Women and Relationships
Are you in a difficult relationship? Do you repeatedly find yourself in difficult relationships? For purposes of this article, a “difficult” relationship is not one that is going through the usual periods of disagreement and disappointment that are inevitable when two individuals come together. Let’s look at some characteristics of healthy relationships and unhealthy ones in order to define what qualifies as a “difficult” relationship.

Healthy Relationships
Each of us enters into romantic relationships with ideas about what we want based on family relationships, what we’ve seen in the media, and our own past relationship experiences. Holding on to unrealistic expectations can cause a relationship to be unsatisfying and to eventually fail. The following will help you to distinguish between healthy and problematic relationship expectations:

  • Respect Changes. What you want from a relationship in the early months of dating may be quite different from what you want after you have been together for some time. Anticipate that both you and your partner will change over time. Feelings of love and passion change with time, as well. Respecting and valuing these changes is healthy. Love literally changes brain chemistry for the first months of a relationship. For both physiological and emotional reasons, an established relationship will have a more complex and often richer type of passion than a new relationship.
  • Accept Differences. It is difficult, but healthy, to accept that there are some things about our partners that will not change over time, no matter how much we want them to. Unfortunately, there is often an expectation that our partner will change only in the ways we want. We may also hold the unrealistic expectation that our partner will never change from the way he or she is now.
  • Express Wants and Needs. While it is easy to assume that your partner knows your wants and needs, this is often not the case and can be the source of much stress in relationships. A healthier approach is to directly express our needs and wishes to our partner.
  • Respect Your Partner’s Rights. In healthy relationships, there is respect for each partner’s right to have her/his own feelings, friends, activities, and opinions. It is unrealistic to expect or demand that that he or she have the same priorities, goals, and interests as you.
  • Be Prepared to “Fight Fair.” Couples who view conflict as a threat to the relationship, and something to be avoided at all costs, often find that accumulated and unaddressed conflicts are the real threat. Healthy couples fight, but they “fight fair” – accepting responsibility for their part in a problem, admitting when they are wrong, and seeking compromise. Additional information about fair fighting can be found here.
  • Maintain the Relationship. Most of us know that keeping a vehicle moving in the desired direction requires not only regular refueling, but also ongoing maintenance and active corrections to the steering to compensate for changes in the road. A similar situation applies to continuing relationships. While we may work hard to get the relationship started, expecting to cruise without effort or active maintenance typically leads the relationship to stall or crash! Though gifts and getaways are important, it is often the small, non material things that partners routinely do for each other that keep the relationship satisfying. [1]

Examples of Difficult Relationships

Toxic Relationships: A toxic relationship is often characterized by repeated, mutually destructive modes of relating between a couple. These patterns can involve jealousy, possessiveness, dominance, manipulation, desperation, selfishness or rejection. However, one common theme in a toxic relationship involves the partners’ intense draw toward each other, despite the pain they both cause one another.

These relationships erode self-esteem and prevent those involved from moving on in their personal lives or careers. They foster feelings of loneliness, rage, and despair. Despite the pain of these relationships, many rational women find that they are unable to leave, even though they know the relationship is harmful to them. One part of them wants out but a seemingly stronger part refuses (or feels helpless) to take any action. It is in this sense that the relationships are addictive.

A toxic relationship exists when a person fails to recognize the destructive dynamics they’re subconsciously looking to play out with a romantic partner. This not only leads to an imbalance in the relationship, but it often limits an individual’s personal growth.

Relationships and Mental Illness: Empathetic men and women guiltily struggle to leave an abusive situation, and/or an impaired partner — be the cause drugs, alcohol, sex addiction or mental illness. It’s a difficult struggle because they still care about their spouse and value their marriage commitment. As an example, breakdowns in Bipolar relationships are a common consequence of the illness. The likelihood of divorce amongst bipolar individuals is twice that of the general population. Unfortunately it’s often one sided and, as one male client observed, “the one who cares the most is the one who hurts the most.”

