The One Love Foundation
A friend recently introduced me to
The One Love Foundation and I
really like their message.
They have a list of Ten Signs Of An Unhealthy Relationship
and it's a good one. I think it's wonderful that there's an organization devoted
to educating people about these relationship fundamentals.
However, I think they only scratch the surface, so I'd like to dig a little deeper
and offer my own perspective, as their ideas are so thought-provoking.
"When someone expresses very extreme feelings and over-the-top behavior that feels overwhelming."
This one is interesting if you consider both physical touch as well as
expressions of feeling. If you're physically uncomfortable with how someone
is touching you, because you can feel the intensity of that touch (and therefore
the physicality), that's a sure sign something is wrong. Also feeling physically
unsafe, like you're being forced or coerced to do something, that's also
a warning sign.
If you think about the other expressions of extreme feelings: stuff
like texting multiple times and a day and demanding a response, going
way above and beyond for a gift (like booking a surprise trip out of
the country), or even as part of emotional manipulation (e.g.: getting
angry one moment and then the next moment saying stuff like
"You know you're the one person for me?",
"You know I love you more than anything",
"You know we're meant to be together, right?!?")
... these are all signs of an unhealthy intensity level (along and some
of the other warning signs below).
"When sometime tries to control your decisions, actions, or emotions."
I heard some incredibly insightful guidance recently. It was
"If you say something more than once, you're
trying to control, or to manipulate; you're no longer simply trying to make a point."
People argue for many reasons: (a) because they need to work something
out (b) because they feel like they're not being heard (c) because they
believe there's no other way through the fire (etc).
And let's face it: we all suck at arguing, myself included. That said,
I've never met a couple who has not argued (and those who tell you they
have not are either (a) lying to you or (b) sociopaths or (c) both),
and people dedicate their entire careers
to studying how people argue
However, as many reasons that there might be to engage in an argument, there's
another reason people initiate conflict, and it's to manipulate. You'll
know the signs when the following pattern begins to play out:
- Your partner initiates conflict.
- You present your side. It's largely, if not entirely, ignored.
- The argument ends, usually because (a) you run out of things to argue about or (b) one or both of you physically removes themselves from the space.
- You reconcile ("Sorry I got so upset").
- Possible offering of an excuse ("I'm really stressed out about work / money / my family / etc").
- There's a period of relative calm.
- Your partner initiates the exact same conflict again at some future point.
(Lather, rinse, repeat)
This can go on for years. And the longer it goes on the clearer the pattern
(and the clearer it's an attempt at manipulation).
This is "conflict for the sake of conflict"
. It's not
about working something out. It's not about coming together. It's not about listening to
your partner, nor communicating with him/her. It's about manipulation.
My guess is the underlying mechanism by which this all plays out is
hopelessly complicated and largely unknowable but I'd guess that at
least two forces are at play here:
- Your arguments have absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand.
- The hurt is so deep no amount of arguing will ever make it go away. It's like an
infinitely deep well and you're never going to reach the bottom. You
think: maybe I can inflict enough pain I will feel better, or
maybe if I externalize enough pain I will feel better, but it's
a fool's errand.
"When someone purposely ruins your reputation, achievements, or success."
This one is pretty is pretty straightforward, though I'd like to offer up
my definition of the word friend
friend [noun]: Someone who makes optimistic assumptions about me.
I think when people embark on a character assassination world tour following
a divorce or a bad breakup I'm convinced that this serves a handful of purposes:
- It's a genuine expression of pain (internal hurt
turned outwards becomes anger).
- It's a sign of helplessness (you can't control the relationship anymore so what
else is there to do?).
- It's a way to keep the relationship going (it's well-understood that, from
a deep psychological standpoint, many people will try to maintain
the relationship as broken, destroyed, terrible, unfixable .. vs
the alternative of dissolving it completely and being left alone
and/or admitting the finality that it's over).
However, there's a really troubling dimension too and that's to weave a
narrative that serves your purposes. What are those purposes? I think this
is largely "pain avoidance". Humans avoid pain at all costs, both physical
and psychological. A narrative in which our partner is to blame for all of
our troubles is one that best insulates us from pain.
The pain of knowing that we did things wrong too, and have to wrestle with that,
and try to reconcile hurting someone's feelings with the idea that we believe
we're a genuinely good person: this is a lot to ask. I sincerely believe
many people are incapable of this.
Unfortunately, this one falls under the manipulation rubric. When we construct
an elaborate narrative to explain away our failures and poor behavior
we become kings and queens of our own fictitious kingdoms.
"When someone makes you feel responsible for their actions or makes it feel like it's your job to keep them happy."
This one is particularly relevant where there's a substance use disorder
present. These accusations are so common they're cliché:
- "I drink because you're never here."
