Signs That You’re In an Unhealthy Relationship

Signs of an unhealthy relationship

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Unhealthy relationships can have a significant detrimental impact on your health, happiness, and overall well-being. The problem is that while some relationships are clearly toxic or even abusive, other unhealthy relationship patterns can be much more subtle and difficult to recognize. 

While no relationship is perfect, it is important to be able to recognize the signs of an unhealthy relationship and know what to do to either change it or end it. 

This article discusses some of the common characteristics of unhealthy relationships and how to recognize if you are in one. It also covers steps you can take to make your relationship healthier and when to seek professional help.

Common Characteristics of Unhealthy Relationships

Every relationship is different and may change over time. There are some important qualities that tend to characterize unhealthy relationships.

Relationships that are marked by these dynamics and problems tend to contribute to more tension, conflict, and stress. This can apply to romantic relationships, but other types of relationships can be affected by unhealthy patterns as well, including your relationships with family members, friends, and coworkers.

Control

In unhealthy relationships, one person may try to control the other person's life. This may be done through intimidation, but it can also involve other types of manipulation.

Sometimes the person may engage in behaviors that seem extremely affectionate and loving. In reality, these actions are designed to keep tabs on the other individual and prevent them from doing things or going places where they are outside of the other person's control.

Controlling behavior can also involve isolating a person from their friends and family. It can also mean cutting off communication, cutting off access to finances, or making it difficult to leave the situation.

Control may also take the form of possessiveness and jealousy. While both of these are normal human emotions that people may experience from time to time, they are unhealthy when someone is trying to control what you do, when they lash out at you when they become upset, or when they accuse you of infidelity.

Lack of Trust

Unhealthy relationships are often marked by a lack of trust. You might feel like you have to hide things from your partner, or you might often feel like they are hiding things from you. 

In order to develop healthy trust, both people in a relationship have to engage in mutual, reciprocal self-disclosure. This involves revealing things about yourself over time as the relationship deepens and grows. The process of sharing and listening contributes to feelings of emotional intimacy and closeness. But if you feel like you cannot trust the other person with your innermost feelings, you're not likely to tell them your feeling, thoughts, or memories.

How trusting you and your partner are may be shaped, in part, by your overall attachment style. These patterns of behavior are often established in childhood based on interactions and experiences with caregivers, but they continue to shape how you respond in romantic relationships in adulthood.

If you have a history of not being able to depend on the people you should be able to trust the most, you may find it difficult to trust your romantic partners.

Disrespect

Disrespect can take a variety of forms in unhealthy relationships. Sometimes it might mean someone being dismissive of the other person. In other cases, it can involve outright ridiculing or making fun of the opinions or interests of the other person.

This disrespect can often feel like rejection, which can lead to a range of emotions including hurt feelings, shame, guilt, loneliness, embarrassment, and social anxiety.

Poor Communication

Good communication is a cornerstone of any healthy relationship. Unhealthy relationships are often marked by patterns of ineffective communication. This might involve not talking about problems, avoiding difficult issues, expecting the other person to be a mind reader, not listening, getting defensive, or stonewalling in order to avoid confronting problems in the relationship. 

Communication style has been shown to be a key predictor of divorce and has more of an impact than commitment, stress, and personality when it comes to marital success.

Recap

Some of the common characteristics that are often seen in unhealthy relationships include controlling behaviors, mistrust, disrespect, and poor communication.

Signs You're In an Unhealthy Relationship

Relationships often grow, change, shift, and sometimes fall apart over time. A relationship might be mostly healthy when things are going well, but the addition of stressors can create strain. People may respond by falling back on unhealthy coping mechanisms or by engaging in behaviors that are ultimately harmful to the health of their relationships.

Unhealthy relationships are often characterized by:

  • Betrayal
  • Blame
  • Bullying
  • Control
  • Disrespect
  • Dishonesty
  • Drama
  • Emotional abuse
  • Fear
  • Financial dishonesty or abuse
  • Gaslighting
  • Guilt
  • Hostility
  • Intimidation 
  • Isolation
  • Jealousy
  • Loneliness
  • Negativity
  • Physical abuse
  • Poor communication
  • Ridicule
  • Stress
  • Unhappiness
  • Verbal abuse

In an unhealthy relationship, you might feel like you always have to walk on eggshells around the other person. Or you might feel like you always have to hide what you really think or feel. You might even feel like you have to give up the things that you really want in order to keep the other person happy.

Another sign of an unhealthy relationship is the feeling that things are imbalanced. One-sided relationships are those in which one person invests more effort, energy, and emotion in maintaining the relationship. Such relationships can be unhealthy and often leave the person who is doing all the work feeling unsupported, isolated, and drained.

Sometimes unhealthy behaviors can emerge during times of extreme stress. In other cases, persistent patterns of unhealthy behaviors may worsen over time or emerge during different stages of a relationship.

In some cases, these issues can be addressed using self-help strategies or with the help of a mental health professional. But if your relationship is affected by abuse, whether it is physical, verbal, or sexual, your primary concern should be to ensure your safety.

