Dysfunctional Relationships – An introduction

When the curious case of Esther Arunga, the barrister come TV-presenter who became the wife of a mentally ill QT who murdered their son, hit the media, I was not alone to feel triggered. We expect personal development to be a positive progression of values, beliefs and behaviours leading to character development. What perplexed us with Esther is that her life progressed from beauty with opportunities and potential into a horrific decline and escalation of drama and chaos.

This escalation led to the death of her son, loss of her daughters to child welfare and imprisonment of her husband for murder. Esther is by no means the first woman or man to slide down the fanatic religiosity, dysfunctional love, toxic marriage, soul-destroying mental-illness – spiral at the speed of light. To be fair, not all dysfunctional relationships lead to the death of a child. But many dysfunctional relationships lead to someone’s death. One spouse kills the other, one spouse kills themselves, one lover kills the other’s lover etc 

Esther’s story has bothered our conscious and mental facilities because it could happen to our friends and sisters. At the same time, it is one of those stories where you think ‘WHY?!’ Why couldn’t she leave, or stand up for herself, or stand up for her son? She saw QT punching the baby’s stomach and did…what?? 

This series will be dissecting the different dysfunctions of relationships in general. It will not focus on romantic love because dysfunction such as Esther and QT must have started long before they said ‘I do’. Both were members of a religious cult, Finger of God, before they even met.

Mental health professionals agree that to become fanatical about anything, especially join a religious cult, you have to have one or all of the 3 personality disorders below:

  1. Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD)
  2. Narcissistic personality disorder
  3. Obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCDP)
Dysfunctional Relationships

Many of us have probably been in a relationship that causes more emotional turmoil than satisfaction and harmony. A relationship that changes you negatively; from feeling good about yourself to hating your own existence. One that fills you with fear, dread, confusion and sadness. Have you ever been in a relationship where you did everything in your power, and beyond, to make it work? – and it still failed in your face and you were blamed for the death of that relationship?

This kind of relationship is defined as dysfunctional and it can be found in all settings where two people connect e.g. sibling vs siblings, parents, spouses, parents vs children, friends, dating couples etc Because dysfunction happens slowly and insidiously, we don’t  realize that we’re involved in a dysfunctional or toxic connection until we are too involved and we’re struggling to get out.

In my experience, it is definitely more difficult with parents and siblings because we are born into the relationship and are bonded by blood AND common experiences. However, it is essential to recognize dysfunction inside a family to avoid the kinds of tragedies that happen because of abuse, neglect or ignorance that goes on for too long. 

Personality Disorders

This series will be presenting the case that Most dysfunction in any connection between two people cannot fairly be blamed on one person, because it is caused by the personalities involved. Often one or more of the people involved in a dysfunctional relationship have a personality disorder.

Personality disorders in relationships mean that small conflicts that could be resolved amicably become infected, endless battles of the wills. This dynamic drains all parties of energy leading to counter-productive power games. These power games involve abuse, fear, surrender, submission and in worst case scenarios, rebellion and/or death.

In dysfunctional relationships, even a simple friendly ‘sunday lunch’ can end in bitter tears and character assassinations. 

A lack of balance and normality

Most people with well balanced personalities will find harmonious ways of dealing with disagreements, mostly by engaging in clear communication about boundaries and expectations. In *normal relationships, conflict is not corrosive because there is respect for opinions and boundaries, physical and emotional safety, mental strength or stability and consistency.

In dysfunctional relationships, conflict is corrosive because:

  • there are no boundaries or boundaries are not respected.
  • win at all costs. opinions are taken as fact and one or all parties want to be right.
    • feeling like new rules are being introduced into every interaction. the new rules are not logical or necessary, but they make sure that one party wins and keeps control
  • there exists either physical or emotional violence
  • emotionally volatile individuals are easily triggered. All other parties walk on eggshells to avoid conflict.
    • in this case, cognitive dissonance thrives.
    • mental instability ensures that any minor conflict triggers dysfunctional defense mechanisms.
    • these include silent treatment, denial, criticism, counter attacks or projection etc
    • inconsistent promises and expectations making everything a moving target. promises are not kept and expectations change depending on moods and whims.

If we consider Esther’s case again, the best thing for her life had been to never meet QT. Or to never meet Hellon and join Finger of God. However, once she met them, the second best thing had been to recognize them for what they were and break ties early enough.

This is not to say that Esther was blameless in the events that led to the nightmarish escalation of her own life and that of her children. She was as much a part of the dysfunction as QT was.

May be, it could have turned out well if she had met and married a spouse who was emotionally and psychologically balanced. Or, maybe not. We will never know.

We all need healthy connections in order to heal and thrive. The best way to avoid being entangled in toxic, dysfunctional relationships is to recognize the warning signs, before your emotions and energy are completely committed and immersed in any relationship.

You know, just like when you are driving and there are road signs warning you of crossroads, dangerous junctions, pedestrian crossings, or dangerous curves ahead.

