We Know The Red Flags Of Unhealthy Relationships, But What Are The Green Flags Of Healthy Ones?

Lissa Rankin, MD
13 min readFeb 26, 2023

Since the Trump era, there’s been a nationwide renaissance in public discourse about malignant narcissism, and many of us have taken off our spiritual bypassing, rose-colored glasses to spot the dangers of trying to relate with people who are very blended with narcissist parts. We’ve learned to get savvy about lying and gaslighting, unhealthy levels of entitlement, and over-confident grandiosity dressed up as “I’m so spiritual” or other kinds of arrogance and bragging. We now know how to spot love bombing and can recognize flattery as different than the real affection of someone getting to know you because they care about you as a human. Our eyes are peeled to notice how narcissists suck up to those they want favors from or judge as better than them, while condescending and belittling those they judge as less than they are (for example, treating waiters as “the help” but flattering the boss.)

We’re onto how everything is a transaction to people who get lured into boundaryless pairings, where one person might be using the other for financial stability or having a trophy wife or husband on their arm, and the other might be using someone as Mommy, expecting to suck off the booby bar whenever they want, without offering nurture or emotional reciprocity when it might be needed. We’ve figured out that people blended with narcissist parts can’t and won’t apologize, unless it’s part of the manipulation to get you back after you’ve broken out from under the spell of their coercive control and they fear abandonment. It’s always your fault. Even if they’re the one doing the bad thing, your delivery of your protest is off or you’re not taking responsibility for how you manifested this bad thing the other person is doing or you should be grateful to this person for mistreating you because they’re helping your soul grow and earn a better afterlife or reincarnation. (Can we gag a bit here?) All the while, they’re continuing to do the hurtful thing you originally protested about and aren’t capable of offering a sincere apology and confession of wrong-doing so a real repair can happen.

We’ve learned that malignant narcissists have little empathy and often a criminal mind that is different than the way the nervous system and thinking patterns operate in people who are more inclined to fall into the empath or helper role. Because we can’t imagine being so cruel and heartless, because we care how other people feel and assume everyone else cares the way we might, we tend to give these folks too much credit- because we want to believe in their essential goodness. And deep inside, we do all have an essence of goodness that we call “Self” in IFS.

But some people have little to no Self-leadership, and they’re not working on their narcissist parts in therapy. They are fully blended with those inflated, grandiose, exploitative, deceptive, self-righteous parts- and they’re not self-aware enough to know that their behavior is unethical, unkind, and hurtful. Instead, they’ll make it all about you, blaming you, judging you, criticizing you, and getting defensive, going on the attack, or emotionally stonewalling and withdrawing if you protest the mistreatment.

With the rise in public discourse, we have collected a lot of psycho-education about the red flags to look out for. As they say, if you’re wearing rose colored glasses, red flags just look like flags.

But once you take the rose-colored glasses off, you might start to get paranoid and think there are red flags everywhere. Is there anyone who isn’t boundary wounded out there? Is there anyone safe to trust and relax into? Is anyone capable of actual love and not just settling for transactional exploitation?

This paranoid phase is a normal part of the recovery process for people who have had their trust betrayed and yearn to trust again but are understandably scared to do so.

One way to reverse the paranoid bias is to focus less on trying to spot red flags, and without ignoring those red flags when they pop up, begin to look for the green flags of a reasonably healthy relationship. What are they? Here are some signs of trustworthiness and emotional health you might look for if you’re getting to know someone new.

