The 7 Deadly Signs of a Dysfunctional Relationship

Seven Deadly Signs by moreau henri

How to recognize the signs of a rotten relationship—before it’s too late.

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Relationship hell is the worst, right? For anyone who’s been there—and I know I’m not alone—there’s nothing more heartbreaking than the sickening feeling of something warm growing cold, something sweet going sour, something compassionate turning contemptuous, something supportive becoming destructive, and your source of love and healing becoming the cause of toxic damage. Suddenly, what seemed to be working so well is not, like the shiny car you drive off the dealer’s lot that collapses down the road in a heap of broken parts. “But I was just in heaven,” you say. “How did I get to this infernal place?”

You know, that feeling of, “Oh my God, I’m so lucky. I’ve actually found the perfect partner who loves everything about me—and thinks I have no faults at all!”

Some relationships are troubled from the start—and we know it. But the deeply dysfunctional ones, the ones we get subtly and unwittingly enmeshed in that have the potential to shatter our lives, tend to start off smoothly and are often dreamy at the beginning. You know, that feeling of, “Oh my God, I’m so lucky. I’ve actually found the perfect partner who loves everything about me—and thinks I have no faults at all!” When this happens, watch out. You’re so head-over-heels in love that you may fail to see the warning signs—some small like a pebble in your shoe that you dismiss as minor, some glaring like giant red flags flapping in the wind that you blissfully ignore—that you’re strapping yourself into a demonic roller coaster for a life-threatening ride.

The up stretch of the roller coaster feels great, and then … whoa! … the bottom drops out and you’re in free fall. There’s screaming all right, but it’s not from excitement. It’s the angry shrieks of you and your partner fighting with the same passionate intensity you brought to your romance. After a while, the ups and downs become so tortuous and harrowing that all you want is a slow, straight, comfortable journey. All you crave … is peace.

 ♦◊♦

Here are my seven deadly signs of dysfunction—drawn from experience—that set in fairly quickly after the honeymoon is over. Dysfunctional relationships have the distressing tendency to grow more and more difficult to escape as they progress, and we adopt and ultimately become invested in maintaining increasingly unhealthy coping mechanisms to survive. Recognizing these seven signs when they start happening can save you from worlds of hurt and help you make an early exit from a relationship you will later regret.

 ♦◊♦

The two of you go at it like boxers in the ring, but there’s no final bell and no decision, not even a TKO.

1. Tedium: You have the same argument over and over again and never resolve it. This is perhaps the most obvious sign that something is wrong. Communication stops working. Agreement on almost anything becomes impossible. You each have different versions of reality, and they collide with the force of a supersonic jet smashing into a nuclear-powered forcefield. Things you did two weeks or two months or even two years ago get endlessly rehashed—from failing to take the garbage out if you live together to not remembering the first anniversary of your second date. And there’s no end to it. The two of you go at it like boxers in the ring, but there’s no final bell and no decision, not even a TKO. You just keep socking away at each other until one of you falls to the mat with no more strength to stand.

Dysfunctional partners avoid accountability like the plague. They twist and turn situations around, revise the narrative, edit out what doesn’t serve them, and even gaslight you.

2. Blame: Everything is always your fault. And I mean everything. Dysfunctional partners avoid accountability like the plague. They twist and turn situations around, revise the narrative, edit out what doesn’t serve them, and even gaslight you to make their unhappiness not only your fault but also your responsibility to fix. Unhappy childhood? You have to replace the love they didn’t get. Weak father or mother? You have to become the dragon slayer who rights all the wrongs—real or imagined—that have ever been done to them. Anger management issues? You just need to stop making your partner so upset—which means you have to stop drawing boundaries, speaking truth, expressing your feelings, and being yourself.

Forgot to make the morning coffee, or you were just too tired? You’re screwed. Made a date with a friend but didn’t put it on the calendar? You’re an insensitive bastard or bitch.

