Unhealthy relationships

Some years ago, while I was working at an inpatient psychiatric facility here in Dallas, Texas, my boss asked me if I would lead the afternoon group therapy session, “Healthy Relationships.” I said sure, I’d do the group, but then asked if I could re-name the group, “Unhealthy Relationships,” because at the time, I was much more well-versed in that subject than its opposite.

Like most people, I have been given quite a few lessons in relationships at the school of hard knocks. Almost everyone I know, from clients to friends to family members, have taken their share of lumps when it comes to their romantic endeavors. I’m happy to say that I am currently in a healthy, fulfilling relationship with my wife of two years, and we are expecting our first child any minute now (literally). But it hasn’t always been that way. Most of the relationships I had before now were not what I would call shining examples of health, and some of them were outright disasters. It took me a couple of decades to figure some things out and to stop making the same mistakes over and over again. So the purpose of this particular article is to share with you some of the things I have learned along the way, in the hopes that it might be useful, or at least mildly interesting.

First off, I want to talk about Red Flags. Red Flags are warning signs that scream, “Run away!” when you encounter them in a potential mate. I don’t expect everyone to agree with these, but if you recognize any of them in your main squeeze, and decide that it’s not a big deal, or can be overlooked, then I can only wish you the best of luck.

Red Flag number one: the suitor who won’t take “no” for an answer. Many people have told me stories of being pursued by someone whom they weren’t really interested in, but the pursuit was so relentless that it eventually wore down the person’s defenses, and they finally gave in. Now, this might feel very flattering, to be so ardently pursued, but take a guess as to how many of these stories have had a happy ending. (Hint: the answer starts with a “z” and ends with “ero.”) If someone pursues you relentlessly, then they are giving valuable information about themselves; namely, that person will not respect your boundaries, at the least, and might have serious problems at worse. Run away!

Red Flag number two: the suitor who wants to be joined at the hip with you. This is the person who wants to move in after the first date, who wants to spend every waking and sleeping moment with you, who falls in love immediately, who calls and texts thirty times a day, etc. Again, this might initially come across as very flattering and charming, but after awhile, you will realize that what they call love is in fact desperate clinginess. If you enjoy the feeling of being smothered, then you have met your dream boat. Otherwise, run away! Like Red Flag number one, this is an indication of a low self-esteem that seeks relief in the form of a relationship. It might work for a little while, but it’s a recipe for disaster.

Red Flag number three: the bully. This is the suitor who will try to control you with threats and intimidation. These threats might be overt, or they might be subtle. I witness an example of the latter kind when a couple I know, Randy and Jane, were arguing about something, and finally Randy said, “You’re about to make me mad.” This was enough to cause Jane to clam up on the spot. That might not sound like much, but it was a threat, and threats are not part of a healthy relationship. Neither is physical violence in any form. It’s absolutely not okay. If you are afraid of your partner, then it’s time to get out.

Red Flag number four: the victim. This is the wounded individual who is waiting for someone like you to swoop in and save him or her from all their troubles. Now, this person might be a very nice, decent human being without a mean bone in his or her body, but until that person learns to take responsibility for his or her own well-being, then that person is probably not ready to have a healthy, adult relationship. What they probably need is a good therapist who can help work through some issues and become a reasonably healthy person. I wouldn’t recommend you take on this role, unless you are in fact a therapist; otherwise, there’s no reason why you can’t be friends, but as far as a romance goes, run away!

Red Flag number five is the counterpart to the victim: the rescuer. This is the knight in shining armor who is attracted to those who are struggling under the weight of their personal issues. This might appear very sweet and noble, but it’s not a good foundation for a stable relationship. The victim/rescuer relationship is fraught with problems, one of which is that it is an inherently unequal power relationship. Healthy relationships are based on roughly equal power between two individuals. In an unhealthy relationship based on unequal power, someone is always “up” and someone is always “down,” although these positions might see-saw back and forth, and often do. Like the victim, the rescuer often suffers from low self-esteem, and he rescues others in an effort to feel better about himself, without addressing his own issues.

