Do you assume the worst to protect your heart?

I’ve noticed that a lot of post-breakup dating advice is akin to riding a bicycle. I know that everyone means well, but the various forms of the “jump back on the horse” adage have never sat well with me, and it’s not because I’m bad at riding horses or bikes (although I am).

Considering the fact that my first serious relationship was an emotionally abusive one that took almost everything I had to leave, I am still a little wary of just effortlessly “jumping back in” the dating pool—always on alert for the swipe, swipe, sting. Once that saga came to a close, I was not about to hop into the next relationship without a guarded heart and a list of red flags long enough to have an index.

But sometimes, in my relationship-triggered PTSD, the red flags triggered were erroneous. In the effort to protect my heart, I started to assume the absolute worst about guys I knew little about. And I began to push my assumptions to ridiculous measures. Basically, I raised red flags in very normal scenarios.

While thankfully most people’s relationships are not nearly as off-the-wall horrible as mine was, every past relationship has the potential to leave scars. If we’re not conscious of it, these little scars can create irrational defensiveness.

Here’s what I’ve since learned:

01. Communication all the time is not normal.

In my dysfunctional relationship, if we weren’t in communication, it meant something was wrong. As in he’s-probably-overdosing-on-drugs or out-with-another-girl type of wrong. Periods of time with no text or call back would heighten my anxiety to the point of temporary debilitation. When moving on and trying to forge new romantic connections, I would respond to a cheesy yet endearing “Nice to meet you last night!” text and proceed to panic if I did not receive another text back immediately.

This alone would send me into a downward spiral. Without yet knowing how I felt about the guy, I would start having anxiety if I hadn’t heard from him, and then I would vow to go ahead and remove myself from the situation altogether. Mind you, this would all take place in less than twenty-four hours. Turns out that functioning, emotionally healthy men do other things while not texting other than betray you. It’s taken me years to get comfortable with a normal pace of communication. But honestly, it’s so much better and far more freeing.

02. Similarities to your ex may be just coincidences.

I know this is not just me. I see close friends experiencing this all the time. If the last guy who brutally dumped you was a medical student, it’s natural to go to great lengths to stay away from other medical students.

In my case, anything and everything that was a similarity to my past felt like a sign to run before there was an actual reason. My emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend was a chemical engineering major, liked to write and record songs, and had a wardrobe that consisted solely of graphic tees. Without consciously thinking anything through, I would start assuming that any chemistry-related major must clearly be making their own drugs, that a love of songwriting was pure narcissism, and that graphic tees must be signaling similar life aspirations.

Now that is one cynical way to live—and a silly one at that! I ended up meeting a chemistry major I dated for two years afterward. Slowly, I discovered there was zero interest in recreational drug use on his part, and he was instead interested in improving health care. However, it took me a little bit of time to drop my irrational fears—especially anytime he wore a graphic tee.

03. His friends can still be female.

When someone has a solid, diverse group of friends of both genders, it’s usually a good sign. Unfortunately for me, the whole “female friends” situation held a much different feel because my ex-boyfriend pushed the limits of having female friends to extreme measures. He prided himself on his close relationships with other women, only to belittle me for expressing any concern. Afterward, I preferred guys who had no female friends whatsoever.

However, to meet a guy and to receive a text that he’s out with a group of friends—which may include a girl or two—is by no means a red flag (especially if he invites you along). I’ve learned that not having a group of friends, or being hostile to the concept of female friendships, is much more of a red flag. Great guys most likely have a group of friends that they truly care about and easily have boundaries with platonic female friendships. It took me too long and too many times of running away for the wrong reasons to adjust to this mindset.

If you’ve ever been in a bad relationship, you may find yourself assuming the worst and creating insane assumptions based on entirely normal behavior. Your assumptions may be different than mine—or even the opposite. After all, some red flags will be perfectly reasonable—and rightly branded in your brain as signals to run. However, maybe you’ll realize that some red flags are merely defense mechanisms based on nothing but a powerful memory trying to save you from vulnerability—a type of vulnerability that is wholly necessary if you are to move beyond the past and embrace real emotional intimacy and love.