20 Traits of Relationally Unsafe People — Our news media is continually full of stories of domestic violence, spiritual abuse (abuse by religious leaders, organizations, or extremists), and random abuse. Sadly, today too many of us struggle in the darkest most painful silence of feeling isolated and trapped inside an abusive relationship.
The number of women versus the number of men who experience domestic violence is almost equal 7 percent vs 6 percent. In the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics women reported a six times greater rate of intimate partner violence than men. However, studies have found that men, due to social embarrassment and fear of the stigma of being seen as “weak” among their peers, are much less likely to report victimization in these situations.
Studies have also found that “women are as physically aggressive or more aggressive than men in their intimate relationships”. However, those same studies have also shown that in the end, even when they are the instigator of the violence, women are more likely to experience greater significant degrees of injury.
How do we respond to abusive relationships? Often we never know another party is in an abusive relationship, be it emotional abuse, psychological abuse, or physical abuse. Therefore the issue quickly becomes one of self-education, and learning not only what abuse is, but what must be done to bring a person to a healthier place in life.
In the midst of unsafe relationships, we often try to rationalize our need to remain in an unsafe setting. We make up excuses and tell ourselves that our aggressor will get better in time; that “I” am the one causing him or her to respond this way; that I am a bad person and this is my just reward; that no one will believe me.
In the face of unsafe relationships where the relationship has deteriorated to the point of being abusive, we must embrace realities:
- Yes, the aggressor knows what they’re doing, and don’t spend time trying to convince yourself they don’t.
- Yes, they know they are hurting you, but more often than not they are enjoying their adrenalin rush too much to reign themselves in, and the more they hurt you, the more adrenaline they feel becoming an adrenalin junkie looking for their next fix.
- Yes, they are doing it on purpose, as hurting you becomes a means to an end, an adrenalin rush, or an opportunity to avoid facing their own demons.
- Yes, they can control it. They are usually acting this way to impress themselves or someone else.
- Yes, they could stop the abuse if they truly wanted to, but the abuser must be able to see that they have a problem and to do so might require the involvement of third party help such as a therapist or law enforcement.
- No, aggressors do not love you, even if they repeatedly apologize and say they do, because abusers are all too often disenfranchised from the ability within themselves to feel love, empathy, compassion or remorse. To them, your relationship is not about a healthy balanced form of love. It’s all about having control, the rush or adrenalin they experience when exercising dominance over someone or something weaker, power over you, attention, a morbid ill-defined form of “self-respect” coupled with the delusional belief of the existence of social respect and admiration.
- No, you cannot change them. Don’t even think about this. You can only change yourself.
- Yes, you do have the power to turn your situation around.
- Yes, there is something you can do…GET OUT NOW!!!
Safety vs. Lack of Safety in our Relational Choices
For many, the term “unsafe people” conjures up an imagery of people in extreme roles such as an escaped convict, a mentally ill person running through the streets with a chainsaw in their hand, a cult leader, or an abusive spouse. Too often we engage in relationships which leave us deeply wounded, taken advantage of, where we end up left with little to show for the energies we have invested in our relationships. Relationally unsafe people can be found in every arena of life. They may excel in professional aspects of their careers, and they might be well loved socially, but in a more intimate relational setting they might be extremely unhealthy.
On the other side of the coin are those good hearted, incredibly loving people who seem to go from one bad relationship to another, continually getting involved with relationally unsafe people. Why do these great people continually choose the wrong people to become relationally involved with on a romantic, plutonic, or professional level? Many people do not understand how to identify unhealthy personality traits in people, and as a result, they repeatedly walk head long into unsafe relationships.
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, in 1995 brought the term “safe people” to the forefront in their book, Safe People. Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend are clinical psychologists and co-directors of a well-known American counselling clinic. While written from a Judeo-Christian perspective, they outline the personality and behavioral traits of both safe and unsafe people. Their work in this arena has become the cornerstone from which others have approached this topic.
(The 20 Traits of Relationally UNSAFE People is now available in vastly expanded eBook format. Below is a brief introduction to each of the 20 traits.)
The 20 Traits of Relationally Unsafe People
Before we begin to list the 20 traits of relationally unsafe people, we must clearly establish a baseline in our understanding. People of good healthy character bare evidence to the health in their character by first drawing you into a greater sense of community (they draw you into a larger relationally healthy circle of people); and they empower you to become the person you were meant to be (not the person they think you should be).
Relationally Unsafe People
- Those Pesky Meddlers
Meddlers are those who feel an inner need/hunger (which is control based) to inject themselves into the affairs of others uninvited and unwanted. Meddlers are self serving individuals who will ALWAYS MAKE MATTERS WORSE then expect you to thank them for their services of personal greatness to you. They may cloak their actions in words such as, “I see you struggling in this situation and I thought to help you out”, “I feel like a brother/sister to you and am concerned enough to speak up or take action”, or in a religious setting “as your brother/sister in the Lord I want to come stand by you in this situation as together we work this out”. Meddlers will often have areas of their own personal lives which are significantly out of control, and to cap up their massive hunger to feel in control, they seek out opportunities to control challenges in other people’s lives.
