In this day and age, the word 'toxic' gets thrown around casually over every little thing on the internet, along with words like 'cancelled' or 'next.' It can be easy to say a relationship is toxic, but what does it really mean for it to be so?
Having been in a toxic relationship for years previously, which came to an end in 2017, there are some behaviors and indicators to look for, but the biggest thing is to notice is ultimately how the relationship makes you feel. A toxic relationship is going to leave you feeling insecure, drained, and disrespected on a frequent basis. You may also feel unsupported, unheard, or controlled. Over time this type of relationship can impact your self-esteem and your growth, slowly killing your confidence and motivation from the inside.
It's important to know the distinction from an abusive relationship, because while an abusive relationship is almost always toxic, a toxic relationship isn't always abusive. Abuse, whether it is financial, sexual, emotional, or physical, typically boils down to exerting control over another human's existence. It's a strong word and should not be taken lightly, although toxic relationships certainly can cause their fair share of trauma and psychological damage. To further the clarification, you can consider that toxic relationships are found not just in romantic partnerships, but in friendships, families, and even work environments. Your boss who is always demeaning you and making fun of you would be considered toxic, but not abusive. That friend who is always trying to outdo you while making you feel bad about yourself would be considered toxic, but not abusive. However, toxicity should also not be taken lightly and can lead to abuse if allowed to continue.
Before getting into some things to look out for on whether or not a relationship is toxic, we should first examine what a healthy relationship should be. Ideally a healthy relationship demonstrates mutual respect and compassion for each other above all. You and your partner share a common interest in each other's growth and happiness, both within the relationship and outside of it. You two make each other feel safe and wanted, and are able to communicate with each other openly and honestly. You are secure in the relationship and in yourself, and together you and your partner trust each other enough to share control in the decision-making for the relationship. You support each other's goals and individuality; you want them to win and you accept them as they are. Ultimately, you have to believe that you deserve to be treated with respect and compassion. Love should never cost you your sense of peace or happiness. If you were raised in a situation where your parents did not teach you to have an understanding of healthy boundaries or a demonstration of green flags in a relationship, this could result in you tolerating less than you deserve, but it can literally happen to anyone as typically people tend to put their best foot forward in the beginning of a relationship and then allow their true colors to shine over time. If you aren’t looking out for red flags as you go, you won’t even realize you’re in a toxic relationship until it’s too late. So here are some things to look out for: Deflection - an inability to take responsibility for one’s own emotions or actions can result in the conversation being derailed and therefore unproductive. If you bring up something that hurts or concerns you and it results in your partner finding a way to turn the tables around on you, blaming you for their actions or bringing up things that you did in order to justify their behavior, you’ve got a deflector on your hands. I once had a partner admit to cheating on me, excusing it by saying “but you were busy with school all the time!” (I was working on a Bachelor’s degree, my guy.. and I was also lonely but still didn’t cheat.) Taking ownership for the things you’ve done shows you have integrity and are willing to acknowledge how you’ve made your partner feel so that you can both grow and work through it. Conversely, not doing so will result in the relationship becoming stagnant and going around in circles. Lack of support - you should feel like your partner has your back. If you express you want to explore a different career path, or you just got a promotion, it shouldn’t feel like your partner is being negative or not celebrating you. A healthy partner wants the best for you and wants you to do what makes you the happiest, and they won’t want you to stay in situations that are making you miserable. Using leverage (subtle manipulation) - I like to call this “control lite.” You don’t realize it’s controlling behavior because it’s so subtle, but ultimately this behavior or dialogue results in a degree of loss in your freedom of speech or action. For example, your partner making you feel guilty so you do or don’t do something, instead of conveying how they really feel about it. Or, “well you did this so now I’m going to do this in return.” Two wrongs do not make a right, and your relationship is not a scorecard. It should never be about getting back at someone that hurt you. Pay special attention for the person to make supportive comments, but then go back and say or do little things in order to make you regret it (for example, saying they’re happy about you accepting a better job but then complaining about how much the kids will miss you and how much more work it will be.) A loss of your other relationships - a significant red flag is when your family or friends express discomfort about the relationship. A toxic partner may try to isolate you and drive wedges between you and your relationships so that you end up being more dependent on them and don’t have anyone else pointing out their behaviors. If your partner is constantly putting down people who just want the best for you, or your friends and family choose to take a step back from you because of your partner, this is cause for concern. Belittling and gaslighting - these are tactics to decrease your self-esteem and make you feel like you’re wrong for questioning them. This partner may make fun of you constantly or call you names, or bring up hurtful things, but then say that they’re just joking and you’re being too sensitive when confronted about it. They will try to make you feel like you’re overreacting while chipping away at your self-worth. You will ultimately end up questioning your own reality and perception, giving into their version of things just to end the argument. The term ‘gaslighting’ comes from a 1938 play known as Gas Light, in which a husband slowly convinces his wife that she is insane by dimming their gas-powered lights and denying that he dimmed it.
Intimidation - this is a classic behavior of a toxic partner, and typically you will feel like you are walking on eggshells around them so as not to upset them. They usually have an unpredictable temper, and you’ll never know what sets them off. Before you know it, they’re yelling and getting aggressive, and you end up backing off from the conversation just to end the behavior. They will almost always blame their temper and outbursts on you, so that you become conflict-avoidant and keep issues to yourself in order to keep the peace. The important thing to know about these red flags is that, just because your partner displayed one trait once or twice doesn’t mean they’re a toxic partner. We are all human and sometimes don’t deal with our emotions in the best ways. However, seeing multiple traits multiple times is cause for concern, and if these behaviors become frequent, it’s time to set some boundaries. If both partners are willing to work towards change, it is possible. But if you find your partner apologizing for the same thing over and over again, it may be time to consider leaving the relationship. Ultimately, you must set boundaries that you are willing to uphold, because disregarding them simply reinforces to your partner that their toxicity is acceptable. Initially they may attempt to test these boundaries, and you can either choose to stay calm and stick to your guns or separate from the relationship. Healthy communication and a dedication to respecting and understanding each other can create huge shifts in a positive direction. You may also want to consider bringing in a professional, either through individual or couple’s counseling. Repairing a toxic relationship will take effort, but with consistency, commitment, and compassion, any relationship can be successful. Hold space for one another and be patient as you work through these changes! *Please note that once there is intentional physical violence in a relationship, this crosses the line from toxic to abusive and it is best for the relationship to end. It is unlikely you will be able to shift this behavior without significant help. You do not deserve to live this way, and you are not alone. If you are in need of resources for domestic violence, I have provided a few below. If you are trapped in an abusive situation, you may also reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org requesting to order my reiki-charged lip balm with your ‘shipping’ address in the email. I do not sell reiki-charged lip balm and will immediately pass your information along to the authorities.* National Domestic Violence Hotline - Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 for TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522. DomesticShelters.org - a mobile-friendly, searchable directory that can help you quickly find domestic violence programs and shelters in the United States and Canada. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) - the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline. (800.656.HOPE, online.rainn.org)