When we’re in a relationship with someone, we hope that they are going to love us and take care of us. Healthy relationships involve two people who both look out for the other person and try to build them up and support them in life. But what if your relationship doesn’t work that way? What can you do when someone treats you badly in a relationship?
Some relationships are characterized by one person treating their partner badly, damaging their self-esteem and creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and mistrust. You don’t need to put up with being treated badly in a relationship, and you can rebuild your self-confidence and self-esteem. In this article, I’m going to show you how.
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Before we get into what you can do when someone treats you badly in a relationship, let’s look at some of the reasons that your partner might not be treating you well.
Most of the reasons that a partner might treat you badly fall into one of three categories:
Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.
It’s important to note that not everyone who treats their partners badly is doing so out of cruelty or malice. Some people simply don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like or how to go about building one.
This is especially common among people who have lived through abuse in the past or who grew up in abusive homes1. We learn how to have healthy relationships from the relationships we see around us. If we don’t see healthy relationships, we might not learn what we should be aiming for, let alone how to achieve it.
For example, your partner might not know how to resolve a conflict or argument without giving the silent treatment. They might not realize that when other people describe having “fights” with a partner they really mean disagreements rather than screaming at each other and throwing things.
This is exacerbated by popular culture, which typically shows a vast array of tumultuous relationships and almost no healthy ones. That makes for great drama, but it’s a poor way to learn about relationships.
If your partner is treating you badly because they haven’t learned healthy ways to be in a relationship, it’s important to note that this is an explanation, not an excuse. You might decide to work with your partner to learn new coping strategies but you are under no obligation to put up with poor behavior while they learn.
Ignorance is no excuse for hurting someone you love. We can all learn new ways to behave in a relationship to ensure that we are treating our partners well. You might need to work together on communication skills and problem-solving to become a strong team, ready to fix your relationship together.
Some people do know that the way they are behaving in their relationship is neither normal nor healthy. They just don’t care enough for their partner to want to do anything to change it.
It’s not that they actively want to hurt their partner (we’ll talk about those people in a moment). It’s just that they’re currently getting their own way in the relationship and they’re too selfish to want to adjust and sacrifice some of their desires for their partner’s well-being.
This sounds (slightly) crueler than it is. It’s laziness and apathy, rather than spite or malice. They might tell themselves that their partner must be ok with how things are because otherwise they would have raised problems earlier.
It’s worth noting that this group will often sheepishly acknowledge poor behavior if you bring it up to them, but they might not actually realize that they’re treating you badly until you do. They just don’t put enough effort into thinking about your relationship and your feelings to spot that you’re unhappy.
These people are often taking the path of least resistance. They’ll try to make it as difficult as possible to raise problems. They might promise to change their behavior as a way to end the conversation, but they have no intention of making an effort to improve the relationship if they don’t have to.
If your partner is in the lazy/selfish subcategory of poor partners, you will often need to make the current situation deeply uncomfortable for them before they are willing to change.
It’s also important to acknowledge that some people simply want to control and harm others. Abusive partners exist, and it’s important to stress that there is nothing that you can do that will change or adjust their behavior2.
Abusive partners will often have a “tragic backstory” or a series of explanations and excuses for the way that they treat you. They might reference a traumatic childhood or imply that they don’t understand or can’t control the effect that their behavior has on you.
The difference between abusers and the other categories I’ve mentioned is that, for an abuser, the abuse is the point of the relationship. Someone without experience of healthy relationships is still trying to have one. They’re just making mistakes. Abusers are actively opposed to having a healthy, respectful relationship.
Abusers will often tell you that they only abuse you because of something you did. “I wouldn’t yell at you if you stopped making me mad.” This is untrue. They abuse, belittle, and control their partners because they want to.
If your partner falls into this category, they might be capable of moving towards healthier relationships after an extensive period of therapy and dealing with the whole host of baggage they’re probably carrying around. It's almost never healthy for either of you to wait around until that happens.
You can wish them well with their personal development and therapy, but you don’t need to be dating them while it’s happening.
