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Tuesday, 16 Oct 2018

Understanding Dysfunctional Relationships

By Dr Becky Spelman

All relationships are dysfunctional in some form or another, but that isn’t to be cynical; not at all. It’s more of a recognition that as beholden as we are to our own unique perspectives, disagreement is bound to occur from time to time.

Understanding how dysfunction takes hold can be hard, especially when you’re embroiled in the heat of ongoing disputes; always on guard, never a quiet minute. Rational thought can become skewed, and objectivity replaced by the incessant nag of your dramas.

Here’s a rundown of the most common traits of dysfunctional relationships and how they manifest:


Decisiveness is a virtue, and a much needed one at that. There will often be times when either you or your partner steps up to make a decision for the good of you both. However, the issue of control manifests when a slant develops towards one person consistently assuming this dominant position, which can happen to any couple, regardless of age, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.

The classic image of a ‘control drama’ is of a male aggressor, abusing his partner both verbally and physically; what we typically know as domestic abuse, but this is only one example. Cases of women taking up this mantle are just as well documented, using manipulation and threats of separation, unless their partner conforms to their whims. In fact, most control dramas tend to fit this pattern of subtle abuse, with tactics such as isolating the other from friends, and putting blocks in the way of them making positive changes that would lessen their power.

Shame, Blame & Guilt

These three aspects are at the heart of nearly all domestic disputes, and play out so often we barely think to question them. It’s the trap of righteousness. We perceive an injustice against us, a comment out of place, so we assign blame; and in instances when our partner may have cost us something important, shame and guilt. It’s a vicious cycle, leading to defensiveness and spiralling arguments doomed to repeat themselves, unless the pattern can be acknowledged and properly worked through.

The truth is, arguments – or, moreover debates – can be healthy. Airing your grievances can relieve tension and be cathartic for both those involved. The problem lies in how we approach these disputes. When we come from a place of blame, we turn any potential for discussion into a confrontation. No one likes to feel affronted, so will instinctively defend themselves with a counter-accusation.


Although it can already be present before entering a relationship, suppression is closely linked with, and exacerbated by controlling personalities. It is the inability or reluctance to express one’s feelings around an event or set of circumstances. However, where it differs from the dynamic of dominance vs submission*, is of a passive nature being replaced by feelings of resentment in the one who suppresses.

All those thoughts, feelings and emotions that were not expressed remain within the psyche, and if the pattern continues long enough, they build to such a point until there is no longer the capacity to hold them in any longer. This results in a huge backlash, most often brought on by a seemingly trivial matter. But to the person who’s suppressed themselves all this time, having suffered for so long, there is simply nothing left to do but let it all out.

*Dominance and submission in this context refer to a relationship that is of unequal exchange. It does not apply to BDSM or other such relations where tacit consent is involved.

Not Respecting Personal Boundaries

Our boundaries, to a large extent, are the result of those we adopt from our parents, either by design or out of necessity; they inform much of what we consider as common decency. In intimate relationships, there is an unspoken agreement that we will each share with the other what we have. But for some of us, holding something back can be just as important in maintaining our sense of independence, and this could be anything, such as thoughts, private time or material possessions.

In cases where boundaries are continually ignored or disrespected, it brings with it a huge potential for conflict. The core of this issue lies with the concept of ownership, and the sense of entitlement that is projected onto the other person, their possessions and/or personal space. If you’re consistently being put upon to share your thoughts, for example, it can become extremely exhausting, and feel as though you have no refuge. Existing without these defined limits can, and often does eventually lead to fractured relations.


No matter your temperament, there is always at least one thing that will bring on the red mist. These emotional triggers are a universal trait, and play a destructive role in the breakdown of relationships. When you find yourself being triggered, unless you’re mindful of your emotional state, allowing yourself to succumb to a reactive mindset is not uncommon, leading to the inevitable cycle of counter-blame and escalation.

Emotional triggers and personal boundaries are very much intertwined with one another, and if you’ve found they have been violated, you have most likely also been triggered. The same is true in reverse. Even something as trivial as using a nickname your partner finds irritating can be considered to have the same effect. If it is an action that is not approved of, – in any capacity – the chances are you’re violating a boundary by triggering that person, either knowingly or unknowingly.

Trust Issues

All relationships, romantic or otherwise are strongest when they’re built on a foundation of trust. There must be a mutual understanding between both parties that allows for independent pursuits without the emotions of fear or jealousy coming into play. Inevitably, the biggest trust issue tends to come from maintaining friendships, with members of the opposite sex or otherwise. It’s the source of much turmoil within couples of all descriptions.

There doesn’t necessarily need to be any sexual connotations for it to prove divisive; most often these friendships are purely platonic. As human beings, we all have individual needs, whether it’s intellectual conversation, humour, a sympathetic ear or whatever else. We would typically expect our romantic partner to fulfil most of these, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes we need to seek these things from others, which, if there is a lack of emotional intelligence, can lead to your partner expressing their displeasure in a disruptive manner if they feel ‘cheated on.’


For help with the issues discussed in this article speak to one of our therapists here at Private Therapy Clinic for a free initial chat or to make an appointment.

If you would like to read more about dysfunctional relationships, you may want to read our page on relationship issues.

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