Once I ran to you, now I'll run from you
This tainted love you've given,
I give you all a boy could give you
Take my tears and that's not nearly all
Tainted love. -- "Tainted Love," Ed Cobb, 1964
When someone says they've fallen in love with you, it can be hard to tell if they love you in a healthy way, or if their love is tainted. Here are six key differences:
1. Giving freely vs. giving to get. Real love is based on a desire to give to the other when the need arises, without expecting something in return. You trust each other to have one another’s back, and to be there for each other. Tainted love seldom gives without a price—giving is only a way to get something back, not a way of caring.
2. Knowing each other vs. changing each other. People who love in a healthy way work to know each other by building maps of each other and working hard to discover more and more of who each other are. Tainted love demands that you change into what someone else wants you to be. It doesn't care who you are, just that you conform to its demands.
3. Privacy vs. exposure. A healthy love creates areas in the relationship that are private, where no one else can enter in. Real love protects the time the two of you share, your knowledge about each other, and the unique things the two of you do with each other. Tainted love provides no privacy—your weaknesses become the butt of jokes; details of private events like kissing are shared with anyone who will listen; and time together is given away to anyone but you.
4. Repair vs. revenge. If your partner really loves you, fights become ways to learn more about each other. You will see a genuine effort to repair conflicts through turning toward each other and sincere listening to feelings. Tainted love is vindictive. Each argument turns into an opportunity for payback. You’ll see fights produce blaming, coercion or rejection.
5. Shared goals vs. selfishness. Real love places two people into a joined life-space, where they create shared goals that promote each other’s well-being. Your partner should want your your hopes and dreams to come true. Tainted love takes for itself, it doesn’t give. Unhealthy love asks you to sacrifice your dreams, not fulfill them. Tainted love is self-interest, not other interest.
6. Desire vs. guilt. Healthy love creates a desire to care for each other’s needs. You want the other person to be in your life, and you care about their needs. Tainted love, instead, demands things and uses guilt to get what it wants. Your partner will tell you why you’re bad or uncaring, and compare you to others to make you feel bad—and then deliver the message: “But, sweetie, if you do what I tell you to, then maybe I'll forgive you." You don’t give because you want to, you give because you have to.
There are other ways to identify the difference between unhealthy and healthy love, but these six contrasts provide some key distinctions. If you want to learn more about healthy love, the Gottman Institute provides many useful materials and books on the topic—all supported by research. Remember: Healthy love leaves you better off at the end of the day, but tainted love hurts an awful lot of the time.