Does your relationship add to or detract from your overall happiness and self-esteem? We share some of the warning signs of toxic partnerships, and how to get out – safely – if you’ve realised that your relationship is causing you more harm than good.
If we were to reflect for a moment on the health of our relationships – intimate partners, parents, siblings and other relatives, friends, colleagues, employers – we would no doubt identify a few that are not as healthy as they could be, some we have outgrown, and maybe one in particular that seems to have a consistent and negative impact on us.
In recent years, many psychological buzzwords have entered our thinking – and the word ‘toxic’ is one of them.
What is a toxic relationship?
As our society has become more interested in psychological thought, terms such as toxic relationships, gaslighting and narcissism have entered common language. Books, magazine articles and online sources abound on these topics.
These concepts have helped us to become aware of relationship patterns that leave us feeling hurt or suffering. It can be quite a revelation when we awaken to how a relationship is not working for us and, in fact, is having a negative impact on our mental health.
If we find ourselves losing our self-esteem, voice and value in a relationship, we are definitely in ‘toxic’ territory.
Toxic relationships include those that are violent, abusive, and involve gaslighting and coercive control, but here we’ll focus on the kind of relationships that leave us unhappy, drained and feeling bad about ourselves in more subtle ways.
How to identify a toxic relationship
Some of the following signs could be indicators of a toxic relationship:
- Persistent unhappiness – feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety and resignation
- Lack of respect and constant conflict
- Competitiveness and jealousy
- Financial and social control
- Raising concerns and having them minimised, or dismissed
- One person having to sacrifice their needs to keep the other happy
When these elements are more deeply and pervasively eroding our feelings about ourselves and the relationship over time, they can’t be written off as a bad period or one-off fight.
How do relationships turn toxic?
A relationship can start off as seemingly healthy but end up becoming toxic over time.
In some cases, one partner is more committed to pleasing the other and works hard to meet their partner’s needs while sacrificing their own. They continue in the belief that their partner loves them and wants the best for them. But instead, their partner has become controlling, withholds love, and uses criticism to undermine their confidence.
The partner who wants to please has endured the situation for so long that they can be blind to how the power balance of the relationship has become uneven.
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What to do when you realise your relationship is toxic
It can be a shock to realise that you have been living in an emotionally abusive relationship with a manipulative and controlling significant other who really doesn’t care enough about you and has undermined your belief in yourself.
Once you realise your relationship is going through more than just a rough patch, you may be confronted with many uncomfortable, distressing and even frightening considerations about whether to stay or go.
If it feels like you’re in a toxic relationship, here’s our advice on what steps to take next:
- Reach out to friends or family who can listen and support you without judgment. Some may have been trying to tell you that you’re not being treated well, and it’s worth listening to their perspective.
- Be honest with yourself. What will it really take for the situation to change? Acknowledge to yourself if you have done all you can realistically do to try and improve things.
- Reflect on your levels of happiness and self-confidence now, as compared to an earlier version of yourself. Has your confidence grown, or diminished?
- Start developing healthy boundaries that convey to others that you expect to be treated well.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. It is understandable to hold on to hope about how good things used to be, or to be afraid of being alone, or to fear no one else will love you. Take it one step at a time.
- Focus on yourself. By continuing to blame your partner, you are giving them all the power and robbing yourself of the energy you need to move forward.
- Take stock. To move forward, it’s important to try and understand how you got into a position where you gave up your control. Then, take the time you need to strengthen yourself to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
How to help others who might be in a toxic relationship
- Listen and let them know you believe in them, and care about them.
- Reassure them they are not crazy, selfish, or any of the negative things that they may have been told.
- Take care that your efforts to help don’t become toxic too – avoid taking over or being critical.
- Give them your perspective on their partner’s poor behaviour gently, and with as much neutrality as possible.
- Watch how much they can take in and stop when it seems too much.
- Give them room and time to find their own way.
- Offer suggestions for external help they can access, if they choose to do so.
Moving away from a toxic relationship will take work
Deciding where to put your energy, what realistic hope you have for change and the workability of the situation need some objective consideration. It becomes more complicated when children and financial dependence are involved.
If you’re stuck in your thinking or fearful about change, getting external help from a professional can be invaluable for finding a way forwards. Seeing a qualified couples’ therapist together could help you both to look at change – if both of you have an investment in staying together. It can also be of value to see a professional alone, to find your own feet in preparation for the discussions ahead.