Some Signs of a Toxic Relationship with Your S.O.

Relationships can be full of playful dates, positive emotional growth, and a stream of sunsets and heart emojis. But unfortunately for many women, romantic relationships can also be major sources of negativity, stress, and a never-ending stream of drama. Even worse, a lot of the signs of a toxic relationships are tricky to spot, so people in one might not even be aware of it. “It’s easy to identify physical abuse but very difficult for a person in a toxic relationship to ‘hear’ abuse, especially if the victim was raised around negativity or criticism,” says Dr. Gloria Brame, award-winning sex therapist and best-selling author. “For them, toxic relationships are a norm. Learning the verbal/behavioral signs of an abusive/narcissistic personality is a critical learning skill for everyone who dates. It’s an issue I work on in therapy with depressing regularity.”

We asked experts to break down everyday relationship scenarios and tell us how they’re handled in a healthy relationship versus a toxic one. After all, identifying the problem is the first step toward doing something about it.

1. How they act when they meet your family

HEALTHY:

“A partner in a healthy relationship will see this as the glorious opportunity it is: A chance to get in good with the (possibly) future in-laws. They will prep for it, like they would if they were going in for an interview at their dream job,” says Emily Morse, doctor of human sexuality and host of the Sex With Emily podcast. “They will pepper you with questions beforehand, hoping to gather as much intel as possible: What is your sister’s husband like? What kind of gift should they bring for your parents? Do your folks like chocolate or are they more wine people?”

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And when the day actually rolls around? “A healthy partner will be genuine, enthusiastic, and as interested in getting to know your loved ones as they were to get to know you. They will ask engaging questions, offer to help with the dishes, and treat you like the gem you are, reassuring your parents that you are in great hands,” says Morse.

TOXIC:

It may surprise you, but one of the best warning signs that you’re with a toxic partner is how they act the second you tell him or her you want everyone to meet—long before the IRL moment occurs. “A toxic partner is not worried about building a foundation with you and your kin. Instead of treating it like an opportunity or a symbol of trust, they will treat it like an unnecessary obligation,” says Morse. “From the moment you utter the words ‘My family would love to meet you,’ a toxic partner acts like you’ve just cordially invited him to a 24-hour shopping fest…on Black Friday…in a blizzard. They will take every chance they get to remind you what they’re giving up (‘I guess I’ll tell the gang that they’ll be one short for poker night, but whatever!’), not to mention how much you owe them for their act of generosity.

 

“A toxic lover takes zero interest in your family, choosing instead to spend the time on their phone, dozing off or complaining. They’ll answer your family’s questions with the enthusiasm of a fast food drive-thru worker, and ask no questions of their own. When the time comes to talk about you, they’ll do the opposite of building you up. Because nothing says ‘healthy relationship’ like telling your parents the story of when you got too drunk at an office party and he had to carry you up two whole flights of stairs.” In short, they’ll make a time as exciting as meeting the fam (or the peeps you consider your family) as treacherous as possible.

2. How you exchange text messages

HEALTHY:

Real talk, we all spend more time than is probably necessary texting our boo—and that’s OK! And yes, we also spend a decent amount of time getting into a riff or two via text—and that’s OK too. When things are going well, those SMS messages should reflect it. “They text you on a fairly predictable schedule and check their phones often enough that you can count on a text back even during busy times,” says Brame. Regular sexting can also be part of a healthy relationship. “They’re all hot and intense in text and when you hook up later, they are just as hot and intense about seeing you too!”

 

P.S. Research has found people who sext are more satisfied with their sext lives. Just saying.

TOXIC:

On the flip side, erratic texting patterns and negative, hurtful text content can be signs of a toxic relationship that isn’t on the right track. “In these kinds of relationships, you partner will] text when they feel like it, at random times, and more often than not, when they are bored or horny,” says Brame. “They don’t feel obligated to answer you until they ‘feel’ like it, which can be hours or days.” And regarding sexting? “They’re all hot and intense in text and when you hook up later, they’re more interested in gaming, drinking, or suddenly announce they’re going out with their friends.”

