What is the Difference Between a Healthy and Unhealthy Love Relationship?

Love can give insane happiness or can lead to mental trauma, it is of central importance in our lives, but, actually, we were never taught How to love.

We build friendships, romantic relationships, get married, and bring babies home from the hospital with the expectation that we’ll figure it out. But the truth is, we often harm and disrespect the ones we love. Now, if you’re like most people, when you hear those stats, you’ll go, “Oh, no, no, no, that would never happen to me.” It’s instinctual to move away from the words “abuse” and “violence,” to think that they happen to someone else somewhere else. But the truth is, unhealthy relationships and abuse are all around us. By discovering the difference between healthy and unhealthy love,  we can detect abusive behavior before it starts and impacts the relationship’s health. The featuring experts in Psychology agreed to share their professional opinion on how to detect the Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Love Relationships.

David M. Allen M.D.




David is the author of a self-help book from New Harbinger publishers titled Coping with Critical, Demanding, and Dysfunctional ParentsPowerful Strategies to Help Adult Children Be Assertive and Stay Sane. He is also the author of How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders: A Balanced Approach to Resolve Problems and Reconcile Relationships. He is professor emeritus of Psychiatry and the former director of Psychiatric Residency Training at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, a position he held for 16 years.

What is the Difference Between a Healthy and Unhealthy Love Relationship?

“Committed couples do owe it to each other to try to find ways each of them can meet the other’s needs while still being true to themselves.” ~ Carolyn Hax, advice columnist.

In some circles, people are told by their social group or church that they should “put God first, your family second, and yourself last.” They are told their own “selfish” needs or wants are barely worthy of concern. A less extreme version of this philosophy is a variation on the idea that “it’s better to give than to receive.” It is said that giving to others is life’s greatest reward. Of course, if everyone tried to live solely by this, it would create what I refer to as the altruistic paradox. People would only want to give but not to receive, because giving is better. In such a scenario, givers would in a sense be depriving everyone else of what they themselves define as life’s greatest reward, because they would not want to accept the gifts being offered by the other people. Everyone would be running around driving themselves crazy trying to give to people who would refuse all gifts in order to avoid being selfish.

Then there is the opposite extreme – extreme selfishness. This attitude would be something like:  I’ll only be concerned with what I want and need, and just take care only of myself, and to hell with you. Everybody else can just go fend for themselves. Not the kind of world most people would want to live in either. Of course, such an attitude ignores the fact that giving to people, even at one’s own expense, and making them happy can often give the giver pleasure as well, just like the better-to-give-than-receive crowd says. You’d have to be a complete sociopath for that not to be the case.

Clearly, it’s better to both give and receive.

An important point is this: you don’t have to totally sacrifice your own wants and sense of well-being in order to do things for others. In fact, if one were to do just that, and not take care of oneself at all, one would be in a much weaker position regarding one’s ability to help other people! If for example, you didn’t take care of your own health, you might be too sick to give anyone else much of anything. Additionally, if you’re sacrificing your own needs all the time, it is human nature to start to resent the person to whom the sacrifices are made, which they can sense and which does them no good at all.

So how does this apply to the question of healthy versus unhealthy love? Let me take a detour and examine the meaning of the word love, which is an interesting one. It can mean either of two completely opposite things.  “Love” can connote a selfish need or a passion, but it can also connote concern for the other that overrides concern for oneself. When other people use the word, the implications for understanding them can therefore in some circumstances be very ambiguous.

For instance, a patient of mine once said to her boyfriend, “I always act jealous of every relationship you have because I love you.”

Let us look at possible paraphrases of this statement. I will alternate emphasis on the “I” and the “you.”

  1. (“I”). “My jealousy is designed to make you feel so guilty that you will not leave me. I love you, so I have a selfish need for you, and this seems to be the best way to keep you.
  2. (“You”). I am making you feel guilty for not spending more time with me because you seem to need me to act that way. I love you so I will give you what you need, even though I really do not like doing this myself.”

