by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC
I was recently visiting South Haven, Michigan, when we found out that the lighthouse and beach were closed. We discovered that the reason they were closed was because an eighteen year old boy had been reported by his friend as being lost in Lake Michigan. He has since been presumed drowned. His friend reported that the two were swimming despite the fact that there were warnings against going in the water that day. Soon afterward I was talking to my mother, when she made the comment that her friend who lives in South Haven, and other locals, refer to these types of drowning as mainly occurring with “stupid tourists” who don’t abide by the flags and warnings. The day that the boy drowned the flag was red. My mom made the comment that teenagers typically do risky things because they believe that they are indestructible.
My first response was to say that teenagers, although not kids anymore, still don’t have fully developed brains. In fact, according to Neuroscience, human brains aren’t fully developed until individuals are well into their twenties. I started thinking about my mom’s comments about teens and how her theory isn’t just about teenagers. Many times as adults we also don’t heed warning signs. This is particularly true for romantic relationships when individuals feel desperately alone in their lives and are attempting to see a new partner through “rose colored glasses”. When we really want something or someone, we can engage in cognitive gymnastics and downplay every negative experience while focusing solely on the qualities that we like about another person. This black and white thinking can really get us into trouble when
“When we really want something or someone, we can engage in cognitive gymnastics and downplay every negative experience while focusing solely on the qualities that we like.”
we fail to take note of the behavioral patterns of another person, or we take note but then fail to address the situation or fail to leave the relationship. Research also indicates that the more time one spends in a relationship, the more invested that they feel and the less likely they will be to leave the relationship down the road.
When it comes to relationships, knowing yourself and whether you have the tendency or track record to not heed warning signs, can be the key to finding the kind of relationship that you are looking for. If you are someone who views yourself as a helper this can be particularly difficult to do. People who pride themselves for their deference to others or their constant posture of putting others first often find themselves in a never ending cycle of relationships with individuals whom they feel take advantage of them. If this is your default position in relationships it might be time to reevaluate whether your own thoughts and behaviors are contributing to your landing in unsatisfying relationships. Heeding warning signs early and asserting your own needs and desires early in the relationship will often set your relationship up to be healthier in the long run.
“Heeding warning signs early and asserting your own needs and desires early in the relationship will often set it up to be healthier in the long run.”
Getting out early if you see warning signs can prevent a scenario where your history and commitment further prevent you from moving on. A search and rescue team may end up needing to be brought in to clean up the wreckage.
Tips for Improving Your Ability to Heed Warnings:
Consider your relationship patterns. If you notice a particular pattern, be willing to really examine yourself. There is no need to feel afraid to own who you are, no need to criticize yourself. Just try to understand why your default settings are the way they are and ask yourself if they are serving you or hurting you. It doesn’t usually take too long to figure out, based on your role in your family of origin, or even in previous romantic relationships or friendships, to make sense of yourself. We all make sense in the context of our lives if we can evaluate our lives honestly.
Be assertive in relationships early on. It is better to find out in the beginning of a relationship that a relationship is one-sided. Often, this doesn’t happen if one person is willingly sacrificing their preferences and desires to please the other. Giving the other person clear opportunities to either meet your needs, or fail to do so, gives you information you need to decide whether to continue investing in the relationship. Without this information you can find yourself well into a committed relationship before you ever get a chance to see if the other person is willing and able to meet your needs.
Make sure that your relationship needs are being met by healthy other individuals in your life, so that you have support outside of your romantic relationships. Often, when people don’t have intimate friendships and quality support systems, they are so desperate for connection with a romantic partner that they overlook warning signs throughout the relationship. Needing and desiring connection is a universal human need, but connecting to someone at the expense of your own needs rarely ends well and often causes more damage than anything else. For people who struggle to trust others in particular, this can further harm one’s ability to trust in the future.
If you are someone who has a track record of overlooking warning signs in relationships, find someone you trust to give their feedback on what they are observing. Having a third party who is looking out for your best interest and who is brave enough to call you out when they see you turning a blind eye to trouble may prove invaluable and free you from a cage of repeating patterns.
If you feel stuck in past patterns, read more about Schema in Schema: Don’t Be a Puppet at the Mercy of Your Past and Cognitive Consistency and Schema.
If you feel like your struggle creating and maintaining boundaries keeps you from heeding warnings, read more in Enmeshment and Boundaries.