 

Since a lot of relationships blossom over early-stage texting, pay close attention to how the person’s texts and texting behavior makes you feel. “With a new relationship, you should feel like the person you are seeing is the one to check in, the one to ask about your day, the one to make plans,” advises Shallon Lester, author of dating memoir Exes and Ohs and YouTube sex and dating expert. Otherwise, if you feel like you’re always the one reaching out and showing interest in their lives, you may be unconsciously setting the foundation for an unbalanced relationship. If you feel this has been the norm for a while, you may be with someone who really isn’t ready to be in a caring, stable relationship. “Let them be super interested in you!”

3. How they act regarding your personal development

HEALTHY:

They support your dreams. And struggles. And #GirlBoss goals. “Healthy relationships promote the growth of yourselves as individuals and as a couple. You support each other’s interests even if you don’t share that interest. You actively explore things together as a couple that you both enjoy and add interest, fun, and vitality to your relationship,” says Megan Fleming, a sex and relationship therapist in New York City.

TOXIC:

“Toxic relationships are one’s in which a partner feels threatened or insecure about your hobbies and interests,” says Fleming. Remember that middle school crush who was furious when you beat them running the mile in gym? Like that, but on a much, much larger scale. “They might create drama whenever you choose to do something that doesn’t include them. They may implicitly or explicitly say you can’t see (a particular friend) or do (a particular thing). They make you choose between them and someone or something else. Ultimatums are a sign of a toxic relationship,” says Fleming.

4. How they act when they screw up

HEALTHY:

“Healthy relationships take responsibility for behavior doing 100 percent of their 50 precent,” says Fleming. “If you are in a healthy relationship, you and your partner take responsibility for your actions. Yes, sometimes we screw up and do things that hurt or disappoint our partner. Healthy relationships are those in which you both can own when you act badly and take effort to repair the connection.”

TOXIC:

Meanwhile, a stubborn reluctance to concede you’re at fault? You should take this kind of sign seriously that things might be off. “A sign of an unhealthy relationship is when your partner never admits [they are] wrong, doesn’t take responsibility for their actions or always needs to have the last word,” says Fleming.

5. How they act after a bad day at work

HEALTHY:

Just like there will be bumps in the road in your relationship, there will be crummy days when each partner has a rough time at work or school. “Everyone reacts differently to a bad day at work, no matter how healthy or toxic they may normally be,” says Morse. “The difference is in how they treat and behave with you. A healthy partner will be able to see that you are not the enemy, and will resist the urge to take their bad feelings out on you.”

If they choose to work out, take a walk, or read a book immediately after a not-so-stellar day, know that it may just be their way of coping, and it doesn’t mean they don’t want to share things with you. “They may not be ready to talk about it (now or ever), but they will certainly communicate that they’ve had a rough day and need a little space,” says Morse. “Whether they choose to share the details with you or not, they will eventually turn to you for comfort and will allow themselves to be comforted.”

TOXIC:

“A toxic lover will wield their bad day like a sword, lashing out at you with the slightest provocation. More likely than not, your partner will try to cope with their bad day through avoidant and toxic means: staying out all night, drinking, partying, or going off the grid completely,” says Morse. “If you live together and they do come home, they are not a person you want to be around. They may shut themselves in their room, refuse to talk to you or tell you what happened, and make you the clear enemy. How could they possibly open up to you about what happened? It becomes a matter of pride, and they would rather break up with you than let you see them in a vulnerable moment.”

 

6. How they act when you have different sexual appetites

HEALTHY:

Mismatched desire is a common, but oft-undiscussed, issue in relationships. “Healthy relationships accept that you both might inherently have different levels of libido, and you work together so that your needs for both connection and physical intimacy are met,” says Fleming. In short: “Each of you are stretching out of your comfort zone and personal preference to find that balance.” (For some help on finding that equilibrium, check out what you should do if your sex drive is different than your S.O.’s) And if a healthy intimate life means not having sex right now? “A quality dude or gal will love that you want to wait. They’ll respect that you value your personal worth,” adds Lester.

 

TOXIC:

“Toxic relationships are ones in which one party demands sex when their partner isn’t interested, and equally toxic is to withhold sex or to be in a sexless relationship—unless that’s an arrangement that’s what you both consensually want,” says Fleming. Different libidos in relationships are normal; different levels of respect are not.

7. How they act after a fight

HEALTHY:

All couples argue. In fact, it can even help improve your relationship and help you establish better communication skills. “A healthy relationship partner will approach the fight as exactly that: a partner. This person will make every effort to see both sides of the conflict, making an effort to listen to your perspective and share their own experience without hostility. Afterward, they will apologize for their own part in it and offer solutions for how the problem could be avoided in the future,” says Morse. Everyone gets angry sometimes, but when you’re in a healthy relationship, your better half will work hard to improve whatever issue is at hand, and reinforce the fact that they they believe in you as a couple and want to work things out.

