Today’s Advice Highlights

  • How does a relationship become dysfunctional?
  • What are the common red flags to watch out for?
  • Is calling it quits the best course of action to recover from a toxic relationship?

When we start a new relationship, we put most of our attention on the romantic feelings and the exciting side of a relationship. We entrust our happiness to a partner, hoping they will be emotionally supportive and communicative.

The reality, however, is that, sometimes, instead of meeting our needs and being our happy-ever-after, they end up making us feel worse than before, which in turn may trigger us to react in negative ways that we never imagined possible.

This type of acting out between couples is called dysfunctional and toxic. All dysfunctional relationships have one thing in common: the behaviors that characterize them are the result of unhealed past wounds. 

We all have unresolved emotional wounds or trauma to some degree. The trouble starts when we don’t do the work to heal these wounds ourselves and expect our partners –who may also be carrying around past wounds – to make us feel whole. This is the basic recipe for a dysfunctional partnership.

The Warning Signs

Relationship dysfunction can present itself in one of two ways: co-dependency or counter-dependency. Both types come from unresolved issues that affect the relationship, becoming dysfunctional when one partner is expected to fill in these gaps to sustain the other.

How do you know if you are in a dysfunctional relationship?

If you’re not sure if you’re in a dysfunctional relationship, the list of symptoms below might help as a starting point.


One or both of you may experience some or all of the following:

  • Low self-esteem.
  • Constant approval-seeking from your partner to feel reassured or secure.
  • Tendency to be people pleasers.
  • Craving intimacy and affection, but find it had to let yourselves be vulnerable.
  • Clinging to the other and not able to set healthy boundaries or space.
  • Feelings of insecurity and incompetence around each other
  • Acting in self-effacing ways as a way to get approval or attention from the other.


One or both of you may demonstrate some or all of the following:

  • Pushing others away
  • Acting invulnerable
  • Detaching from feelings
  • Blaming the other partner for relationship problems
  • Controlling behavior
  • Anxiousness in close relationships
  • Reluctance to ask for help

Or, if you’re still unsure if your relationship is toxic, it might help to answer these questions below. If you answer “no” to any of them, then you probably need a relationship check-up.

  • Do you and your partner nurture and support each other?
  • Do you trust each other?
  • Do you feel that you and your partner are on the same team?
  • Are your goals similar?
  • Do you and your partner encourage one another’s growth?
  • Are you able to resolve your differences constructively (without turning into a shouting match or a “cold war” where you ignore each other)?

Taking Ownership and Cutting the Cord

Healing a dysfunctional relationship is not about looking for a villain (so easy to want to do). As a team, the question to ask yourselves is not “Whose fault was it?” but rather “What can we do together to solve the problems?”

The only way to cure a toxic relationship is for both partners to take full ownership of their contribution to the dysfunction. This means learning to identify and accepting your own dysfunctional behaviors with brutal honesty. But it doesn’t stop there. Accountability only goes so far without action. This means engaging in inner work to strengthen and develop your own identity, acknowledging why you act and react the way you do, and learning to overcome your toxic behaviors.

If you find yourself trapped in a toxic relationship in which your partner refuses to take accountability for and correct their dysfunctional behavior, it’s time to cut the cord. No matter how much you think you can change your partner for the better, you simply cannot.

Still, even when both partners are willing to do what it takes, this kind of emotional work may be best done in one of two ways – individually or as a couple. However, for some people it’s difficult to strengthen their individual identity and autonomy while with someone who enables the codependent or counter dependent behavior.

It’s also important to remember that there’s always help and resources available for relationship issues. The best way to gauge whether a relationship needs serious consideration is to seek the help of a licensed professional therapist.


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