You fall in love, it’s magic! Everything is perfect, you finally found your soul mate. Angels are singing, and unicorns are dancing on rainbows.
Then slowly, some cracks appear. A disrespectful word, an unkind action, a shove in the heat of the moment. You ignore them, wanting to believe that your partner just had an unpleasant day.
But then, the frequency of those painful incidents increases. Until one day, you realize that you are in a toxic relationship.
The word “dysfunctional” or “toxic” describes a relationship not functioning well.
There are no perfect relationships. At the same time, it’s a red flag when a relationship is mainly filled with pain and challenges instead of bringing you joy and support.
I think 20/80 is a good ratio to follow. If you are struggling in your intimate relationship more than 20 percent of the time, something might be off. In that case, it’s worth taking a closer look and exploring if you are in a dysfunctional love relationship.
Common warning signs of toxic relationships are:
- Poor communication,
- Lack of respect,
- High levels of resentment,
- Boundaries are not respected,
- Decrease in intimacy,
- Patterns of dominance and submission,
- Frequent blaming,
- Avoidance of time spent together,
- Codependency is creeping in,
- Presence of emotional, verbal, and physical abuse.
Here is more info about each of these danger signs, so you can identify them early on and change course if necessary.
The foundation of every healthy relationship is solid communication skills.
Constructive communication needs to be done calmly, respectfully, and honestly. If you want to learn how to do that, check out my blog post, “How to communicate effectively to increase connection and intimacy.”
Dysfunctional communication is characterised by communication lines being blocked. No matter what you try, you can’t get through to the other person.
You frequently feel not heard and misunderstood. You’re spinning your wheels, rehashing the same topic repeatedly, arriving nowhere. Yelling and name-calling are common. Your emotional and mental health is suffering greatly.
Lack of respect
Without respect, there is no love. Don’t believe them if someone tells you that they love you but treats you like sh*t. If their words and behaviour clash, believe their behaviour! Love and respect always go hand in hand.
Between dysfunctional partners, there often is a lack of respect. Your opinion and views are not being taken seriously. You feel dismissed and unimportant. Personal attacks are frequent. There is continuous criticism, and they compare you negatively to others. Your happiness is not a priority to your partner. Everything is your fault, and they embarrass you privately and in public.
High resentment levels
When core needs and values are not being met over an extended period, resentment builds up. This is a healthy process. It is an internal warning system blaring, “Attention, attention, things are out of whack, adjustment is needed!”.
Feelings of resentment can indicate that boundaries need to be put in place to protect your well-being. Or, they can be a sign that your expectations might be unrealistic and need to be adjusted.
When you feel resentment building up, it’s worth slowing down and asking yourself: Which of my core needs and values are not getting met here? Are they realistic? Have I communicated with them effectively? Am I doing things in this relationship that leave me feeling resentful?
A healthy relationship rule is to give only to another person what you can give without resentment, but you can give freely with a happy heart.
Boundaries are not respected
A hallmark of a toxic relationship is that your boundaries are not respected. When you say “no” in a dysfunctional love relationship, it gets ignored. You can be shamed and ridiculed for it.
The other person does what they want without considering your well-being.
Boundaries are protective mechanisms that need to be in place to ensure that you are well. A lack of boundaries will lead to a lot of pain in your life.
You are responsible for your emotional, physical, and mental health. You need to be your advocate and teach others how to treat you! Setting clear boundaries is an essential part of that.
Like relationship expert, Brené Brown said, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.”
Solid boundaries keep people who love and support you “in” and people with dysfunctional relationship patterns “out.”
A “yes” and a “no” are equally welcome and respected in a healthy relationship.
When dysfunctional patterns dominate a relationship, there will be a lack of intimacy. Your emotional, mental and physical connection in the relationship will deteriorate.
Tender-loving touch disappears, and you no longer check in with each other throughout the day. Replies to texts take longer and longer, affectionate nicknames and emojis fall away. You stop inquiring how each other’s day went, the quality and frequency of sexual intimacy declines.
This lack of intimacy contributes to the further deterioration of an already non-functional relationship. It’s like taking away oxygen from a flame that is already struggling to burn.
Patterns of dominance and submission
In a dysfunctional love relationship, you frequently find patterns of dominance and submission.
There is a power hierarchy and an imbalance of power. One person calls the shots; it is their way or the highway. The other person is submissive, does not speak up, and walks on eggshells.
The submissive person doesn’t share their opinion freely because they fear the dominant partner’s critical response. They may need their partner’s permission to do certain things. Their needs are being seen as less important. This imbalance of power creates high levels of emotional pain, especially for the submissive person.
There is no power hierarchy in positive relationships, and roles are fluid.
One time, one person can be the leader, the other time, the other person takes the lead. Decisions are made together, differences of opinion are respected. Solutions are found that sufficiently meet both partners’ needs.
