Relationships are something I see many clients for in my practice- individually and as couples. More often people are reporting many unhealthy aspects of their relationships. Some are well aware of it, while others may not be. I thought I would talk about some of the signs of unhealthy relationships here- specifically, enmeshed relationships. I’m not talking about relationships that are necessarily abusive (verbally, emotionally, physically, or sexually)- but relationships of an intense, addictive, or dependent nature.
Being a psychologist and somewhat of an expert on human development and healthy relationships, I wanted to discuss some common factors I regularly observe. Alone, or more often in combination, these things suggest that a relationship is problematic. A healthy life is balanced, where you spend enough time in different areas (at work or in school; with a partner; with family; with friends; doing hobbies; and so on) to feel happy and fulfilled. And thus, a healthy relationship is one where you are with another person, but you have the space (and support) to continue to grow as an individual as well.
Certainly there are more, but here are 10 signs to consider (in no particular order):
1.You or your partner have no friends of your own (or they were kicked to the curb at some point in the relationship).
If you or your partner had no friends before getting together, or if either of you did, but you no longer spend time with them or don’t consider them friends (usually due to being constantly together), this suggests something may be missing from your lives. It is healthy to maintain friendships, or to have some friends apart from mutual friends or those of your partner. If you meet someone who has no friends or who says he or she doesn’t need any, I would ask myself why.
2.Your or your partner have no hobbies or interests (or these became less important or fell by the wayside at some point in the relationship).
Most of us want to be stimulated through talking to and spending time with people we find interesting. I think hobbies and areas of interest certainly add to a person’s personality, and make a person seem like someone we might want to be around- whether or not we’re into those same things. If you’re in a relationship with someone who has no interests, their only interest may be you- which would make it hard to spend any time doing the things you like. You might also come to regard the person as boring, without much to talk about.
3.It is assumed that you will be together 24/7 (and forever).
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder”. Ever heard that before? I need not say more (but I will). Healthy relationships aren’t only balanced, with time spent doing other things too, but when you’re not with someone 24/7, you have the chance to miss each other. It’s kind of nice to anticipate your next date or time you will hang out, right? On the other hand, when it’s predictable, this can get boring. And if it’s expected that you will always be together, you may feel resentful or guilty for seeking alone time or time with friends or family. And is there frequently talk of being together “forever”? When you’re not married or in a long-term (multiple year) relationship, it’s nice to talk about being together “forever”, but ultimately it takes both parties to determine that. In high school or college it’s cute to say that, but probably not constantly.
4.Your happiness is entirely based on the other’s.
This one is very important. If you are in a relationship with someone, you certainly play a role in their happiness. But- you need to think of your own as well. If your partner is having a bad day, or for some reason is just in a crabby mood, it doesn’t mean you have to. What if he or she is upset with you for a ridiculous reason- or something that is not at all your fault? In a healthy (equal) relationship, you might let the person know that, then go about your business. Ultimately, he or she should come around later and apologize. But if you let other people govern how you feel, or if you decide you can’t be ok unless someone else is ok, then you’re setting yourself up for misery. Oh, and also, some people (i.e. abusers) will be happy to take advantage of that.
5.You do (or do not do) things out of guilt.
Guilt should not be the primary motivator for any decision you make. Sure, we do things when our parents make us feel guilty- or a friend, partner, or our conscience… I’m not talking about that. But when you do things like- stay with a person because you feel guilty; avoid hanging out with friends or pursuing hobbies because you feel guilty; or avoid communicating something to your partner because you feel guilty- then, that’s a problem. If your partner truly cares about you and not only him or herself, then he or she will understand- even if the initial reaction is not positive. You have a right to express how you feel and to do things you want to do (provided you are not hurting the other person somehow).
6.You find yourself resenting or hating the other person.
When relationships with any of what I’ve discussed so far go on long enough, this is how you come to feel. You resent the person for not “letting you” hang out with friends, for not having any time to yourself, or for wanting to be with you every waking moment. Sometimes the sight of the person repulses you. And this is certainly not how a partner should make you feel.
7.You wish the other person would just break up with you.
See #6. When you start to feel that way, and as in #5 you would feel guilty breaking up with the person, you would love to have a way out- especially an easy one like the person just breaking up with you. It’s unlikely, though, so chances are you will have to assert yourself and talk about how you feel. The sooner you do this (and hopefully before you’re thinking of breaking up) the better!
8.You feel like you have lost yourself or your identity.
If you feel like you don’t know yourself anymore, or you have difficulty remembering what you like or are into, or who you were before you were in your relationship, then chances are you are in an unhealthy relationship. Either you forgot about it, by devoting 100% of your attention to your partner, or perhaps you’ve changed your identity somehow so your partner would like you more? Not healthy, nor is this sustainable. Ultimately you will be unhappy.
9.You hold yourself back from doing things you want to do or pursuing dreams.
Are there things you have wanted to do, but haven’t because you felt your partner wouldn’t approve, or it would conflict with his or her agenda? Are there goals or dreams you find yourself not to be pursuing- or not pursuing in the same manner that you would have been before? If so, you might ask yourself why. For example, if you are into golf and used to go even once a week, but you find yourself not doing this at all, you might not like this. Or, if you are applying to colleges, but find yourself only applying to colleges your boy or girlfriend is applying to, then you might feel resentful about this too.
10.The relationship starts to feel more like a burden than something that adds to your life.
Human beings have an inherent desire/need to be close to others. In our society we date, live together, or get married. The goal is to add something to our lives that would otherwise be missing- but definitely not to take away who we were before. And so a relationship is something that should make you feel good. Yes, relationships are work, but if they are only work, and the positives start to be few and far in between, then you need to ask yourself if it’s worth it.
These 10 things are definitely not the only signs of an unhealthy relationship, but they are certainly things to think about. If you aren’t in a relationship, take these as red flags, should you meet someone in the future. If you are in a relationship, then think about what is and is not going well. If any of this sounds familiar, I would recommend doing some reading on assertiveness or healthy relationships. And if you decide professional help could be useful, I would recommend contacting a psychologist or another type of therapist. You could find a referral here.
And here are a few additional resources: