What is a Toxic Relationship? – 8 Signs of Toxic Relationships
With a few exceptions, people want to be close to one another emotionally and physically. Life seems best shared. And yet no human endeavor seems as fraught with challenges and difficulties as our relationships with others. Relationships, like most valuable things in life, require effort. Toxic relationships require even more effort.
Von Thomas L. Cory, Ph.D.
(Updated with new content for 2022 by Camille Platt)
Think of it this way: Even good relationships require work. After all, our significant other, our close friends, and even our parents aren't perfect (and funnily enough, they might not see us as perfect either). We must learn to adapt to their quirks, their flaws, and their moods, just as they must learn to do the same to us. And it's worth it.
However, some relationships are more difficult and require proportionally more work. We are not clones but individuals and some people in relationships will have more difficulties or more disagreements. But because we value these relationships, we are willing to make whatever effort is necessary to maintain them.
And then there are toxic relationships. These relationships have evolved into something that has the potential to be extremely detrimental to our well-being if left unaddressed. These relationships aren't necessarily hopeless, but they do take significant and hard work to turn into something healthy. The paradox is that in order to have a reasonable chance of turning a toxic relationship into a healthy one, we must be willing to leave it (more on that later).
The importance of understanding what defines a toxic relationship is heightened in a global pandemic. Pandemic precautions make us spend more time at home. In 2020 and 2021 many of us have lost the valves that kept our social, physical and mental health in balance - work, friends, gym, school. Home isolation has shed new light on indicators that a relationship is toxic, meaning the past few years have been instrumental in identifying unhealthy patterns in our relationships. In April 2020 theJournal of Clinical Nursingreported that “the home can be a place where power dynamics can be distorted and subverted...often without verification by anyone 'outside' the couple or family unit. Therefore, in the COVID-19 crisis, being asked to stay at home is having a major impact on adults and children already living with someone who is abusive or controlling.”
So what exactly is a toxic relationship and how do you know if you're in one?
By definition, a toxic relationship is one characterized by behaviors by the toxic partner that are emotionally, and often physically, harmful. While a healthy relationship builds our self-esteem and emotional energy, a toxic relationship erodes self-esteem and drains energy. A healthy relationship involves mutual care, respect, and compassion; an interest in the well-being and growth of our partner; and the ability to share control and decision-making. In short, a healthy relationship involves a shared desire for each other's happiness. A healthy relationship is a secure relationship, a relationship where we can be ourselves without fear, a place where we feel comfortable and safe. A toxic relationship, on the other hand, is not a safe place. A toxic relationship is characterized by insecurity, self-centeredness, dominance, and control. We risk our whole being by staying in such a relationship. To say that a toxic relationship is dysfunctional is an understatement at best.
"Remember that it takes two people to have a toxic relationship, which means our own words and actions matter, too."
Remember that it takes two individuals to have a toxic relationship, which means our own words and actions matter too. First we will look at the behavior of the toxic partner, but we need to look just as closely at the person on the receiving end of the toxic behavior. And we have to ask: Why? Why does an adult remain in a relationship that will almost inevitably damage them emotionally and/or physically? And what, if anything, can we do before we leave to improve that relationship? We will examine these two questions later. But first, let's take a closer look at toxic behaviors and relationships.
Types of Toxic Relationships
Even a good relationship can have brief periods of behavior that we might call toxic from one or both partners. After all, people aren't perfect. Few of us have formal training in how to interact with others. We often have to learn as we go in the hope that our basic style of relating to significant others - usually learned from our parents and/or friends - will be at least somewhat effective.
However, as noted above, a toxic relationship defines dysfunction as the norm. The toxic partner engages in inappropriate controlling and manipulative behavior on an almost daily basis. Paradoxically, the toxic partner usually behaves in an exemplary manner to the outside world.
"—What defines a toxic relationship is dysfunction as the norm."
