Technically, a relationship needs to only be defined by the people who are in the relationship. What is a “good (or healthy) relationship” for two people may be completely different than a “good (or healthy) relationship” for two other people.
However, there is a difference between a relationship having its own shape and character, and a relationship that is either harmful or generally unhealthy for one or both partners. These relationships can be difficult to spot from the inside because one or both partners grow accustomed to the life of the relationship. Denial can also be a factor due to fears of change, failure, or otherwise. So while it may seem like it should be obvious when you’re in an unhealthy relationship, it isn’t always so simple.
Here are some signs of concern within relationships. Note, the presence of one or more of the following signs doesn’t necessarily mean you should end your relationship. These are things to keep an eye on, and if they persist, may need further attention in order to improve the state of your relationship.
1) Hitting. Relationships are going to have their share of arguments and disagreements. This is normal. However, when one or both partners crosses the line into hitting, even if it’s just one punch and not an all-out brawl, this is a concern. One punch is still abuse, no matter the gender of the aggressor.
2) Name-calling. Arguments are rarely pleasant (though at times relationships tend to feed off of them, for better or worse). Name-calling, however, crosses the boundary from a heated disagreement into hostile disrespect and disregard for your partner. Name-calling is verbal abuse, is contemptuous, disrespectful, and only tears your partner down. It doesn’t have a productive quality to it for the relationship.
3) Lack of support. While it’s not possible for each partner to always be supportive in the desired moments, it becomes problematic when goals, achievements, desires, and other forms of personal life fulfillment are constantly met with resistance and negativity by your partner. While a partner can’t always be expected to be supportive of everything, a healthy relationship generally has a sense of overall support between the partners. Without this, resentment and frustration eats away at the relationship.
4) Forced to answer to your partner. There’s a difference between coordinating with your partner out of common respect for each other, whether it’s for scheduling social or work events, coordinating child care, or otherwise, and having to actually receive permission from your partner to see friends, spend money, etc. This is a form of being controlled, and often appears in the form of one partner controlling the other’s spending, who the partner associates with, and keeping tabs on everything the partner does. This is also a form of psychological abuse.
5) Feeling angry or resentful of your partner. It’s one thing to be angry or annoyed with your partner, at times. This is normal in relationships. However, if there’s a general sense of resentment and anger towards your partner that overarches your relationship, this isn’t healthy. Something is going on that needs to be addressed before it erodes the relationship.
6) Pressure to abandon children of previous relationships (often in second marriages). Second marriages, especially when children from previous marriages are involved, can add dimensions to relationship conflicts and boundary violations. These can range from forcing a partner to choose between them and the partner’s kids from a previous relationship (seeking relationship priority), and actually forcing a partner to change wills, assets, and other end of life plans into their inheritance priority and control. There’s usually an indication of abandonment if the partner doesn’t comply. While some people give in to this, whether out of fear of abandonment, or otherwise, this is a form of insecurity, entitlement, manipulation, and control that is a sign of an unhealthy relationship.
7) Ultimatums and threats. Healthy relationships tend to have healthy forms of communication. Ultimatums and threats signal frustration and resentment — an attempt to dominate and control the partner. There is more going on in the relationship that needs to be addressed if ultimatums and threats are being made.
8) Dictating discussions. Whether it’s through stonewalling or directly dictating when discussions end or begin, this is another form of control. This represents not only control, but a breakdown in communication. Dictating endings leaves one partner destroyed and impotent, and sets up a superior/inferior dynamic. While this dynamic can technically work for some relationships, it’s not a sign of a healthy relationship, as it sets up a destructive dynamic where one rules the other (forcing conversations on your partner before they’re ready to have them is also a problematic relationship behavior). The idea is to re-visit the conversation when both are ready. But if one hopes to end the conversation without revisiting the issues, the problems will remain present in the relationship.
9) Cheating. While this may seem obvious to some, people who experience an unfaithful relationship don’t always see cheating as a relationship issue as much as a sign of personal shortcoming or failure — that their partner had to make up for their shortcomings by going outside the relationship. This kind of rationale often covers the fear of losing the relationship. It is taken on as a personal issue, rather than an interpersonal relationship issue (or even as the cheating partner’s issue). While relationships can recover from cheating, cheating is a sign of something unhealthy within the relationship dynamic. The cheating partner may carry significant responsibility of the act, however if the relationship was functioning at a healthy level, cheating likely wouldn’t come into the picture.
10) Embarrassment of your partner. This shows up in various ways, but may come in the form of resisting having friends or family meet your partner, intentionally avoiding mentioning your partner in conversations, or speaking negatively about your partner to people who aren’t close with you (as opposed to venting relationship frustrations to a close friend, which is a normal way to cope with stress). These are indications of desire to keep your partner away, rather than joined with you.
There are other issues that aren’t listed here, but the main themes that signal an unhealthy relationship are forms of abuse, control, and blatant disrespect and disregard of the partner (it can be from one partner to the other, or back-and-forth between both partners). It’s important to keep in mind that relationships can become healthy again, often with the help of couples therapy. An unhealthy relationship doesn’t automatically mean it’s time to break up. However, if the issues continue, or there is an unwillingness from your partner to work together on these relationship issues, then a decision will eventually need to be made.
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Last reviewed: 2 Dec 2013