Say #2 is what is really going on, but the woman doesn’t want her boyfriend to know that this is what she is doing because he might get defensive. In case the boyfriend started to become suspicious that he was being misled, the patient could add yet another layer of ambiguity:

  1. (“I”). I will rationalize my behavior as being for your benefit to cover up the fact that I am really being selfish.”
  2. (“You”). “My behavior really is for your benefit. However, since you suspect this and I am trying to keep it a secret, I will let you think that statement number three is correct. This way, you will not know that I am in fact doing this because you want me to.”

A big part of the problem in this woman’s relationship was that both parties were not being honest. In her case, she didn’t want her boyfriend to know that she was sacrificing herself to make him happy, for two reasons. One, it might make him feel too much guilt knowing that, which might make him unstable. Second, even if he were that selfish, being a selfish A-hole is not exactly a flattering picture to have of oneself, and he would probably deny it. Even if it were true. But her acting this way is already making her miserable, which her boyfriend could sense whether she admitted it or not.

Having to play games like that is the very definition a dysfunctional relationship, and is therefore a good way to conceptualize unhealthy love. In this situation, the woman’s sacrifice not only harms her but in the long run will harm the boyfriend as well. If he seems to need someone to guilt-trip him, wouldn’t it be better if the two of them could talk about this problem in a constructive way, getting to the bottom of why he would need such a thing? If they just continue to act it out, this crucial conversation will never take place. This is what is meant by pathological altruism.

In healthy love, as Carolyn Hax pointed out, people can pay attention to their own needs and be concerned with what their partners want, and compromises can often be made that will generally satisfy both members of a couple.

Barry McCarthy, Ph.D.


Professor emeritus of psychology and a diplomate in both clinical psychology and sex therapy. He has published 22 books, including Contemporary Male Sexuality, Rekindling Desire (3rd.edition), Enhancing Couple Sexuality.

What is the Difference Between a Healthy and Unhealthy Love Relationship?

A healthy marriage (relationship) is satisfying, secure, and sexual. Satisfying is the most important dimension. You are a better person because you are in this relationship. It brings out healthy parts of you as a person. A healthy marriage is based on a positive influence process. The core ingredients of a satisfying marriage are respect, trust, and intimacy. A healthy marriage meets the needs for intimacy and security better than any other adult relationship.

A secure marriage is much healthier than a stable marriage. Secure means you are valued as is your bond. Stable means you will stay together whether the relationship is healthy or not.  Mediocre or dysfunctional stable relationships are not healthy.

The role of marital sexuality is paradoxical. When sexuality is healthy it has a 15-20% role. Sexuality reinforces feelings of desire and desirability and energizes your bond. The paradox is when sex is unhealthy (dysfunctional, conflictual, or avoided) it plays an inordinately powerful negative role -demoralizing the individuals and threatening relational stability. Bad sex can kill a loving marriage, but good sex cannot save a bad relationship.

In a healthy marriage, you maintain your sense of individuality (autonomy). You are not clones of each other. You accept your spouse with their strengths and vulnerabilities. You love and respect your spouse for who they really are.

Unhealthy marriages (relationships) are based on romantic love, passionate sex, and idealization. In the beginning of a relationship, this limerence phase is good because it gives you the courage to become involved. Dramatic emotions and dramatic sex are the basis for movies and novels but are not good for a marriage. When your partner says “ If you loved me, you would” you know you are in an unhealthy relationship.            

Unhealthy love is based on overpromising that your partner and your relationship is perfect. Unhealthy relationships promote extreme and volatile emotions and behaviors. In an unhealthy love relationship you give up your individuality and the relationship brings out the worst in you. Unhealthy love dominates your life. Healthy love nurtures your life and relationship but is not the controlling factor.

William Berry, LMHC., CAP.

The Second Noble Truth

William Berry teaches at Florida International University. He is a practicing psychotherapist in private practice. His areas of interest include substance abuse treatment, the exploration of what leads to individual happiness, relationships, and Eastern Philosophy.

What is the Difference Between a Healthy and Unhealthy Love Relationship?