Note: Any relationship that involves physical violence or substance abuse is, by definition, extremely toxic and requires immediate intervention and, with very few exceptions, separation by the two partners. While these relationships aren't necessarily irreparable, I can't stress enough how destructive they are. If you are in such a relationship, seek help now!
Essentially, a toxic individual behaves this way for one main reason: He or she needs to be in complete control and have all power in their relationship. Power-sharing does not occur to any significant degree in a toxic relationship, which means a person is overtly passive whether they know it or not. And while power struggles are normal in any relationship, especially in the early stages of a marriage, toxic relationships are characterized by one partner's absolute insistence on being in control. The methods used by such a person to control their partner in a toxic relationship may or may not be readily apparent even to the partner.
With that in mind, let's look at some of the more common types of dysfunctional behaviors that a toxic partner might use in a relationship with a significant other. These categories should not be considered exclusive. Often a toxic person will use different types of control behaviors to achieve their goals. While the following examples are most commonly seen in toxic marriages and/or other serious relationships, they can certainly appear in parent-child interactions or friendships as well.
An additional note: for the sake of brevity, I will generally use the word "victim" to refer to the recipient of the toxic behavior. In reality, however, this person is not a victim, at least not in the sense that there is nothing they can do to change their relationship.
1. Devaluer Devaluer
This type of toxic individual will constantly bring you down. He or she will make fun of you, basically implying that pretty much anything you say that expresses your ideas, beliefs, or desires is silly or stupid. A toxic spouse or partner will not hesitate to belittle you in public in front of your friends or family. Even if you've asked your toxic partner to stop belittling you, he or she will continue this behavior, occasionally covering it up by saying, "I'm just kidding. You don't understand a joke? The problem is, they don't joke and what they do isn't a joke. The toxic partner wants all the decision-making power. Unfortunately, if you put up with this belittling behavior long enough, you may very well start believing that you can't make good decisions.
These types of toxic individuals often tell you that you are lucky to have them as a partner, that no other man or woman would really want you. His goal is to keep your self-esteem as low as possible so you don't question his absolute control over the relationship.
2. The toxic "bad temper" partner
I often have a client who tells me that they have given up arguing or disagreeing with their partner because they get too angry or lose their temper and often don't interact with them in a meaningful way. way for days. "Control through intimidation" is a classic toxic partner behavior.
often theseHumans have an unpredictable and "hair-triggering" temperament🇧🇷 Their partners often describe themselves as "walking on eggshells" around their toxic partner, not knowing what will make them angry. This constant vigilance and inability to know what triggers an outburst takes a toll on the "victim's" emotional and physical health.
Again, it's worth noting that this type of emotionally abusive partner rarely shows that side on the outside. No one else would call the relationship toxic, meaning he or she is often viewed as a nice, easy-going person that almost everyone likes.
As you would expect, when you confront a partner in a "bad mood" about the inappropriateness of their anger, they will almost always blame you for their tantrum. It's kind of your fault they scream and scream. This relinquishment of responsibility for their dysfunctional behavior is typical of a toxic partner.
3. The guilt trigger
Of course, a toxic relationship can arise not only between two people in a committed relationship, but also between friends or parents and their adult children. Control in these relationships, as in a serious relationship, is exercised by inducing "victim" guilt. The guilt trigger controls by encouraging you to feel guilty when you do something that he or she doesn't like. It is not uncommon for them to let someone else express their feelings of “disappointment” or “hurt”. For example, your dad calls to say how disappointed your mom was that you didn't come to Sunday lunch.
Not only does a guilt trigger control by inducing guilt, but it also temporarily “eliminates” guilt when you end up doing what it wants you to do. For the guilt-prone individual, anything or anyone that eliminates guilt is highly desirable and potentially almost addictive, leaving the guilt-maker with an extremely powerful tool of control.