 

TOXIC:

“Toxic relationship partners are not known for their conflict-resolution skills, as they are generally unable to see their own part in a fight. And since this person has never been at fault for anything in their entire life, they will most likely go back and forth between total denial and apathy, with random bursts of rage,” says Morse. Needless to say, it’s a recipe for making you feel pretty damn crummy about things— especially if your partner uses a fight as an opportunity to refuse to talk to you or as a chance to withhold sex, attention, or affection from you, keeping the control completely in their hands

If S.O. Started Saying I Love You Too Soon

When your S.O. starts saying “I love you” too soon for comfort, it can throw you a serious curveball. When your relationship has been going smoothly for awhile, it’s natural to assume the L-bomb is going to get dropped at some point. But when you’re not ready to meet them halfway, how are you supposed to react?

If you know your relationship is more of a casual thing for you, it makes sense to cut bait and move on before your respective feelings get any more mismatched. But if you actually like your S.O. (despite their apparent inability to read the dang room), things can get a little more complicated.

“It’s difficult because, especially in the early stages of a relationship, the pacing and timing is really critical,” says relationship psychologist Karin Anderson, Ph.D. “It’s so much easier and less awkward if you’re on the same tempo.”

While it’s tempting to pretend you didn’t hear it if your date says the L-word before you’re there, Anderson says it’s really better to acknowledge it right away. Jocelyn Charnas, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan, agrees. “You have to look at it this way: If you’re going to be in a relationship with someone, you have to be able to have difficult conversations with them.”

Anderson recommends trying something like, “That feels so great to hear and I’m really excited about this relationship too. I just want to keep things moving and keep building our momentum.” It’s also a good idea to throw in something like, “I’m not quite there yet, but I’m crazy about you and so excited about our future,” just to clarify where you’re coming from.

Whatever you do, don’t say “I love you” back if you don’t actually mean it. “If you do and you don’t mean it, you’re introducing dishonesty into your relationship,” Anderson says. “To outright lie is a horrible idea.”

Of course, your S.O. is going to want to hear those three little words back at some point—something that becomes painfully obvious when they keep saying them to you. How much time do you have before you need to make a move? Charnas says there’s no set timeframe for this, but it’s a good idea to take stock of your own feelings and why this particular “I love you” made you feel uncomfortable. It could be that it feels inauthentic—maybe your S.O. said it after only a month of dating, which makes you question whether those feelings are for real.

But it also may simply be that you’re moving at a different pace and express yourself emotionally in a different way. “That might make somebody more inclined to say it earlier, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” she says. It just might feel a little awkward for a bit.

If you feel like things are solid otherwise, Anderson says you shouldn’t feel pressure to cave and start saying “I love you” too soon for your liking. “A new person shows up in your life and they’re suddenly supposed to be your everything…that doesn’t honor the rest of your life,” she says. “You can rush a good thing. Take your time.”

 

Get Out of A Relationship When You Feel Trapped

Relationships are meant to provide a sense of security, comfort, and companionship, though this hasn’t been the case for Reddit user, beautyinmel. She took to the blog in this post to seek advice about feeling trapped in her relationship with her partner of 7 years. She explains, “He is very possessive and obsessive. Throughout high school, I wasn’t allowed to go out with my girlfriends without letting him know; he comes over every Saturday from morning until late night so he can be with me all day and that continued until now.” She goes on, “I feel very very suffocated in this relationship. He likes being in control and I feel like I’m obligated to tell him/bring him anywhere and anything that I do.”

As if a relationship this controlling, unhealthy, and emotionally abusive isn’t difficult enough, her mother is also a steady source of pressure keeping her from ending it. She explains, “[My SO] gave me a promise ring in front of my parents and my mother accepted the ring before I could even say anything.” And once she finally broke up with him, he told her mother—who then called her repeatedly to tell her she was making a “the biggest mistake of [her] life.” And she has done this before. “She did the same before and she actually fell ill and I went back to him with guilt.”

