Most likely, you can already spot the blatantly obvious signs of an unhealthy relationship—a partner manipulating you, trying to isolate you from friends or family, constantly gaslighting you, making you question your own reality, or putting you down regularly. (In fact, these are signs of an abusive relationship.) But what if you’re in a relationship that isn’t necessarily abusive but may be bordering on unhealthy? While many of us desire long-lasting and healthy partnerships, few of us receive education on how to actually be in one. Consider these seven subtle signs that you may be engaging in an unhealthy relationship—and how to course-correct:
If you start dropping your friends like a hot potato, ditching family events, or skipping out of work early just to be with your partner more, you may be veering into unhealthy relationship territory. While it’s understandable to feel excited about spending time with your partner, things can get sticky when you find yourself sacrificing important parts of your life just to be together.One of the most important aspects of a healthy relationship is maintaining separate identities, friend circles, and hobbies—while also finding areas of your lives that overlap. It’s important to give each other space not just to have other aspects of your life you enjoy, but also to allow space to miss each other. Though it may feel counterintuitive, poet Khalil Gibran says it best:
“Let there be spaces in your togetherness.”
Picture this: you tell your partner that you want to spend some time alone catching up on your book club selection, but they show up at your house with pizza—unannounced—in the name of “surprising you.” On the surface, it may seem like a thoughtful gesture, but in reality, they’re not honoring the boundary you set for them or the intention you set for yourself. If this is happening often, it’s definitely a red flag. In a healthy relationship, each partner respects the other’s time and space. This doesn’t mean that you don’t want to see each other, but that you are two people cheering each other on to do the things that make you feel whole.
As a therapist, I know to be on alert and gently caution my client on the person they’re dating when they say, “It’s crazy…it’s like we are the same exact person!” While it may be appealing that someone “gets you” like no other, being too similar doesn’t make you compatible; in fact, it may mean there isn’t enough balance in your relationship dynamic. In healthy relationships, one person is meant to complement the other. According to relationship researcher John Gottman, simply having shared interests isn’t always the secret sauce to compatibility. And for those with shared trauma experiences, you will want to be careful that you aren’t building a relationship together with your hardship as the fulcrum of your connection (otherwise known in psychology as a “trauma bond”). Because humans have an innate desire to feel seen and heard (which often wasn’t met in childhood), being in a trauma bond can feel like a high. However, building a connection based on trauma is like trying to build a house on a fault line—it’s just a matter of time before the entire foundation crumbles.
Sparks are flying. You meet eyes for the first time, and you feel like your souls have known each other forever. You are instantly enamored with this person. There is no witty banter or asking each other to “have this dance”—you go from eyes locking to complete entanglement in, as Rihanna would say, “0 to 60 in 3.5.” And after just a week, you are already spending every night together and sharing all of the intimate details of your lives.While Hollywood rom-coms sell the idea that this sort of connection typifies “true love,” it’s quite dysfunctional in reality. In an unhealthy relationship, it can be easy to lose yourself in lust and not allow the slow burn of really getting to know each other. In fact, it takes a significant amount of time to know and witness the ins and outs of someone. If you find yourself going down a relationship rabbit hole in record time, be sure to ground yourself in the things that make you you and set appropriate boundaries to allow time for yourself.
How many times did we have sex this week? How many times did we see each other? How many “real dates” did we go on in public? How many months has it been since we became official? All of these scorecards may fool you into thinking that these are the benchmarks of a healthy relationship, but they don’t necessarily translate to secure, true love. Each of these elements varies by couple and should be based on what makes you both feel good. Who is anyone to judge if you are both completely satisfied with having sex twice a month? Ditch the numbers and focus on what matters to both of you—and consider doing some self-reflection to understand why you’re measuring your relationships in this manner.
Is your relationship stable and even-keeled, or filled with constant ups and downs? Arguments and disagreements are normal, but in healthy relationships, they don’t reach the point of threatening the relationship, being aggressive, or not speaking to each other for days on end. Yet often this “stability” can be mistaken for “boredom” and “lack of spark.” In reality, the feeling of boredom activates the parasympathetic nervous system—meaning your brain sends messages to the rest of your body saying it’s safe to relax. But if you were used to a family member having extreme moods in your childhood, these up-and-down relationships will feel like home to you. However, they aren’t sustainable for you (or your nervous system!) in the long run.
Are there dealbreakers at play in your relationship? This can be anything from wanting/not wanting to have children, smoking, differences in lifestyle, or differences in emotional maturity. If you are waiting for your partner to change or to want the same things you desire, be ready to wait a long time or be on the receiving end of resentment. Healthy relationships accept the other person exactly as they are, today—not the promise of what they could be in the future. If you’re feeling this way, be sure to ask yourself if you can accept your partner for who they are in this moment, rather than in the long run.Here’s the good news: If you’re experiencing any of these signs in your relationship, all hope isn’t lost. Counseling and/or coaching can help you become more conscious of what’s underneath your unhealthy dynamic—allowing you to work on your relationship and move the needle into healthier territory.