Not all relationships that are life-sucking, soul-crushing, spirit-draining pits of misery are abusive.
By “abusive”, I mean that one person in the relationship is attempting to maintain nonconsensual dominance and control over the other, taking away their autonomy. They may do this through physical violence, through making the person think they’re insane, through breaking down the person’s self-esteem, or through innumerable other tactics. In an abusive relationship, there is a single bad actor.
But it is totally possible to have a relationship that makes you utterly miserable and isn’t abusive. In fact, anecdotally, it seems like about half of utterly miserable relationships aren’t abusive.
It’s possible that the soul-crushing misery comes from a fundamental incompatibility. For instance, Alice is extremely introverted, which means she only wants fifteen minutes of interaction with Bob a day, of which preferably ten would be silent; Bob, on the other hand, is extremely introverted, which means he wants to spend all his free time with Alice and talk to her for at least a half hour a day, because she’s his only serious emotional relationship. Alice and Bob both have pretty extreme preferences, but if they were both dating the same kind of introvert, they wouldn’t have a problem. If they date each other, Bob will feel tremendously lonely and like Alice doesn’t really care about him (if she did, why wouldn’t she want to spend time with him?), while Alice will feel resentful of Bob because she feels like he doesn’t want her to relax or spend time on her hobbies.
On the other hand, the soul-crushing misery may result from both people lacking particular relationship skills. For instance, Alice responds to stress by breaking into tears, Bob responds to stress by getting short-tempered, Alice responds to other people’s short tempers by crying, and Bob responds to other people’s crying by getting irritated. Any routine life problem (the sink breaks, they get stuck in traffic, one of them forgets an appointment) becomes a huge drama in which Bob slams doors and Alice sobs herself to sleep. Again, either of them could be in a functional relationship– if Alice dated someone calm and easygoing who didn’t mind comforting her, or Bob dated someone with a thick skin and a sense of humor that defused his irritation. Lacking particular conflict-resolution skills does not mean all your relationships are doomed.
Sometimes people can just trigger other people’s mental health issues. Bob– through no fault of his own– has traits that make Alice feel really insecure: maybe he has a PhD and she dropped out of high school. Alice has never been particularly great about dealing with her insecurity: she tends to repress it, then project it at Bob, accusing him of continually laughing at her ignorance and thinking that she’s stupid. Bob feels confused and upset, because he intended to do no such thing. While dealing with triggers in a controlled environment can help, being constantly triggered by one’s husband’s innocuous decision to read Anna Karenina for fun in a place that is supposed to be a safe refuge is not great– and Bob himself can wind up feeling ashamed of his education and like he is being continually attacked for no reason.
(Of course, there’s no law that says that a miserable relationship has to have only one horribly dysfunctional dynamic, and in my experience it’s quite common for them to have several.)
One of the worst parts about miserable relationships is that they’re self-perpetuating. You feel defensive every time your partner talks, bracing yourself for the fight; every time they mention a movie or a story they saw on the news, you start preparing your defense of how it never happened, it wasn’t your fault, and it wasn’t that bad anyway. You develop an increasingly long list of Subjects That Must Not Be Talked About; eventually, you’re left with nothing but “please pass the salt” and “nice weather we’re having these days”. You dread date night and start taking steps to avoid having to spend time with your partner. It becomes hard to remember what you saw in them in the first place. Even if the underlying problem is fixed– if Alice goes to therapy and learns better coping mechanisms for stress and insecurity, and Bob takes an anger-management class and gets other friends so he isn’t relying as heavily on Alice– the patterns can keep going, poisoning the relationship.
Why do people stay in miserable relationships? They might feel like they’ve made a commitment to stick with the relationship through better or worse; they might have nowhere else to go, particularly if they’re disabled or a stay-at-home parent (or their partner is!). Many times, they genuinely love their partner: they recognize that their partner is a good person who is trying their best, even when the relationship is making them miserable. They feel like they might be able to make it work: they might think, all I have to do is learn to keep my temper and stop feeling so insecure and the relationship will be fine. Maybe they’ll even think of it as an opportunity for personal growth.
The distinction between ‘abusive’ and ‘non-abusive but still miserable as hell’ is not particularly useful when you’re assessing whether you should leave a relationship that’s a life-sucking soul-crushing spirit-draining pit of misery. (Yes.) But I do think it’s useful for afterward.
It can feel really alienating for people who’ve gotten out of miserable relationships. A lot of times, people wind up thinking like there are two kinds of breakups: either the relationship was abusive, or the breakup was totally amicable and you’re still friends and you talk all the time and you’re totally up for a conversation about how much everyone loves your ex-boyfriend’s band and isn’t he the most brilliant musician of all time. People can feel a kind of pressure to identify the relationship as emotionally abusive, even when it wasn’t, just to get some validation of how much it fucked them up. But if you recognize that your partner is a good yet flawed person, and that you both played a role in how bad the relationship was, there’s not a whole lot of space for you.
Abusive and non-abusive relationships should be treated differently in a lot of ways. In general, abusive people continue to be abusive; however, I have often seen people in dysfunctional relationships have healthy relationships with other people that they’re less incompatible with. The appropriate ways to respond to these relationships are different. It’s fair to warn someone that they’re about to date an abuser; it’s not really fair to tell someone that they’re about to date someone who cries all the time. That’s an invasion of privacy that isn’t outweighed by the value of the information.
But in some ways they’re similar. You can have emotional issues about a relationship that wasn’t abusive! It is possible for dating someone to really, really fuck you up– without that person having necessarily done anything wrong! You can have trouble setting boundaries, distrust your future partners, or feel like you have nothing to offer anyone, even though the relationship wasn’t abusive. It happens! And while obviously certain things should be reserved for survivors of abusive relationships, such as domestic violence shelters, compassion, support, and validation should be available to everyone.