7 Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship

Wouldn’t it be cool to have a happiness meter that could measure your mental and emotional state? It could be an app on your smartwatch with a color indicator that lights up: blue for “all is well in my world;” pink for “I’m feeling incredibly loved right now;” yellow for “my anxiety’s ramping up;” and red for “Uh oh, I’m about to lose my cool!” (There probably is something like that, and I just don’t know it.)

The coolest part of a happiness meter is the self-awareness it creates. 

Why am I feeling this way? What happened to cause these feelings? What can I continue to do (or stop doing) to make these feelings continue (or go away)?

Imagine applying that awareness to your relationships. How many heartbreaks could be avoided because your happiness indicator spotted some flags early on?

How many divorces could be prevented because you immediately discussed problems with your spouse instead of letting them fester?

Relationships aren’t for the fainthearted. They take daily effort and require two (relatively) healthy, mature people willing to do the work.

And oh, how fun they can be when both people are fully vested!

But oh, how awful they can be when one or both aren’t.

Characteristics of an unhealthy relationship

How can you know?

In truth, you do have a happiness meter. It’s not an app; it’s internal. Your happiness meter goes off every time you interact with others. It’s telling you, over and over, how you feel in situations. Sometimes, though, a person’s happiness meter can become skewed. We can go through so much pain and trauma that we don’t know what’s “normal” or healthy anymore.

So, we second-guess ourselves. Or we expect to be treated poorly—it’s all we’ve known.
Let’s look at some unhealthy relationship traits:

1. Unreliability

For a relationship to work, both must believe that your partner will follow through with promises and commitments.

Do they do what they say they’re going to do?

Do they show up when promised?

Do they follow through with tasks?

Unreliable people can be great with their words but lousy with their actions. That leads to distrust. And, if you stay with them anyway because you want to believe that next time it will be better…that’s unhealthy.

2. Dishonesty

No one likes to be lied to. However, dishonesty can take many forms.

Is your partner ever vague about where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing?

Do they leave out key information when they’re telling you something?

Do they portray themselves one way, but act another?

Do they “forget” to tell you things that have significant implications?

Instead of just coming out with the truth, do they let you assume things that aren’t true?

Staying with someone who isn’t honest is lying…to yourself.

3. Control

Control is about fear.

We try to control because we fear what will happen if we’re “out of control.”

We might lose our partner. So, our insecurity turns into constant demands for attention.

Our partner might find someone better. So, our jealousy leads to possessiveness.

We keep tabs on our partner’s whereabouts. We make them “check in” periodically or bombard them with texts. We become demanding about who our partner can spend time with.

We become critical and sarcastic about everything our partner does. We use intimidation or ridicule to get what we want.

Controlling people often mask their fear in anger. They blame others for their anger and guilt their partner into compliance.

If you struggle with control, figure out what you fear and why. If you’re with a controller, find out what your partner fears. The control won’t stop until the fear is dealt with.

4. Dependence

Sometimes, we stay in a relationship because we’ve formed an unhealthy attachment to our partner. We’ve become dependent on them for our happiness. We tell ourselves things like:

“I can’t live without this person.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without them.”


“This person needs me. Their happiness is my responsibility.”

That leads to us putting up with bad behaviors. We excuse away our partner’s emotional bullying or manipulation. We become responsible for their well-being. We obsess about them. We don’t know where we end, and our partner begins. In other words, no boundaries.

5. Abdicating or deflecting responsibility

Not everything is your fault. Not everything is your partner’s fault.

The most refreshing thing we can bring to a healthy relationship is our willingness to say, “Yeah, I did that. It wasn’t good. I wish I could take it back, and I’m working on changing.”

Instead, we “Yes, but…”

“Yes, I did that. But I wouldn’t have if you hadn’t…”

“It’s not really my fault that I said/did that. It’s the fault of…”

“If you wouldn’t be so…then I wouldn’t be so…”

What would happen if we just STOPPED?

Stopped playing the victim. Stopped making excuses. And instead, started admitting that we all screw up.

What would change in your relationship?

6. Rollercoaster Emotions

When you or your partner’s emotions are unpredictable, the relationship can feel very unsafe.

Are you experiencing any of these?

  • Overreactions to the most minor things
  • Constant defensiveness and arguing
  • Extreme mood swings

No one wants to tiptoe around their partner, wondering what might set them off. It’s confusing and scary. It makes us want to hide things from our partner that we would otherwise share, to avoid anger or interrogation.

7. Abuse and Violence

Abuse and violence (or the threat of it) are inexcusable in any relationship. We tend to think of physical and sexual abuse first, but there are other ways to be abused:

  • Verbal – name-calling, put-downs, using profanity to demean or control.
  • Emotional – stonewalling, intimidation, manipulation, humiliation (public or private), condescension.
  • Mental – unreasonable expectations or demands, constant criticism, gaslighting.
  • Financial – lying about money, withholding or controlling money, refusing to pay bills, stealing.

What to do when it’s unhealthy

Okay, maybe your happiness meter is at an all-time low now because you’ve spotted some seriously unhealthy things about your relationship.

If that’s true, it doesn’t mean you have to walk away.

Not yet.

The most important thing to do at this point is to evaluate the relationship.

Just how unhealthy is it?

In what ways is it unhealthy?

And, how long have these unhealthy behaviors been a part of your life?

It’s a good idea to get an outside perspective when you do this. Either someone who knows you both well and will give you honest, non-biased feedback. Or a professional therapist or relationship coach—someone trained to spot what you’re unaware of.

Part of this evaluation is being honest with yourself about your part. How much of the “unhealthiness” are you responsible for?

Remember, staying and putting up with things that aren’t okay indicates that you aren’t in the best mental or emotional place either.

Next, have a heart-to-heart with your partner. Let them know how you feel. Invite them to work with you on the relationship. But, even if they refuse, you can. Many relationships have been changed because one person was willing to commit to change. Over time, those changes can become the catalyst for your partner to seek help.

When is it time to leave?

There are two types of separation.

One can lead to reconciliation. The other does not.

In the first type, one or both of you realize that your relationship has become so hurtful that staying together will only be more damaging. You don’t know how to change that, but you’re willing to try. So, you get help. You seek professional guidance to learn why things are unhealthy, and what to do about it. You begin applying that new understanding to the relationship. Eventually, as changes occur, you can come together again.

The second type of separation occurs when someone has decided they’re done but doesn’t know how to end things. They may want to avoid hurting their partner’s feelings, or they’re concerned about others’ opinions. The longer you’ve been together, the more complicated separating becomes, which can also factor into this.

If you’re married, there can be a stigma attached to divorce that makes you think you have to try, even though you don’t want to. So, you go through the motions, but your heart really isn’t in it. It’s like you’ve turned off a switch in your brain. Your partner might be hoping for reconciliation, but you’re just waiting for the moment to say, “This isn’t working. I’m done.”

The decision to try is based on many things. It’s not a black-and-white decision. Only you know whether there’s something salvageable or not—whether you stand to lose more by leaving than staying.
I know from many years of experience that results happen when two people commit to trying. It may take longer than you want. It may be harder than you expect. But eventually, with combined effort, your happiness meter can rise.

And if you decide to permanently leave, for your well-being and your children’s, you will go through a transition period that may seem harder than anything you’ve ever experienced. But in time, you too can find happiness (and healthiness) again.

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