  • YOU ENJOY EACH OTHER MORE THAN YOU DON’T: Healthy relationships are fun, restorative, nourishing sanctuaries of play, laughter, trust, generosity of heart, safety, and yummy but well boundaried heart connection that you can relax into and enjoy. Sure, healthy relationships also require work and go through rough patches too, and it would be an unrealistic delusion to expect otherwise. But when you look at the balance sheet, the joy outweighs the pain. Trauma bonding tends to weigh towards drama, chaos, intensity, and pain, with only measly scraps of sweetness, tenderness, play time, and giggles. If you spend more time writing in your journal about what hurts or processing with your therapist or your friends or your partner than you spend doing things you enjoy together, you’re probably tipped towards the unhealthy range.
  • CAPACITY FOR APOLOGY & REPAIR: Healthy people make mistakes (we are all flawed and imperfect), and when we do, we feel regret and remorse and can confess easily to wrong-doing, opening the door to real, authentic, vulnerable, heart-opening repair. Narcissists can appear shameless, but healthy people feel legitimate shame when they do something that hurts you, and that shame motivates them to make apologies and make amends if possible. Unhealthy people can be “One strike you’re out” types, with no tolerance for mistakes, but healthy people know that we’re all human and we all mess up sometimes. Connection is valued as a higher priority than being right.
  • HONESTY & TRANSPARENCY (WITH BOUNDARIES): In unhealthy relationships, lying, withholding, deception, and gaslighting are commonplace and tolerated as if dishonesty is normal. In healthy relationships where trust and intimacy and secure attachment has been earned, there is zero tolerance for lying or withholding about important things. Neither party is even particularly tempted to lie because neither is willing to risk the hard earned trust and intimacy that bonds the two, even if it means the other might get upset about something if the truth is revealed. Both parties make an effort to behave ethically and uphold the boundaries they’ve agreed upon, not wanting to behave in any way that would even tempt them to lie to the other- because the trust is so precious and so fragile if anyone lies or withholds. This doesn’t mean people have to confess every single thought or feeling or detail of their life to the other as if their partner is a priest. But it does mean that if boundaries are not upheld and someone has made a mistake, they take responsibility for the broken boundary, confess the mistake, and initiate repair and rebuilding of trust right away.
  • REASONABLE VULNERABILITY WITHOUT OVERSHARING: Trust has to be earned. Narcissists are likely to overshare way too early- or to expect you to, as a way to generate “drop in intimacy” that isn’t safe. Healthy people share and are willing to be vulnerable, but they don’t floodlight you with their entire trauma story the first time you meet them, and they don’t pry or penetrate your boundaries to pressure you to do so. Brene Brown compares trust in relationships to a jar of marbles. In a new relationship, we shouldn’t give a whole jar of marbles to someone we barely know. We also shouldn’t make them earn Every. Single. Marble. In healthy relationships, we can give someone new the benefit of the doubt and offer some marbles as a gift, so we don’t scare off someone who might actually be trustworthy or cause them to give up because of our incessant testing of their trustworthiness in ways that might hurt the reasonably trustworthy person. But we don’t give a stranger a whole jar of marbles without discerning whether they deserve it. Giving your trust to someone untrustworthy is not kindness or health; it’s masochism. Withholding trust from someone who is actually trustworthy and abusively testing them until they give up doesn’t work either. There’s a middle ground.
  • RECIPROCITY OF GENEROSITY & NEEDINESS: In healthy relationships, there is mutual give and take, but without transactional score-keeping or hidden agendas. It’s healthy to need one another in an interdependent but not codependent way. And it’s healthy to want to help the people we care about with the resources and gifts and wisdom we have. While the give and take may not be exactly equal (especially if one of you has more nervous system privilege and less of a trauma burden than the other), when you pull back and assess what both parties are getting and giving, it’s generally fair. Both people help out financially. Both people can both give and receive nurture and comfort when life gets distressing. One person isn’t doing all the heavy lifting emotionally or financially or energetically while the other coasts along scot free on Easy Street.