Red Flag number six: the liar. There’s no way to sugar-coat this one. This person will lie about why he’s still calling his ex-girlfriend, why he’s going through your texts while you’re in the shower, why he’s coming in late from work, why you can’t meet his family, etc. What this demonstrates is a fundamental lack of respect for you and a lack of trustworthiness on his part. Sure, most of us are going to be guilty of “little white lies” from time to time, usually in an effort to avoid revealing some embarrassing truth about ourselves, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Once it becomes apparent your main squeeze is lying to you, there’s only one thing to do: run away!

Red Flag number seven: the man-child. (This could also apply to women.) The man-child initially might seem charming in his bumbling tomfoolery, but I guarantee you it will get old fast. The man-child avoids adult responsibilities in favor of his toys or favorite TV programs or his vehicle or whatever. You might think you are the one to grow him up and turn him into the adult you know he could be, but it’s a fool’s errand. In fact, here is a good rule of thumb for all relationships: if you get involved with someone for who you think they could be someday as opposed to who they are right now, then you are making a mistake. I’m not talking about someone who is, say, in college and working toward a degree. I’m talking about someone who seems like they would be a good catch if they would just get off the couch and grow up. Unless you want to take on the role of partner, parent, and life coach for one person, run away!

Here are some questions to consider about your mate: Are you embarrassed by him? Is there some reason you don’t want your friends or family members to meet her? Do you worry he would go through your phone while you’re in the bathroom? Are all her friends the same gender? Does he drink or drug to excess? Does she spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet? Is he disrespectful of women? Does she use sex as a drug? Is she only happy when she’s with you? Does he have hair on his earlobes? Okay, that last one’s a joke, but if you find yourself answering “yes” to one or more of the above questions, well… that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, but again, you ignore such behaviors at your peril.

A healthy mate will respect you, will not call you names when you argue, no matter how heated things get. A healthy mate doesn’t need to be with you at all times. A healthy mate will not give up friends, hobbies, family, etc. just to keep you happy. What are the ingredients for a healthy relationship? Two healthy people. You don’t need to be perfectly healthy, because no one is, but reasonably healthy. Occasionally, a client will make a statement like, “I probably don’t need a girlfriend right now, I need to focus on myself for awhile.” Guess what? He’s right! (That’s another Red Flag – the person who is never not in a relationship. It’s perfectly normal to be single from time to time, and until you meet The One, it’s a good thing.)

Here’s a little story: Once upon a time, there was an 18-year-old young man whom I’ll call… Pedro. Pedro was young and in love for the first time. He was giddy and head over heels. One day, Pedro was hanging out with a friend of his, an older, wiser man named Ed, who taught English and Drama at the community college where Pedro went. “So,” Ed asked, “how’s it going with what’s-her-name?”

“Great,” said Pedro, with a goofy grin.

“Yeah?” Ed took a drag from his cigarette. “What’s so great about it?”

“I don’t know, we just make each other really happy.”

Ed nodded sagely and took another drag. He breathed out smoke and said, “That’s a terrible reason to be in a relationship.”

“What?” Pedro exclaimed. “I don’t think you heard me right. I said we make each other really happy.”

“I heard you fine,” Ed said. “You make her happy. She makes you happy. That’s a terrible reason to be in a relationship.”

Pedro stared, dumbfounded. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said.

“You make each other happy,” Ed said.


“Right. Here’s what’s going to happen: it’s going to become your job to make her happy, and it’s going to become her job to make you happy, and one of these days, one of you isn’t going to do your job.”

Pedro shook his head. “If you say so, man.” Whatever Ed was trying to say, it went right over Pedro’s head, because he was young and green. But lo, everything Ed predicted came to pass, and when things fell apart a couple of years later, Pedro became deeply depressed, and tried to find happiness by getting involved with someone else who would love him. Eventually, he found another girlfriend, but the same thing happened, and that pattern repeated for about twenty years. Finally, after many semesters at the school of hard knocks, Pedro learned a fundamental truth: happiness wasn’t going to come to him in the form of another person. As cheesy as it sounded to him, Pedro realized happiness had more to do with how he felt about himself than how anyone else thought about him. By that time, Pedro had become a therapist, and he went on to share this hard-won knowledge with anyone who would listen, in the form of an incredibly insightful and entertaining blog. The end.

By the way, this blog was started a few days ago, and was interrupted by the birth of my absolutely beautiful little girl, Ellie. Which gives me an idea for another blog… But that’s for another day.


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