When something isn’t quite right but also isn’t the worst thing in the world, it can be particularly hard to navigate. Take Carl*, 23 learning that Michael*, 27 who he had been casually seeing for three months, was not out to his family and coworkers. Carl understood that Michael probably had good reasons for this, and it wasn’t necessarily a massive issue. But at the same time, Carl was concerned whether Michael being in the closet could develop into a bigger problem over time.
“We ended up breaking up for different reasons,” says Carl. “But I would consider someone’s closet status a personal yellow flag just because I don’t want to tip-toe around.”
When something isn’t a deal breaker but has the potential to become one, it’s a yellow flag. Just like a yellow traffic light, it signals you to slow down and proceed with caution with someone you’re seeing.
“[A yellow flag] could be having just gone through a breakup or hating their job,” says relationship therapist Susan Edelman, Psy.D. “These are pretty common things, but you need to decide if they’re something you can live with.”
How To Navigate A Yellow Flag
Chloe*, 23, spent several months talking and flirting with Will*, 24, who she met at a bar, before she agreed to go on a date with him. The reason for the delay? They have different political views. At the time, this wasn’t a deal breaker for Chloe — she saw Will’s politics as only one part of him — but she nevertheless felt concerned because she believed their differing views would cause friction down the line.
“Something wasn’t sitting right with me,” says Chloe. “I felt like before we get involved, I should know what I was getting into.”
In nuanced cases like this, the best way to navigate a yellow flag is to do what the color indicates: slow down and address it. While it may not trigger alarm bells, it’s still a behavior that is causing a reaction, and therefore warrants a discussion.
“You need to bring up the yellow flags if they bother you,” says cyber-dating expert Julie Spira. “Any relationship that’s based on fear is a bad relationship. Who wants to walk on eggshells?”
After three dates, Chloe continued to feel on edge about Will’s political beliefs, so she decided it was time to address the topic in a way that wouldn’t make Will feel attacked.
“We had an open conversation and agreed that our views didn’t align enough to continue seeing each other,” says Chloe. “We both knew the relationship could be OK, or it could end poorly. We just decided to avoid risking it altogether.”
Sex and relationship therapist Megan Fleming, PhD., suggests using phrases like “I’m wondering” or “I’m curious” to help avoid finger-pointing during these conversations.
“Ask them what they think of their own behavior,” she says. “These have to be open-ended conversations to help you understand [your partner] better.”
When To Bring Up A Yellow Flag
When something isn’t necessarily a big deal but is also bothersome, it can be tricky to figure out the right time to talk about it. Chloe was worried that if she brought up a yellow flag too early, Will would lose interest in her. This is a common concern.
“People kept telling me it wouldn’t matter in the end,” says Chloe. “So I was finding it difficult to figure out when to talk about it or if I should even talk about it at all.”
But according to Spira, it’s always better to bring up something as soon as it starts to nag at you.
“[Talking about] what you’re willing to give and what you expect is something people struggle with,” says Spira. “They don’t want to negotiate until they’re in the middle of a fight. And that’s when everything goes wrong.”
While Chloe and Will didn’t work out, voicing her concerns early on potentially saved her a lot of headaches later.
“It’s sort of a balancing act,” says Fleming. “People don’t want to rock the boat too early because they don’t know how the person is going to respond. But any time there’s an emotional reactivity, it’s always best to bring it up as soon as possible.”
How To Turn A Yellow Flag Green
The good news about yellow flags is that they have the potential to turn green with open communication. Still, it takes more than just talking. The person presenting the yellow flag also has to be willing to address the behavior in question — or at least be open to having honest discussions about their behavior.
Maria*, 23, dealt with a yellow flag when she first started dating her boyfriend Kyle*, 24, two years ago. Kyle had always been terrible at texting Maria back.
“At first I wasn’t too bothered because I’m pretty laid-back,” says Maria. “But then it got worse. He would sometimes take 24 hours to [send] a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
During what her friends jokingly call “Snapchat-gate,” Maria finally had enough. After waiting more than eight hours for Kyle to get back to her about their plans for the night despite being active on Snapchat during the same time period, she confronted him. Without making him feel attacked, she started an open discussion about why he kept disappearing and whether he knew how it affected her.
Although the conversation was eye-opening for both of them, Kyle’s texting behavior still isn’t quite up to par. But to make up for it, he calls her every night. Maria once worried that Kyle’s yellow flag was actually a red one in disguise, but she learned it was just a character flaw. She gets that he isn’t perfect, but knowing that he is willing to adjust his behavior for her means a lot. Just like that, the yellow flag turned green. Had Kyle refused to acknowledge Maria’s feelings, it would have gone the other way.
“When people ask for another chance and make genuine attempts to change, that’s definitely a yellow flag turning green,” says Spira.
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.