Are You In An Unhealthy Relationship



            That’s quite a question, isn’t it? There is a reason why you were drawn to the title of this little book. What do you think that might be? Have you—or someone you are concerned about—been sad, confused, tired, or anxious recently? Has your health been suffering? Do you cry a lot or second-guess yourself? Have you considered taking an anti-depressant or anxiety medication or perhaps something to help you sleep? Have others noticed that you just haven’t “been yourself” lately?

            There are many signs of an unhealthy relationship.  Many of them are very subtle. I’d like to help you identify clues to understanding if indeed your intimate relationship is dragging you down and making you sick.  You don’t have to live this way. Please be assured of this.  It’s not your fault that this is happening, but it is your responsibility—especially if you have children—to stay in a bad relationship once you have the facts.


            As you go through the next several pages, I’d like you to remember one very important concept:


            I believe this is a life-changing idea.  What do I mean by “Love is a Behavior”?  Love is the way someone treats you all day, every day.  Even when life is tough. Even when he’s disappointed or upset. Even when he doesn’t get what he wants. It’s easy to say, “I love you” or “You know I love you.” We love lots of things. I love Jamocha Almond Fudge ice cream and a great shoe sale.  Those things don’t have feelings or require anything of me. Human relationships are different.  They require thought and consideration and putting the other person first..a lot.  Anyone can say the L word. Living it is a whole different thing altogether. For example, which of these items would you consider loving BEHAVIOR:

·       Calling you a bitch

·       Telling you that you’re crazy, psycho, worthless, no one else would ever love you

·       Cheating on you

·       Telling you that everything is your fault

·       Lying to you

·       Using alcohol or drugs as an excuse for his personal behaviors

·       Making up lies about you and telling your family or friends these lies

·       Not allowing you to say no to sex

That is a very short list. We will discuss many others later. What I want you to understand here is that it is not possible to say,”I love you” and then do any one of the items above.  None of those demonstrate love. Do you understand what I’m saying here? I know how great it feels to hear your partner tell you that he loves you. But if you don’t FEEL loved, there is a reason why. And that reason is undoubtedly because you’re not being SHOWN love. Yes, I’m certain that there are many times when the actions match the words. But any of the items above are deal breakers. They in no way exhibit love.  Now, he may actually love you in what he considers to be love. However, the good news is that you don’t have to accept that as love if it doesn’t feel like love to you. You and you alone have the right to define love for yourself and if his actions don’t feel like love then it isn’t love. Plain and simple as that, my friend.

      As you read this little book, keep at the top of your head that LOVE IS A BEHAVIOR. It won’t steer you wrong.



            These are in no particular order. I consider them all unhealthy/abusive and all of them to be deal breakers. If you recognize even one of these behaviors in your intimate partner relationship, let me be very clear: you are in an unhealthy relationship.

v You cry a lot: We all get frustrated with our partner, our kids, and our friends and as women our go-to action is to cry.  That’s normal every great once in a while. What’s not normal is crying every day or a few times a week because your partner yelled at you, made you feel insignificant, called you names, and so on.  When you’re in a healthy relationship there are few occasions of unhappy tears.

v You feel anxious a lot: In an unhealthy relationship, you feel worried as a way of life. You’re worried you’re going to make him mad. You’re worried you didn’t do something exactly as he told you. You’re worried he’s going to come home drunk. You’re worried he will say or do something inappropriate in front of your children, parents, or friends. You’re just a bundle of nerves a lot of the time. Sometimes, you don’t even know what you’re anxious about but you have that feeling in your stomach most of the day.  If you’ve thought of taking a prescription drug to quell your anxiety—or if he’s told you that “you need to be on drugs”—it’s a very persistent sign of an unhealthy relationship. You shouldn’t have to be on drugs to stay in a relationship.

v You apologize a lot: You’re being told you’re wrong a good deal of the time. You’re told you’re inconsiderate. You’re told you never listen to him. You’re told you’re a liar. You’re told you don’t care. You’re told that if you really loved him you’d _______ (fill in the blanks with the reason you apologize the most).  Most of the time, you apologize out of habit or worse yet, you apologize for things you haven’t even done but if you don’t tell him you’re sorry and that you were wrong the fight will go on forever.

v You’re afraid of him: Maybe you’re not afraid he’ll hit you (or maybe you are). Perhaps you’re afraid of his temper. You’re afraid to make him mad (although on any given day that could be for any reason and it constantly changes). You’re afraid to express your own opinion. You’re afraid to talk because you may set him off. Let me be crystal clear: you should never be afraid of your partner.