Incidentally, guilt is the most common form of control used by toxic parents to control their adult children. For example, your parents may suggest that you limit their ability to love their grandchildren by limiting the number of gifts and surprise packages they can leave at home. Blame works the other way, too. Psychologist Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D., wrote in early 2022 about the toxic patterns of adult children who blame their aging parents. Adult children can always remind Mom and Dad of their parents' past mistakes and demand that they make amends. They may accuse you of lack of confidence or trust in them if you turn down an investment opportunity loan application or refuse to co-sign a student loan for a child who dropped out of college multiple times. The guilt and shame associated with these often urgent demands is unacceptable.
Often a spouse or significant other disguises their guilt-ridden control by appearing to support a decision you're making—eg. or how you haven't been paying much attention to him lately. As with all toxic behaviors, the guilt incentive serves to control your behavior so that the toxic partner, parent, or friend gets what they want.
4. Der Superreactor/Deflector
If you've ever tried to tell a significant other that you're unhappy, hurt, or angry about something they did and somehow dealt with their dissatisfaction, pain, or anger, you've dealt with an overreaction/ to do distraction . You comfort her instead of consoling yourself. Even worse, you feel bad for being "so selfish" that you mentioned something that "upsets" your partner so much. Needless to say, if you ruefully attend to your partner's feelings, your initial concern, pain, or irritation will be lost.
A variation on this theme is the deflector: you're trying to express your anger or annoyance at an issue or event — your spouse is out with friends two hours longer than they announced and doesn't even bother to call — and somehow yours toxic partner finds a way to make it your fault.
The deflector is confused because the information you bring to its attention is in direct contradiction to how it perceives itself. It's so awkward that they inadvertently convince you that you're the one "busy". Maybe you are too sensitive. Or maybe instead of an apology, a calculated question is asked: "But do you love me?" Suddenly, criticism is replaced by praise.
5. The overly dependent partner
As strange as it may sound, one method of poison control is to make your partner so passive that you have to make most decisions for them. These toxic controllers want you to make virtually every decision for them, from eating dinner to buying a car. Remember, not making a choice is a choice that has the benefit of blaming someone else—you—for the outcome of that choice. And of course you can tell when you've made the "wrong" decision by your partner's passive-aggressive behavior, such as: B. sulking or not speaking to you because you picked a movie or a restaurant he didn't like. Or you spend the weekend with your parents and your partner comes with you, but you don't speak to anyone for two days.
Passivity can be an extremely powerful means of control. If you are involved in a passive controller relationship, you are likely to experience constant anxiety and/or fatigue as you worry about the impact your decisions will have on your partner and are exhausted from having to make virtually every decision.
Aside from your own anxiety or fatigue, it's important to consider the root of your partner's control here. This type of toxic marriage, by definition, can depend on fear-induced control.Das Journal of Neurosciencereported that the prefrontal cortex allows us to be flexible in our decision-making while logically weighing the consequences of one decision versus another. Fear "turns off brain cells" and can play a role in your partner's insistence that you have all the power, and therefore all the risk, in a perceived potential "failure."
6. The "independent" (unreliable) toxic controller
This person often disguises their toxic control behavior by simply claiming their "independence." "I won't let anyone control me" is her motto. This toxic individual will rarely keep their commitments. In fact, these people control you by keeping you in the dark about what they are going to do. Unreliable people will say they will call you, they will take the kids to the movies on Saturday, but they don't. Something always comes. They usually have a plausible excuse but just don't keep their commitments. In this relationship, toxic means they control you, making it almost impossible for you to make any commitments or plans.
What's even more worrying is that this type of toxic person doesn't make you feel safe in your relationship. It's not just their behavior that's unpredictable; They are never sure if they really feel emotionally attached to you, that you and your relationship with them are a priority in their life. You will often find yourself asking them for validation that they love you, find you attractive, are committed to your marriage, etc. They want to "earn" their commitment. The anxiety you feel in such a relationship can and often does undermine your physical and emotional health.
7. The user
Users - especially at the beginning of a relationship - generally appear to be very friendly, polite and pleasant people. And they are, as long as they get everything they want from you. What constitutes a toxic relationship with a user is its one-sided nature and the fact that you will never end up doing enough for them. Users are enormous energy hogs who will actually dump you once they find someone who will do more for them.
