“People with personality disorders are very good at turning everyone they meet into the same person they already met. They do that, I think, by exchanging very subtle covert reinforcements.” ~Dr. Jordan B. Peterson
When you’re in a healthy relationship, things just seem to fall into place. Everything clicks — communication is there, trust is firmly established, mutual respect is in check, both partners are working together toward a common goal, and you’re both positively challenging each other to be better versions of yourselves.
Toss all this out if you’re in an unhealthy relationship.
However, it’s never that ‘black or white’.
At least, not at first.
For anyone who’s been in a relationship with someone who has an untreated cluster B personality disorder, surviving its aftermath without experiencing significant grief, depression, anxiety, or PTSD is ridiculously difficult.
Even for the most resilient.
By the time we notice the red flags and warning signs, we’ve already started replaying our relationship in reverse, or in hindsight. Here is where we begin re-assessing what we probably missed or dismissed because — let’s be real here — if we’re in love with someone we don’t want to “see” what can be the downfall of our relationship.
Things can be swept under the carpet.
Adding insult to injury may be one partner who starts seeing the warning signs and wants to find solutions, but is met with indifference, or a discard where they’re quickly replaced — where the partner who discarded them jumps right into a relationship with whoever they had on the side, perpetuating a toxic cycle.
Unhealthy relationships never start out “toxic” or chances are, not many would stick around for the unraveling and the “final discard”. Any red flags seen are usually brushed off or dismissed as “overthinking” things. Some may even feel ashamed of themselves for thinking that way about their partner.
Toxic relationships usually start out as the most amazing experience you’ve ever had where they’re hitting every mark on your checklist, meeting every one of your needs, and saying all the right things. Here’s where that dopamine hit comes with every compliment or adoration, reinforcing the addictive rush — where a person is conditioned into believing they’re loved.
…and where the heartbreak starts.
Little by little, the red flags start waving. You may get a cold or uncomfortable feeling coming over you when trying to pick up on your partner’s emotions. Or, you may think your mind’s playing tricks on you where you question if what you saw was really what you saw. You may notice little behavioral nuances or inconsistencies that have you guessing or questioning things.
These are the “warning signs” that it’s time to jump ship and cut your losses. The flags only go up more consistently from here. The unfortunate part of red flags is that they are only accepted as part of a toxic situation after you’re heart and soul were invested in the illusion of “forever” which is what triggers trauma and grief.
Red Flags and Warning Signs
We probably all have a list of deal breakers that operate as the red flags in a relationship. Here are a few of the warning signs indicative of when it’s time to leave:
A push-pull attachment identifies the relationship. This is the #1 hallmark of a toxic relationship. It doesn’t start out with a push-pull dynamic — it starts out as full-throttle excitement. The push-pull can begin when the emotional stakes in the relationship are raised — where superficial good times and shallow conversation don’t cut it anymore. This is often where one partner wants to elevate the intimacy (not to be confused with sex), or to increase emotional vulnerability between partners.
The push-pull can also start where one partner may begin feeling something isn’t “right” in the relationship. Asking to talk about it is usually met with indifference or denial by the other partner instead of a solution. “Gaslighting”can start here where a partner may be told they’re “wrong” or that they’re imagining things, or where a completely different story is spun in the other partner’s best interests.
Maybe a partner’s word and deed aren’t adding up, or house rules and boundaries have been violated. These are behavioral nuances that can trigger a push-pull where one partner often starts pushing away while the other is pulling near, hoping for answers.
Little by little, the nuances of the push-pull start showing where it’s no longer pedal-to-the-metal — one partner is pumping the brakes, or starts swerving in the opposite direction while the other is trying to get the relationship back on its original route…then, in time each partner flips roles.
You (or they) are walking on eggshells. Partners may be holding their breath or waiting to exhale because of volatility in the relationship or that it has become predictably…unpredictable. One weekend it’s blissful intimacy; a few days later you’re being shamed for inviting them over. This is what identifies the trauma bond — the predictable unpredictability is what keeps a partner waiting for those momentary highs while dodging the inevitable lows.
You (or they) are hoping the “honeymoon” phase will return. The longer a partner holds out hope that the relationship will boomerang back to a place that never existed, the longer it takes to heal from the experience. It’s natural to want those moments of fairy-tale kisses in snowstorms or sharing an intimate drive into a New England sunset. However, this is how the trauma bond keeps a partner hooked on the hope that the “good times” will return while keeping them stuck.
Do as they say, not as they do. If you grew up hearing “Do as I say, not as I do” it can not only screw with your head, it can also set the foundation for one toxic experience after another where what is learned is the inability to trust anyone, including yourself. Unfortunately, one of the red flags in an unhealthy relationship is saying one thing while doing its opposite. They may say they’re loyal while going behind their partner’s back saying hurtful things about them to their friends or family, or stepping out on their partner. Or, they may say they despise their friends or family for doing the same things they’re doing.
But, what about before the red flags start waving and heartbreak hits?
Recognizing Micro Behaviors
Naturally, we want to eliminate as much collateral damage as possible, both physically and emotionally from having experienced an unhealthy relationship.
The best way to prevent the damage is to never engage in a bad relationship. The problem with this is that for many, unhealthy relationships feel comfortable, or familiar — while healthy relationships feel uncomfortable, awkward, or like their partner has an agenda.