v He doesn’t take responsibility for his actions/ everything is YOUR fault: How can his losing his job or not be able to find his keys possibly be your fault? Why is his bad mood your fault? Or the fact that you just should have known that he wanted steak for dinner last night (even though he didn’t tell you)? You get the idea. He’s NEVER wrong. You’re ALWAYS wrong.

v You aren’t allowed to refuse sex/he has sex with you in demeaning or painful ways: I will say this only once and if we were sitting across from each other in my office, you would see the seriousness on my face: YOUR BODY BELONGS TO YOU, NOT HIM. YOU ARE ALWAYS ALLOWED TO REFUSE SEX TO YOUR HUSBAND OR BOYFRIEND. ALWAYS.  It isn’t your wifely duty or your husband’s prerogative to demand sex. Sexual intimacy is a shared agreement and connection. It is never, ever to be forced. It is never, ever to be in a humiliating or degrading way (I needn’t elaborate. We’re all women here and know what I’m talking about). If you are afraid to say no to sex for any reason—you have your period, you’re ill, the baby kept you up all night, you just don’t feel like it—you are in a highly abusive relationship.  If you don’t consent to sex or if you’ve told him no but he doesn’t accept your decision and threatens you (to go elsewhere for sex, to leave you) or forces sex on you, that’s called RAPE. Yes, even if you’re married.

v He calls you names or humiliates you: What are his favorite names for you? Bitch? Whore? Cunt? Idiot? Psycho? Worthless? Stupid? Putz? Whale? I’m sure you have your own. If it feels bad to you then it is bad. Don’t let him tell you that it’s just a joke or that you’re too sensitive. He’s wrong. None of those are “pet” names. Does he demand that you wear revealing, tight, or low-cut outfits in public or when you get together with his friends? If that makes you feel like a piece of meat, once again it is your body and you can dress it as you see fit. If he paws you in public or tells embarrassing stories about you, that’s a sign of a very unhealthy relationship.

v He uses intimidation to frighten you: He might smash his fist in anger or to make a point. Maybe he gets in your face when he’s upset. Perhaps to throws or smashes things or screams and gets red in the face. Maybe he pushes you aside or against a couch or wall. Or maybe he punches walls. These are all signs of not only an unhealthy relationship but a potentially violent and dangerous man. Don’t be fooled: he may throw a TV remote at you which misses your head but the intention is to let you know that next time it will land squarely in the center of your forehead and he’s capable of doing that any time he likes. This kind of anger and intimidation isn’t normal and you aren’t safe.

v He makes threats: Maybe he doesn’t even threaten to physically hurt you (but if does, believe him and leave immediately).  Oftentimes the threats may be to hurt himself or commit suicide if you ever left him. Or maybe the threat is to leave you, amplified by the fact that if he leaves you, he’ll take the kids and you’ll never see them again. Abusive men also threaten that if you file for divorce you’ll get nothing (which is not true in any state) and be on the street. Maybe he threatens to “expose” you, by which I mean he’ll tell lies about you to your friends and family members so they’ll think you’re crazy and end up alone. Sometimes, abusive men threaten to call the police on trumped up charges thereby trying to put you in jail.

v He isolates you from your friends and family: It may not be as direct as forbidding you from seeing them (although he has no right to forbid anything). It may be subtle such as, “I don’t know why you’d be hanging around with people who say bad things about me. That’s not very loyal of you. They’re a bad influence and harmful to our relationship. You have to choose between them and me and if you loved me that would be a no-brainer.”  Hmmm…maybe there’s a good reason why so few of your friends like him and why your mother told you not to get involved with him.  Isolation is a very purposeful and deliberate tactic to make him your only influence. In that way, he is all powerful and you become so emotionally dependent, you may believe you couldn’t leave him if you wanted to because you no longer have any friends or family in your life.

v He uses alcohol or drugs chronically:  There is a very high correlation between substance use and abusive relationships. The substances don’t cause abuse. Abuse is intentional, well thought-out behavior. However, substance use increases the possibility of abuse and its severity. I truly believe that a drunken man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts.  A man doesn’t act badly because he’s drunk or high. He gets drunk or high so that he has an excuse for his behavior. If you’ve told your partner that when he uses he hurts your feelings or does something harmful to you or your relationship, and he still chooses to use, then his drinking or using drugs is not loving behavior. The simple fact is that he just doesn’t care if he hurts you. Alcohol or drugs are more important than you. Get in line because his substances are numbers 1-1,000 on his list and if you’re lucky, you fall in somewhere after that.