- "I use because you're not nice enough to me."
- "I drink because you're not supportive enough."
- "I use because my family is so dysfunctional / my childhood was so bad."
But this seems to be incredibly common across most relationships. If you've
ever studied your own mind, and how it's sort of like a ping-ping ball
bouncing around inside of a lottery machine searching for happiness
I'll watch some TV. Now, I'll go for a walk.
Next, I'll read some political news on the Internet. After that, I'll
eat lunch. Then, I'll go grab a cup of tea from my local cafe. [Ad infinitum]
We think this stuff will make us happy, but in reality we're just
moving from one thing to the next in a never-ending search for
true happiness (read: we're not very good at finding happiness because
we misunderstand how our minds work).
And at the end of the day, we really are each responsible for our own
happiness, so foisting this responsibility onto our partner is both
unfair and unwise.
"When someone repeatedly makes excuses for their unhealthy behavior."
Similar to the previous entry, this one gets really complicated
when theres's a substance use disorder. Everyone who is intimately
familiar with substance addiction knows the endless parade of
excuses during this journey:
"Why aren't you in an alcohol cessation support program?"
("Because they're all religious")
"Why aren't you in cognitive behavioral therapy?"
("Because they're too expensive")
"Why didn't you go to group today?"
("Because I was too busy with work")
Look: I don't mean to sound unsympathetic here. I'm actually highly
sympathetic, and I learned over the course of the past year the brutal,
Darwinian nature of addiction recovery.
When you sign up to help someone who is struggling, you really have to detach
yourself from any potential outcome, meaning: all outcomes have to be equally
okay. And this is incredibly difficult to do. You also have to accept your
limitations. And for goodness sake read a book or three on
Addicts are the biggest heartbreakers in the world. And it takes a Herculean
investment of emotional energy to take on the difficult task of
supporting someone through their recovery. I think that's why most
people turn away from someone in crisis. I think it's why interventions
never happen even when we know they should. I think it's why we let
people fall so very far ("rock bottom") and then act surprised when
we find them there. This whole area is scary, and overwhelming, and I
think I now know why people turn away.
That said, I think this one is also incredibly common. I think addiction
comes in many forms (work, sex, sadness, anger, gambling, etc), and
these addictions give rise to a narrative that's also pain avoidant,
and therefore excuses poor behavior.
"When someone is jealous to the point where they try to control who you spend time with and what you do."
I've known many people in relationships where they are physically limited
by their partner in terms of who they can spend their time with. The trend
that I see here is that neurodiverse people are much more likely to be in
a relationship where their partner's possessiveness limits their physical
movement / interactions.
The other trend that I see is people who were abused as children
are much more likely to be tolerant of this kind of imposition.
(My go-to line on this one, having been raised Irish Catholic in Boston:
"[Receiving] Anger is like a warm hug.")
In either case, the warning signs are super clear here. You're
being told, quite ostensibly, who you may spend your time with,
and who you may not. That kind of control belies a complete lack
"When someone keeps you away from friends, family, or other people."
I haven't had any exposure to this one, so I'm not sure I have anything
to add. I do know people who are [currently] in this position, and I can
safely say that neurodiverse people (and to be clear I'm talking about ASD here)
are highly susceptible to this kind of isolation.
Keeping you away from friends and family serves a couple of clear
- It limits the narrative you'll receive from the outside
"What's happening in your relationship is damaging to you".
- It limits the potential for an intervention. The fewer people who
are exposed to your situation, the less likely someone is to
be compelled to take action.
I understand that those are obvious, but I find this one to be fascinating
because of how common it is. There must be a component of
going on in these situations.
To quote myself:
"The most difficult cage from which to free a person is
the one they constructed themselves, then gleefully locked
themselves inside and thrown away the key."
"When someone does and says things that make you feel bad about yourself."
I once knew someone who, when I asked her about her mother, she replied:
"She lies to spar."
Once I spent some time
with this person I learned that "spar
" was being
confused with "belittle
The definition of the word belittle
- To represent or speak of as unimportant or contemptible (synonym: disparage).
- To cause to seem little or smaller than something else.
- To make little or less in a moral sense; to speak of in a depreciatory or contemptuous way.
Belittling can be found in Gottman's Four Horsemen
spread across the 1st two (criticism & contempt).
I'm not sure what to say about this one. My theory is that this is both
(a) an effort to inflict pain on someone else (think about Eckhart Tolle's
but also (b) an effort for the belittler to feel better about themselves
(by attempting to cut people down to their level).
Neurodiverse people are also at high risk for this, as sometimes it's difficult
to accurately interpret the fill scope/breadth of communication (tone of
voice, body posture, sarcasm, eye contact or eye rolling, etc). People who
were abused as children are also susceptible to this form of treatment.
