BY LILLIAN MCTERNAN
There are times when it feels like modern life is filled with a series of obstacle courses: how to find balance while having a career and a thriving personal life, how to lean in when so many situations seem hostile to the idea, how to raise well-adjusted kiddos in a rapidly changing world — the list goes on.
One item that often rises to the top of people’s list of concerns is making sure their relationship is on steady ground. This can sometimes be a bit of a squirrelly issue, since some relationship habits that seem healthy, or are widely accepted in society as normal, are actually quite unhealthy — or even toxic.
Conflict disguised as passion
Pop culture tends to romanticize relationships that frequently cycle between intense conflict and equally intense reconciliations — however, they’re often quite insidious. In fact, Douglas Noll, a lawyer specializing in mediation, explained that couples who “hide their conflicts behind the curtain of ‘passion’ seek the dopamine high of reconciliation.” Essentially, the pattern of fighting and intense reconciliation is a “way of connecting while avoiding deep intimacy.”
Reverend Sheri Heller, a New York City-based interfaith minister and relationship therapist, also described how “[f]requent intense conflict indicates difficulties with conflict resolution and communication.” These difficulties can be rooted in problems ranging from the relatively benign — such as immaturity — to the deeply toxic, such as narcissism or abuse. “Narcissistic abusers may be prone to episodic tantrums,” she noted, and for such people, “intermittent intense conflicts establish the foundation for an addictive relationship and traumatic bonding.”
Even when a relationship isn’t abusive, Noll notes that it’s unsustainable. “The corrosiveness of this pattern cannot be overstated…. ‘[P]assionate’ is a euphemism for a relationship in distress. If the cycle is not broken, the relationship will burn out.” Instead of staying locked in this pattern, Noll recommends learning skills like de-escalation and problem solving. One way to do this, he notes, is to listen to your partner’s emotions, not their words. Eventually, “this will re-wire the couple’s brains and give them space to create a deeper connection within themselves and with each other,” and then they can more effectively work together on solving other problems.
Keeping the peace
Sometimes it can feel easier to just ignore something that bothers you for the sake of keeping the peace. However, according to a WebMD article by Psychologist Leslie Becker-Phelps, although swallowing your feelings may seem like a good way to keep from descending into a downward spiral of conflict, the reality is that “conflict avoidance has its limits. Sometimes a difference arises that is too big to ignore…. When these types of issues come up, conflict avoidant couples don’t have a way of working through the issues together.”
Swallowing your feelings and not talking about something upsetting is a recipe for problems later in the relationship, since the small and seemingly not-worth-discussing issues can build up and take on a life of their own. When I spoke with Natalie Pizzolla, a licensed social worker and relationship coach, she explained that by “choosing not to bring them up, this can allow you to feel resentment in the long run and can damage your relationship.”
There’s also a positive side to sharing your feelings: telling your partner how you really feel is also an opportunity to strengthen your relationship. “Sharing feelings enables you to talk through the situation that had caused the difficulty,” writes Susan Heiter, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. “That way you can figure out how the problem occurred and what to do to fix it. Problem-solving together makes negative feelings lift.” So speak up, even though it can feel hard!
This is a tricky one. Many of us want not just a relationship, but a true partnership — so you want to be sure that you and your significant other are on equal footing. But where does the quest for equality stop and score keeping begin? Social Worker and Relationship Therapist Rhonda Milrad told me that while we all want a 50/50 relationship with our partner, “keeping track of what you have done, pointing it out to your partner, and noting when you feel that your partner is falling behind in their commitments are surefire ways to create conflict.”
Instead, the experts at Psychology Today recommend working out a plan with your partner to determine who does what in the course of your daily life. This plan can include household chores, finances, child care, etc., and can also accommodate your individual preferences, schedules, strengths, and weaknesses. By establishing divisions of labor that both partners are comfortable with, you won’t have to endure daily arguments or negotiations about who does what.
However, the folks at Psychology Today note that “should one of you deviate from the contract to which you’ve informally agreed, the question becomes whether the other partner can accept the occasional lapse.” When one partner can’t tolerate occasional extenuating circumstances, this indicates equally problematic issues such as rigidity and distrust. So, instead of keeping score, remember, “You may not always be taking as much as you give, but in the long run, it won’t matter as much as your overall feelings of fulfillment.”
The tit-for-tat pattern follows closely behind keeping score, since they tend to go hand in hand. In this scenario, one partner tells the other something they’re upset about — usually something the other person has done or failed to do — and the other person responds with a list of equally, if not worse, things that their partner did wrong. “It may feel natural to want to defend yourself,” Milrad told me, “but all you are doing is deflecting responsibility and piling one problem on top of another. Your partner is looking to be acknowledged and understood so that they can recover and move on, [but] tit-for-tat keeps that connection from occurring.”
Essentially, notes Psychology Today, how couples “behave towards each other when they [argue]” is more important than how often they argue. “[A]rguing is only helpful if… the argument achieves the straightforward objectives of solving a problem and doing it efficiently.” Tit-for-tat, also known as reciprocation, keeps this from happening. Not only does it move the argument off-topic from the original issue, but it also often leads to escalation.
