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Many of us have used toxic to describe a relationship at some point—either someone we’ve dated, a friendship that turned sour, a family member that we try to avoid or a boss that made going to work a nightmare.
A toxic relationship doesn’t always mean that abuse is present. It often describes a relationship that isn’t healthy for one or more of the people involved, often because boundaries aren’t being honored and respect isn’t being given. However, it’s important to recognize that an unhealthy relationship has the potential to escalate into abuse, and spotting warning signs of an abuser early is vital to our safety.
What Defines a Toxic Relationship?
Two people in a relationship aren’t going to get along a hundred percent of the time. Arguments and disagreements are normal, and there is a healthy way to fight with someone you care about (spoiler alert: It doesn’t involve degradation, threats or violence).
But toxic on the other hand, by definition, means “poisonous and damaging.” It is something that, over time, will have a negative effect on your health. If you think about it that way, it’s easy to spot a toxic relationship. Ask yourself the following questions to start:
- Do you feel constantly drained after spending time with a certain person?
- Does that person leave you feeling generally unhappy or discouraged?
- Do you feel like your self-esteem has lowered since meeting this person?
- Does this person consistently fail to support you when you need help or encouragement?
- Is this person often jealous?
- Do you feel like this person is often lying to you?
- Is your communication with this person filled with sarcasm, insults or passive-aggressive attacks?
- Does this person often tell you what to do, aka, is controlling?
- Do you feel like you haven’t taken very good care of yourself since meeting this person?
- Are you trying to draw boundaries but your partner continues not to honor them?
The Signs It’s Escalating to Abuse
A toxic relationship just feels … off. Your gut is likely sending you signals that this other person who causes you stress and worry more often than joy is not a person you need in your life.
Then, there’s the sinking feeling that can happen when you know this person’s actions have taken a more sinister turn. The toxic individual is now entering abuser territory.
Abuse can be physical or non-physical. The main differences between a partner who is abusive and one who isn’t can look like the following:
- Abuse is repetitive and typically follows a pattern. Sometimes this pattern looks like an incident followed by a period of calm that feels like everything’s OK again, soon followed by the ramping up of tensions and then another incident. (Abuse often but doesn’t not always follow a cycle like this.) This cycle is often a deliberate choice on the part of the abuser to keep a survivor trapped.
- Abusers don’t often take responsibility. Abusers will blame their partner for the abuser’s actions, aka, “You made me lose my temper.”
- Abusers gaslight. Most abusers will try to convince a partner that their memory of what the abuser did isn’t real or will downplay what happened, which is called gaslighting. They may say things like, “That never happened” or “You can’t remember anything accurately.” Gaslighting is a tactic of psychological abuse that can make the survivor feel like they’re going crazy.
- Abusers will escalate their attacks. Often times, abusers escalate tactics of power and control, say from mild jealousy that you went out with friends to rage when you don’t check with them first. Shouting can escalate to striking over time. It can happen suddenly or gradually, but it will feel like an increasing sense of uneasiness and danger.
- Abusers isolate. If you feel like you’re spending less and less time with your friends and family, or your partner is outright forbidding you to call or see them, even with excuses like, “I just don’t want to share you because I love you so much,” or “I know what’s best for you and your friends don’t deserve you,” this is a huge red flag.
- Abusers will move the relationship forward fast. After knowing an abuser for only a short time, they may claim you are “soulmates” or that you were “meant for each other.” They may push you to move in together, get married or start a family.
The Long-Term Effects of Toxic Relationships
Whether you want to call it abuse or a toxic relationship, being in the throes of emotional manipulation for an extended period of time can have real effects on your health, both while you’re in it and after you leave. Many people think physical abuse is the most severe type, but survivors and experts alike have long known that emotional, psychological and verbal abuse can be just as devastating to one’s health as physical violence.
Survivors of toxic people and relationships may experience some or all of the following:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which can include intrusive memories, nightmares, insomnia and hypervigilance
- Low self-esteem or body shame
- Inability to concentrate
- Chronic fatigue
- Chronic pain
- Gut-related issues
- Stress-related heart conditions
- Guilt or misplaced sympathy for abuser (otherwise known as trauma-bonding)
- Thoughts of suicide
- Alcohol and drug abuse
In children who experience toxic relationships, are victims of abuse, or witnessing domestic violence being perpetrated by an abuser in their home, the long-term effects to their health can be devastating. Toxic people and abusers can cause chronic fear and stress, which can increase their risk for diseases ranging from heart disease to cancer as they grow up. It’s important everyone knows their ACE, or adverse childhood experiences score, in order to be aware of its effects in adulthood.
How To Let Go of a Toxic Relationship
It can be as easy as sending a break-up text and as hard as staying with someone you know is wrong for years until you can untangle yourself. The journey to letting go of a toxic person or relationship is different for everyone.
Trauma-bonding is an attachment you can feel toward someone who is causing you trauma, and it can complicate things.
“It can become a cycle of, if I’m loved, I’m abused; it’s my fault and I need to please them,” licensed mental health counselor Stefanie Juliano, LPCC told DomesticShelters.org. “Many don’t even make the connection that they are, in fact, being abused.”
Trauma-bonds can leave you feeling powerless or trapped, convinced that giving the person just one more chance will make all the difference, and that you’ll get back to that point where everything was good. If there’s a hint of the good, it can cause a rush of the feel-good chemical dopamine, and we may end up chasing that feeling over and over again.
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To break the bond:
- Reach out for help. Talk to a trusted friend or family member who won’t side with the toxic person in question, talk to a school counselor, schedule a visit with a therapist, or call your local domestic violence shelter to speak to an advocate who’s trained in knowing the signs of abuse. You don’t need to be seeking emergency shelter to call a hotline. If you’re a teen who’s nervous to talk to your parents, read “Teens: How to Talk to Your Parents About Dating Abuse” for more tips.
- Start a journal. Write down details of the toxic incidents, specifically how they left you feeling afterward. It can help you notice the frequency of harmful incidents more clearly and also spot signs that it’s escalating.
- Take a break. Even if you’re not ready to cut off the relationship for good, take a few days or weeks away from the person. Ask them not to contact you, or just turn off your phone. This separation may help you clear your mind and quiet the noise of the toxic person, allowing you to more clearly see a path forward.
- Practice drawing boundaries. “Where Are Your Boundaries” lists five types of boundaries you should be making for yourself. This starts with saying “no” and having that be the entire sentence. A toxic person may try to make you feel guilty for walking away. Remind yourself of this quote: “You do not need to set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.” For ideas on what to do instead of calling that toxic person back, read, “10 Suggestions for Coping With Loneliness in the Pandemic.”
Finally, if you think you’re experiencing abuse but aren’t sure, you may want to read “Am I Being Abused?” to learn more.
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