Are you in a toxic relationship?
If you feel like your trust in the relationship is being stretched to the limit, it’s time to formulate an action plan. Not just for our partner’s sake, but for our sake as living, breathing individuals with lives and aspirations, inside and outside of the relationship.
But first, how far down does your rabbit hole go?
Symptoms Of A Toxic Relationship
Instances of relationship conflict are not a symptom of a toxic relationship if handled properly.
It isn’t about finding yourself at odds with your partner, which is part and parcel of growing together, it’s about how you go about managing those differences that counts.
If the mechanisms you have in place lead to regressive or defensive behavior, you pave the way to a toxic landscape. This is true no matter how much you care about each other. Ironically, it is often precisely because of the heightened emotions caused by caring deeply that miscommunication and toxic behavior emerge.
Without effective communication and conflict management (and again, conflict is necessary) the relationship cannot evolve to accommodate the changes that we undergo as individuals over time.
This is why we wake up one day, as if from a coma, and realize that our partner is a complete stranger. Because we lacked the framework to identify and manage change as it occured. In short: They are a stranger!
Conflict avoidance is a subtle and counter-intuitive symptom of a toxic relationship.
Most of the time we equate anger and impulsiveness with toxicity, but the silence stemming from our inability to vent and channel core issues is a real relationship killer.
Anyone that was broken up with out of the blue will have realized that just because our ex didn’t say a word to us about their discontent with the relationship, it didn’t mean it wasn’t there. And because we had no access to that internal dialogue, due to poor communication structure, we had no say in what was to come.
Conflict is unavoidable because change is unavoidable. If there seems to be no friction in your relationship I can almost guarantee that a pile of resentment is building ominously somewhere away from view. Once that resentment becomes unsustainable it will burst, and we all know what happens next.
Projecting Our Insecurity
We can’t help having our fears and insecurities. Some of them may be unreasonable, others rational and well-founded. Some can be fixed, others will be reinforced over time through our experiences.
To be human is to be prey to our fear. It is what it is, and it would take a better man than me to argue us out of our collective insanity.
I’m not going to suggest that fixing a toxic relationship means removing our insecurities because I might as well say that all we are are robots and love is an algorithm we can tweak at will.
No, instead, I’m going to suggest merely becoming objective about the ways our insecurity negatively impacts our relationship, often making these root fears worse than they were to begin with. Insecurity really is a self-fulfilling prophecy unless we shine a light on it.
Our insecurity is the root cause of most types of toxic behavior:
- Possessive and jealous behavior.
- Conflict avoidance or aggression (two sides of the same coin, the currency is always fear).
- Validation-seeking behavior.
- Idealism and perfectionism.
- Being judgmental instead of primarily perceiving.
- Lying, mind games and manipulation.
If we are able to see these behaviors reflected in ourselves, even if they are not influencing the relationship (yet), then we can begin to address them. If not, you may be surprised when you learn that your actions have been interpreted in these ways, even if it wasn’t your intention.
By if, I should really say when, because they exist in all of us to a lesser or greater degree. Later on in the article I will talk about fixing these issues, but for now, all we need to do is realize they exist and that we have a hand in propagating them.
Can we at least admit we are capable of doing all of these?
Co-Dependent And Addictive Behavior
Relationships are a union of two individuals. Now, admittedly, it isn’t up to me to decide how a couple lives their romantic life, but I am confident that long term relationship health depends not only on curating your union, but also by leading a fulfilling life as an individual.
It’s all to easy to lose sight of our individuality if we sell our own needs off in an effort to make the relationship work.
You’ll notice I said needs not wants.
Wants can be negotiated, but selling off our needs will only doom the relationship, because we can’t function without these core needs no matter how “altruistic” we think we’re being.
A codependent relationship will smother itself until the relationship suffocates because it will lead both partners to shed their own needs in an effort to become a single, indivisible entity. Becoming “one” may seem like the pinnacle of our romantic aspirations, but it is also a psychological impossibility and leads to misery due to alienating ourselves from what makes us tick as individuals.
People grow apart naturally, and long term relationships should account for this by allowing for the individual as well as the partnership to shine.
This is why our ability to find solace outside of the relationship’s walls is tied to the chances of the relationship remaining stable and fulfilling over time.
This means taking space for ourselves, but it also means being willing to give it.
Manipulation And Being Taken For Granted
Do we deserve someone that will treat us with kindness and respect? If so, are we willing offer the same unconditionally?
These questions seem to have obvious answers, but there’s something very wrong with the premise here.
Can you guess what that is?
That’s right, the main problem lies in the idea of unconditional kindness and respect.
These are qualities that should be earned, and not offered unconditionally. To offer anything unconditionally is to open ourselves to potential abuse and manipulation.
We are coached to consider love a selfless act, and self-sacrifice as a virtue. In moderation I would agree, but there comes a point where these “virtues” can become the very things that bring us to our knees if we don’t stand up for ourselves.
It is up to us to refuse to be taken for granted. We cannot control the actions of our partner, but we can refuse to be treated a certain way. This we have control over.
A relationship can become toxic if one partner unconditionally trusts another, and in doing so allows their manipulative partner to calculatingly abuse this trust.
This doesn’t mean that we should mistrust our partners as a rule, it just means that if we are presented with evidence that our trust has been abused, we shouldn’t suspend our ability to think objectively in favor of some mythical karmic principle.
