Give your relationship a “Love MOT”
Whether you’re actively looking for love, are single for life right now, or are all coupled up, we could probably all do with hearing what psychotherapist Noel McDermott has to say…
Psychotherapist Noel McDermott explains how to do a Love MOT – to help you decide whether you’re ready to move on, you’re always compromising in your relationship, or it’s time to put in some work.
By Noel McDermott
Relationships have been even more under the spotlight since the pandemic began. Many have blossomed throughout lockdown, but many more have broken down.
While some couples may have felt as though they had little choice but to tough it out when things were a bit rocky, for others the stress was too much and they moved on. We also saw a new form of pandemic relationship emerge, where people were setting up home together in record time.
As a psychotherapist, I look at relationships every day – addressing toxic characteristics and unhealthy symptoms, whilst offering advice on how to have a healthy and successful connection. Here’s what we should all know post-pandemic…
A LOVE MOT
As we move into a post-pandemic world over these next few years, it’s time to have a bit of a “Love MOT” to see how things are. How do we know it’s time to move on? Or if we can repair and improve our relationships? Knowing the difference between the two is vital in any intimate relationship, to help you recognise what’s most important to know and where the limits of compromise lie.
WHEN IS A RELATIONSHIP TOXIC?
When there is coercion, control and/or violence.
These are not just toxic characteristics, but are also illegal. Under no circumstances is this okay and if this is happening to you, it’s time to move on and get the police involved. Never allow yourself to tolerate these behaviours and don’t allow hostage taking by the perpetrator in your life. Seek help immediately, as this is very dangerous.
There are other indicators of toxicity in relationships, and they cluster around a number of issues:
- Love bombing – Where one is given almost intoxicating signals of love from another. Always the person doing the bombing has profound difficulties around maintaining healthy vulnerability and intimacy. They will hide these deficits in overwhelming you with signs of being the special one. They may also have issues around hyper-sexual behaviours, which act as a compensation for the inability to love.
- Living in the past, childhood or adult abuse and trauma – This may lead to a situation we call “trauma bonding”, where we form overly intense attachments around our shared damage or around a partner’s damage. This then leads to one of the partnership compensating too much and allowing borderline behaviours to become acceptable in the relationship, rather than as healthy boundaries that encourage us to seek help with the trauma and deficits.
- Co-dependency and lack of ability to hold adult responsibility – There needs to be two (or more in polyamory) adults taking equal responsibility if a relationship is going to have any possibility of working. Role boundaries will no doubt emerge based on each person’s skills, interests, and the needs of the relationship, but all will be of equal value. The refusal of one person to take responsibility for themselves is a serious sign of toxicity and the need to move on.
- Substance misuses or alcohol abuse – If the using partner cannot see that they have a problem, are not actively working on getting help and that help isn’t obviously bringing positive change, then it’s time for the other partner to move on. All three conditions need to be in place for a relationship to have a possible future: acceptance of the problem, help seeking and positive change.
- Gaslighting and/or borderline behaviours – hostage taking, emotional abuse, extreme of mood change, self-injurious behaviour, etc. Also, key signals of toxicity and indicate you need to move on.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A BAD RELATIONSHIP AND A TOXIC ONE
Generally, the difference between a bad relationship – that is, one that doesn’t meet your needs and often your partner’s needs too – and a toxic one, is that a bad relationship will make you unhappy and unfulfilled, but it won’t leave you with potentially permanent psychological scarring.
The red flags mentioned above make toxic relationships relatively easy to spot, apart from the human factors of emotions and rationalisations. Because we can feel love towards someone who is toxic to us, we will often then create rationalisations to explain why they “aren’t as bad as all that”. Also, the toxic partner will often engage in strategies that make their victim dependant and self-blaming. These grooming strategies are well known but often centre on isolating the victim from support and others who might challenge their rationalisations to the toxic abuse. The key to seeing if a relationship is toxic is getting an outside opinion, probably from a professional.
The key point about a toxic rather than a bad relationship is that the toxic relationship can only be ended, never repaired. A bad relationship can be repaired depending on a number of factors, but attempting to make that repair (whether successful or not), won’t lead to more psychological damage. Attempting to repair a toxic relationship is both futile and potentially very damaging as a process.
The keys to a healthy and successful relationship are well known and they fall into three areas of functioning. This comes from the global assessment of relational functioning (GARF) scale:
- Problem solving – not just dealing with conflict when it arises, but also how effective one is at letting go of conflict that is not helpful.
- Ask yourself: Is the ’structure’ of the relationship clear? Are boundaries understood? Are tasks allocated fairly? Is power shared appropriately? Are roles adopted with personal autonomy?
- Is the emotional climate and feelings towards each other generally in the arena of love and positive regard? Are positive views held by members about being in the relationships? Is sexual functioning healthy and positive?
DEALING WITH LIFE’S CHALLENGES TOGETHER
It’s important in any intimate relationship to understand stressors from outside which cause issues, but don’t necessarily mean the relationship is bad. Learning to distinguish between if you like this inside and outside of the relationship in terms of problems is very helpful in maintaining healthy love towards each other. It’s about normalising stress responses to stressful life experiences, rather than saying they are signs of danger or problems.
Of course, the pandemic has and is a significant external stressor, because it has disrupted every routine we had in place to manage our work and lives and it continues to have significant impact.
External circumstances can challenge the perception that our current romantic relationships are not meeting needs effectively in this area and this can cause a sense of internal stress. It’s perfectly normal and doesn’t mean that the relationship is bad – it means the circumstance it exists in are bad.
A FEW FINAL WORDS…
Life can and does hurt us and that’s an important thing to accept. Relationships that have managed to make a boundary distinction between “outside” and “inside”, which have learned to accept and forgive the vulnerable humanity in each other, which have realistic expectations of what is possible during tough times, and which have fundamentally maintained a “background noise” of love and tolerance for each other will have survived and grown from these times. That’s not a promise that your relationship will last “till death us do part”, but a promise that you’ll deal with life’s challenges much better together and, if you do part, you’ll deal with that better as well.
Noel McDermott is a Psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care and education. He is the founder and CEO of three organisations, Psychotherapy and Consultancy Ltd, Sober Help Ltd and Mental HealthWorks Ltd.
Noel’s company offers at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual. They have recently launched a range of online therapy resources in order to help clients access help without leaving home. For more information on all three companies, visit Noel’s website.