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Relationship Difficulties

Content Warning: This article covers many aspects of relationships that some might find triggering or uncomfortable. While it is sincerely intended to be helpful, it is not to be construed as advice, psychological or otherwise. If you find any of it overwhelming, please feel free to skim over it, focusing in on whatever you feel will be most useful to your situation.

Sometimes it is necessary to get help from others (such as trustworthy friends, family members, counselors, police officers, etc.). Do not feel ashamed. Your physical safety and mental-emotional well-being are important. If you feel as if you do not have any support, keep reaching out until you find it.

Before Entering Into A Relationship

Companionship can be wonderful, but it is better to be alone than stuck within a relationship that will destroy the people involved. Therefore, it is important to carefully assess before acting, especially if one has just ended a relationship. Impatience and desperation can lead one into putting themselves within unpleasant, or even dangerous, situations. Do not be blinded by passion.

First, we must be clear on who we are. Knowing our personal "boundaries" is particularly important. In other words, what behaviors do we find "acceptable" or "unacceptable" towards ourselves and others? Why?

Then, we must carefully observe those around us without assuming that they feel or think the same as us, no matter how similar they might seem upon the surface. Take careful note of any "Red Flags".

The term "Red Flag" is often misused. It is not merely something that we do not "like" about someone, but a belief or behavior that signals that they might be dangerous for us to be around (such as a propensity for violence or theft). To give another, more subtle example:

Sometimes people shower others with an intense amount of attention and affection early on within a relationship, not because they genuinely care about them, but in an attempt to get them addicted and/or make them feel indebted so as to manipulate them immediately afterward. That behavior is sometimes referred to as "Love Bombing". There are all sorts of "Mind Games" that people "play", whether deliberately or unintentionally.

The Dark Triad model highlights several personality traits that are very destructive:

[This image is based on one at PsychMechanics. Márcia D'Souza provides a more detailed diagram.]

Those traits lead to a lack of remorse for antisocial behavior, a cruelty coupled to a sense of selfishness and cunning. NEVER, under any circumstances whatsoever, enter into a relationship with the assumption that those personality characteristics can be changed! In the worst cases, ignoring those warning signs can, quite literally, lead to stalking, harassment, and/or being murdered. Do not live in fear, but be discerning.

A common pattern of psychological abuse that is helpful to understand is The DARVO Cycle. "DARVO" is an acronym that describes a three-step process:

Step 1: Deny that any abuse has taken place; hide the truth.
Step 2: Attack anyone who points out the abuse (e.g.: "victim blaming").
Step 3: Reverse the Victim and the Offender, meaning to "play the victim" in response.

In short, it is a way to avoid accountability for one's own behavior. For example, when a destructive action is calmly pointed out, someone who is in a DARVO Cycle may say "you made me do it", and then go into a rage about being "falsely accused" instead of addressing the behavior itself.

[A helpful resource for understanding that kind of abuse is Narcissist Abuse Support.] For now, let's focus in on two aspects, "Gaslighting" and "Double Binds"...

Gaslighting is to continually undermine a person's sense of "self" to the point that they begin to question their own sanity. Sometimes people try to get others to doubt their motivations and observations (...or even their own behaviors!) in an attempt to control them. It may come in the form of specific patterns of speech, like repeatedly telling someone, "You're crazy and you can't even see it!". It might be constant attempts to induce guilt or shame about something that has not happened, a "projection" from another person's imagination. Or, it could be persistent, yet subtle, changes made to someone's environment without telling them. That could mean physically rearranging things within their living space, or lying about them to all of their acquaintances when they are not around in order to try to influence how they are perceived.

Double Binds (or more generally "crazy-making") are ultimatums where both options are destructive, a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" kind of a situation. They can be seemingly innocuous. For example, a person may tell another, "If you loved me, you would [blank]". While it might be worded in a way that implies a request or a suggestion, that is actually a demand that uses "love" as a bargaining chip. It is a kind of "emotional blackmail". As a more extreme example, someone might try to keep another within a destructive relationship by threatening to commit suicide if they leave. In that instance, it would be best if one quietly makes their escape and gets them some help from a therapist and/or the police from afar.

We would like to emphasize the words "quietly" and "escape" here. Abuse can be so severe that people will become violent and vengeful when they are denied. Instead of respecting that decision, they might adopt the mindset of, "If I can't have you, then no one can". Again, do not live in fear, but be discerning. A lot of those kinds of troubles can be avoided if we carefully and dispassionately observe people before choosing to become deeply committed to a relationship with them.

