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The quest for romantic love is a widespread and, in my opinion, somewhat overrated experience. Dating can be expensive, scary, heartbreaking, time-consuming, and fraught with anxiety. And while many of us go through the experience with the hope we’ll find a kind, loving partner to spend some time — or maybe the rest of our lives — with, it’s really difficult to evaluate a new partner. We know the basic things to look out for: your new partner should be kind, respectful, share some values with you, etc. But figuring those things out is tough near the beginning of a relationship, when everyone’s presumably on their best behavior. Especially when infatuation is factored in!
There’s a lot of talk about “red flags” to keep an eye out for — in fact, there’s a mini-series currently running on this very website about them. Red flags are things that might be a sign your new person might not be right for you. But! “When you’re wearing rose-colored glasses,” wisely observed Wanda Pierce, a cartoon owl on the TV show BoJack Horseman, “all the red flags just look like flags.” So maybe we should be looking for flags of a different color, too.
The first few dates should really just be basic interview stuff. Do you have remotely compatible life plans and worldviews. Do you have basic romantic chemistry. Is being around them generally pleasant? But once those boxes are checked and you start thinking about the future, you need to go a little deeper. Just like “red flags” can tell you a person might be toxic, overly controlling, or unavailable emotionally, looking for “green flags” can tell you if your partner is, generally, a pretty solid person worth continuing to invest in! Here are a few examples of green flags you might look for in a new relationship.
1. She puts the cart back in the cart corral when y’all go grocery shopping
Pre-COVID, a grocery-shopping-then-home-cooked-meal date was a pretty solid date. These days, it’s mid-tier, of course, as you have to go out and be around other people indoors during a pandemic. But also, you need food, and cooking together is sexy! You can learn a lot about someone by how she acts in the kitchen. You can also learn a lot about her by how she acts at the grocery store. Especially: Does she return the cart to the cart corral after y’all finish unloading the groceries?
This green flag is a proxy for understanding something about her: Is she conscientious of others when it doesn’t provide obvious benefit to herself? It’s very convenient to leave a shopping cart propped up on a curb, in an empty parking space, or rolling down a ramp into oncoming traffic. It’s so convenient, apparently, that you’ll see carts scattered all over the place every time you go to any store that has them! Doing this makes the cart someone else’s problem. Long after you’re gone, other shoppers have to navigate around them and already-underpaid workers have to hunt them down across all corners of the parking lot. If your person leaves the cart out and about, she’s OK with being a part of this problem, or simply hasn’t thought about it. Neither is a good sign.
Yes, it’s kind of a pain to take 30 seconds and walk the cart all the way back to the corral or the entrance to Trader Joe’s, then walk all the way back to your vehicle, for the benefit of a stranger. Conscientious people do it anyway. They treat servers, janitors, cashiers, manual laborers, and strangers on the sidewalk with kindness. If everyone acted that way, we’d all be better off. If she does this, it signals she’ll continue to be kind to you even when y’all have conflict — that she isn’t just being kind in a quid pro quo type exchange because she hopes to get in your pants, or because she’s “chosen” you to receive the (typically temporary) blessing of her benevolence.
There’s an obvious caveat here about circumstance and physical ability. But I believe a conscientious person who physically can’t return the cart themselves will have a strategy for making sure it doesn’t just roam the parking lot, lonesome. She’ll ask you to do it, will have alerted a worker at the grocery store she’ll need support, or have some other kind of intervention.
2. They don’t like your favorite TV show
You love trashy reality TV, slurp down a banana smoothie with spirulina every morning, go backpacking six times a year, and/or spend two hours a day on Tik Tok. So your partner should be there on the couch cackling, FaceTiming you with a purple smoothie moustache, be squatting over a cat hole off trail right there with you, and/or in your DMs with memes every day, right? Not necessarily.
It’s important to share some hobbies, and y’all should try new things and explore each others’ interests. If y’all have nothing in common, there might not be enough to bond over in order to create intimacy. But you also should be able to figure out what is and isn’t for you — and, crucially, be able to express this to each other without hurting each others’ feelings. If they can say, nicely, that they totally have nothing against that show, or hobby, or whatever, but it just isn’t for them, and they still like you, that’s a green flag.