We all have heard and used the term “Gossips” but surprisingly many people do not accurately understand what gossip is. Gossip is any loose talk about an absent party wherein that party is clearly identified, or known to the other members of the discussion. There is always a strong emphasis on the person’s negative life challenges and struggles. Facts are almost always embellished, and there is most often very little truth to the situation. Gossips are the destroyer of relationships, businesses and lives. They struggle with a chronic form of dysentery of the mouth.
3. The “Holier Than Thou’s” (I am better than you)
Arrogance creeps into people’s life and at some point in time pukes itself out in a form of expression which gives an air of greater superiority, greater achievement, greater attainment in life, refusing to accept others as equals.
4. “Have it all together”
We all know someone over our lifetime who has come across as having their act together, never admitting to any kind of personal weaknesses, or need for personal accountability in their life. They may tout their high quality home and fancy cars. They might quietly flaunt their investment or pension portfolios, because THEY HAVE IT ALL TOGETHER and you don’t! We may not see it directly in the person “who has it all together”, but we can certainly see in their family and friends who feel disconnected from this person relationally, feel weaker than one really is, feeling “one-down” on the societal ladder from the one “who has it all together”, or feeling the need to compete for equality.
5. Religious instead of Spiritual
Religious people are all too often “so heavenly minded… they are no earthly good”! Religious people often approach relationships from the perspective of focusing on your sinfulness, and what’s wrong in your life. There is very little that is genuine about their own personal lives. Outwardly they will put on airs of spiritual maturity, when behind the scenes they will cuss, drink and attack people to the point where motorcycle gang members run away in tears. They can be oppressive, controlling, judgemental, and critical, all while believing they are very righteous in the eyes of God, and a healthy example as to what everyone else should try to be.
Spiritual people, who are far more relationally healthy than religious people, are accepting of others where they are and how they are in life, realizing that we are all equals on this great journey called life.
6. Repeatedly apologize without making corrective changes
Relationally unsafe people are those who are often quick to apologize for their actions, but in reality the reason behind the apology has little or nothing to do with remorse. They apologize hoping you won’t go away, because they will miss their relational “punching bag”. A true and healthy apology is always followed by course correctional behaviours. Positive change is always the evidence of a true apology.
7. Avoid working on personal problems
Relationally unsafe people do not admit to having personal problems, or they think they can fix their problems on their own. They do not take responsibility for the wrongs they have caused someone else, and they do not forgive. They relate to others with a lack of empathy. They do not like to share their problems with others so they can grow as an individual.
8. Demand trust without earning it
Trust, if real and healthy, must always be earned over time. Once broken, it can never be totally won back, and a person will spend their lifetime trying to rebuild trust with the person they have offended.
Centuries ago in the orient, when vessels broke but were repairable, people had a choice as to how to repair them. Today in museums, we see some of those old broken vessels where the cracks have been filled with gold.
Relationships where trust is broken are a lot like those old broken vessels. There is still the potential for a relationship, and other parties can choose to fill that break cheaply, or they can choose to bathe the offender in love and acceptance, filling that crack, or void with their most precious offering…relational gold. The crack will always be visible, and no one will be able to deny it’s existence, but the real testimony will be found in the restoration of what was once broken.
We must also recognize that in many situations, once trust is broken, the damage is too extensive, and there is nothing left to repair.
9. Play the blame game
Some relationally unsafe people walk through life blaming all their problems on everyone else, failing to take responsibility for the issues in their life.
Manipulators or the “puppet masters”, are very relationally unsafe people who out of a huge need to hold control over someone try to manipulate a person into doing his or her bidding. Manipulators do not care about the person they are manipulating, and through their actions they are admitting to the fact that they cannot accept a person until they first turn that person into their puppet. Manipulators are HUGE psychological and emotional abusers.
11. Habitually dishonest
We all lie a time or two, but some relationally unsafe people take dishonesty to a whole new level and lie or act dishonestly in a chronic manner.
12. Stagnant vs. Growing
Relationally unsafe people are often those who sit stagnant in life, doing little to nothing to grow as a person, or contribute to the world around them. They are the “frog on a log” in this great world.
13. Avoid relational closeness (i.e. connecting with people at a deeper than superficial level)
Relationally unsafe people will sometimes be found among those who appear to be loners, but don’t be quick to assume all loners are relationally unsafe. Some “loners” are simply introverts who walk through life with a very healthy, often publicly not noticed, small circle of people in their lives. Relationally unsafe people avoid relationships where deeper levels of relationships and friendships occur.
14. Focus on “I” instead of “WE”
Some relationally unsafe people are self-absorbed, where their life focus is more so on their wants and needs in life instead of being willing to walk along side of people in a close relationship where the focus is on the relationship instead of one’s self.
15. Sit in condemnation of us (judgemental)
Acceptance of an individual for who they are and where they are in life is always a sign of a healthy relationship. People who continually sit in judgement of others are relationally unsafe.