So, what are beautyinmel‘s options? Here’s what Reddit users had to say:

“[Your mother] should have protected you, and instead she has essentially enabled your abuser. I suggest that you cut the both of them out of your life and talk to your campus health centre about what your options for counseling are. Your adult self has literally never known a life without your abuser being a part of it – it makes sense that this is insanely difficult to break free from.” — asymmetrical_sally

“You’re going to have to be tough on your mother. Every time she talks about him just say ‘I am not discussing (ex) with you’ then change the subject. If she tries to go back to talking about (ex) then leave or hang up and block contact for a day.” — Panda_Pandamonium

“Break up with him regardless of your mothers wishes. She can’t control your love life and she shouldn’t. I would advice you to break up over text, because with him being manipulative, there is always a risk he talks you back into staying with him, when you do it in person – usually I don’t think it’s fair to break up over text, but you should be selfish in your situation.” — Illkickyourmom

“You say he refused to accept the break up. But that’s not how break ups work. Break ups are unilateral by nature, they aren’t agreements both sides come to, or negotiations where one side has veto power. Once any party in a relationship decides it’s over, it’s fucking over. No matter who accepts or doesn’t accept it. Repeat this fact if questioned, block communication from your ex (or filter it so that you have records), tell him to stop contacting you otherwise you will consider it harassment and seek appropriate recourse, then follow through.” — illinoiscentralst

“Notice how he got rid of the people in your life that would support you if you two broke up, and kept the people that wanted you to stay together.” — kayina

“If you have any friends you can confide in about this I’d suggest doing that as well. Relationships that long term, especially controlling ones, can be hard to extricate yourself from at the best of times and if you can’t rely on your family to be your support network you gotta find it somewhere else.” — Kweevs

“Stay strong. Keep reminding your mother that no adult should feel tied to a decision they made at age 13. Keep reminding yourself.” — MrsKravitz

Bottom line: There is no easy way out of an abusive relationship, or recovering from a damaged relationship with a mother. But as these Reddit users suggest, finding the strength to remove yourself from these unhealthy situations and surrounding yourself with supportive people are the best (and most necessary) actions you can take.

 

Your S.O. Through Tough Times

Most relationships start out pretty great: You’re happy together, you complement each other, and your lives are going really well…until, suddenly, tough times hit.

Maybe your partner has a sick family member or is dealing with their own illness, or maybe they were recently laid off from their job. Whatever the reason, grappling with those kinds of upsetting life events can be a BFD for a relationship, especially if it’s one that has never been tested.

So, what are you supposed to do? Licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago, says it’s important to remember that you’re in this together. “When someone we love is hurting, it hurts us too,” he says. “Caring about someone means that we become invested in their well-being. When they are going through a tough time, we want to be there with them, and it can cause us to deal with similar issues of loss ourselves.”

Manhattan-based licensed clinical psychologist Joseph Cilona, Psy.D., agrees, noting that it can be “very challenging” to help your S.O. through tough times. “Feelings of frustration around seeing a loved one struggle and feelings of helplessness are not uncommon,” he says.

Jared DeFife, Ph.D., a psychologist and relationship counselor in Atlanta, says that it can be tempting to try to brush things off or see it as your partner’s issue, but that won’t help anything.

Unfortunately, go-to’s like “everything will be fine!” don’t quite work in these kinds of situations, but DeFife says it’s perfectly OK to say that you have no idea what to say or how to make things better. “In fact, it’s encouraged,” he says. Listening is actually underrated, DeFife says, and switching into “fix-it” mode can bypass what your partner may really need, i.e., someone to talk to and a shoulder to cry on.

Cilona says that even just being there can help. “One of the most challenging aspects of facing serious stressors, challenges, and problems can be feeling alone,” he says. “The knowledge that there is support available if needed and someone that cares and understands the difficulties in and of itself can be extremely helpful.”

And while it may seem obvious, Klow says sometimes the best thing you can do is tell your S.O. that you’re there for them and you’ll get through this together. If your partner wants to talk it out, it’s important to listen. Klow also recommends sharing stories of similar losses you’ve suffered (if you have them—if not, just listen). And, while you shouldn’t necessarily try to cheer them up, try to help them find a perspective and provide reassurance.

Cilona notes that everyone deals with stress differently, so it’s a good idea to ask your partner what you can do to help, and to do it often. “One of the best ways to help is to be direct and ask specifically and frequently what helps and what doesn’t,” he says.

