We book in check-ups to make sure our bodies are functioning well, we exercise to keep our physical stamina at its peak and we have appraisals to ensure our work is up to scratch. So why, when relationships are perhaps the biggest connections we can make in life, don’t we consider a relationship health-check?
The fact is, relationships can be complicated, and facing up to potential problems can be daunting. But being willing to ask yourself tough questions doesn’t mean that you are pre-empting a failure. Instead, see it as an honest way to be sure that you aren’t going to end up in a painful situation further down the line. After all, if you are hoping to spend the rest of your life with someone, surely it’s best to know that they are right for you?
What are the signs of a healthy relationship?
The most important thing when considering the healthiness of a relationship is both your and your partner’s everyday wellbeing. And if something doesn’t feel right for either of you, it’s essential to determine what that is as early as possible. “At times like this, it is also worth asking why things might not be right,” says relationship coach Wendy Capewell. She says that genuinely feeling comfortable with your partner is key in a healthy relationship, rather than convincing yourself that you are comfortable because the relationship sounds good on paper.
“We can’t always share the same interests as our partners, and these often change with time anyway. Building a relationship on shared beliefs and values is better, and creates a more permanent bond,” she explains.
Another important factor when addressing your relationship health is understanding that a partner should be an addition to your life, rather than that one thing you need to be happy. “We should have our own goals, dreams and aspirations and be able to pursue those within a relationship,” says Wendy. “Each person should be able to cheer the other on, acting supportively and being there if things don’t work out as planned,” she adds. Realising this will mean that you won’t pile all of your expectations unfairly onto a partner, which can lead to unhealthy behaviours developing.
Unfortunately, despite our best hopes and efforts, there are times when this does happen. Dependence, a need for control and other negative behaviours can all grow within a relationship, especially when situations beyond our control are happening in other aspects of our lives, or when we’ve had bad experiences in the past. “There are some obvious and some subtle signs to look out for. These are often dismissed as ‘just a phase’, but they are very real,” says Wendy. “For instance, if you find yourself unable to share feelings, if you are always arguing over the same issues or feel constantly put down by a partner. If you stop being intimate with each other – and I don’t mean just when it comes to sex – but kissing and cuddling too, and talking about your innermost dreams and concerns. These can all be warning signs that something isn’t right.”
But how easy is it to prevent a relationship getting to this stage? “[Unhealthy traits] come down to either how you see yourself in the relationship or how one or both parties behave. It might even be a mix of the two,” says relationship expert Natalie Lue. “If one or both of you have resorted to behaving in ways that aren’t conducive to growing the relationship, an open and honest conversation is worth having,” she recommends. “It may lead to self-reflection and growth for both parties, or it may prove to be the wake-up call that the relationship isn’t right.”
This prospect might sound daunting, but if these unhealthy behaviours are not recognised or addressed they can become toxic over time, turning into emotional abuse, or worse.
Unfortunately, the signs of this are more easy to notice, but even harder to resolve. The tactic of ‘gaslighting’ in order to gain more power – where the victim is made to question their reality – is recognised as a major part of a coercive relationship. As a result, the recipient of such behaviour may feel worn down, or as though they are imagining situations or ‘going mad’.
Other common signs of a coercive partner include a lack of compassion for others, and a gradual encouragement of isolation from family or friends – perhaps by expressing jealousy when you spend time with other people. Making decisions without consultation is another way to undermine a person’s worth, while also making underhand comments that seem like a harmless joke. Encouraging financial dependence can also be included, as it could leave the dependent person unable to exercise control over their life if they have to run all spending past their partner.
A more deliberate action; ‘stonewalling’ is an anxiety-inducing method of ignoring someone, often involving the partner in question disappearing for a few days out of the blue, with little explanation. “[This behaviour] can be very subtle and insidious, to the point where the person on the receiving end doesn’t notice it happening at first,” explains Wendy. “There are often lies involved, and there are times when [the coercive partner] is loving and even apologetic, leading to even more self-doubt.”
In 2015, the government introduced a new law making it illegal to exercise coercive control over a partner. The move was a nod to anyone suffering from emotional abuse, acknowledging that their situation was recognised as seriously as those experiencing physical violence. The difficulty is, when the situation has reached this level this is usually the point that it is hardest to find the strength to leave the relationship, particularly if that person has been made to feel inferior through put-downs or a constant stream of criticism. With this in mind, it is important to ask yourself those hard questions about your relationship as soon as any uneasy feelings arise.
