We all think we want that storybook romance. We want a partner to sweep into our lives, sing love songs outside of our bedroom window, buy huge bouquets of flowers for no particular reason, publicly declare their love for us every day, and when they’re wrong they should always apologize into a microphone in front of a large crowd.

Besides the fact that most of the above are clues that Prince Charming is actually an undercover narcissist and you should probably run far away, this kind of romance sounds rather exhausting. Sure, it sounds fun for a while, but there’s a reason the honeymoon period doesn’t last forever. The reason is . . . reality.

Not one of those romance novels or romantic comedies has a sequel featuring the glamorous parts of a partnership: cleaning up dog diarrhea together at 2 a.m., arguing over how to properly load the dishwasher, the way he gulps water like a suffocating fish. That is the real romance. Going through the mundane day-to-day and not murdering each other.

Your partner is one of the most important choices you will ever make. Choose wrong and you will find yourself crying on the kitchen floor because you have to set the mouse traps yourself after he trades you in for a younger model. Choose right, and you will laugh every dayeven when he leaves crumbs everywhere that invite a brand new mouse family to move in.

Now, that’s a lot of pressure. “Two roads” . . . or whatever Robert Frost said. Choose the wrong one and you’re in for a lifetime of misery. How do you know which to choose?

Here are the green flags nobody tells you about (and not one of them includes a profession of love on a jumbotron or stopping a flight with only seconds to spare to profess your love just before they fly away to move to some remote island across the world).

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You feel safe with them. This one should be a given, but I’m not talking about physical safety. If you don’t feel physically or emotionally safe, get out! That will not get better with time and you’re setting yourself up for a life that is unnecessarily difficult. Now that that disclaimer is out of the way, the kind of safety I’m talking about is the kind that allows you to stuff your face full of chocolate cake in front of them, and they cheer you on with pride. You feel safe to share your most ridiculous fears, and they don’t laugh at you. You can be fully honest with them. You have solid trust. You know they will always protect you physically and emotionally.

They make you laugh. It isn’t much fun being around someone who takes themselves too seriously. Laughter makes your soul lighter. Humor makes hard things easier and turns the mundane into magic. Finding someone who makes you regularly crack up is the ultimate life hack.

You have fun doing boring things. One of the best indicators that you have found the right partner is having fun doing things that are not designed to be fun. When you’re together, a trip to the grocery store can turn into an adventure. Putting furniture together results in laughing to tears (okay, maybe that is unrealistic). At least it doesn’t end with someone smashing the furniture with a hammer out of frustration. Scratch that. It’s probably unfair to expect any kind of humor when spending hours putting together furniture only to finish and find the legs are on backward. Maybe you can laugh about it later?

They don’t judge you. You can be completely and totally yourself. One of the biggest green flags my now husband has is that I can be sitting on the couch, crushing a whole bag of Doritos while watching trashy reality TV and drinking a glass of wine with stains on my T-shirt and my hair in a ridiculous bun, and he stands back and looks at me with admiration. I actually think he’s happy for me in those moments. He encourages my 2-hour long baths. When he hears the water running, he says, “See you tomorrow!” I don’t ever have to edit myself around him because I know he knows my heart. There is something to be said for being with someone who embraces all of you even when you look like a sloth that just came out of the washing machine.

Their words breathe life. Green flag men are intentional with their words. They encourage and validate. They build you up. They give genuine compliments and never try to make you feel smaller. When their words do sting, they are quick to acknowledge and apologize. Their words are also truthful. They don’t lie to you.

They treat others well. This one is huge. You can tell what color someone’s flag is pretty quickly by noticing how they treat people. Especially the people who can’t do anything for them. How do they treat waitresses? Grocery clerks? Custodians? Secretaries? Children? The elderly? The disabled? Their mother? If they make others feel seen, are courteous and respectful, kind, and polite, you have probably seen their true character.

You feel heard. Green flaggers are great listeners. They hear the essence of what you are saying. They might not always agree with you, but they are willing to hear you out. They try to see the other side. They remember the little things, and you’re often surprised when they bring up some small detail that you barely remember telling them.

They are generally grateful. It is so nice to be around people who are grateful. Grateful people are happier, more positive, and just nice to be around. They find pleasure in the smallest things. My husband will eat a piece of cheesecake and will talk in detail for a good five minutes about how wonderful that cheesecake is and why. His state of gratefulness often reminds me to focus on the simple good in life. Having someone who is grateful as a partner every day makes life so much happier, and who doesn’t want that in their lives?

