How to Tell a Good Relationship and a Bad One Apart

Two signs lying side by side. One reads GOOD and the other reads BAD
Image by Banalities / CC BY

There’s been a trend that’s been all the rage lately in self-help circles. One that advocates for cleaning house. Severing all your toxic social connections and being able to move forward unfettered, unencumbered.

Living your best life.

Do they bring you joy? Keep them. Do they cause you grief? Chuck them.

On a certain level, it’s very appealing. As is the idea of a life that’s purely filled with joy with nary a stripe of grief to be found.

Too bad it isn’t realistic.

People don’t really work that way. They rarely fall squarely into one bucket or the other: Joy-giver or grief-causer. More often, people are a mix of both: Highs and lows.

The only person who provides us nothing but joy is one we don’t know well enough for them to have disappointed us yet (at least in a small way).

After a while, especially in our most intimate relationships, there will come a time when someone who has overwhelmed us with joy will cause us grief.

And what then?

This is where things get messy. I’ve found myself in this position many times, forced to make a determination: Is this a good relationship that has occasional tough spots? Or is this a bad relationship that’s simply reached the stage where the other person isn’t on their best behavior anymore (having grown comfortable that they’ve lured me in, sealed the deal, and can now let down their guard)?

Here’s how I tell the difference.

When Helping Leaves You Feeling Drained

I’m the sort of person who really doesn’t mind helping other people. In fact, many times I actually enjoy it and feel energized by it.

Most of the time.

There’s one particular instance that’s actually come in handy now that I’ve learned to look for it.

When it comes to sorting out good and bad, I find that in good relationships, my normal pattern holds true. It might be exhausting in some senses to stay up all night helping a loved one process through emotional pain. Or it might be humbling to swallow my pride when I’m being (rightfully) criticized for something I’ve said or done and to own it and apologize.

But at the end of it, if we can get through the tough parts, I’m not typically wearied by difficult interactions. Instead, I’m encouraged and feel closer to them. (Well, most of the time.)

Conversely, in other relationships, I found that similar interactions would drain me and leave me feeling defeated long after we made up. (Pretty much every time.)

In those relationships, conflicts were less conducted in earnest and more a baseline way that they interacted with others. Those partners would lash out as a matter of course, as their picture of love had them always a touch superior to whomever they dated.

Even when the difference between the dynamics wasn’t obvious to my conscious mind, something deep within my midbrain would know and broadcast it. This is not a good relationship.

Even if it took me a long time to accept that feeling, and I took my time trying and failing to salvage a connection, to make the relationship something viable and fulfilling for everyone involved, it would always come to pass, that this wasn’t healthy or right for me..

Probably Only Applicable to People Who Particularly Enjoy Helping

I think this tell probably only works if you have the capacity to enjoy helping other people work through things emotionally. (Many people don’t, not under any circumstances.) But if you do, it’s definitely something to consider.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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