Catch Unhealthy Relationship Dynamics Early

In the beginning of a relationship, there is enough excitement, warmth, and hope to endure dynamics that could eventually mean the end of your relationship. Your ability not only to catch these dynamics but also to honor their importance will help you maintain a fulfilling relationship in the long term.

For our purposes, the term “relationship dynamic” is defined as a set of repetitive interactions that tend to be unconscious and mutually influencing. Unhealthy relationship dynamics tend to lead to polarization. Here are some examples of polar opposites: responsible and playful, cautious and impulsive, rigid and pleasing, power over and power under, protecting intimacy and protecting autonomy.

To reveal how these dynamics escalate, let’s look at an example. Micha and Sam married a couple of years ago. When you watch them, you see that there is warmth and care between them. In general, you might say that Micha is a bit more people-pleasing and Sam holds back until trust is earned. Micha is more often oriented toward play; Sam is more often oriented toward managing responsibilities. As you spend time with them, you enjoy them each in unique ways. You recognize that both of them can be playful, serious, competent, vulnerable, and kind.

You also notice a few troubling signs of relationship dynamics that could become unhealthy in the future. Sam is a bit quicker to express frustration with Micha than Micha is with Sam. Micha will move to accommodate Sam more often than Sam accommodates Micha. Sam will tell stories about Micha doing something unwanted and express frustration and criticism in a humorous way. Micha goes silent during these stories. When there is an opportunity to tell a shared story Micha consistently defers to Sam. You see Micha take a physical step back or talk more quietly when deferring. You also start to notice that when Sam isn’t around Micha talks more and seems more relaxed.

Observations like these reliably predict a polarization of the responsible one versus the playful one. In the description above, Micha is already beginning to back away from potential criticism. In doing so, Micha backs away from a sense of self and from the partnership. As Micha remains silent rather than setting a boundary and letting Sam know what works and doesn’t work, the dynamic continues. As Sam focuses on the details of responsibilities rather than the quality of connection in a given moment, the seeds of fear and resentment are sown. During this phase of the relationship dynamic, there isn’t a perceived rupture in connection. Sam and Micha seem to be getting along just fine.

If this type of interaction continues though, Micha may slowly disengage to avoid criticism. Micha will continue to move toward play activities, but might be less and less collaborative about them. As Micha leaves important details untended in favor of play, Sam may resentfully take on more responsibility. Sam will likely communicate with increased criticism to try and get Micha to do more. In the face of criticism, Micha will back away even further, perhaps triggering abandonment issues for Sam and increasing a tendency to take on too much responsibility. You can imagine how it might escalate from here. Over time, warmth and connection become the exception while criticism and avoidance become the norm.

Catching unhealthy relationship dynamics early means watching for interactions that have become familiar. The content may be different, but each of you plays the same role. The emotional tone and type of response is the same again and again. Once you recognize these, challenge yourself to do something different next time. Or check in with your partner about the impact of your behavior on them. You can also catch unhealthy relationship dynamics by noticing your own experience. Watch for things like using a sharp tone, choosing not to share something, going along with something when you don’t really want to, trying to convince your partner of something, impulsively turning away, experiencing a sense of shrinking, losing access to parts of yourself, hiding, daydreaming about a different life, and having judgmental thoughts.

Little things become big things when left unattended. That little bit of backing away or that momentary harsh tone matters. Ask yourself, “Am I treating my partner with the same respect I offer others in my life?” “Am I remaining silent when something hurts?”

It’s not about being perfectly nonreactive in a given moment. It’s about your willingness to come back to the moment to notice reactive behavior, to take responsibility for your reactivity, to acknowledge and express empathy for the impact of your behavior, and to commit to doing it differently next time. Doing this puts you on the path toward repairing unhealthy dynamics in relationship.

Practice

Take a moment now to reflect on something you’ve done that may have had a negative impact on someone close to you. Decide when you will initiate repair with that person.