Updated: Jul 26
While no two relationships are truly the same, we tend to experience certain patterns between relationships. It is so important to be in a relationship that good for your mental health, so let's look at what relationships may be harmful for it.
I have a small backlog of blog topics that my lovely readers have recommended. This one, and a few others around "toxic" aspects of life, have popped up a few times so I will create a small series of blogs that are linked.
Today's topic is focused around Toxic Relationships (that is, with a romantic partner). The general definition of a toxic relationship is "a relationship characterized by behaviors on the part of the toxic partner that are emotionally and, not infrequently, physically damaging to their partner" (HealthScopeMagazine).
Think about what toxic means to you. To me, I picture a gas or acid that seeps in and poisons the entire environment around it, leaving a path of destruction behind it. It sounds dramatic but if you have come from a toxic relationship you'll find the similarities to be very accurate.
IS/WAS THE RELATIONSHIP REALLY TOXIC?
I want to really make a point of this - because I know the term "toxic relationship" gets thrown around quite a bit. You can be in a relationship that doesn't work out, and it doesn't mean it is/was toxic. You can be hurt in a relationship, but it doesn't necessary mean it is/was toxic.
When we enter into a relationship, we emotionally undress ourselves and leave ourselves completely vulnerable (this either happens over time, or it can happen almost immediately, depending on the individual). We place so much of ourselves in the hands of another and we do our best to trust that they'll hold it carefully, and we hope and wish with all our hearts.
What happens when that person breaks our trust? It hurts, it really fucking hurts.
When we are let down or hurt in a relationship, we need to process it in our own way. We generally overthink each aspect of the relationship and we will come to a conclusion that helps us to deal with whatever happened, which will usually involve blaming ourselves or blaming our partner (or blaming it on one fundamental flaw in that partner). Or perhaps we label the relationship as toxic.
All relationships will contain arguments, it is inevitable. If you are one of those people who look at a relationship where the two people never argue and think it is perfect, think again. We are human beings, and we are not perfect. We make mistakes, we have differences of opinions and that is just FINE, presuming we can be mature enough to communicate and talk things through. Avoiding talking to avoid an argument is a dangerous habit - and is definitely more of a sign of a toxic relationship than an argument here or there.
Overusing the term "toxic" is problematic, as I'll explain later. But I want to focus particularly on the fact that not all mismatched relationships are toxic, sometimes things simply won't work out.
MY PERSONAL EXAMPLE
I spent a few weeks, maybe even months, after one particular break up thinking about it as a toxic relationship (even though it wasn't really the same calibre as part toxic relationships). My self-esteem took a HUGE hit, I felt unattractive, unloved and unworthy. During the relationship, my mental health was getting worse and worse, until eventually I began taking anti-depressants again (after around 2 years of being in my best mental state). In the end, I had fought so hard for the relationship that I was left COMPLETELY drained of life. I kept thinking about how hard I had tried, how much I had tried to change, how selfless I had been and how this person literally did whatever they wanted, with no regard to how it made me feel. I thought of how my mental health had been robbed from me, how the relationship had come in and infected my life, leaving a path of destruction behind it. Toxic right? Well - not entirely.
It hit me, in the months after the end of the relationship, that we just weren't right for each other. It sounds like a cop out, but this is genuinely the reason many relationships failing. The relationship hurt so much because I thought the affection I needed was being purposely withheld from me. I felt that, if I could make this person feel loved, they would eventually do the same for me.
Not everyone can give you exactly what you need, just as you may not be able to give what someone else needs. If you aren't aware of "Love Languages" - this is a game-changer.
I mentally tried to make this person into someone nasty to help me cope, saying that "they knew they were withholding love" and "they knew they were doing the wrong thing but they didn't care for my feelings". During the relationship that person would turn arguments around and pin the root of them back to things that were flaws in me, and I'm sure after the break up they had the same thought process I did. But the reality is that there was nothing wrong with that person, and there is nothing wrong with me. We were just not right for each other.
The hardest part is acknowledging that you can really deeply care or have love for someone, without that relationship being the right one for you. It is even harder because, when the choice is to either stay in an unhappy relationship, or lose someone we have a lot of love for completely - we often choose to stay.
