What is a toxic relationship?
A toxic relationship may leave you feeling depleted, less than, and losing trust in yourself and questioning your own lived experience. Despite your best attempts to please or smooth over the situation, you may find it impossible to prevent your partner’s angry outbursts or sour moods.
It’s not uncommon for some people to initially confuse the drama-filled intensity of a new relationship for feelings of intimacy. Once this pattern has been established, this defining characteristic of the relationship may feel like a new normal. However, it’s anything but.
The tricky thing for many people is that not all relationships start out toxic. Oftentimes, new partners put their best foot forward in a new relationship. Over time, as the relationship grows more familiar, unhealthy behaviors and communication patterns begin to emerge. This is why it’s often difficult for partners caught in a cycle of abuse to leave, the relationship wasn’t always “all bad,” there were happy times too.
It’s not uncommon for some people to initially confuse the drama-filled intensity of a new relationship for feelings of intimacy.
Signs you’re in a toxic relationship
Here are a few signs of toxic relationships. If you suspect you’re in a toxic relationship ask yourself if you experience any of the following:
- Feeling drained or depleted more often than not due to the negative exchanges in the relationship
- Feeling like the relationship is strictly a one-way street
- Preoccupied with pleasing your partner
- Walking on eggshells not to “rock the boat” or make your partner angry or upset
- Denying yourself your own needs or desires at the expense of your partners
- Lack of trust in your partner
- Feeling judged or rejected by your partner
- Persistent unreliability or follow through on promises or daily responsibilities
- Insufficient support
- Controlling behaviors (who you see, what you wear, what you spend your money or time on)
- Jealousy and insecurity masked as “caring”
- Lying and dishonesty
- Patterns of disrespect
- Lack of support / withholding support
- Avoidance (shutting down or giving one the silent treatment instead of addressing issues maturely)
- Physical, verbal or financial abuse
- Humiliation (belittling you in front of others)
It’s often difficult for partners caught in a cycle of abuse to leave, the relationship wasn’t always “all bad,” there were happy times too.
Here are examples of behaviors that people in toxic relationships may confuse for romance, but are actually unhealthy:
- “They love me so much and want to spend every minute with me…that’s why I’m not able to go out with friends/engage in a favorite activity/go certain places alone/have my own….”
- “They buy me clothes they insist on me wearing that I don’t really like, but it’s easier for me to just wear it than to have an argument about it”
- “I love you so much and do so much for you, what do you mean you won’t…. (do xyz behavior or allow them to do xyz behavior that’s hurtful, disrespectful, or tramples your boundaries).
- “Trust me, I’m doing this for your own good…”
- “This isn’t a healthy/good/right action or decision for me, but I’m doing it because they need me.”
Why am i ATTRACTED TO toxic relationships?
Oftentimes people romanticize toxic relationships out of fears of abandonment and attachment issues. This is related to childhood experiences, personal trauma, family of origins dynamics, and patterns of relationships from our past (often our parents).
Movies and TV series also often misrepresent romantic relationships. As a psychotherapist, it’s uncomfortable watching these played out. Young people see dysfunctional behavior on the silver screen and are led to believe that everything is justified, since the couple “passionately” loves each other. After all, we’re taught from a young age that “love conquers all” or “love is all you need.” It’s no wonder that mutual trust, respect, healthy communication and dependability aren’t a part of the plot. These things aren’t sexy, nor do they sell tantalizing storylines. As a licensed marriage and family therapist with a decade of experience helping couples, I can tell you with confidence that these are the cornerstones to any healthy relationship. These intense, drama-filled interactions aren’t conducive to long-lasting relationships and are better left for hollywood.
Intense, drama-filled interactions aren’t conducive to long-lasting relationships and are better left for hollywood.
We also desperately want to be loved by “the one,” our partner, or future ideal partner we’ve daydreamed about in our head. However, people might recreate their parental relationships with their partners, wanting to fix old trauma in their new romantic relationships. But that does not usually work. All couples relationships involve projection. We project our unconscious issues onto the other person and vice versa.
For instance, a partner may have been raised in an abusive home, where their father is physically and verbally abusive to his partner and his children. Based on their past family dynamics, this partner may not tolerate physical abuse, but might accept manipulation or verbal abuse from their love interest instead. A partner may be raised thinking they are not lovable as a child (believing that their parents do not love them), therefore, they may put up with abuse in order to pursue love, or may continue to question what true love looks like.
How to heal from a toxic relationship
When each partner feels respected and appreciated by the other for who they are, there is little to no room for toxicity. Each partner should have their own life and respect the other’s individuality, including any differences between them. Partners ought to recognize each other as individuals before they can move forward in partnership.
When issues arise, couples must be able to discuss them in a curious and compassionate way. It is important to take a non-judgemental approach when navigating any kind of relationship. Effective and respectful communication is the key. Communication style ultimately determines whether someone can feel safe in a relationship and be honest about their beliefs. If your communication patterns consist of corrosive communication, where one or both parties are belittling and degrading one another, this may be indicative of other issues within the relationship that aren’t being addressed.
Ask your partner why a concern is important to them, or where their values originate. Become acquainted with your partner’s belief systems. Do they violate yours? How do they impact you? Accept the other as they are in the present moment. If both partners feel safe, the process of change can take hold. If compromise is necessary, ensure that it honors both individuals, rather than creating favorable circumstances for only one partner.
Establishing boundaries with your partner is important, as well as saying no to things that you don’t like to do, or explaining why you want to do things alone. Gaining awareness of your own projections, as well as your partner’s, is crucial to the process of establishing boundaries and forming a healthy relationship.
Communication style ultimately determines whether someone can feel safe in a relationship.
Couples therapy can be very helpful for couples who experience certain elements of their relationship that are toxic. However, keep in mind that for some, the healthiest thing to do may mean letting go of the relationship if it is not able to be fixed. If staying in a relationship means doing so at the expense of your mental health, confidence, and self-esteem then the relationship may be beyond saving.
The bottom line is if the relationship does not feel right, is toxic and abusive, start to look for help. After experiencing a toxic relationship, many people find it helpful to take some time off from dating and focus on healing emotional wounds with the help of a therapist or other supportive outlets in your life.
Your Turn: How do you define a toxic relationship? What helped you identify the relationship wasn’t right for you? Share what helped you to heal from a toxic relationship in the comments below.