3. Guilt: You’re constantly apologizing, even for things you didn’t do. Keeping the peace requires you to suck it up—every single time. It becomes a joke, the way you take the fall for everything, but it’s not funny, and you begin to feel worthless and ashamed. Your partner’s angry reactions become justified, and the increasingly unreasonable demands become givens, with any resistance viewed as disloyalty and cause for character assassination. Forgot to make the morning coffee, or you were just too tired? You’re screwed. Made a date with a friend but didn’t put it on the calendar? You’re an insensitive bastard or bitch. Talked on the phone to the family member your partner hates? You’re in for a rough night. The words “I’m sorry” escape your lips so many times that you start your sentences with them, even when you know in your heart you haven’t done anything wrong.

You try to relax … but you’re living in constant, anxious terror of the next confrontation, and what’s worse, you have no idea what’s going to light the fuse of that bomb.

4. Tension: When things are good, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. My therapist used to encourage me to use the calm times to address the stuff that happened when things were crazy. I was always reluctant, because I wanted to enjoy the calm times and avoid starting a fight. The thing is, you can never truly enjoy the good periods when you’re in a dysfunctional relationship, because these often infrequent bright spots are inevitably darkened by fear of the bleakness and blackness you know is coming—no matter what you do to prevent it.  You try to relax when you’re not fighting, on a day when everything seems to go right, or during a conflict-free stretch of time accomplished by your sacrificing every principle, squashing your ego into a tight little ball, and stifling every instinct to scream, but you’re living in constant, anxious terror of the next confrontation, and what’s worse, you have no idea what’s going to light the fuse of that bomb.

You live on the edge, and you’re constantly monitoring your every move, your every word, your tone of voice … to ensure a welcoming reception.

5. Uncertainty: You never know who’s going to be there when you get home. One night, your partner is sweet, kind, and forgiving. The next, you can do no right. From the moment you walk in the door, the ogre is determined to make you feel like crap about yourself, chop you up in little pieces, serve you up for stew, then spit you out with disgust. You live on the edge, and you’re constantly monitoring your every move, your every word, your tone of voice, as well as taking preventive measures—sometimes involving extreme humbling, unwise spending, or both—to ensure a welcoming reception. You leave work undone and come home early. You spend half your paycheck on a piece of jewelry. Or you cook a favorite dinner, hoping all the plates and glasses won’t get smashed. Whatever you do, it’s a crapshoot, with even odds you’ll have the best sex of your life or wish you were living in a quiet monastery or convent as far away as possible from your partner.

Making decisions together is so hard because rationality gets thrown out the window. Your partner’s agenda flows from ego, insecurity, past hurts, and unhealthy needs.

6. Frustration: Getting even the simplest things done is hugely complicated. Despite your best efforts, you’re always butting heads and can’t work with your partner as a team. If you try to lead, you’re attacked. If you try to follow, you’re never doing enough of the scutwork. Making decisions together is so hard because rationality gets thrown out the window. Your partner’s agenda flows from ego, insecurity, past hurts, and unhealthy needs, while you’re a) trying to be practical, b) getting mocked for your suggestions, c) being told you suck at decision-making, and d) all of the above. What’s even worse is that you eventually give up on trying to make things happen with your partner and a) assume the burden yourself, b) invent unhealthy workarounds to get things done, c) fill with resentment over everything falling on your shoulders, or d) all of the above.

Never mind that you had happy, fulfilling friendships and relationships before this one. Your partner has already told you what was wrong with those friends and former lovers and probably tried to cut them all out of your life.

7. Hopelessness: You feel like there’s a dark cloud over your life that won’t go away—a permanent weather system that obscures the sun. This is the saddest feeling of all. You lose your optimism, your light, the spark that keeps you going. You feel oppressed, and even though you want to get out, you convince yourself that you can’t, that this is your fate, your lot in life, that you’re just meant to suffer. You start to drink the Koolaid that your partner is serving, the stuff about how you really were a pretty lousy person before you got together, and you’re being trained now in how to make someone happy. Never mind that you had happy, fulfilling friendships and relationships before this one. Your partner has already told you what was wrong with those friends and former lovers and probably tried to cut them all out of your life. Your mission—and there’s no choice but to accept it—is to sacrifice yourself to make a miserable person occasionally happy, to stand with your finger in the dyke until it rots from gangrene and falls off, to bear the unbearable, to sustain the unsustainable, and best of all—to like it, to enjoy it, to be grateful for the opportunity to be with such a demanding person who gives you so little in return.

