It’s hard to tell, from the inside, if you’re in an unhealthy relationship. Sometimes your friends will tell you that your relationship dynamic doesn’t seem great, and sometimes you’ll feel that they don’t understand it. And maybe they really are missing something, and maybe you are.
Often, I think, a good way around these kinds of problem is to find a heuristic. It’s hard to tell if a specific X is in category Y, but you can come up with other questions -- still not objective, but somehow more easily answerable questions -- which you can use as proxies.
For example, from another domain: I often find it hard to figure out, in real time, if I'm actually happy with how my life is going. A question I find easier to answer is "how easy is it for me to be happy for other people when I hear about their successes?" And at some point I started to feel that these answers were correlated, that finding it easy to be happy for others was a good sign that my own life was going well, even if I struggled to evaluate the latter directly.
Similarly, Eric Schwitzgebel has some questions he uses to infer his own mood: does he react positively, neutrally or negatively when he gets home from work and his wife immediately greets him by asking if he knows where the car keys went? Does the generic daily music on the radio strike him as trite repeats or exciting classics? Do strangers in the street seem like “annoying obstacles [or] potential friends?”
So, to return to the main topic: here’s the kinds of questions I think might work for figuring out if you're in an unhealthy relationship:
- does it feel like the person takes the worst or best possible interpretations of your actions/behaviours/choices?
- does it feel like the other person is hypocritical in their criticisms of you? That is: are they asking you to live up to (potentially difficult) values which they also live up to themselves, or are they expecting you to achieve standards that they don't?
- do you feel a physical stress reaction when thinking about them or communicating with them?
These are still subjective questions, but it feels to me that they’re often easier to answer to your own satisfaction than “is this person toxic for me / is this relationship unhealthy?"
In an unhealthy relationship, you'll often find alternative ways of understanding your partner's actions as something other than toxicity -- "they just have high expectations of me", "they just like things to be a particular way," "they just care a lot about X", etc etc etc. And this is tricky, because… many people have said those things and later felt they were just making excuses for someone, but equally, not everything that pattern-matches with these things is necessarily unhealthy.
So I think that if it's possible to recognise an unhealthy relationship while inside one, it's most likely through the kinds of questions I wrote above. I notice that they’re all more concrete than some other proxy questions you might try to use – “do they respect me?” or “do they appreciate me?” strike me as still too abstract to answer; I think the best questions will be a little more practical, and therefore a little less subjective. [My particular questions are obviously laced with my beliefs about what a healthy relationship feels like -- maybe you disagree, and your questions would be different].
What’s the practical impact here? I think, in practice, the biggest difficulty of an unhealthy relationship is that once you’re already committed/care for/in love with this person, it’s very hard to leave – the excuses and reasons you find why "this is not what it looks like" come from already being committed to the person, in whatever way. So I don’t want to claim an unrealistic level of confidence that finding heuristics can suddenly change everything, it's nothing like that easy.
What's more, if you’re trying to decide which heuristics to use while already in the relationship, you’ll have a strong reason to pick heuristics that your current relationship can pass. And while you could try to get around this by deciding on your heuristics before getting into a relationship, and promise yourself to leave if the relationship starts failing them, but I don’t know how you would make yourself do that in practice.
Still, my hope is that maybe there are alternative value judgements that are a little harder to fudge than "is this relationship unhealthy?", and that at some small margin they can make it easier to acknowledge and leave an unhealthy situation. I hope that if we could gather more good questions, it would be easier for people to recognise something that’s just very hard to recognise directly.