Is Your Relationship Emotionally Unhealthy? Here Are the Signs
Netflix’s sleeper hit series You has us questioning a lot of things about love. Like how exactly can Penn Bagley’s character Joe be so attractive and yet so clearly a murderous villain at the same time? Joe takes everything to the extreme, including some of the hallmarks of an unhealthy relationship, like isolative, manipulative, and eventually violent behavior. It turns out, attraction to him as a character might actually be rooted in our missinderstanding of healthy bondaries and behaviors surrounding love, according to Katie Hood, the CEO of One Love Foundation, an organization that teaches people about the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships.
"I've been surprised at how many people find the male character attractive because he's over the top. This is a guy who killed somebody, right? This is the guy who goes way over the top in every way," Hood says. "But I think, generally in our society, we normalize a lot of emotionally unhealthy behaviors."
Hood is on a mission to stop that, and to create a new guard of conscious consumers who can call out healthy and unhealthy behaviors. “Most people don't think that they can be in an abusive relationship," Hood tells InStyle, adding that while violence is much more common than we might think (about 12 million people experience violence in their relationships every year in the U.S. according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline), it is not the only sign of an unhealthy relationship.
Hood's organization One Love was founded nine years ago in response to the death of Yeardley Love, a college senior who lost her life to relationship abuse. The group's goal since then has been to not only point out behavior that could lead to violence, but also show people what healthy love looks like.
“The number one question young people are asking in our programs is, 'Well what does healthy look like?'" Hood says. "The idea for the #LoveBetter initiative really came out of that. I think that as human beings we all have a desire to have healthy relationships and good relationships with the people we love.”
This year, the organization launched a campaign around Valentine’s Day to help explain some of the biggest, and less noticeable, signs of unhealthy and healthy relationships. To do so, they've transformed a traditional box of Valentine chocolates and assigned each flavor to four unhealthy and four healthy relationship characteristics (watch the video below for a taste of what this means). For example, the "manipulation" chocolate features sticky caramel inside a chocolate shell. The caramel makes it harder to swallow, despite its sweetness, which One Love connects to manipulative partners bending you to their will by playing with your emotions.
“The fundamental idea of #LoveBetter is that love is a skill, learning to love is a skill," Hood says. "Love is an emotion, of course, but learning to love well is a skill that all of us can get better at every day.”
Scroll down below for more info on the gray areas surrounding love, more on One Love, Hood's thoughts on the relationship portrayed in You, and more.
WATCH: One Love's Valentine's Day Initiative: Can a Chocolate Teach You How to Love Better
What is one of the most misunderstood signs of an unhealthy relationship?
"Isolation, which is basically about your time. Who are you spending all of your time with? Are you still seeing your friends? Are you still carving out time to be independent? When you're being isolated, you may give up a lot of your independent life, whether that's the people you hang out with or the hobbies that you pursue. Isolation can also involve when your partner talks down about the people that you care about in your life. So, 'Your family totally doesn't believe in us.' Or 'Your friends are losers.' Or anything like that, said to distance you from the people that have been your support system."
What are some misconceptions about isolation?
"Most of us can remember a time that we or a friend in the first stages of falling in love with somebody wanted to spend all of our time with that person, so you stop seeing your friends. It can be an incredibly exciting and exhilarating time. But isolation is not when you do that out of choice; it’s when it's pushed on you by your significant other. I think the thing to ask yourself is, Are you comfortable with that or not? And a lot of times [friends or family] will end up thinking, 'Oh that person spends all their time with their new significant other. They just don't care about us anymore.' But what we may not realize is that it could be a demand being put on somebody by an abusive partner."
Why is it important to notice signs of isolation?
"Research shows that isolation is one of the earliest stages of an unhealthy and abusive relationship. And when a significant other isolates you from your peers, you become more dependent on him or her. And then when something goes wrong, like the insults pick up or you’re gaslighted (when somebody tells you you're to blame for everything in your relationship that's going wrong), you don't have anybody to go to because there's a distance now between you and your support system. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation."
A lot of these ideas have been bubbling up recently, especially in light of the Netflix’s hit You. What do you think people connect to when watching the show, which has already been picked up for a second season?
"One of the interesting things is this idea that there's true love and in true love you must be whisked off your feet and be adored, and that that's something everybody wants. It's what we're trained to feel like we're looking for. So when we see a show like You where he's so obsessed with her, there is a weird part of us that thinks, 'Oh my gosh, can you imagine if somebody felt that way about me?'"
