Being in a relationship full of passion and excitement is great, but it can sometimes come at a cost. A tumultuous relationship is one with dramatic emotional ups and downs. These relationships can be intense, but they’re not healthy.
We’re going to look at what a tumultuous relationship is, why they’re a problem, and how you can try to fix it.
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Examples of tumultuous relationships can be found in pretty much any rom-com. It’s when you are in a relationship that is always either fantastic or awful, and pretty much never anything in between.
This is exhausting. You’re never able to relax and just enjoy being with your partner because you’re either riding a high of euphoria or terrified that it’s all going to fall apart.
A tumultuous relationship is the emotional equivalent of chasing a sugar rush, with the associated crash. It’s easy to get so swept away by the ‘up’ moments that you accept the drama and hurt of the bad parts.
Sometimes, we stay in a tumultuous relationship because we’re chasing that rush. There’s always some form of emotional drama going on, which feeds our need for attention and validation.
For other people, they find themselves in a tumultuous relationship because they don’t really know what a healthy relationship looks like. If your parents and other important adults all had these kinds of huge arguments before making up, only to start the cycle again, you might think that this is just how relationships work1.
Sometimes we also (subconsciously) use the frantic nature of a tumultuous relationship as a way to hide the fundamental cracks in our relationship. When we’re so focused on the latest crisis or drama, we don’t have to address the deeper problems between us.
It is important to understand that a tumultuous relationship isn’t necessarily abusive. Almost all abusive relationships will be tumultuous, especially relatively early on in the abuse2. Thankfully, you can also have a tumultuous relationship where neither of you is actively trying to hurt the other person3.
Unfortunately, just because you don’t want to hurt each other doesn’t mean that you’re not hurting each other. Tumultuous relationships are intrinsically unhealthy and unstable.
If you realize that you’re in a tumultuous relationship, it’s important to decide whether it can be fixed (and whether you’re willing to do the work to fix it) or whether it’s better for you both to move on.
So how do you know that you’re in a tumultuous relationship? Here are the strongest signs.
One of the clearest signs that your relationship is tumultuous is that you have split up and then gotten back together several times.
Sometimes you’ll end a relationship and then realize that you’ve made a mistake or you’ll find a way to resolve the underlying problem. This might mean that you break up and then get back together once, or maybe even twice.
If it feels like you’re constantly breaking up and then making up, it’s unlikely that you’re ever actually resolving your problems. Instead, you’re using breakups as a release valve to temporarily reduce the pressure of your tumultuous relationship.
A tumultuous relationship is one where you are constantly up or down. Just like at a fairground, it can be exciting, but it’s also exhausting and unsustainable. You feel as though you’re never on solid ground.
If you feel like your relationship is always either utterly amazing or completely terrible, it’s a tumultuous relationship and, unfortunately, that means it’s also not very healthy.
Just like a rollercoaster, a tumultuous relationship tends to follow a set path. You cover the same ground in your arguments over and over again.
It’s not entirely surprising that you have the same arguments repeatedly in this kind of relationship. As we mentioned earlier, a tumultuous relationship is often hiding the deep flaws between you behind intense emotion and passion. You repeat your arguments because you’re not properly resolving them.
It might not always be entirely clear that you’re having the same arguments repeatedly. Sometimes that will be exactly the same but other times they might have a different ‘surface’ topic but deep down they’re actually about the same thing.
For example, you might argue with your partner about him not doing the laundry, him forgetting to collect your child from daycare, and him expecting you to remind him about his mom’s birthday. Those might look different, but the underlying argument is about him not taking responsibility. Deep down, they’re the same argument.
Grudges are one of the ways that a tumultuous relationship keeps following the same path over and over again. When you hold a grudge, it means that you are not allowing a problem to actually be resolved. You’re keeping hold of it and, often, you might be tempted to use it as a weapon.
You can have a tumultuous relationship where only one of you holds grudges, but it’s often even worse if you both refuse to let go of every little hurt and problem from your shared past.
Although holding a grudge is harmful to your relationship, it’s important not to go too far in the other direction. Often, an abusive partner will accuse you of holding a grudge when you explain that they have violated your trust and they will need to earn it back4.
There is a big difference between holding a grudge versus learning from the past and holding people accountable. When you hold a grudge, you’re choosing to hold something over your partner’s head rather than giving them the opportunity to earn your trust back.
In a healthy relationship, you will sometimes have arguments and you might be unhappy with your partner. Despite those arguments, you’ll still be able to see the good parts of your partner.
A tumultuous relationship typically involves such strong emotions that it can be difficult to remember any of the good parts of your partner when things are going badly. Psychologists and therapists refer to this as “splitting”5. You will probably ask yourself why you stay with him. Importantly, you’ll struggle to think of a good answer.
