Most people question, at one point or another, am I in a healthy relationship? Is my partner right for me? Is our fighting normal? Are we really happy together? The answer is unique to the relationship, but one thing is almost always universally true: every couple goes through tough times. Even the best of matches and most compatible of people will have their downfalls. People aren’t perfect, so naturally neither are relationships. However, when the bad starts to outweigh the good and when we start to see real incompatibilities that are hard to reconcile, we may wonder, “Am I in a toxic relationship?” Here are some clues to help you find out if you might be in a toxic relationship and some tips on what you can do about if you are.
What is a Toxic Relationship?
A toxic relationship is often characterized by repeated, mutually destructive modes of relating between a couple. These patterns can involve jealousy, possessiveness, dominance, manipulation, desperation, selfishness or rejection. However, one common theme in a toxic relationship involves the partners’ intense draw toward each other, despite the pain they both cause one another. This is apparent with a couple who have entered into a “Fantasy Bond,” a term developed by psychologist and author Dr. Robert Firestone to describe an illusion of connection created between two people that helps alleviate their individual fears by forging a false sense of connection. A fantasy bond is toxic to a relationship because it replaces real feelings of love and support with a desire to fuse identities and operate as a unit. As the couple relates as a “we” instead of a “you” and “me,” their relationship becomes more about form (based on appearances and roles) than substance (based on genuine feeling and authenticity).
There are specific behaviors that have a toxic effect on relationships:
- Being selfish or demanding, behaving as if you have power over your partner.
- Acting out the role of parent or child, by showing submission or dominance.
- Using emotional coercion or manipulation to get what you want.
- Denying your own or your partner’s separateness or individuality, instead seeking a merged identity.
- Confusing real love with desperation or emotional hunger.
- Refusing to act in kind ways with actions your partner would perceive as loving.
How Do You Wind Up in a Toxic Relationship?
There are three major psychological maneuvers that are toxic to an intimate relationship. All of them work to undermine the possibility of having a loving relationship by repeating negative relationship dynamics from the past. The first maneuver involves selection where a person picks a partner who is wrong from the start. When you do this, you choose someone who reminds you of figures from your past or with whom you can replay scenarios from your developmental years. You may select someone who has similar qualities to family members or other early attachment figures who were misattuned to you, or hurt you or mistreated you. For instance, if you had a parent who was passive and held back emotionally, you might seek out a partner who is more allusive or cold. Conversely, you may choose someone who is the polar opposite, someone who is overbearing with wild mood swings. Either way, you are ignoring the qualities that really matter to you in the present, instead basing your selection on old and destructive relationships. You may then relate to your partner in similar ways you related to childhood figures, thus recreating painful relationships with complicated yet all too familiar outcomes.
When a person selects a partner who is different from early attachment figures, and establishes a close and meaningful relationship, there are other maneuvers that can still turn their loving relationship toxic. The second maneuver is distortion where a person distorts their partner to see him or her as being like a familiar figure from the past. When this is operating, you perceive your partner as having negative traits that are similar to those of people from your early life. In actuality, the very qualities you were drawn to in your partner may begin to challenge your negative views of yourself, forcing you to see yourself or your relationship in a different way, from a positive and compassionate perspective. As a reaction against this, you may distort your partner to fit in with old, familiar patterns from your childhood and respond as you did then.
When the first two maneuvers fail, people often employ the third, provocation where they provoke their partner to treat them like they were treated in their formative relationships. Most likely, you are unaware of ways you try to provoke your partner into treating you as you were treated in your early life. You may act out qualities you don’t like in yourself, such as jealousy, criticalness or aloofness. Oddly, enough you do this to recreate an emotional environment that may be unpleasant but is actually comfortable in its familiarity.
All three of these stages, selection, distortion and provocation, keep people from feeling too vulnerable or invested in another person. Although, people do this unconsciously as a defense from their deeper fears of intimacy, both parties in a couple can start playing out patterns that turn the relationship toxic.
Read about Overcoming Fear of Intimacy
So Why Do You Enter a Toxic Relationship?
Whether someone is driven to be with a person who is bad for them or compelled to push away a person who is good for them, people enter into a toxic relationship in order to repeat patterns from their past that are unpleasant but familiar. Of course, this is a highly unconscious process. People often choose a partner who fits with their defenses and are unaware that their partner’s undesirable traits match up with their own. For example, if you tend to be passive or indecisive, you may be drawn to someone who is dominating and stubborn. A toxic relationship exists when a person fails to recognize the destructive dynamics they’re subconsciously looking to play out with a romantic partner. This not only leads to an imbalance in the relationship, but it often limits an individual’s personal growth.
How Do You Get Out of a Toxic Relationship?
Getting to know one’s self and one’s patterns is key to avoiding a toxic relationship. If you find yourself in a dramatic or complicated relationship, you have to first decipher whether you have chosen someone undesirable for negative reasons from your past or whether you are pushing away someone you really care for, because of your own limitations, fears or defenses. If you identify the negative traits that have attracted you to your partner, you can consciously choose to look for someone different. If you realize that the person you have chosen has a lot of the positive qualities you desire, you can look for ways you are acting out in the relationship and aim to change your part of the dynamic that makes things turn sour. Once you understand yourself, you can clearly trace the paths that lead your relationship to unravel. You can take power over yourself and establish a healthier, more honest and fulfilling relationship.
Read about Seven Qualities of an Ideal Partner