Episode 45

Published on:

28th Mar 2023

5 Relationship Behaviors That Could Spell Trouble Over Time

We've talked some about relationship violence and emotional abuse (check out our recent episode with Dr. Carolyn West!), and Dr. Andrea has written a lot about controlling behaviors. But what about those subtle relationship behaviors that might not necessarily spell doom, that you should keep an eye on? Perhaps those things that it's easy for us to convince ourselves are nothing, and yet they can most definitely turn into something?

Join us today as we dig in.

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Credits: Beautiful cover art by Danielle Merity, exquisitely lounge-y original music by Jordan Cooper


Dr. Andrea Bonior: Have you ever had something not feel right about a relationship, whether it's with a friend or partner? Today we're talking about five early signs that something is somewhat dysfunctional within a relationship. Maybe your relationship is okay overall, but there's a little something nagging at you and you're not sure what to make of it. What common behaviors are truly something to worry about. What frequent situations, when left to fester, tend to cause real problems if they're not addressed. If you've ever been lukewarm about a relationship but you can't quite put your finger on what's going on, you'll want to listen to today's Baggage Check. Welcome. I'm glad to have you here. Today feels like a little light in a, uh, sometimes dark world. I know the news has not always been positive lately. Of course, the news hasn't felt positive for a really long time. But I'm Dr. Andrea Bonnier and this is Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Baggage Check is not a show about luggage or travel. Incidentally, it is also not a show about what happens to the cicadas who emerge a year late from their underground holes. Those poor cicadas. They miss the party. All right, let's get to it. So a few episodes ago, we talked about relationship violence and abusive relationships, and we had a discussion with Dr. Carolyn West about it. I hope you were able to hear it, because she is something just so much insight, so many nuanced angles of relationship violence that I don't think are often talked about. It felt like a really important episode, and I've personally written a lot about the signs of controlling behavior, and we'll definitely have some episodes on that in the future. But lately I've been thinking about relationship gray areas, even within friendships. Not the classically controlling or abusive or violence precursor types of behaviors, but more just little patterns that don't feel so great but are easy to dismiss. Maybe things that really probably will spell trouble, but in the meantime, it feels like maybe you're making too much of a big deal about them. That's what I wanted to talk about today just the sort of start of some dysfunction seeds of dysfunction that sounds like a band. And I did promise my kids I wouldn't always make jokes about names of bands, but that one was too good. But anyway, I wanted to talk about that today. Those kind of early warning signs, they're not hitting you over the head. They're not automatically saying that there's certain doom in this. But there's something to take note of, because what's even more subtle than overly controlling or abusive behavior are, uh, the little behaviors that maybe seem to be kind of normal but can grow into toxicity over time. Your relationship, whether it's a romantic partnership or even, uh, just a friendship I say just a friendship as if that's nothing. We know that friendships are so important to physical and mental health, probably more so than romantic relationships, honestly. But anyway, your relationship, it might be far from classically controlling, but there still might be some indicators that there's an issue there that should be taken seriously. Now, when we talk about these signs in the context of a romantic relationship, it does not mean absolutely that you need to end it. Maybe it's time for couples therapy and often a few sessions might really be able to identify these patterns and do something about them. Your success in overcoming these problematic patterns, it's really going to depend on your willingness to put effort into addressing it, the motivation between you and your partner. That's often the key difference between a relationship sinking or swimming in the long term. Now, if it's a friendship, I think that's going to depend too. Not all friendships have to be the same size. Sometimes maybe you just take a step back and this isn't going to be your best friend for life. Maybe sometimes you have a really difficult conversation because this person is someone important to you, but you have to address this dynamic. Other times it might be a really toxic relationship and it's important for you to keep yourself maybe a little bit more emotionally safe by drawing some boundaries. And if you are going to have a discussion about it, you're not necessarily going to be able to determine or impact whether or not they actually want to do things differently. So it's important to recognize that you can't control another person. You shouldn't control another person. That actually brings us full circle to the controlling behavior conversation. So the first step is really to acknowledge the dysfunctional patterns and so we're going to get to it. These are the most commonly, quote unquote innocuous behaviors that I see. And again, I'm putting air quotes there because they're not really innocuous, but they might seem that way. And these are things that I've heard about in therapy for many years that I've seen some of the relationship data on, um, that I've seen personally. I think they can apply to family relationships too, in terms of dysfunction. So do you recognize yourself or somebody you're in a relationship with in any of these very frequent but troubling situations, number one would be chronic unreliability. Maybe you think of this person as just being so chronically scattered or flaky, and maybe there really is good reason for it. Maybe they do have some executive functioning issues there's ADHD. Maybe they themselves are going through something. But again, that's kind of why we're talking about the chronic piece here. Is it truly a personality trait or is it they've just been absolutely slammed or they're going through an extremely stressful time when it's more chronic, even if it is due to something like ADHD, it's really important to think about the impact of that on the relationship. If it's a partner, it can really lead to lack of trust because you don't know whether or not they're actually going to come through