I could really go on and on with dozens of other signs but I know you understand what I’m trying to say. If any one of these behaviors is going on in your relationship, you are correct in feeling depressed, anxious, and hopeless. HE ISN’T GOING TO CHANGE. That’s the truth. Abusers rarely change for the long-term. They may change temporarily to keep you where they want you but very shortly—a matter of weeks or a few months at most—the abusive behaviors will begin again, only this time they will be worse. Why? Because he knows something very important about you: all he needs to do is placate you for a short amount of time and you’ll put up with anything. The more often this cycle occurs, the less likely you are to leave. He knows that so in effect he is disrespecting you at a core level and treating you like a dufus.


      There are many good reasons why women remain in bad relationships. Maybe one of these reasons is yours:

·       You love him:  No, that doesn’t sound ridiculous. I’m sure he has sweet qualities you love. I’m certain he’s not mean all of the time. I’m also sure you have good times with him. You have a shared history. Many, if not most, of your memories are with him. You planned a future with him. However, perhaps at this point, you love who he once was. Maybe if you met him today you wouldn’t fall in love with him. Maybe you wouldn’t even want him as a friend. Perhaps, you love the illusion or the fantasy of the life and future you wanted with him.

·       You’re afraid of him: If he’s been violent in the past, there’s good reason to believe he’ll be violent if you leave. Remember, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  If he’s threatened violence, believe him. Please read that sentence again. Tell the police or someone you trust. This is very important.

·       You’re afraid to be alone and afraid of the future on your own: One of my favorite quotes is by psychologist Virginia Satir: “Most people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.”  I think it’s pretty profound and certainly true of women in abusive relationships. You may be miserable a good deal of the time but it’s your misery and you think you know how to deal with it. What’s really scary is the misery of uncertainty. What will happen if you leave? How will you survive? What will this do to your children? What if he’s ‘right’ and no other man wants to be involved with you? What if he poisons the children and others against you? What if you end up missing him and want to go back to him but he has a new girlfriend at that point? Hey yeah: what if he finds someone else and he’s nice to her? Your head has probably spun in all these directions before.  All of these are excuses to keep you stuck in the certainty of misery because if we sat together and took each one of these reasons apart none of them would hold water.

·       You’re afraid you’ll hurt your children: Here’s the sad truth: staying in an unhealthy relationship hurts your children more than anything else possibly could. Don’t kid yourself by convincing yourself that the kids don’t know. Of course they do. They pretend they’re asleep when he’s yelling at you. They close their ears and go somewhere else in their head when he’s calling you names or humiliating you. They go along with you when you dry your tears and pretend everything’s OK. They can’t leave the situation without you so they’ve developed survival skills that allow them to withstand the abuse with you. Don’t tell me that your kids need a father. They don’t need any father; they need a father who shows loving behavior to their mother. They need someone who is a good influence in showing them how to treat a woman or how a woman should be treated. I know he can be a great father at times. I know they love him. They don’t know any better. You’ve forced them to be in this relationship and they’re doing what they have to so they can survive it. The pity is that this looks normal to them. You aren’t breaking up your family. Your partner’s behavior is breaking up your family. Get that straight. Let me ask you two simple questions: if your daughter came home with a boyfriend who is exactly like her father would you feel that she made the best possible choice and bless that relationship? If your son grew up to have exactly the same behaviors as his father and treated women just as his father treats you would you feel that you did the very best you could as his mother? If either of those questions made you feel queasy, I guess you have all the answers you need.

·       You grew up in a home in which your parent or parents were:

Alcohol or drug users: I can’t think of a better set-up for a future unhealthy relationship. They mimic each other almost identically.  A substance using parent is unpredictable.  When using he or she may be angry and unreasonable. When not using he may be loving and caring. It’s very confusing to a small child but something you may have become used to. Unpredictable moods become a way of life; learning to be quiet and compliant when you need to and grateful for a crumb of affection when it’s doled out. You also learn tell lies about your relationship perhaps having seen your non-substance using parent put on a happy face while feeling miserable about what’s going on in the household. Maybe she called his boss the morning after a bender to say he had the flu when in fact he was hungover. Perhaps she demanded that the rest of the family pretend that everything was fine and never tell anyone what was really happening.  You learned to lie. You learned to doubt your own reality. You learned to accommodate to unacceptable behavior. You learned that love was conditional and unpredictable.

In a violent relationship:  If you were a child growing up in a violent household, you grew up with fear and uncertainty in your heart. I’m sorry that you had to go through that. I have both male and female patients who tell horrific stories of hiding in their closets, wanting to run away but afraid to, trying to break up the parents’ fights, turning up the TV or radio very loudly so they couldn’t hear what was going on, feeling responsible for the parent who was being physically or verbally abused but also feeling helpless to do anything about it. They grew up to be adults with feelings of low self-worth, shame, worthlessness, substance use difficulties, fear of the world and fear of relationships, thoughts of suicide, depression and anxiety, and on and on.  Oftentimes, parents—particularly mothers—in an abusive relationship truly believe that their children don’t know anything that’s going on. The kids are asleep or at school or a friend’s house.  But if you grew up in this situation, you know better, don’t you? I’ve counseled hundreds of children who grew up in abusive homes and every single one of them knew what was happening.  Sort of makes you wonder what your children are feeling but not telling you, doesn’t it?

Depressed:  Oftentimes, depressed parents are negligent parents.  I don’t say this with a value judgment, it’s just the fact.  Very often, depression is a chemical disorder in the brain that can be greatly helped or overcome with a combination of medication and therapy. However, in the time when your parents were raising you depression was seen as a shameful stigma. One should have been able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop being so weak.” No one talked about depression as they do now. So, you may have experienced a parent who either took to her bed, sat on the couch watching soap operas most of the day, or drank.  That parent was not capable of taking care of you. Sometimes, the non-depressed parent tries to escape the depressed parent by drinking or using drugs, staying out of the house more often, having extra-marital affairs, or getting angry. A child in this type of household learns to be very responsible for herself and her siblings. She cooks, cleans, does laundry and generally becomes the parent in the household. She also feels a combination of helplessness to ‘make’ her parent well and anger at her responsibility. She also learns to be a good girl and not make problems in the home. She learns to stuff her feelings and be quiet about them because no one cares anyway.

Critical:  How do you become accustomed to an intimate partner who criticizes everything you do? You grow up with critical parents. You know who I’m talking about: your grades are never good enough, you aren’t as pretty as their friend’s daughter, you don’t use enough makeup but when you do it’s too much, your pirouettes in ballet class weren’t as precise as the girl next to you, you’re too fat or skin and bones. Shall I go on? You’re constantly being compared and coming up short. Maybe it’s not what your parent says but the look of disappointment or disgust on their faces.  That’s pretty powerful. No wonder you chose a partner whom you can’t please, who tells you there’s something wrong with not only what you do but that you’re wrong as a person. You’ll do anything for a crumb of approval or affection. He makes the rules and you carry out those rules but then for some reason, those rules change and the rules don’t apply to him, just you.

Separated or divorced:  It’s not usually the divorce that impacts a child as much as what precedes it and what happens afterward: fighting, threats, one parent storming out the door, using the children as pawns in their wars with each other.  These situations set up future unhealthy relationships because oftentimes the daughter has great feelings of fear and uncertainty. She feels responsible for her parents’ happiness. She has fears of abandonment. She becomes an adult much quicker. She feels anxious a great deal of the time.  How does this affect you in your adult relationships? You may feel unworthy or like a failure. You’re so afraid of being ‘abandoned’ that you’ll hold onto a man—any man—with your toenails. You don’t want your children to experience divorce as you did.  Most of the time, in a divorce situation there is a change of financial circumstances in the household. These changes historically affect women—who up until a few years ago had the majority of the child custody—more than men. So, if financial fear is one of the reasons you stay in your unhealthy relationship, I understand.  It’s a valid fear, especially if your partner is making financial threats. However, times have changed and laws regarding finances have certainly changed. It’s always a good idea to confront your fears with facts and an attorney or legal aid service can help you with that.



If after reading this short book you realize that you’re in an unhealthy—perhaps abusive—relationship, you may feel startled and frightened. Maybe you feel hopeless and very sad. Or maybe you feel empowered because nagging thoughts or suspicions you’ve had are correct. You’re not crazy after all.  Just as all abusers come from somewhere—family situations—all people who remain in unhealthy relationships come from somewhere, too.  It’s good to understand what brought you to this relationship (and perhaps several other unhealthy relationships before this one) and it’s good to understand why you’ve stayed.  But when you have knowledge you also have a responsibility to do something about it. You can no longer say you were unaware.

