I’ve been in my relationship for over 2 years. We started out great. He was attentive, sweet, caring and I felt on top of the world with him. However, looking back I can see that after 3 months, the relationship dynamic started to change and I started to change. He started to put me down, get cold emotionally or get really angry from time to time… It wasn’t over-the-top or out of the ordinary and I would just let it go since I just wanted the relationship to fall back into harmony.
Now, after 2 years into the relationship, I’m starting to question if I’m in a toxic relationship. I have felt for a long time that I have to walk on eggshells around him… I’m afraid to say or do the wrong thing around him because I never know what will trigger his anger or harsh criticism.
On the other hand, though, when things are good, they’re really good. Our sexual chemistry is amazing, I have never connected with a man the way I connect with him and when he’s happy with me I feel like I’m on top of the world. I still love him very much and despite the negative ways he acts sometimes, I believe he loves me very much too. He’s always been faithful to me, he pays all my bills and we live together now.
I feel so conflicted: Am I in a toxic relationship? Are toxic relationships repairable? Is what I’m experiencing normal in a relationship from time to time?
Toxic relationships are tricky because they’re never clear, black-and-white cases of things being “bad”. You wouldn’t be internally conflicted if there wasn’t a mixture of good and bad in your current relationship.
In this article, I’m going to talk about whether or not you’re in a toxic relationship, how people end up in toxic relationships in the first place, and then how to fix a toxic relationship.
“Am I in a toxic relationship?”
Toxic relationships have a certain tone and dynamic that separate them from a healthy relationship that’s just going through tough times
Let’s go through a quick checklist:
- Do you feel like he has power over you, your life and your decision-making?
- Do you swallow your actual feelings in order to keep the peace in your relationship?
- Is he extremely jealous? To the point where it seems like someone else’s success or happiness somehow takes away from his own happiness? (It’s crazy some people see jealousy as romantic)
- How do you feel about yourself in your life and in your relationship? Do you feel bad about yourself when you’re around your partner? Do you feel bad about yourself and your life in general while you’re in this relationship?
- Do you feel like “your soul has been sucked out of you”? Like you’ve been drained of life?
When/if you express your true thoughts clearly to your partner, do you fear he’ll interpret your communication as an attack, and you’ll have to brace yourself for ongoing “emotional blackmail” or some other form of retaliation?
- Does he blame you for his own negative emotions/moods (which then causes you to walk on eggshells and doubt doing anything because he might be upset)?
Instead of doing things for him out of love and enjoyment in your relationship, do feel like you do things for him out of fear and obligation? (You can ask yourself, “If I stop doing this in the relationship, what will happen?”)
If you found yourself answering “yes” to most of the questions above, that’s a strong sign you are in what some would label a toxic relationship.
Now, a few things to keep in mind:
First, toxic relationships are not limited to romantic relationships… a person could have a toxic relationship with a friend, co-worker or even a family member.
Second, toxic relationships are not limited to women. It’s just as common for a man to be on the receiving end of a toxic relationship as it is a woman. Isn’t about gender, it’s about an unhealthy dynamic that two people are participating in.
Here’s what it feels like to have a toxic relationship with someone (remember, this can apply to any kind of relationship, including friendships, family members, co-workers, etc):
- They regularly put you down with negative labels and speak to you from a place of assumed superiority and condescension to you. Examples: “You’re pretty clumsy”, “Only a complete moron would say that”, “You’re really stupid… wow…” (it doesn’t come off as funny or joking around… it comes off as condemning and shaming.)
- They interpret things you say as an attack on them, even if what you’re saying is neutral, positive or has nothing to do with them whatsoever… moreover, because they are responding to you as if you’re attacking them, they reaction to you is to either put you down, threaten you or try to intimidate you in some way.
- They are regularly upset by you and harbor resentment for you… then, based on their feelings of resentment, feel justified to attack you, criticize you or put you down to “get you back” for making them feel the way they feel.
- You bring up a concern and they emotionally explode on you.
- When arguing with you, they pile on by saying that other people agree with them and that your viewpoint is “wrong” or “bad”.
