Creating healthy relationships

When love isn’t healthy

February 26, 2021
Posted by Karen Strang Allen

At first, everything seemed wonderful.

They had a lot in common and talked for hours about anything and everything. She found it refreshing how open he was about himself, which encouraged her to share her hopes and dreams eagerly. He showered her with attention, affection and gifts, and went out of his way to do kind things for her. It was more love than she’d ever received in her entire life, and it felt so good.

It felt so good, in fact, that she was willing to overlook things that didn’t feel right to her. Like the way he played head games with his ex. Or how he hid certain aspects of his past. Or how fast he was moving, even though she had said she wanted to go slow.

She thought she was in love…and he even told her he loved her, within a month or so of them meeting. He said he was sure she “was the one.” All this attention he was giving her was good…right?!

Then something changed. He started demanding more and more of her time and attention, becoming jealous of time spent with others. He started picking fights and criticizing her, making her wonder what she was doing wrong. One day he’d be warm and loving; the next day he’d be angry and cold. She felt like she was constantly walking on eggshells, not wanting to set him off again.

But still she stayed, wanting to hold onto the dream of how good it felt in the beginning, hoping her love would change him.

Is it love…or an addiction?

We are all wired for love. We want to feel cared for and connected to other human beings. And in our culture, we especially want to feel loved by a romantic partner…that one person we know will always be there for us, no matter what.

But if we try to use romantic love as a replacement for loving ourselves, as a way to avoid low self-esteem and uncomfortable emotions (like loneliness, sadness and anxiety), we inevitably get ourselves into trouble.

What many people call love is not really love…it’s actually an addiction. When you need another to feel happy, to feel loved, to feel validated and appreciated, you are more likely to choose someone who needs you to survive as well…and this is not love, it’s co-dependency.

Addictive love follows a pattern that looks like this:

  • You choose based on “chemistry” and jump in quickly.
  • You have sex early on, and feel “connected.”
  • There are early promises of love and commitment.
  • Yet you don’t really know each other.
  • You start seeing things that concern you, but you choose to overlook them.
  • You focus on the fantasy of what you want, not the reality of what you have.
  • You self-sacrifice, giving up things that are important to you for the other.
  • Things get bad, yet you stay.
  • You feel like you love this person too much to let go.
  • You try to get them to change, to be what you want them to be.
  • Even once the relationship ends, you find yourself obsessing about them.
  • You feel like your world has fallen apart and don’t know how to be on your own.

This is not healthy love. You feel unable to go on without them because you have revolved your life around them…instead of revolving it around you. Without your center, you feel lost.

Let me be clear: the level of distress you feel is NOT proof of how much you love them. It’s proof of how much of yourself you gave away.

Is it love…or abuse?

Let’s take this one step further. Not only can “love” be unhealthy and addictive; it can also be downright abusive.

I think it’s fairly clear what physical and sexual abuse looks like, so I won’t elaborate on that here. If someone is hitting you, threatening you, or forcing you to do things with your body that you don’t want to, it’s abuse. Get out while you still can.

The type of abuse I want to focus on here is emotional abuse…because it can be really subtle and tricky to spot, especially at first. And emotional abusers are usually careful to hide their unhealthy behaviours in the beginning…until you’re already committed and “all in.”

Emotional abuse happens when another person uses words to try to manipulate, hurt and control you. These people are often highly intelligent and very good at getting inside your head and heart…and then they use your vulnerabilities, needs and desires against you.

Common tactics emotional abusers use include:

  • They go very fast in the beginning, making early promises of love and commitment.
  • They “love bomb” you, showering you with attention, making you feel loved and cared for.
  • They give a lot in the beginning, causing you to open up and give back.
  • They act like a martyr, causing you to feel guilty they have “done so much for you.”
  • Then they start criticizing your looks, your career, your personality, your intelligence.
  • And they start withholding love, affection, attention (or give it inconsistently).
  • They ignore your boundaries…physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.
  • They use guilt trips, silent treatments, threats and ultimatums to get what they want from you.
  • They start fights over small issues, and viciously attack you for minor transgressions.
  • They twist the facts, making you feel like you can’t trust your own judgment.
  • They outright lie, saying they didn’t do or say something they did (or saying you did).
  • They use their intellect against you (making a case to prove you’re wrong).
  • They use your fears, insecurities, feelings and vulnerabilities against you.
  • If you call out their behaviour, they never take accountability.
  • Instead, they call you too sensitive, emotional, crazy or insecure.
  • They gaslight you, and make you feel like any problem they’ve caused is actually your fault.
  • They project their issues onto you, accusing you of doing what they are actually doing.
  • They triangulate and use your own friends and family members against you.
  • These tactics cause you to feel insecure and focus more on their needs (less on yours).
  • They cause you to explode in frustration and anger, which they say is proof you’re the problem.
  • They cause you to doubt your own sanity and goodness (you think it’s all your fault).
  • Over time, you try so hard to be what they want you to be that you don’t even know who you are or what YOU want anymore.
  • Everything revolves around them. Which is exactly how they want it.

This is the classic trajectory of emotional abuse. And it won’t get better; it will only get worse. No one deserves to be treated this way. Find support and leave as soon as you can.

If you fear you’re in danger or don’t know where to turn, here is where you can get professional help:

What healthy love looks like

Real love takes time to build…think slow-burning fire, not brush fire. It takes time to get to know someone, to see all aspects of who they really are, to know if they are a good match for your values, personality and lifestyle.

Healthy love:

  • Feels safe and comfortable.
  • Allows each person to maintain a separate identity, and separate friends.
  • Grows over time, as you get to know someone (both qualities and faults).
  • Acknowledges each person’s unique needs and desires.
  • Supports each person’s growth and wellbeing.
  • Is patient and understanding.
  • Is compassionate of each other’s flaws and wounds.
  • Is kind, even in conflict situations.
  • Seeks first to understand.
  • Looks for win-win solutions.
  • Is loyal and trustworthy.
  • Gets stronger with time as trust builds.

Everyone wants “love at first sight,” but that is rarely a sign of a healthy relationship. Instead, look for “love that stands the test of time.”

How to avoid unhealthy love

The number one way to avoid unhealthy love is to slow down and get to know someone gradually. You don’t really know someone until you’ve seen them under stress, how they resolve conflicts, and how they treat you (and others). And that can take many months (even years) to see!

Other important strategies include:

  • Heal your past so you stop repeating it.
  • Learn how to process and regulate your emotions.
  • Rebuild your identity and learn to love yourself.
  • Improve your self-esteem and confidence.
  • Learn how to meet your own needs for validation and affirmation.
  • Learn how to feel happy on your own.
  • Learn how to set healthy boundaries, be assertive, and use your voice.
  • Learn how to make better choices in love.
  • Take your time dating. Slow down! Don’t rush into sex or commitment.
  • When they show you who they really are, believe them. Don’t wish they were different.
  • Don’t choose based on “potential.” Choose based on how they are showing up now.
  • Trust your instincts. Your body is a tuning fork…if something feels wrong, it is.
  • If a relationship becomes unhealthy, get professional support and/or leave.

Most of all, remember…your heart and body are precious cargo, so treat them that way! Just like you’d screen a potential caregiver for a child, make sure the person you give yourself to has shown themselves to be loving, kind and trustworthy.

For more on finding healthy love, check out my 45-minute webinar called: Loving without Losing.

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About the author

Karen Strang Allen

Karen is a love and empowerment coach for single women. Widowed at 22 and separated at 35, Karen’s mission is to help single women feel great about who they are and create a life they love so they attract their dream partner. 

Learn More about Karen