Red/green flags and the colonization of relationships

Sadaf
4 min readAug 13, 2023

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Most relationship conversations on the internet tend to have two major themes — boundaries and red/green flags. Whether this idea of boundaries has gotten too rigid/out of hand and what are the origins of the word — and is it making relationships too linear a concept, has already been tackled by Parapraxis’s long form article questioning boundaries. I want to take some time to look at the idea of flags — red/green and even beige, these days, which are “neutral” flags but mostly on the “good” side — whatever that means.

The fact that flags are so popular does make me wonder — after all, they are symbols of conquest — declaration of territory, and even, defeat. Yes, they are chosen by countries based on the values they country wants to uphold, but eventually, they are used to declare what land belongs to whom.

To talk about relationship behaviours or just peoples’ overall personalities in term of flags — Is it us trying to conquer, declare and sort? Like a colonizer coming to India and saying, “you are backward”, or “you cannot dress as you wish” or “you work for us now”, red flags also seem to make some announcements, “you are irredeemable”, “I don’t want to invest in you” and most importantly, “I decide about you, as an impartial judge, and mostly have no flaws of my own”.

Red/green flags are akin to compatibility tests of the yesteryears. But the thing is, they in themselves have not been able to guarantee stellar relationships. Firstly, because it is quite easy to “fake” green flags and “hide” red flags if any — which is why there are so many laments on social media about woke sounding partners who nonetheless behave in hurtful ways.

Secondly, and more importantly, a relationship is not made by sorting problem areas out to ensure that we never encounter them, but rather, in working through them together. A person might have all the best characteristics and still fail to work through problem areas with their partner. And on the other hand, working through problems together helps couples grow stronger — it fosters a more real connection than perfect people who are always at arms length.

Relationships are too complex and layered to be reduced in this way. This week’s column by Paromita Vohra as echoes the sentiment — we are too ready to reject, cancel and draw distances from each other — be it political spaces or personal. How will we relate to each other then? and how will we be less lonely if this is our social life?

Does this mean one should not pay attention to problems, and keep obliging? Definitely not. But relational problems are quite nuanced. Most times, they are two person patterns — both playing our their pasts in the present. The one fearing abandonment keeps asking for reassurance, and the one fearing suffocation sees this as a sign of current or future demands and skittles away. Both are bringing material of their own and projecting on the shared screen of the relationship. If handled well, this can be the ground on which, the present can indeed heal the wounds of the past.

Even in cases of abject abuse, there are psychological mechanisms at play which might make it harder for the survivor to leave, and there might be good moments even in all the mess, which is what makes the situation so confusing and decision making so much harder. There are also emotional and familial reasons why people choose to misuse power and hurt people around them — this does not mean we make light of the abuse, but rather, we get more curious about the reasons for abusive behaviour so that we can truly bring it to stop.

What is clear to me — is this, if the reasons for bad behaviour were all power related, then knowing about patriarchy, having access to feminism and being empowered, would have brought all this to a stop. But the true issue is, power in the hands of those who have not healed their hurt fully and tend to play out the hurt with the use of power. After all, what person who is at peace with oneself and the world, needs to play power games or mind games? There are emotional and psychological reasons for what happens in relational spaces, not just structural reasons.

To have red and green flags as declarations seems to be a collective cultural effort to simplify something complex — because the complexity scares us. The nuance of relational reality — if we sit with it, will ask us to be curious, conscious, responsible, accountable and hopeful.

But when we want to consume relationships like products on an Amazon sale, we don’t like it when they ask so much of us. We have collectively decided that relationships need to “work for us” rather than something we work on, with another, together. And in that sense, we have just reversed the power structure but done nothing to change its fundamental nature.

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Sadaf

Love psychology, economics, art, music, books, poetry, blogs, cooking and select sports.A jack of all trades, perhaps master of none. Psychologist.