Recognizing & Creating Healthy Relationships

If one has been stuck within toxic circumstances for a long period of time or has never had constructive examples to contrast it with, it might be difficult to determine what characteristics make up a healthy relationship. Here are some examples:

Healthy Relationships Unhealthy Relationships
People accept, support, respect, and encourage growth
People criticize, judge, and disrespect each other
Opinions are heard
Opinions are dismissed or overlooked
Feelings are validated
Feelings are invalidated
Boundaries are respected
Boundaries are overstepped or dismissed
Needs and wants are effectively communicated
Thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are dictated by others
Time is appropriately divided between various relationships and responsibilities
Connection with other relationships diminishes
Abuse is absent
Physical, sexual, mental, or emotional abuse are present
Self-care is encouraged and respected
There is an apparent care-taker role
Trust is present; allowing space to share dreams, fears, concerns, and ideas
Dishonesty and mistrust are prevalent
Safety and comfort exists, people are their natural self
Intimidation and/or control is common in the relationshihp
Laughter, joy, fun are present and the relationship is enjoyable
There is a constant need to walk on eggshells to avoid negative conflict
Allowing time for enjoyable activities together
Investing in the relationship is unimportant
[This table is based on a photo on the above website.]

Some of these things can be quite subtle, almost unnoticeable, when taken in isolation. For example, sometimes a person that does not have any ill intentions towards another can invalidate their feelings or do other things that undermine the relationship without realizing it. Mistakes sometimes happen. However, it becomes abuse when it is done over and over again, especially after it has been clearly and peaceably pointed out several times and no sincere attempts have been made to work it out.

It can be helpful to get more than one point of view on this subject whenever possible. For example, a similar table is given by The National Resource Center for Domestic Violence:

Healthy Relationships Unhealthy Relationships
Respect: Each person values who the other person is, understands the other person's boundaries, and values their beliefs and opinions. Disrespect: Your partner makes fun of your opinions and interests, or purposely destroys something that is important to you.
Trust: Partners trust each other and are comfortable doing things separately and respecting each other's privacy online. Jealousy: Everyone can experience jealousy, though it becomes unhealthy when someone tries to control you because of it.
Honesty: Being truthful and open with your partner and being able to talk together about what you both want without fearing the response or if you'll be judged. Betrayal: When your partner is deceitful, hides important things from you, or threatens to make your private matters public in order to control you.
Individuality: Neither partner compromises who they are, and each has their own identity, with space and freedom in the relationship. Control: When your partner makes all the decisions and tells you want to do, what to wear, and who to spend time with. They may also be 'in charge' of all the finances and insist that you account for all of the money that you have spent, or force you to hand over any money you have to them. They may also try to isolate you from friends and family.
Equality: You and your partner put equal effort into the relationship and make decisions together as opposed to one person calling all of the shots. Manipulation: One partner influences the other without them realizing it. This can include ignoring you until they get their own way, making you feel guilty or responsible for their actions, making you feel like everything is your fault, threatening to hurt themselves or others if you don't do as they say or stay with them. They may also use gifts and 'apologies' to influence your decisions.
Taking Responsibility: You and your partner are both responsible for your own actions and words. You both avoid putting blame on each other and own up when you do something wrong. You both avoid taking things out on each other when you're upset and both try to make positive changes to better your relationship. Deflecting Responsibility: Your partner makes excuses for their behavior, blaming you, other people, or past experiences for their actions. They may use alcohol or drugs as an excuse, or use any mental issues or past experiences (like a cheating ex or divorced parents) as a reason for unhealthy behavior.
Healthy Sexual Relationship: A sexual relationship that both are comfortable with, and neither partner feels pressured or forced to engage in sexual activity that is outside their comfort zone or without consent. Sexual Violence: One partner pressures or forces the other into sexual activity against their will or without consent.
Non-Violent Relationship: No physical violence is used by either partner; feeling a sense of care and concern from your partner, knowing that they will be there to support you. Physical Violence: When one partner intentionally uses physical force against the other, as a means of controlling the other partner. This includes shaking, slapping, pushing, biting, punching, scratching, trying to choke or strangle, hitting with household objects, using weapons, and physical restraint (e.g.: pinning you against a wall).
Inclusion: Both partners encourage each other to socialize and keep in touch with friends and family. Isolation: Keeping you away from friends, family, or other people by insisting you choose your partner over them.
Protection and Loyalty: When your partner is reliable and you feel confident that they have your back, and are respectful and faithful, sticking up for you and keeping your secrets safe. Sabotage: Purposely ruining your reputation, achievements or success by making you miss work, talking about you behind your back or starting rumors, and threatening to share private information about you.
Encouragement: Your partner supports you to do things that you want to do, and backs your decisions. Belittling: Making you feel bad about yourself - calling you names, making rude remarks about your friends and family or what you look like, and making fun of you - even if it is played off as 'just a joke'.
Self-Confidence: When partners have confidence in themselves, they are calm and comfortable enough to allow others to express their opinions without forcing their own opinions on them. Intimidation: When a partner tries to control aspects of your life by making you feel fearful or timid. This may include threatened or actual violence.
[The above table is a slightly edited version of the one contained within the document, Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships]

While relationships should be enjoyable, sometimes the people involved have to work together to handle issues that undermine a sense of companionship. That is "normal" and necessary part of having a life companion.