The blame game is on
In a non-functional relationship, blaming is rampant.
Instead of taking responsibility for how a person contributes to the dysfunctional relationship patterns, they blame their partner for all the problems. In their mind, it is often up to their partner to change and make the relationship better. They have done nothing wrong and might even see themselves as the victim.
In my clinical practice as a therapist, I have yet to meet a couple where there was a “good” and a “bad” person. Most of the time, both partners contribute pretty equally to the emotional distress in their relationship.
And to heal the dysfunctional behaviours, both of them need to be willing to take responsibility for how their unhealthy choices add to the emotional pain.
Once they are open to doing that, the sky’s the limit, and they can work on fully restoring their relationship.
You avoid spending time with your partner
When emotional pain and negative interactions increase in a relationship, it is only normal to no longer want to spend time together. All of us try to minimise pain and maximise pleasure in our lives.
At that point, you might look for ways to avoid being present with your partner, physically and emotionally.
This could take many forms, for example, spending more and more time at the office, keeping your focus on your phone when being together, starting an emotional affair with your work colleague, or becoming a sugar daddy behind your partner’s back.
In a well-functioning romantic relationship, both people enjoy spending time with each other and prioritising that. They choose their romantic partner as the primary person to express and deepen intimacy with.
Codependent patterns are emerging
A codependent relationship occurs when one partner needs the other partner, who in turn, needs to be needed.
This dysfunctional relationship pattern plays out as follows: One person sees themselves as the saviour of the other person in distress.
This provides the person in the saviour role with a sense of meaning and validation. By enabling the dysfunctional behaviour of the struggling person, they keep being stuck in it.
In a codependent relationship, the struggling person sees themselves unable to survive without their partner. Over time, without intervention, the codependent cycle becomes increasingly toxic. This pattern is especially common with people who struggle with substance abuse issues.
A happy romantic relationship is interdependent. This means that both people are capable of having a good life independently of each other.
Couples will feel closely connected and intertwined but will still be able to make their own decisions. This relationship dynamic creates mental wellness.
Emotional, verbal, and physical abuse is present
Abuse is defined as the “cruel or violent treatment of a person or thing” to control them.
If you are experiencing emotional abuse, verbal abuse, or physical abuse in your relationship, you no longer need to wonder if you are in a dysfunctional relationship. You for sure are!
Many of my clients find it the easiest to identify when physical abuse is present in their intimate relationship, as it is tangible. It hurts when it happens, and there can be physical evidence, like bruises, left behind.
They struggle to determine if their partner’s behaviour is emotionally or verbally abusive. Let’s take a closer look!
Emotional abuse is present when a consistent pattern of abusive words and bullying behaviours chip away at the victim’s self-esteem. Over time the abused person often begins to doubt their perceptions and reality.
Common examples of emotional abuse are:
- Accusations of cheating,
- Isolating the individual from family and friends,
- Withholding attention and affection as a punishment,
- Continuous criticism,
- Trivialising their concerns,
- Constant checking on their whereabouts,
- Verbal abuse.
Verbal abuse is a form of emotional abuse. It is present when a person uses their words to attack, dominate, ridicule, manipulate, or degrade another person. By verbally abusing a romantic partner, a person attempts to control and maintain power.
People often stay in abusive relationships too long due to dysfunctional relationship beliefs. They think these abusive behaviours are normal.
They often grew up with dysfunctional family patterns, where emotional security was lacking and name-calling or “a slap now and then” were common.
Being in an abusive relationship feels a lot “like home.” It’s their relational blueprint.
How to get out of a dysfunctional relationship?
If you have identified that you are in a dysfunctional intimate relationship, there is good news! You can change and are not stuck there! The power is in your hands 🙂
You can take charge of your emotional health, let go of bad relationship habits, make good choices, change your unhelpful behaviour patterns to constructive ones, and gradually create a life you love.
As a first step, you could share your toxic relationship situation with a person you trust and see if their insight is helpful. Or, you could pick up a book that teaches healthy relationship dynamics, like “Hold me tight” by Sue Johnson or “Making marriage simple” by Harville Hendrix and Hellen Lakelly Hunt.
If that is not sufficient, I suggest you look for professional advice on letting go of these dysfunctional patterns. A mental health professional can give you effective tools and guidance on creating and sustaining healthy relationships in your life.
Like poet and writer John Mark Green said, “As you remove toxic people from your life, you free up space and emotional energy for positive, healthy relationships .” May that be your journey!
This post is part of the blog series "Creating Happiness", your inspiration to promote positive change in your life.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ms Daniela Beer-Becker, Psychologist
Daniela is a regular contributor to the Blake Psychology blog and author of the "Creating Happiness" series.
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