  • BOTH PEOPLE PLAY GROWN UP: In unhealthy relationships, one person often plays Big Daddy or Big Mommy and someone else plays Damsel or Dude in Distress who plays the needy little girl or boy. With this dynamic, one person is expected to be the invulnerable stabilizing rock and the other is infantalized and allowed to get away with immature, child-like behavior. In healthy relationships, both parties will take turns being the adult in Self and co-regulating the other if they blend with child-like parts. Both parties are free to be vulnerable and needy sometimes, and both are capable of “adulting” and carrying the weight of life’s responsibilities.
  • AFFECTION WITHOUT LOVE BOMBING: When we like someone, it’s healthy to be affectionate, to offer praise, to cherish and validate someone and lift each other up once we’ve gotten to know someone and can genuinely appreciate what’s unique and special about them. That’s very distinct from the premature love bombing of flattery, where someone doesn’t know you at all but starts gushing about you as a way to hook your parts that feel unworthy or unlovable and are starved for affection. Love bombing and incessant flattery are red flags, but it’s also a red flag if someone withholds affection and cherishing once they do know you. It’s a green flag if the person you know well, who you’re close to, regularly appreciates and cherishes you and reminds you why they choose you and prioritize you.
  • MUTUAL WILLINGNESS TO MAKE SACRIFICES: In unhealthy relationships, it’s usually one person doing all the martyring, but it’s a green flag when both parties are willing to make compromises and adapt to not always getting their way in order to create safety, trust, and a sanctuary for intimacy with someone else, especially if one or both of you have trust issues. Narcissists will insist one getting their way and can’t take no for an answer, but they’ll expect you to sacrifice up the wazoo. In healthy relationships, both parties get their way some of the time and don’t get their way some of the time.
  • POWER IS SHARED: As I wrote about recently, sharing power or “power with” is very different than one person dominating (power over) and the other obeying (power under.) Healthy relationships negotiate needs, agree upon boundaries together, and make compromises so there’s not just one person doing all the leading and controlling and someone else doing all the following, being controlled. This has nothing to do with gender stereotypes and everything to do with social justice and equality. In healthy relationships, patriarchal norms have no place, regardless of gender and both parties are free to express both stereotypically masculine and feminine qualities.
  • HEALTHY BOUNDARIES: In healthy relationships, flexible, negotiable, two-sided boundaries keep two people separate and free from enmeshment, without using abusive, intimacy avoidant walls. Both people know what they need and have the courage and capacity to ask for what they need and to say no when they mean no. Both take responsibility for any resentment, avoidance, or passive aggressive parts that might pop up, recognizing that resentment means you’re crossing your own boundaries and then blaming the other person for your failure to uphold your own boundaries. In healthy relationships, both know better than to point the finger at someone else if they’re not standing up for their own needs and communicating those needs clearly. Unhealthy relationships may use boundaries rigidly as a way to control the other person or they may have no boundaries and say yes when they mean no and then get resentful and passive aggressive. Healthy boundaries requires both parties to know what’s okay and not okay and have the courage and nervous system regulation capacity to communicate freely what’s okay and not okay- so that their yes is a real yes and their no is acceptable to the other person. Both feel equally free to both make requests for boundaries and receive boundary requests from the other generously.
  • CAPACITY FOR EARNED SECURE ATTACHMENT: Regardless of attachment styles, secure attachment can be earned if two people are trustworthy. But this takes time if one or both parties defaults to an insecure attachment style. It helps to build secure attachment if anxious types are given reassurance under stress that “Nobody’s leaving” or if avoidant types are given permission to take space if they need it to self-regulate. With insecurely attached people, consistency is key. Over time, if you can keep showing up and keep showing up and keep showing up- but without spiritual bypassing or martyring or tolerating unacceptable levels of abuse- secure attachment and the neuroplasticity of earned nervous system privilege can be developed.
  • YOU CENTER EACH OTHER EQUALLY: In unhealthy relationships, one person tends to take up all the space and the other accommodates. In healthy relationships, space is shared. You take turns being centered and being the listener, and neither of you is triggered if you center someone else sometimes and turn your attention away from the other in a reasonable, non-neglectful, well-boundaried way. You’re both allowed to have other friends of either gender and you trust each other to uphold any boundaries that need to be in place if you’re going to center other people safely and respectfully.