By choosing to stay, we are creating a toxic situation, but it may not be a toxic relationship.
The problem with automatically calling a relationship toxic, when in fact it just wasn't a match, we make ourselves the "victim" and we play to that role. We paint ourselves as someone who is powerless, and this can really set ourselves up for failure in our next relationship. It can be really hard to keep an open mind about why a past relationship failed, but having that epiphany gave me back a lot of what I had lost during the relationship. It enabled me to let go of the hurt I was holding, and actually move on.
SIGNS OF A TOXIC RELATIONSHIP
Now, we can all be unpleasant sometimes, we all experience bad moods and we all have days where we just act like a brat. Being human is hard and we don't always respond to these hardships appropriately. However, when your significant other constantly and consistently invokes feelings of guilt, sadness, nervousness from you, the relationship may be toxic. A toxic person will often use different tools as a means of controlling you and your actions. If any of the below points start occurring "out of nowhere" in a relationship, they may be a sign of any number of mental health issues, while you can ask someone to seek help, you can't force them to get it. Your number one priority should always be yourself and your safety.
* I'll add here, that if you think you are in a toxic relationship, speak to a professional. As I mentioned, each relationship is different and there will be different strategies for leaving and healing from the relationship. I know from experience how difficult it can be leaving a toxic relationship, so extra help is definitely beneficial during this time. *
1. "It is easier to just keep my mouth shut" As I mentioned, occasional disagreements are a normal part of a healthy relationship. When you find that even simple discussions can turn into a full-blown rage fest very easily - this is a sign of toxicity. Even more so when you find yourself opting to avoiding mentioning things from fear of a huge argument.
2. "Arguments are terrifying": Intimidation, threats, physical and emotional violence are not ok ever. If you feel as though your safety is at risk during an argument this is NOT OK and this is certainly not normal or healthy in any way.
(1800RESPECT - National sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling and information referral service, available 24 hours a day, every day of the year.)
3. "No one else sees it": On the above, everyone else sees this person as always lovely, friendly and pleasant to be around but it a completely different story behind closed doors.
4. "I can't handle the guilt": A toxic partner may use your care for them to control you using guilt. They will influence your decision by framing a situation so that they are the victim and making you appear to be the bad guy. This is particularly toxic when you are made to feel guilty for choosing something that is good for your mental health (ie. you are neglecting your own self-care as you are made to feel guilty for having time to yourself).
5. "They put me down and then make me feel stupid for taking it seriously": This is something that often goes unnoticed because it is disguised as "banter". A little playful teasing is all well and good but when you feel as though you are constantly being belittled, especially when the other person picks out things they know you are sensitive or insecure about, this is a bigger issue. Even the smallest comments can weigh heavily on us, even when followed with a "omg I'm just kidding! Relax - you're so uptight!"
6. "They belittle me in front of our friends": No one likes to be put down, or reminded of their insecurities, but those comments can be especially hurtful when spoken out loud in front of company. Again, this is not to be disguised as banter, there is a very obvious line between these two things and if you feel it is being crossed it is important to voice how you are feeling. If the behaviour continues then this may be a sign of much bigger issues.
7. "They hang things over my head": A toxic person may control you by doing something nice for you, then hanging that over your head to influence your decisions over an amount of time. A healthy relationship consists of give and take, you do things for someone because you WANT to, not because you want something from them.
8. "I feel like I'm always under interrogation": Giving 100% of your trust in a relationship can be difficult, especially when you've been hurt before. However, a healthy relationship requires that trust. A lot of people will blow off untrusting/accusing as "they are just a little jealous", but this can be toxic when you feel that every move you make is being watched and treated with suspicious. Living in a constant state of fear or anxiousness, and having to justify every little thing you do is not a healthy way to live.
9. "I do what I want": Have you ever heard this? When you are accused of trying to control someone by trying to make a simple reservation? This type of toxic person is unreliable and impossible to make plans with, they make you feel "lucky" when they agree to a plan you have made and they control you by having everything on their terms. "I'm not sure what he/she wants to do so I won't make plans and just have to keep the weekend free for them". This one is also disguised as fairly innocent, but healthy relationships are reliable, and we all benefit from having a little bit of structure to some degree.