There are lots of different ways that someone can treat their partner badly in a relationship. This is definitely not a comprehensive list, but here are a few of the most common types of poor behavior in a relationship.
Now that we understand a little more about bad behavior in a relationship and where it comes from, what can you do to protect yourself when someone treats you badly in a relationship? Here are the most important tips to know about.
We all need kindness in our lives. If you’re being treated badly in a relationship, you’ll probably realize that your self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth will all have suffered3. Being kind to yourself is the first step on the journey toward remembering that you deserve kindness.
If you’ve become used to being treated badly in a relationship, being treated with genuine love and kindness can feel unsettling. You’re not used to it. Take this opportunity to learn how to treat yourself with kindness and to become comfortable with receiving kindness (even if only from yourself).
But what does treating yourself with kindness look like? Everyone will have their own ways of treating themselves with kindness, but here are some really good suggestions to get you started.
Don’t push yourself into uncomfortable situations
We’re all used to the idea that we have to push ourselves and get out of our comfort zone. But, is that really what you need right now? If you need more kindness in your life, give yourself permission to stay firmly inside your comfort zone for a while.
This means that you might turn down an invite to a family event if Creepy Uncle Seb is going to be there. You might make your own way to an event so that you can leave whenever you want. You might skip going to a fancy dinner if you don’t feel comfortable in formal wear.
Pushing beyond your comfort zone is an important part of learning and growing, but it’s just as important to learn to protect yourself and trust yourself. Counterintuitively, you might find that offering yourself grace and kindness feels just as far outside your comfort zone as skydiving or public speaking.
Make time to rest and recover
Another form of kindness that you can show yourself is to allow yourself the time you need to rest, recover, and rebuild. Take time alone to catch up on sleep, read, or do relaxing tasks.
Consider giving yourself one actual day of rest each week. We often fill our free time with chores and errands. Having one day a week for fun and relaxation is an important way to show yourself kindness.
Unless your partner is actively abusive, they probably don’t see their bad behavior in the same way that you do. In fact, they probably don’t notice it or think about it that much at all. Be clear with both them and yourself by accurately naming their bad behavior.
Usually, when we look at changing someone’s behavior in a relationship, we recommend using I statements and trying not to blame the other person. This makes it easier for them to listen to what you have to say without becoming defensive. If they don’t recognize that their behavior is a problem, however, you might need to be more direct.
Let’s look at how that might work in an example. Let’s say that your partner is belittling you in public. They might be making fun of your ideas or suggestions and implying that you’re stupid. Let’s assume that they’re doing this under the guise of “a joke.”
If you’re using I statements (which is a good first option), you could say “When you make these ‘jokes’ in front of our friends, I feel belittled and humiliated. I don’t feel as though there’s a fun joke that we’re all sharing. I feel as though you’re laughing at me and I feel incredibly hurt and alone.”
In an ideal world, this would absolutely be enough for your partner to recognize why their actions are completely wrong and hurtful. Unfortunately, it might not be. They might respond by claiming that they’re just making a joke and that you “shouldn’t take it so personally.”
This is when it can be helpful to directly name their behavior. You might say “No. A joke is only a joke if everyone is having fun. If someone is being hurt, it’s bullying. I’ve just told you that I’m being hurt. If you carry on, that’s bullying.”
Directly naming their behavior in blunt terms, such as using the word “bullying,” does two things:
Firstly, it can give them the shock that they need to realize the full impact of their behavior. You’re removing the career of acceptability that people will often try to construct when they are treating you badly in a relationship. It’s a great antidote to the “it’s just a joke” defense in particular.
Secondly, it helps you to be clear in your own mind about what their behavior is and why you feel so hurt by it. Lots of us make excuses for our partner’s bad behavior, especially if we’ve lost self-esteem from being treated badly in a relationship. Being clear and direct about their behavior makes it easier to set, communicate, and enforce boundaries4.
Advice articles, agony aunts, and therapists (not to mention close friends and valuable relationship coaches) will all talk about the importance of setting, communicating, and enforcing boundaries. And that’s a good thing because it is incredibly important5.