Violence And Abuse
Abuse and relationship violence are forms of toxic behavior that cannot and should not be negotiated with. We’re talking:
- Physical violence.
- Threats of violence or retaliation.
- Financial abuse.
- Sexual abuse.
- Stalking or cyberstalking.
- Verbal abuse.
They are red flags that should prompt you to immediately seek space and sanctuary.
Addressing domestic abuse is beyond the scope of this article and I am unqualified to offer you the help you need. If you are stuck in a situation you suspect qualifies as abuse, please read this article instead for guidance.
Fixing Toxic Relationships
At this point we should understand that insecurity and fear exist even in the most loving of relationships. They exist as the natural byproduct of being a human being with both rational and irrational needs.
So, what do we do about it?
Even if we have no intention of projecting insecurity, much of what we say is going to be interpreted rather than taken at face value. Because caring deeply will always make spaghetti out of our objectvity.
In a sense then, we actually have two sets of insecurity filters to bypass now, ours and our partners’.
Thankfully the remedy is simpler than that last paragraph makes it sound.
Firstly, if we are trying to enact change, we should limit ourselves to telling our partner how we feel rather than loading the message with judgment.
Why would you turn the boiler off?
A judgmental accusation is a loaded gun, because you are doing more than reprimanding your partner. In this case you are also suggesting that their intent was to turn it off to spite you.
Could you please remember to turn on the boiler next time?
Alright, so it still rings a little sarcastically, my apologies, but that’s because my example isn’t very sophisticated. My point is that now that we’ve stripped intention from the message, and limited ourselves to communicating what we want to see happen, we are less likely to trigger a defensive response.
You might risk annoying your partner, but at least the ensuing argument will be about the misuse of the boiler, and not your spiteful use of sarcasm.
Effective communication is a helpful tool when communicating change. Skip the middleman (our emotions), tell your partner what change you’d like to see and let them deal with it on their own terms.
Erecting Relationship Boundaries
As mentioned earlier on in the article, we can’t control our partner’s actions. But we can enforce a basic minimum standard by having healthy personal boundaries. All it takes is the will to erect these defensive walls and keep them in place.
Overcoming conflict avoidance is the root obstacle here because we mistakenly believe that any form of conflict threatens the fragility of the relationship. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If anything, it is avoidance that leads to the kind of silent growing apart that dooms a relationship.
There’s nothing wrong with tackling aspects of the relationship that need to change head-on. If you think about, due to the emotions involved, it would be a little weird if there wasn’t any friction.
Personal boundaries are the non-negotiable aspects of your life. Decide what your core needs are, communicate them to your partner (effectively) and reap the benefits of a relationship that is compatible with your way of life. This obviously goes for your partner as well.
Sometimes our core needs are incompatible with those of our partner. This too is an uncomfortable reality that needs to be addressed, but remember that the alternative is long-lasting misery, as you both leave it to fate to make the relationship work.
Hint: Fate doesn’t care and time alone won’t magically make things work.
Nurturing Our Individuality
Not every solution requires prodding the relationship with our metaphorical microscope. In fact, obsessing over every aspect of our romantic lives leads to overanalysis and anxiety because our entire lives now revolve “solving this problem”.
Fixing a toxic relationship can be attempted indirectly by nurturing other aspects of lives that might have fallen to the wayside. This means:
- Tapping into/expanding our social networks.
- Improving our career outlook.
- Picking up a new hobby.
- Going to the gym or going on a diet.
The happier we are outside of the relationship, the more of this contentment we bring into it. The reverse is also true. No relationship will survive in the long term if your routine is unsustainable, no matter how much you love each other.
Learning How To Say No
Early on my journey I found developing the ability to say no expanded my ability to say yes and really mean it. My early attempts at saying no were often far from graceful but with practice even my no came from a place of love. Love yourself enough to be able to say yes or no.Susan Gregg
It isn’t solely about serving ourselves, even though just between us I am absolutely advocating putting your needs first. It is also that we don’t serve the relationship by allowing our needs to be trampled on. Your union won’t last if its survival hinges on you being miserable.
Learning to say no means protecting your needs, but it also means protecting the relationship by channeling the future down a path that at least your partner now knows works for you. Once they know what you want, knowing what they are willing to negotiate or compromise makes decision-making that much easier.
This is what leading by example in relationships leads to; growing apart, together.
Healing From A Toxic Relationship
Confronting the toxic aspects of our relationships isn’t always going to result in victory. If our core needs substantially differ from those of our partner then no matter what we do, it’s going to fall apart.
It is also true that we can’t count on our partners supporting our drive to rebalance our needs with theirs and put our fulfillment at the forefront of our lives for a change.
Weak or insecure individuals tend to resent those who break free of their need to control and manipulate. But at least from an objective standpoint, we are now free of these mind games. At least now we are free to pursue a life that fundamentally respects our needs and a partner who appreciates our efforts to maintain clarity in the relationship.
Perhaps the greatest realization we have to make before we begin to fix a toxic relationship is that we need to be willing to fail. If we are, then nothing about what we are about to do should scare us as much as living one more day in the kind of environment we are currently toiling in. If we are willing to fail then things can only get better, because the alternative is being freed from it.