10. "Everything is my fault": This person is a master of deflecting everything so it is actually your fault. More often than not, you are left with your feelings treated as invalid or unimportant, and hell would probably freeze over before you ever heard an "I'm sorry". Some of these types can be so "skilled" at what they're doing, that you may not even notice it happening. Healthy relationships consist of being able to admit when you did the wrong thing, and being able to apologise. They also consist of understanding that both yourself and your partner will make mistakes, and forgiving them for being human.
As you can see, a lot of these behaviours typically boil down to how they can control or influence your ability to make decisions. They need to have the power in the relationship, and they need to feel as though they are in control of you. These are not the only signs of a toxic relationship, but they are things to be wary of.
COPING WITH A TOXIC RELATIONSHIP
The most important thing to remember is that humans are INTRINSICALLY MOTIVATED. That means, every time someone acts in a certain way, that action is sparked by the way THEY are feeling. If someone treats you horribly, this comes from their own negative feelings towards themselves, or the world.
You are not to blame for a toxic relationship, but you are in control of who you give power to.
"Just leave" - it is easier said than done, especially when it comes to toxic relationships. No one really knows your relationship, and as I already mentioned, every relationship is different. You don't need a stranger on the internet to tell you that if one of these points mildly related to your relationship, you should definitely leave now. There are also hundreds of factors that can make it harder to leave a relationship. This is why, if you are struggling with any of the above, it is so important to see someone who can help you with your own specific experience.
What I can say here is that - at the end of the day, there are SO many uncontrollable factors that we face in life. This is inclusive of the weather, traffic, the way people treat us, the things they say, whether or not they are happy.
What we can control is our mindset (to an extent), the way we treat others, the way we respond to others, who/what we give power to, the way we look after our bodies, etc.
When we focus on trying to control what we can't control, or allowing ourselves to become stressed or upset about these things, we dig ourselves into a hole. Our mental health is especially impacted by this and we are left feeling powerless, anxious, and as though nothing we do matters. This is not a way to live.
And if we have learnt anything from this article today, if we are trying to control another person's behaviour, we may have to explore different techniques of control - all of which are listed above and, guess what... that makes US the toxic person.
If, when reading this, you realised that you might be struggling with wanting to control a person's behaviour, whether or not you are currently doing this in a relationship, this may be a sign that you have some self-work to do. Our past experiences can definitely cause us to adapt and harbour some coping mechanisms that aren't actually helpful. We don't need to carry all of our past hurt into the future but it does take work to let go of things, and this is where psychologists and counsellors are GREAT! They can provide you with strategies and help you face those things that you don't want to but NEED TO in order to move forward.
I used to be the type of person who would subconsciously seek out those who "needed fixing", the people who had maybe been left broken or maybe they had just never experienced love, and I made it my job to give them what they needed. I would excuse their behaviour because they'd been hurt before, or they didn't know how to love me back because they were still learning.
It is NOT our job to fix people.
Of course, it might be in your nature to be like this. It is so typical of an empath, but let me tell you that you can be an empath WITH boundaries. It takes work and it is incredibly challenging at times - but it is possible. I will write a blog on this in the future!
When we are left broken by past relationships, it is so important that we do the self-healing, reflection and growth necessary on our own, or we will bring that into the next relationship and continue to cycle of toxicity.
Believe me when I say that you CAN be in a healthy relationship, even if you have been heavily affected by toxic relationships in the past (I am living proof). They do exist, but before you can enter into one you need to do one thing:
Understand that you are worthy of love. Understand that you do not deserve to be put down of belittled. Understand that when someone really loves you, they will want to build you up. Understand that your feelings are valid and are worth discussing. Understand that you, and all aspects of you, are worthy of being respected.
Be with someone who is good for your mental health. Someone who you can grow and move forward with, instead of being stuck in a mentally damaging hamster-wheel. There is so much good in the world to experience, and until your find someone who you can share that happiness with, share it with yourself and with your friends. Being with yourself (not on your own) is far better for your mental health than being in the wrong relationship!
Love & Strength Always,