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How to Avoid Bad Relationships

…And how to build good relationships, too.

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

In previous posts, I have discussed characteristics that can make for better or worse romantic partners. I have shared strategies to identify relationship partners who are both attractive and compatible to you. I have even shared how to avoid various types of manipulations in relationships and keep things fair for you and your partner.

While those are all important issues in dating and relating, in this post I look at the topic more generally — specifically, how to avoid bad relationships, while also exploring broad concepts for how to build good relationships. With those more overarching questions in mind, I went back to the research:

Game Theory and Strategy

My answers this time began in a book on Game Theory from Dixit and Nalebuff (2008) titled The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life. Game theory is a discipline that uses mathematical models to predict how people will compete or cooperate in different situations. Although the authors did not speak to intimate relationships directly, they did provide concepts that produced satisfying relationships and exchanges in general. Of particular interest is their discussion of the difference between threats (leading to punishments) and promises (leading to rewards) in various types of interactions.

As Dixit and Nalebuff (2008) explain:

"A threat can be less costly; in fact, it is costless if it is successful. If it changes the other player’s behavior in the way you want, you don’t have to carry out the costly action you had threatened. A promise, if successful, must be fulfilled — if the other player acts as you want him to, you have to deliver the costly action you had promised."

They illustrate the point:

"If a company could threaten its employees with terrible consequences should their performance fall short of being excellent, it could save a lot of money that it usually pays out to fulfill its promises of incentive bonuses."

Positive and Negative Interactions

Given that bit of information, we can see where there might be some motivation to threaten rather than promise — from a purely selfish perspective. After all, it could get the person doing the threatening something for nothing. Why pay or provide something when they can just threaten, belittle, or otherwise demean a partner into doing it for free?

Well, there is a cost…

The cost is that it's not very satisfying for the partner. Just like most employees would not work long for a company that punished and didn’t pay, most romantic partners don’t stick around in relationships where the interactions are negative and not fulfilling. In fact, according to Gottman and Silver (2015), there is a magic relationship ratio, in which healthy and satisfying relationships have no more than one negative interaction for every five positive interactions. They further note that the four interaction strategies which predict the end of a relationship are criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness. Therefore, someone can only be threatened and belittled into doing something for so long — especially for nothing in exchange — before they get dissatisfied and leave.

Avoiding Bad Relationships — and Building Good Ones

Taking the above into consideration, we can begin to differentiate between good and bad relationships. In fact, we can begin to spot something-for-nothing exchanges quite early — and avoid them. Specifically, if a partner (or date) begins an exchange by threatening, putting you down, or otherwise guilting you into doing something for them, then they either have nothing to offer you in return for what they want, or they don’t intend to offer it. In either case, it isn’t going to lead to a satisfying interaction — and you are likely better off avoiding it.

On the flip side, this is also why building good relationships begins with rewarding exchanges, while avoiding punishment too. That is how you create mutually satisfying interactions that meet the needs of both partners. That may not mean that every exchange is exactly balanced, but it does mean that any imbalance is seen as a favor and is rewarded with gratitude, rather than being manipulated through various forms of threats, punishments, and entitlements.

Nevertheless, the above does assume that you don’t legitimately owe your partner something (or vice versa). Also, if someone has done something wrong, there are positive steps to take to earn forgiveness. And there are mutually beneficial ways of dealing with an argumentative partner and ending a partner’s bad habits. At some point, chasing after what you are owed and believing repeated promises of change from a partner who fails to deliver becomes a lost cause. In that case, it is better to break up, as compassionately as possible — and seek a more rewarding relationship with someone else.

Overall, if you want healthy relationships, avoid interacting with individuals who threaten, insult, or otherwise manipulate you to get their way without giving you anything of value in return. Avoid treating others that way, too. Then, build a relationship in which both you and your partner have positive things to give each other, and in which you reward each other, and meet each other’s needs.

© 2018 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Dixit, A. K., & Nalebuff, B. (2008). The art of strategy: a game theorist's guide to success in business and life. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country's foremost relationship expert. New York, NY: Harmony Books.