As these men and women painstakingly search for answers about successfully co parenting with a narcissist, or a passive aggressive partner, or someone diagnosed as bipolar or borderline, they are seeking just, reasonable ways to deal with an unreasonable situation which are often unattainable. In most cases, the issue is the same, even though the diagnosis may be different. They are dealing with a partner whose reality is so skewed that compromise, honesty, fairness and follow through are not possible.  All breakups are difficult, but ending a relationship or marriage with someone who has a personality disorder or mental illness can put your separation or divorce at the extreme end of the spectrum. And it’s crazy-making.

The Narcissist and the Codependent: Codependents find narcissistic partners deeply appealing. They are attracted to their charm, boldness, and confident personality. When the narcissist and the codependent become partners, the romance sizzles with excitement in the beginning. But the narcissist fears a loss of identity and is sensitive to everything that leads to bonding. They might pick fights and uproars to avoid bonding, seduce and then withhold sex as an abuse tactic that makes the partner feel less than desirable, and many other ways to sabotage intimacy and bonding.   Eventually the thrilling romance transforms into drama, conflict, feelings of neglect and feeling trapped.

Codependents confuse care taking and sacrifice with loyalty and love. They are proud of their loyalty and dedication to the person they love, but they end up feeling used and unappreciated. Codependents desire harmony and balance but they consistently chose a partner to whom they are initially attracted but will eventually resent. They are resistant to leaving their partner because of their lack of self esteem and self respect. What they fail to realize is that without self esteem or self respect, they are incapable of choosing a mutually giving and unconditionally loving partner. Their fear of being alone, compulsion to fix the relationship at any cost, and comfort with the martyr role is often an extension of their yearning to be loved, respected, and cared for as a child. Although codependents dream of an unconditionally loving and affirming partner, they submit to their dysfunctional destiny until they decide to heal the psychological wounds that ultimately compel them to pick narcissistic partners.

Abusive Relationships: There are many ways that one partner can abuse another: emotional, verbal, financial, spiritual, physical and sexual abuse. Each type of abuse is serious and no one deserves to experience any form of it.   Domestic violence is when one person in a relationship purposely hurts another person physically or emotionally. Domestic violence is also called intimate partner violence because it often is caused by a husband, ex-husband, boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend. Women also can be abusers. Healthy relationships are built on equality and respect. Unhealthy relationships are based on power and control.

People of all races, education levels, and ages experience domestic abuse. In the United States, more than 5 million women are abused by an intimate partner each year. People who have never been in an abusive relationship may wonder, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” There are many reasons why a woman may stay in an abusive relationship.
She may have little or no money and worry about supporting herself and her children. It may be hard for her to contact friends and family who could help her. Or she may feel too frightened, confused, or embarrassed to leave.

Being hurt by someone close to you is awful. Reach out for support from family, friends, and community organizations.If you are in an abusive relationship and are not sure if you are ready to leave, keep in mind that:

  1. Abuse often gets worse. It may be possible for a partner to change, but it takes work and time. If your partner is blaming you or other factors for his or her behavior, your partner probably is not ready to change.
  2. You deserve to be safe and happy.
  3. Even if you are not ready to leave, you can still contact a domestic violence hotline or a local shelter for support, safety planning, and services.
  4. People want to help. Many services are available at no cost, including childcare, temporary housing, job training, and legal aid.
  5. You need support. Reach out to people you trust.

If you have been abused or attacked, you may feel terribly afraid, confused, shocked, angry, or emotionally numb. Every woman is different, and all these feelings are natural.

Experiencing abuse or an attack can lead to serious mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. If you have experienced violence, a mental health professional can help. A counselor or therapist can work with you to deal with your emotions, build self-esteem, and develop coping skills. You can ask your doctor for the name of a therapist, or search an online list of mental health services. Learn more about getting help for your mental health.Some abused women try using drugs, alcohol, smoking, or overeating to cope, but this can lead to greater physical and emotional problems. Talk to a doctor, nurse, or therapist for help with these   behaviors. Look for healthy ways to reduce stress. Try exercise, deep-breathing or other relaxation techniques, and reaching out for support to friends, family, and community groups.

