What is a Toxic Relationship?
A toxic relationship is one where one of the people in it is held back and unable to behave and express themselves as they truly are. Consequently, they can’t flourish and grow, realise their potential, or live a free and fulfilling life.
You can be in a toxic relationship without realising it. It may not necessarily be unfixable, so being aware of the warning signs can help you make choices about how the relationship progresses (or not).
Healthy relationships help build your self-esteem and emotional energy, a toxic relationship does the opposite. It is marked by behaviour that is emotionally or sometimes physically damaging. It drains your energy, hurts your self-esteem, and leaves you doubting yourself.
This read will help you find out if you are caught in a toxic relationship with a friend, partner, or colleague.
Parveen always puts others first. She is kind and generous, and always ready to defend those who make demands on her. She excuses her mother’s constant criticisms, visits her daily on the way to or from work, and does her shopping. Parveen’s husband’s job means that he is often out of the house and too tired to help her when he’s at home. He makes negative comments about her at home and belittles her in public. If she protested he’d say she had no sense of humour, so she stopped defending herself. She no longer feels in charge of her life, but has accepted that things probably won’t change.
At first, Hartley loved his job. When he started, his co-worker Coleen acted as his guide and mentor. She was friendly and supportive and soon he had his own accounts to manage. From that point on Coleen seemed to want to undermine him any way she could. While outwardly friendly, she is critical of how he relates to his customers and spreads rumours to discredit him. They need to work together, and Coleen’s negative behaviour is subtle so it’s hard for Hartley to know how to tackle it. He feels isolated and is losing confidence in his decisions.
What these two examples have in common is that they are both feature people in toxic relationships. In Parveen’s case, she is allowing two separate relationships to batter her self-esteem. One of the main reasons why this is so damaging is that people caught this way are slow to accept the reality of their situation. By the time they understand that they are trapped in a power struggle, or that they are the victim of manipulation, exploitation, emotional blackmail, or coercion, it is hard to break the pattern.
The way to avoid this is to set clear boundaries, to protect your dignity, and to be open from the start about what you will and will not tolerate in the relationship. Unfortunately, the ‘toxic’ person in the relationship has been perfecting their manipulative behaviour for a long time so they’re pretty good at it!
In fairness, many such people are unaware of the damage they are doing, they are simply trying to stay in control. It’s their way of coping with life and they have never learned a better way. Trying to change them is unlikely to work (do you like it when others try and change you?), so your best bet is to face the facts, re-boot your self-esteem, and focus on making your life the way you want it to be.
The chances are the ‘new you’ will have no time for anyone who doesn’t respect your dignity. There is a slim chance that, as you grow stronger and more confident, the other person will change their behaviour and begin to treat you more respectfully, but don’t hold your breath!
What goes wrong?
A relationship may start healthily. The cracks only begin to appear when the ‘honeymoon’ period ends. The changes can be subtle at first, but over time a pattern of toxic behaviour is established. It may not be all bad. One of the dangerous aspects is that unpleasantness can be punctuated with uplifting moments of sweetness and compliance, but the trend is towards one person’s attempts to diminish and demoralise the other.
This may be through emotional manipulation, controlling behaviour, extreme dependency, fear, abuse of power or even coercion. What distinguishes it is the long-term, debilitating effect on one of the partners.
Ups and downs
All relationships have ups and downs. In healthy relationships, there is a sense of equality, balance and mutual respect. This means they can recover from conflict and other tensions, to self-correct, and even grow stronger through effective communication. By contrast, a toxic relationship has none of these, and it stifles personal growth and freedoms.
Don’t blame or justify
If you are caught up in a toxic relationship you may be tempted to blame the other person for your unhappiness or hardship. This is natural but fruitless. Though blaming can help you feel better for a moment, it also disempowers you. It might provide a target for your resentment, but it won’t fix the problem, which is our acceptance of the relationship.
Alternatively, you may be tempted to justify staying in the relationship. You know something is wrong, but you feel unable to leave, and will often justify your continued presence with excuses like “He’s not that bad really”; “It’ll all work out in the end”; “Deep down, I know she’s a good person and doesn’t mean to hurt me”; “If I work harder I can change them”… etc.
Blame and justification are convenient but over time they just make you frustrated and bitter. Worse, both tend to make you feel helpless. You become a victim and set yourself up to be mistreated and manipulated.
If you have identified that you are in a toxic relationship then the harsh reality is that the only way to change it is to change yourself. Trying to change the other person by tackling them head-on won’t work. By contrast, as you change yourself and build your confidence, they’ll find that they must earn your respect and that, if the relationship is to continue, it must be on your terms.
Check your boundaries
Setting boundaries is important for mental and emotional wellbeing. They also help to protect one’s identity. Personal boundaries are the limits we set around ourselves. They are the ‘rules’ we set within relationships, concerning the emotional and psychological ‘distance’ we expect others to respect in their dealings with us. Keeping boundaries intact means that we are less likely to feel intruded upon or manipulated by others. In a toxic relationship, it can happen that one or both people are not clear about personal boundaries.
Towards a healthy relationship?
A healthy relationship allows the people in it to grow and flourish. In the best examples, the people interact in such a way that each draws out the best in the other. Signs of a healthy relationship are mutual respect, empathy, effective communication, and, where appropriate, love.
No relationship is perfect, and pockets of imperfection need to be worked through. Even in a respectful relationship, this can be difficult but that doesn’t qualify it as toxic. Most of us can manipulate or pressurise others at times, or play the victim, use threats, or act disrespectfully. A relationship is toxic when unhealthy behaviour becomes the norm, not when it happens occasionally.
The path out of a toxic relationship may not be an easy one. If you can’t manage alone, get the support of a coach or counsellor. The first step is to recognise it for what it is and to understand that, if you want to detox your relationship, you must be willing to leave it if nothing changes.
As long as you need the relationship more than you value yourself, your power will be limited. Engage with people and activities that help to build your self-respect and confidence, and plan for a better future.
Barry Winbolt, Difficult People; a Guide to Handling Difficult Behaviour, ISR Publishing, Seaford, 2017.
Tim Cantopher, Toxic People; Dealing with Dysfunctional Relationships, Sheldon Press, London, 2017.