They are selfless and empathetic. Choosing someone who is selfless and empathetic is a sure way to vaccinate yourself against being stuck with a toxic or narcissistic partner. These qualities are so important. Someone who puts others above themselves and has the ability to feel for others almost guarantees you are choosing a good human to walk alongside life with.

Your core values align. You won’t agree on everything, and if you do then chances are good someone isn’t being authentically themselves. However, you align where it counts. The kind of person you want to be, what your absolute non-negotiables are, what you value most, who you are at your core. If those things don’t align, the chances of it working long-term are pretty slim.

They have integrity. This one kind of goes without saying, but apparently, it still needs to said. It really should be a no-brainer, but I see so many wonderful people end up with a partner that lacks basic integrity. They cheat, lie, and manipulate like it’s their job. Why would anyone overlook a lack of integrity? One, because we see what we want to see in others, especially when we love them. Two, manipulators manipulate and when we are someone who has integrity, it’s hard to believe that everyone doesn’t think the way we do. There are usually at least subtle signs when someone lacks integrity and they usually show up as small things like lying about something, cheating to win, not respecting boundaries, making fun of others behind their backs. If you see small cracks in integrity, you can be sure there is an earthquake to come.

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They are self-aware and reflective. Green flaggers know their strengths and flaws. They are always willing to challenge their own thoughts and beliefs and are open to growing and learning. This is one of the things I love best about my green flagger. When I let him know something he is doing bothers me, he doesn’t get defensive and let his ego take over. He takes time and reflects and is always willing to work on that thing. Most importantly, he puts action behind it. He doesn’t just say the words, he shows me that he is reflective. He doesn’t always think he’s right and he is willing to admit when he is wrong. He is always looking to grow as a person and a partner.

They prioritize your relationship. A relationship can only be strong if both partners are invested. A green flag partner will never leave you questioning how important your relationship is to them. They will let you know in word and in action. While they will live their own lives and have their own interests (as they should), they will not consistently choose anything or anyone else over nurturing your connection. They won’t make you feel abandoned or overlooked. They will fight for your relationship right alongside you. 

They can be vulnerable. Another green flag is the ability to be vulnerable. A green flagger is comfortable with emotions and has no trouble showing you their vulnerabilities. Through vulnerability, connection grows.

They encourage your independence. If your partner is threatened by your success, friendships, or strengths, they might as well have a giant red flag tattooed on their face. If they try to control you, isolate you, or put you down, they’re not the partner for you. A green flagger will be your biggest cheerleader. They understand that by lifting you up, they rise too. They are your biggest cheerleader and support and encourage your independence apart from your relationship. My green flagger encourages girls’ nights because he knows how good they are for my soul. He cheers on any new endeavor I take on and is the first in line to build me up.

They are consistent. In those romance novels, Prince Charming is always tall, dark, and handsome with a chiseled body (usually from manual labor and hardly ever from working out in the gym). They show up at the right moments to rescue the damsel in distress and with one smoldering look and a kiss that takes 73 pages to build up to, they ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. Forget the chiseled biceps, white knight complex, and perfect amount of stubblethere is nothing more attractive than consistency. Someone who doesn’t leave you guessing about how they feel. Someone who doesn’t put you through an endless cycle of showing up, love bombing, and then disappearing. Someone who doesn’t make you feel the need to play games. Someone who says the words and backs them up with the action. Every single time. Now that’s the real romance.

While the fairytale sounds great, in reality, the more it feels like a fairytale the more probable it is that there are a lot of gleaming bright red flags waving in your face that you’re ignoring. If he tells you on the first date that he’s madly in love with you and you are perfect and amazing with no flaws, he’s love bombing and you should run (if you lose your glass slipper, kick the other one off and sprint faster). If he thinks he is actual royalty and the waitress is a peasant he talks down to, that isn’t a testament to his royal power, but a glimpse into his ego-filled power trip. If he throws rocks at your window in the middle of the night, that’s not romantic. It’s creepy and he’d better pray he doesn’t crack your window or he will be replacing it himself.

The red flags sometimes look a lot like what Disney and Lifetime movies have taught us are signs of a storybook romance and true love. True green flags aren’t nearly as glamorous, but they are the ones that give you a true happily ever after.

Originally published on the author’s blog

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Kristin May

Kristin May is a teacher, mom, and wife who excels in being a hot mess and has a passion for encouraging and lifting up other hot mess moms.

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