Recap

Unhealthy patterns can sometimes emerge during times of stress or conflict. While these are often temporary, more persistent unhealthy patterns indicate that something needs to change or that the relationship may be headed toward its demise.

How to Change an Unhealthy Relationship

The social connection and support that relationships provide are essential for both physical and emotional health. Studies have found that healthy relationships can affect your life in positive ways, including lowering your risk of dying and protecting you from loneliness and isolation.

Because good relationships are so essential for your well-being, it is essential to take steps to protect yourself from those that have the potential to damage your health. If you believe that you are in an unhealthy relationship, it is important to take steps to fix the problem.  

Change is possible if both people are committed to addressing the problems and are open to making a change.

Decide if the Relationship Is Fixable

The first step is to decide whether or not the unhealthy relationship can be repaired. In order to heal the damage and move forward in a way that is healthy for both people involved,  it is necessary to make sure that both parties are willing to participate in making the relationship work. When one person is unwilling to change their unhealthy behavior, the relationship is likely not savable. 

Maintain Interdependence

Healthy relationships encourage interdependence instead of codependence. People who are interdependent understand the benefits of being able to turn to their partner when they need support, and they recognize the value and importance of supporting their partner. At the same time, they are able to maintain their own sense of self outside of their partner and their relationship with one another. 

When both people in a relationship strive for interdependence, they are able to strike a balance where they are able to offer emotional intimacy and support their partner's needs while not becoming dependent on the other person.

Build a Healthy Connection

Building a healthy connection with the other person is a key step toward overcoming an unhealthy relationship. Once you've recognized the unhealthy or toxic patterns that have been detrimental to your relationship, it is important to work together to overcome them and build a healthier, more supportive connection, you can do this by taking the following steps.

  1. Work together to recognize and avoid unhealthy patterns within your relationship. The first step toward building a healthy emotional connection is recognizing the problematic patterns that have been an issue for you both or any destructive behavior that has led you to this point of disconnection.
  2. List the emotional needs that are important to you. You cannot expect your partner to fulfill emotional needs that you do not make clear to them, so it is essential to communicate these emotional goals for your relationship in order for there to be real emotional understanding and emotional connection between you both.
  3. Offer emotional support to your partner. In order for an emotional connection to be established between you and the other person, both of you should be willing to offer emotional support in a positive manner that is free from guilt or manipulation.
  4. Listen actively when your partner speaks. Verbal communication is an important part of emotional connection, so make sure you are supportive and foster these connections through meaningful conversation that demonstrates emotional interest, understanding, and support.
  5. Avoid emotional manipulation. It is important not to use the emotional connection as a way of manipulating the other person into doing something they do not want to do, this will only damage your relationship further and reduce the emotional connection between you both.

Other strategies that can help:

  • Maintain healthy boundaries
  • Have personal goals and continue pursuing them
  • Avoid minimizing yourself to please other people
  • Focus on being your authentic self
  • Spend time learning about what you like and what's important to you
  • Expect others to treat you with respect and show respect for them
  • Maintain your relationships with other people outside of the relationship

Recap

There are steps you can take to address unhealthy patterns in a relationship. If you decide the relationship can be saved, look for ways to build a healthy emotional connection while maintaining interdependence.

When to Seek Help

There are things that you can do on your own to strengthen your relationship, but sometimes you might benefit from reaching out to a mental health professional for help.

Couples therapy can help address both individual and mutual issues that might exist in a relationship. For example, a therapist can help treat underlying mental health conditions that might be having a negative impact on how people relate to one another in a relationship. 

A therapist can also help in cases where people have different expectations of what they hope to get out of a relationship. For example, in unhealthy one-sided relationships, one person might be carrying more of the work because they are more committed while the other person is less invested.

A mental health professional can also help couples work on unhealthy communication skills that can be creating toxicity and conflict in the relationship. A therapist can also help each person develop and practice skills that can help them deal with conflict more effectively.

Avoiding conflict is not possible or even advisable—even healthy relationships experience disagreement and conflict. The key is knowing how to handle it effectively. When handled well, it allows people to address problems and make changes that are ultimately good for the health of the relationship.

Recap

Therapy can be helpful if you are in an unhealthy relationship. A therapist can help you work on individual issues and aid you in learning new coping and communication skills. Therapy may be most beneficial when both people are willing to participate and are committed to making a change.

When to End an Unhealthy Relationship

Not every relationship is worth saving. If you’ve done your part but the other person is not willing to change or help, it may be time to walk away and invest your effort in healthier, more supportive relationships with other people.

If the other person has no interest in changing or if the situation involves abuse in any form, ending the relationship is often the best way to protect your well-being.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

All relationships are different and not one of them is perfect 100% of the time. Everyone has days where they feel irritable, short-tempered, or exhausted, and it is understandable that those feelings sometimes spill over into their relationships.

But it is important to remind yourself that you deserve to have a relationship where you feel healthy, supported, and happy. You deserve to have relationships with people who support you and your interests.

If you suspect that you might be involved in an unhealthy relationship, spend some time considering the impact it has on your life, whether these issues can be fixed, and whether it might be time to end the relationship.

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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.