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12 signs of a dysfunctional relationship and what to do if you’re in one 

It started great. You fell in love, found the one, and prepared to spend the rest of your life in utter bliss.

Until the red flags started popping up.

These warning signs are usually swept under the rug, labeled as a one-off, and forgotten about.

Until they keep happening, over and over again. Pretty soon, you can no longer ignore that niggly feeling inside which is telling you something’s not right.

So which signs should you be paying attention to, and what makes a dysfunctional relationship?

We’re going to look into all areas of these painful relationships, from how they start to what you can do if you’re in one.

What is a dysfunctional relationship?

The online dictionary defines the word ‘dysfunctional’ as:

  • not performing normally, as an organ or structure of the body; malfunctioning
  • having a malfunctioning part or element
  • behaving or acting outside social norms

Pretty scary stuff.

It’s even scarier when you imagine those definitions applying to your relationship.

The chances are, you’ve probably already encountered a dysfunctional relationship without even putting a name to it.

We usually label these types of relationships as being ‘toxic’ because the behaviors are deeply upsetting, sometimes manipulative, and nearly always end in heartbreak.

Quite simply, the relationship just doesn’t work.

Think about a relationship where there have been high levels of conflict.

A bond that was once love-filled turns sour, and no matter how much you try to resolve the problems, one or both partners behaves in destructive ways.

Relationships are never perfect, and we all go through the heartbreak of loving someone who isn’t right for us.

But what makes the difference between something that wasn’t meant to be and a relationship which is ‘malfunctioning’ or ‘acting outside social norms’?

It’s important to know the difference, because whilst some relationships don’t work out and life continues as it should, dysfunctional relationships can do a great deal of damage.

How do dysfunctional relationships start?

You might think that you’ve done something wrong to cause your relationship to become dysfunctional, but in reality, the seed for what has happened was planted long before you met your partner.

Most people learn dysfunctional behavior first from their parents. Maybe from tense home life or by watching how their parents acted towards each other, either way, this type of experience as a child can last long into adulthood.

A person can be exposed to a dysfunctional upbringing by:

  • Parents who are violent or controlling
  • Addictions such as gambling or alcoholism being present in the family home
  • Neglect – emotional, physical, and financial
  • Overprotective parents

Most dysfunctional relationships start very smoothly. You meet someone, they appear to be everything you’ve ever looked for in a partner, and in return, they seem to love everything about you back.

It’s usually a little later down the line that the issues start to pop up. This is because the dysfunctional partner needs time to begin displaying these behaviors.

Once you both get comfortable – that’s when reality hits.

Love and Intimacy’  is a masterclass designed and led by world-renowned shaman Rudá Iandê.

During the masterclass, Rudá explains how a lot of our issues stem from our parents and society, such as having unrealistic and harmful expectations of our partners in love.

He also touches upon how codependency can play a major role in relationships becoming dysfunctional, and how the emotional damage from this can be hard (but not impossible) to overcome.

For me, it was an eye-opener to see how even small behaviors that I had experienced within my relationships were signs of a dysfunctional relationship, even though I had been oblivious to it at the time.

So without further ado, let’s check out what the main 12 signs are that something is deeply wrong with your relationship.

The 12 signs to look out for:

1) There’s an imbalance of power

In a healthy relationship, there shouldn’t be a power hierarchy. This means that decisions are made together, and differences in opinions are respected.

If you find yourself in a relationship where you hold back from being honest because your partner will react negatively, or you need to get permission from them to do certain things, it could be that there’s an imbalance of power between you.

This can lead to the relationship being highly dysfunctional because one partner deems themself to be more important whilst the other will start to feel frustrated, undervalued, and disrespected.

2) A buildup of resentment

Resentment builds up slowly and usually goes unnoticed until it starts to leak and spill out. This is what makes it so deadly in a relationship.

Over time, as one or both partners stop communicating their feelings, they start to harbor every little wrong-doing.

Eventually, there’s no space left to keep it contained, and it will start to become obvious in everyday life.

This often happens when you think you’re arguing about something small like who forgot to take the bins out, but suddenly it’s turned into a full-blown screaming match about something that happened months ago.

This is because holding onto resentment then leads to it coming out unexpectedly and often irrationally because there’s such a buildup of emotions.

This can be highly destructive in a relationship, and with so many issues piling on top of each other, working through them clearly can start to seem impossible.

3) Plenty of frustration

If you’re in a dysfunctional relationship, frustration will become a normal emotion.

It’s a very clear sign that things are not working as they should. Even with the best intentions, when you try to complete a simple task with your partner, it just never goes right.

You don’t see eye to eye on many things, and the fact that you probably aren’t communicating effectively either will be a source of great frustration.

For example, perhaps your husband is a workaholic and you start to resent him for not being there for you.

But he believes he is doing the right thing for the marriage by bringing in the bacon.

