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Identifying Green Flags in a Relationship When You Have Mental Illness

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I recently saw a meme that pointed out the red flags in a relationship, such as getting rid of friends and family; financial control; insisting on knowing whereabouts; gaslighting; intermittent reinforcement; and, of course, physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse.

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But the meme went on to say that, just as there are red flags of a bad relationship — one you shouldn’t get into or should get out of — there are green flags that indicate when a relationship is healthy and positive.

I’ve had relationships of both kinds and, although I didn’t recognize them at the time, have learned the hard way to notice and avoid the red flags. But I’ve also learned how to recognize the green flags.

It’s only fair to say that recognizing both red flags and green flags is more difficult when you live with serious mental illness. It clouds your perceptions. It makes it harder to recognize when and why you should get out of a bad relationship and when a new one is a safe space to be in. We doubt ourselves so much that our vision gets clouded.

So, what do I see as the green “go ahead” flags in a relationship? Besides the absence of all the red flags, I mean.

Listening to you is the first one and maybe the most important. Along with that comes validating your perception of reality. It’s a hard thing to find, especially if you and your new partner have disagreements — which all couples do. You can disagree with someone without tearing them down, even if you have an emotional reaction to whatever you’re disagreeing about. It can actually be easier to agree on religion and politics than it is when the topic pushes one of your buttons. Realizing that you disagree but respect and love the person anyway is a hard thing to do and a harder one to say, but it’s important.

It’s also very important to act on what you say and to make your words and actions congruent. This is the very basis of integrity and trust. We’ve all met someone who says one thing and does another. It’s beyond disappointing. In fact, it’s one of the biggest red flags there is. Not being able to rely on your partner to do what they say they’ll do is a breach of trust. To cite one example (not completely at random), there’s the person who says that an open relationship is the ideal but then demeans you when you act on it — the same way they have always done.

Laughter is vital in any relationship. In order to share jokes and laugh with a person, you must be able to relax with them. Trust is involved here, too. You have to be able to trust that the other person won’t use “humor” to attack you, especially in front of other people. Sarcasm directed at you sours the good feelings you may have had. But genuine laughter, whether at a joke, a silly song, or a funny movie, brings people together. If you have serious mental illness, laughter may have been long absent from your life. Getting back the capacity to laugh is a revelation.

Another aspect of a relationship that can be pivotal is understanding each other’s “love language.” This idea comes from a book by Dr. Gary Chapman that was published in 1995, “The Five Love Languages.” The five languages — ways that people communicate their love — are words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Problems happen when one partner doesn’t speak the same language as the other; for example, when one gives the other literal gifts while the other yearns for time together or physical touch. Figuring out your partner’s love language and adjusting yours to match theirs can be difficult.

Most important, I think, is perseverance. I often say that we could describe ourselves as “The Couple Too Stubborn to Quit.” We’ve been married now for 40 years. We’ve had bad times when we went to couples counseling — more than once. We’ve even tried to work out if each of us could make it if we separated.

So, those are my “green flags” for a relationship: listening, trust, laughter, understanding, and sticking with it. There may be more, and I’d love to hear from you what others you’ve found.

Getty image by Eva Blanco / EyeEm

Originally published: February 14, 2023
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