About 20 years ago, a client came to me saying that she was more in love now than she had ever been in her life. As she continued discussing her current relationship, it seemed to me that she was talking about dysfunctional love—which is to say, unhealthy love.
I tried to explain the difference, but she wasn’t picking up on my subtle hints. So, I quickly sketched a scale for her—a scale of love—to help her determine where her relationship fell on the spectrum of functionality. It helped. She was able to see a visible representation of love. She was able to see that love—even though it’s love—isn’t always healthy.
So I thought this scale might help other couples. I wondered if this rubric could be applied to other relationships as a tool for seeing how healthy two people’s relationship styles are and where they have room to grow. And it’s proven an invaluable resource for couples I’ve worked with ever since.
Are you in a healthy relationship or an unhealthy one? Is your partnership functional or falling apart? Let’s take a look at the levels of love.
Levels 1 and 2:
Down here, we’ve got the most dysfunctional forms of love on the planet. In these two levels of love, dysfunction and abuse are prevalent.
Hallmarks of relationships at Levels 1 and 2:
There’s emotional abuse, which can manifest in the form of name-calling, trivializing concerns, and ignoring.
Levels 1 and 2 are also where we find physically abusive relationships—this can mean hitting, pushing, or slapping someone, but it can also mean raising your hand as if you’re going to hit someone. The threat counts.
Addictions are incredibly common in these kinds of relationships as well—both substance addiction and behavioral addictions—like anger, rage, and depression. Often, people who experience love like this dealt with personal abuse as children.
There are millions of men and women who have only ever experienced this kind of love—they observed it growing up. We often simply repeat what we see. People who are familiar with extremely dysfunctional relationships may continue to return to these type of relationships because that’s what they recognize as love unless they heal and learn new behaviors.
Levels 3 and 4:
The major difference between the 1 and 2 types and the 3 and 4 types is that 3 and 4 types don’t experience physical abuse.
Hallmarks of relationships at Levels 3 and 4:
People in this kind of relationship will say that they love each other deeply, but they aren’t honest with each other. They may spend money in secret and hide the clothes or accessories they purchased so their partner doesn’t get upset. My client who inspired the relationship scale fell into this category. She would tell her partner that she would do anything he needed on a daily basis. Then, when he told her what she could do to help, she would say yes and then fail to follow through.
She would play passive-aggressive games—another hallmark of couples in relationships at Levels 3 and 4. When she was upset with him, which was fairly frequently, she would promise the world and deliver nothing. She told me she loved this man more than anything, but her actions showed that she loved him in a highly dysfunctional way.
She would also borrow money from him with promises to repay it. She never did. Even though she had a written agreement to pay back the loans, she walked away from the relationship feeling she owed him nothing because of the way he had treated her. No matter how you look at it, this is not a functional relationship.
Addictions are also very common in these levels of love: emotional spending, emotional eating, alcoholism, workaholism, any form of substance abuse whatsoever is fairly normal in these levels of love.
Levels 5 and 6:
On Levels 5 and 6 we begin to see for the first time somewhat healthy modes of interaction.
Hallmarks of relationships at Levels 5 and 6:
Love on Levels 5 and 6 features a modicum of respect, communication, vulnerability, and humility. There still are arguments, but people resolve their conflicts fairly healthily. There might still be passive-aggressive behavior, but it’s minimal. Once people in these relationship levels recognize that they’ve acted out in a way that could damage the relationship, they’re open to apologizing, learning from their mistakes, and moving on. Very often, these people are experiencing healthy love for the first time in their lives.
Levels 7 and 8:
At these higher levels, there is incredible respect, admiration, and support.
Hallmarks of relationships at Levels 7 and 8:
In these two levels, couples often look for intimacy workshops and are eager to work one-on-one with counselors, therapists, or ministers in order to heighten their honesty and love for each other. More often than not, these couples engage in public displays of affection—holding hands, opening the door for their partner, or embracing in public.
They are independently in love. They perform small acts of love, like leaving notes for each other, on a regular basis. They know that deepening a love relationship takes daily work. They’re not afraid to stand up for their partner if other people are ridiculing them or putting them down. It is a true union of love.
Levels 9 and 10:
It’s extremely rare to experience a 9 or a 10 in a romantic relationship. Level 9 features the beginnings of—and level 10 is the fullest expression of—unconditional love. This kind of love is more commonly found between parents and children or dogs and their owners. Unconditional love is something we all crave. It’s an elusive gift that we all hope to have.
Hallmarks of relationships at Levels 9 and 10:
These relationships are characterized by humility, vulnerability, and total honesty. It’s the kind of companionship that people spend their whole lives looking for. If you love your partner like this, you see their foibles and quirks as endearing and funny, and they do the same for you. Unconditional lovers will stay with their partners through huge life challenges like addiction recovery. They find ways to love them without enabling. This isn’t something any of us can or should ever expect, but if you feel this way about your partner, you know you’ve found a once-in-a-lifetime love.
People who love someone at this level wake up every day with this question on their minds: “What can I do to make my partner’s life more enjoyable today?” Then they actually do it.
Take some time to assess your relationship. Is it healthy? Is there room for improvement? How can you be a better partner today? Just because you haven’t experienced a healthy relationship yet doesn’t mean you never will. Expect more of yourself and others. You’ll find it.