As someone who watched their parents deal with plenty of frustration in their marriage, it’s clear that a lot of it came from simply not being able to communicate with each other.

Whilst theirs isn’t the most extreme in terms of dysfunctional relationships, there are parts of the relationship which don’t work and weigh down heavily on both of them.

As an adult, it became glaringly obvious to me that this frustration had a massive impact on their marriage.

If you’re experiencing this in your relationship, alongside some of the other points, it could be a sign that some areas in the relationship aren’t functioning as they should be.

4) Doubts about the relationship

If you’re dealing with a dysfunctional relationship, the chances are that you’re living with a lot of uncertainty.

There must be some good times, otherwise, it would be tough to stay in such relationships.

But the good times aren’t consistent so you might feel unsure about how your partner might react to certain situations.

You live in a state of wonder, never sure of what you should or shouldn’t be doing.

Living in this state can be mentally exhausting. Never knowing when conflict might arise keeps you in a state of alarm all the time, waiting for the next argument.

Not only is this highly unhealthy for your mental and physical well-being, but it also puts a lot of negativity and pressure on the relationship.

5) High levels of tension

Sometimes underlying tension can go unnoticed, other times you can cut through it with a knife.

Tension often simmers until something happens to make it boil and explode. And when it does, oh boy.

The arguments which follow tend to be a huge overreaction (most issues could be sorted out calmly and respectfully), but in a dysfunctional relationship, this tension will be a combination of many emotions and hard-feelings.

And even if you haven’t reached the boiling point, living with tension constantly can severely impact your health.

Your stress levels will always be high and you’ll find it hard to approach your partner on certain issues.

Some people are better at living in tension than others. I, for one, can’t handle tension. I prefer to try and deal with the issue as soon as possible and move on.

My partner however seems to enjoy wallowing in the tension and can drag on a bad mood for days.

It wasn’t until I took part in the ‘Love and Intimacy’ workshop that I realized that both of us were simply imitating how we were taught to deal with tension growing up.

Once we started to address these differences, it became much easier to understand each other and work towards finding the middle ground.

So whilst it’s normal to experience some tension from time to time, living in a tense state is a whole different ball game and usually a sign of a dysfunctional relationship.

6) There’s often conflict

Conflict can arise from even the smallest of disagreements.

In most cases, it will be in the form of an argument. Don’t get me wrong, arguments are no easy thing to navigate, but they are natural in relationships.

Healthy arguments will usually reach a point where one or both of you decide to reach an agreement and then resolve the issue.

In a dysfunctional relationship, these conflicts will drag on and escalate. There won’t be any logic or reasoning involved, and the dysfunctional partner will often be emotionally driven.

This can be tough to live with.

Imagine having a friend who constantly found a reason to argue with you. Would you remain friends for a very long time?

Probably not.

But in relationships, because of the high emotional intensity, partners might stick around in the hope that things will improve.

The sad truth is that unless action is taken and help is sought, the problems and conflict won’t get better on their own.

A lot of forgiveness, understanding, and communication is needed to deal with conflict, and unfortunately, a dysfunctional partner might not know how to behave in those ways.

7) You often feel guilty

Do you always feel like you’ve done something wrong? Are you constantly apologizing to your partner?

From forgetting to put the laundry on to making plans without consulting them first, you find yourself always in the wrong.

It can’t possibly always be your fault, but your partner is maintaining their hierarchy in the relationship by always finding fault in you.

Instead of being understanding and supportive, they’ll expect you to always have justifications for your actions, and even then they won’t be happy until you’ve ‘taken responsibility’ and apologized (even if you’ve done nothing wrong).

This is a form of control and emotional abuse. It’s tiring, degrading, and does nothing to build a strong bond of trust and forgiveness in the relationship.

Always feeling guilty can lead you to question your self-worth, lose confidence, and also start to resent your partner.

8) The blame game is prevalent

Very much linked in with always feeling guilty is that your partner will often blame you for everything.

They had a bad day? It’s somehow your fault.

The car broke down? What on earth did you do to it this time?

They had a massive outburst and couldn’t control their emotions? You must have done something to push them over the edge.

The excuses are endless. But all it shows is that they are trying to deflect the blame from themselves and put it on to you.

A dysfunctional partner will do anything and everything in their power to avoid being accountable for their actions.

It’s almost like they’re allergic to admitting their mistakes.

With this type of behavior, you’ll quickly start to feel like their emotional punch bag and it’ll be obvious that you can’t become a healthy couple until both take accountability for their actions.

9) Codependency has crept in

As Rudá explains in the ‘Love and Intimacy’ masterclass, codependency is about the emotional, psychological, or financial dependency a person has on their partner.

Codependency can come in many different forms, and it can be extremely frustrating to be the partner of someone who is codependent.

Whether it’s help emotionally or dealing with issues like an addiction, constantly supporting your partner can be draining.

