The definition of a dysfunctional relationship is commonly agreed to be a relationship that causes more emotional turmoil than satisfaction. Often people don’t know they have got involved in a dysfunctional relationship until they are well and truly in it and struggling to get out. To help you avoid finding yourself in one here are the four most common dysfunctional relationship types and their warning signs.
The term “co-dependent” generally means any person who focuses on another person in order to gain some kind of control over them. Co-dependency can look very much like love because it is a mental obsession with someone else’s business – all the love songs are full of this kind of sentiment ‘I can’t get you off my mind’ or ‘I can’t live, if living is without you’. This complete absorption with the object of our affection only becomes dysfunctional when it starts causing painful emotional turmoil and stops you from getting on and living your own life.
Warning sign – a person who is happy when you are, sad when you are and wants to do all they can to control your moods, behaviour and has little or no life of their own outside of the relationship.
2. Bullying or abusive
There are usually lots of little warning signs that a relationship has the potential to become abusive. Abuse isn’t just about physical violence, people can be verbally and emotionally abusive too undermining their victim’s self-esteem gradually over time. You may not spot the signs on the first few dates, it’s often not until a conflict arises that the bully or abuser shows themselves and most often it is through a sharp comment, put down or what looks like a temper tantrum leaving you feeling guilty and confused as to what you did to prompt such a violent response. This is the key – you feel responsible for provoking their bad behavior. When things have calmed down this will often be reinforced by the abuser, they may be the one who gets the apology even though in your heart you are sure you didn’t do anything wrong.
Warning signs – violent displays of temper; an inability to see what they did wrong (often pointing it out will lead to another outburst); a history of previous abuse either as a victim or a perpetrator; the feeling that you can’t be emotionally honest for fear of triggering their anger.
3. Parental mirroring
This is a very common problem – either one or both parties have unresolved issues with a parent and are ‘acting out’ the old dysfunctional pattern with a new partner. Unconsciously we mirror the primary relationships we witnessed as a child. If the relationship was healthy and functioning that is all well and good – our parents were good role models. What is often the case is that a dysfunctional upbringing is recreated – sometimes with startling accuracy, like when a woman with an alcoholic father ends up married to an alcoholic even though it has caused her so much pain growing up. People are often drawn to partners who are strikingly similar in looks, manner and characteristics as their parent of the opposite sex.
There are various psychological explanations as to why this happens. For those involved there is often an awareness that all is not well coupled with an almost magnetic pull to stick with it because it feels so familiar.
Warning signs – your partner shares many characteristics with your dysfunctional parent (or you theirs); you often feel very young and childlike within the relationship and as though your feelings are out of control or your partner treats you as though you are a parent by being rebellious, defiant and childlike.
4. Lack of intimacy
The thing that separates friends from lovers is intimacy – physical and emotional. Sexual intimacy is a natural and healthy part of adult life. Unfortunately sex is also the largest potential area of dysfunction when it comes to emotional development because it is so caught up with moral, religious and social education.
Every couple will have times when they have little or no sex and that is natural too – intimacy isn’t just about the physical act – this area becomes dysfunctional when one or both partners are not getting their needs for sex, warmth or affection fulfilled within the relationship and feel frustrated as a result.
Warning signs – not as much affection or warmth as you would like right at the beginning of the relationship; a pre-existing problem in this area that hasn’t been addressed.
If your relationship falls into any one of these categories it does not mean that it is doomed to failure. An awareness of the problem is half the battle when it comes to solving it. Talk to your partner, get professional help if needed and remember that most relationships have some level of dysfunction in them, it’s what you do with it that counts.