"What defines a toxic relationship with a user is its one-sided nature and the fact that you never end up doing enough for them."
In fact, a really savvy user will occasionally do something small for you, usually something they don't mind or cost a lot. Be warned: they didn't give you a gift; they have placed an obligation on you. If you refuse to do anything for them or to do things their way, they will immediately blame you for everything they did and work hard to create guilt.
Maintaining a relationship with a user is like paying $1,000 for a candy bar. You really don't get much for your investment.
8. The toxic possessive controller (paranoid)
This type of toxic individual is really bad news. At the beginning of your relationship with them, you can use the “jealousy', especially if you're not very controlling. And most, but certainly not all, possessive pronouns will mean that you will be fine once you are both married or in a serious relationship.
Don't believe it for a moment.
These toxic individuals become increasingly suspicious and controlling over time. They'll check your car's odometer to make sure you haven't driven somewhere you "shouldn't" or interrogate you if you have to stay late at work. In short, they will make your life miserable. They can even use technology to their advantage, using smart devices to verify your physical location or doorbell cameras to spy on them or verify that you actually came home when you said you would. Over time, they will work hard to eliminate any important relationships you have with friends and sometimes even family. They don't see themselves in a relationship with you; they see themselves as owners of you.
Your efforts to convince a toxic owner of your loyalty and devotion to them will be in vain. If you are in a relationship with such a person, you no longer have a life of your own.
Bernstein who publishedWhy You Can't Read My Mind: Overcoming 9 Toxic Thought Patterns That Get In The Way Of A Love RelationshipShe explains that "giving in" to toxic thoughts like paranoia is easier than you might think. The possessive partner often ends with an "all or nothing" thought (She is never the partner to initiate intimacy.) and “Catastrophic Conclusions” (she must be cheating🇧🇷 Without noticing the flaw in this mindset, the possessive partner fails to realize that their "feelings are unlikely to be the reality of the relationship".
Toxic Relationships and COVID-19
COVID-19 has complicated the already tricky dance at home for people dealing with a toxic spouse or partner. The truth is that in a pandemic, toxic relationships can get worse. While what defines a toxic relationship is not necessarily physical violence, in April 2020 the World Health Organization found a 60% increase in the number of women reporting emergencies of domestic violence. Losing routine, maybe even losing finances, can take down someone who is already difficult to communicate with and add to the pressure. In turn, our loved one can experience a new intensity in their behavior.
White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, suggested in January 2022 that the coronavirus pandemic would eventually become endemic. As we experience a renewed sense of normality and continued disruption from variants like Omicron, we may be reflecting on what our relationships were like in 2020 and 2021. For some, the past few years have meant a more focused time under one roof with a toxic partner. For others, the past two years have meant deliberately protecting ourselves from developing toxic patterns with the people we love. We've had to respect the boundaries of friends and family while sharing our own — and we may also feel isolated or lonely. Going forward, adaptation to the coronavirus as being endemic will happen at different speeds for different people. Fostering a toxic relationship in 2022 and 2023 can make someone feel guilty about communicating boundaries or deflecting responsibility for emotional outbursts using pandemic stress as an excuse. The good news is that just because we develop a toxic trait under stress doesn't mean we've entered an area we can't get out of.
More thoughts on toxic relationships
The toxicity of the above is clearly a matter of degree. You may have experienced some, if not all, of these behaviors—hopefully mildly—on occasion in your relationships. And that's the key word: occasionally. In a toxic relationship, these behaviors are the norm, not the exception. Most of us manipulate from time to time, play powerless, induce guilt, etc. We are not perfect, nor are our relationships. What defines a toxic relationship is the severity of these behaviors and how often they occur.
So why do people behave toxically and why do others tolerate these behaviors? The answer is the same for both people: low self-esteem stemming from an underlying insecurity. Toxic individuals behave this way because, on some level, they don't believe that they are worth loving or that anyone genuinely wants to have their needs met. Their partners stay with toxic people because they, too, believe they are unlovable and that no one would willingly meet their needs.