♦◊♦

Does any of this strike a chord? Do any of these examples resonate? If the answer is yes, you’ve gotten yourself into a seriously dangerous situation that threatens your emotional security and leaves you vulnerable to leading a life of co-dependent enslavement. If any or all of these things are happening in your relationship, go get some help. Read some books about co-dependency, emotional abuse, and the types of mental health conditions—particularly narcissistic and borderline personality disorder—that enable dysfunctional relationships to thrive. Equally important, start believing in yourself, in what your heart tells you is right, healthy, and true. And don’t worry about betraying your partner or letting your partner down by telling someone—a friend, family member, or professional—what you’re experiencing. Most of all, take the following words to heart. Write them down or type them up and put them somewhere you will see them every day.

“Getting out is not giving up on someone when staying is giving up on yourself.”

 

Photo—Wikimedia Commons

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About Thomas G. Fiffer

Thomas G. Fiffer, Executive Editor at The Good Men Project, is a graduate of Yale and holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He posts regularly on his blog, Tom Aplomb, and serves as Editor of Westport's HamletHub, a local online news and information service. He is also a featured storyteller with MouseMuse Productions and is working on his first novel.

Comments

  1. “Which means you have to stop drawing boundaries, speaking truth, expressing your feelings, and being yourself…”

    Yup, this is the truth…walking on eggshells for several years was no fun…my ex seemed to idealize some fantasy girl who was silent and submissive….I broke away finally…but it is disheartening to see this kind of Stepford Wife transformation in some of my female friends, once they get married and start having kids…my GFs started out being outspoken and strong…then right before our very eyes, they changed….frightening, really…

    • Leia, It is a frightening transformation, and it is primarily fear—fear of rejection, fear of anger, fear of punishment—that causes it to occur.

    • Anonymous says:

      I know the feels. I got in a releationship with someone when I was unwell and in a state that I didnt mind being submissive and doing whatever my partner wanted. As I got better I became more my old self. He didn’t like that. I count myself lucky as I could have stayed in that reletionship and it would have become very dysfuncional. Luckily because of the way he treated me I stopped loving him. He worked this out and did not want to be with me. My gain really.

  2. What’s missing from this discussion is the kind of dysfunction that isn’t tyrannical but instead quietly sucks out your integrity and self-respect because there are NO fights or fireworks. This is the passive-death non-relationship in which every dissatisfaction you express is completely ignored or casually dismissed. Not with a bang but a whimper……….

  3. Holy crap. Every single sentence applied to my situation. Walking on eggshells. Constantly apologizing. Being attacked and snapped at for no reason, other than just being in the same room when he doesn’t want me there. There is nothing quite so painful as having to look into the eyes of someone who has no respect for you day in, day out, with no escape because everyone you know and love is on the other side of the country. It’s agonizing, and even more agonizing than staying, is leaving and knowing that our 1 year old’s world would be turned upside down. The following quote was an eye opener beyond belief. I thought it was simply my reality:

    “You start to drink the Koolaid that you’re partner is serving, the stuff about how you really were a pretty lousy person before you got together, and you’re being trained now in how to make someone happy. “

    • I was speaking my own truth when I wrote this, and it amazes me how similar that truth is and these dysfunctional patterns are for people who have lived in the same type of relationship. Walking on eggshells—yes, which is also the title of a terrific book. Constantly apologizing—yes. Being in the wrong place or the wrong room at the wrong time—yes. And when children have arrived, the calculus of leaving becomes more difficult and complex, weighed against the gravity of staying and exposing young ones to the toxic chemistry.

    • every single line was spot on with my life, I’m a success at work, nice home and car yet i’m i total mess on the inside due to the functioning alcoholic i’ve been married to for 26 years..I fucking hate my self for putting up with this and am working my way out

      • Moose, I know how you feel, and I also know you will put yourself and your life back together. Try to forgive yourself for allowing it. My therapist used to say, You made the best decisions you could with the information you had at the time. Here’s wishing you the best of luck.