Don’t underestimate the necessity in following up on those signs, and don’t be afraid to walk away if you know the answers aren’t positive – the long-term alternative could be much worse. “It can be extremely hard to take those first steps towards leaving, for many reasons,” says Wendy. “You believe that they love you deep down, or you’re fearful of what they will do if you try to leave. Perhaps you are also scared that you won’t find anyone else.”
In these instances, it’s helpful to remind yourself of the relationship qualities you desire and know to be important, as well as your deep-rooted values. Is it possible to achieve this with someone who has such tendencies? If the answer is ‘no’, then it might be time to walk away.
Remember that, with 7.6 billion people in the world, you have a good chance of meeting someone else when the time is right – someone who you can share those core values with, creating a strong, supportive and ultimately happy relationship.
“By the time my two-and-a-half year relationship with Karl* came to an end, I was a wreck. I couldn’t help but replay the arguments we had and the names he called me. “Pathetic”, “mad”, “crazy b****”, “psycho’”. He had said them with such conviction that I had wondered if maybe I had actually turned into this horrible person he described.
Things weren’t always like this. When we first met, Karl was a different person. On nights out, he would grab my hand and pull me off into a quiet corner to tell me he loved me. We pulled sickies and lay in bed all day. I fell madly in love – and for a short while, I felt very loved back. We had been together for six months and were planning our first holiday when I first felt that something wasn’t right.
“I don’t love you, maybe you shouldn’t come on this trip,” read a text message I received at work. I tried to phone him, but the calls rang out. Two days of complete silence followed, while I questioned what I could have done wrong. Then, he phoned me. “I’m sorry, baby. I don’t know why I said that. I love you, let’s go to Thailand together!”
I can’t tell you why I didn’t walk away then. I should have listened to my gut. Instead, I put it down to being a blip and told myself it would be a one-off. It wasn’t. That feeling of unease became my life for the next two years. I went from seeing my friends several times a week to barely seeing them in months because he felt he didn’t connect with them. It was easier to pass on a night out than create that feeling of tension.
Our evenings out became a nightmare of either watching him flirt with the bar staff or being completely ignored. When I confronted him, I was “paranoid” and “psycho”. I waited outside countless restaurants, bars and train stations at agreed meeting times, only for him never to show up. My confidence was slowly chipped away; I felt every bit the “pathetic” woman he painted me out to be.
Deep down, I knew that this wasn’t me, but I just couldn’t find the voice to express it. My entire body ached constantly. I would look at my drawn face and sunken eyes in the mirror and wonder how I had gotten there. Finally, after a night out for my 23rd birthday where he told me my friends were ashamed to be around me, I logged onto a women’s forum. Under the heading, ‘Am I going mad?’, I listed some of the things that had happened. The answers came flooding in: “You’re not mad, this is emotional abuse, please leave him before it goes too far.”
Now, I had to find the strength to escape. But before I could, Karl broke up with me – he had met someone else. My body just shut down and at times I struggled to leave the house. Then, my friend Tom* told me he was moving abroad and I knew immediately what I needed to do. I bought a one-way ticket to go with him. Eleven months later, having travelled through Asia and had enough time and space to heal, I came home.
Karl tried to destroy me, but by doing this he helped me to build a new ‘me’. One that was brave enough to do anything by myself.”
How to leave an unhealthy relationship
Leaving an unhealthy relationship can be very difficult. Relationship expert Natalie Lue shares her advice…
“Unhealthy relationships are corrosive to your sense of self, affecting your emotional, mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing,” says Natalie. “They also gradually permeate every area of your life, often impacting on your other relationships and leading to isolation. Pain is not conducive to love.
“Claims of change are extremely common in unhealthy relationships and it’s not unusual for these to be accompanied by what appear to be uncharacteristic displays of emotion. This leads to you feeling guilty and being charmed into giving them another chance. Talking about change isn’t enough – they would need to be seeing a professional and addressing their behaviour for it to happen.
“I recommend a Get Out Plan, because it stops you from making a sudden decision that you backtrack on, whether it’s due to self doubt or being charmed out of it. Give yourself a deadline of, for example, three months. Use the time to slowly step back, but to also take the blinkers off. Stick to the date. If the relationship is abusive, the time can be used to quietly seek professional advice and support.”
About our relationship experts
Wendy is a trained counsellor and relationship coach. She was inspired by her own experiences to help others. www.wendycapewell.co.uk
Natalie is a relationship expert who specialises in helping people deal with emotional baggage and toxic situations. www.baggagereclaim.co.uk
Where to get help
If you feel that you might need support with any of the issues mentioned in this feature, you can ring the National Domestic Abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
*Names have been changed.
This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 16. Illustration by Geraldine Sy.