I am rather cynical when it comes to defining healthy love. I suppose my beliefs are aligned with those of David R. Hawkins and Stanton Peele: What most people mean when they refer to love is actually attraction, addiction, possessiveness, dependency, and other forms of psychopathology. This may seem harsh. Regardless, my theory is almost all “love” begins in psychopathology. What attracts one to another is unconscious, with a foundation beginning in evolution, early childhood connections, built upon by every relationship thereafter, additionally shaped by society, and foremost founded in need and the goal of achieving balance. Unconscious forces ranging from our parental relationships (mommy and daddy issues), the projection of an “ideal” partner onto another, unrealistic expectations of love and relationships shaped by stories, all meld into an attraction and, eventually, the “love” for another.

So, if all love has its roots in psychopathology, what is healthy love? Healthy love is the transcendence of these unconscious forces and these needs, and instead focusing on giving to another. Healthy love is unconditional without being exploited, it is the type of love religions encourage followers to espouse for everyone, it is compassion, understanding, and kind. Healthy love does not have its roots in need.

It is important to understand healthy love cannot exist and be demonstrated all of the time (or, at least not by the vast majority of people). Romantic love struggles between being healthy and having one’s needs met continuously. Human existence is too complicated to have black and white, right and wrong answers that are clear cut at every moment all of the time. Romantic love begins in psychopathology and never transcends it completely. The “darkness” of love is needed to motivate one to the beauty of it. The goal should be to operate in the healthy, transcendental love more of the time than the unhealthy, need-based, unconsciously driven love that most function in nearly totally.

John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT


John Amodeo, Ph.D, MFT, has been a licensed marriage and family therapist in California for forty years. He is a popular blogger for Psychology Today and the author of four books, including Dancing
with Fire and The Authentic Heart. He has conducted workshops and lectured at universities internationally on relationships and couples therapy and has appeared on many television and radio programs,
including CNN, Donahue, and New Dimensions Radio.

What is the Difference Between a Healthy and Unhealthy Love Relationship?

If we want to create a fulfilling, lasting love relationship, we need to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy love. In my book, The Authentic Heart, I describe these differences and offer a path toward mature, healthy love.

In unhealthy love, we believe “I can’t live without you.” In healthy love, we recognize that “Life is richer with you.” A young view of love places our well-being in the hands of another person. We give away our power. As I explain in the Authentic Heart, “That person becomes the holder of the life energy that you are reluctant to hold within yourself. You look to him or her as the source of all that is soothing and good.”

Mature, healthy love rests upon our connection with ourselves. We don’t lose ourselves but rather find more of ourselves through the relationship. Our loved one adds a vital dimension of joy, connection, and richness to our lives. If the relationship doesn’t work out, we still have ourselves.

Healthy love is a dance between staying connected to ourselves and engaging with another in an authentic way. Our inner light grows brighter as we share our feelings, our stories, our caring, and our

love with each other. There is an interdependence that nourishes each of us.

In unhealthy love, we believe that love is enough. In a healthy love relationship, we know that love is a good start. There is nothing more enlivening than the high of being in love. When hormones are surging in romantic love, we may believe this is enough to sustain the relationship forevermore. But when we equate the high of being in love with the certainty that this is the right partner for us, we may set ourselves up for a sad disillusionment.

It may take a few painful crashes to recognize that we were missing some vital awareness, some important wisdom that we need to integrate into our lives. There is nothing wrong with romantic love. We just need to learn how to put a proper foundation under it, so that it is allowed to thrive.

We need to add nutrients to the relationship. We need to know how to contact and communicate our inner experiences to each other as our differences arise over time. We need to take the risk to be authentic rather than hide our true feelings and longings. We need to recognize that when we succumb to criticizing, blaming, and shaming our partner, we are probably feeling something more vulnerable inside ourselves. Venting emotions and attacking our loved escalates conflicts. We need to find the inner strength to pause during volatile moments—taking time to slow down and be friendly toward the feelings and needs we’re noticing inside. As we learn to be gentle and caring toward our inner experience, we can then express our feelings in a more kind and gentle way, which is more likely to elicit a positive response. Learning to do so takes time and patience. Sometimes a couples counselor is helpful in sorting out difficult issues so that our blind spots do not sabotage the love we need.

