Do you know the signs of an unhealthy relationship? It may be likely that you are in an unhappy relationship but for whatever reason, you are sticking it out. The bad days have begun to outnumber the good days but you still hang in there. Behaviour in relationships gets ‘normalised’ over time (bad behaviours can begin to seem normal) and we lose our solid grounding and self esteem over time.
It’s normal to adopt some of your partners likes and dislikes in a relationship. It’s part of how we bond with each other. This ‘mutual morphing’ is usually a good thing but if one person in the relationship isn’t functioning in a healthy way, the mutual morphing can lead to abuse in the relationship.
Not all behaviour is abusive. We all say and do the wrong thing at times, what you do need to look out for is a pattern of behaviour. Are you criticised frequently? If your partner has hurt your feelings on the odd occasion this could be down to thoughtlessness, not underling abusive nature. Learn to trust your instincts.
I am a therapist specialising in abusive relationships (emotional and physical) and even I have been duped! When we fall for someone, our emotions cloud our judgement and we give our partners the benefit of the doubt. I want to be loved as much as the next person and this makes me a candidate for an abusive partner. I overlooked bad behaviour because I wanted to be loved.
The link between an unhappy childhood and an abusive relationship
In an effort to really unpack the dynamics of an abusive relationship, it’s important to consider your childhood. Childhood emotional trauma can have a huge impact on your choice of partner as an adult. My Father was a narcissist and this has unfortunately become a personality type of choice for me as an adult! Not great, but I see the link between the two and it does help explain some of my strange behaviour. Strange behaviour such as staying with a partner that has made me feel less than, not good enough and has left me filled with self doubt.
Logically it would not make any sense to stay in a relationship that made you miserable but once emotions become involved, you begin to operate in a different way. Logic and self preservation go out the window, Hello misery and constant criticism.
Harville Hendrix tried to explain this well known phenomenon with Imago Theory. Imago theory explains how our childhood relationships affect who we choose as adults. When we are born, we are effectively a ‘blank slate’. We don’t have a clue about life and as such we are learning from day one. If we have parents (or primary caregivers) who meet our needs consistently, pick us up and comfort us when we cry and are generally responsive to our needs, we develop a secure attachment. If however, our parents aren’t consistent, or possibly even neglectful, we develop an insecure attachment where we learn that the world won’t support our needs.
Attachment Theory (John Bowlby) explains this in far more detail. Research has also shown that our brains develop differently when we are exposed to neglect. Neural pathways form differently in those early days and these pathways possibly play a huge role in who we choose as an adult. It’s highly likely that partners who choose to treat us in ways that are similar to our parents will trigger those same pathways. In this way, the neglectful or abusive partner tickles our familiar neural pathways and we are drawn back into this damaging cycle. Harville Hendrix believes that we go back into these damaging relationships because they are familiar and because we want to get the love we weren’t able to get as children and complete the cycle. If we complete the cycle, we can finally feel loved.
Of course, trying to get love externally in order to feel better about ourselves isn’t the best way forward.
So, there is a link between our childhoods and our adult relationships. If the behaviour from adults when we were children was dysfunctional, it becomes harder to spot the bad behaviour when we have relationships as adults. It makes you miserable but you can’t seem to stay away. What’s that about?
Personality Disorders and unhealthy relationships
A difficult childhood can lead to a personality disorder – the most common one that I have observed in my professional work (and to some degree in my private life) is Emotionally Unstable Disorder (formerly known as “Borderline Personality Disorder). I used to work at Broadmoor Hospital and the ward I worked on was exclusively for women with Borderline. They had all had difficult, unhappy childhoods.
Whilst more research needs to be done, there appears to be a link between people with Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Personality disorders are psychological conditions that begin in adolescence or early adulthood, continue over many years, and, when left untreated, can cause a great deal of distress.
Narcissists want continuous self-esteem enhancement – Borderlines (Emotionally Unstable) want continuous, unconditional love.
The narcissists that I know lack the capacity to deeply appreciate the authentic self of another human being. They do not really care about their mate’s happiness or welfare except as it affects their own. And, they are rarely willing to sacrifice anything in order to make their mate happy. The only happiness that they are really concerned about is their own.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is the name for a series of coping strategies that began as an adaptation to a childhood family situation that left the person with unstable self esteem the inability to regulate their self-esteem without external validation, and low empathy.
