Do You Know the Indicators of an Unhealthy Relationship?

Group of happy young friends sitting in college campus and talking. Cheerful group of  smiling girls and guys feeling relaxed, laughing and having fun outdoors.

Relationships are our lifelines. They give us meaning, define us, create and influence our belief systems, provide us with a sense of belonging and in that belonging, healthy relationships allow us to feel both physically and emotionally safe and valuable. When they are hurtful or destructive, they can deeply wound us, rob us of our power, destroy our sense of self-worth and in general can tear us apart.

It is helpful to consider just how significant any given relationship is to us. As I described in a previous blog in August of 2021, we all have membership circles that define how close and meaningful each of our relationships are.

In this era of the Covid pandemic, our relationships are more important than ever for preserving our mental health, with our relationships in our inner circles being extremely important. We also are much more sensitive, hyper-vigilant and potentially overreactive regarding the things people in our close relationships say or do. Taking time to better understand the nature of both healthy and unhealthy relationships can equip us with information and tools to recognize and address potential toxicity in significant relationships so we can protect ourselves from the potential damage this toxicity can impose. Sometimes we need to eliminate people from our lives or at least place them in a more distant level in our relationship circle when we recognize they are toxic to us.

According to Steven E. Gutstein and Rachelle K. Sheely in Relationship Development Intervention with Young Children: “Relationships teach us about multiple perspectives. They provide the experience to show us that there is more than one right way of thinking, feeling, solving a problem and behaving. Through relationship encounters, we see the world through another’s eyes and notice it is not identical to our own. Relationships teach us to think about the world in a ‘relative’ and not absolute manner. In a relationship our actions cannot be interpreted as ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Rather they are meaningful or not depending on how they impact the individuals involved in the relationship… Relationships require us to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate the state of our connection to one another and make ongoing adjustments.”

There are some relationships we voluntarily chose to create and sustain, such as those with our spouse and with friends. There are other relationships that are non-voluntary where we did not have a choice in having, such as with parents and other family members, coworkers, students in classes we attend, clients who are assigned to us. No matter what, most of us are engaged in multiple forms of relationships and each has degrees of importance and influence.

John Gottman has been recognized for his research on how couples “thin slice,” a concept described in great detail in the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell describes how Gottman and his staff are able to predict (with a 91% accuracy rate) which couples will divorce in the next fifteen years and which will still be married. He has discovered that there are four key attitudes and accompanying behaviors that, if they exist in the marital relationship, are strong predictors that the marriage will eventually end in divorce. I suggest that we can use these four attitudes and accompanying behaviors to help us better understand and assess any important relationship.

These four attitudes and accompanying behaviors indicate very serious problems in a marriage (or other significant relationship):

  1. Contempt, in which one or both people do not show or feel respectful of the other person, are disgusted, feel the person is beneath them, are incredulous about how ignorant the person is.
  2. Criticism, in which one or both people regularly attack, point out flaws and mistakes, describe what the person should do differently, share that the person falls short of expectations or is inherently defective in what they think, say and do.
  3. Defensiveness, in which one or both people quickly begin to explain and excuse their role in conflicts or problems, focus on reasons they should not be held accountable, reasons why others should be blamed.
  4. Stonewalling, in which one or both people emotionally shut down, refuse to discuss, disclose or process problems, needs or feelings; they withdraw, are unresponsive, distant, disengaged.

I recommend that we place each of these on a continuum.  Thus, contempt would become “the degree to which there is contempt,” which would then allow us to acknowledge that we all might have our moments of contempt towards someone and to some extent or on occasion we may be contemptuous in one area but overall respect the other person. For example, it is a highly contained contempt and not an overriding attitude about a person as a whole, and is probably not a source of deep relational damage.  Problems arise when the contempt is frequent, pervasive and is towards the person overall not just one specific area of their behavior.

With regard to criticism, a person might occasionally be critical but it is not a constant form of communication. With regard to defensiveness, a person might defend themself if they felt guilty about something they said or did or that their behavior was misinterpreted but it is not a consistent behavior. With regard to stonewalling, a person might shut down because they need some time to process before re-engaging but do not consistently refuse to discuss or process issues, needs and concerns of others.

Knowing about these four attitudes and behaviors that are toxic to the health of a relationship can help us become more aware and clearer about why we might be struggling with someone, and to feel safe, appreciated and loved.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Did you recognize one or more of the toxic attitudes Gottman identified in a significant relationship of yours? How did that make you feel?
  2. Are these attitudes and behaviors new and possibly related to the Covid epidemic or have they always been there?
  3. Is your relationship strong enough that it can tolerate some discussions to address some of the issues created when one or more of these exist in that relationship?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute