When I was 4 years old someone told me I had to get married someday. I cried for hours on my mother’s lap while she tried to comfort me by saying I never had to get married if I didn’t want to. This fear of marriage stayed with me for most of my life, and I justified it by pointing out all the terrible couples I saw around me. Why on earth would I get married just to end up like them? I eventually realized that many couples have perfectly happy and healthy marriages. I also realized that many of these “terrible” couples were simply like most of us, experiencing the ups and downs of a normal relationship.
Who are these couples and is everything about them really that terrible? Let me summarize some of the more common types of marriages we see. You’ll likely see yourself and your relationship in some of these descriptions.
This couple is like the high school sweethearts who dominated the halls with their screaming matches or passionate kissing; everything is at 100% whether that is good or bad. They offend one another easily, openly complain about their partner, yet still remain together for years and years.
Emotional reactivity happens to everyone, it’s an instant reaction that can’t be controlled. However, the behavior and thoughts that follow can be. Couples who refuse to harness their emotional reactivity and use kindness and affection towards their spouse find themselves getting into arguments more often and quicker as the marriage continues. A topic that used to be easy to discuss becomes a match on gasoline after a year of arguments on it. Because each partner is so used to being blamed and attacked by the other, defenses become almost instantaneous.
The possible plus:
Those who have the strongest emotional reactiveness can learn to be the most empathetic to others. Learning to monitor and interrupt the automatic process can help individuals recognize what is happening inside with them; they can learn to become self-reflective in the midst of the most difficult or triggering feelings. Once this gets easier to do, this couple can have the chance to express deeper feelings to one another. Recognizing what is happening within yourself can make understanding others all the more easier.
This couple is another one you may remember from high school. Every goodbye is a dramatic recreation of a soap opera love scene. They eat together, study together, and if you are friends with one of them you probably hear, “I can’t, I’ll be with [partner’s name]” any time you invite them to hang out.
Codependency can, not surprisingly, interrupt independency, and produce immense anxiety. Codependent relationships indicate an unhealthy level of clinginess, suggesting that one or both partners put all their needs of fulfillment on the other. Isolating yourself from other important relationships in your life, whether that be with family or friends, makes the relationship your one and only life-vest for all your needs, and leads to either trying to change your partner into what you need them to be, spending all your energy in trying to fulfill your partner’s needs, or a combination of the two.
The possible plus:
Being unwaveringly loyal to a relationship can be excellent when things get tough. Instead of running, someone who is committed and is willing to work on issues will be able to have a long and successful relationship. However, being committed doesn’t automatically mean codependent. It is important to set boundaries and find happiness as an individual in order to have the most healthy and fulfilling relationships.
Hostile and Detached
These couples are more like enemies than partners. Their interaction is based on keeping a mutually lonely and frustrating stalemate with each other. When they are not completely emotionally detached from one another, they are in a battle of snippy criticisms. Affection is rare within the relationship.
Everything about this relationship is a problem. Successful relationships are based on friendship, affection, and trust, three things that this type of couple have lost entirely. Hostile detached couples are the most likely to divorce, as they regulate their mutual negativity rather than escaping the toxic pattern.
The possible plus:
Although there are simply no pluses in this type of relationship, if both partners are willing and able to build affection and friendship for one another, there may be a future to the relationship. It will be hard and take serious work for both partners, but it could happen. As it is so hard, it is better for individuals be aware of the danger of allowing hostility and disengagement to permeate their relationships.
While it is true there are many distressed couples, these are still the minority of cases. My fear of marriage went away after meeting my best friend who I felt healthy, happy, and secure with. I didn’t need to be afraid of being a nightmare couple, because we worked hard to be a safe place for each other and be aware of unhealthy patterns and behaviors that would hurt both of us in the long run. Knowing the red flags and downfalls of toxic relationships allows you to be prepared to walk away from them and build the best relationship you can.
If you find yourself in a relationship like the ones listed above, don’t give up. Address these problems while you can, and find resources to overcome the issues with your partner.
One resource available is the RELATE assessment. Take it today for guidance and support.
Written by: Melece, Master’s student in Marriage and Family Therapy. Reviewed by Brian Willoughby.