It’s also important to keep in mind that what helps you get through a tough time may not work for your S.O. “You may love talking things out, but your partner may need space to process in their head,” DeFife says. “Or they might feel better socializing the night away, even if being around others during a time of stress sounds like a total nightmare to you.”

Whatever it is, repeatedly remind your partner that you’re there for them and that you’ll get through this together—and you will

 

Husband Started Off as a One Night Stand

I genuinely thought it would be a one night stand. Chris and I first met at a restaurant where we both worked—I was 23 and waiting tables while in grad school, he was the new chef that I saw around here and there. He seemed cool, even if I wasn’t really interested in dating anyone seriously at the time (I was only a few months out of a bad relationship and was big into just focusing on me). I spent my free time going to parties, hanging out with my roommates, and having the occasional hookup that I chose not to pursue as anything more. And I have to say, it was amazing to have that kind of freedom after spending so much time agonizing over where my last relationship was headed.

Still, Chris was cute, so when he invited me over to his place for dinner one night, I decided to go. We got to know each other a little better over homemade pizzas and wine and then…we slept together. It was fun, I had a good time, but I really didn’t think anything was going to come of it. I figured he was typical one-night stand material and decided to see it as just a good time I had once that I could move on from quickly. Great.

But after our first night together, we ended up hanging out more and started to see each other pretty regularly. While we got along great, our relationship was heavily physical. Since he worked long hours, we’d meet up when he got off work around 11 p.m., hang out for a bit, hook up, and then go our separate ways.

Everything was fine until a few weeks in, when I met him at a halfway point between our apartments at 1 a.m. after he worked a really late shift. “This is moving too fast, physically,” he said. “We don’t even really know each other.” He told me he thought we should put the brakes on things, and we both went back to our own places that night. I assumed that was the end of that.

Was it kind of awkward seeing him at work the next day? Oh yes. But I figured it would fade—after all, it’s not like I was planning out a future with this guy, we were just having fun.

That night, I went to play pool with some coworkers and Chris showed up when he got done with work. I steered clear of him for most of the night until he finally pulled me aside, apologized for how things went down the night before, and said he wanted to keep seeing each other—he just wanted us to actually get to know each other better.

So we did. It was kind of an odd reversal—we had to learn to take a step back to actually get to know each other more instead of just chatting and sleeping together (instead we had long talks and thenslept together), but we found that we really liked each other. We started spending all of our free time together, and things progressed from there.

Chris quickly became the most stable, reliable, and caring guy I’d ever dated. Three months in, we exchanged “I love yous” and we’re now married with kids.

Don’t get me wrong: Never once did I think early on that I’d end up marrying the guy. But by not putting any pressure on the relationship in the beginning, we allowed it to progress naturally. So, whenever I hear people throw out that “rule” that you shouldn’t sleep together on the first date, I just laugh—because I’m proof that it’s bullshit.

Logan Levkoff, Ph.D., a sexologist and sexuality educator agrees. “I think it’s a ridiculous rule, based on old ideas of how women were supposed to act in order to ‘get the guy’—as if sex and love were a game to be won or lost,” she says. “It doesn’t take into account that women have sexual feelings, the same way that it gives all the power to men that someone is not going to like you if you sleep with them on the first date.” Levkoff says it’s perfectly OK to trust your gut and operate on instinct when it comes to dating and sex. “That means whatever decision you make is one that’s genuine and authentic,” she says. And, she points out, if you end up sleeping with someone right away and it doesn’t work out, it likely wasn’t going to work out anyway.

“So many women are socialized to second-guess themselves, but there’s nothing better than taking ownership of who you are and doing things because you want to,” Levkoff says. That could mean sleeping with someone on the first date, the fifth date, or not at all.

I didn’t plan to end up marrying the first guy I slept with on a first date, but I did. And I’m pretty damn sure that initial hookup had absolutely no impact on our future relationship.

 

Talking About Your Relationship Too Much

It’s pretty much a given that you’re going to talk to your friends about some aspects of your relationship. How much detail you go into may vary, but the core fact is true: If you’re in a romantic relationship, you’re probably going to talk about it.

And you shouldn’t feel bad if you do this often! “Romantic relationships can be challenging to navigate, and sharing experiences, feelings, struggles, and difficulties with friends can provide important emotional and even practical support,” says Manhattan-based licensed clinical psychologist Joseph Cilona, Psy.D. Friends can provide a sounding board for your thoughts and feelings, as well as a different perspective, he says, making this a habit that can actually be good for your relationship.

