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The Big Five Of Dysfunctional Relationships

Have you ever found yourself in a new relationship that feels like “Been there, done that?”

You think you have found a great new partner, then it turns out they are essentially the last partner but with a different name, face and job. You may wonder how this happened as you were determined not to get involved with another person who was controlling, abusive, depressed, angry or addicted to something.

If this is your experience then chances are you have some baggage that is interfering with your ability to choose a good life partner. It’s time to figure out your dysfunctional relationship style and fix it once and for all.  You may be making the same mistake again and again due to a learned thought pattern or misguided belief that has ingrained itself in your mind.

Your goal is to figure out the origins, understand the dynamic and then replace it with one that serves you better. Understanding is critical to overcoming as it provides you with a reason why you have done things a certain way. By correcting this you are not losing part of your personality, you are eliminating things that aren’t working very well and deciding to live by a different and more satisfactory set of rules and thoughts.

Although today’s topic is related to relationships, you will find that this old baggage is most likely to blame for other bad life choices you may make as well. You may find that correcting it for one purpose has many far-reaching positive effects on your entire life.

Here are the “Big Five” of the Dysfunctional Type Relationships:

You will notice that fortunately these stem from only 3 or 4 specific things. It gives you a place to start your work.

Caretaking– Giving too much of yourself, usually in an attempt to control and/or avoid abandonment. You believe you won’t be loved if you don’t provide the necessary care, money or whatever else is keeping someone bonded to you. This can also involve making excuses for or bailing someone out of repeated bouts of some poor behavior. Keeping control means keeping whomever in your life. This can apply to romantic partners, children or friends.

What you need to work on– Attachment issues are possible culprits as are anxiety and self-esteem.

Codependency– Your partner is dependent on something and you are dependent on the fact that they are dependent on it. I know this can sound confusing. Think of the partner that enables the alcoholic, that is the classic example. You believe that as long as they are alcoholic and you take care of things that they will keep you around. You may fear if they become sober or clean up their act they will look for someone better than you. Similar to caretaking but usually pertains to romantic relationships.

What you need to work on– Self-esteem, insecure attachment issues and anxiety.

White Knight– You may be in a mess of some sort and the “White Knight” comes along and rescues you. They may offer money and stability, and anything that is not chaotic will be appealing to you. The White Knight is typically a bit older than you and seems more established. He may have a calming effect on you initially and make all necessary decisions. However, he has his motives as well and they are usually about control. He fixes things and therefore has control. He may be dependent on the fact that you are a mess (see above). When you are no longer a mess you will resent this.

What you need to work on– Job security, dependency issues, self esteem, anxiety.

Choosing someone who is not your equal– This dynamic happens when you are afraid of losing someone who you consider great and are convinced that losing him or her is inevitable. Due to faulty attachment and/or trust issues you have your crystal ball out and see impending doom in all relationships. You therefore choose someone who is not that great, as it doesn’t hurt as much when they leave. You can tell yourself, “They weren’t that great anyway, no real loss.” Or you may just really believe you can’t do any better.

What you need to work on-Self esteem, anxiety, and attachment.

Emotionally or physically abusive- These are the worst of the dynamics and require your immediate attention. If you are being physically abused call a shelter, counselor, psychologist, community mental health center or the police right away. Have an exit plan in place. It is usually best not to make the abuser aware of your plans as they may escalate.

If you are being verbally and emotionally abused you may have more time to make a plan but it is likely you will need to leave the relationship to get yourself together. With counseling the relationship may be able to be saved but this depends on the individual abuser and their motivation to change. Continued abuse to your psyche makes it difficult to make decisions or choices that are good for you. In the psychological world this is called “crazy making”. You may come to believe the words of the abuser. Name-calling, belittling, constant criticism and making fun of you in front of others are all forms of emotional abuse.

What you need to work on- Self-esteem is the biggie here. Attachment problems are likely as well as dependency. Depression.

You can see why these relationship styles lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Often you don’t realize you have done the same thing until it’s too late. Recognizing the warning signs and avoiding these patterns is the key.

So, next time you are looking for a date or partner, keep this in mind. If it immediately feels comfortable and “right”, it’s probably wrong. I know that doesn’t sound very romantic, but if you have always found the same kind of person it is because it has always felt right. What you are most likely feeling is familiarity, and we as people like that, it feels good initially. But that doesn’t make it right or good for you. In fact, the more chemistry you feel with a particular person the worse it may be. So with that in mind, hold back, examine what feels right or good and give it a lot of time to develop. The other fun fact about dysfunctional relationships is that they tend to happen and develop quite quickly. You may feel like you have been swept off your feet.

If a red flag waves, don’t second guess yourself. Don’t blame yourself for something or make a reason why something happened that didn’t feel good. Just get out.

No matter how old you are or how many bad relationships you have been in, you can learn to avoid these dysfunctional pitfalls. The skills that are necessary to avoid relationship disasters are also helpful in other life arenas.

You really can build a better life!

The Big Five Of Dysfunctional Relationships

Audrey Sherman, Ph.D.

Dr. Audrey Sherman is a licensed psychologist, coach and the author of the book Dysfunction Interrupted-How to Quickly Overcome Depression, Anxiety and Anger Starting Now. Her expertise is in defining, describing and transforming dysfunctional behavior and thought patterns learned in childhood or beyond that keep you anxious, depressed, angry, stuck in unhappy and unproductive relationships, jobs and more. Dr. Sherman developed the Dysfunctional Patterns Quiz and other free resources to help you determine the effects of these on your life. She works with individuals, conducts live and online workshops and trains others in her programs. To learn more about Dr. Sherman, you can visit her website.

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APA Reference
Sherman, A. (2016). The Big Five Of Dysfunctional Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Jun 2016
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