Woman swimming in a rip current
Relationships

Why a ‘rip current relationship’ can sweep you off your feet – and into dangerous waters

If you’ve ever been swimming in the ocean, you’ve probably been warned about avoiding powerful rip currents that run below the surface and can pull even the strongest swimmers away from the shore – what if the same phenomenon can happen in our relationships? 

Every swimmer knows that when a red flag appears on the beach, there is a dangerous rip current lurking below the surface. But even though the tell-tale sign might be there for all to see, many swimmers can’t resist the urge to dip their toes into the water. “The water looks calm. And I’ve been swimming for years,” they might think.

But even the strongest swimmers can get caught in these powerful streams of water and struggle to return safely to shore. In a matter of moments, a rip current sweeps you away and leaves you panic-stricken, gasping for breath with no way back to safety.

But you don’t need to go swimming in the ocean to experience the terrifying phenomenon of a rip current. In fact, it happens all the time in new relationships – metaphorically, of course.

Red flags are important if you want to avoid a rip current relationship
A red flag might be any number of warning signs that the relationship could become dangerous the further into it you go.

What is a rip current relationship?

Yvonne Castañeda, MSW, LICSW coined the term in Psychology Today.

“[The] initial spark can very well blind you to the red flags blowing right in front of your eyes, and rather than pause and contemplate whether you should move forward, you dive right in,” she wrote. “It’s only when you’re trying to swim back to shore that you see the red flags more clearly and see that there was more than one. But by then it’s too late; you are in a rip current relationship.”

A rip current relationship, she suggests, is the kind of relationship that initially looks relatively safe – despite a few red flags. Perhaps the other person seems nice. They seem interesting. They seem fun. After a couple of dates, you can’t help but ‘swim out’ a little further into the relationship. Sure there is a red flag or two – but overall, the waters are too inviting to resist.

The dangers of a rip current relationship

Just like a real rip current in the ocean, a relationship rip current can take you by surprise by its strength. In the ocean, a rip current whisks you away from the shoreline, no matter how hard you may try to swim back. In a relationship, a sudden dangerous current can feel just as powerful.

“A rip current relationship will pull you away from the shore that is your support network, like friends and family members,” wrote Castañeda. “You may not be pulled under by the rip current, but the exhaustion of your efforts to get back to shore may make you feel like you’re ‘drowning’ in the toxic waters of the relationship, leading to despair.”

This perfectly describes the feeling of being stuck or caught in a toxic relationship. According to a study by the University of Utah, unhealthy relationships are notoriously difficult to get out of – even when we know that they are bad for us.

In these relationships, your partner may use tactics such as coercive control, manipulating or gaslighting to separate you from your support system and convince you that you’re too weak to escape the current of the relationship – that your only option is to stay.

In other words, trying to break up with a toxic partner can feel a lot like trying to swim out of strong rip current.

Life preservers can help with rip current relationships
“You are the only person who knows best what matters most to you, and if you take the time to define your top values, you may be less likely to dive right into dangerous waters.”

Noticing the red flags before you swim  

The most important lesson to take from the rip current analogy? To avoid powerful currents before they have the chance to take away our control and carry us from the shore.

On the beach, the flag is a literal one. In a relationship, a red flag might be any number of warning signs that the relationship could become dangerous the further into it you go. It may be little signs of jealousy or posessiveness. It might be a few white lies. At first, these warning signs may be easy to ignore – so you might swim out further.

“Maybe you’re choosing to ignore the red flags because you connected so well with the person in the beginning, and you want to be in a relationship, which is not a crime,” Castañeda wrote. “It is normal to want a deep emotional connection with another human being.”

Her advice is to define your unique red flags and to swim back to shore before it’s too late.

As she put it: “You are the only person who knows best what matters most to you, and if you take the time to define your top values, you may be less likely to dive right into dangerous waters.” 

And what about getting out of a rip current relationship once you’re in one? Well, as with a real rip current, it’s important to stay calm. You may need to swim with the current for a while before you find a safe way out. And just like with a real rip current, asking for help to get out of a rip current relationship is nothing to be ashamed of — even if you are a ‘strong swimmer’.