But aren't controlling individuals often narcissistic? Don't they just have inflated egos and believe that they are entitled to anything they want without it costing themselves?
Occasionally, especially in the case of the toxic user, narcissism can be part of the problem, but the narcissism itself is often a reaction to underlying insecurity.
This begs the question and problem of what to do when you are in a toxic relationship. Many of my clients initially come to me hoping that I will give them a magical tool that will "fix" their toxic partner, or at least that I will empathize with them and agree with them how bad their partner is. While catharsis can provide temporary relief, it is not permanent. And while there are certainly things an individual can do to try to change a toxic partner's behavior, most of my clients are often reluctant to do so because they fear their toxic partner might leave the relationship.
The paradox is this: if you want to improve your relationship with a toxic partner, you have to be willing to leave if nothing changes. If you are not willing to do this, you have very limited power at your disposal. Your toxic partner will know at the end of the day, no matter what they do, you really aren't going to leave.
So before you attempt to confront a toxic partner, make sure your self-esteem and confidence are good enough to know that if they end your relationship (or if you break up with them), you'll be fine have to). ). If you're not there, I strongly encourage you to seek therapeutic help or join a codependency group.
What to Do When You're in a Toxic Relationship
The bad news is that you cannot change your partner. The good news is that you can change yourself, which can make you behave differently towards your partner, which can make them decide to change their behavior. Essentially, what you do is face the toxic behavior calmly but firmly. You do this by sharing the behaviors with your partner, letting them know they are no longer acceptable, and suggesting alternative behaviors that would work better. Easy, isn't it?
It really is. Again, you must believe that you deserve to be treated with courtesy, compassion, and respect in a relationship or you will not continue the relationship.
When confronting a toxic partner for the first time, you can expect them to really escalate their controlling behavior. They have to be able to handle whatever they do. You must remain calm and simply repeat your order. If your partner refuses to change, consider breaking up with the relationship for 30 days. You should then talk to them again, repeating your requests and letting them know that if they continue their toxic behavior, you will not stay in the relationship. If they refuse to change again, you must end the relationship. If they promise to change but relapse, repeat the cycle again. Bottom line: You can't seriously try to fix a toxic relationship unless you're willing to let go.
One notable exception: I firmly believe in a "zero tolerance" policy for physical abuse. No matter how apologetic your partner is,If you have been physically abused, you must separate yourself from them immediately🇧🇷 If they seek appropriate help and you can reasonably trust that they will not physically abuse you again, you may want to consider returning to the relationship or not.
And if you have oneParent who behaves toxically🇧🇷 Thankfully, as a grown child, you don't live with them 24/7 and likely have the support of a significant other to deal with. Essentially, you need to deal with a toxic parent the same way you deal with a toxic partner: you confront the controlling behavior, offer alternative ways for the two of you (or three) to connect, and see what happens. If your parents refuse to change your behavior, which is usually controlled by toxic guilt incentives, you need to severely limit their contact with you. Since few of us would or should fully let go of an aging parent who may need our help, you will likely maintain some contact with them, but you need to keep the relationship under control. It's no easy task, but by taking control — like limiting calls or choosing when you see them — you can offer them the help they need while maintaining their emotional balance.
We often refer to those who stay in toxic relationships as "codependents." They could be too. I believe codependency is the result of low self-esteem, which can make it very difficult to follow the plan I've suggested. If you are in a toxic relationship and are struggling or reluctant to effectively confront your partner's behavior, seek therapeutic help. You can benefit from it by joining a "Codependency" group. Anyway, read books or use the internet to find other techniques to help you develop the self-esteem and confidence you need to live without a toxic relationship.
Tom Cory has lived in Chattanooga for 35 years. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and Miami University, where he received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He now practices clinical psychology with a specialization in interpersonal and marital therapy. Tom can be reached at email@example.com.