As human beings, we are driven to form healthy relationship attachments. From birth, we count on others for our survival, and it is normal to want safe interpersonal relationships where we are valued and encouraged to develop and grow. The world is stressful, and healthy relationships can enhance mental, emotional, and physical health, while unhealthy relationships do the opposite. So how do you actually know if you are in an unhealthy relationship?
Is my Relationship Unhealthy?
It’s normal to have some conflict and struggle in relationships, so when do you know what is ‘normal’ conflict and what is toxic? Relationship quality is expected to wax and wane. However, for various reasons, sometimes individuals find themselves feeling uneasy and uncertain about whether their relationships are normal and healthy. Often, people have a sense that something isn’t right, but doubt themselves and continue to struggle in situations that might compromise health and safety.
Physical Signs and Actions in an Unhealthy Relationship:
In romantic relationships, physical attraction and interaction can play a big factor in how healthy your relationship is. Here are some examples:
- You are experiencing any kind of abuse. Abuse comes in many forms: physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual. Preventing someone from leaving the situation by blocking the way and/or hiding the keys is a form of abuse. If you are confused about what constitutes abuse, this website offers help identifying abuse as well as advice for developing a safety plan and support for leaving an abusive situation: https://www.thehotline.org/
- You feel coerced to engage in sex. If you constantly give in to sex when you don’t want to, this is an unhealthy pattern. It leads to resentment, in addition to feeling used and devalued.
- You are so distant you feel like you are living with a roommate. This is usually a sign of burnout and hopelessness and doesn’t repair on its own.
- You both engage in destructive patterns of communication. Marriage researcher John Gottman was famous for identifying communication patterns associated with relationship dissolution and calls them the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.” They are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. If they are showing up, it doesn’t mean the relationship is over, but it does mean negative patterns need addressing.
- You feel pressure to help your partner continue unhealthy behavior, such as an addiction. If you are pressured to make it easier for a partner to continue an addictive behavior, or if you make it easier for them to continue in addiction because it’s too hard to hold them accountable, this is codependency and is a warning sign.
- A pattern or lying or hiding. Trust is one of the main ingredients for a healthy relationship. Any type of hiding or deception destroys trust. If you find yourself having to lie or hide so you’re not “in trouble,” that’s a red flag. Lying and/or hiding will do nothing to fix existing problems.
- You are always being watched and/or you are constantly monitoring your partner. This is a form of control and inappropriate exercising of power. If it has grown out of an injury that has compromised trust, then that must be addressed to restore relationship wellness over time.
- Your partner threatens to commit suicide if you leave. This is an insidious form of manipulation and control. If someone is experiencing suicidality, it’s ok to access resources and get them help, but staying in a relationship so someone doesn’t commit suicide will lead to more toxicity over time.
Emotional Signs That You’re in an Unhealthy Relationship
Being in love or thinking you are loved can easily confuse feelings such as self-worth, jealousy and ‘caring’. So where do you draw the line?
- You are afraid that you are “mean” if you set boundaries or when your boundaries aren’t respected. Boundaries are protective, not just of the individual, but of the relationship. If you think setting boundaries is unkind, you might need more education and practice with them.
- You don’t believe you deserve to be treated well. I have had clients who left situations they recognized as unhealthy only to find themselves compromising their values again in subsequent situations. I remember being confused when I was seeing a client who had worked so hard to separate herself from a toxic situation, only to report a few months later that she decided to move back in with him, even though the toxic circumstances hadn’t changed. When asked if she believed that was what she deserved, she tearfully explained that her father had been emotionally abusive, constantly criticizing her and telling her she was “worthless.” I empathized with her struggle. She had absorbed a belief that she didn’t deserve better. Ultimately, we are our own advocates and teach people how to treat us, based primarily on what we think we deserve. Everyone, regardless of background, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
- You are slowly building resentment. Resentment is a huge sign of an unhealthy relationship but can take years to develop. Because it develops slowly, people sometimes ignore it, but it is one of the main relationship killers I see in my clinical practice and is hard to come back from once it has reached a critical point.
- One of you is always getting your way at the expense of the other. Healthy relationships do require sacrifice and compromise, but in a way that is equitable overall. If one person is always getting their way (usually because the other person doesn’t think it’s “worth” the conflict to address it), it’s a bad sign for the relationship.
- You constantly feel criticized. Even though it’s common for criticism to develop out of negative patterns couples create together, criticism kills intimacy. Criticism is one of the most common toxic characteristics I see in therapy. It is never motivating—it only shuts people down.
- You wouldn’t want your child to be in the type of relationship you have. We all experience disappointment in relationships. That is normal and expected. Healthy relationships require ongoing flexibility and adaptation. You should expect your children to experience disappointment as well and hope they have the skills to grow and develop and tolerate some distress. However, if you recognize that you would never want your child to be in a similar situation, you might have serious issues to address.
- You stay because you are afraid of being alone. Our society seems to privilege romantic love and connection over other emotional bonds. When someone is staying in a relationship only because they are afraid of being alone, it’s fundamentally unhealthy. There are many ways to find purpose and meaning, and given the fact that toxic relationships diminish one’s health and well-being are good reasons to get out of one and continue to grow and develop alone or in a new healthier one.
- You start to feel crazy and unsure that you can trust yourself. This is a classic symptom that something isn’t healthy. To learn more about this phenomenon, look up the term “gaslighting.”
- You don’t feel like you can reach out for needs to be met and/or you are always meeting your partner’s needs at the expense of your own. By definition, a healthy relationship is one in which both partners feel confident that they can reach out for comfort and reassurance, and their partners can reach out for comfort and reassurance with a favorable response. They can also explore individual interests and function autonomously. When this is out of balance, it’s a warning sign.
EXTERNAL SIGNS THAT YOU’RE IN AN UNHEALTHY RELATIONSHIP:
Sometimes it can feel like everyone is against you, but you should consider what and who is raising the ‘red flag’ for you.
- You are isolated from your friends and family and other support systems. One of the first signs of abuse is isolating a partner from other support systems. In healthy relationships, partners are encouraged to function autonomously and develop many supportive relationships.
- You don’t want your friends and family to find out what is happening in your relationship. If you are trying to keep your friends and family from finding out what is going on, this is a major warning sign that your relationship is unhealthy.
- Your friends and family see warning signs. Most of the time, people who have our best interests in mind don’t want to upset us frivolously. If you are getting messages from people who love you that they are concerned about your relationship, especially if you are hearing it from multiple sources, pay close attention and heed the warning. They are likely seeing something you are struggling to see from the inside.
What Should You Do?
Identifying problematic signs doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to sever a relationship. All relationships involve conflict and take work. However, be aware that some relationships are toxic enough to compromise health over time, and to be honest, they all aren’t worth saving. As a general rule, if your human dignity is compromised, it’s a problem, and there are lots of resources to help. Speak to your partner and try and overcome these challenges, seeking couples counseling could be an option. If you feel like there is no way ‘out’ from the actions and habits, you may need to step away from the relationship.
Lori Schade, Ph.D., LMFT, AAMFT
Lori Cluff Schade, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist and AAMFT-approved therapy supervisor running her own practice in Pleasant Grove, Utah. Loris specializes in couples’ therapy and she is also an adjunct faculty member in the marriage and family therapy department at Brigham Young University.