16. Take on parent/child roles instead of relating as equals
In today’s society there is a common belief that some people need to be re-parented. It’s important to realize that people who take on this form of role are doing so from a superiority position and are not accepting a person as their equal. It is a very unhealthy and unsafe form of relating. This style of relationship often includes manipulative behaviour, judgemental behaviour, it often demands trust from those who have not taken the time to earn it, and it is inflicted upon you by those who “have it all together” or are “holier than thou”.
17. Unstable over a prolonged period of time
Time is often the great yard stick in life. Unhealthy people are sometimes those who experience radical shifts in stability over time. We live in a hurting world, where many people experience a season of inner pain and suffering. We must never lose sight of our need for compassion and empathy towards those who are working through difficult issues. The challenge comes when we see a person continually repeating cycles of highs and lows in their life. This form of instability can often make a person relationally unsafe.
18. Negative influence instead of a positive one
The ultimate evidence of a truly great relationship is one that brings a positive influence to one’s life. Relationships are all about give and take being in balance, and when relationships run continually in the red, then we see evidence of a negative influence occurring.
Critical spirited people are very difficult to exist around. They stifle, and smother a relationship with their negativity.
It’s very difficult to be in a relationship with a person who continually fails to take responsibility for his or her “stuff” in life. We all have debt, and from time to time experience financial crisis.
Many people incorrectly “assume” that the term irresponsible partner refers to financial irresponsible, but truthfully, finances have very little to do with being a responsible relational partner, and if assigned a percentage to it’s significance, finances would only rate 5% of all the areas that makes up a responsible person. You might be great with money, but neglect the emotional needs of your partner. You might be bad with money but your partner has a strength in that area. You might be bad with money, but incredible at looking after the home, the kids, and emotional support of your partner. Being a responsible partner in life, applies to far much more than most people consider, and when they do take a close look at this area, many discover they’ve been overly critical of their partner.
A responsible person is the person who does not run away from their responsibilities but makes the best decision in the face of their circumstance. Sometimes bankruptcy is a very responsible decision. A hard worker who makes a poverty level income is no less responsible than the millionaire business owner, but a lazy man who is a low income earner is very irresponsible and relationally unsafe. Relational responsibility refers to a much broader area as to how we look out for our partners and family members. Are we a reliable parent? Are we sharing in the chores around the home? Are we looking out for the best interest of our partner, and children without meddling?
To gain a better understanding of what defines a responsible partner in life, we need to take a close look at what a relationship wheel includes. When we look at this wheel, we quickly discover that economic partnership (i.e. bread winner, provider of family finances, financial mnagement, etc.), is only a small portion of the over all definition. While not to burst anyone’s bubble, finances and being a good provider in a home is an equally shared responsibility, and even in early Judeo Christian writings, a good or virtuous woman was defined as a a woman who also was busy out in the marketplace helping to provide for her home and family. The concept of the man being the only. or primary bread winner in a home is a modern civilizational deviation from what the true understanding of the term means. Financial provision and management within a home is a shared responsibility.
Being a responsible relational partner includes:
- Being supportive of your partner’s vocational goals;
- Being supportive by being a willing intimate partner in the relationship both physically and emotionally;
- Taking care of your own career goals and aspirations;
- Taking care of your own physical and mental needs;
- Being committed to your relationship in ways that will preserve and protect trust;
- Sharing in the responsibilities around the home;
- Sharing in the responsibilities with the children;
- Being fair with your partner;
- Relating to your partner both in and out of their absence from a position of respect, etc.
It’s one thing to accuse a partner of not being financially responsible, but you really have no right to complain if you are being verbally abusive to your partner; actively maligning them in public; neglecting the home; dumping the care of the children totally onto your partner; refusing to be intimate with your partner; not being supportive of his or her career aspirations, etc.
How Then Do We Address The Relationally Unsafe Tendencies in Our Own Lives?
- We need to own our weaknesses, admitting them honestly to ourselves. This is an act of confession.
- We need to take time to internally assess and identify the underlying need that feeds or drives our unsafe character traits (i.e. fear issues, loneliness, perfectionism, the need to control, etc.)
- With the underlying need identified, we then must develop the social skills needed to over-ride or correct the underlying need.
- Realize that personal growth is always a process of walking forward, tripping and falling from time to time, getting back up on our feet, and pressing on, walking forward a bit further.
From the moment we are born, until the moment our life is over, we are a creation which continually evolves. Anyone who believes they have “arrived” at their greatest point of achievement in maturity is living in denial. We are meant to continually grow, to continually mature. We will all do so at different paces, and be propelled forward by different influences. Your journey will be unique to you.
About the Author : “20 Traits of Relationally Unsafe People” is written by James C. Tanner, Author of Excelling In The Face Of Personal Chaos .
James C. Tanner is a highly published writer, author and business coach who has written heavily on topics related to business, marketing, and psychology. In June of 2007, when all publishers had completed their tallies, it was found that the accumulated writings of James C. Tanner was reaching a potential audience of 12,000,000 readers per month. James C. Tanner has founded, built up and sold his own businesses. He has written and taught business skills courses for clients such as the Government of Canada.
Cloud, Henry Dr., Townsend, John Dr., “Safe People“, Zondervan Press (1995)