When things are going well, you will be far more enthusiastic about staying with him but you might still find it difficult to put into words why you make a good couple. People in healthy relationships can point to things like “he’s really supportive when I’m having a difficult time.” In a tumultuous relationship, you are more likely to say “it’s because I love him.”
Love is important, of course, but a healthy relationship takes a lot more if it is going to be successful.
This sign of a tumultuous relationship can seem like a good thing. All of those heightened emotions mean that the sex can be incredible, especially when you’re making up after a breakup.
Having great sex is obviously not a bad thing but, in a tumultuous relationship, it can blind you to many of the problems between you and your partner. Sex leaves you feeling emotionally closer to your partner and lets you feel safe and reassured that you are loved and cared for.
If you feel unsure of your relationship most of the time but you forget about all of that after sex, it’s probably not healthy for you.
All of us will have some things that we wish our partner would be willing to change. We might wish they gave us more attention, were more proactive in helping us with practical tasks, or something else.
In a healthy relationship, we accept some of those flaws. We understand that our partner doesn’t have to be perfect to have a great relationship. In a tumultuous relationship, however, we can easily focus on even quite minor problems.
One feature of a tumultuous relationship is that everything feels as if it’s perfect or dreadful. You’re spending most of your time at one emotional extreme or the other.
This tendency to see things as “all-or-nothing” can also seep into other parts of your relationship. For example, you might believe that your relationship has to be idyllic or it’s doomed. This leads you to overreact to small problems between you, keeping the seesaw of emotions moving.
You might also have the same kind of thinking around trust. In a healthy relationship, trust is on a continuum. In a tumultuous relationship, you will often feel as though you have to trust your partner completely or not at all. Again, this leads to extreme emotions and reactions.
Ok, so this might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but people in a tumultuous relationship do often feel an intense attachment to each other. You might feel like you don’t know how to go on without them or that you can’t imagine life apart.
Again, this is an understandable reaction to the intense attachment you have to each other, but it isn’t accurate. It can often turn into what psychologists and therapists call “enmeshment,” where you don’t have any boundaries between you. You might worry that you don’t even know who you are without him.
A tumultuous relationship is so unpredictable because you never actually deal with any of the problems between you.
You might have a huge row about something, but you then skip straight to the make-up part of your relationship without actually going through the part where you talk calmly and openly about problems and work together to fix them.
All of these problems lurking under the surface of your relationship make it unstable and can make both of you prone to lashing out.
When you work with your partner to resolve problems, you’re actually demonstrating to each other that you are a team and that you are each there for the other person. When you leave the problems unresolved, you’re sending yourselves the opposite message.
A tumultuous relationship is exciting and passionate, but it can be superficial rather than deep. You might be intensely attracted to each other and even deeply attached, but you haven’t made the kind of deep emotional connection that characterize healthy, long-lasting relationships.
You will probably spend more time being physical with each other than you do talking. You might realize that you don’t know as much about your partner as you thought you did. Ask yourself whether you really know about your partner’s hopes and dreams for the future, or what is really important to them.
If not, you might be in a tumultuous relationship.
One of the features of a tumultuous relationship is that you both tend to escalate the emotions between you, rather than calming things down. For some couples, this can include trying to make each other feel jealous.
As we mentioned earlier, a tumultuous relationship can feel like an emotional sugar rush. If you’re used to that constant emotional up and down, moments of calm can feel strange and boring.
One or both of you might react to that by trying to provoke the other person, often by flirting with someone else or talking about how attractive other people are.
Trying to make your partner jealous isn’t helpful, or kind. Someone who is trying to make their partner jealous will usually focus on the validation they feel when they succeed. They ignore the unpleasant feelings they’re putting their partner through.
A final sign that you might be in a tumultuous relationship is that your friends and family have become tired of listening to the problems between you and your partner.
Loved ones are usually there to support us and will want to know about any problems that we are facing. In a tumultuous relationship, however, they will see you arguing about the same things over and over.
When you see someone you love going through the same destructive pattern, it hurts. Your friends will probably try to be there for you as long as they can, but they will eventually have to pull back from your tumultuous relationship to protect themselves.
When your friends experience your tumultuous relationship second-hand, they get all the bad parts of your relationship without any of the upsides. It’s not surprising that it will all get too much over time.
Being in a tumultuous relationship isn’t healthy. Making a relationship based on rollercoaster emotions into something that’s actually good for you and meets your needs isn’t easy, but there are things you can try.
The first and most important thing you can do is to focus on open and honest communication. I know every article on relationship advice tells you to work on your communication, but that’s because this is probably the single biggest problem that poor quality (but rescuable) relationships face.
This is especially true of a tumultuous relationship. The drama, chaos, and energy of a tumultuous relationship thrive when you’re not being honest about what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling.
