This article will help you identify if your relationship is dysfunctional and if so, give you guidance on how to heal.
It can be hard to know if your relationship is truly dysfunctional – or if you just have rocky patches at times. Fortunately, research has been done for 50 years now on what makes relationships healthy and happy – as well as makes them dysfunctional.
Research shows that being in a dysfunctional relationship makes it more likely your relationship will end or you will divorce. Therefore, it’s important to know with clarity in what ways your relationship may not be healthy. This will help guide healing.
Toxic Vs. Dysfunctional
Before diving into the traits of a dysfunctional relationship, it’s helpful to address a common question:
The short answers is yes – dysfunctional relationships are toxic and by their very nature, toxic relationships are dysfunctional.
That being said a relationship is either dysfunctional or functional. The answer is “Yes” or “No” when asking if your relationship is dysfunctional. Whereas toxic relationships are both dysfunctional and the level of toxicity exists on a spectrum. A relationship is either dysfunctional or not. But a relationship can be somewhat toxic to extremely toxic.
Dysfunctional Relationship Research
Toxic relationships have been increasingly a topic of interest in pop culture over the last decade. Yet researchers and clinicians have historically focused on what predicts divorce or leads to dysfunctional relationship. Toxic relationships are, by their very nature, not functional of course.
Therefore, it’s helpful to understand what research shows leads to dysfunction in a relationship – and predicts relationships ending. This research comes from John Gottman who has studied couples for over 50 years to discover what makes relationships strong – and what leads to dysfunction.
Gottman has found that there are nine consistent traits of a relationship which lead to “continued couple misery” or divorce. These traits can be found in his book, The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples.
In the rest of the article, these traits will be summarized into 5 dysfunctional relationship qualities for simplicity.
Dysfunctional Relationship Trait #1: More Negative than Positive Interactions
In dysfunctional relationships, there are more negative than positive interactions both during conflict and outside of disagreements. If you’re in a relationship that’s not working well, you likely know how true this is. It often may feel like no matter how much you try to get along with your partner, things tend to sour between you.
Related: My Boyfriend and I Keep Fighting
During conflicts, you will also see escalating aggressive or hurtful behaviors towards one another. Four of these behaviors are particularly damaging to relationships – and most strongly predict divorces (or break-ups). Gottman calls these behaviors the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because of how damaging they are to relationships. These behaviors include defensiveness, stonewalling (shutting down, refusing to talk, leaving the house without taking a break), criticism, and contempt (mocking, gaslighting).
Dysfunctional Relationship Trait #2: Seeing the Worst in the Other Person
In dysfunctional relationships, partners have what Gottman calls “negative sentiment override” towards one another. This means that when your partner does something that someone else may think is neutral or even positive, you see it through a negative lens. (It’s the opposite of having rose colored glasses on with someone.)
An example of this could be that if you walk into the kitchen and you see your partner left the dishes at the table, you may think, “What a lazy jerk” instead of “Wow, they must’ve been distracted.”
Related: The Impact of ADHD on Relationships
Dysfunctional Relationship Trait #3: You’re Walking on Eggshells
When you’re in a dysfunctional (and toxic) relationship, your nervous system remains “on guard” around your partner. Here you literally don’t feel safe. You may find that your partner has the ability to trigger you much more easily than anyone else because of this. Gottman describes this as “chronic physiological arousal” of your “general alarm system.” Most basically, this includes numerous physical symptoms around your partner such as trouble thinking and hearing clearly, increased heart rate, and the need to repeat yourself.
Related: Is Love Supposed to Hurt?
This is the fight-or-flight trauma response you may be familiar with where your body is “on guard” around your partner and you may be easily triggered into a sense of being literally in danger around them. The natural impulse here is to then fight (repeat yourself, be critical, contemptuous, defensiveness) or to run away (literally leaving, stonewalling). When a person becomes so physiologically overwhelmed, they may enter the freeze state. Here you may feel numb, empty, and not in your body. This contributes to stonewalling at times.