“When we reciprocate, we have essentially decided that solving a problem isn’t entirely what we’re looking to do,” according to Psychology Today. “[W]e’re using each confrontation as an opportunity to express the anger and resentment that has built up over the years.” Instead of jumping to defend yourself, listen to your partner and work towards finding a solution.
While fighting all the time isn’t healthy, neither is the idea that we should never fight with our partners. “Conflict in a relationship is normal,” notes Clinton Power, a relationship expert at Psych Central, and it’s “a sign that growth is trying to happen. It’s a way to express strong emotions, and the hope is… we fight fair and with awareness.” Refusing to fight or argue blocks that growth, and often keeps people locked in a pattern of suppressing their negative feelings.
Never arguing is something that Jim Seibold, a marriage and family therapist based in Arlington, Texas, sees as a red flag. “It’s impossible to be in a relationship and [not] have differences of opinion, or to feel frustration or hurt,” he says. Not having even occasional arguments means that people “are not being completely honest with each other. It also means there is little opportunity to address issues that need to be fixed.”
This, in turn, not only harms the relationship — often showing up in less direct forms such as passive aggression, because the negative feelings have to come out somehow — but can also have a detrimental impact on your health. “Anger that is subverted manifests in the body,” explains Power for Psych Central. This can take the form of digestive issues, insomnia, and headaches, so it’s important to “accept that in any relationship, you will fight with the other person at some point. Learning to fight respectfully and fairly actually generates new energy between people,” and it can add depth and intimacy to a relationship.
Needing someone else to “complete” you
Tom Cruise’s iconic line from Jerry Maguire has often been used to illustrate how people in “ideal” relationships should feel — but as it turns out, “you complete me” is actually quite a toxic idea.
Victoria Fleming, a licensed clinical professional counselor with a Ph.D. in psychology, writes in You Complete Me and Other Myths that Destroy Happily Ever After that “you complete me trumpets that I am less than whole.” Furthermore, it also makes clear that the person saying it believes “I am not whole, but with you I can be.” This imparts an unhealthy degree of dependence on another person, and it “only works if one partner is willing to surrender their half entirely…. Each person needs to be complete and strives to be whole.”
Placing so much importance on a partner sets the relationship up for toxic dynamics such as dependence and codependence — so as romantic as it may seem to think that a partner can complete you, the far better path is to look at a partner as someone who enriches and adds to your already-complete life.
Jealousy is hard to navigate: people often mistake it as a sign of love, but it’s also associated with toxic behaviors like possessiveness and abuse. In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Gwendolyn Seidman, a professor of psychology at Albright College, writes that jealousy can be a serious problem in relationships — and that jealousy arises from insecurity, not the love or affection that a person has for their partner.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that jealousy — which, let’s be honest, many of us feel at one time or another — requires a delicate balancing act in order to deal with it in a healthy way. While being consumed by it is unhealthy, it’s also not something you want to suppress or ignore. “It’s absolutely unhealthy to suppress your feelings of jealousy because you don’t want to be called ‘crazy’…. We tend to think we look more mature if we don’t fall for ‘negative feelings'” like jealousy, Lucinda Loveland, a relationship educator, told me.
So, how can people deal with jealousy in a healthy, productive way? Seidman recommends tactics like working to build your own self-confidence and sense of security in your relationship, and communicating your feelings to your partner. As Seidman notes, “[T]he way you talk is key: if you express anger or sarcasm, or hurl accusations at your partner, that’s not going to help…. Calmly explain your feelings and discuss how to find a solution.” Ultimately, the goal is to express your feelings and have a solution-oriented conversation.
Monitoring a partner’s online behavior is a great example of an unhealthy response to jealousy — and oh man, the consequences of doing this can be serious bad news. I spoke with Erin Wiley, a clinical psychotherapist, who explained that monitoring your partner’s online activity “feeds into a subliminal narrative that you suspect something is going on behind your back. If you have no reason to believe your partner is cheating or acting inappropriately, then why are you looking?”
This narrative of suspicion, in turn, feeds into a broader issue: that fundamentally, you don’t trust your partner — and without trust, a relationship can quickly turn toxic. This lack of trust can “put your partner on the defensive and drive a wedge between you,” Wiley told me. Instead, it’s best to operate under the assumption that your partner is trustworthy unless they prove otherwise. Cause for suspicion is one thing, but keeping tabs on a partner’s online activity indicates that the person doing the snooping is actually looking for reasons not to trust their partner.
Snooping around can also ruin any fun, exciting, or happy surprises that your partner may have planned for you, Danita Scott, a women’s personal development coach, told me. “Technology should not be used to make our partner feel like we are their personal ‘Big Brother’ watching their every move,” she said. “Allow your partner to have privacy and experiences that are just for them.” So, even if it’s tempting, it’s best not to do any online snooping.
Recognize if things have become toxic
Relationships, especially in their early stages, can be god-awful hard to navigate. (Do you call? Do you not call? Do you say something when you’re upset? How do you respond when your partner is upset? Do you tell them when you have indigestion? So. Many. Questions.)
They can be even harder to navigate due to some of the relationship myths above, so your own sense of intuition can come to your aid here. If it feels wrong, uncomfortable, or just “off,” it’s okay to listen to those warning signs. By nurturing your relationship with yourself as well as your relationship with your partner, you can identify and take action if toxic relationship habits become an issue.