Jane Adams Ph.D.


Jane Adams is a writer, coach, and social psychologist. She has published 13 books and over 100 essays, articles, and columns in national magazines and newspapers including the New York Times. Her books have been translated into several foreign languages and been adapted for television.

What is the Difference Between a Healthy and Unhealthy Love Relationship?

Healthy love has boundaries that permit us to establish and maintain a separate self from the Other without the merging of two souls that is the popular definition of love. Healthy love fulfills our needs for both intimacy and autonomy, closeness and distance.

Unhealthy love is unbalanced – often obsessive – and almost always unequal in how couples negotiate and manipulate power in the relationship when decisions are made -about sex, money,  commitment, responsibility, etc..

Mariana Bockarova Ph.D.

Mariana’s Academic Homepage

Mariana is a researcher at the University of Toronto.

What is the Difference Between a Healthy and Unhealthy Love Relationship?

Intimate relationships usually involve some or all of the following seven components: trust, care, mutuality, interdependence, deep knowledge of the other person, responsiveness, and commitment.

In healthy relationships, individuals tend to assume the best in their partner and treat them with a high level of honesty, respect, and dignity, which allows for the relationship to flourish and grow in a way that feels good to both partners. Of course, there will always be disagreements whether in and healthy or unhealthy relationships, however in healthy relationships, there’s less or an absence of criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness in general, but especially when in arguments.

In unhealthy relationships, there’s usually some distress-maintaining behavior, where people no longer particularly assume the best in their partner, and the way they explain their partner’s behavior to themselves (in other words, attributions)  tend to be negative, maintaining the distress. Unhealthy relationships also tend to have an imbalance of power, some degree of manipulation, a lack of respect, and a lot of resentment and scorekeeping.

In abusive relationships, coercion, manipulation, and physical, psychological, or sexual danger are involved; the relationship does not always feel safe and there may be a sense of walking on eggshells to avoid displeasing a partner, for fear of the consequences.

Linda and Charlie Bloom

Linda and Charlie’s Website

Linda Bloom, LCSW, and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W are considered experts in the field of relationships. They have been married since 1972. They have both been trained as seminar leaders, therapists, and relationships counselors and have been working with individuals, couples, and groups since 1975. They have been featured presenters at numerous conferences, universities, and institutions of learning throughout the country and overseas as well.

What is the Difference Between a Healthy and Unhealthy Love Relationship?

The key distinguishing feature of healthy love is that both partners have done their work to heal any past traumas that have caused them to protect themselves from opening up. As long as the past disappointments and betrayals remain unhealed, they have too much fear to open their hearts fully.

I always tell my clients and students to practice, practice, practice using all that the relationship tosses up to them to use those intense feelings as opportunities to learn and grow.

When each partner has done their work, they can draw boundaries, have higher self-esteem, can manage conflict well, negotiate for their needs, practice generosity, and live in a healthy loving partnership.

Did you hear the joke about the woman who fell overboard and was drowning? Her husband’s life flashed before her eyes. Did you hear about the man who woke up in the morning and asked his wife, ‘How am I going to feel today?'” Everybody laughs heartily at these jokes. But even while we’re laughing, we get the gist of the seriousness of living someone else’s life, the tragedy of not ever knowing how we ourselves feel, and how much we miss when we let others dictate our experience. We can also get a taste of how we, in our fear, let codependency drive us to be controlling, meddling in others’ lives, and try to change people.

The key distinguishing feature of unhealthy love is the concept of codependency has its origins in the Addiction Recovery movement, treating the enabler of those addicted to alcohol or drugs. The term is defined as “a set of manipulative compulsive behaviors characterized by lack of self-esteem, poor boundaries, and obsessive control.” Sometimes, codependency is defined as an addiction to a person. These behaviors are learned to survive in a family experiencing great emotional pain. The behaviors are passed from generation to generation and result in a diminished capacity to participate in loving relationships.