Related: Can You Heal Trauma on Your Own?
Dysfunctional Relationship Trait #4: The Friendship is Gone (or Lacking)
One of the key components of a healthy, happy, lasting relationship research shows is a strong sense of friendship between partners. But in dysfunctional (or toxic) relationships, there is a breakdown in the bond or friendship between partners.
This happens in multiple ways including, of course, escalating hurtful behaviors and increasing negative interactions between partners. But this also happens by ignoring – or responding hurtfully – to attempts to engage the other person. These are called “bids for attention” and they’re done all the time in relationships. A bid for attention is any time a person seeks to engage another.
An example of this may be to say to your partner, “Oh – look at the pretty bird outside!” and in happy relationships, they’ll look up at the bird and say something like “Oh yeah, it is pretty.”
But in dysfunctional relationships this bid is either ignored i.e., the partner keeps scrolling on their phone or met with hostility. This could look something like, “Can’t you see I’m reading something on my phone? Why did you interrupt me?”
Dysfunctional Relationship Trait #5: A Male Partner Rejects their Female Partner’s Perspective
In healthy relationships, we accept influence from one another. This is a natural give and take where we consider the other person’s perspective and compromise whenever possible. This may sound like saying, “You know, you’re right – I hadn’t thought of it that way before.”
However, in dysfunctional heterosexual relationships, the male partner is unwilling to accept their female partner’s influence. This is so toxic to relationships that research shows a male partner’s unwilling to accept their female partner’s influence can predict divorce with 80% accuracy.
An unwillingness to accept influence can range from small to large issues. A male partner refusing influence may look like him outright ignoring his wife or girlfriend or he may become aggressive when she shares her view or a complaint.
This can also look like gaslighting where a male partner may say something like “You don’t really feel that way” or “Who got in your head now? Your friends are creating problems.”
What if My Relationship is Dysfunctional (or Toxic)?
If you found yourself relating to the qualities of a dysfunctional relationship, please know that while uncomfortable or painful, this is an important first step to healing.
This blog may be a support to you as well as you navigate your next steps for healing.
A great place to begin your healing journey is to first read, Can a Toxic Relationship Be Fixed? A Therapist Explains. When you’re in a dysfunctional, or toxic, relationship it’s common to feel really confused about what to do. This article will help provide you with important clarity to guide your best next steps.
If you realize you want to heal your relationship some helpful articles will be:
- 3 Techniques for Couples Counseling You Can Use on Your Own,
- 5 Tips for Your First Couples Therapy Session,
- When Should You Stop Trying to Make a Relationship Work,
- How to Fix Relationship Problems: 4 Important Tips from a Couples Therapist,
- Good Communication in a Relationship: A Couples Therapist Explains
If you want to leave the relationship, please check out:
- How to Get Over Someone You Love – But is Toxic,
- Narcissism and Going No Contact: 5 Tips to Help You Stay Away,
- Healing from Narcissistic Abuse: The Top 3 Ways to Find Healing from a Relationship Therapist,
- Dealing with Being Lonely and Single: 4 Tips to Feel Better,
- A Therapist’s Best Advice for Someone Going through a Breakup
Wherever you find yourself right now, please know you can navigate this – and I’m sending you all the best wishes!
Note: This Site Uses Affiliate Links At Times. If You Purchase An Item Through An Affiliate Link, This Website Earns A Small Payment. We Greatly Appreciate Your Consideration To Support Us Through Your Purchases With The Affiliate Links.
About The Author
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist and author with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to find their voice, deepen their ability to self-love, and improve their relationships.
Her newest book, Setting Boundaries: 100 Ways to Protect Yourself, Strengthen Your Relationships and Build the Life You Want…Starting Now! (Therapy Within Reach), gives you the tools necessary to identify, set, and stay firm with your boundaries.
Her other books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many overcome people pleasing, self-neglect, and resentment to have a healthier relationship with themselves and others.
If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to email@example.com or DM her on Instagram. We will always keep your name and other identifying information confidential.