"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
One of the most difficult moments in the course of a relationship occurs when we begin to suspect that what was once good has gone bad, and what once brought life now brings only deepening pain. The growing emotional toll begins to overwhelm us, like the seemingly insignificant waves of a tsunami that hide its true devastating power. While there are some relationships that are so toxic that it is unwise and unsafe to continue in them, there are also important and valued relationships that are worth saving. And in this case, there are some strategic steps you can take to not only save those relationships, but also bring new vitality, health and happiness to them.
So what are the signs of healthy relationships going bad? Are all unhappy relationships created equal, or are some more or less harmful than others? How do you keep your relationships toxic-free, and how do we become the person that relates well to others?
Here are three ways happy, thriving relationships differ from unhappy ones, and some practical tips that can keep your relationships from becoming toxic.
In a healthy relationship, you can be vulnerable with your feelings and still feel accepted, make mistakes without fear of judgment, and you can speak openly about thoughts and emotions. In essence you can be yourself, and you feel heard when expressing feelings. An emotionally safe friendship is marked by warmth and delight, sympathy and compassion, and free from chronic negative interactions like jealousy, criticism, contempt and defensiveness.
Relationships that go bad are not safe, and you feel increasingly wary, pessimistic and depressed. Such feelings are often connected to the emotion of contempt, with its insulting and hostile humor, name-calling, sneering, mockery and eye-rolling. Bad relationships seem to thrive on conflict, where arguments rapidly become negative. There is more manipulation, a lack of compromise, and an avoidance of dealing with issues. When contempt takes root in your friendship or marriage it suffocates the good and does great harm, creating an emotionally toxic and unsafe relationship. Watch out for signs of denying responsibility, making excuses, whining, and neither person taking responsibility for setting things right.
In a healthy relationship, there are more smiles, fun and delight than discontent and disappointment. There is more giving than taking. You feel comfortable and vulnerable, and laugh easily. You feel like the other person gets you. You have fondness and kindness as primary ways of interacting. In The Four Loves C.S. Lewis said that “…affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives...It does not expect too much, turns a blind eye to faults, revives easily after quarrels.” Good friends put into practice James 1:19—They are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. They celebrate each other’s accomplishments and successes, treat each other with respect, and speak openly to one another about thoughts and feelings.
In relationships that go bad there is too much criticism of each other, and neither person feels supported to do the things they like. There is usually poor communication—you don't feel heard or understood, you are unable to share feelings, or say “I was wrong.” There is more fault-finding and back-biting than an willingness to listen and compromise. A good test is to notice the number or ratio of positive, upbeat interactions to negative ones. If there are an equal number, i.e., for every positive interaction there is a negative one, you may be in a relationship marked by growing discord. A great goal is to aim for a healthier ratio, such as four positive, upbeat interactions to every negative one.
In a healthy relationship, there is a mutual care for each other, and we allow the other person to spend time with friends and family. There is an expectation of longevity—a sense of a future together. Such relationships are marked by honesty and trustworthiness. The apostle Paul said to the Philippians in chapter 2, verses 3-4: “Do nothing from selfish or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourself, do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” You both share and listen to each other’s problems, taking an interest and making an investment in each other.
In relationships that go bad there are increasing doubts, cynicism and a growing wariness. Your friend or partner will begin to demand your trust, and even seek to keep you from others for fear of being abandoned. Such jealousy and control is unhealthy. There is a selfishness that seeps in, where one person is only interested in talking about their accomplishments, their ideas and their outlook on life. There may be an abuse of technology to check on a partner, or an expectation or requirement to “check in.” There is pressure to do things the other may not want to do, and you are often accused of cheating or being unfaithful. A person in this relationship may show signs of character or sin issues such as dishonesty, untrustworthiness and an unteachable heart.
If you find yourself in a relationship heading into the unhealthy category, and the relationship is deeply valued and needs to be saved, here are 10 things you and your friend or partner need to commit to doing in order to make it more enjoyable, trusting and emotionally safe:
Regularly practicing these 10 vital steps can provide a powerful counter to the hidden but destructive powers that creep in and undermine your connection to each other. Get your relationship back on track today and soon you will experience new vitality, joy and health in your relationship.
“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand...” – Philippians 2:3-4 (The Message)
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.