This green flag is a proxy for understanding two things about them: Are they honest? And, do they have a clear sense of self? Of course, this one is dependent on you, first, recognizing that the things you like aren’t you. That you are not just an amalgam of your job, hobbies, and interests. That if they don’t like your favorite show, it doesn’t automatically mean they don’t like you. Hopefully your partner can also make this separation, and be honest about it with you.
Honesty and trust are key in relationships. Someone who will pretend to like something you like is a little bit dishonest. Someone who tells “white lies” to protect your feelings might not be able to dig into a hard truth with you down the line, and might be avoidant of conflict. And if you can’t have separate interests, spend time apart, and still care for and respect each other, you might be on the road toward codependency.
3. She buys an extra pillow for her apartment
Here’s the scenario: You sleep with a mountain of pillows on your bed, so you can essentially create a “cave” to snuggle into when you go to sleep. That’s just how you roll. Your new boo invites you to sleep over for the first time, and you notice she’s a bedtime minimalist! You accidentally make the observation out loud: She has only two pillows on her bed. You assure her it’s no big deal, though, and the rest of the night goes off without a hitch. She sleeps over at your place next, and when she asks you about your pillow situation, you explain you like to essentially be surrounded, that it makes you feel safe, that you like to cuddle one of them as you sleep. She nods understandingly.
And the next time you come over? There are three pillows on her bed — one extra for you to cuddle! Now, this kind of thing obviously doesn’t have to involve money, though a pillow and case combo at your local big box store will likely cost less than $10. The point is that she listened, noticed, and went out of her way to do something small to accommodate you and show you she cares. That’s a green flag.
They notice your favorite TV show’s new season is coming out, so they get you a thing of microwave popcorn, roll you a joint, and leave you alone so you can zone out and binge it. She always brings a La Croix or a Nalgene full of ice water when she picks you up from the train station, because she knows you’ll be all hot and sweaty and anxious from the experience and you’re always thirsty after getting off the train. She learns you’re low-key self-conscious about some weight gain or loss, or a new fashion choice, or because of the echo of your mom’s voice ringing in your head for eternity — so she gasses you up with compliments at every opportunity. After discovering you’re lactose intolerant, they give vegan mac & cheese a try and invite you over for a taste test. Once, you mentioned how much you love Pablo Neruda when y’all were browsing a bookstore, and so for your next special occasion she makes you a custom card featuring some of his love poetry. They notice how much you melt when they give you a little back rub, so they offer to do it most nights that you’re together and/or rub your shoulders when you’re out waiting in line somewhere.
This green flag is a proxy for understanding whether, essentially, she pays attention to you, but also whether she, in her own way, attempts to show you that she cares. Obviously, if you set boundaries they should be respected, full stop, and if you make clear asks of her she should follow them (or explicitly decline to, with the concomitant processing that would entail). But if she pays attention to some of your minor desires, and without you having to ask finds small ways to accommodate them, that’s a green flag.
A lot of people can make big grand gestures, or buy expensive gifts, or be totally focused on you when you’re together. But were they really paying attention, and do they think of you when you’re apart? Do they consider what makes you tick and wonder if there’s something small and nice they can do for you without you having to ask? That’s a green flag.
Dating is hard. Looking out for red flags is important. You want to avoid “rose-colored glasses” and try to evaluate through someone’s behavior whether they’re not a good fit for the amount of time, intensity, and intimacy you desire to pursue romantically. But you also want to look for signs that investment is worth it — that they are a good fit.
Spotting a couple red flags doesn’t necessarily mean a relationship is doomed. It does mean you should keep your eyes open and, as Oprah wisely once said, believe people when they show you who they are. Similarly, if you spot some green flags in your new relationship, it doesn’t mean y’all should U-Haul immediately, get gay married, and adopt a kid. But it might mean the person is a potential keeper!