All relationships have bumps in the road, but when your relationship becomes more bump than road, it may be time to reevaluate. It’s tempting to only recognize toxic dynamics when they’re caused by someone else. But what if the toxic one in your relationship is you?
In a toxic relationship, both people develop unhealthy behaviors and treat each other disrespectfully. While one person in the relationship may engage in more toxic behaviors than the other, they don’t exert overwhelming control over the other person. Instead, one or both partners engage in behaviors that make the relationship unhealthy, sucking the life and joy out of it, and making it more of a chore than a support.
It’s hard to admit wrong and be accountable. But the only way to have healthy relationships in the future is to be accountable for your past behavior. Here are the signs you may be contributing to a toxic relationship, and how you can move forward to better relationship health.
Signs Your Relationship May be Toxic
A therapist once told me that a good relationship should empower you to take on things outside of your relationship. All relationships have their moments of drama, but if your relationship is taking more energy than it’s giving to you, it may be time to reevaluate.
Speaking to Time, psychology expert Lillian Glass, who claims to have coined the term “toxic relationship” in a 1995 book, says that a toxic relationship is one in which the partners compete, disrespect, or seek to undermine each other.
Another indicator of a toxic relationship is, quite simply, how you feel. Ask yourself: Is this relationship giving me more than it is taking from me? Are my partner and I growing together, or is one partner growing at the other’s expense? Do I feel nervous or uncomfortable around my partner, or does my partner feel nervous or uncomfortable around me? Does this relationship allow me and my partner to be our best selves or does it turn us into people we don’t like or recognize?
It should be noted that a toxic relationship is different than abuse. In an abusive dynamic, one person attempts to control the other through psychological tactics, physical violence, verbal abuse, or some combination of the above. Abusive relationships are always the fault of the abuser, never the victim’s fault.
While it can be hard to gain perspective on a toxic relationship when you’re in the thick of it, taking a step back and doing some serious soul searching can help clarify dynamics that may otherwise feel overwhelming.
Signs Your Behavior is Contributing to a Toxic Relationship
It’s painful to admit that our behavior may be contributing to, or even causing, a toxic relationship. But accountability is the only avenue to growth. It’s better to confront our own toxic patterns than to remain blissfully ignorant, and less blissful in our relationships.
Here are some behaviors that may indicate you are contributing to or causing a toxic dynamic:
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1. You withhold affection or compliments
Or, you make affection conditional on your partner being exactly the way you want them to be, rather than being themselves. While you never have to be affectionate with someone when you don’t want to be, using affection as a bargaining chip to get what you want in a relationship creates a toxic atmosphere for both partners.
2. You’re passive aggressive
We’re all passive aggressive at times. But if you often act mad at your partner while refusing to tell them why you’re upset, or frequently give them the silent treatment, you’re engaging in unhealthy communication.
This may make your partner feel they are constantly “walking on eggshells” around you, leading to a lack of trust in the relationship and a seriously toxic atmosphere.
3. You intentionally play with your partner’s feelings, including trying to make them jealous.
In a healthy relationship, you don’t need to “test” the other person’s feelings or manipulate each other. Instead, the foundation for the relationship should be so solid that there is no need to play mind games.
If you feel the need to “test” your partner or make them jealous on purpose, either they’ve done something to harm your trust, or you have an unhealthy need for affirmation. Either case is toxic, and demands serious reflection.
Avoid Abusive Behavior At All Costs
There are some behaviors that are more than toxic: they’re actually abusive.
You’re engaging in emotionally abusive behavior if you: use nasty or cruel language, intentionally put your partner down or humiliate them, play on their vulnerabilities or degrade their identity, or frequently explode in anger and rage at your partner.
And of course, if you ever physically or sexually assault your partner, that isn’t toxic; that’s abusive. If you have been engaging in any of these activities, it’s important to stop right away and get help from a mental health professional.
The truth is, everyone has struggles with loving relationships. Acknowledging that you may have fallen into toxic behaviors in the past is the first step to moving forward. You can begin to be accountable for past toxic behavior by:
1. Going to therapy
Unlike family and friends, a therapist doesn’t have a personal stake in your relationship. Their job is simply to help you be as healthy as you can be.
Talking to a therapist, whether brick-and-mortar or online, can be a great way to understand past relationship patterns. It’s critical to learn from that behavior to develop healthier relationships in the future.
2. Focus on self-care
People often engage in toxic behaviors when they are coping with some underlying problem, such as a history of trauma, unhealthy familial relationships, or addiction. Working with a therapist can help you understand what might be at the heart of your unhealthy relationship behaviors.
Caring for your mind, body, and heart can help you address and eliminate these problems. This heals the wounds and nourishes the needs you’re attempting to fill through unhealthy behaviors.
Whether that self-care means exercising regularly, joining a 12-step program, or cutting off ties with abusive family members, taking care of your own mental and physical health will set a foundation for future health with a partner.
3. Cultivate empathy
Fundamentally, toxic relationship behaviors are the result of a lack of empathy. Whether that be demanding your partner live up to your expectations, or refusing to see things from their perspective, toxic behavior often represents an inability to feel genuine understanding and compassion for the other person.
While it may seem like empathy is something people are born with, it’s actually possible to become more empathic by consciously practicing empathy in our daily lives, the same way we might practice a sport.
Everyone Deserves Healthy Relationships
Realizing that you are the toxic one or were part of a toxic dynamic with someone else is hard. It’s easy to internalize feelings of shame or worthlessness, and feel that you are inherently a bad person or a bad partner. You may even worry that you won’t have healthy relationships in the future.
But that’s not true: We all deserve healthy relationships, and we can develop better relationship habits, as well. While being accountable for past toxic behavior can be painful, it should also feel hopeful. Confronting your past is a brave first step in the journey to a happier and healthier future.
Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.
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