What is a dysfunctional relationship?
No relationship is perfect, but some are more functional than others. If that is a fair reflection of reality, what makes certain relationships less healthy or more dysfunctional than others? The answer lies on the quantity, intensity and frequency of the dysfunctional behaviours that shape and define relationships as such.
As a first and universal principle, dysfunctional relationships do not favour true intimacy, emotional health and personal growth. One’s needs, wants, vulnerabilities and negative feelings are not expressed clearly and with confidence for a fear of rejection and abandonment. Therefore, the authentic self does not flourish in the presence of the other, but it is hidden behind a facade of togetherness created to comply with his or her expectations.
Even though such expectations have a major influence on the dynamic and health of any relationship, in the dysfunctional modality they tend to be high and unrealistic. As they are not openly talked about, negotiated democratically and with reasonable compromise, they do not correspond to individual differences, needs and limitations of the authentic self. Failure to live up to one’s own idealised standards or the other’s expectations culminates in feelings of not being good enough, incompetent (fear of making mistakes/not pleasing the other or “getting it right”) and unlovable. The permeating inadequacy brings about a tendency to fault finding, blaming and holding grudges.
Due to emotional neglect, dependency and immaturity, emotions are not processed autonomously or through the empathic presence of the other. As a result, behaviour is largely motivated by unconscious feelings of fear, shame, anger and anxiety that have great negative impact both on an individual and relationship level. Lack of adequate emotional support, validation or willingness to listen and change one’s behaviour leads to a building resentment that makes one seem to explode over “nothing” from time to time.
In dysfunctional relationships, boundaries are not clear or respected, as well as one’s wishes, likes and dislikes. As values and personal roles are rigid, the dynamic is highly uneven and favours a dominant/active and submissive/passive dyad, which is frequently kept through denial and in an unconscious fashion. In such scenarios, the relationship is used as a weapon of manipulation and control. Refusal to conform with the dysfunctional dynamic and play its rigid roles is followed by threats of abandonment, be them overt/verbal or covert, through emotional distancing and passive aggression.
In cases where there are attempts to address problems and solve them, motivation is weak and tends to wither over time. For that reason, the trajectory of dysfunctional relationships is marked by ups and downs. While one takes on the responsibility of the relationship wellbeing, the other refuses to fully acknowledge the effects of his/her attitude and quickly reverts to a habit of denial, neglect or resistance to change. Because dysfunctional relationships are made of two highly independent units that do not work cooperatively, they are also filled by feelings of powerlessness, shame, discontent and isolation.
If you would like to refrain from feeding a dysfunctional relationship dynamic, be it with your partner, relative, friend, colleague or boss, self-awareness is key. While it should not be anyone’s responsibility to carry the wellbeing of any relationship solely on their shoulders, by addressing and changing your own behaviour you can become a model of self-esteem and emotional maturity.