- They diminish things you say, enjoy or have in your life. They put down everything you like: your friends, your tastes, your preferences, the things you enjoy doing, your views, your accomplishments, your contributions… to the point where you don’t want to share anything that you are happy about with them because you know they’ll find a way to diminish it and try to make you feel bad about it.
- You want to avoid conflict, but somehow you consistently end up in conflict with them.
- You want to be “good enough” for them to approve of you, but no matter how much you try to accommodate what they say they want, you never measure up… you always feel like they see you in a negative light and not “good enough” for them.
- You consistently notice that if you’re happy or excited about something, you always feel like crap after bringing it up with them.
- Overall, you feel like you’re walking on eggshells with them and that a potential conflict is always just around the corner, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.
- You do things for them more to avoid conflict with them than out of genuine desire, generosity and enjoyment.
- You feel like crap about yourself in the relationship with them. You feel drained by the relationship and being away from them is a relief in many ways.
OK, so that’s enough of a list of how it feels to be in a toxic relationship with someone.
(If you read this list and feel like you might be in a toxic relationship, I highly encourage you to take this toxic relationship quiz right now. The link will open the quiz in a new window and you can come back to the article in a bit.)
When you read it on a page, though, it’s hard not to ask, “Why would anyone ever want to be in a relationship like this? And if someone is in one, why in the world would they stay in it if it’s so clearly bad?”
Good question, and a very important thing to be clear on if you’re in a toxic relationship…
What leads to (and keeps you trapped in) a toxic relationship?
The three main factors that lead people deeper and deeper into a toxic relationship are fear, comfort and what I call “the emotional roller coaster” effect.
Fear of Loss
See, toxic relationships don’t start out toxic… they gradually become toxic over time.
Let’s say a woman has a particular type of guy she’s wanted for a long time and then she gets into a relationship with a guy who fits that quality or description. Maybe she wanted a rich guy or a really masculine guy or a handsome guy or a smart, successful guy or an artistic guy or a popular guy or whatever.
She gets into a relationship with this guy and she says, “Great, this is the type of guy I wanted and now I have him.” So on some level, she feels she has something of value just by virtue of having (or potentially having) a relationship with this type of guy that she values instead of solely evaluating the relationship on how it feels in the moment to moment interaction with the guy when they’re together.
So things start out and she’s delighted to be with this guy that has the quality (or multiple qualities) she wanted… she’s thrilled to be with him and the relationship is good.
Then, at some point, the mood shifts from good to unpleasant. Most of the time it is some conflict or harsh criticism from your partner that you didn’t provoke or even think could be interpreted negatively in the first place.
In your mind, you’re thinking, “Things were so good… there’s no problem here… this is just a misunderstanding.”
So you try your best to defuse the situation and get off of it. Things go back to good for the most part… but then, more and more, you notice that the conflicts keep coming up (without provocation on your part) and more and more their comments to you are peppered with insults, put downs or diminishments of things you value or enjoy.
Here’s the key: You feel that maintaining a relationship with this person represents something of value beyond just the quality of time you spend together and you don’t want to lose it. You have a fear of loss… you feel that if you lost your relationship with them, you would lose something important beyond simply just not seeing them or speaking to them anymore.
Now this could be something as superficial as “he’s the type of guy I’ve always wanted” to something substantial like “he’s the father of my children” or “this is a member of my family” or “he’s my co-worker” or “he’s my business partner”. (Note: I’m using the word “he” to represent the person you have a toxic relationship, but it could just as easily be a “she”.)
The bottom line is that there’s a factor at play here that you’re afraid to lose.
When I talk about “comfort”, I don’t mean that this is someone you feel comfortable with. Your relationship with this person might be making your life a living nightmare at the moment…
By comfort, I mean that it is the life you’ve grown accustomed to and, while you’re not happy with this relationship, you feel that your life might be even worse than it is now if you rock the boat. So instead of making a bold move to improve the situation (including ending the relationship outright), you do your best to tolerate it, to deal with it or to ignore it.
