by Annie Gurton, Imago Relationship Therapist from Sydney’s Northern Beaches

If you know what a healthy relationship looks and feels like, its reasonably easy to know when its time to call a halt to one which is unhealthy. That is, when you feel belittled, criticised, unloved and unworthy.

But if you have never seen a healthy relationship, perhaps because your family of origin was dysfunctional or your parents had problems which distracted them from ensuring that you got your needs met and you were able to witness a happy marriage, then it can be hard to know whether the relationship you are in is as good as you’d like to imagine that it is.


We all have a dream about being in a fulfilling partnership with another person – its part of our human DNA. And if it is good then we feel heard, we feel that we can grow and explore ourselves without the other being upset or feeling jealous, and its not necessary to play games. There is an honesty and level of trust which eclipses any external threat or internal breakdown of communication. There is a sense of being comfortable which does not lead to complacency, and a feeling of wholeness which is not smothering.

However if you are unable to show your feelings, you feel uncertain that you can truly trust the other, you feel your partner has expectations which you are nervous that you can fill, if your partner is controlling or passive aggressive, cannot accept their weaknesses, says things that are hurtful or unsettling, then the voice inside you which helps you to be safe may start to talk to you.   You may hear it say that this is perhaps not as good situation for you to be in, and it might be best for you if you were in another relationship or single for a while.

You have to think of your own mental health. It’s pretty obvious that it’s not good to be in a relationship which is essentially toxic for you. Sooner or later you will begin to experience the consequences, which are primarily anxiety, depression or addiction.

However its also important not to bail at the first argument. All relationships go through phases, the first of which is the Romantic Phase. When we are at this stage, which may last from a few months to a couple of years, you will think your partner is wonderful, you want to be together as much as possible, you feel you have met your ‘other half’, and you develop a bond based on a sense of destiny that you are meant to be together. During this phase you are likely to see any cracks in the union as minor and nothing to worry about.

This is based on the theory of relationships which comes from Imago Relationship Therapy which identifies the stages of a relationship and lays out a structured dialogue for improving communication between a couple. Imago explains that every relationship goes through the Romantic Phase and then moves into a Conflict Stage. Frustrations and issues are normal, and need to be aired and not buried. A couple that never argues is not healthy – one must be giving in and compromising. If the couple is able to move through the Conflict Stage, which might take a couple of years, they can move into a deeper Mature Love phase, which is richer and more rewarding than they could have imagined.

The classic indicators that the Conflict Stage has been reached is when some of the gloss falls off things. Small things can irritate, there are apparently minor niggles, and you can feel unheard or misunderstood. If this stage is dealt with properly it can be transitioned, however if the relationship is fundamentally troubled and you are being damaged by your partner then getting out is the wisest thing to do. You know that it might be too troubled to be repaired if you feel criticised, blamed, shamed or your partner stonewalls you or refuses to talk to you for periods of time.

If you have thoughts that this might be an unsuitable relationship the first step is a few sessions with an Imago Relationship Therapist. It will become apparent whether this is a relationship worth striving for, and you are indeed meant to be together because you are exactly the right person for each other to heal your childhood wounds, or whether it is too toxic to continue.   If so, then the challenge is to extricate yourselves with grace and dignity and without causing unnecessary pain. In this too, and Imago therapist can help.

Signs that your relationship needs serious examination with an Imago expert:

1. You don’t trust them – if you feel that at some point in the future they might betray you, you will never be able to relax.

2. They will never compromise – if they are always adamant that they are always right and there is no room for listening to your point of view and acknowledging it, sooner or later you will

3. If you feel relief when they are not around – while we all need privacy from time to time its also good to miss each other, and think of each other when you’re not together.

4. If you feel stifled – relationships should be a place of safety within which you can grow and stretch, and maybe fail.

5. If you feel fear – there is no place for fear in a safe relationship.

6. If you daren’t express your honesty for fear or criticism or derision.

7. If one or both of you can’t accept the past.