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Relationship Challenges

What does a healthy relationship look like?

Every relationship is unique, and certainly none is perfect. But in the spectrum of relationships, the healthiest are marked by certain behaviors: communicating openly, sharing respect and trust, being honest, and enjoying time together.

Whether you are interacting with a spouse, partner, family member, co-worker, or friend, these factors can build a relationship that enhances your quality of life. There will always be lapses or bumps in the road, but in any relationship, these characteristics are important.

What causes relationship challenges?

Relationship challenges arise from many different behaviors. For example, difficulties can develop when one or both people don’t communicate clearly or respectfully or fight instead of talking things out. Relationships suffer when people are dishonest or lose trust. They are more severely strained when one person tries to take social, sexual, or financial control over the other. When the pattern of such behaviors is frequent or severe, they are considered abusive. But even occasional fighting, dishonesty, and other unhealthy behavior can be challenging — and alcohol and drug use can make them worse.

If you are concerned about an abusive relationship, help is available.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s highly trained advocates are available to talk confidentially, free of charge, if you are experiencing domestic violence, seeking resources or information, or questioning unhealthy aspects of your relationship.

If you feel your relationship may be unhealthy or abusive, reach The National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), texting "START" to 88788, or chatting live at

How does substance use affect relationships?

Drinking and drug use can affect relationships in complex ways. Substance use can fuel abusive behavior, and abusive behavior can fuel substance use.

Problems with alcohol and drugs can lead to financial, legal, health, and other stressful issues — and those issues can spur people to increase alcohol and drug misuse. The combination of stressful situations and substance use can be toxic to relationships and may even be associated with physical or emotional abuse.

People who use abusive behaviors towards others may use more of these behaviors when they drink or use drugs. At the same time, people in abusive relationships may turn to alcohol and drugs to mask or attempt to cope with their pain. This is why getting psychological support for underlying sources of pain is so important. In many cases, a controlling person with an alcohol or drug problem may pressure or influence another person to drink or use drugs, too.

As people work to unravel the sources of their relationship challenges, it’s important to understand: Substance misuse can be a symptom of relationship issues or abuse, but it’s not the cause. While drinking or using drugs may make the situation worse, simply stopping substance use won’t solve the root problems of the people involved. At the same time, it can be ineffective to address relationship challenges without facing substance use problems.

Managing substance use and relationship challenges

Counseling can help people work through relationship challenges and sort out the interplay of stressors, behaviors, and substance use.

If you are in an abusive relationship, seek help from family, friends, or from the resources listed below. Couples counseling is NOT recommended for abusive relationships. Abuse is not a mutual problem: use of abusive behaviors against a partner is always the responsibility of the partner who uses them. It can be futile for a victim of abuse to try to communicate feelings and concerns to an abusive partner who may already have a pattern of dismissing and minimizing such feelings. In cases of abuse, look for individual counseling.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell if abuse is present in your relationship. Individual counseling can help you determine whether you are in an abusive situation and whether couples counseling would be beneficial or harmful.

If you are experiencing relationship dysfunction that does not rise to the level of abuse, couples counseling can be helpful. Couples counseling assumes a balance in relationship dynamics. In these cases, couples counseling can help couples learn healthier communication and anger management strategies, together.

Many resources online can help you get started:

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy provides information about counseling and a resource locator.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides 24/7/365 support for people who are experiencing domestic violence, seeking resources or information, or questioning unhealthy aspects of their relationship. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). provides information and support to empower youth to prevent and end dating abuse. Call 1-866-331-9474 or text to 22522 for 24/7/365 support.

RAINN advocates and offers support, information, and referrals for people dealing with sexual assault. Call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline 24/7 at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat online.

National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides leadership in preventing and responding to sexual violence through collaboration, sharing and creating resources, and promoting research. The website includes a director of state organizations working to stop sexual violence.

This resource was produced collaboratively with a group of Education Development Center (EDC) subject matter experts who reviewed the content and provided their insights. Last reviewed February 2023.