Unfortunately, we don’t talk quite as often about just how difficult it can be.
Most of us know by now that it’s important to set firm boundaries. But you might not know exactly how, especially if you’re used to being treated badly in a relationship or by friends and family. And how do you deal when someone you love gets upset about those boundaries?
If you’ve noticed that you’re not happy with aspects of your relationship or that he’s treating you badly, use that to help you understand and set your own personal boundaries. Think about the behavior that’s making you unhappy and why it’s a problem. Then try to come up with something that describes how you should be treated.
For example, your partner might treat you badly by lying to you. When you think about why him lying to you is hurtful, you might realize it’s because it betrays your trust, disrespects your intelligence, and leaves you having to question everything he tells you (which is exhausting).
From this, you could decide that your boundary is that you won’t be in a relationship with someone who won’t be honest with you.
You might communicate this to him by saying “I’m not willing to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t value my trust. I need you to be honest with me from now on. If I find out that you’ve been lying to me from now on, I’m going to have to end the relationship.”
If you’re in a relationship with someone who is treating you badly and you haven’t yet walked away, it’s worth trying to understand why you’ve accepted their behavior so far. It’s important to be gently curious and compassionate towards yourself while you try to understand this and avoid any sense of self-criticism or judgment.
There are many reasons that you might have accepted their poor behavior. You might have low self-esteem and not believe that you deserve better6. You might have been in abusive situations in the past and not realize what a healthy relationship looks like. You might even tell yourself “well, he doesn’t hit me like Fraser did, so it’s not that bad.”
Alternatively, you might have too much empathy and compassion. You might understand that they’ve had a difficult past and want to help them to learn. You might decide that you can put up with a poor relationship to show them that they’re worthy of love.
That’s very loving and generous, but it’s also self-destructive and potentially codependent.
If you’ve been treated badly in most or all of your relationships, it’s often helpful to speak with a qualified therapist to address some of the reasons why you accept poor behavior in a romantic partner.
This is a good time to work on your self-confidence and self-esteem. There’s no quick fix to improve your self-esteem, but surrounding yourself with kind, supportive people and learning to recognize and value your own strengths are important first steps.
Deciding to leave someone who is treating you badly isn’t easy. Even women in physically abusive relationships will typically leave and return multiple times before they finally get out of the relationship.
Just spending some time thinking about exactly what it would take for you to decide that the relationship wasn’t healthy for you and that it was time to leave is a helpful step. Again, this helps you to set some clear boundaries, with yourself as well as with your partner.
If you explain these boundaries to your partner, it’s important to be absolutely honest. If you make an ultimatum, such as “If you cheat on me again, our relationship is over,” be sure that you’re willing to follow through on that. Ultimatums are not inherently wrong but they do need to be honest.
If you’re being treated badly in a relationship, it’s important that you look for help and support where you can. You might feel embarrassed or ashamed, but there are lots of organizations ready to help you and they’re staffed by people who know that it’s never your fault if you are being subjected to physical, mental, emotional, or financial abuse.
Friends and family might also be more willing to support you than you assume. You might find that your friends have been worried about the way you’re being treated and are glad that you’ve seen the problem and are ready to address it.
Unfortunately, lots of us love people who treat us badly, for lots of different reasons. Sometimes, it’s possible to change the relationship to become something healthier and more respectful. In other cases, you might need to end the relationship for your own safety even though you still love them.
There are lots of reasons why you might stay with a partner who treats you badly in a relationship. Some of the most common reasons are not knowing what a healthy, respectful relationship looks like and not having the self-esteem required to believe that you deserve to be treated well.
It is possible to fix a relationship with someone who isn’t treating you well as long as they’re ready and willing to put in the effort. You can’t change someone who doesn’t want to change, however, and a partner who is actively abusive is highly unlikely to change.
You don’t have to put up with being treated badly in a relationship. Learning to set boundaries and realizing that you deserve a healthy, respectful relationship can help you have the kind of relationship that makes you happy.
What do you do when someone treats you badly in a relationship? Let me know in the comments and share this article with someone who could do with being treated better by their partner.