  4. Sarah C. says:

    All 7 signs were present in my relationship with my exhusband, and it took me catching him in my bed with another woman to realize what a piece of crap he was. He even used me as the reason why he brought her home, because I wasn’t putting out enough. I am grateful I caught them, because it let me admit to myself that I wasn’t the one to blame (sign 2), and I could stop feeling guilty (sign 3) for not being able to be the wife he needed. Thank you for posting this, it really helps me heal when I read this.

    • Sarah, The image of your being blamed for the other woman in your bed is blood-curdling. No one could be the wife your ex-husband needed, no one who wanted to retain any self-esteem. I am glad you got out and that the words I’ve written here are helpful on your healing journey.

  5. Im a bare handful of months, a quarter,
    from initial steps out of a 17 yr 20-37
    cyclic blessed/burnt llove loathing and looking away
    That being facilitator to an unhealthy self image
    And ego transference junkie makes u a mirror of .

    Months out, im still not entirely me and dont know who i might or might not be, still here, unlike the spousal unit

  6. OMG, every word is true. I’m still stuck here but have been on the road to enlightenment now for a year. Why am I still here? Everything is my fault, we never had 1 good day together, I repressed her, blah, blah, blah. Over this past year I have had to find the person I buried to to be in this relationship and I’m still looking to find me. One step at a time…thank you for putting this into words, Thomas

    • One of the weapons used in these relationships is shame and can occur subtly and over a long period of time. Once I recognized that tactic it enabled me to to see even more of what was truly happening, to recognize that this might not be about me at all and to allow myself to say “I’m ok afterall…”

    • Tom, Your line: I have had to find the person I buried to be in this relationship—that’s exactly it. We bury ourselves and try so hard to be who and what someone else wants. And to your second comment, yes, shame is a powerful weapon that keep us from leaving or telling anyone what we’re suffering. One step at a time, and keep taking those steps.

  7. All very familiar. My wife does this weird thing when we argue and i reckon it must be indicative of personality disorder: she always says “if someone else were here listening to this they would agree with me”. Isnt that weird? – Invoking the support of a non-existent 3rd party that is the externalisation of the 1st party.
    sorry if duplicate, posting didnt seem to go up.

    • Ozza, The thing your wife does is weird but also typical. Another tactic is, “Other husbands” or “other wives” would do x, y, or z, or if you have children “other fathers” or “other mothers” do things differently. These comparisons are just meant to throw us off and make us question our own instincts and eventually our own sanity.

  8. Well-written and soooo true! Thank you for sharing.

  9. Richard says:

    Wow! All these points are so recognizable! Some where more prominent than others but all where there. Even after ending the relationship because I had lost “me” and my values and principles completely, I still try to figure out what I did wrong, missed, or should have done. Reading this confirms what I knew at some level: it wasn’t me. Thanks for that!

    • Richard, It surely wasn’t you. Your contribution was not being aware of what was happening, which most of us aren’t and which is why I wrote the article. We do lose ourselves, because after a while the other person takes control of our thoughts as we become afraid to think what we know is really true. It takes a huge dose of awareness to get help and ultimately get out.

  10. “You start to drink the Koolaid that you’re partner is serving”. That typo was even more painful than my last relationship!

    Interesting piece nonetheless. Thanks!

  11. B.E. Lucky says:

    My ex bro-in-law pointed me in this direction. We married sisters. My therapist helped me confirm this as I was healing from genetic depression, too. It is soooo encouraging to know that I am not alone, that there is hope & answers, and “newness” to life. I have been discovering who I am as a man after 24 yrs. of marriage with the last 8 just full of perpetual depression, suppression, and oppression. To everyone out there: THERE IS HOPE- ANSWERS- NEWNESS TO LIFE-HEALING-and ABOVE ALL “FREEDOM!!!” Thank You for this article is a God-send!

  12. You have given me some things to think about as, sadly, I recognize myself in some of your points. That’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m glad to have stumbled upon your piece. My husband will thank you (and I already do).