Try being totally honest with your partner about what’s going on for you, and be curious about how they’re feeling. If you’re used to hiding your feelings to avoid an argument, try reminding yourself that this clearly isn’t working. Instead, take a deep breath and try being a little more honest and vulnerable.
We mentioned earlier that sometimes we fall into tumultuous relationships because we think that’s what a relationship is “supposed” to look like. Adjusting your idea of what a good relationship looks like can help you enjoy the calm moments of your relationship.
If you’ve picked up your ideas about relationships from seeing people close to you in tumultuous relationships, or from relationships on TV (which are almost always tumultuous), it can help to look for examples of happy, content, calm relationships.
This might mean noticing that some of your close friends don’t have drama in their relationships or looking at other family members.
We’ve already talked about how there are probably deep problems in your relationship that you’re not properly addressing. These help to keep you going over the same ground in your arguments and stop your relationship from becoming deeper and stronger.
Really facing up to those problems and being willing to deal with them fully is going to be an essential step toward a healthier and more stable relationship.
Where a tumultuous relationship is characterized by all-or-nothing thinking, a healthy relationship is full of compromise. It can be difficult to move from a conflict-based relationship to one focused on collaboration and compromise, but it’s important.
When you have a lot of arguments in your relationship, offering a compromise can feel like “losing.” Talk to your partner about trying to find a new way to solve problems between you, and focus on working together to find something that works for you both.
Although compromise is important, you will also need to make sure that you are enforcing your own boundaries. So, how can you tell the difference between something you should compromise on and a boundary?
Boundaries are there to keep you safe, both emotionally and physically. Ask whether this is something you need to be healthy and happy. If so, it’s a boundary.
For example, if your partner shouts during arguments and this makes you feel unsafe, you shouldn’t “compromise.” You have the right to feel safe in arguments, so shouting at you might be a boundary.
In a tumultuous relationship, you probably hold grudges and focus on who is to blame for any problems. Move toward a healthier relationship dynamic by using your I statements.
I statements are a way of communicating your feelings without assigning blame or making the other person feel defensive6. This makes them really effective at calming a tumultuous relationship.
Often, the drama of a tumultuous relationship can be so intense that you forget the things you like or love about your partner. Start to rebuild your emotional connection by thinking about all the things they do that make you happy.
You can even take this a step further by making sure that you tell them something you appreciate about them every day. This fulfills the same purpose as a gratitude journal and helps your partner feel appreciated.
Sometimes, we stay in a tumultuous relationship because, somewhere deep down, we don’t believe that we deserve a healthy, happy relationship7. We might push our partner or start arguments as a form of emotional self-harm.
Working on your own self-esteem can help you overcome those tendencies. Importantly, working on your self-esteem is just as helpful if it turns out that you can’t save your tumultuous relationship.
Working on your self-esteem isn’t a quick fix for anything and it’s hard work. As a good first step, consider trying to challenge your inner critic and be kinder to yourself in your internal monologue.
The constant “break-up then make-up” pattern of a tumultuous relationship is exhausting and it can destroy your self-esteem and your psychological safety. Put an end to that cycle by promising yourself that your next break up will be final… and stick to it.
It’s important that you tell your partner about this new boundary. You can try saying “I love you but our current relationship pattern is unhealthy for both of us. Every time we break up, it hurts me and makes it harder for us to have a healthy relationship based on trust. From now on, if we break up, it has to be permanent. I won’t put either of us through this cycle again.”
Overcoming a tumultuous relationship means that both of you will have to learn new ways to deal with each other. That’s not an easy task. You can make it easier by finding a great therapist or relationship coach to help you both.
Ideally, you would work with a professional together but you can still get help even if your partner doesn’t want to come with you. The great experts at Relationship Hero are a perfect place to start.
Tumultuous relationships can go through the same destructive pattern many times. They might last for years, but the relationship is not becoming any deeper or more meaningful. Having your tumultuous relationship last isn’t always a good thing if it stops you from finding a healthier dynamic.
Despite what you might see in films and on TV, tumultuous relationships aren’t healthy or normal. They’re often more common in adolescence when you’re still working out how to build a healthy, mutually respectful relationship.
Yes. A tumultuous relationship is full of heightened emotions but you won’t have the feeling of psychological and emotional safety that you need to grow as a person.
Being in a tumultuous relationship might be exciting, but it isn’t healthy. There are tools you can use to try to move your relationship towards a more healthy dynamic, but this isn’t always possible.
What do you think? Have you been in a tumultuous relationship? What kept you there and were you able to fix it? Let me know in the comments and please do share this article with anyone who might need help realizing that they don’t have to stay in this unhealthy relationship dynamic.