Christine B. L. Adams, MD.


Christine B.L. Adams, MD is a child and adult psychiatrist practicing in Louisville, Kentucky. She is co-author with Homer B. Martin, MD of Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships

What is the Difference Between a Healthy and Unhealthy Love Relationship?

We want healthy love relationships. Many of us do not have them. As a psychiatrist I have done 40 years of psychotherapy with thousands of people of all ages. I have discovered that some people do not begin love relationships in healthy ways. I discuss this in my book, Living on Automatic: How Emotional Conditioning Shapes Our Lives and Relationships, co-authored with Homer B. Martin, MD.

Love can be defined as an intense, affectionate concern for another person. This is a healthy, realistic love for another person. When we hold another person in high esteem, we want to be near them. We do not dismiss their thoughts. We listen and communicate effectively with them. We relate openly and honestly. We do not base our love on their performance.

Some people fall in love using a different definition––an unhealthy one. Unhealthy love begins with a blind frenzy of emotions. People refer to this state as falling in love. Both people think they are becoming one with the other. This becoming one leads to a false sense of security in which both people feel positive feelings for the other. They experience emotional fireworks. They put one another on pedestals. They proclaim their love before they take the time to know each other.

Some personalities idealize people who act helpless and needy for care. In my book, we refer to such people as having “omnipotent” personalities. Such people mistake as love their desire to give care to weak people. Omnipotent personalities believe the weak person is “perfect.” This display of care is not a true concern for the other person. It is just a protective role the omnipotent person wants to display. Omnipotent people commit to relationships in which they give lots of care but get little care in return.

Other personalities, whom we refer to as “impotent” personalities, believe in a different definition of love. They believe they are in love when they crave possessing someone. They expect such people to devote themselves to them. Impotent personalities only commit themselves to relationships in order to receive care. They show little care for their caregivers. They do not see their caregivers as people. They see them as a function.

You can see how unhealthy love relationships form quickly and exhibit emotional and sexual fireworks. Healthy love takes place slowly. Both people plod along, learning each other’s traits. Through this slower development, each person appreciates the other person as a unique individual. Healthy love has fewer emotional fireworks. It is far more likely to endure and be a happy love.

Steve Alexander Jr.

Steve Alexander, Jr., M.A., Ed.M., ARM, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice with specialized training in both Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Steve is also the author of Speak: A Simple Guide to Public Speaking and Shawn’s Show and Tell Tale. In his free time, Steve runs a Clinical Think Tank that conducts evidence-based research on the mental health needs of gang-affiliated children.

What is the Difference Between a Healthy and Unhealthy Love Relationship?

5 keys to a healthy relationship Steve Alexander, Jr., M.A., Ed.M., LMHC nywellness.com

“How do I know if I am in a toxic relationship?”, Ariel asked while staring at me intently. I often feel disconcerted when asked these questions by new clients. There is no simple answer. It is contingent on your situation (with the exception of violence and other forms of abuse). To ease my consternation—and sound like an expert—my immediate reaction was to rattle off statistics about domestic violence, abuse, manipulation, etc. I refrained from doing so because that would be more about easing my tension as opposed to helping the person in front of me. However, without clear information on the dynamics of a relationship, it is challenging to say. Relationships are necessary but complicated. When discerning between healthy and unhealthy relationships, consider how you define relationships. Is this a binary relationship? Is it a romantic relationship between two people or are multiple parties involved? While I am not rigid about labels, it is helpful to understand what you are involved in. The “rules” that apply in a stereotypical romantic relationship may change in a casual relationship. However, there are some helpful ideas to keep in mind:

1. Expectations- it is important that all parties have a clear understanding of what each person wants / needs. Too often we expect people to “just know” what is appropriate in a relationship. Unfortunately, our assumptions are based upon our own cultural constructs. This may involve an interplay between what we witnessed growing up, what we absorbed from the media, and what we think is appropriate. It is much better to discuss expectations regularly.

