How to Tell If You’re in a Dysfunctional Relationship

How to Tell If You’re in a Dysfunctional Relationship
Photo: fizkes, Shutterstock

A relationship is supposed to be stable, nurturing, and safe. It is supposed to add value to your life by giving you a partner who can support you, celebrate with you, and make your days better. In turn, you are expected to do that for them, too — but it’s easy to give yourself fully to someone when you feel secure and loved. Not all relationships are like that, though; some are dysfunctional.

It can be hard to recognise a dysfunctional relationship when you’re the one in it. The souring of a relationship can happen slowly and incrementally over time; you might not realise it until you’ve been in a bad place for a while. Here’s how to recognise a dysfunctional relationship, if you (or someone you love) might be in one.

Assess your own feelings

Are you stressed out a lot? When your partner texts you, do you get a pang of anxiety wondering if they’re about to derail your day with anger or other forms of negativity? Really check in with your emotions, both while you’re with them and when you’re apart. If you feel more relaxed and comfortable away from them, don’t hide that from yourself. You should feel secure in your relationship. Above all, it shouldn’t be adding to the existing stresses in your life, like work, school, or family. There are plenty of unavoidable stressors out there; your relationship should function as a safe haven that enables you to regroup and tackle those with a supportive partner by your side, not compound your issues.

“The purpose of a relationship is to enhance your life,” said Laurel House, an eharmony relationship expert. “You are in some way better because you are together. While they shouldn’t be your main source of happiness, their presence creates more happiness, calmness, comfort, excitement, inspiration, or whatever other positive feelings you are looking for. A dysfunctional relationship creates stress, sadness, fear, insecurity, a loss of self, a loss of worth, feeling depleted, and any other negative feelings that you are not looking for.”

Read those strings of words back to yourself. Happiness and comfort are positives. Fear and insecurity are negatives. Really level with yourself. Which of those groups of feelings do you identify more with when you think about your partner? If it’s the negative one, you might be in a dysfunctional relationship.

Stay vigilant and watch for red flags early on

The “sunk cost fallacy” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in the economic world, but it applies to relationships, too. Basically, the fallacy occurs when you think, “I’ve already invested so much [time/money/energy] into this endeavour; I can’t quit now.”

It’s really easy to feel that way, especially when you’ve been in a relationship with someone for a long time. That’s why so many dysfunctional relationships exist. After enough months or years, you begin to feel like you’ve sunk too much of your time into the whole thing, so you might as well keep going. Sometimes, this feeling can stop you from taking an honest look at your situation. Don’t choose the blinders here.

First of all, there’s a reason it’s called the sunk cost fallacy. It’s not a reasonable or fair way to think. You can always get out — and if you’re in a bad situation, you deserve to. But there are also ways to catch a bad relationship early on and avoid getting deeper into it.

Kate MacLean a dating and relationship expert at Plenty of Fish, told Lifehacker about a few “red flags” you can watch out for: If someone is delaying introducing you to their friends and family, exhibiting clingy behaviour, and/or constantly referring to their exes as “crazy,” watch out. These are early warning signs your relationship with that person could turn out dysfunctional.

“It can be hard to see beyond first date butterflies, but there are ways you could stay hopeful and excited — while also being mindful of certain behaviours that could signal dysfunction down the line. Especially in the early days, you want to be with someone who you feel comfortable being yourself with, responds to your messages in a quick and timely manner, and is able to support you in your successes while maintaining their own independence. If you question any of the above, it might be time to take a closer look if this relationship is worth pursuing,” MacLean said.

Take steps to avoid deterioration into dysfunction

We’re not here to tell you that your relationship can’t be saved. Maybe it can. Feel it out and make the safest decision for yourself. If you really want to fix this — or avoid deterioration into dysfunction before it even starts — you’ll need to express yourself and be open to what your partner has to say, too.

“Having clear communication about your wants, needs, and expectations is critical to avoid falling into a dysfunctional dating experience,” said MacLean, who suggested defining your relationship expectations clearly, being honest about your needs, and embracing vulnerability.

House said, “Not all dysfunctional relationships can be saved. In less extreme cases, where there is no physical or mental abuse, a dysfunctional relationship might be able to be saved. Both partners need to be aware of the problem and dedicated to actively making changes — both big and small — to stop the cycle. Moment by moment, presence is necessary to break the micro habits that contribute to the dysfunction. Oftentimes with dysfunction it can be less about the big, obvious egregious acts, and more about the frequent, yet close to unnoticeable, micro acts (the comments, looks, and attitude) that are hard to stop.”

Don’t write off a bad day as a bad relationship

Finally, take a breather here. You might have gotten into a big fight with your significant other and run to Google “dysfunctional relationship,” and we don’t blame you. A burst of negativity can be really unsettling and you want to do what’s best for yourself. Still, take a step back for a moment.

As mentioned, there are a lot of stressful things in this world. Stay on top of your emotions and be honest with yourself: Are outside factors to blame for an outburst or feeling of general ickiness? Try to talk it out with your partner. Again, they should be there for you in times of crisis, even if those times of crisis are making one of you lash out or is causing a rift.

“While it’s normal for healthy relationships to experience the occasional downs, a dysfunctional relationship is littered with inconsistent emotions that can make you feel like you are walking on eggshells all the time,” House said. “You never know when an emotional eruption might be triggered.”

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