Miscommunication about expectations can lead to tensions throughout a relationship. And further, sometimes people do hurtful things when they are not thinking clearly. Is reconciliation possible or if it would it be better to move on?

"Resilience" is the ability for something to return to its proper state after a shock. Within the article 7 Things Resilient Couples Do Differently, Paula Davis-Laack describes a few things that people can do to cultivate resilience within their relationship:

"People-pleasing" attitudes and behaviors may be adopted with the intention of "smoothing things over". However, being considerate is different from compromising on constructive values. The "peace" created through that kind of compromise is ultimately destructive to oneself and their relationships. The term "Toxic Codependency" is sometimes used to describe it.

Making Hard Decisions & Letting Go When Necessary

It can be difficult to build trust when it has been "broken" or "betrayed". Rather than fall into a pattern of blaming others, calmly assess the situation.

Sometimes people have an incredibly difficult time managing themselves due to factors that are both inside and outside of their control. For example, drug abuse and/or trauma may cause changes within the structure of the brain. It can make feelings erratic and intense to the point that they distort perception and alter behavior (such as with some cases of "Borderline Personality Disorder" or BPD).

We won't get into any of the details behind how BPD might come about. Instead, we will focus in on a few characteristics that are usually a part of it, and a general pattern that they can create as a result...

• "Impulsivity" is when someone does things without thinking carefully about the consequences that decision might have. It is often at the root of addictions to various substances or activities (e.g.: drugs, sex, gambling, etc.).

• "Affective Instability" is when a person has severe "mood swings", rapidly alternating between emotional "highs" and "lows" in a short span of time.

• "Identity Disturbance" is when a person has no clear sense of "self" and/or a distorted self-image. They might constantly feel "empty" inside and try to fill that sense of emptiness with attention from others. It can lead to a strong "Fear of Abandonment", where they become scared of "losing" relationships.

In combination, those qualities sometimes result in a behavior that is referred to as "Splitting".

Impulsivity + Affective Instability + Identity Disturbance + Fear of Abandonment = Splitting

When Splitting, a person repeatedly cycles between two states:

1. A period of "Idealization" where they put someone "on a pedestal", showering them with praise and happy feelings
2. A period of "Devaluation" where they turn that same person into a "villain", becoming angry and hateful towards them

We might visualize the cycle like this:

Those responses have a tendency to be both incredibly intense and inappropriate to the situation at hand, a seemingly "trivial" detail setting off a chain of misunderstandings and arguments.

After awhile, they might suddenly "Discard", or completely cut that person out of their life without any warning. A relationship can seem "fine" one day, and the very next day they are gone and in a new relationship:

As the emotions calm down to some extent, that pattern may be followed by deep remorse and the contemplation of suicide. To distract themselves from it, the cycle might repeat with a new person.

No matter how much patience and empathy one may express towards someone suffering from those challenges, lasting constructive changes cannot be made if that person is unwilling to choose it for themselves on some level. It can be an incredibly painful, confusing, and draining experience for everyone involved, so I can understand how many people might not know how to assist one another through that process.

Unfortunately, offering help can be risky sometimes too. Even if we are not worried about being murdered in a fit of rage, we might face circumstances that require us to ask ourselves difficult questions, like:

• "If I give you a place to stay tonight, will I wake up in the morning to find all of my stuff stolen to fund your drug habit?"
• "If I accompany you to a sketchy side of town, one filled with desperation, am I going to get mugged?"
• "If you go to a loan shark, am I going to get the shakedown if you can't pay your debt?"
• "If you have drugs on you and we get stopped by the police, am I going to prison too?"

We end up putting ourselves in danger by choosing to associate with particular activities, depite the care that we have for the people doing them. There are consequences for our actions that are unavoidable and there is only so much that one can do for another. If we have already helped in every way that we reasonably can, it may be best to simply wish them well and leave.

However, leaving may be easier said than done. Sometimes people get stuck within a "Cycle of Abuse" (i.e.: a repeating pattern of harm followed by relative calm):

A "Trauma Bond" may be formed in an attempt to cope with it. The association between abuse and "love" can be so mixed up that it can be hard to break.

Hope For Healing On A Fundamental Level

Where do the destructive tendencies within human beings come from? In a very real sense, people entertain the animalistic because their bodies are part animal. A good example of that is Paul MacLean's "Triune Brain Theory".