    • Kristen Mae, You’re welcome. We’re all guilty of dysfunctional behavior at one time or another and in varying degrees. We’re all wonderfully imperfect and wonderfully human. And we can deal with anomalies for the most part as they occur. Recognizing patterns is more difficult, because they don’t feel like patterns when we’re stuck in them, they just feel like life itself, and it usually takes an outsider to point them out. Your candid comment is heartening and will I hope be viewed by many as encouraging. Awareness, commitment, determination, and perseverance can lead to positive change.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Please read link and repost if you don’t mind, this mom really needs help.

    https://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/3v34/cassie-s-reunite-with-her-kids-after-domestic-violence-fund

  14. Please read link and repost if you don’t mind, this mom really needs help.

    https://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/3v34/cassie-s-reunite-with-her-kids-after-domestic-violence-fund

  15. Dina Strange says:

    Okay, great essay first of all but it’s missing something. Here is what its missing. Usually underneath all the issues is something. So there is a need for a partner to get to that issue and try with the help of the other to fix it. If the other refuses to fix it with you then GET OUT.

    With my ex boyfriend for 9 months i struggled with his flirting with other women….being selfish and narcissist, never communicating with me or even taking me out once a week for a 5 dollar sandwich. Okay…so after trying to understand whats the problem i realized that its all insecurity from his father but it was too late for me to do anything so i had to get out.

    Try to get to the bottom of the issue but if the person refuses to work with you on solving the issue, GET OUT.

    • Dina, You are correct that there is always an underlying cause for the dysfunctional behavior. And it is usually something from the past that the dysfunctional partner never addressed and put to rest. Often, the non-dysfunctional partner has a similar unresolved issue or behavior pattern in his or her background, and this can be an unconscious draw in the relationship. Regardless of the cause, the symptoms of disrespectful and abusive treatment have to be stopped, and simply revealing the cause does not in and of itself modify the behavior—that takes commitment and work. The underlying issue is also best handled by a qualified mental health professional, as the intimate relationship between the partners can serve as an obstruction to effective resolution.

  16. i wonder if these things are universal or more common in certain cultures, perhaps a sign of western malaise? I also wonder how many people read this and think – ‘yes that’s my partner!’ while their partner would think exactly the same of them – can these problems occur in mirror image or are they ‘induced’ by different types of weakness in the partner.

    • Ozza, That’s a great question. I would think some of the behavior patterns that relate to personality disorders such as borderline and narcissism are universal, but some of the way we relate to our partners is culturally conditioned and may be different in different cultures, particularly those where women are valued less and demeaned more than ours. And yes, some of the behaviors mirror and exist in both partners. The book I am working on develops the idea of the primary and secondary dysfunctional partner, meaning both partners are engaged in dysfunctional behavior, but one is more of the instigator and the other has developed unhealthy coping mechanisms around it.

      • Anonymous says:

        Thanks for the article! It’s weird, I both laugh and cry as a responce, now that I am free of it. My thought was that my x wthink that he was the victim. No wonder, our whole relationship was about he critisising and blaming me, and I always appologising, trying to make peace, no matter how far out and crazy his accusations were. I also sometimes lost it, when we had been out having a nice day, and on the way back home his hidden ice cold anger towards me because og things he claimed I had done socially, like licking my lips showing other men I wanted to have sex with them, would shine through. I thought we was doing well, so the disappointment would cause me to have a breakdown. So obviously in his eyes I was horrible and crazy.

        • Anonymous, You have a great perspective on it if you can laugh and cry. In retrospect, we can see how ridiculous and almost comical some of the behavior is, once we no longer have to experience the pain it causes.

