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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
If you liked this article, you can watch Thomas Fiffer talk about all 7 Deadly Signs on YouTube.
A collection of Thomas G. Fiffer’s articles for The Good Men Project on dysfunctional relationships is available on Amazon in his book, Why It Can’t Work: Detaching From Dysfunctional Relationships to Make Room for True Love.