What is a dysfunctional relationship?

Unless you’re completely out of touch with any media, print, audio, or video, you’ve been bombarded with words like “dysfunctional relationship,” “codependency,” and “toxic family system.” You may have noticed that there is a lot of information available about these relationships, but not much about what to do with them. This month, I thought I’d give a brief overview of the various terms and what they mean, as well as a guide to the difference between these and healthy relationships.

Dysfunctional Relationships are relationships that do not perform their proper function; that is, they do not emotionally support the participants, foster communication between them, appropriately challenge them, and prepare or strengthen them for life in the larger world.

Codependency means that one or both people in a relationship make the relationship more important than themselves. A classic codependent is hopelessly entangled with a partner who is out of control due to alcoholism, addiction, or violent behavior; but the term has been used more recently to refer to anyone who feels dependent, helpless, and out of control in a relationship; or unable to leave an unsatisfactory or abusive one.

Toxic Family Systems are relationships (beginning with childhood families and continuing into adulthood) that are mentally, emotionally, or physically harmful to some or all of the participants. Codependent relationships can also be toxic relationships, although the term “toxic” is generally used to refer to the more abusive varieties.

In short, these three terms refer to relationships that contain unhealthy interaction and do not effectively improve the lives of the people involved. The people in these relationships do not take responsibility for making their own lives or the relationship work.

The degree of dysfunction, codependency, or toxicity in relationships can vary. Most of us get a bit dependent and therefore dysfunctional from time to time, especially when we are tired, stressed, or overloaded. What makes the difference between this normal and occasional human frailty and true clinical dysfunction is our ability to recognize, confront, and correct dysfunction when it occurs in our relationships.

The question to consider is: what is not working and how can we make it work? Most people, when faced with a relationship problem or disagreement, reflexively start looking for a villain; that is, they want to know who is to blame. Responding to a problem by looking for someone to blame (even if it’s oneself) is a dysfunctional response. The functional question is not “Whose fault is it?” but “What can we do to solve the problem?”

When you try it, you’ll see that refusing to blame anyone (yourself or your partner) and instead insisting on solving the problem will make a world of difference in all of your relationships. Families that sit together, at a family meeting, where everyone, including young children, can discuss the problem from their point of view, and everyone works together to solve the problem, quickly become functional.

Couples who can sit together and discuss problems calmly, without blaming, criticizing, and accusing, find that seeking a mutual solution to their problems increases their commitment, intimacy, and bonds. Nothing unites you more powerfully in a relationship than the knowledge that, by working together, you can solve any problem that arises.

No relationship will be perfect; and how to successfully interact with your lover cannot be worked out in advance. Yes, she can learn basic communication skills, build her self-esteem, and develop patterns for healthy, equal, and balanced love before they meet, and all of this will make her relationship, when you find it, that much more successful. But, because you are unique, as is your partner, what works for the two of you must be developed on the spot. The only way I know of to do this is through experience, communication, and negotiation.

If you understand that your relationship, to be successful, must be healthy and fulfilling for both you and your partner, you will also understand that putting your partner’s feelings, needs, and desires before your own is just as harmful as compulsively putting your desires, needs. and feelings before those of your lover.

By focusing on resolving issues and problems together, through honest and open communication, you can learn to strike a balance. That is, they can work together to make sure each other’s needs and wants are met, and both can care equally about each other’s satisfaction, health, and happiness.

Any other definition of love tends to degenerate into dysfunction and codependency, and will become toxic to you and your lover. Finding out if the solutions are mutually satisfying is easy: they ask how they feel and if it’s working. Starting your relationship with this idea in mind, or renewing an existing relationship on this basis, is much easier and more enjoyable than you think. I invite you to consciously shift your focus from who is to blame to what will fix the problem, and to increase the mutuality and communication in your relationship, and see how any dysfunctional interaction you have, whether minor or severe, is significantly reduced. You can do this with relationships at home, with your parents, your children, your siblings, and even with friends and co-workers.

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