What Constitutes an Unhealthy Relationship?
Discover what makes a relationship unhealthy and the impact an unhealthy relationship has on a person.
Relationships are something we have from the moment we are born until we die. Healthy or unhealthy, our relationships begin with our parents, families, schoolmates, friends and so on. Every one of these relationships can help us, enrich us, and make us better people as well as simply give us joy. Unhealthy relationships rarely promote any of these feelings.
Unhealthy relationships can leave us feeling uncomfortable, sad and afraid. It is very difficult for people to let the realization set in that perhaps a friend, co-worker or family member isn't treating them well or respectful, as they should be. It can be even more difficult when the person treating them this way is a lover.
This doesn't mean if someone treats you badly or you have a disagreement that the relationship is automatically unhealthy. Disagreements happen in healthy relationships all the time. Most often what makes a relationship healthy is the need and the act of compromising when disagreements occur.
The unhealthy relationship is marred by a need to control one or the other. When arguments happen, a person is always made to feel bad about themselves; when ridicule and name-calling is the norm. When one party dictates how the other is to dress, to think and to feel, when time is not made for them or their friends. When fear of that person's temper discourages relationships or closeness to other people. In a relationship where one party or the other uses physical, verbal or emotional harm to force cooperation and obedience is not healthy. None of these are healthy signs in a relationship.
Fear, grief and rage are not and should not be a regular part of any relationship. Yes, people will get angry and sad through the normal course of things, but when it is constant and it achieves a level of 'abuse' - the relationship isn't healthy.
Abuse doesn't have to be physical, although when people consider abuse they think of the bruises and the injuries. Mental and emotional abuse is far crueler, leaves much deeper wounds and is not always visible. For example, Michael and Jane are dating. Michael pursued Jane vigorously even while she was involved with another man. He pleaded with her on bended knee to take him into her life. Persuaded, Jane finally did so. At first, everything is great and they share a lot of activities, but he is always the one who decides where they will go, what they will do and when they will do it. She doesn't mind because she enjoys the attention. If she offers a suggestion, he is quick to denigrate the idea or to scoff at it. He will most often refuse her suggestions outright because he's already made plans whether she knew about them or not. Jane knows he does these things because he cares for her, he tells her this all the time, but Jane is afraid to make any plans unless she hears from him first because he will get upset.
This is a very true example; it's a situation that grew worse and worse until most of Jane's friends never saw Jane anymore. Her family rarely saw her at all without Michael and only when Michael decided that it was time to visit with them. Her friends were appalled to discover that for many weeks, Michael 'broke up' with Jane and yet, he never let her move on because he kept saying that he really did love
her and that eventually they would get back together. Michael used to make Jane feel awful if she wanted to make her own plans or did anything that didn't include him. He made her feel stupid if she sat around and waited for him to call all evening even when he had no intentions of doing so. Michael and Jane shared a very unhealthy relationship and it took many, many months for her to even admit to anyone her upset much less share what was happening. In doing so, Jane opened a door to a way out, but spent another several months incapacitated by guilt because she wanted to be out.
Michael didn't hit Jane. He never left a physical mark on her. But his moods, whims and way with words kept her under his thumb. When confronted by worried friends with proof of Michael's infidelities and other relationships, Jane still couldn't end the relationship because Michael told her it was all lies - that the women meant nothing to him and she was being misled by her family and friends. As hard as it is for some people to believe, Jane believed him.
Unhealthy relationships are a dangerous thing because they don't have to be gritty, dirty and filled with physical punches to scar the people who get caught up in them. Michael and Jane's example is only one, there are literally dozens of others and for those who have never had the misfortune to find themselves in a bad relationship it is very difficult to comprehend why anyone would stay in it.
The reasons why these relationships persist aren't just about the manipulative power of the other party, but the innate desire we all have for emotional closeness to others. We want to be loved. We want to feel close. Even when we are afraid of what it is - we still want it to love us.
Last Updated: 30 May 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD