We all have many relationships that we find ourselves in, not only with regards to partnerships or romantic relationships but also those with family and friends. How do we know when our relationship is unhealthy? If a particular relationship is already coming to mind for you, there is a good chance that perhaps it's not the most healthy. This doesn't always mean that these relationships need to end but it does mean they need some work. Often when we feel a relationship is not healthy we either cling on tighter to that person or we start to gradually distance ourselves from that person, feeling that they were toxic or bad for us because of the way the made us feel about ourselves or they way they influenced our own behaviour.
Disclosure: This blog post is specifically addressing unhealthy relationships but the degree of toxicity will vary. If you are in an emotionally, sexually or physically abusive relationship please seek help immediately.
So what are some of the tell-telling signs that you should be looking out for?
1. Lack of Autonomy
Autonomy is our ability to make our own, independent and informed, decisions without being heavily influenced by a partner or a relationship. In a healthy relationship you can have your own separate thoughts, independent of the other. You can have separate dreams and goals and you may engage in challenging conversations and/or debates about your different opinions on matters. When a relationship is unhealthy separate dreams and goals are a major threat to the relationship.
In an unhealthy relationship we can find ourselves feeling like 'I must agree with you and you must agree with me' to keep the peace and make us both feel like we are 'right'.
2. The relationship feels one-sided
You feel that you are the one constantly listening and supporting the other but not necessarily getting that support in return, even when you feel you need it most. Sometimes you want to bring something up but you don't feel you have room to feel upset because you always need to put the others needs before your own. You find it difficult to confront issues in the relationship or to share your true emotions because the other may get defensive and feel that you are blaming or criticizing them. You feel each time you bring something up in the relationship that it gets turned around and used against you and then you feel guilty for bringing it up in the first place.
In a healthy relationship you should be able to bring things up without being shut down immediately or feeling like the other person is manipulating your words to make it sounds like you're attacking them. You should be able to express yourself, feel heard and be open to hearing what the other has to say in response because you know they care and you value their opinion. It's normal for someone to get upset or defensive in a confrontation but are they able to calm down and hear what you have to say? It may take some time for this to happen but if it doesn't happen at all and things get turned around onto you constantly, this is a red flag.
3. Constantly feeling responsible for the other person's feelings
You feel you need to worry about the other more than you can worry about yourself. "I need you to feel okay and you need me to feel okay' and if not then we are both under emotional strain. If your other is stressed or emotional you feel you take on their emotions and cannot seem to seperate yourself from them. Sometimes you may even lie to each other, pretending that you are okay when you are not, so not to upset them or disrupt them. Feeling as if your partner or other is responsible for how you feel, good or bad and vice versa. When your other is unhappy, you fall apart and loose yourself or the other way round.
'You must always tell me how you feel so I know how I must feel'. When you and your other are constantly checking up on each other and feel lost without knowing how the other is doing.
4. Feeling you can't say 'no' to this person
Feeling like if you say 'no' to this person or deny their request that you are inherently 'bad', selfish or inconsiderate; that you are not taking their feelings into account and that therefore you do not care deeply for them. In a healthy relationship you should feel safe enough to share what you really think even if it causes a bit of conflict. You should both be able to listen to each other's needs without feeling threatened; feeling free enough to share who you really are and how you truly feel. In a healthy relationship you both know it's okay to say "NO".
5. Anxious attachment
Anxious attachment is an attachment style which fears the other person leaving; abandonment and mistrust. We usually learn our attachment styles based on our relationships with our parents or caregivers growing up and therefore it can feel like something so unconscious and inherent in us that it's hard to recognise it or understand it. This plays out in unhealthy relationships by us feeling as if any hint of separation makes us feel: insecure, unloved, unattached to, and alone. It can make us feel quite drastic about small rifts in relationships and it often gives us the message: 'when you don't need me, I am not good enough'. Whereas in reality, we should not have to need another person all the time. It's the feeling that if you had to share how you really felt, the other would get angry and leave.
6. Basing your self-worth on your relationship
In an unhealthy relationship you may feel like you cannot love yourself at the same time as loving the other; there is not enough room to love yourself too. What your partner or other says about you is internalized and becomes your opinion of you. You only feel as worthy as your other 'allows' you to feel. Some days your partner or other is so happy to see you and is full of compliments and love and it makes you feel good, it makes you feel worthy. Other days your other treats you coldly and can be offish, unengaged or dismissive. This makes you question yourself and your worth. Life can often feel like a rollercoaster with them and therefore your own self-worth feels the same way.
If you find yourself experiencing some or many of the signs above, you are most likely experiencing codependence in your relationship. This is not your fault. There are ways at working on mending the relationship and building a healthy space for growth and independence. Generating boundaries in the relationship is the best way to start making changes. Do this with open communication so that the other person knows why suddenly there are 'restrictions' that were no longer there before. It may be something you want to work through together or separately but it is not an overnight process.
In my next blog post I will address setting boundaries in unhealthy relationships. In the meantime you can do some research of your own on codependency and setting boundaries but if you are feeling overwhelmed by your relationship please seek professional support. Please see helpline below for reporting abuse.
Stop Gender Violence helpline: 0800 150 150. Report neglect or abuse of a child: 0861 4 CHILD (24453) SAPS: 08600 10111 Childline: 08000 55 555 Report any abuse of children and women to the Department of Social Development on 0800 220 250. LifeLine 24-hour counselling helpline: 021 461 1111 Find out more about our safety services for women and children by sending a sms with the word INFO to 35 395. Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust counselling lines: Observatory: 021 447 9762 Athlone: 021 633 9229 Khayelitsha: 021 361 9085