Say you’ve recently started dating someone. You don’t know them that well, but you stayed up talking until 2:00am on your third date. You fancy them so much that you forget to worry about bad breath when they roll over to kiss you in the morning. You keep telling people it’s ‘early days’, but you’re starting to think those days could get later and later.
But then you find out that they’re good friends with their ex.
It could be nothing. It could be everything. A platonic friendship based on years of history and shared interests? Or a toxic umbilical cord of a connection that neither of them is prepared to cut?
Obviously, it depends. But there is a term for this sort of situation: a pink flag.
Contrary to more obvious (and considerably more toxic) red flags, a pink flag could go either way. They’re not necessarily a problem, and could actually help you form a deeper connection with that person through getting to know them better. Equally, though, they could be a precursor to a more problematic or hurtful situation. Examples include mismatched interests in romantic relationships; lack of availability in friendships; and being worried that staff are talking behind your back in the workplace. “Pink flags are things that might raise an eyebrow or concerns in a relationship, but — after some communication and discussion — there’s usually a logical reason for them,” says Robert Davies, relationship expert at Condoms.uk.
Charly*, 28, has recently noticed what she considers to be a potential pink flag in a workplace relationship. “There is one colleague who’s always trying to get out of me what salary I’m on, and is very flashy and show-offy [sic] about what they’re on,” she tells me. “It feels really shit — careers are marathons, not sprints.”
“But with another colleague, we’re both very open about our salaries and progression with each other,” Charly continues. “She’s on a lot more than me and has progressed faster, but I’ve never been made to feel shit by her about it.”
As per Charly’s experience, pink flags will usually need to be taken on a case-by-case basis and the solutions tend to be centerd on communication. “Sit down, have a chat, get to the bottom of why someone behaves in a certain way,” says Davies. “You might need to be delicate about it, but often by asking a few questions you can get a pretty good idea of why someone is like they are.”
Take mismatched love languages, for example, where two people have different ways of perceiving, receiving, and giving love. “That’s not a bad thing,” explains Callisto Adams, dating and relationship expert at HeTexted. “Having different or ‘mismatched’ love languages from one another isn’t considered a red flag because it doesn’t represent a threat to the partner’s wellbeing and emotional state if communicated and understood properly.”
27-year-old Brad* suspects he and an ex-partner from last year had different ways of showing affection, as his love language was ‘physical touch’ while his partner tended to get physically overstimulated. “Sometimes there wouldn’t be much space for physical touch like hugging or holding hands. That was fine, obviously, but I suppose there were some discrepancies there.” Brad says he and his partner tried to find ways to navigate these love language discrepancies through communication. “If ever there was any discomfort raised by either of us about the way we were acting, we would talk about it openly,” he explains.
But ultimately, the relationship ended in a way that left Brad feeling hurt and confused, predominantly due to both mismatched expectations and a lack of communication about what the relationship actually was. “I thought we were in a relationship that was quite significant, and that there was a really strong core of trust at the heart of it,” he says. “But it turned out there had been a miscommunication, and my ex had only ever seen it as something fairly short-term and noncommittal, which really jarred with my experience.”
But are we getting too obsessed with picking relationships — and people — apart? On the r/relationship_advice subreddit, strangers encourage you to leave your partner for the most innocuous reasons, such as being a fussy eater or… having friends. Influencers like Florence Given are proud advocates for dumping your man if he dares to have a single flaw. Over on TikTok, creators rack up likes by recalling their ‘dumbest icks’ (eg when he ‘doesn’t like hummus‘).
When it comes to pink flags, isn’t it sometimes best to accept that people can just be a bit shit and we’re all flawed anyway? Isn’t it better to embrace people for who they are, even if you don’t like everything about them 100 per cent of the time? Or – radical idea – maybe we should view relationships as things which can be worked on, rather than running for the hills at the first sign of trouble? Is it really productive or helpful to complicate and pathologise everything with labels like ‘pink flags’?
Brad wonders if overanalysis could end up in a regrettable waste of time for both parties. “I think the idea of ’pink flags’ maybe runs the risk of delaying a decision,” says Brad. “If a pink flag eventually becomes a red flag, and is something that you wouldn’t be willing to compromise on, then you may as well have just recognised it for the red flag that it was all along.”
“If a pink flag eventually becomes a red flag, and is something that you wouldn’t be willing to compromise on, then you may as well have just recognised it for the red flag that it was all along” — Brad
But on the flipside, Brad also points out the value of encapsulating a wide-ranging experience in a simple, accessible way. “If there’s a way to help people categorise their thinking that frames it in the context of other people’s experiences, I think that’s useful and can help people to understand their own emotional lives,” he says.
Ultimately, overanalysis is subjective and depends on the people involved. “It depends on what one defines as over-analysing,” Adams says. “Knowing what’s good and what’s damaging for you is crucial when it comes to keeping or creating relationships, especially intimate relationships such as the romantic ones.”
When it comes down to it, anything that helps prevent people getting hurt is a positive addition to the relationships landscape. Pink flags can also pave the way to a closer connection and more open, honest communication in all forms of relationships; but, like anything, you can have too much of a good thing. If you end up feeling like you’re mentally dissecting a relationship into tiny pieces — be it with a partner, friend or colleague — it’s probably best to pull them for a chat; or sit back, take a breath, drink some water and check in with yourself. Is there a chance you’re projecting, interpreting their short WhatsApp replies as blunt because you’re feeling particularly stressed that day; Or are you self-sabotaging, interpreting those brief replies as rapidly decreasing interest because that was the case with a previous partner?
Chances are, talking through that pink flag will see your relationship come out stronger. And if not? You’re probably well rid of them anyway.
*Names have been changed