Improving an incompatible relationship

Dear Alice,

What are some ways to identify and deal with unhealthy relationships? And what strategies can people use to enhance relationships? What are some internal and external support resources that are available for people dealing with unhealthy relationships?

Dear Reader,

Throughout life, people experience all kinds of relationships. Compatible relationships have the potential to improve feelings of self-worth, enjoyment, and personal growth, while incompatible relationships may leave people feeling disrespected, uncomfortable, and in some circumstances overwhelmed or distraught. Keep in mind that in all kinds of partnerships, there’s likely to be some disagreement, need for compromise, and times of frustration. These situations alone don’t necessarily indicate that individuals are incompatible, in fact, the ways that these situations are handled can actually be indicators of a relationship that’s thriving. However, if you feel like your relationship lacks communication and trust, there’s persistent and unresolved conflict, or you feel unsafe, these may all be signs of a relationship worth letting go. For people who are considering leaving an incompatible partnership, resources such as national hotlines or local domestic violence shelters are available (more on that in a bit).

Rather than defining relationships as “unhealthy” or “healthy”, it could be beneficial to recognize that partnerships encompass different dynamics, are complex, and exist on a spectrum. You may want to consider what you value in a thriving or compatible relationship. Research indicates that those in thriving partnerships tend to be highly compatible with one another. High compatibility often stems from similarities in values and lifestyle. Gauging compatibility often starts with understanding what you’re seeking in a partner. For example, are there activities that you both enjoy together? How do you each factor into the other's future goals?

Some universal qualities of a compatible relationship often include:

  • Treating each other with respect
  • Being honest and open with one another
  • Communicating openly and clearly
  • Supporting each other
  • Resolving conflicts through compromise and working through things peacefully
  • Feeling secure and comfortable
  • Mutual enjoyment in spending time together

If you’re seeking to strengthen or enhance your current relationship, it may be helpful to gain clarity on what you feel is missing. Are there moments in your relationship where you’ve felt hurt? When you and your partner engage in conflict, does it leave you feeling emotionally drained? Do you feel supported by your partner? By identifying some of the stress-points within your relationship, you may be able to start working towards building a stronger connection with your partner. Some strategies you may employ are attempting to make connections with your partner but also responding to their attempts to connect with you. This can range from asking about their day to learning more about their feelings. Another way to bolster a relationship is offering kindness in moments of conflict. By remaining open, rather than focusing on blame and criticism, conflict may be handled in a more positive manner. Another strategy you may consider is taking responsibility for personal wrongdoings or mistakes. Taking the time to repair the relationship after a fight or if feelings have been hurt can strengthen the relationship as a whole, even if at first, it's painful.

On the other hand, in an incompatible or fraught relationship, one or both partners may exhibit some of the following behaviors:

  • Disrespecting the other through ridicule, name calling, ignoring the other, or criticism of the other or the other’s friends
  • Lying or withholding information from the other
  • Picking fights or antagonizing the other
  • Making the other feel bad about themselves
  • Feelings of discontent or boredom
  • Tension or discomfort in their relationship

For those experiencing potentially incompatible or fraught relationships, reflecting on the partnership may be helpful: Is there something stressful (e.g., finances, housing, employment, life transitions) happening that could be impacting it? Are there problems from earlier in the relationship that were never resolved and are now resurfacing? What part of the relationship is most bothersome, and what changes may improve it? Can this relationship be improved?

Talking over these questions with each other or with a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional could be helpful. Thinking about what, if anything, could make everyone in the relationship more comfortable may be key in strengthening the partnership. If you and your partner are looking for some expert advice, you may look into individual or couple's sessions with a mental health professional as an option. If you believe that the concerns are too big to overcome or potentially dangerous, ending that relationship is also an option. Not all individuals are compatible, and it’s okay if you’ve decided that you no longer want to continue forward with a relationship (sometimes it might even be for the best!). If you find yourself in a position where you’d like to leave a relationship and need some additional support from trained professionals, consider searching in a private window as an added layer of protection when checking these resources:

  •  National Domestic Violence Hotlines. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help support you and get connected to local, state, or federal resources across the United States (US). You can also text or chat with them. The Hotline also has an internal directory of local resources. Input your zip code to search for resources that may be available in your area. 
  • The Trevor Project Get Help. These are resources specific to young people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer (LGBTQ+). They have a hotline, text messaging, or a chat box to seek support and get you connected to resources. 
  • The Domestic Violence Resource Network. This resource is managed by the US Department of Health & Human Services, and compiles support resources organized by location, ethnicity, cultural group, and other identities.
  • Local resources. To find resources specific to your area, consider doing an internet to find resources offered by community organizations, local government, or other resources to support people transitioning out of a relationship.

Each and every person deserves to feel safe, valued, and cared about. Perhaps the main thing to do is to trust your instincts and those of the people closest to you. One of the strongest signs of a thriving relationship is that all those involved feel good about themselves. By treating yourself with respect and believing in your right to be treated well, you are taking critical steps towards developing equitable, mutually fulfilling ties whether that be in this relationship or others in the future.

Last updated Jul 14, 2023
Originally published Jan 22, 1999