for you. You don't know whether they're going to pay the electric bill like they said they would or whether or not they're going to show up to get you after surgery. And that can cause chronic stress and really undermine your relationship. It puts uncertainty where comfort and trust and certainty should be. And again, even if they're not doing it on purpose or they're not doing it to be manipulative and it's just who they are, but they're just so chronically disorganized. It's really hard to build that foundation of reciprocity and trust. So it's something to look at individually and as a couple. Of course, in a friendship, maybe this just means that you accept a certain amount of flakiness. You're not going to ask this person ever to pick you up from an airport. Again, friendships can be different. You don't need this person to have this super high level of trust and reciprocity about your day to day life. So thinking about that though but I've seen the unreliability piece really undermine relationships. I've seen it grow into a serious issue over time. So it's something to take seriously. Number two, joking. That's not really funny at all. Now of course, if we're talking about romantic partnerships, different couples are going to have completely different thresholds for what they find acceptable, what they think would be hurtful and inappropriate, what they consider teasing. That's all in fun, of course. The truth is a lot of controlling relationships and emotionally abusive relationships, they really do have this element of quote unquote teasing that the person thinks maybe they're supposed to accept, oh, I just need to lighten up. Oh, he's just joking. She's just joking. A lot of times that can be really the precursor to some abusive stuff. But even if it's not as serious as being the precursor to abuse, you have to sort of think about that disconnect there. Even within the same couples, there could be vastly different sensibilities about what feels good versus what just stings. And maybe one partner is quote unquote, oversensitive about something, but that's their right and um, their partner can be respectful of that. So of course, the keys are communication and respect. Your partner should be able to resist the urge to tease you about something that they know that crosses the line for you and you should feel safe in speaking up about it often. Again, this can be justifying of abusive behavior. Well, I was just joking. I didn't mean it. But that kind of turns into gaslighting at some point, right? At best it's sort of invalidating. Oh, well, you took a meeting from it that I didn't mean in terms of friendship, I think it's a similar dynamic. Is the friend constantly hitting you where it hurts and invalidating your reaction or telling you you need to lighten up? Or at the very least, is there just a mismatch and sense of humor oftentimes. Maybe it's not even that somebody's being super oversensitive or somebody else is being mean spirited, but it's more just I don't find that funny and it just rubs me a little bit the wrong way. So that's something to pay attention to. Number three needing to be right all the time. So back in my advice column days, I used to get letters about this type of stuff all the time. What do I do when I have that friend or that partner who always has to be right in ways big and small? They always have to end the argument. They are so defensive that they always have to get the last word. They never admit that they were wrong. They need to win every disagreement, make that final point. They need to correct everything that was said, quote, unquote. Some people blame this on hey, well, I know this is how they were raised, or they're an attorney, so this is how they are for their job. But that can be a flimsy excuse at times because once again, it runs the risk of invalidating how it feels to be the person on the receiving end of this. So people can change too. If you were raised to never admit that you were wrong, well, you can become a grown up and start to work on being vulnerable enough to admit when you're wrong. Sometimes people are acting out of insecurity or anxiety about this, and sometimes that insecurity and anxiety can actually be the precursor, once again, to more serious controlling behavior. Other times it's a personality quirk. Maybe it can be endearing to somebody. But again, I'd be really careful about whether or not you're actually being treated well because there's a fine line between somebody never admitting that they were wrong about silly things versus never actually seeing your viewpoint about anything and having trouble empathizing and validating, again where you're coming from. So this is the type of thing that maybe couples counseling can help with an objective third party to get in there and be able to see if they can collaborate with you to reset this dynamic. Sometimes with friendships it doesn't totally matter. Again, it's like, uh, well, I know this is the quirk about the person. Sometimes it's worth a conversation. And if you're going to have a conversation about this, I always recommend making sure you choose the right time where the person is going to be less likely to be on the defensive, especially somebody who already is prone towards being on the defensive. Using those I statements, the whole couple's counseling cliche, being able to say I feel unheard sometimes when I'm trying to make a point and it feels dismissed, rather than you always have to be right, et cetera. Number four being dismissive or intolerant of feelings. This is, of course, very related to that concept. Is the person invalidating? Are they unwilling to see your perspective are they very rigid where they are just not going to be flexible enough to at least acknowledge another mindset. I've heard from folks about this all the time, this idea of feeling like you're not allowed to express feelings to your partner because they're going to be just not tolerated. Of course, sometimes people themselves might be expressing feelings in really explosive and threatening ways. And you can't blame a partner or a friend for not wanting to hear your anger, if your anger is always expressed in yelling, for instance. In those cases, of course the partner's discomfort is understandable, but other times it's the partner. Maybe it's a complicated past history with their family of origin or just the nature of their personality. It's making them create an environment where it feels unwelcome to express emotion and they're not going to be supportive of it, even just the most natural of human reactions. So if your partner is constantly making you feel bad for expressing emotions in a reasonable way, or expecting you