How to tell if you're in a dysfunctional relationship

But because it takes two to tango, our own conduct within a relationship tells only part of the story.

There are many ways to describe a relationship. A "good" relationship can be "healthy", or "fulfilling"; a "bad" relationship can be "abusive" or "soul destroying". I prefer "functional" versus "dysfunctional". The term "dysfunctional relationship" removes blame from either individual, and locates the pathology squarely in the dynamic. As someone who has been in all manner of dysfunctional and functional relationships, it resonates strongly. There are some people who bring out the best in me, and others who bring out the crazy, and I clearly do the same for them.

But how do we define a "dysfunctional" relationship?

Look online and there are a number of checklists to determine whether or not your relationship is dysfunctional. Most include specific behaviours: you fight dirty, you hold grudges, you assign blame, you make threats.

Now, clearly, it’s important to take stock of your behaviour in a relationship. It takes two to tango, and we all must take responsibility for our own contribution to the dynamic.

But because it takes two to tango, our own conduct within a relationship tells only part of the story. Our actions do not exist in a vacuum, they exist within the context of the relationship. I behaved in some pretty terrible ways when I was married (I certainly held grudges and I certainly assigned blame) but I was responding to a situation. I couldn’t change my behavior in isolation. The whole dynamic needed fixing.

And besides, I was already blaming myself. We women do that. We take huge responsibility for our relationships. We blame ourselves when they go bad, we try harder, we strive more, we tie ourselves in knots trying to please our partners. “Yes, I fight dirty,” we will agree, forgetting we spent years fighting fair and got railroaded and gaslighted until we started acting out.

So clearly, we also need to consider the other person’s behaviour. It may take two to tango, but sometimes one person can completely throw off the dance. And again, there are multiple articles online offering checklists to assess if your partner is abusive.

Is he gaslighting you? Is he isolating you from friends and family? Is he using sarcasm or humiliation? Does he withhold sex or money? Does he put you down?

It can be empowering to read a checklist and realise you are being abused. It can also be incredibly difficult to assess. Well, is he gaslighting me? He says he isn’t. Maybe I’m imagining it! Maybe it’s all in my head! And is he putting me down? He says I deserve it… and really, I did do the wrong thing, he was right to tell me off. And I am difficult to live with. I need to try harder!

Behaviours only tell part of the story, and emotional abuse can be a matter of opinion. (And if you disagree, spend a year on the midlife dating scene and listen to dozens of men tell you about their "abusive" exes. If they are all right, then practically every divorced woman out there is an abuser, and, statistically speaking, this seems unlikely.)

Instead of focusing on behaviours, it’s far more helpful to focus on feelings. Behaviours are open to interpretation, but feelings don’t lie. They are far easier to assess and tell us everything we need to know about the state of our relationships.

A functional relationship is one in which we feel emotionally safe. A dysfunctional relationship is one in which we are frightened or on alert, in which we feel trapped or oppressed, in which we feel disrespected or unheard.

Consider your behaviour. Take note of their conduct. But when it comes to assessing the health of your relationship, your feelings are the only checklist you need.

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