The Emotional Roller Coaster Effect
Now, this is something I’ve written about and I don’t believe anyone had talked about it before I had brought it up in the email newsletter series I wrote on “The Inner World of Men”.
The emotional roller coaster effect is one of the most confusing factors in a toxic relationship because it gives the illusion that your love, passion and connection with this person is something profoundly good during the good times.
The reality is, toxic relationships have a way of gradually lowering your mood and self-esteem to the point where you don’t remember what it feels like to feel good anymore.
I’ll give you a metaphor…
Let’s say you get a pair of shoes that you love wearing, but they are excruciatingly painful to wear. You wear them all day, then finally when you get home, you get to take them off…
And the moment you slip them off your feet, you feel a tremendous sense of relief wash over you… you are in absolute ecstasy, basking in the overwhelming relief of being free from the horrible discomfort of your tight, uncomfortable shoes…
Now, logically you know that the shoes didn’t give you pleasure. Quite the opposite, actually. So when you removed the shoes, it wasn’t that you were getting a positive experience, but instead were removing a negative experience. Even still, the feeling you received was immense pleasure.
This kind of thing happens in a toxic relationship, but is far less obvious…
Your interactions with the “toxic partner” bring your mood and self-esteem lower and lower… but then, one day, the toxic person is pleasant to deal with or you have a good time together…
Suddenly, not only do you feel the pleasant feelings associated with the experience (as you would with anyone else), but you feel a tremendous rush of relief combined with those positive feelings.
If you’re not aware of the emotional roller coaster effect and the tricks it can play on your mind, you’ll simply feel as though the “good times” with the toxic partner are way more intense than with the other people in your life.
It’s an illusion, though. You aren’t feeling this massive positive emotional spike because your time with the toxic partner is so good… you feel the high emotional contrast because your toxic relationship has you feeling so bad most of the time that even just rising to the level of a neutral emotional state feels like euphoria by comparison.
Humans tend to evaluate their relationships in terms of emotional contrast. So if they’re with a person and they happen to feel tremendously better than they were feeling before, they tend to give that person the positive credit (even in cases where that other person was the source of their highly negative mood in the first place).
If you’re in a toxic relationship right now, it is extremely important that you understand how powerful the emotional roller coaster effect is… if you don’t, you are highly likely to repeat the cycle and have another toxic relationship again even if you end this one.
Reason being, instead of seeing the illusion for what it is, you interpret the toxic relationship as being “passionate” and deeply “emotionally moving”, when in fact your positive experiences were created merely by combining intense relief (which feels like intense pleasure to the brain) and a few positive, but normal, experiences.
The most important thing to see here is exactly how a certain dynamic can create the trap that keeps you trapped in a toxic relationship and while something that causes suffering can be perceived as “good”. Disentangling the truly “good” from the illusion of “good” is essential.
So what can you do to fix a toxic relationship?
I have a lot to say about this, but this is already a rather weighty article as it is, so I decided to break it into two parts.
This article focused on signs that you might be in a toxic relationship and how to see the dynamic at play. The purpose of this article was to help provide clarity to you because when you’re swimming through the emotional drama of a toxic dynamic, it can be very hard to gain clarity and perspective underneath the suffering those emotions can cause you.
Before I give you the link to the next part of this article, which is How To Fix a Toxic Relationship, I want to make it clear that this article was not written to paint one person as “right” and the other person as “wrong”… or “good” or “bad”…
Relationships involve two people and the dynamic of the relationship itself is what determines if it is toxic or not. Currently, our society is obsessed with finding a person to blame or view as an enemy, but from that perspective no resolution is possible. The only way to improve a relationship is to improve the dynamic itself without making either person into an enemy or wrongdoer.
Sometimes relationships can be improved and sometimes it is essential for one person to leave the relationship or at least limit their exposure to the other person. It depends on what is at play in the dynamic and whether or not both people are willing to drop what isn’t working and adopt a dynamic that will improve and heal the relationship.
We’ll go into exactly what this looks like (and a specific action plan) in the next part of this article:
Follow this link to read Part 2: How to fix a toxic relationship
Hope it helps,