We hear the word “toxic” thrown around quite a bit these days. “I grew up in a toxic household”, or “The atmosphere at work is just plain toxic”, are types of phrases we use when we want to convey a notion that something is not healthy.
But when we say that a relationship is toxic, what do we truly mean by that? Let’s see if we can break down what makes a relationship toxic.
Toxic relationships don’t always start out that way
Some relationships are clearly toxic from the start.
You’ve fallen for a married man. Or you recognize right away that your partner has a substance abuse problem. Or is a narcissist. These types of situations are toxic from the get-go, and it is worth examining what is in you that attracts you to such unhealthy situations.
For now, let’s examine how a relationship can go from healthy and balanced to unhealthy and unbalanced over time.
From good to toxic – how does this happen?
Relationships are growing, living entities. Just like a plant. And like a plant, a relationship needs to be tended and nurtured. By both parties.
Sometimes, as the relationship evolves, things go awry due to changes in one or both of the partners. Communication can break down, and resentment, anger, jealousy, and hurt can all go unexpressed, creating a toxic feeling in the relationship.
If a couple is not communicating about important issues, issues that touch on the very bond that joins the two people, toxicity occurs.
An example: You feel your partner is inattentive to you. He takes you for granted, never saying thank you for the multitude of nice things you do for him daily: his favorite cereal you buy for his breakfast, having a good dinner ready for him when he comes home from work, making sure his shirts are picked up from the dry cleaners.
He hasn’t told you how much he appreciates you in ages. But instead of sitting down and opening up a respectful discussion about this, you start flirting with that cute guy at work who has been coming on to you for the last several months.
You begin to accept his invitations for coffee, or drinks after work. You delight in hearing his compliments (something your partner has ceased to do, or so it seems). You begin to resent your real partner and start to make no effort towards him.
The relationship slowly veers towards toxicity, with you being angry each time you are around your partner. You notice you are also becoming short-tempered with everyone around you.
The toxic relationship: a definition
If your relationship is impacting your sense of self-worth, your happiness and the way you view yourself and your relationships, not just your primary one, but those with your family and your friends, it may be toxic.
Can you turn around a toxic relationship?
If you feel you have a lot invested in the relationship and wish to try and fix it, it is worth communicating with your partner and sharing your thoughts about the situation.
Sometimes the toxic air can be cleared with a good session of sharing, each of you giving voice to what is troubling you. It may also be helpful to do this with a professional marriage or couples’ therapist, someone who has the skills to guide you through this conversation.
Is this relationship worth fixing?
This is the million dollar question. What is at stake when you are in a toxic relationship?
If your relationship is toxic you feel bad, all the time
Not only towards your partner, but towards the world in general. The unhealthy relationship colors everything in your life. You may feel depressed, waking up in the morning without your usual vim and vigour.
You see other couples holding hands in the supermarket, or while strolling in the street, and are reminded that you and your partner haven’t any desire to be connected in that way. Never mind the sting you feel when viewing couples spontaneously kiss in public.
The way you interact with your partner saps your confidence, your happiness, and your sense of self-worth. He makes you feel like you are worth nothing.
You don’t speak up for yourself because you have a sense of ‘what’s the use?’
You feel things will never change. In a healthy relationship, we are free to express our needs without fear of being judged, mocked or ignored.
In fact, this is how a healthy relationship functions: conflicts are dealt with before they become huge issues, and a renewed sense of intimacy is restored. When a relationship has become toxic, you don’t have the energy to even try and discuss any conflict.
You know from experience that it will either escalate into a bitter fight, or be met with a “my way or the highway” response from your partner.
So you keep everything inside and it eats away at your well-being.
Your partner makes no effort and is checked out of the relationship
Just because you define yourselves as a couple does not mean this is a relationship.
If you are doing all the heavy lifting with no recognition, that spells “toxic.” If he makes zero investment in the growth of who you are as a couple, that also spells “toxic.” It’s lonely to be the only one working to keep the relationship going. It’s probably time to leave.
Still wondering if your relationship is toxic? Take this test, and then take action.
Want to have a happier, healthier marriage?
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.