Sometimes, violence that happened long ago still can affect you. Even if many years have passed since you were abused, you still can get help from a mental health professional.

Fantasy Bonds

One common theme in a toxic relationship involves the partners’ intense draw toward each other, despite the pain they both cause one another. This is apparent with a couple who have entered into a “Fantasy Bond,” a term developed by psychologist and author Dr. Robert Firestone to describe an illusion of connection created between two people that helps alleviate their individual fears by forging a false sense of connection. A fantasy bond is toxic to a relationship because it replaces real feelings of love and support with a desire to fuse identities and operate as a unit. As the couple relates as a “we” instead of a “you” and “me,” their relationship becomes more about form (based on appearances and roles) than substance (based on genuine feeling and authenticity).

Ties that Bind

Getting to know one’s self and one’s patterns is key to avoiding a difficult relationship. If you find yourself in a dramatic or complicated relationship, you have to first decipher whether you have chosen someone undesirable for negative reasons from your past or whether you are pushing away someone you really care for, because of your own limitations, fears or defenses. If you identify the negative traits that have attracted you to your partner, you can consciously choose to look for someone different. If you realize that the person you have chosen has a lot of the positive qualities you desire, you can look for ways you are acting out in the relationship and aim to change your part of the dynamic that makes things turn sour. Once you understand yourself, you can clearly trace the paths that lead your relationship to unravel. You can take power over yourself and establish a healthier, more honest and fulfilling relationship.[2]

There are several factors that can influence your decision to remain in a difficult relationship or resist a commitment to constructive change. Practical considerations such as:

  • financial entanglement
  • limited financial resources
  • shared living quarters
  • impact on children
  • feared disapproval from others
  • possible disruption in career or other life plans

Are you plagued by thoughts like:

  • I’ll never find anyone else
  • I’m not attractive or interesting enough
  • I’m too old to change
  • If I work hard enough I should be able to save this relationship (successful women are particularly vulnerable to this one!)
  • I refuse to fail again
  • I am not worthy of something better
  • I am fearful

Do you have a pattern of unhealthy relationships? Ask yourself the following questions about your relationship(s) (past or present):

  • It seems to have potential but that potential is always just out of reach?
  • It persistently lacks what one or both partners need?
  • It involves two partners who are on drastically different wave-lengths?
  • Is there little common ground, little significant communication, and little enjoyment of each other?
  • It causes feelings of loneliness, rage, and despair?
  • Do I pick men who are unavailable (either emotionally or because they are in a commited relationship)?

At some time in our lives, each of us may feel overwhelmed and may need help dealing with our problems. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 30 million Americans need help dealing with feelings and problems that seem beyond their control — problems with a marriage or relationship, a family situation, or dealing with losing a job, the death of a loved one, depression, stress, burnout, or substance abuse. Those losses and stresses of daily living can at times be significantly debilitating. Sometimes we need outside help from a trained, licensed professional in order to work through these problems. Through therapy, millions of Americans of all ages live healthier, more productive lives.

Consider Therapy If…

  • You feel an overwhelming and prolonged sense of helplessness and sadness, and your problems do not seem to get better despite your efforts and help from family and friends.
  • You are finding it difficult to carry out everyday activities: for example, you are unable to concentrate on assignments at work, and your job performance is suffering as a result.
  • You worry excessively, expect the worst, or are constantly on edge.
  • Your actions are harmful to yourself or to others: for instance, you are drinking too much alcohol, abusing drugs, or becoming overly argumentative and aggressive.

Psychotherapy is a collaborative effort between an individual and a therapist. It provides a supportive environment to talk openly and confidentially about concerns and feelings. Therapists consider maintaining your confidentiality extremely important and will answer your questions regarding those rare circumstances when confidential information must be shared.  Therapists apply scientifically validated procedures to help people change their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Psychotherapy may be performed by practitioners with a number of different qualifications, including psychologists, marriage and family therapists, licensed clinical social workers, counselors, psychiatric nurses, and psychiatrists.

 [1] http://cmhc.utexas.edu/healthyrelationships.html  [2] http://www.psychalive.org/toxic-relationship/