The Laramee Filter: pseudorandom thoughts, subsequently put on the Internet.
Tom Laramee
Date Published:
May 5th, 2023
Word Count:
3,548 (22:30 read time)
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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.

Intensity "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", and "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).
Manipulation "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: (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:
  1. Your arguments have absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand.
  2. 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.
Sabotage "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:
  1. It's a genuine expression of pain (internal hurt turned outwards becomes anger).
  2. It's a sign of helplessness (you can't control the relationship anymore so what else is there to do?).
  3. 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.
Guilting "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:
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 (e.g.: 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.
Deflecting Responsibility "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[1].
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 codependency[2].
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.
Possessiveness "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 of trust.
Isolation "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 goals:
  1. It limits the narrative you'll receive from the outside world, including "What's happening in your relationship is damaging to you".
  2. 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 Stockholm Syndrome 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."
Belittling "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 belittleis: Belittling can be found in Gottman's Four Horsemen[3] 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 pain body), 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.
Volatility "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 helps).
If you grew up in an emotionally volatile household[4] 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 continually thinking "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 fight or flight 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[5].
Betrayal "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.
So common I'd argue those are all ubiquitous. It's like air: so common we don't even remember it's there[6].
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.
[1] Brutal and Darwinian indeed. The reality is that, when someone has a substance use disorder, nearly everyone will run for the hills. I think your best best is family, but that might not work out (your family may have it's own set of problems, say, a bad marriage, or chronic illness, or a substance use disorder, or a domestic violence problem .. or just a vastly different lens through which they view the world (e.g.: they're deeply religious and you're an atheist)).
But your friends, they're busy too. Raising families. Pursuing careers. Being hopelessly irresponsible (98% of their time partying and trying to hook up). These people have no time for an adult problem like addiction. They may even be struggling with addiction problems themselves.
The addicted person, calling out for help, may cry out and find there is none.
(And that, my friends, is America).
[2] Personally, I like Codependent No More by Melody Beattie.
What makes it all so difficult and confusing is that nobody would ever help anyone else if there wasn't some degree of "mixing self with the outcome". Meaning, it's impossible to completely separate your own personal feelings from the possible outcomes of helping someone else (the two most likely outcomes being: success and failure). Meaning, it's the sort of stuff that makes us human and gives our lives meaning (regardless of the outcome). This area (codependence) is very confusing to me.
[3] No hack psychology post on relationships is complete without the mention of Gottman's Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
[4] As I did.
[5] Cycle of Abuse. (Sound familiar?)
[6] DFW joke.
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?”