our everyday life

What Are the Characteristics of Functional & Dysfunctional Relationships?

by Jill Avery-Stoss

All relationships are unique and dynamic. They depend greatly on the personalities, actions and behaviors of those involved, as well as the influence of external factors. They are fluid, changing and evolving over time. Relationships also experience some level of conflict, which is common and healthy. They require regular maintenance, care and attention. Without it, they are likely to suffer from misunderstandings, growing resentments and thriving dysfunction. Understanding the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships can help you evaluate those in your life, allowing you to address and work through problematic issues.

Personal Boundaries

Your boundaries are the physical, emotional, sexual and spiritual limits that separate the actions and behaviors of others with which you are and are not comfortable. Every relationship should have them. In healthy, functional relationships, boundaries are respected. If you don't appreciate your roommate entering your room without knocking, for instance, you should be able to inform her of this and she should agree that she will always knock. In dysfunctional relationships, one or both people involved may not have a clear understanding of their own personal boundaries or they may be unable to communicate them their issues because they may fear rejection or potential conflict. If boundaries are communicated, boundaries may be disregarded and continuously violated.

Personal Autonomy

Dysfunctional relationships often involve some degree of enmeshment. This means that both people take on one another's problems as their own, are constantly together and identify themselves not as individuals with separate values, beliefs and ideas but are based on their relationships with others. They may fail to take responsibility for their own feelings and actions, and they may expect their partners to rescue them. Ideally, those in healthy relationships are generally autonomous. They take responsibility for themselves, spend time away from one another and appreciate each other's individuality, according to a resource developed by Campbell University's Counseling Services, entitled "Characteristics of a Healthy, Functional Romantic Relationship."

Relationship Equality

In unhealthy, dysfunctional relationships, one person generally maintains power and control over the other. This can be accomplished through manipulation and verbal, physical, sexual or psychological abuse. In such relationships, the person in charge disregards the boundaries of his partner and blames her for his own actions and behaviors. For example, he might say that he wouldn't have to control all the finances if she wasn't so stupid. Conversely, both people in healthy relationships have nearly equal levels of power and control within them. Couples may discuss and make decisions together regarding matters such as parenting, finances or perhaps even what movie to see or where to go for dinner.

Healthy Communication

Communication is the foundation of relationships, according to Love Is Respect, an online resource that is dedicated to cultivating healthy relationships. Those that can interact clearly, openly, honestly, respectfully and assertively with be the healthiest. With proper communication, each person uses "I" statements to express concerns, such as, "I felt disappointed when you refused to watch the game with me." Such statements allow you to own your feelings while avoiding accusations like, "You are really ruining this relationship by not spending time with me." Effective communication also requires listening without judgment and a willingness to compromise, negotiate and problem-solve together.

About the Author

Jill Avery-Stoss is a graduate of Penn State University and a writer and editor based in northeast Pennsylvania. Having spent more than a decade working with victims of sexual and domestic violence, she specializes in writing about women's issues, with emphasis on families and relationships.

Photo Credits

  • Dynamic Graphics/Creatas/Getty Images