Can I Fix an Unhealthy Relationship?
Do you and your partner fight about the same issues regularly? Does your relationship feel unhealthy? Read on to find out what steps you can take to develop a healthy dynamic.
If it still surprises you that you get into the same kind of fight with your partner over and over again, you are not alone. Most couples tend to have the same fight for the duration of their otherwise successful relationship. This does not mean that there is something wrong with either you or your partner, but it does mean that you could be in an unhealthy dynamic.
Please note before reading further: An untreated mental health diagnosis, substance abuse, physical abuse or verbal abuse require a different set of interventions to change the dynamic. If this is not your case, keep reading.
What is an “unhealthy relationship”?
First, let’s look at what relationship experts might consider an “unhealthy relationship.”
- Criticism and defensiveness
- Lack of communication
- Lack of intimacy
- Inability to forgive
- Inability to influence partner
These signs cannot be viewed in isolation from one another. When each partner thinks their offenses are not as bad as their partner’s offenses, the stage is set for an unhealthy dynamic. This can develop into a vicious cycle.
Here are some examples of these types of cycles:
- The more you criticize, the more your partner disengages
- The more you cannot forgive, the less physical intimacy you receive
- The less you communicate, the more critical your partner gets
Tools to fix unhealthy relationship habits
One of roots of unhealthy dynamics is poor communication. It’s important to learn how to “fight fair” and communicate regularly in a healthy way. That means you know how to have productive discussions, rather than destructive fights.
Steps to “Fight Fair”
Here are a few steps to get you started:
Step 1: Recognize you have a role to play in the maintenance of this dynamic, and therefore, in fights.
Step 2: The second step is to learn to fight better. One way to do this is set boundaries for a fight and stick to them. Here’s an example “contract” to follow:
- It is acceptable to:
- Raise voice
- Take a break that is less than 24 hours long (with a promise to revisit the topic) when things get heated
- Withdraw emotionally temporarily to give time to settle down the emotions
- It is not acceptable to:
- Yell, insult, call names, make threats (like divorce), or refuse an already-set obligation (like not go to the party)
- Impede taking a break and follow partner to another room
- Withdraw physically and emotionally for days.
Step 3: Fight less often. You might be thinking, “Wait a second, how do I do that if I’m already in a cycle of miscommunication and unproductive fighting?”
First, learn to stop a fight that isn’t going well. Instead of automatically escalating as the disagreement gets more intense, learn the art of de-escalation. Many fights get out of hand because couples don’t seem to know how to stop a fight that is going downhill.
Because couples tend to only bring up difficult issues during a fight, they don’t want to step away for fear those issues will never be resolved later. It’s OK to pause, step back and revisit the issues when each partner feels more composed.
Second, it’s important to learn how to start a difficult conversation before it leads to a fight. Develop a sense for when and how to bring up the topic. If you want to partner to listen, it won’t go well if you spring a tough conversation on your partner when they’re tired, hungry or busy.
Things might also escalate if you start something when you are already upset. Yes, it’s true. You need to calm down before you attempt to get your partner to listen. In other words, prepare your partner to make sure they are ready for the conversation. In addition, prepare what you want to get out of the conversation so you can be clear, concise and kind.
And, there are things you can do after the fight so that a disagreement addresses each partner’s concerns, rather than ruins your evening.
Additional Resource: Download an eBook of relationship exercises that can help you fight fairly, prepare for difficult conversations, and repair after a fight.
Steps to develop healthy communication habits:
Step 1: Regularly spend time together not discussing relationship issues. That also means you talk without screens, computers or cell phones around. Simply focus on being good company for each other like you were in the beginning of your relationship. Spend time either in conversation or a short pleasurable activity that you both enjoy.
Step 2: Consistently acknowledge and motivate your partner by being grateful for his/her positive contributions to making your everyday life easier. Acknowledgments and gratefulness are two of the easiest and most frequently overlooked relationship enhancers.
Step 3: Consistently have a meeting where you discuss the business of the couple or the family. As partners of a relationship, you are the co-CEOs of The [YOUR LAST NAMES] Enterprise. It’s amazing how many couples do not have regular meetings to discuss their short term and long term goals or their finances, to divide tasks, problem solve and discuss whether their schedules align.
Step 4: Consistently repair and apologize when you miss the mark.
When you recognize your role in creating and maintaining an unhealthy relationship, you can take the steps to fix it. These are the building blocks for a healthy, strong relationship! To your success!