to always be in a good mood, or once again, going back to sort of the joking ridiculing you for expressing sadness or fear, making you feel weak because of that, that's not a good sign. And of course, it can risk you feeling like your feelings aren't valid in the first place, which is going to put you at more risk to find yourself in a controlling situation. M now, with a friendship, how much do you tolerate this? Because uh oh, this is just my workout, buddy. Maybe I don't need them to hear my deepest, darkest secrets all the time. I think, again, that's going to depend. Friendships are different because we can have different friendships for different aspects of our lives. They don't have to fill as big of shoes in terms of their general emotional support role for us as a partner. But do give it some thought, because a friend that you can't really just reasonably express some feelings with, it's tough to really think of that as a supportive friendship. But again, maybe you don't necessarily need that because this friend motivates you to do some yoga and that's what you're in the friendship for. And maybe if you say, uh, I don't feel like doing yoga, they say, stop it, you're going. And that's that, and that's exactly what you need. So obviously there's some different possibilities here. And finally, for number five, we have endless bean counting. Where did the phrase bean counting originate? I love idioms like this. Like, were beans actually used at some point to represent things like obligations or rewards? I don't know. That's something to look up after the show. But the problem with endless bean counting is that it always makes things feel transactional. It makes people feel beholden to each other in general. If we're talking about a romantic partnership, the hope is that they can settle into a nice, comfortable reciprocity that's just understood. It feels like things are generally shared equally and it's over time. It's not. Well, on this particular day, you did twelve minutes of sweeping and I did 14 minutes of dishes. Right. It's the idea that in general, whether we're talking about household chores, whether we're talking about caregiving of children, when we're talking about emotional support, whether we're talking about just giving to the relationship itself, there's a sense that there's balance and reciprocity. You don't need to be in count. Right. And that way it can be flexible over time. Yeah, I had a really rough week at work, so I did zilch in the house and then my partner really picked up the slack. But I know that I would have my partner's back too, when the time comes. Again. It's strong and it's flexible. Flexibility always makes it less likely that you're going to break because you have that ability to bend. And of course, gratitude is built into this, right? Bean counting is sort of the anti gratitude. It's I'm not going to necessarily express appreciation for what you're doing unless I know that you've made the grade and you've done it as much as you're supposed to. This leads to this idea that I'm not grateful for you or what you're doing. You need to make up for something. You're in a deficit. This constant idea of who owes this to each other. And again, that could be talking about any number of things, whether it's time, whether it's effort, maybe it's even literal money. Those things tend to go against the idea of trust and unconditional love and true support. Of course, here again, we're talking about a romantic relationship with a friend. Maybe the bean counting makes sense. That's why Venmo exists. Right. But again, is it chronic? Is it itchy does it feel like somebody's always trying to make up for somebody else? Because it's hard to be on the receiving end of this or the giving end of this. I have seen many friendships come to an, uh, abrupt halt because somebody feels like they're not giving enough and they constantly feel beholden. I've seen friendships come to a halt, of course, for the other reason where somebody feels like they're giving so much, that that's where the imbalance is. So an imbalance in either direction, especially when it's chronic and when it's constantly being tallied, that's when the bean counting is almost a symptom of the problem of the imbalance. It's not even just that the bean counting itself is the problem. So those are some things to think about. And there are so many relationship characteristics out there that I think can be deemed red flags if we like that type of phrase. But what I wanted to talk about today is some subtle stuff where maybe there is some hope. None of these are deal breakers per se, or any kinds of severe warning signs that all is lost. But there are things to think about in terms of common relationship behaviors that really do start to great over time. If you can think of more do, let me know. Thanks for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this has been Baggage Check. With new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on instagram @ baggagecheckpodcast. Give us your take and opinions on topics and guests. And you know you've got that friend who listens to like, 17 podcasts. We'd love it if you told them where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper, cover art by Daniel Merity and my studio security, it's Buster the Dog. Until next time, take good care.

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About the Podcast

Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice
with Dr. Andrea Bonior
We've all got baggage. But what do we choose to do with it?
Every other Friday, licensed clinical psychologist, best-selling author and popular psychology professor Dr. Andrea Bonior takes your mental health questions, and makes you part of the conversation. Join her and other voices as they translate research into real life, and talk about relationships, emotions, health, psychological disorders, stress, finding meaning, work, and occasionally-- just occasionally-- the most obscure dance crazes of 1997.
All are welcome, and nothing is off limits. With science, compassion, and humor, she's here to help.

About your host

Profile picture for Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, and the best-selling author of “Detox Your Thoughts." She was the longtime mental health advice columnist for The Washington Post, and appears regularly in national media, including CNN and NPR, with several popular courses on the LinkedIn Learning platform. Dr. Bonior’s blog for Psychology Today has been read more than 25 million times. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University, where she recently won the national Excellence in Teaching award, given by the American Psychological Association.