  17. I can definitely relate to this article as both the abuser and the abused, desperately searching for love, belonging, and acceptance outside myself. Desperately looking for a loving parental type love that I did not receive from my addict parents. I can recall being curled up in the fetal position on the floor, rocking back and forth, as my boyfriend screamed at the top of his lungs. In that moment, I recognized that my fear of abandonment was stronger than my fear of being harmed by him. Fortunately, I found my way to an Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting where I read the “Laundry List” (14 Characteristics of an Adult Child). #12. “We are dependent personalities who are terrified of abandonment and will do anything to hold onto a relationship in order not to experience painful abandonment feelings which we received from living with sick people who were never there emotionally for us.”
    I was amazed at how I kept trying and trying to get love from my partner and felt so certain that if I just loved him better I could eventually open him up and create a lasting loving bond. It took along time to let go. I had to wean myself from an addictive relationship and slowly turn the focus away from “him” and “us” to “me”. I had to focus on learning to be with my intense feelings of abandonment and slowly learn to find true nourishment. I could not do this alone. I sought the help of a therapist trained in trauma recovery. I worked the 12 Steps of Adult Children of Alcoholics. I am finding what brings me joy and involvement. I am enjoying enduring community and sense of belonging. I am apprecciating mentors and guides in my live and building friendships. I am learning about attachment and bonding, reading, studying, and practicing loving myself and others. I am incredibly lucky that I have such a strong and resiliant spirit. We must ask ourselves why we stay in such dysfunctional relationships. I would encourage everyone to see the relationship as a mirror or our own consciousness and to see how we are just like our partner. One gift I was given was to write down a list of everything I disliked about my partner and then to tell how I was just like them. Humbling.

    • Deborah, Wow. You’ve added amazing insight to what I’ve written here. The question of why we stay is key, and your answer is on target: we also have a lot of emotional growing to do. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your journey of discovery in such compelling detail.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Sorry to tell you people who are in this relationship…but the person who you are involved with is suffering in some kind of mental illness…i.e. bipolar disorder..classic

    • Anonymous, That’s frequently the case. My purpose in identifying these as “dysfunctional” behaviors is to bypass the diagnosis and labeling—which many people resist—and shine light for readers on the unhealthy dynamics they’re experiencing. Next steps for both partners involved in one of these relationships usually include consulting mental health professionals.

  19. Hi Thomas – thanks for another great piece. A lot of this really resonated with me. I’m 5 years post abusive relationship, haven’t been in a relationship since then as the all round damage was so great, but I’m working on getting my mind free. The bit that really resonated(and made me think if only I had) was watching out for the little warning signs. I wish I had listened to those little warning signs, but I couldn’t at the time and so am learning to forgive myself (mostly) and move forward.

    • xs, You’re welcome. And yes, once you know what those warning signs mean, you watch out for them, but the first time around, we ignore them and allow ourselves to be taken in. Self-forgiveness is crucial, and I am glad you are in a better place.

  20. Anonymous says:

    OMG…it’s like reading my own words…about my own life! Here I am, sitting at my desk at work, waving my hands in the air while holding back tears. Thanks so much for letting me know I’m not alone!

  21. oaklander says:

    The symptoms of psychological abuse are difficult to discern because it develops over time in direct proportion to the erosion of self-esteem, confidence and feelings of self-worth. “The first mistake you make is ignoring your intuition.” No, it’s not in your head, no you’re not over reacting, no you’re not crazy, and no you’re not ‘just so lucky to be with someone patient enough to forgive your flaws.’ If you’ve said two or more of these things – repeatedly to yourself, you’re in a relationship with someone engaging in a pattern of crazy-making behavior. The reason this looks so familiar is because it’s text-book. Never be too ashamed or embarrassed to ask for support – the scariest thing to get over is the fear that no one will understand. But they will When you’re in a healthy partnership you never ask yourself these questions, in fact, you don’t think too much about the relationship at all because it’s effortless – the way an equitable, loving, healthy, “s/he celebrates my successes-is my biggest cheerleader-helps me grow to be a better version of me,” partnership

  22. It was the most amazing thing to read this. I just finished a dysfunctional relationship and just saw me in many of these words. I am heartbroken, because I really wanted it to work and I tried very hard, and we hurt each other so much that we broke everything that kept us together.

    • Ndcm, I know the feeling you describe and am sorry you went through that. But you can come out on the other side and find happiness in a supportive and sustaining relationship.

  23. Anonymous says:

    I see every one of these in my marriage. But in addition to self-health for both of us (I will always care about my spouse no matter the future… We’ve been through too much together), the huge concern is the gaggle of great young children we have. “Don’t stay in a bad relationship just for the children.” That’s a line heard often in history that was always about other relationships. “I’ll never be in that heartbreaking conundrum,” was always my view. But I am squarely in that spot today.

