David had been with Suzanne for so long that he forgot what it felt like to just feel good, or even okay, on a daily basis. He was in a toxic relationship but did not realize it. It was affecting his mental and emotional well-being. But he loved Suzanne – how could she be toxic? He had forgotten something: that healthy relationships make you feel essentially good – happy and energized. Sure, even good relationships have their ups and downs, but they are not toxic. Toxic relationships regularly make you feel drained, depressed, and hopeless.
How do you know if you are in a toxic relationship or if you are just in a “rough patch” in an essentially healthy relationship? Stress, exhaustion, anxiety or worry and other life factors can put a strain on even the best relationships. But a healthy relationship will rally because the partners in it will feel essentially supported, cared for, and validated.
A truly toxic relationship will have one or more of the following characteristics on a regular basis:
You feel drained. You feel utterly sapped by the relationship, and rarely (or never) filled up by it, sustained by it, or nourished by it. Life can drain us – a hard day at work, a sick parent, a child in trouble. But when life gets us down, we want a relationship that can help us cope – not make things worse.
You feel bad about yourself. If interactions with your partner actually make you feel worse about yourself, not better – there is a problem. Is your partner overly critical or judgmental? Do you feel passively or actively belittled? These are signs of toxicity.
Everything is about your partner. Relationships with narcissists are almost always toxic. The fact that all roads – emotions, desires, expectations – lead to him or her, is a situation destined to be unsettling (at best) or toxic (at worst).
You can’t be yourself. Do you feel like you can be yourself, warts and all? Can you be ridiculous, needy, angry, messy, compulsive – aka YOU – without fear? Or are you walking on eggshells most of the time because you are not sure what version of you will be acceptable?
The two of you don’t share the same values. If you and your partner are working at cross purposes, things can get pretty uncomfortable. For example, if your desire for frugality clashes with his desire to “live in the moment” no matter the cost, and there is no compromise possible, this is a recipe for toxicity.
You disappoint one another. If you find you are constantly disappointed in your partner’s behavior or comments, and can’t shake the feeling that you are being let down on a regular basis, that is not a happy place to be. Or do you feel that your partner is disappointed in you? That no matter what you say or do, he or she feels dissatisfied or disillusioned… This recipe won’t work for the long haul without some serious tweaks.
There is no safety. If you feel unsafe around your partner – red flag. And I don’t just mean physically. Even if you know “he’d never lay a hand on you” or “she’s never gotten violent,” that doesn’t mean you are safe. If you are fearful – of anything (outbursts, accusations, flying emotional shrapnel) – you are not safe.
There is no balanced give and take. Do you do all the heavy lifting? Are you always or most of the time the one to compromise, offer solutions, reach out with a nurturing hug, or back down from ugly arguments? Do you, in fact, do almost everything to make the relationship work, from cleaning the house to paying the bills? If your relationship is chronically imbalanced, chances are it is toxic.
You are overwhelmed. There are many situations that comprise toxicity in a relationship. If you feel the drama in your relationship is like a tidal wave and you have to expend all your energy just to stay upright, you are going to get worn out. The kinds of things that can create that feeling include constant criticism, demeaning or insulting commentary, demanding or controlling behavior, overwhelming negativity, chronic jealousy, or general emotional chaos.
Though in this blog we focus on romantic relationships, any relationship can be toxic – between friends, a parent and child, or co-workers, for example. It is rarely apparent in the early stages of a relationship that it will become toxic. The positive chemicals that flood our systems in the first days or months of a romantic relationship, for example, keep us in denial even if we do see early signs. Whatever the reasons for two people to get stuck in a toxic spiral, things don’t get serious until the relationship gets serious.
If you suspect you are in a toxic relationship but are afraid to talk about it with your partner…chances are you are in a toxic relationship. Fear of confrontation is a giant red flag. In a healthy relationship, you can talk about anything without fear of reprisal or judgment. If your friends or family have made observations about your relationship being unhealthy that you have vehemently denied, it may be that they are all clueless idiots, or it may be that you are in denial. Take a step back…
What can you do? Yes, you can change a toxic relationship. You can also end it – hard as that sounds, it can be done if change is not possible. You need to take action as chronic exposure to the daily poison of an unhealthy relationship can make you physically ill. This needs to be taken seriously.
To change or end a toxic relationship requires self-reflection, inner work, healing, loving yourself more, setting firm boundaries, and speaking up for yourself.
Step one. Acknowledge it is a toxic relationship.
Step two. Know that you deserve to be treated with respect, love, and consideration.
Step three. Work on changing the relationship.
- Know your boundaries. Be true to them.
- Speak your truth. Be kind, and use “I” statements. “I feel upset/inadequate when you criticize me, and I’m asking you to stop. Are you willing to do that?” or “Please don’t talk to me in that way. If you continue I will spend my time elsewhere.”
- Be calm and don’t engage. If you allow yourself to be caught up in an argument, you are giving away your power and energy.
- Separate yourself from the toxic source. By creating distance, it does not mean the relationship is over. It means you are taking care of you while the relationship evolves to a better place – a safer place for both of you.
- If step three does not work, move on to… Step four. End the relationship.
Whether you are able to change the relationship for the better, or you have to end it, it is important that you take time to process. Ask yourself, “What kept me in that relationship? What did I get out of it?” You may have felt comfortable because it was familiar, which means you could be repeating patterns from past relationships. Don’t beat yourself up for that. It is very common and takes conscious work to break the cycle. Ask yourself what your attachment wounds are. Perhaps they are at the root of why you stuck it out as long as you did in a damaging relationship. Acknowledging those wounds, honoring them, and healing them will take some time but it will be worth it to help you avoid attracting toxic relationships in the future.
If you stay in the relationship in order to heal it, seek counseling. Figure out together what brought you both to that toxic place. But if you end the relationship, don’t spend a moment trying to figure out what made your partner tick. That is irrelevant at this point. Focus on you: Love yourself more. Forgive yourself for your contribution to the relationship. Do things for yourself that bring you peace.