Is My Relationship Unhealthy?

Posted by on Aug 18, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

Is My Relationship Unhealthy?

Dear Dr. Jenn,

How do I know if I’m in an unhealthy relationship, and if it is, how do I know when to get out?

Dr. Jenn’s Response:

Whether you have a long history of romantic relationships or you are just falling in love for the first time, everyone spends time assessing their relationship for health. Many people fear that if they are in an unhealthy relationship, they’ll make excuses to stay in it in spite of what messages they are getting from self and others. So listen to the totality of what people who love you and who you trust are telling you about how your relationship looks from the outside. Don’t focus on just one friend’s opinion, get a lot of opinions from people you can absolutely trust to have your back. If your most trusted friends tell you the relationship looks unhealthy, it probably is. By going to a therapist to find out if the unhealthy relationship is workable, you can then decide what to do next. Listen to your own intuition as well. It usually is telling you the right answer.

So what is a healthy relationship? First and foremost, healthy relationships have NO violence whatsoever. That includes no physical, sexual, or emotional violence. Beyond that most basic and unwavering rule, experts like Dr. John Gottman tell us that when we use 5 positive interactions to every one negative interaction with our partners, that’s one indicator that we are protecting our relationship and giving our partner the care he or she needs. On the other hand, an unhealthy relationship is one that is fraught with what he calls The 4 Horseman: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These characteristics make people feel horrible about themselves, and they find themselves working much harder than they should to be happy in their relationship.

Healthy relationships are often based on a sense of friendship. Can you look at your partner and honestly say, “you are one of my best friends?” Along these same lines, most healthy relationships look quite equal in terms of the power each person has to make decisions and offer their influence to the other person. Frequent or constant power struggles can be an indicator of an unhealthy relationship. I often tell clients that it’s not THAT they have conflict, it’s how they RESOLVE their conflict that matters. Are you able to feel genuinely closer to your partner and feel more secure in the relationship after a typical argument, or do you find yourself replaying it over and over in your head and noticing you feel damaged by the conflict? The latter may be an unhealthy relationship.

One way I gauge the relative health of a relationship is how closely the two people are in terms of their opinions on big issues such as religion/spirituality, family, work, finances, and their core values. Your opinions on most of these should be at least similar between you with the ability to discuss small differences openly without hurt feelings. Most couples won’t be able to manage the strain large differences on these topics put on a relationship for the long haul. Healthy relationships allow each person to be their authentic selves, so being able to respect each others’ small differences on these large issues without much difficulty is key.

Most long term relationships, even healthy ones, go through some struggles from time to time. I warn many of my friends not to wait until it is too late to get some professional help for relationship issues. One of the biggest problems we therapists see day in and day out is couples who have waited to come in when the damage to themselves and their relationship is too far along to really repair easily. If you or your partner has started to feel like you are giving up on the relationship, it might be more work that you are willing to put into saving the relationship. Get help early so that you can prevent real damage that is too much work for you to feel like investing in. Finally, if you can honestly say that you are unhappy with your partner or that you don’t like who you are in this relationship, it’s probably not healthy for you. If you are mad or sad most of the time, it’s time to look at getting help to end the relationship. Our love relationships should be where we can get the support, love, and acceptance for who we area that help us get through life’s toughest trials. If you or someone you know needs more help figuring out if they are in an unhealthy relationship or one that just needs work, have them contact us at Aspen Counseling Group at 303-834-7389 or visit our website at

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