As the poet, Maya Angelou said, “You do what you know how to do at the time. When you know better you do better.”  What can you do better at this time?  I’m not talking about further pleasing your partner.  We both know that you’ve tried 458 things to try and do better in that category. Still not enough, is it? So, since you can’t do better in the wife/girlfriend category (because you’re good enough already), I’d like you to think about a very powerful concept:

You have control of three things in your life: your own thoughts, your own actions, and your own reactions.

That’s it. That’s your whole world and all that you have power over. That’s upsetting, isn’t it? But think about it: you’ve tried your hardest to make him happy and see that you’re a good enough person. You’ve tried to predict his behavior.  You’ve scoured your brain for what you can do to change this situation. You’ve talked. You’ve cried. You’ve begged and pleaded. Nothing’s worked, has it? That’s because you haven’t taken control of your three things. You see, he—and everyone else—have control of the same three things. You’ve just given him control of your control pieces. When you do that, you no longer control your life; someone else does. 

You have the power to change your own life. You just don’t have the power to change him.  How do you do that? By changing how you think about the unhealthy behaviors (they’re not OK or because you’re a bad person; they are because that’s what he wants to do), by changing your behavior (you will not put up with abusive behavior anymore), and by changing your reactions.  That last one is not so simple. Think about this: how have you reacted to his unkind behaviors?  Really think about that because I can assure you that you have a predictable pattern of coping or reacting.  When you change those reactions, you instantly change the dynamic of your relationship because now he has to react to you differently. Does that mean that if you change your reactions he’ll become a nicer person? No, not at all. He may become crueler in response because he used to relating to you in a certain, predictable way and he likes that.  However, this is good information for you to understand. Why? Because LOVE IS A BEHAVIOR. If his response to you not putting up with abuse is to abuse you at a higher level then he simply cannot love you.

Threats are not love.

Name calling is not love.

Making you feel worthless and hopeless is not love.

Making you feel insecure is not love.

Not letting you express yourself is not love.

Not allowing you personal freedom is not love.

Cheating on you is not love.

Drinking in excess or using drugs is not love.

Checking up on you is not love.

Texting or calling you at all hours is not love.

Not being responsible for his own behaviors is not love.

Questioning you or making you account for every penny is not love.

Being in charge of all decisions is not love.

Doling out money as if you’re an irresponsible three year old is not love.

Cutting you off from family members or friends is not love.

Telling who you can socialize with is not love.

Putting a GPS on your cell phone is not love.

Tapping into your email or voice-mail is not love.

Intimidating or scaring you is not love.

            I could go on and on I know you understand where I’m going with this.  Your partner doesn’t love you. I’m sorry. He doesn’t love you in the way you deserve to be loved. That doesn’t mean there isn’t someone else in this whole wide world who won’t love you. If there are billions and billions of people in the world, isn’t it possible that there is just one out there who will treat you better? Really?

            If you are being treated in a way that is unhealthy to you and your children, you must understand that you don’t have the power to change him.  That just is not going to happen. But you do have the power to change yourself and your situation. You have 100% control of that. You don’t need to do that today, but you can start to think about it today. You can make very small steps toward that change today.  In my books, Destructive Relationships and But He Never Hit Me I have entire, longer chapters on how to make those changes. It’s too much information to put in a small eBook. I encourage you to either check those books out of the library or purchase them. They are good guides.

            Lastly, I’d like to leave you with an important thought that may not have gone unnoticed by you as you’ve read the last ten pages:  if you have children or would like to have children I want you to take what you’ve read very, very seriously. If you grew up in household like the ones I described earlier you know not only how you felt as a little girl but where that led you.  YOU DIDN’T HAVE A CHOICE THEN BUT YOU DO NOW. YOU CAN CHANGE THE FUTURE FOR YOUR CHILDREN.  Your children are involved in this unhealthy or abusive relationship purely by your choice. You are forcing them to continue to live it. If you don’t have children but think you might someday, you absolutely must think very hard about the father of your future children and what you want their lives to look like. If the person you are currently with has any of the behaviors I’ve described you need to think long and hard about bringing children into that environment and the kind of life you will be forcing them to live.  As a parent, I feel very strongly about the issue of children living in an abusive household. It’s not fair. As a single adult you can do anything you please but when you have the responsibility of bringing children into the world, that’s something that they didn’t volunteer for but something you did to them.  You now have a greater responsibility. You have the responsibility to be strong and make better choices, if not for you then for them. 

            Be brave. Be smart. Make new choices based on fact not fear. Look at your life as if someone else was looking at it for you. Give yourself the same advice you would give a good girlfriend if she was talking to you.

            You deserve to be happy and safe. You deserved to be loved.

            Take good care.




Jill Murray