Why Do You Ignore Your Partner’s Red Flags? The Science Behind It
When you’re in love with him, he’s a misunderstood creative type, who does his own thing…a dashing rebel whom nobody, including your friends and the county judge, understands but you.
After you break up you realize he was a lazy, manipulative bum on parole who just wouldn’t work and probably used you for sex and a place to stay.
We’ve all been there. I’ve ignored a lot of “crazy” over the years for a pretty face or a nice body. I’ve justified bad behaviors from women to my family and friends, only to realize years later they were actually right.
One woman I dated in college not only smoked (which I hated), but she also shoplifted from Wal-Mart for the fun of it. She turned out to be a good person as she matured, but dating her ran contrary to my values (and baffled my friends) because there were many, many women around me I could have dated who didn’t do those things!
Yet I consistently defended her and spent time with her…until she cheated on me with her ex a few months later. At that point, the scales fell off of my eyes.
So, why do we ignore red flags that are obvious to others?
You can thank your brain.
Research using brain scans of couples who are in love shows just how mind-altering being “in love” is.
If you look at the study, researchers found
[The chemical changes from being in love deactivated a] common set of [brain] regions associated with negative emotions, social judgment and ‘mentalizing’, that is, the assessment of other people’s intentions and emotions.
In other words, being in love makes your brain unable to accurately assess your partner, and prevents you from feeling negativity towards him or her.
So, he does drugs? That’s okay because he’s just experimenting and all kinds of people use drugs!
She hasn’t talked to her daughter for five years? She’s still a great mom. Everyone just gangs up on her!
He’s asking you to head to Vegas and get married after a few months, even though he hasn’t worked in two years and crashes at your place? Cooool! You’ll figure out details like money later!
Even though you’re a strong Christian, and are passing over twenty Christian men in your church for him, it’s okay, because you really feel that God is calling you to save his soul. After all, that is part of the mission of Christ!
She’s messaging some exes even though you’re engaged, and screams at you in a drunken rage when you ask about it? Hey, nobody’s perfect! You try finding any decent woman these days who doesn’t act like that!
We laugh at these justifications for red-flag behavior, but when you’re in love, your brain actually convinces you you’re right.
The researchers basically concluded that falling in love creates a brain chemistry that delivers a deadly “one-two punch” that also keeps us hooked on that person, by not only becoming blind to faults, but also strongly activating our brain’s reward circuitry.
What happens chemically when you’re in love, is that dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, and norepinephrine centers in the brain light up. We feel elation and excitement, and a feeling of bliss when we are around our partners. Sex and cuddling intensify it.
We also develop very strong attachment. Oxytocin is the same chemical that creates the strong bond between women and their children.
Our brains make being around our partners so amazing, we’ll abandon friends, family, and hobbies for them (sound familiar?). But what happens when you don’t get attention from your partner?
That’s when we start feeling awful; we feel emotional pain and discomfort. As anybody who has been in love knows, if you’re waiting for that text to come in, and it doesn’t, you feel anxiety, jealousy, and even anger…up until the point it arrives…and then everything is fine again.
If you think all of this is similar to how an addict’s brain works, you’re right: many researchers believe that love is a type of addiction. And, if you have ever known an addict, you know that like those in love, addicts also deny that there are any problems that result from their addictive behaviors. Everything is “fine,” even if they are surrounded by red flags, which, remember they can’t see anyway.
So yes, your brain is tricking you into seeing your partner as nearly divine, unable to have a single red flag. The question then is, how can someone who is in love begin to see through this trickery and make an honest evaluation of their partner?
And therein lies the problem! Your brain is responsible for perception. When the very organ responsible for perceiving trickery is the source of that trickery, well, you’re basically screwed.
It’s not necessarily that bleak, but it is hard to get someone deeply in love to see the red flags. Usually, people do see the red flags eventually, but that’s only because time has passed. The “in love” brain chemistry, at least the dopamine and norepinephrine elements, dies down after a year or two. This is when the scales often fall off the eyes and you say “I had sex with that??”
The bonding chemicals (oxytocin and vasopressin) may exert their influence for many, many years, so it’s possible your brain could ignore red flags for life.
The only real solution, which we teach in our “How To Spot And Avoid Jerks” talk is to prevent yourself from falling for someone with a lot of red flags before it happens. Being in touch with your values, trusting your gut, and being able to recognize subtle signs of potentially bad behavior before falling head over heels, is the key. However, I should note that we believe this is gut and heart based and should not be “checklist” based.
Unfortunately, love can be swift and powerful, and sometimes it happens before you can stop it. This is why love is portrayed in Roman and Greek mythology as a mischievous god-baby, who strikes with no rhyme or reason and renders his victims nearly insane.
So, maybe you can’t prevent it, but at least you know it’s happening to you. Enjoy the ride because your brain will ensure it will be red flag free…at least for a few years.
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