Are You In A Toxic Relationship?
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
Think of a fruit, appealing on the outside, but poisonous on the inside. Maybe it was once good but now it is rotting, maybe it was always poisonous but you couldn't be sure, judging from its outside.
You want to consume it, but doing so will harm you.
Relationships are not so different; they are our soul food. Often what we would like to perceive as nurturing may actually be toxic and bad for us.
We are social beings, we need quality relationships to truly thrive. This refers to family, romantic and friendly relationships.
A healthy and fulfilling relationship should be bringing out the best in us, and also withholding the worst- since there is no single perfect human being, and we all possess a Shadow, a dark side of weakness and insecurity.
A healthy and fulfilling adult relationship is one that satisfies the Five A’s , Attention, Affection, Appreciation, Acceptance, Allowing. According to the attachment theory, such a relationship would be characterized by a secure bond of the one person to the other. By default, one that consistently fails to satisfy these needs is an unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship.
A toxic relationship is bad for you, does not bring you forward and does not promote your growth. Your gut feeling tells you that it does not serve your best interests, and others may point that out as well. Yet, it is addictive and you can’t break free from it. A toxic relationship is an emotionally abusive one, and perhaps more forms of abuse are present as well.
Characteristics of a toxic relationship
A healthy relationship is characterized by mutual participation, effort, exchange and interaction. It is a give-and-take.
If only one person does the work of maintaining the relationship, if the roles of “giver” and “receiver” are mostly fixed, then there is an imbalance.
A healthy relationship of course has periods during which the one person does more than the other for the relationship, but this has a limit.
In a toxic relationship, most of the time one person gives and gives, while the other takes, and may even be abusive.
“You used to lift me up, now you bring me down”, sings the band Archive for a love that turned bad.
Under normal circumstances, a relationship to a romantic partner or friend should lift us high and anchor us to the ground at the same time.
Nevertheless, there can be moments that we feel disconnected by our counterpart (lover, family member or friend). After all, “love is a constant dance between connection and disconnection” (Sue Johnson).
Yet the reality of a toxic relationship is that it is disconnected more often than not. When we don’t feel connection with the person we are around, our time together does not feel positive and fulfilling, productive and constructive, but rather dull, difficult and even painful.
A toxic relationship leaves one or both partners feeling drained, unfulfilled, exhausted and disappointed. This emotional exhaustion is often present due to the high levels of emotional abuse present.
Conflict is not negative. It is highly unlikely that two individuals may never have any sort of conflict between them, because we're all unique and different, so we're also bound to not agree to everything. And that's ok!
Though it is both expected and accepted that conflict will undeniably occur at some point, a healthy relationship can sustain conflict through addressing, processing and resolving the issue at hand.
In those cases, conflict can actually have very favorable consequences, because it can lead to new insights and understanding of both partners, it can improve communication strengthen the bond between them.
Conflict becomes problematic and characteristic of a toxic relationship, when it becomes the norm of the interaction. When there is more conflict than quiet, then it can be alarming. When the interaction is mostly conflicting and there’s almost always something to resolve, when there is more pain than gain, then it is likely a toxic relationship.
Communication is one of the essential traits of healthy relationships. Especially if problems or challenges occur between the two parties, a fulfilling relationship provides the safe space that allows for proper communication, where both partners can actively listen to each other with the intent to understand each other and collaboratively find ways to resolve whichever problem.
If you realize it is not safe, comfortable or easy to communicate about what truly matters to you, perhaps because the other person ridicules you, makes you feel bad about wanting to communicate or simply does not want to listen to you, then the relationship is toxic.
It does not serve you if you can not be Yourself.
The good news is, communication skills can be practiced, developed and learned- provided that both parties have the motivation and desire to improve this aspect of their relationship.
Emotional abuse is defined as “any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth."
There are many signs of emotional or psychological abuse:
Any covert or direct attempt to control the other person is considered controlling behavior. Threats, emotional blackmail, manipulation are all facades of controlling behavior. For instance, a toxic partner may make you feel ashamed or guilty for expressing your needs.
In healthy communication, the wishes of both parties are heard without the need of a threat to take place. Threat is a form of controlling behavior, and it aims to increase the sense of dominance between the two partners. In some cases threats can look like ultimatums, “If you do this, then this will be the consequence”, and they leave little or no space for negotiation and collaboration.
*Manipulation and “Mind games”*
In a toxic abusive relationship, there is frequent manipulation. This is another form of controlling behavior and quite similar to threats, but it may be more subtle than that.
By definition, emotional manipulation is the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation.
For example, the toxic partner/friend may lead you to be convinced to do certain things that please them, or trick you into believing a fabricated story, or display exaggerated emotion (e.g. rage or crying) in order to influence your judgement during or after a conflict.
A person may also manipulate facts while in conversation; lying, strategic disclosure, withholding or deforming the truth, double messages and contradicting arguments are a few examples.
