The sport of auto racing traditionally uses a system of colored flags to communicate important messages to the participating drivers. Typically, there is a primary flagman who waves the flags atop a flagstand in the middle of the course. But because many drivers may not be able to see the flagstand, several other officials are stationed along the course to direct traffic and keep drivers aware of various road conditions and hazards.

It isn't much of a stretch to see how this aspect of professional car racing can help explain some important aspects of dating, since singles are told to look out for "red flags" while following a dating "road map" and navigating relationship "curves and obstacles."

In auto racing, flags are used to inform all drivers of the general status of a race. A solid green flag is usually displayed to indicate the start of a race. If a race is not under caution or delayed, it is said to be under "green-flag" conditions. The solid yellow flag, or caution flag, requires drivers to slow down due to a hazard on, or off, the track. The checkered flag is the most famous flag in auto racing -- it invariably indicates that a driver has completed, and won, the race.

But it's the solid red flag that is referred to the most when racing analogies are made to dating. In auto racing, the red flag is displayed when track conditions are considered too unsafe to continue the race. Heeding the red flag is necessary in order to prevent serious car accidents or injuries to the racers. In dating, a "red flag" is defined as a behavior you observe or experience in your dating partner that warns you of a problem area in the relationship, or about the other person.

"Red flags" can be information or behaviors alerting you to the possibility that any one of your relationship needs or requirements won't be met by your dating partner, or that something is going on that could potentially cause mental, emotional or physical harm.

Unfortunately, red flag behaviors are often ignored by singles eager to have a relationship. Staying in such a relationship can be unfulfilling, painful, or at worst, harmful to others as well, such as children, relatives or friends. Consequently, singles need to be as conscious as possible while navigating the dating racetrack on the way to the finish line, being on the lookout for the red flags when they appear.

Jerry thought he saw a red flag when he noted Michelle's apparent lack of warmth when they were around children. Jerry was a single father with sole custody of his two children, and wanted to remarry and hopefully have more. Michelle had never-married, and while she said she wanted children, Jerry was concerned when he observed how she interacted with the various children they met when they went out together (like their nieces and nephews or children of friends). Michelle's behavior around children was a red flag for Jerry, as he wondered if she would be able to meet his relationship needs and requirements of building a family. I encouraged Jerry to share his observations with Michelle, in order to be clear about this aspect of the relationship he wanted.

Michelle was initially upset when Jerry raised his concerns, saying that of course she wanted and loved children! However, Jerry persevered and shared his observations of her behaviors and what they meant to him. As they discussed the issue, Michelle concluded that her behavior most likely reflected a "different style" of relating to others, especially to children, coupled with a certain amount of nervousness on her part. As they continued to date and socialize more over tiime, Jerry saw how Michelle made greater efforts to engage with others, not just children, and the red flag was replaced by a green "all clear" flag.

Jerry was able to successfully acknowledge and attend to this red flag because he knew what he wanted in a relationship and didn't see it in Michelle's behavior. He trusted his instincts that Michelle was not acting in a way that he wanted the future mother of his children to act. Rather than ignore these warning signs, he listened to his instincts and took appropriate action.

Unfortunately, many singles don't listen to their inner voice when something doesn't feel right in their relationship. While drug, alcohol or physical abuse are obvious red flags one shouldn't ignore, some other behaviors are not always so clear.

Shelly and Marvin had gone out for three months and enjoyed each other's company. They shared many interests and pursuits and had similar spiritual and life goals. Shelly was especially attracted to Marvin's intellect, and enjoyed listening to him express his opinions on a variety of subjects of which he was well-informed. Shelly was inspired to learn more about some of these subjects and formed her own opinions, which she looked forward to sharing with Marvin during their dates. Marvin encouraged her participation, but Sandy found that he did not really listen to her ideas and instead used them as a way to talk more about his opinions, and himself.

Shelly initially didn't want to "rock the boat" by asking Marvin for what she needed, since in so many ways she thought they had a good relationship. But she saw this as a red flag needing attending though, and eventually asked Marvin to listen to her more and interrupt her less. He initially agreed, but Shelly later noted that while she spoke, Marvin was not really listening to what she said; he was just waiting to have his turn. And when he spoke, he was dismissive of Shelly's opinions and ideas. Shelly had to determine if the negative way Marvin treated her was enough of a red flag to warrant ending the relationship.

Staying in a relationship with someone demonstrating red flag behaviors does not provide a strong foundation for a happy, gratifying relationship. Many singles ignore red flags, only to realize that the negative behaviors they experience with someone also indicates how they treat others. Remember, what you learn about your dating partner while dating is valuable information to help you predict the quality of your relationship in the future. So if Marvin is dismissive and bombastic now, Shelly has to think how this behavior could, for example, affect his ability to eventually get along with his in-laws and raise their children.

Red flags typically don't get better and don't go away, even if ignored. And red flags don't miraculously cure themselves or go away even if you do recognize them and try to discuss them with the offending partner.

Just as in car racing, red flags have to be observed and heeded. But sometimes you have to get out and locate different opportunities -- ones with green flag conditions indicating the potential for a more fulfilling and gratifying life partner relationship at the finish line.

© Copyright 2006-2008 Janice D. Bennett, Ph.D.

Author's Bio: 

Practicing as a psychologist for over 22 years, Dr. Janice has treated many singles looking to get married, but who had become depressed and demoralized by the dating process. Living in New York City with her husband and three children, Dr. Janice now uses her skills and experience to help healthy singles overcome the obstacles preventing them from attaining the relationships and lives they really want. Janice has been quoted in Us Weekly and Cosmopolitan Magazines, writes the "Love Coach" advice column on, has a free e-newsletter and gives teleclasses, lectures and workshops. Check out her "Get Your Love Right!" blog, read other dating-related Q's&A's and articles, and sign up for a complimentary 40 minute telephone coaching session by visiting her website at