On one hand, you don’t want to hurt them or leave them struggling, but on the other hand, you aren’t there to be their parents (or worse, enable their bad habits).

Finding the line between being compassionate and not giving into codependency is tough, but Rudá explains how to work through this in a way that can lead to much healthier relationships.

10) Arguments don’t seem to ever resolve

In a dysfunctional relationship, arguments seem to go on forever.

And, they tend to get repeated.

It’s one of life’s most annoying things, to go through the same argument over and over again.

But there’s a reason for these repeated fallouts.

The roots of the problems aren’t being resolved.

And instead of being sorted out healthily, they usually get ignored until the next time they get triggered.

Not only is it a sign of not having clear communication, but also that maybe one or both partners doesn’t want to resolve the problem, or they don’t know how to resolve it.

Maybe they take pleasure in the attention of an argument, or they keep it going as a way to keep blaming you.

OR, they just can’t let some things go.

Whatever the reason, it’s not healthy and eventually, you might feel like it’s pointless even trying to reason with them.

When this happens, it can lead to a complete breakdown in communication. And without communication, there’s not much hope left.

11) There’s a lack of emotion

If your partner has become emotionally detached, this is a clear cut sign that something is wrong.

For example, something has upset you and you’ve turned to your partner for comfort and support.

Instead of hugging you and listening to your problem, they ignore you and carry on watching TV.

Even worse, they make you feel bad or embarrassed about being upset.

This is truly a low point in any relationship when compassion and empathy are lost and one partner refuses to engage emotionally.

Whilst it could be their way of not showing their vulnerability, the impact on the other person, and the relationship is very destructive.

If they don’t want the relationship to end, but they still don’t show any care or fight for it, it’s a brutal but obvious sign that they aren’t in a healthy place, and therefore the relationship will suffer as a result.

12) You feel hopeless

Are you struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

As gut-wrenching as it is, deep down you probably already know that things are not right.

The relationship isn’t flowing the way it should.

After countless arguments, multiple emotional rollercoasters, and many nights spent worrying over your relationship, you’ve probably hit a stump in the road and you can’t see how things will ever get better.

This is a classic sign of a dysfunctional relationship.

When a couple in a healthy relationship have hardships, they know that they can work through it together.

In a dysfunctional relationship, you can’t rely on your partner for emotional support or stability.

You know you can either stay in it and sacrifice your happiness for your partner or leave and endure the certain heartbreak which will follow.

But either way, the problems have become so deep now that trying to work it out will be very tough, especially if your partner isn’t willing to address their dysfunctional issues.

Why do people stay in dysfunctional relationships?

After reading the list above, you might be wondering why you’re stuck in a dysfunctional relationship, or why people in general stick around when the going gets tough.

There are many reasons why people choose to stay in a relationship that is ultimately not functioning.

Some of the main reasons include:

  • Low standards when it comes to relationships or marriage
  • A lack of self-esteem (some people might believe they deserve to be treated unfairly)
  • They feel they’ve invested too much in the relationship to walk away
  • They’re scared to leave their partner, especially if he/she is abusive or controlling
  • Dysfunctional relationships are all they know (especially if it’s stemmed since childhood)

In many cases, the dysfunctional partner might not even be aware of how much damage is being done.

If they’re simply mirroring what they saw as a child, they may even think it’s normal to act in this way.

What to do if you are in a dysfunctional relationship

If some of the points above resonate with your relationship, you’ve got a tough journey ahead.

But don’t lose hope, because the first step in dealing with dysfunctional relationships is to be aware of the problems, and then work out how to deal with them.

If you’re determined to make it work with a dysfunctional partner, unfortunately, a lot of the changes are going to have to come from them.

You can be there to support them, but ultimately your hard work will be for nothing if they aren’t ready or willing to work on their issues.

In many cases, couples might try therapy or counseling to work through their problems.

If you think your relationship might need some external help, I’d suggest first taking the free masterclass in ‘Love and Intimacy’.

During the class, you and your partner will learn about codependency, unhealthy expectations, and common myths that surround the idea of a ‘perfect relationship’.

Not only will you start to understand how to build a healthy relationship, but you’ll also be guided on rebuilding the important relationship that you have with yourself as well.

Takeaway

Although being in a dysfunctional relationship might seem hopeless, there are ways to work through the issues at hand.

If both partners, especially the dysfunctional one, are willing to put in the hard work and address the problems which are most likely very deeply rooted, they may one day be able to transition into a healthy relationship.

If that isn’t the case, walking away may be the best option. Dealing with a dysfunctional relationship is exhausting, and ultimately you have to put your needs – mental, physical, and emotional – first.

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Kiran Athar

Written by Kiran Athar

Kiran is a foodie, writer and traveler. She considers herself a citizen of the world, who gets her inspiration from the people she meets along her journeys. She's currently living in Spain, where she spends her time writing, watching the shepherds and eating tapas in the mountains of Andalucía.

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