  • PRIVACY IS RESPECTED: Healthy people don’t read each other’s emails or texts or diaries without permission. They don’t disclose vulnerable information about the other person without their consent or publicly humiliate or shame someone. They don’t write things about the other willy nilly on social media or exercise liberties to overexpose someone without the other’s expressed permission. While healthy people might process vulnerable material with a therapist or trusted friend, both parties feel safe to be vulnerable without worrying that their vulnerability will be weaponized or overexposed.
  • THE SLOW BURN: Unhealthy relationships with a lot of spellbound attraction and erotic energy (which often get spiritualized as “twin flames”) tend to burn bright and fast, burning each other out. Healthy relationships may not have as much ecstatic chemistry at the beginning, but as intimacy and trust and safety build, so does the flame.
  • BOTH SAY YES TO THERAPY IF THE OTHER ASKS: All relationships have friction if you get close enough. Healthy relationships acknowledge this and are willing to submit to getting professional help if the relationship gets strained and the issues can’t get resolved without intervention.
  • MUTUAL PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY: In healthy relationships, both people do their work and own their shadow parts, without accepting responsibility for someone else’s bad behavior or letting the other off the hook of accountability and without blaming the other in a unilateral way without acknowledging your part in it.
  • LOVE & INTIMACY ARE AN OPTION: In unhealthy relationships, real love and real intimacy are not even on the menu. Enmeshment or chemistry might get mistaken for love or intimacy, but it’s not the same thing. In healthy relationships, there’s a reasonable tolerance for both giving and receiving love that is not transactional and for tolerating intimacy without sabotaging it.
  • YOU BOTH HAVE SKIN IN THE GAME: In unhealthy relationships, one person tends to be WAY more invested (emotionally, financially, energetically, time invested) than the other. In healthy relationships, you both have something to gain and something to lose, sharing risk reasonably equally. This “skin in the game” includes that both of you make time for nurturing the intimacy you share, enjoying each other, and repairing rifts when they happen swiftly, prioritizing the health of your relationship as much or more as you might prioritize other things, like work, money, working out, or achieving some goal.
  • ALL EMOTIONS ARE WELCOME: In unhealthy relationships, emotions may be valenced into “good” or “spiritual” emotions and “bad” or “unspiritual” emotions. In healthy relationships, all emotions are welcomed and honored as important intimacy-nourishing information that may need actions or boundaries to back them up or may just need to be expressed. Unhealthy relationships may demand toxic positivity as a form of conflict avoidance and shut down emotions like anger, jealousy, or fear. Healthy relationships honor them all, without eliciting reactive defensiveness, stonewalling, avoidance, attack, or withdrawal.
  • BOTH PARTIES KNOW HOW TO SELF-REGULATE EMOTIONS: Sure, we need other humans (therapists, good friends) to help co-regulate us when we get upset. But when two people are upset with each other, one person isn’t always the one self-regulating and co-regulating for both.
  • YOU BOTH INFLUENCE EACH OTHER WITHOUT UNDUE INFLUENCE: You can’t have a healthy relationship without being both influential and able to be influenced. If we don’t let our partner influence us, we’re likely to be narcissists. If we let our partner control us, we’re likely to be codependent. In healthy relationships, there is a balance of influences. We care what our partner feels and thinks but we’re not controlled by someone else’s feelings or appeasing to the degree that we’re crossing our own boundaries.

No relationship is ever all good or all bad. Our relationships are always on spectrums of health and unhealth, so it’s important not to have unrealistic expectations (or no expectations of health at all.) But when you look at the Gestalt of a relationship, how does it balance out? Nobody will be trustworthy all of the time (because we’re all trustworthy when we’re in Self and we can all be untrustworthy when we blend with parts.) But how much are two people Self-led together or at least one of you is in Self when the other is blended? If it’s more than 50% of the time, that’s pretty good! If when you get off track you can come back into connection with reasonable ease, without one person doing all the emotional labor unilaterally, you’ve got something worth cherishing.

Originally published at https://lissarankin.com.

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Lissa Rankin, MD

Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling.