13 Key Signs That a Partner May Be Emotionally Unstable
Warning signs to watch out for when entering a relationship.
Posted Dec 04, 2018
When you're seeking a partner, or even just new friends, it can be wise to know some of the potential clues that a person might be drama-prone. During certain life stages, it can be particularly important to surround yourself with people who are easy to be in a relationship or friendship with.
Consider these scenarios:
- You've just gotten out of a drama-filled relationship with someone who was needy and intense. You're recovering and looking for companionship that's not so fraught with stress.
- Perhaps you're a bit needy and dramatic yourself. You know you need people in your life who are stable, have excellent boundaries, and won't play into any of the emotional games you're prone to.
- You're in the midst of a life stage in which something is incredibly demanding of your time (e.g., you're a new doctor doing your residency). Your emotional reserves are always running near empty. However, you feel somewhat lonely and desire a close relationship.
People who lean towards emotional instability can have a lot of great qualities, but they can also be hard work, and whether you're up for that will depend on your own circumstances and the balance of the situation. Therefore, I'm not saying you should immediately write off people who have any of the following attributes, but be thoughtful about your decisions.
1. The person makes angry, entitled statements.
We've probably all had the experience of hearing someone make a statement and thinking "Wow, that sounds so entitled." For instance, the person makes a mistake and thinks other people should fix it, without them experiencing any consequences.
Similarly, keep an eye out for people who get disproportionately angry or upset about something small not being as they expected—like they show up to a hotel at check-in time, and their room isn't ready. Or the person overreacts to small, perceived slights. For example, they propose an idea to their new work team and get asked for further information so that the team can make a decision. They react by saying, "How dare people question me?"
2. The person struggles to regularly show up to things.
A good sign of emotional stability is if someone regularly keeps their commitments, whether that's handing in work on time, actually showing up to events they've said they'll attend, or playing in group sports.
3. The person has a dramatic family.
It's undeniably tough to judge an individual by their family, but if someone hasn't had loving, reliable caregivers, there's an elevated chance that they won't have developed those skills themselves.
Also, there is a genetic element to temperament, so someone with emotionally unstable parents is more likely to be that way themselves. Sometimes you can see a trait that runs in a family, where some members of the family display a reasonably adaptive version of that trait, and others display a clearly maladaptive manifestation. For instance, one sibling is a drug addict and criminal, the other is an adrenaline junkie who takes some big risks in their business dealings. If you're someone who hates risk-taking, even the latter person might not be a good match for you. If you don't mind risk-taking, it might be fine.
Consider the stability of someone's family in conjunction with the other clues I've mentioned.
4. The person fails to display appropriate empathy.
We've all experienced making a statement in which we expect some type of response and don't get it. For example, you share something that went well for you and expect a "Well done." Or you share something stressful and anticipate that the person you're talking with will at least muster a "That sucks" in response.
Look out for when you express a comment that would usually elicit some type of empathic or supportive response, and the person drifts off-topic to talking about themselves.
5. The person is always trying to one-up you.
This point is a variation of the point above. When you make a statement, does the other person always try to one-up you? For example, you mention that you're experiencing stress, and they mention something they've got going on that, in their mind, is more stressful. A friend of mine used to call this pattern of responding: "You've got a headache? Well, I've got a brain tumor." People with limited emotional skills sometimes see their behavior as being empathic and don't realize that it isn't.
Another manifestation of this pattern is when you're trying to talk about a goal you're working on, and the other person tells you about their bigger goal.
6. The person easily "stiffs" other people.
Let's say a coach paid for all the team uniforms, and each team member is supposed to repay them for their uniform cost. An unstable, entitled person may just conveniently "forget" about this. If they think they can get away with not paying a bill, they will, even if they owe it.
7. The person can never admit they're wrong.
Instead of admitting fault, they'll lie, make excuses, minimize a situation, or always blame other people or circumstances.
8. The person is extremely fearful of any criticism or minor rejection.
People who don't have good coping capacities and who are prone to rumination and mood swings tend to be very fearful of negative emotional experiences, like being criticized or rejected, even though, to some extent, these are part of life.
9. The person runs from problems rather than dealing with them appropriately.
Your prospective partner changes their phone number unexpectedly, and you find out it's to avoid debt collection calls. Or perhaps they're behind on their mortgage, but instead of facing up to the situation and working with the lender, they try to dodge the issue.
You meet someone, and each of their last three most recent relationships has resulted in them getting a restraining order against their prior partner, or someone getting arrested. This is a clue that something is going on. They've likely experienced trauma that they haven't yet learned to manage the psychological sequelae of, and keep putting themselves in new, chaotic situations. This is different from someone who has experienced trauma, but has addressed it. At the very least, someone who has had very dramatic past relationships is going to have some emotional scars (and potentially still-open wounds) from those experiences.
Stable relationships can help individuals heal from past unstable ones, but being in a relationship with someone who has this history does typically require more emotional effort. Depending on what's going on in your life and whether you're emotionally stable yourself, you may or may not want to take this on (or have the emotional skills yourself to do that).
11. The person doesn't consistently manage their medical conditions.
If someone should be taking daily medication for a long-term problem and struggles with consistency, that's a potential sign that their behavior is not going to be very reliable.
Similarly, if a person should be taking behavioral steps to manage a condition (e.g., exercising or lowering their salt intake), but isn't, this is an indicator of them having difficulty with follow-through and consistency.
On the other hand, if you meet someone who is consistently managing a medical condition, then it's a very good sign that they have good, or potentially good, self-regulatory skills. Even if the person has had some dramatic elements in their past, they're able to rise above those, at least in one area.
12. The person can't see other people's points of view.
Being able to see other people's points of view helps us remain even-keeled emotionally. For example, if you can understand why something is a big deal to someone else, even if it's not to you, then you can react with understanding rather than exasperation, or by getting angry at their anger.
People who can't see others' points of view tend to be emotionally explosive and can't understand why it's important that everyone gets a turn at getting their own way.
13. The person seems too intense.
There are various ways this can manifest. For example, someone who is too self-disclosing too soon, or who tends to rush into things they get overexcited about. Often people who idealize others are prone to flipping later when something bursts that bubble.
As I mentioned at the outset, you shouldn't view any of the factors I've mentioned in isolation. For any one point I've mentioned, there might be an alternative explanation. For instance, a person regularly misses events, because they've got adult ADHD and struggle with planning. However, if your intuitive alarm bells are ringing about someone, consider this list of factors to see if it helps you understand why you have that sense.