Generally, the main idea of this theory is that the brain has evolved from the center-out. The inner core of the brain, such as the Stem, is reptilian in nature (what Paul calls the "R-Complex"). It is mainly concerned with survival. The layer surrounding it (what he calls the "Paleomammalian Complex") is related to the emotional aspects of the Limbic System, what is sometimes referred to as the "lower mammal". And finally, the layer surrounding that (what he calls the "Neomammalian Complex") is related to the ability to reason brought about by the Neocortex, what is sometimes referred to as the "higher mammal".

The most abstract of reasoning is done on the very outer surface of the brain, particularly in the front near the forehead. It involves things like cultivating a sense of empathy (through the so-called "Mirror Neurons"), inspiration, creativity, intuitive insight, and being able to simulate experiences without having yet done them, what we might call imagination. It is the part of the brain that facilitates our most "human" qualities. When it is damaged or undeveloped in some way, it seems to contribute to the expression of the behaviors associated with The Dark Triad. To quote the article "Prefrontal Cortex Damage Can Lead To Violent Behavior" by Ron White [based on information from The Franklin Institute]:
Early damage to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, either through oxygen deprivation at birth or from brain injury as a young child, hinders the social and moral development of the child. Adults who receive trauma to their brain, on the other hand, are usually aware of the proper social and moral conduct, but are not capable of applying such correct behavior.

Brain injury involves two different sets of events. Primary brain injuries include fractures, bruises, blood clots, lacerations of brain tissue or blood vessels. A secondary cycle of biochemical events is also set in motion by the trauma, and is the primary contributor to long-term damage associated with brain injury.

In the womb, the prefrontal cortex is the slowest to develop. After birth it is the last to form the deep fissures that give the outer layer of the human brain its characteristic cauliflower-like appearance. The brain cells in the prefrontal cortex form more slowly than any other area of the brain. This is also the area that controls most of our major higher functions, and bestows us with "executive functions" such as working memory and multi-tasking.

According to Raymond Dolan of The Institute of Neurology in London, many patients with this type of brain damage to the prefrontal cortex have problems with violence and resembled "psychopathic individuals, who are characterized by high levels of aggression and antisocial behavior performed without guilt or empathy for their victims." Otherwise these people are normal in every way, including mental ability. Their brains are just not capable of acquiring social and moral knowledge even at a normal level.

Since the 1980s, scientists have been able to connect damage to the prefrontal cortex with psychopathic behavior and the inability to make morally and socially acceptable decisions. Unfortunately, this area of the brain is susceptible to injury.

At the November 1999 annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience, researchers presented findings and statistics compiled from the University of Sweden that we startling. Asa Bergvall presented findings on their study of violent offenders, explaining that the prefrontal cortex area of the brain is precisely the "area of the brain that is impaired in murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals who repeatedly re-offend."

"The violent offenders are like the controls in every task but one, which taps prefrontal function," says Bergvall. "In that, it was as if they were retarded. They had an impaired ability to shift their attention in order to view the world in a different way - a function linked to the lateral prefrontal cortex. Other, higher order executive functions of their prefrontal cortex appeared to be unimpaired."

Psychopathologist and researcher Adrian Raine, from the University of Southern California, documented prefrontal damage in people with Antisocial Personality Disorder as characterized by "irresponsibility and deceitfulness, lack of emotional depth and remorse." He reported, "The antisocial men actually had 11-14% less brain tissue volume in their prefrontal cortexes, compared to normal males - a deficit of about two teaspoons' worth."
Perhaps this sort of knowledge can assist people in overcoming those tendencies for themselves? We are not at the whim of the body, but can consciously direct it towards healing. No matter what you have experienced, there is hope! For example, BPD can be treated with Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which gives strategies intended to help one to:

• stay aware of what is going on both within and without ["Mindfulness"]
• keep from being overwhelmed by their own emotions ["Emotional Regulation"]
• find methods to constructively cope with different types of stress ["Distress Tolerance"]
• communicate with others in ways that increase the likelihood of being understood ["Interpersonal Effectiveness"]
...and so on.

At its core lies the concept of "Dialectic", a method that attempts to integrate or "Synthesize" the truth behind two seemingly opposite points of view (referred to as the "Thesis" and "Antithesis").

For example, Idealization might convince someone that a person is "perfect", but in actuality, no one is. Likewise, Devaluation may get one to belive that the same person is "pure evil", without any redeeming qualities whatsoever. People are rarely so extreme, but we would never know it if we were stuck within intense emotional fantasies about them.

"Reality Testing" helps us to distinguish between fact and fantasy. Over time, we can use it to recondition our responses so that we are gradually less reactive and more discerning. Our emotions come into balance and life becomes easier to navigate when we temper the extremes of Idealization and Devaluation:


We hope that this article can assist you in finding and/or maintaining healthy relationships, as well as the personal coherence that they are founded upon. Thank you for reading! ❤️