But the problem is, your S.O. might not be as open to sharing personal details about your relationship and love life with people who aren’t directly involved in it—no matter how good your intentions. So, what’s OK and what’s not when it comes to talking about your relationship?

If your partner tells you something in confidence, and you share it with your friends, it’s understandable that it could cause some issues for your relationship down the road if you’re found out. There are also potential problems with trying to resolve a fight you had, via your friends. While it’s a completely understandable habit, licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago says you really should be figuring out how to resolve an argument between you and your S.O. with them. If you keep having conversations with your friends that you should be having with your partner, then you could be setting the relationship up for failure, he says.

 

And then there’s the whole boundaries thing. “Problems typically occur when boundaries are crossed or ambiguous, and when there is a lack of clarity about what is OK to discuss with friends and what is not,” Cilona says.

That raises an important point: Do you have to actually ask your S.O. if they feel comfortable with you talking about your relationship with your friends? You should, says Cilona. He recommends having a “clear and specific” talk about how comfortable each of you are with sharing certain kinds of information, especially more sensitive topics like sex and family issues. You can say something like, “I know we both go to our friends for help and advice when we have issues, but is there anything you don’t feel OK with me discussing?”
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Klow agrees. “One of the main areas on which couples disagree is how to handle interactions with other people,” he says. “Setting some ground rules about how you share relationship information with your friends can help.”

Here’s why that matters, per licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., author of Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Your partner likely interacts with your friends on some level and doesn’t want to be seen in a negative light by them (and really, you want your friends to see your partner in a good light, too). It’s up to you to protect your other half from chatting about any vulnerabilities or insecurities they may have, as well as paint a well-rounded picture of them. “An intimate relationship should be a private space in some ways, and there should be a confidence that you can share certain details in a safe way,” she says.

 

That said, it’s understandable that you’d want to vent to your friends if you have a big fight, and you don’t need to stop doing that. (Cilona says that’s “quite normal behavior.”)

Of course, it can be super-awkward if your S.O. tells you something or you have an argument, and you follow it with, “Is it OK to tell my friends?” So, after that initial chat, follow your gut. “If you have good instincts, you will know what is OK and what is not,” Durvasula says. “But when in doubt, ask.”

Simple Phrase Can Defuse A Relationship Crisis

My husband came home from work the other day, completely stressed out. After a five-minute rant about how nuts his day was, he paused and I said the simple phrase, “How can I help?” Almost instantly, he visibly relaxed, said he just wanted to talk, apologized for getting worked up, and grabbed a beer. Crisis solved.

Thing is, I knew the conversation would end that way. “How can I help?” has been my go-to relationship phrase ever since I first learned it at a startup I worked for a few years ago. The company had a bunch of “—isms” they wanted us to memorize that were designed to help us be better coworkers. These phrases were inescapable at this job: Not only did we get them in the employee handbook and were encouraged to use them when communicating with our coworkers, they were also plastered all over the walls of the office, so you could get your —ism fix while waiting for your coffee to brew in the kitchen, peed in the bathroom, etc..

While most were kind of cheeseball (hello, “respond with urgency”), I found myself using “how can I help?” often at work. Eventually it followed me home, and now, I use it whenever my husband is upset, sad, stressed out, or angry—and it works every damn time.

I love “how can I help?” so much that I’ve raved about it to friends, who also use it in their relationships. But why is this simple phrase so powerful?

Because it makes someone feel that you’re in a situation with them, explains Mark Reinecke, Ph.D., chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “People feel they need help when their usual ways of coping with whatever the problem may be in life are overmatched,” he says. “They feel overwhelmed, depressed, and helpless. Asking ‘how can I be of help?’…it leads the person to feel that they’re not alone.”

The way it’s worded is also crucial, since it’s inviting a blueprint for action, says Jocelyn Charnas, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan. “Saying ‘can I help?’ is a yes or no question with potential to shut down the dialogue, but ‘how can I help?’ opens up communication,” she says.

It also doesn’t make the assumption that you know how to fix things, which can be annoying when all someone wants to do is vent. “You’re not saying you know how to fix this, you’re saying you want to understand,” Charnas says.