Characterised by: Grandiosity (an inflated sense of self, superiority). A person with NPD needs admiration and can’t handle criticism. This lead to narcissistic injury. They are often insecure and any negativity threatens their boastful facade. They lack empathy and often use people in their life as objects. They lack insight into their behaviour and can be manipulative. The most obvious characteristic is that they are selfish, their motto being “What’s in it for me?”. They may be kind at times but don’t be fooled – they are only generous if it benefits them in some way. If it leads to more admiration and people thinking they’re a good person, they will be generous.
Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (EUPD)
Characterized by unstable moods and emotions, relationships, and behaviour. People with EUPD have intense relationships with their friends, family, and loved ones. Their emotions can be quite intense leading to a considerable amount of tension, game playing and fear of abandonment. Other common symptoms: thye are able to disassociate and feel numb when they feel threatened in a relationship. Their sense of self is very fragile. Impulsivity, self harm and black and white (no grey areas – you are good or bad, nothing inbteween) thinking are also common.
Most people choose romantic partners who are their approximate equals with regard to understanding how to sustain intimacy. Intimacy skills involve empathy, being able to communicate, forgive and understand each other. We tend to go for people who are in a similar intimacy range to us. If someone is too far above us in their grasp of Intimacy skills, they are likely to find us boring and difficult.
In NPD and EUPD, they tend to see people at two extremes – good or bad. They find it difficult to maintain “object constancy”, as in – no one is all good or bad. Yes, they may have done something you dislike but you can still see the good in them. This is a skill that NPD and EUPD sufferers find hard to do. In order to protect themselves, their ’emotional armour’ will come on and you’re the number one enemy.
Both personality disorders tend to get involved quickly and intensely. People with EUPD live for love. They use connecting to someone as a remedy for feelings of emptiness, restlessness, and loneliness They are what I think of as “Clingers.” They form quick strong attachments and resist any information that suggests that they should detach because this person is an inappropriate mate. The idea of detaching brings up their underlying fears of abandonment, so they find reasons not to leave.
When a relationship doesn’t work well, it is the Borderline/Emotionally Unstable mate that usually has the most trouble detaching from the relationship. They struggle with inner conflict : On a rational level they kow the relationship isn’t working and they should leave but the other side is afraid of being on their own again. Many people with EUPD feel inadequate to deal with everyday adult life and being with someone – almost anyone – can feel more secure than being on their own.
Signs of an unhealthy relationship
You feel undermined and your emotional needs are never met.
You are criticised, it’s either the way you clean the house, what you wear, how you behave, what you eat etc.
You are isolated from family and friends.
Your partner is controlling and rarely considers what you want. It’s all about them, they are selfish and overbearing.
Your partner lacks empathy and this leaves you feeling lonely.
Your partner controls the finances or lets you know in subtle ways that they own the financial power in the relationship.
Emotional abuse: playing with your feelings, making you feel you aren’t good enough, calling you names.
They are moody and you never know when they will have an outburst.
You walk around on eggshells, trying to constantly please them.
They are selfish and put themselves ahead of you.
You ‘tick the box’ of “partner” but they seem detached from your life, your interests and what makes you happy.
Physical violence – goes without saying. There are no excuses for physical abuse…ever.
When I was in an abusive relationship, I tended to start overthinking things. I would go over and over things that hadbeen said and try to understand what happened. The relationship left me filled with anxiety and self doubt. I have had times when I haven’t felt enough for someone no matter what I do. Instead of seeing this as a deficit in the other person, I would blame myself and tell myself to try harder. The problem here is that some people are incapable of love. They love what you do for them but they could just as easily replace you with someone who will admire them and love them.
Love yourself enough to tell the unappreciative partner to take a hike. They will continue their dysfunctional behaviour with someone new and you will finally be able to put yourself back together. In an abusive relationship, you can’t work fast enough to keep yourself “whole” because they will constantly tear you and your self esteem, self worth down. I have ended up a ‘shell’ of my former self. Affairs of the heart are complicated but forewarned is forearmed!
Recommended reading: Why Love Matters – Sue Gerhardt
Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain
Photo by Elizabeth Tsung on Unsplash