    At what point does one switch to “we can save this and the children will be better off” to “we should end this and the children will be better off”? I believe strongly in the structure of family but also believe both our parents were/are in co-dependent married relationships for life. And now multiple children of ours are in therapy of their own… the elephant in the room has now arrived for me that none of the therapists have touched on… Could the marriage be the underlying issue affecting the emotional well-being of the children? Of course it could and probably is at least a certain factor.

    • For me it is about what parents model for the children. If the dynamic they grow up in involves constant conflict, a weakened male figure, or an abused woman, children are not seeing and learning what a healthy relationship is about. Families with two parents are not necessarily intact, and families that are split are not necessarily broken.

  24. Jonathan says:

    Yes, I agree to all of this, but what are you to do when you see your partner is internally suffering and you have a little one in the mix? I want to get help. She wants to be left alone, but simply because she does not knoe what to do. In the end, I see light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s as if she’s caught within her own limitations, be them emotionally- or neurologically-based.

    • Jonathan, The greatest threat to a child, in my opinion, is a psychologically unhealthy parent. I believe it behooves us to try to get our partner help, and if the help doesn’t work or isn’t well-received, we need to move on and protect our children.

  25. I dated a narcissistic person for many years but where I was at emotionally played into my being there and the way things were. He’s now in therapy and dating someone else and while it’s not perfect, it definitely seems to be better. I wouldn’t characterize him as a “toxic person” – but rather someone where our defects at the time came together in a bad way, and where he was not a good match with me.
    Why not a next article on, how to work on yourself so that you feel you deserve a good relationship or so that you can accept being treated well?
    I guess I’m just tired of articles that seem to entirely blame the other person, or to say that your only mistake was staying with the person (and not other issues one might have about allowing or craving certain dynamics). It’s uncharacteristic of Good Men Project to do that – this space usually looks at the good in others and how we play into dynamics that involve us.

    • none, I hope this article doesn’t place the blame on only one partner. Dysfunctional relationships are dances, and the book I’m working on addresses each partner’s contribution. I like the idea of an article on how to prepare yourself for a healthy relationship. Another one I wrote recently, “How to Court a Good Man,” leans in that direction.

  26. Why is there no way or suggestion on how to save the relationship when it starts going wrong? Why is it just a sort of “count your losses” and quick? People are not disposable. It seems to me, that as true as the situations in this article are, it assumes a fatalistic view. There is no help, no hope and you must leave? Is that today’s answer to everything? Relationship are hardwork, not fairytale, why are we advising people on quitting instead of both parts getting help and try to make things work?

    • Jesus, I am all for trying to save relationships that can be saved, and people experiencing these dynamics can and should seek individual and marital counseling. Unfortunately, by the time a relationship manifests several or all of these signs, it is usually too late, as interaction has become toxic and damaging, and staying results in more hurt than healing.

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  1. […] How to recognize the signs of a rotten relationship—before it's too late.How to recognize the signs of a rotten relationship—before it’s too late.___Relationship hell is the worst, right? For anyone who’s been there—and I know I’m not alone—there’s nothing more heartbreaking than the sickening feeling of something warm growing cold, something sweet going sour, something compassionate turning contemptuous, something supportive becoming destructive, and your source of love and healing becoming the cause of toxic damage. Suddenly, what seemed to be working so well is not, like the shiny car you drive off the dealer’s lot that collapses down the road in a heap of broken parts. “But I was just in heaven,” you say. “How did I get to this infernal place?”  […]

  2. […] How to recognize the signs of a rotten relationship—before it’s too late. […]

  3. […] I’ve been holding out on you. When I wrote The 7 Deadly Signs of a Dysfunctional Relationship, I left out the eighth: emotional withholding. A reader pointed this out in a haunting comment. […]

  4. […] my heart broke open at the overwhelming response to my post titled The 7 Deadly Signs of a Dysfunctional Relationship. I knew I had lived with these and that my descriptions were on target, but I had no idea my words […]

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