parts later after the person has gotten a chance to fall in love with them because by that time their love interest will be more forgiving and easily look past them.
Me? I prefer to lay it all out there and fail fast. Does that mean I’ve had things that didn’t get off the ground? Absolutely.
But I find excessive impression management in dating has always resulted in a waste of time and a whole lot of heartbreak down the road for me. I can’t stop other people from doing it of course — so I’m still forced to deal with it whenever I actively date. But I get a say in whether I do it or not.
Anyway, the wide prevalence of impression management in early dating makes it fiendishly difficult to spot and trust flags of any kind — red or green. People are often not only hiding their flaws but also trying to project virtues that they don’t truly possess.
A Lot of People Fake Empathy in Particular
I’ve found that a lot of people put themselves forward as being very empathetic when they’re newly dating someone. And as it happens, while some of them are being authentic, many others are actively faking empathy. They’ll say all the right things that indicate they care about others. But when it comes to actually doing things or sustaining those sentiments long term, it’ll only become clear later that they were all talk.
Look, it’s sad but true. There are extremely selfish people who are good at faking empathy in the short term if they know it’ll get them what they want.
It’s too bad that there isn’t some other way that you can suss out whether they’re empathetic. Ideally a way that’s hard to fake.
Well, psychological research has an answer.
Self-Control Is Empathy for Future Self
It might not be the sexiest idea on the planet, but I’ve had really good luck paying attention to how much self-control potential dating prospects seem to have. And I never quite understood until I stumbled onto research a few years back that revealed a startling link: Empathy and self-control are linked. In fact, self-control is empathy for future self. According to that research, self-control involves considering Your Future Self as a separate entity and respecting their wishes — and impulsivity and selfishness are also linked and would constitute a red flag.
How someone treats their future self is an incredibly honest proxy re: how they could possibly treat you, something that’s close to them and yet still “other.”
Does this mean that partners who are exciting or adventurous are off the table? Not at all. I look at my current relationship. I have a partner who can be very spontaneous and fun. But at the same time, he can also hold off on doing X or Y if it’s unwise or would set him, me, or us up in a bad place.
He can control his impulses if there’s a compelling reason to do so. And honestly, having that sort of partner makes all the difference.
If I look back at the worst relationships I ever had, the ones in which one or both of us ended up getting repeatedly hurt, it was always when I was dating someone who lacked self-control. Who couldn’t stop themselves from doing things even when they knew they were wrong or that it would hurt one or both of us.
You Have to Find the Green and Red Flags that Work for You
At the end of the day, maybe a partner who lacks self-control isn’t a dealbreaker for you.
What’s important is that you find the green and red flags that work for you.
And for me? There are no green flags more important than self-control and empathy.