16 Warning signs

1. Complete disregard of the law
  • people that engage in criminal activities leading to arrests and problems with law authorities.
  • if they don’t fear or respect the law, they will harm you and take the consequences or get away with it.
2. Non-communicative and emotionally unable to handle adult conflict
  • adults who make it impossible to resolve conflicts with them.
  • irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
  • often crying when confronted with their mistakes, needs or opinions
  • behaving like a child who needs to be pacified constantly
  • act like a rebellious teenager – defiant and immature
3. Refusal to conform to any social norms – even those that are for the greater good
  • of course, we need to question norms, cultural beliefs and social rules that are harmful or non-progressie.
  • beware the individuals who refuse to conform to any norms
  • although they seem to expect the social norms to be applied in their favour e.g. spouses who emotionally/physically abuse their partners while demanding love, support and respect.
4. Addicted or Obsessive

Be careful when you meet an individual who is:

  • abusing drugs, sex, power or alcohol
  • obsessive about religion or other collective groups e.g. a sport, a tribe, training at the gym, their job etc
  • unable to let go of toxic circumtances e.g. fights with spouse>>>leaves relationship>>>comes back >>>repeats more than 7*7
5. Malicious and repeatedly deceptive
  • indicated by elaborate lies meant to harm or defraud others for personal profit or pleasure.
  • e.g. severally lying to borrow money and then refusing to be accountable for the money or to pay back.
6. Consistently irresponsible

which puts a strain on other people or/and relationships as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work ethic or honor financial obligations.

7. Constantly chooses impulsive solutions – even to problems that require thinking and planning
  • e.g. get pregnant by mistake and stop working to marry an unemployed partner.
  • or drop out of college mid-year, even though fees are paid for full-year, in order to marry.
8. Reckless with their own safety and the safety of others
  • e.g. drunk driving with the kids in the car.
  • starting physical fights they know they cannot win
9. Lack Empathy or/and Remorse
  • e.g. by refusing to acknowledge when they are wrong, when they have hurt someone, mistreated, when they have stolen from another etc
10. Live in chaos and seem to thrive in it
  • even when it causes them, you and others significant problems in daily life.
  • e.g. accepting and coming back to abuse and drama even after they have managed to leave and start new lives. 
11. Have trust issues
  • are unable to trust anyone, not even themselves
  • e.g. taking months to make simple decisions because they cannot trust their own judgement.
  • or refusing to believe that you love them, even though your actions and words demonstrate love.
12. Form and maintain inappropriate friendships
  • an alcoholic who spends most of his time with his alcoholic friends.
  • someone who ‘collects’ friends that enable their dysfunction by always agreeing with them.
  • gossipy personalities that surround themselves with gossipy peers, are also toxic.
13. Who cannot control their moods or/and behaviours
  • but by all means want to control yours
  • e.g. individuals whose moods and behaviour are dictated by other people’s moods or behaviour.
  • become irritable when you are unable to pay attention to them. Even if you communicate in clear terms that you need some time alone to care for yourself. 
  • who mirror your mood (sadness, exhaustion or anger) if you are sad, tired or angry, instead of them remaining calm and engaging in activities that could help you regain your equilibrium.
  • you end up comforting them or cheering them up and your emotions are disregarded.
  • or apologising to them though you haven’t done anything wrong.
14. Call you selfish when you do nice things for yourself
  • e.g. you spending YOUR money on yourself instead of giving them the money
  • or, you spending time with your friends instead of spending time with them. 
15. Have a history of previous abuse – as perpetrator or victim.

Many of us will genuinely try to avoid a known abuser, because, self-preservation. However, many of us also think that a victim of abuse is OK to build a relationship with.

We forget that once we stay in an abusive connection for a while, we develop toxic defence mechanisms that we carry over to the next relationship.

Let people heal from their traumas before you build close relationships with them. 

16. Shut you down, making you feel that you can’t be emotionally honest

Which means you can not discuss important things or set boundaries with them, without triggering their anger. E.g.

  • an individual who rolls their eyes as they tell you “you sound like my mother!” when you question his behaviour.
  • though he/she already told you he/she hates their mother.

Personality disorders

Starting next week, we will be breaking down the personality disorders to look out for when forming deep connections with other people.‘Personality’ refers to the pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviour that makes each of us the individuals that we are. In the post Awareness – the simplicities and complexities, we write more about values and beliefs.

Below are some of the most personality disorders to look out for which makes it complicated when we are establishing new connections. Future posts will dive into each of the 10 disorders below.

  1. Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD)
  2. Narcissistic personality disorder
  3. Obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCDP)
  4. Paranoid personality disorder
  5. Schizoid personality disorder
  6. Schizotypal personality disorder
  7. Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  8. Histrionic personality disorder
  9. Avoidant (or anxious) personality disorder
  10. Dependent personality disorder

* Remember that most relationships have a level of dysfunction within them – because we all have a level of personality disorderliness within ourselves. Here, we are talking about damage control – safety, stability, consistency and holistic-health for us and for our loved ones.

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