Can an unhealthy relationship become healthy?

Dear Alice,

Is it possible to change an unhealthy relationship to a healthy relationship and if so, how?

Dear Reader,

Whoever said relationships take work wasn't kidding. Without attention, the occasional lovers' quarrel can easily drag a relationship downhill into constant bickering with escalation to more harmful dynamics from there. Change is possible, but for many couples, it's an uphill battle to develop healthier habits. It can also be helpful to take stock of what you mean by an "unhealthy" relationship. There can be a big difference between a relationship that doesn't have open communication patterns compared to a relationship that is abusive. Taking a close look at what is actually happening in the partnership can help determine whether it's something that may change with effort or not.

Sometimes the line between feeling good and feeling bad when you're with someone is unclear. Rather than labeling partnerships as simply "good" or "bad," it may be helpful to recognize that relationships are complex, and most include a number of different dynamics and characteristics. Gaining clarity on the parts of the relationship that feel affirming and energizing to you can be a great place to start. For instance, what leads to expressions of humor, affection, interest, and joy in your relationship? Have you felt moments of greater overall satisfaction between the two of you? Are there patterns in what often leads to expressions of anger, disgust, whining, sadness, or fear? Have you had moments where you felt emotionally overwhelmed and less overall satisfaction? Knowing more about how you both express yourselves in relationships can help provide more clarity on what patterns have been established. 

Some behaviors that tend to damage relationships the most are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and withdrawal. Criticism occurs when one partner is criticizing a person for who they are, rather than trying to discuss a specific behavior. Defensiveness is when one blames the other for problems that have arisen in the relationship instead of admitting when they're in the wrong. Contempt happens when a partner places themselves above the other in an effort to diminish the significance of the problem at hand. And finally, when someone either leaves the space or shuts down emotionally during a discussion or disagreement, that's called withdrawal.

In reality, lots of relationships may exhibit these characteristics at one time or another. Just like individual people, all relationships have strengths and challenges. For example, you and your partner may get along when it comes to one aspect of the relationship, but in another, conflict erupts. How you deal with conflict can often be an indicator of how healthy or unhealthy the relationship is at its core.

Research indicates that there are three different modes of conflict resolution within happy couples: these are validating, volatile, and conflict-avoiding. A validating couple will handle conflict in an open, communicative, and mature manner by respecting each other’s opinions and expressing positive emotions. A volatile couple will also handle conflict with open communication but in a more competitive manner. They're able to express both positive and negative feelings with each other. A conflict-avoidant couple prefers to focus on the strengths of the relationship and the similarities between each other, and will downplay their differences and negative emotions.

A good first step towards a healthier relationship is to identify your conflict management and resolution styles. When conflict's brewing, how do you react? Do you:

  • Become aggressive, or alternatively, defensive?
  • Adopt a "win-lose" perspective? 
  • Blame your partner? 
  • Avoid the conflict at all costs? 
  • Agree with your partner to avoid conflict? 
  • Change the subject?

List adapted from Helpguide.org 

Understanding more about how you both you and your partner react when a conflict emerges can help guide how it can be addressed. The capacity for change depends on several factors, including the severity of the problem(s) and the commitment to making progress from both parties. And no matter the situation, good communication and conflict resolution skills are key.

With that, abuse (be it emotional, verbal, or physical) is never an acceptable means of communication. If you or someone you know is or has experienced harm in this way, there's support available for you. It's never someone's fault that their partner chose to harm them. If you or the person you're supporting is a student, the school may have an office on campus to provide resources, such as an anti-rape crisis center.

You and your partner may also benefit from some expert advice in the form of individual or couples counseling. If you're a college student, you might check to see if your campus offers these services. Additionally, these resources may also prove helpful:

Building a healthy relationship takes skill and determination from all partners, and while it requires effort, it can be done. Seeking help from a mental health professional can increase the chance that your relationship will move onward and upward! Over time, though, you may reflect on your efforts and find that they aren’t producing the results you'd hoped. At this point, you may reflect on whether to move forward together or to end the relationship. Hopefully by reflecting on your habits and by working together, partners can come to a solution that meets their needs. 

Last updated Jan 14, 2022
Originally published Feb 26, 2010