Are You In a Dysfunctional Relationship?

The term ‘dysfunctional relationship’ is often used to describe relationships that are toxic or unhealthy. But what does that really mean?  Are you just having some problems right now, or are you in a failed marriage? Is there any hope for things to get better? After years of working with couples in the clinic, I like to group couples into three general categories:

  • Functional Couples
  • Struggling Couples
  • Dysfunctional Couples

Let’s take a quick look at each one.



Functional couples are not without challenges. They may have stresses in life that lead to conflict, they may experience infidelity, they may have disagreements around finances and child rearing, they may even say things to each other in the heat of the moment that they later regret. Life is hard sometimes and functional couples are not immune to running into trouble. Functional couples may still end up in therapy to help them navigate through difficult periods in their relationship. Even people who are healthy get sick sometimes, right?

The two characteristics that define a “functional relationship” are:

  • The ability to reconcile and repair after an argument.
  • The ability for each partner to have their emotional needs recognized and nurtured.

REPAIR: Functional couples have the ability to come back together and reconnect after some sort of disagreement. One partner can approach the other, apologize, and engage in a conversation to restore their connection. Both partners in functional relationships will typically acknowledge their contribution to an argument and will talk about ways to avoid a similar conflict in the future. They tend to have good communication skills, even if they can’t always communicate effectively during a heated discussion.


EMOTIONAL NEEDS: Functional couples are “emotionally interdependent”, which means that they can rely on each other for support during times of distress. The emotional needs of each partner are valued by the other, and each partner will desire to make the other partner happy. There is an emotional flexibility in this kind of relationship where couples can maintain a sense of connection with each other as they adapt to challenging situations.  Functional couples have the ability to shift back and forth between caretaker roles in the relationship where, for example, the wife can ‘take care’ of her husband who may be going through a tough time, and when the wife is going through a tough time, the husband can take care of her. The point is that the emotional well-being of both partners is equally recognized.

Functional couples tend to have stable relationships even through difficult times in life and remain ‘in love’ with each other regardless of how long they are together.



In many ways, struggling couples are similar to Functional Couples. Both partners tend to love each other, have a desire to make the other partner happy, and can usually take accountability for their contribution to relationship challenges. In fact, most couples who struggle usually do most things right most of the time. The problem is that they have difficulty figuring out how to keep from escalating during conflict, and struggle to repair and reconnect afterwards.


REPAIR:  Struggling couples tend to engage in communication styles that further escalate arguments. They often have a familiar pattern to their conflict that arises out of their ineffective emotional skills, and the partners will often feel a sense of “here we go again” as the same pattern of interaction plays out. They will often feel stuck, frustrated, and helpless, and may try to avoid interaction altogether when either partner becomes upset. Because of the build-up of unresolved conflict, arguments in struggling couples will often become confounded with a list of previous “wrongs” that each partner has felt. Because of the inability to successfully navigate through conflict, these couples often feel like nothing ever gets resolved. They eventually “just forget about it”. Over time, struggling couples end up losing their sense of intimate connection and often “feel like roommates” rather than a loving married couple.


EMOTIONAL NEEDS:  Like Functional Couples, Struggling Couples will recognize the emotional needs of both partners, and each partner will often do things to be loving and supportive to the other partner. In fact, Struggling Couples are often remarkably functional in many aspects of their lives together. They may be great parents, successful in their jobs, and even do many things for each other from a place of love and kindness. Because of the inability to repair, both partners will tend to shut down their day-to-day emotions in order to get through the day, only to explode later when some type of conflict arises.

Struggling Couples often do very well in couple’s therapy or couple’s coaching because they typically want to figure out how to communicate better. They tend to love each other and are usually committed to the relationship, although some may be considering leaving the relationship out of frustration. Forms of emotional or sexual infidelity will sometimes happen in struggling couples, and there may be an increase in coping behaviors such as alcohol use or simply spending more time away from the home.



Dysfunctional relationships tend to be organized differently than either Struggling or Functional relationships. In this style of relationship, there is typically one partner who is unable to form healthy attachment bonds, is usually emotionally dysregulated, usually lacks the ability to understand the other partner’s viewpoint or emotions, and is pretty self-oriented. In this style of relationship, one partner ends up doing the majority of the emotional work in the relationship while receiving little to no physical or emotional support. Everything is always about what one partner “needs” regardless of the impact on the other partner.  Dysfunctional relationships are often seen in families where one partner suffers from addiction, narcissism, borderline, or some other form of personality disorder.


REPAIR:  Couples in this type of relationship cannot repair because one partner lacks the emotional insight and tools that allow them to be empathetic, take accountability for their actions, or be aware of how their behavior is impacting others. Instead of being able to look inward to see what they may be doing to impact those around them, this partner usually sees themselves as the victim and perceives that those around them are at fault.


EMOTIONAL NEEDS:  Dysfunctional family systems tend to orient around the sickest person in the family or relationship. The needs of the sickest person are the most important, regardless of how unreasonable or unhealthy. The needs of the other partner and family members are often left unmet, so the other partner often feels alone, unheard, dismissed, or like they don’t matter.

Dysfunctional relationships can be very stable, despite their emotional toxicity, as long as the members of the family deny their own needs in order to meet the needs of the dysfunctional person.  When a partner or a family member steps up and tries to set healthy boundaries, they are often met with shame and hostility from the dysfunctional partner and other family members in the system. The sad reality is that truly dysfunctional couples do not tend to do well in therapy. The reason for this is that the dysfunctional partner usually has difficulty participating with the degree of emotional availability, self-awareness, collaborative spirit, and personal accountability that would allow for productive sessions to occur. If the partners stay together in this kind of relationship, they often end up living parallel lives with little or no emotional connection.


Where is Your Relationship?

Most couples can move between these categories depending on what’s happening in life. So, a couple who was a fully functional couple may slide into the category of a struggling couple during times of unusual distress such as chronic job stress, extended absence from each other, major illness, or changes to the family structure (new child, children moving away, death in the family, etc.). Conversely, if a dysfunctional partner goes to treatment to get sober, and makes an effort to “work on themselves”, a couple who was once squarely in the dysfunctional camp may become completely functional over time.  It all depends on the willingness of both partners to become vulnerable and develop some healthier patterns of interacting. Couples where both partners are committed to change can transform the quality of their relationship.

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