For just a minute imagine all your friends. Imagine the people you spend the most time with, the ones you call when you need to vent and who you text when you’re upset. Visualize your circle, your community and to those you feel you most belong. Close your eyes if you need to. What are the qualities or characteristics that come to mind when you think of those you share life with? Are they funny? Smart? Artistic? Do they sometimes belittle what you say or do they have trouble communicating what they want? Whatever the qualities are; stay curious about them. As Jim Rohn says, “We are the average of the 5 people we spend the most time with” so it’s important to take inventory from time to time regarding who we spend time with. They (you know those “they say” people, they’re smart) that in order to know what you’ll be like in 10 years all you have to do is see who you hang out with and that will give you a good idea of what kind of person you will be.
When NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) asked that I give a talk specifically on recognizing unhealthy relationships I was stoked! I love talking about relationships. I think I’m probably a bit of a buzz kill with my friends because I almost find it on the hobby spectrum, analyzing, assessing roles, seeing patterns, identifying cycles, discussing boundaries (so much fun!!!). So this past Thursday I talked about the 5 things that are signs of an unhealthy relationship. I (of course) made a very long list of all the red flags, signs, and how to recognize un-health in relationships but I didn’t have 10 hours to speak, (I had one) so I had to figure out a way to trim it down. I landed on my 5 things that lead to an unhealthy relationship. I picked them because they are some of the most common ones I see among my clients as well as ones I have encountered personally.
According to the Gottman Institute a relationship that includes lots of criticism creates a very unsafe place for a relationship to survive. And by criticism I am referring to the expression of disapproval based off of perceived faults (yes just perceived). Gottman has discovered that there are four traits or qualities that will cause negative and unhealthy interactions in relationships, including criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. I picked criticism as my top one to focus on today because it is the most common one to pop up in my work with clients. Often there is some stonewalling or defensiveness but usually if people are really seeking help and treatment for their relationship they have learned to check those at the door. Criticism often comes up in different ways whether it’s criticizing someone’s cooking, their art, their body or intellect. Criticism is different than feedback. Feedback has an intention of being positive and helpful and is also requested when the relationship feels safe. Criticism can often feel like an insult and does not help a relationship grow or thrive. Criticism is often linked to rigid standards, perfectionism and shame inducing behavior. It ultimately creates an insecure attachment in relationships where there is no safety or authentic intimacy.
2. Physical, Verbal, Emotional, Sexual Abuse
I realize this one may sound like a no-brainer. Of course abuse is a sign of unhealthy relationships! But unfortunately knowing this and actually acting upon this knowledge and letting it change our relationship patterns is much easier said than done. According to the National Collation Against Domestic Violence 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. So this shows that it is extremely common to be in an abusive relationship and often it is just hard to perceive. The cycle of violence diagram here shows how power and control can be a catalyst for abuse. Often it is hard for people to come to terms with accepting and (then getting help) that they are in an abusive relationship especially if there is no physical damage. Emotional and verbal abuse should be taken seriously and will never lead to a healthy and safe relationship. Many who experience psychological and emotional abuse experience depression and PTSD. It was only in 1993 that marital rape was finally considered a crime in all 50 states (which is crazzzzzzy) and was put under a sexual offense code. So in a lot of ways, we are still learning and growing when it comes to understanding abuse and violence and how truly detrimental it is relationally.
3. Poorly Differentiated Self
Differentiation is a term used within Bowen Family Therapy. It’s a theory that does a lot of work focused around the family system or an emotional unit. Differentiation refers to the ability to separate feelings and thinking. It is a process of self-definition and self-regulation. In life, we are constantly learning to balancing between togetherness and individuality, both of which can be tricky to do. So someone who is poorly differentiated may just become more and more like you the longer they date you for example. They may decide they like all your hobbies, your favorite colors and eat all the same foods you eat. Scott and I have a lot of similar beliefs and values and even some similar hobbies. But we also have some differences. He loves reading fantasy fiction and I have a difficult time engaging in that type of genre. He enjoys cooking but I think it’s stressful and annoying. I love staying up late and he is a major early bird. The fact that we are different in some areas is good, natural and normal. I don’t want to blend in to Scott and he doesn’t want to blend entirely into me. A person who is not secure in themself, relies on being the same in order to reduce anxiety. This comes up often in parent/child relationships as children become adults and learn how to interact with their parents from an authentic self. Things like having different politics, spiritual beliefs or even passions can cause the level of the anxiety in a family to increase. Bowen actually believes that “that people choose mates with equivalent levels of differentiation to their own. (We seek people at a similar level of development). Not surprisingly, then, the relatively undifferentiated person will select a spouse who is equally fused to his or her family of origin (equally sane or equally crazy)”
4. Inability To Say No
One of the top ways I can spot an unhealthy relationship in my office or even in my personal life is how someone responds to the word “no”. Unsafe relationships are characterized by having no boundaries and a fear of saying no. Within this context generally there is a controller in the relationship and a person who submits to the control. An easy way to spot this early on in the relationship is how a partner responds to someone’s sexual boundaries. If one person does not feel comfortable engaging sexually as soon as the other partner wants to this should be respected. If this boundary is pushed, mocked or ignored this is a red flag that there is little respect and an aversion to hearing “no.” With my clients I am constantly teaching them consent and what it means. Even little kids can come to understand their own personal boundaries or “bubbles” and begin practicing saying no. As Brené Brown says, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” In order to have a healthy relationship it is absolutely essential to be able to say no.
5. Not Communicating Wants and Needs
If there is one sign I can relate to struggling with most, this would be the one. I was in a very intense off and on relationship in my 20’s that seemed to embody this problem perfectly. Neither of us wanted to share what we wanted or needed. We were scared to be vulnerable and because of this we both tip toed around each other, guessing, hoping, mind reading and hoping that by some chance we’d figure each other out. Well since I don’t live in a chic flic this didn’t happen. (do you want to date a human or a mind-reader/psychic/fortune teller/someone magical from Harry Potter: you have to decide)
I can generally tell that a couple is devitalized by how able they are to express their personal wants and needs and desires (assuming of course they are not in an abusive relationship, now differentiated, able to say no). In our American culture we are so preoccupied with appearing independent, hard working and “pull yourself up by the boot straps” mentality that we struggle with asking for help. It often causes us to feel shame to need help but the reality is we all need help. We all thrive better together. Unfortunately the media and many romance novels, or romantic comedies have made it look like we should be pursuing a relationship in which our partner can read our mind (they just always know how I am thinking and feeling). This is not our reality. We each have different brain functions and neural pathways and it is our responsibility to communicate how we feel and want we want. Assuming someone else will do this for us is under-functioning and not empowering. My husband and I practice this regularly and I think it’s so valuable and lo and behold we have found we have different desires and even sometimes needs and it okay (the sky has not fallen yet)! But we both have experienced so much security knowing we are each other’s safe place to share our wants and needs with.