Over the past few months, many readers have contacted me after seeing my pieces on the signs of controlling relationships, and how to begin to extract yourself from one. Indeed, it is startling the number of otherwise “normal” people who are trapped in a long-standing abusive situation that might make most people’s hair stand on end.
Even more subtle, however, are toxic behaviors that a lot more of us have come to consider as normal. Your relationship may be far from a classically controlling one, but there could still be indicators that you deserve far, far better. Of course, in these cases, it doesn’t absolutely mean that you need to end your relationship. Often, a few sessions with a couples therapist can help identify these problematic patterns and work with you to establish ways to get rid of them. Your success in overcoming these obstacles depends on you and your partner’s willingness to put effort into overcoming the problem: motivation that often will be the difference between a relationship sinking or swimming in the long-term.
In the meantime, the first step is to acknowledge the dysfunctional patterns. These are the most common “innocuous” (though in reality anything but) behaviors that I hear about in therapy and in my advice column. Do you recognize– in you or your partner– any of these common but troubling situations?
1) Chronic unreliability. You might think of your partner simply as scattered or flaky. But the damage of never being able to know if they will come through and do what they say they will do– whether paying the electric bill or following through with taking off work to be with you during surgery– can cause chronic stress and undermine trust within your relationship. It can create uncertainty where support should be, adding doubt where a relationship should instead provide security. And even if your partner is not dropping the ball to be manipulative but is rather just disorganized, overwhelmed, or suffering from attention problems, the effects on a couple’s connection can be serious. It’s something to look at individually and as a couple.
2) Joking That’s Really Not Really “Funny” At All. Different couples have different thresholds for what is humorous versus hurtful in terms of teasing. And unfortunately, even within the same couple there may be vastly different sensibilities about what feels good and what stings hard when it comes to joking around. The keys, of course, are communication and respect. Your partner should be able to resist the urge to tease when they know it crosses the line for you, and you should be able to speak up about it in a way that feels safe. Often, partners that repeatedly cross the line into hurt justify it by insisting they are “just joking.” But that is invalidating, as the effects matter just as much as the intent in these cases.
3) Needing to Be Right All The Time. Recently, a reader chatted with my online community about being married to a person who always had to be right, for big things and small. He needed to win every disagreement, make his point the final point, and “correct” everything she said that he disagreed with. This reader happened to blame this on the fact that he was an attorney, but that seems a flimsy excuse– his behavior was so excessive as to border on controlling, and clearly went beyond “lawyering.” Often, such offenders are acting out of insecurity or anxiety, and simply don’t realize how they are eroding the relationship over time. An objective, professional third-party can help, if there is motivation to change.
4) Being Dismissive or Intolerant of Feelings. I’ve heard from other readers who feel like they aren’t “allowed” to express feelings in front of their partner. Of course, sometimes these readers themselves might be expressing these feelings in explosive or threatening ways, and so in these cases their partner’s discomfort is understandable. But other times, the partner– whether because of a complicated past history with their family of origin or just the nature of their personality— creates an environment where it feels unwelcome and unsupported to express even the most understandable of human reactions. If your partner is constantly making you feel bad for expressing emotion in a reasonable way, or expecting you to always be in a good mood, this can feel like a stranglehold. The real risk is that it might make you bury your feelings to the point where they start eating you up from the inside.
5) Endless Bean-Counting. It’s great when a couple can settle into a general, reciprocal pattern that helps them feel like work is shared equally. (“When she cooks, I clean.”) But general is the key here. When it comes to routines, partnerships that can flex and bend when needed are far less likely to break under pressure. Over the course of a lengthy committed relationship, there will be times– even lasting weeks or longer– where one person needs to pick up the other person’s slack, for the good not only of the partner but for the relationship. Gratitude is no doubt called for in these situations and can help make both partners feel good. But when one partner expects the other to “make up for it” or is constantly keeping tally of who “owes” who what– then it’s hard to maintain a feeling of true support, trust, and unconditional love.
Have you dealt with any of these situations? Let me know in the comments!
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