So, when’s the best time to whip out The Phrase? Charnas says it really can be used in any situation when you feel that your S.O. needs sympathy and love. Reinecke also points out that it’s not just limited to romantic relationships—this is a good one to use in friendships, too. “Any situation where a person feels overwhelmed, that’s a good time to use it,” he says.

While “how can I help?” can take the guesswork out of what you can actually do to make things better, I usually just hear something along the lines of, “I’m good, but thanks for listening.”

Should You Know 10 Signs This Relationship Won’t Last After Cuffing Season

Heads up: We are now entering cuffing season. While the idea that you’d start a relationship just because it’s cold out is kind of funny, it’s a legitimate phenomenon that has its basis in evolution. (Really, think about when your past relationships started or became more serious…)

But Jocelyn Charnas, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan, says it’s not necessarily bad to start a new relationship because you want someone to cuddle with when the temperature drops—you’re human, after all.

“We enter into relationships for any number of reasons, regardless of the season,” she says. “Sometimes it’s because someone piques our interest, sometimes because we’re lonely, and sometimes because we’re trying someone on for size.” And right now, it’s because you want someone to cuddle with, since you so don’t feel like dressing up and bar-hopping when it’s cold out.

Licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago, says it’s probably not the best thing to start a cuffing-season relationship, because you can be fooled into thinking it’s better than it actually is—and pass on chances to get to know other people during that time. That said, it happens… .

With that in mind, here are the signs you’re totally being cuffed, plus why this relationship is definitely going to be over in the spring:

• You had the DTR talk the same day you pulled your skinny jeans out of the back of your drawer. Granted, your butt looks pretty damn good in them, but still.

• You met last week and you’re already sharing a snuggie.

• You’ve been casual friends since May and realized you were “meant for each other” the day temperatures dipped below 65.

• You went apple picking together.

• Your 3 a.m. booty call now shows up for post-brunch sex…and also brunch.

• There’s suddenly a lot of shit at your place that isn’t yours.

• You have a standing Gilmore Girls date.

• “I know we only met last month but you should totally come home with me for [any kind of family holiday]!”…said no one in the summer, ever.

• You already know who you’re going to kiss on New Year’s Eve, but you had no clue two weeks ago.

• You’re making spring break plans with zero intentions of including your S.O.

If you suspect that you’re in a relationship solely because of cuffing season—and you’re not OK with that—it’s a good idea to talk things over to see where your S.O. sees this going. But if you know the deal and you dig it, by all means…

 

Some Signs Your S.O.’s Friendship Has Crossed a Line

Part of a healthy relationship is respecting each other’s independence, including your friendships. But if a friendship of your partner’s—particularly one with another woman—seems suspicious to you, chances are that’s for a reason, says psychotherapist Barbara Neitlich, LCSW. But how do you know when your S.O. is just close with a friend and when they could be emotionally cheating?

Here are a few signs your S.O.’s friendship could be cause for concern.

1. They’re secretive.

If your partner’s not telling you a lot about what they do with their friend, doesn’t want you to hang out with both of them, or always seems to meet them in a private place, it’s possible they have something to hide, says Neitlich.

2. They compare you to their friend.

If your S.O. does this, says Neitlich, they might’ve thought about what dating their friend would be like. Comparing you to other women is also just generally not cool.

3. They always take their friend’s side.

If you’re unhappy with something your S.O.’s friend says or does, they should listen to you. Even if they don’t agree, it shouldn’t be a problem that you’ve brought it up. If your S.O. defends their friend at all costs, that could be a sign there’s something more than a friendship going on, says Neitlich.

4. They’re not confiding in you.

If your S.O. is getting more distant, not telling you about their life, or even saying they prefer to talk about things with their friend, it could mean that the emotional needs you would expect to meet are being met elsewhere.

If nothing feels wrong with your S.O.’s friendships, chances are you’ve got nothing to worry about. If something does, examine your own tendencies. Are you prone to jealousy, or is it this situation in particular that’s getting to you?

If things really do seem fishy, psychotherapist Marni Feuerman, LCSW, LMFT recommends saying something like, “I feel jealous/hurt/insecure about how much you interact with ______. I’m not comfortable with such frequent contact and I think it threatens our relationship.”

How they respond could tell you a lot about whether the friendship is actually a problem. If they get defensive, that’s another sign they’re hiding something. Even if there’s really nothing more than a friendship going on, your S.O. should be eager to reassure you of that, help you feel more comfortable, and make sure no other relationship gets in the way of the one between you two.