What is a toxic relationship?
A toxic relationship is a relationship that is damaging to one or more people. It frequently involves conflict, insecurity, power games, self-centeredness and manipulation. Sometimes it will involve outright physical, emotional, financial or verbal abuse.
Remember any relationship can be toxic, it could be within your family of origin, a friendship group or with a partner.
Most relationships, even reasonably healthy ones, will have an element of toxicity. So, you can think of toxic relationships as being on a scale from emotionally and physically abusive and controlling, to subtle manipulation. When you are in a healthy relationship there is a sense of ease, yes, things come up that have to be resolved, but issues are discussed and worked through. With a toxic relationship, this doesn’t happen.
Toxic behaviours in relationships
Using emotional blackmail to get your own way
Throwing tantrums when you don’t get your own way
Being self centred and not considering your partner’s feelings
There is not a sense of you having one another’s back
Communication contains a lot of sarcasm and cutting remarks
Desire for one to control the other
Holding grudges and telling lies
Isolating you from friends and family
Feeling you are walking on eggshells
Threatening to leave the relationship
What are the causes of toxic relationships?
Toxic relationships are created by people who have been exposed to toxic relationships. If we have great conflict resolution and emotional maturity modelled to us as children, it is easy to take those skills into our adult life and form emotionally mature relationships. If we had toxic relationships in our childhood; chaos, shouting, passive aggressive behaviour, snide remarks and power games, we have to start from the beginning and learn how to have healthy relationships and conflict resolution.
Another reason you may find yourself in a toxic relationship is if you have an insecure attachment style (Bowlby & Ainsworth, 1992). Perhaps you were raised by an emotionally absent mother who was unresponsive to your needs. You learned that emotional absence IS love, and unconsciously look for emotionally unavailable partners. Although you feel unloved and uncared for in the relationship, the thought of being abandoned is too strong to allow you to leave.
Attachment styles and toxic relationships CAN be changed, but both parties have to be willing to do the work.
How to do the work
If you know you are in a toxic relationship something needs to change. Look at yourself first.
What is my part in this dynamic? Am I doing any of the behaviours listed above? How can I change my toxic behaviours?
Continually threatening to leave the relationship is emotional blackmail and there needs to be a boundary around this. Blaming your partner for your feelings is the start of an enmeshed relationship. Taking responsibility for your own emotions is key and actually creates a stronger sense of agency in both people.
A few guiding principles for communication:
1. Be clear about your needs – Express what you need (not demand) in ‘I’ statements, so rather than, “You never look at me when I am talking to you”, try “I feel a little sad when I speak to you and you don’t look at me, I wonder if you might look at me as we discuss this?” 2. Avoid judgement and criticism – this will create defence and it is difficult to be heard. 3. Be honest – if you hide your real feelings for fear of being rejected, this is not sustainable long term. 4. Compassion for yourself and your partner.
You are likely to be recreating past relational patterns that are painful for both of you. Is my fear of being alone, greater than my pain in this relationship? Sometimes the thought of being alone is so terrifying, you’d put up with anything. If this is the case, please speak to someone. This is a dangerous place to be.
When both people are open to going to therapy that is a sign you are BOTH ready to do the work. The work involves being vulnerable and being seen and held by each other. It can be an incredibly healing and uniting experience which fosters greater understanding and compassion, whilst you develop practical tools to use in your relationship on a day to day basis.
Toxic relationships, if left unaddressed, over time can become soul-destroying, however, if you are both ready to do the work to create a healthy relationship it CAN be done. I won’t lie and tell you it is an easy path, it’s not, but it CAN be done.
How do you know when to leave? Seek support and trust your intuition. If your gut keeps telling you it is too hard and things feel toxic, they probably are. Talk to your family and friends or a trained professional to get some perspective. Walking away can be hard, you will have to pull on your inner strength and courage, if this is the way forward for you, get support to make the change.