If you constantly feel criticized, ridiculed, looked down at, disregarded, in defense, needing to prove yourself, or if you are the object of verbal abuse, then the relationship is toxic.
There is constructive criticism, that takes account of the other person’s feelings and is thoughtful and considered, aiming towards growth; there is toxic criticism, that aims to diminish your self-worth, belittle you and make you feel horrible about yourself.
By employing such critical behavior, the toxic person aims to feel superior about themselves by making you feel smaller. Know the difference, and step away if you find yourself feeling criticized, blamed or treated with contempt too often.
*Invalidation of feelings and perception of reality/ “Gaslighting”*
We all wish to feel accepted by the ones close to us, and it is important for us to feel that our feelings and perception of reality are valid.
In a toxic relationship, your very experience of reality may be doubted and turned against you, as the abuser may disregard and invalidate your own experience and completely deny your perception of what is real. This is a malicious form of manipulation, since it aims to make you feel like you are crazy, thus doubting your own sanity and judgement.
*Disregarding your opinion*
In mindful, quality relationships, we feel appreciated, approved of and accepted. In contrast, this sense of approval is not granted in an abusive relationship. If your opinion is often disregarded, you may start to believe that you don’t really matter and what you think is not valuable. The person that constantly brings you down like this is toxic.
Verbal abuse, criticism, withholding of affection, passive aggression, frequent and intense conflicts may bring about the feeling that you are constantly rejected and not really wanted and appreciated for who you are. This can have quite severe manifestations for your mental health and self-worth. The underlying message that may come through to victims of emotional abuse is “I am unworthy of love”, “Noone can really love me”, “I am unwanted" etc.
In an emotionally abusive relationship, the perpetrator may attempt to isolate you from your support network. This may happen directly or indirectly- for example by lashing out at you whenever they realize that you have confided to a common friends about the struggles between you two.
Victim blaming, like gaslighting, is a severe form of emotional manipulation. If you often feel cornered and blamed for anything negative that happens in the relationship, if it is always your fault that they acted how they did towards you and they never claim any responsibility for their own contribution in the situation, it is definitely toxic.
In a healthy relationship, both parties should be able to observe their interaction and recognize that they are both responsible for any tension between them, each in their own way.
Persistent intention to fix things and inability of improvement
Fact: All relationships and friendships require mutual effort, intent, discipline and motivation to work.
Also fact: It should not be a constant struggle to make it work. A certain flow must be present as well.
As previously emphasized, conflict is normal, attempting to improve things is also normal.
But if you find yourself struggling for something, with a high motivation to fix the relationship yet failure to succeed in making things work, then it is probably toxic for you.
If the pain is bigger than the gain, if the effort is never quite enough, if you feel drained rather than refreshed most of the time… Maybe it’s time to walk away.
Consistent crossing of your boundaries
We all have different boundaries and get triggered by different situations that touch sensitive parts within us. It is vital for your relationships to let your boundaries be known to the ones you relate to. This is your own responsibility.
If you have underlined your boundaries to your partner/ friend, and they constantly seem to cross them, then it is again your own responsibility to determine what next steps you will take.
Persistent disregarding of your boundaries shows a lack of respect, and if you tolerate it you convey the message that you allow it to happen. What you allow is what will continue. The underlying message you may unwillingly be implying to the other is that “I don’t believe I deserve respect”.
Inability to end the relationship, despite realizing it is toxic
Last but not least, a key characteristic of a toxic relationship is that it has an addictive quality about it. You know it is bad for you, but you cannot stop it. You know they treat you wrongly, but you somehow need your “fix”- the other person.
First of all, realizing you absolutely need the other person to accept you, like you, love you and you cannot consider your life otherwise, despite the relationship not truly serving you, is really a problem to carefully look at. Useful questions in this direction:
What are you gaining out of this relationship?
Why is it difficult for you to distance yourself?
What does it mean to you that they treat you like they do?
What does it do to your self-worth and your belief system about yourself?
Do you feel safe around them?
Do you feel they inspire you to grow?
Do they add to an already happy life, or do you need them in order to feel content and complete?
Intermittent reinforcement, knowing that reward (i.e. good behavior) will come sooner or later, but not being able to determine when or how this will happen, is one of the reasons that maintains unhealthy relationships.
You may hold on to hope that things will get better, or breadcrumbs of love and attention may seem sufficient after prolong withholding and abuse.
Or perhaps the relationship may once have been good, so you would like to return it to that previous state.
Yet, it takes two to tango : Despite your best intentions, the other person may be unwilling or unable to do their part in improving the interaction between you.
In such cases, holding on may actually do more harm than letting go
- and unfortunately, you may not be fully able to conceptualize the damaging consequences on Yourself until after the relationship has ended.
As a conclusion, we accept the love we think we deserve.
If you think you are in a toxic relationship, ask yourself:
Do you feel you deserve to be loved in a fulfilling way?
If you are struggling with a toxic relationship and wish to empower yourself in order to be able to cope, therapy can help.
You may contact me here.