Everything is backwards and gets flipped.
Here’s a list of micro-behaviors to watch for, even before the red flags are seen.
Honesty With Yourself. The biggest micro-behavior you can ask for, is the one within yourself. You know your personal relationship history — from childhood through adulthood. Because our earliest attachments are formed in childhood, they shape how we see and engage in relationships as we grow. If you grew up in a toxic environment, chances are there’s a lot of collateral damage — and if it hasn’t been faced, addressed and healed, it is going to haunt you in your relationships.
It may not be obvious, because it often isn’t. It may show itself as seeking out partners who display certain “behaviors” or “habits” — attitudes, thinking patterns, or how they approach things — that resonate with early toxic experiences.
While bringing partners into our lives that resonate with our past isn’t always a bad thing, it can turn bad when we’re unconsciously choosing our partners as ghosts of a painful past.
Honestly ask yourself: How many of my relationships have been toxic? How many have helped me grow or challenged me to face my pain? Am I complacent and “comfortable” with what’s familiar, even if it’s toxic to my growth? How many relationships are a repeat of an ongoing cycle or habit that hasn’t been healed?
If you’re in a relationship for the right reasons, there’s a few green flags that will be seen:
· You’ve taken the time to recognize your past
· You’ve invested your time and energy into healing your pain (this can be a long process) and is not a quick fix
· You recognize habits, patterns and behaviors that are “red flags” both in yourself and in your partner, friends and family
· You aren’t using relationships to run from or avoid your own pain
· You understand why you were attracted to unhealthy relationships and have healed those parts of yourself
· You are able to be emotionally available (including vulnerable emotions), are emotionally authentic with your partner, and have healed painful “go to” feelings/emotions (denial, anger, fear, shame, projection)
· You’ve made the connection between early life experiences and adult habits
· You have healed your inner child
Other micro-behaviors are a byproduct of the relationship itself, and can include:
You Don’t Walk Together. Sure, this may sound kind of lame. But, research supports that “power couples” are not only emotionally present for each other, their investment is seen in how they walk side-by-side, often in step with each other, their use of complimentary body language, their communication style and in being emotionally available for each other. If you aren’t in sync with your partner — mentally, emotionally and physically — there is likely an underlying reason.
Conversation is Forced. Every couple has those awkward moments where they may not want to talk. Maybe they had a rough day at work, or aren’t feeling well. That aside, a micro-behavior to really examine is conversation. How easily does it flow? Are your conversations superficial or based on the same topics? Are there too many awkward moments where conversation lags? Or, do you or your partner find yourselves keeping what you really want to talk about to yourselves?
These are signs that there may be incompatibility, or that something is being kept from a partner. Partners who often feel unheard or ignored in a relationship realize (only after the red flags have been waving) that these were micro-behaviors they overlooked. If you can’t freely engage in conversations about a large range of topics — including uncomfortable and vulnerable topics — you probably won’t be able to communicate effectively when it really matters — when the relationship hits a plateau and needs to grow.
Emotions and Expressions Don’t Add Up. Micro-behaviors can be tough to decipher or see. They often happen in a fleeting moment where casual conversation is happening. This is where you want to pay attention. For example, if you playfully tease your partner about something they said or did, take note of how they react in the moment. Watch their behavior. Facial expressions should be matching their tone of voice, or what is being said. Inconsistencies such as furrowed eyebrows, a pause in their behavior, or a laugh that seems forced or insincere can be micro-behaviors worth watching.
Micro-expressions happen unconsciously, where their subtle influences color and shade who we are at our core. This is the reason that deciphering micro-behaviors is important in a relationship, because they provide clues to what a person is really thinking and feeling.
You (Or They) Are Distracted. Some distraction is expected in a relationship. We get busy. We have to juggle work, family, friends, chores, and our intimate relationship. However, if you’re telling your partner about your sister’s meltdown at work today and they’re on their computer while only glancing up at you, are fidgeting, or change the subject, these are micro-behaviors worth examining. Partners should be able to give undivided attention to each other where it counts and to be focused on each other.
Recognizing Your Value
The bitterest pill anyone can swallow is facing the music and realizing that no matter how much you emotionally invested or loved someone, you can’t change them.
They need to want to improve themselves.
And, the hardest thing you can do is purge the experience along with any others that likely led up to it, to recognize the patterns, your habits, and how your early experiences shaped your current choices.
This doesn’t mean you deserved a toxic situation. It doesn’t mean they did, either…but it’s nearly impossible to get to a place of authenticity and emotional vulnerability with someone who doesn’t want to see or face their own pain.
It’s easier repeating what is familiar, or comfortable — even when it’s toxic.
Congratulate yourself if you’re wanting better, healthier. Congratulate yourself if you’re building the inner strength to break generational cycles. Realize that choosing to empower yourself doesn’t mean you don’t love them…..it means you’re starting to recognize your value and are putting your unmet needs first.
Maybe for the first time ever.
Bowlby, J., 1982. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1978). Attachment theory and its therapeutic implications. Adolescent Psychiatry, 6, 5–33.
Maslow, A. H. (1943 . A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.
Rosenberg, M. (2005). Being me, loving you A practical guide to extraordinary relationships. PuddleDancer: CA.