"When someone has a really strong, unpredictable reaction that makes you feel scared, confused, or intimidated."
I'm pretty sure that following the pandemic, everyone's emotional
volatility increased, and that the US is essentially a slow-moving
mental health crisis as measured by daily shocking news articles about
people behaving badly.
I look at volatility as extreme ups and downs. If your partner goes
from being one of the most warm, affectionate, and loving people you
have ever known to being cruel, manipulative, and confrontational
in the blink of an eye, that's volatility.
Usually this is displayed through anger. Keep in mind that anger is
internal hurt turned outwards, and so the goal of anger is to inflict
as much pain on others as possible (a "sharing of the pain" if that
If you grew up in an emotionally volatile household
you're particularly susceptible to enduring this type of dynamic because it
will feel so familiar. It's definitely a sad sign when you're so used
to the uncertainty of your partners emotional state that it
becomes a source of comfort. I know that sounds odd, but, if those
kinds of expectations are "built in[to the relationship]", and you're
"I wonder who will walk in the door, Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde"
and you begin to take comfort in your understanding that
at least you know that you have no idea what to expect, well, that's
a really bad sign. It likely means you're simply re-living the abuse
you suffered previously (most likely in childhood).
The other thing that's likely to happen is that you can get stuck
in a perpetual
reaction. To quote from the lede of that article:
"The fight, flight, or freeze response refers to
involuntary physiological changes that happen in the body and mind
when a person feels threatened."
If there's enough volatility (and therefor uncertainty) such that you go
through periods of time during which you don't have time to re-base
(down to a calm level), you can find yourself in a sort of perpetual
fight-or-flight response. One crisis after the next. I'm certain that
this goes hand in hand with the cycle of abuse.
"When someone is disloyal or acts in an intentionally dishonest way."
This one is hard. In fact it might be the most difficult. Trust is a fragile
thing, and takes a long time to build. And because it's so fragile, it's
incredibly easy to break or, if you are ambitious, to destroy entirely.
I'm convinced some people have been betrayed so many times that they are
[literally] unable to trust. Meaning, no conditions will ever be sufficient
to allow someone to trust, and this will perpetuate a self-fulfilling
prophecy of looking for evidence of a betrayal of trust (and the subsequent
accusations that are part of both (a) the volatility in the relationship
and (b) manipulation and ultimately (c) the cycle of abuse).
If you can manage to build trust, treat it with great care. It can be
a fragile and fleeting thing.
Despite how great I think that list is, I'd argue they missed a couple of really important ones:
Systematic Denial of Reality
"When someone denies your own experience of the world (what you saw, what you heard, what you felt, etc)."
This one is straight out of
Bradshaw On: The Family
I keep referencing the "manipulation" section (apologies for that), but
the systematic denial of reality is tied in closely with how we only tell
ourselves the stories that shield us from pain. I think it's just too
difficult for people to admit that they hurt other people - that we
hurt each other - at least from time to time. It's a pretty heavy lift
for most people to face that (even to admit it to themselves), and so,
in the end, we run with
"My story will trump your story"
I read a pretty insightful piece of wisdom many years ago and I forget
the origin, but it went something like:
"If you sit your partner down to talk about
difficulty A, it's a foul ball for them to immediately counter
with `Well what about B?!?!`"
(it might have been Gottman).
Meaning, that deflection is a sort of hijacking of your concerns, and
at a deeper level it's a way to shut them down (deny that they are valid,
and sometimes deny that they even happened). At that point it's almost like
your feelings don't matter. It's a classic MO (some say "cliché")
to deny someone's reality. Done over a sufficiently long period of time
it becomes systemic (part of your behavioral system). It's like a cog in
the machine of your relationship.
Counting the Hits and Not the Misses
"When someone leaves out events and information that runs counter to their
narrative, and only includes events and information that supports the narrative."
This one is a classic. Everyone does this (and it's called "cognitive bias"). However, it
also falls under "manipulation" in that, in order to weave a particular narrative, one is
forced to ignore any data that runs contrary to that narrative.
- Ignoring all of someone's positive qualities while emphasizing all of their negative ones.
- Dismissing what were previously acts of kindness as not counting anymore
due to some new criteria ("Helping me out financially doesn't count as
caring because it's only money and not truly a sign of affection").
- Simply rewriting history: What was previously
"I have a million great memories with you"
""I was miserable every day of our relationship"
"You've been nicer to me that anyone else ever has" becomes
"You were never nice and in fact, you were awful (cruel, absent, uncaring, etc)".
So common I'd argue those are all ubiquitous. It's like air: so common we
don't even remember it's there.
You'll know you're getting someplace with your recovery when you have a little more parity
in your analysis, both admitting things you did wrong and admitting things your partner did right,
until then, you're a king or queen, ruling over your own fictitious kingdom.