How can we learn from a show like this?
"Obviously, entertainment is under no obligation to educate. But, at One Love, we want to train people to be able to watch a show like You and be smart consumers who understand the feeling of exhilaration but who can also say, 'Whoa, here's all of the places where he crossed the line.' It’s not so that you make it un-enjoyable to watch, but so you don't start normalizing some of the things you see and then accepting that in your relationships with other people."
On the flip side, what are traits of a healthy relationship that might go unnoticed?
"Honest communication and trust. So for example, sometimes in relationships people progress at different paces. Both may be super excited about the relationship, but for whatever reason one or the other may need to just go a little slower. We're not really that well trained to talk about this subject with each other. What One Love wants is for someone who wants to go slower to be able to say, 'Look, I really like you. I'm enjoying so much of our time together. But I just want you to know I'm not ready to say I love you,' or 'I'm not ready to go exclusive yet and it has nothing to do with you it's just my own pace.' And the other person would ideally say, 'Okay. I respect that you want to be honest with me.'"
Autonomy and independence are important.
"It means that both people have a voice and they know how to listen to each other. It's the idea that you're partners and you're trying to forge ahead and build your relationship together."
Do you have any tips for people who want to approach a friend they think might be in an unhealthy relationship?
"It can be really hard. In the big picture, One Love wants to teach every person in this country how to have these conversations so that there's not so much anxiety built up around them. Nobody wants to be the bad guy and say, 'I think your partner is abusive.' We advise people to try not to talk about the person in particular like, 'Your boyfriend or girlfriend is awful.' Instead, find ways to talk about behavior.
"If you notice your friend’s significant other constantly canceling plans or never coming to meet you, say something like, 'If you care so much about this person, I'd love to get to know them better. I just wish he or she would spend more time getting to know us. I'm excited to know who this person is.' Also find ways to show empathy. Be able to say things like, 'I know that when I was lied to by so-and-so I just felt really small. I didn't feel good about myself.' Getting them to talk about how they feel is really important."
When should we say something?
"Before you're concerned that there's something unhealthy. When our friend is seeing somebody and they're adorable, and they're posting pictures to social media, instead of saying '#relationshipgoals you guys are the best,' actually check in with that friend. Say, 'How's it going? What do you guys like to do together?' Get your friends in the habit of talking about their relationships and how they're feeling way before you have a concern. That's not because we want friends to be micro-managing each other's lives, it's just that relationships are one of the most important things in many of our lives. And we tend to not really know how to talk about them with each other."
How do you know if your relationship is really unhealthy or just has unhealthy aspects that you can work on?
"In a healthy relationship, there's not an undercurrent of constant anxiety whether it's status or whether it’s reliability. There's a trust that's implicit. We always say everybody has a gut instinct. When you feel like something is off, something is usually off. It doesn't mean you have to pull the alarm bell, but thinking a little bit more and figuring out ways to talk about it with your partner are important.
"I think one big clue that you actually may just be in a healthy relationship that has some unhealthy things going on is if you feel comfortable talking to your partner and saying, 'When this happens, I just don't feel great. I don't know why I just want to try to understand better what's going on.' I think learning to have those conversations is a hugely positive sign in a relationship where there may be some unhealthy things going on, like jealousy for example. People can change their behaviors. We hear all the time about people who really work on things like that, and they get healthier."
Can you give an example?
"So if you blow up at your significant other, and there could be a lot of reasons why you did, learning to come back and say, 'I'm really sorry that I used intensity in that situation. Let me try to explain to you what I was feeling.' I'm a parent as well, so we always say to our little kids 'use your words.' We can take that advice ourselves. All of us are prone to letting emotion drive us, but if we're more mindful about what healthy behaviors look like, we could practice them every day.
"But alternatively, if you feel like you can't even have the conversation with the person, because they're gonna say to you something like, 'Well that's the dumbest thing I ever heard,' or 'Well if you didn't flirt with everybody that I saw I wouldn't think that you were gonna cheat on me,' then that's a problem. And it's not something that immediately you have to say 'We're done,' but just take note and be more mindful of the places where your significant other is willing to work with you and try to improve."
For more information on One Love, visit JoinOneLove.org.