Four Warning Signs Of An Unhealthy Or Negative Relationship

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When it comes to relationships, it can be beneficial to be aware of the warning signs that may indicate a negative dynamic. A positive relationship is often defined as one where each party feels valued, respected, and supported. These individuals might have a positive correlation with their partners, learn about each other at a healthy pace, and respect each other’s boundaries. 

On the other hand, negative relationships are often marked by behaviors that can damage the connection between the two people involved. 

It’s common for relationships to change over time. Among those that include a negative dynamic, some may have begun with an unhealthy pattern, while others can experience a slow onset. Regardless of when these elements may have taken root in a relationship, they can spell trouble for the health and satisfaction of the partners in it. 

Let’s take a look at some of the common themes of unhealthy or negative relationships, related topics you might want to learn more about, and steps you can take to strengthen yours.

You don’t have to navigate a relationship alone

1. Negative relationship: It lacks honest communication

People in positive and negative relationships will generally experience disagreements from time to time. While this experience is normal, the way they communicate about and resolve conflicts can have a significant impact on their dynamic. What may start as small annoyances—for example, leaving dirty dishes in the sink or not expressing appreciation—can turn into larger problems if partners don’t have an open, honest communication dynamic that allows them to address issues as they arise. If either is afraid to be truthful with the other, what started as an annoyance may turn into resentment and even contempt. As described by The Gottman Institute, contempt that can result from simmering, uncommunicated frustration is one of the “four horsemen” that can signal the impending end of a relationship.

If either partner is hesitant to discuss openly and honestly, it may be a sign that your dynamic needs attention. There are many reasons why someone may not be willing to discuss their feelings within a relationship; working with a therapist can help you uncover them and potentially work toward a resolution.

2. Negative relationship: One or more partners are seeking control

When one partner is seeking to have control over another, it may be a warning sign of an unhealthy dynamic. Some forms of control are obvious, such as taking and managing a partner’s money or dictating how they spend their time. However, there are also more subtle forms of control that a person may employ to gain or exercise power in the relationship, such as withholding affection as a form of manipulation, gaslighting, or using guilt to get what they want.

A need for control can easily manifest as an unhealthy dynamic in a relationship. It may also indicate that the person seeking control could benefit from professional help to address this tendency. Controlling behavior could be associated with a desire for stability, impact on others, or inclusion by others. People who express controlling personalities may be able to work with a therapist to find healthier ways to meet their needs. The happiest couples in a 2021 study were found to be those in which both partners reported a high sense of personal power, which suggests the potential importance of an equal power balance in a romantic relationship.

Every relationship will have challenges, but how you navigate these variables can strengthen or hinder the relationship’s current health and future.

3. Negative relationship: It's affected by unhealthy types of jealousy

People in relationships may experience jealousy from time to time. However, the type of jealousy and how it’s handled is what can affect a relationship either positively or negatively. There are three main types of jealousy that can appear in romantic relationships, and they can have varying impacts on the health of the dynamic.

One form of jealousy is known as emotional or reactive jealousy. This refers to the feelings you may experience when you notice someone else flirting with your partner, for instance. One study suggested that this type of jealousy was actually associated with stronger feelings of love towards a partner. Emotional or reactive jealousy may alert partners to external threats to the relationship, which could lead them to recognize how much they value each other. However, if not addressed, this type of jealousy can impact a partner’s self-esteem, lead to controlling behaviors, or have other harmful effects.

Another form of jealousy is cognitive jealousy, which typically stems from internal, individual factors like personal fears instead of external events. It often manifests as worry or suspicion. You may be experiencing high levels of cognitive jealousy if you constantly worry that your partner is being unfaithful without having any concrete reasons to believe this is true, for instance. Researchers have noted that this type of jealousy in a relationship may lead to increased feelings of loneliness as well as decreased feelings of love and relationship satisfaction.

The third type of jealousy is behavioral jealousy, which refers to covert actions such as reading a partner’s texts or following them after work without their knowledge. The same study showed that behavioral jealousy was associated with experiencing negative emotions in a relationship.

While some aspects of jealousy are linked to more negative feelings and effects than others, how you and your partner handle this emotion overall can play a large role in how it may impact your relationship. Partners who are able to discuss jealous feelings openly and without judgment may have a better chance of working through them without letting them damage their dynamic. A couples counselor may also be able to help partners work through these feelings, including addressing any underlying feelings or fears that may be contributing to them.

4. Negative relationship: It has a codependent dynamic

Codependent relationships involve unhealthy attachment patterns. They often manifest as two people depending on each other to meet every emotional and psychological need. In this type of dynamic, one partner may ignore or put aside their own needs again and again to fulfill the other partner’s needs. This dynamic is especially common when one person is experiencing substance use problems.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

One study found that individuals who were experiencing high levels of codependency in their relationship were more likely to use negative coping mechanisms and have lower levels of life satisfaction. In dynamics like this, the partner or partners may need to learn to set healthy boundaries and implement other ways to rebalance the relationship, if it can continue at all. A therapist may be a powerful resource in a situation like this, because they can offer a neutral perspective and help both parties develop important skills like communication and conflict-resolution.

You don't have to navigate your negative relationship problems alone

If you recognize any of the dynamics above in your own relationship, it could mean that you need to make some changes. If you’re not sure where to start, seeking the guidance of a therapist may be a good next step. They can help you recognize unhealthy patterns in your connection and examine where they may be coming from. They may also be able to work with you to address these issues and develop skills that can help you and your partner create a stronger, healthier connection. While healing from unhealthy patterns may take effort and time from everyone affected, it is possible.

Online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp has assisted many people in improving the health of their relationship or navigating leaving a negative relationship. No matter how your connection with your partner may evolve, virtual therapy can offer a safe space for you to work through the related challenges you may be facing. 

Research shows that online therapy may be an effective way to strengthen relationships. A 2020 study looked at couples’ attitudes while in therapy conducted via videoconference. Results showed that the video screen made the couples feel less judged, which allowed them to be more vulnerable during sessions. Additionally, many couples reported feeling safer taking these calls through a video platform instead of engaging in face-to-face therapy.

Takeaway

If you recognize any of the challenges on this list in your own relationship, it may be worthwhile to work on them in order to create a healthier dynamic with your partner. Whether you start this process on your own or choose to pursue the assistance of a licensed counselor, it may be possible to improve your relationship over time through effort, openness, and commitment.
Build healthy relationship habits with a professional
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started