2. Communication – communication has been found to be a protective factor in long-term marriages (Karimi, Bakhtiyari, & Arani 2019). However, it is often viewed as a cliché and is rarely followed. It is not helpful to assume that we know what someone else is thinking and feeling. One of the largest points of contention in relationships comes from a presumption that partners should be mind-readers. Relationships should have ongoing communication, and communication about how to have communication (i.e., during disagreements, is it appropriate to have discussions in the “heat of the moment” or do you prefer to wait until you have had a chance to process your thoughts?).

3. Predictability – this goes against the conventional wisdom of needing constant excitement and adventure in relationships. While some of this is true, I have found that most successful relationships tend to have a structure and moderate level of predictability (i.e., how conflict is responded to, the traditions that are upheld, etc.).

4. Intimacy – without intimacy, people grow to resent one another. One study found that sexual satisfaction and marriage satisfaction are strongly linked (McNulty, Wenner, & Fisher, 2016). However, intimacy does not always mean sex. There should be Does Your Relationship Need a Check Up? 5 keys to a healthy relationship communication around what intimacy looks like for your relationship and the expectations around it.

5. Attunement – this one simply means paying attention to your partner. Partners that pay attention to one another develop stronger bonds. This could mean noticing what the other person is wearing or saying. However, it is more meaningful to recognize and appreciate how others are feeling. Additionally, people should respect each other and practice empathy during disagreements (i.e., demonstrating that you understand someone’s view before moving forward). Further— depending on the type of relationship—it helps if people sense a certain level of commitment. Partners should also feel autonomy, on an individual level, so that they do not lose their self-identity. For instance, in addition to having relationship goals, people should not lose sight of their personal goals.

In terms of toxic relationships, the first thing we can do is negate the earlier points (i.e., no intimacy, communication, expectations, etc.). I also touched upon violence earlier. I strongly believe that violence is never appropriate in a relationship. I view violence as both physical and verbal (for instance, raising your voice at someone can be viewed as an attack against them). Aggression leads to many problematic outcomes in relationships. Relationships are not as straightforward as we would like them to be. There are many moving parts when considering people’s feelings and ways of being. However, the above are some core principles that can help guide us. Best of luck in your healthy relationship journey.

Karimi, R., Bakhtiyari, M., & Arani, A. M. (2019). Protective factors of marital stability in long-term marriage globally: a systematic review. Epidemiology and health, 41.
McNulty, J. K., Wenner, C. A., & Fisher, T. D. (2016). Longitudinal associations among relationship satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, and frequency of sex in early marriage. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(1), 85-97

Dr. Pamela Garcy, Ph.D.


Dr. Pamela Garcy is a Psychologist and couples coach.

What is the Difference Between a Healthy and Unhealthy Love Relationship?
Healthy love allows an individual to grow and emerge beyond their current self, into more.
Unhealthy love is depleting, reducing, and contracting the individual.
Healthy love feels freeing and comforting, enjoyable and expansive. It naturally elicits appreciation and gratitude.
Unhealthy love can feel confusing, upsetting, and distressing. It naturally elicits obsessive cynicism, anger, and worries, sometimes leading to hopelessness or despair.
Healthy love is encouraging.
Unhealthy love is discouraging. Just as healthy food is nurturing, so is healthy love. Just as poison can make you ill, unhealthy love can too.
The moral of the story: protect your heart from unhealthy love and open it to healthy love.

If you want to learn more visit our additional resources:

What are 4 Habits of ALL Successful Relationships?

Tracy Packiam Alloway, PhD – Think Like a Girl  

How to Build a Healthy Relationship Between a Man and a Woman with Science

Apparently, This Is Why Relationships Are Hard Nowadays – Neurobiological Reflexes

Long-Distance Relationships – Real Things You Should Know to Make Them Work

3 Critical Skills You Must Learn For Healthy Romantic Relationships – Joanne Davila, PhD

10 Signs That Will Make You Look at Your Husband in a New Way

500 Awesome Relationship Quotes to Express Your Feelings

How To Break The Cycle Of Unhappy Relationship And Select The Right One

What Causes Two People To Fall In Love With Science

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *