Why We Obsessively Look For Red Flags In Other People's Partners

Recently, Taylor Swift fans dug into Travis Kelce’s old tweets. Experts say there's a reason why we feel compelled to do it.
Swifties have been digging through Travis Kelce's old Twitter posts trying to "find something problematic."
Gotham via Getty Images
Swifties have been digging through Travis Kelce's old Twitter posts trying to "find something problematic."

When I say almost my entire X ― formerly Twitter ― feed is Swifties quote-tweeting Travis Kelce’s posts from approximately 2009 to 2011, I mean it. And I love it. You’ve got people making jokes, referencing Taylor Swift’s songs … it’s all there, and it’s glorious. Even brands are jumping in on the fun.

Screenshots of a few older posts did get some backlash, but overall the attitude was positive. One user made a great point explaining what might be happening here: “Swifties looking at Travis’s old tweets to find something problematic but all they are finding is that this man loves chipotle, can’t spell, and has no thoughts just vibes. A king,” she wrote.

Retweet! But it makes you wonder: Travis Kelce is well-liked, both as a football player and as Taylor Swift’s partner — so why are we looking for red flags (and even going all the way back to 2009 to find them)?

According to experts, there could be a few reasons. And they’re similar to what we may do in real life, too. Sometimes when someone we care about starts seeing someone new, we look for potential landmines. Here’s why:

We want to protect them.

Despite the fact that songs such as “Dear John” and “All Too Well” (the Taylor versions, of course) are so good, they’ve shown Swifties what kind of unhealthy relationships the singer has endured. Then add her breakup with Joe Alwyn after six years and the racist comments that (ex? friend?) Matty Healy has made and laughed at, and it makes sense we’re worried and want her to have a good, solid partner.

As human beings, it’s understandable you want someone to be protected from any harm. We do this with our friends, too.

“In this case, such a tendency to look for red flags in a friend’s partner stems from a fear of seeing your friend getting hurt, hence the hurry to spot the red flags before your fear comes true,” said Callisto Adams, a dating and relationships expert. “We want to prepare ourselves for the worst so that it doesn’t catch us off guard if it happens.”

We feel jealous or insecure.

Maybe you’ve been there: Your best friend starts dating someone, and all of a sudden, they aren’t hanging out with you as much. You might miss their attention or feel less important. You might wish you had a partner you liked that much.

“Looking for potential red flags or faults within someone’s partner can make you feel better about yourself, your partner, or in some way can diminish your friend’s relational value and therefore reduce the intensity of your jealousy,” explained Alexandra Cromer, a licensed professional counsellor with Thriveworks in Richmond, Virginia, who specialises in relationships, self-esteem and anxiety.

Further, the search for toxic signs can make you feel like you bring value to your friend. “If you’re feeling replaced by your friend’s new partner, you can make yourself ‘more useful’ and ‘more novel’ and can reestablish your perceived place in your friend’s daily life and routines by being a continual whistleblower on perceived red flags,” Cromer added.

We fear change.

With incredible Eras Tour shows and hangouts with friends, Swift seemed to be killing her single girl era — which many of us loved and felt comfortable with. Now, she’s dating again, and we’re having to adjust.

“Searching for red flags might be an attempt to maintain the status quo and resist potential disruptions to established dynamics,” said Martha Tara Lee, a relationship counsellor and clinical sexologist.

This goes for friendships, too. “We may fear that the addition of a new partner could change the dynamics of our friendship or alter the way our loved one interacts with us,” she added.

We’re suspicious for a legitimate reason.

Sometimes, we see a loved one’s partner and something just feels...off. Maybe it’s a gut instinct, or Swiftie intuition, or you have an ex that gives similar vibes as this new partner. Regardless, you have a fairly solid reason to believe that trouble might be ahead.

At the same time, it’s important to clarify here that some ― not all ― people do deserve grace. While being abusive to a partner, for example, is never OK, sometimes your “ick” isn’t someone else’s “ick,” or mistakes can be forgiven. It all depends on how the person in the relationship feels.

In the case of Taylor Swift, it’s a result of a parasocial relationship with the singer and because it’s so public.

One of the things Swift does well as an artist is connecting with her fans; many feel that they can truly be her friend ― even though that’s really not the case. This is called a parasocial relationship.

“Idolising someone puts them in a very high position in your life,” Adams said. “This way, you’re more likely to behave, think or act for them in similar ways you would for your close friends or family members.”

Cromer said we also have to be mindful of the fact that as a celebrity, a breakup might result in extra pain and problems for Swift. This is another reason why we might worry even though we don’t truly know her.

“Celebrities have access to increased social, economic, business and other forms of capital that are easily and readily coveted by others,” Cromer said. “Therefore, they can be more susceptible to attacks on their interpersonal relationships by those that wish to obtain that capital and that celebrity favour for their own benefit.”

In other words, a breakup or scandal could lead not only to heartbreak, but also the public display of that. We’ve seen this with other celebrities in tabloids — you know, the picture of them in sweatpants being weaponised as portraying how heartbroken they are, or how their partner cheated on them. “Sources” leaking rumours about who said or did what. That kind of thing.

And let’s be honest: Another reason we see mostly with celebrity relationships is entertainment value. All of these tweets and memes about “Mother” are, well, fun.

“People may actively seek out red flags or controversial aspects in these relationships because it adds excitement and drama to their own lives,” Lee said.

Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift are seen leaving the SNL after-party on Oct. 15 in New York, New York.
MEGA via Getty Images
Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift are seen leaving the SNL after-party on Oct. 15 in New York, New York.

How We Might Feel When We Can’t Find Red Flags

According to experts, this can cause a host of emotions when looking out for our friends.

Adams listed anxiety and jealousy, for example. She said we might worry the partner is good at hiding their red flags or that our friend will devote all their time to this person they just met.

Cromer agreed. She said it’s normal to feel a bit of anxiety when a friend enters into a new romantic relationship, and to care, genuinely, about that person and the health of the partnership. Then when we don’t find the red flags (or even pink flags) we’re looking for, she continued, we may feel even more anxious and out of control.

“It can make us feel less valuable to our friend or like we are losing social capital to this friend’s new partner who is ‘perfect,’” she said.

On that note, we know no one is actually perfect, so when they seem that way, we might wonder what they’re hiding, for lack of a better word.

“It’s natural to feel frustrated when you are not readily able to identify perceived faults or growing areas, and ultimately feel as if you’re unable to protect your friend in any way from potential threats from a new relationship,” Cromer continued.

But to be clear, happy feelings can result after a successful “creeping” session, too. According to Lee, not seeing any negative traits can encourage and comfort us, leading to feelings of relief, contentment and trust.

“We may feel confident in our friend or the celebrity’s judgment, and trust that they have chosen someone who is genuinely compatible and suitable for them,” she said, adding this can strengthen our bond, and foster a sense of support and understanding.

We might also appreciate or approve of the partner more than we already did. Lee said we may admire the person’s character and behaviour, and feel better about the relationship, too.

“As a relationship counsellor and clinical sexologist, I believe that when we can’t find red flags, it’s an invitation to play a supportive role,” Lee said. “We can offer guidance, encouragement, and be a source of positivity in their relationship journey.”

In other words, no need for “Bad Blood.”

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