Our #relationshipgoals might include a partner who plans romantic nights out, who listens and responds eagerly during conversation, who fights fairly and who contributes monetarily. And especially who empties the dishwasher and who vacuums—without being asked every single time.
But #reallife says while that may happen sometimes or even regularly, it’s not always going to be the case. And if you’re falling short of your relationship goals more often than you want—if you’re often unhappy, anxious or in tears—it may be time to ask the question: Are you in a toxic relationship?
“Relationships are supposed to be reciprocal,” said Dr. Lindsey West, a psychologist with Augusta University Health who specializes in women’s health. “It doesn’t have to be equal, but it should be equitable. For example, both partners don’t have to empty the dishwasher an equal number of times per week, but there should be equitable teamwork so that the relationship can thrive. If you’re noticing it’s not an equitable balance, or it’s causing you harm or stress, then that could be a sign you’re in a toxic relationship.”
Toxic or abusive?
But it is important to note that while an abusive relationship is certainly toxic, a toxic relationship is not necessarily abusive.
In other words, in what’s considered a toxic relationship, there’s not necessarily a conscious component of hurling physical or verbal assaults. “Your partner might be very selfish, self-focused or narcissistic—and therefore, emotionally and behaviorally unavailable in the relationship,” said West. “But he or she just might not even know what they’re doing.”
For example, during arguments, a partner like this might not apologize or take responsibility for their role in the problem—or may even blame you for the way you feel. Or he or she might regularly offer a half apology, as in: “That was not my intention, but you should not have [fill in the blank].”
The selfishness could expand to putting the burden of the household and family life entirely on you. So, while you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off to work, plan and prep dinner, help the kids with homework, fix school lunches and pick out clothes for the next day, your partner does his or her “job” of taking out the trash or running a load of laundry, then sits on the sofa to catch up on news or a movie. “It goes back to not taking responsibility,” said West. “If there isn’t a healthy balance, or if all of your healthy practices have had to go to the wayside—not because of your own time management, but because of the demands someone else is placing on you—then that’s a problem.”
Another component of a toxic relationship is invalidation. For example, if you approach your partner with your concerns and he or she just stops the conversation cold—or even worse, plays the blame game again. “Then you feel invalidated or invisible,” said West. “Other examples of invalidation include if your partner isn’t considerate of your feelings or doesn’t remember things you have to do, as if your day doesn’t matter.”
Getting back to healthy
Fixing a toxic relationship isn’t easy. It involves looking both at yourself and your partner.
Does your partner come from a household where parents or other caregivers had a toxic relationship? That can help you at least understand why he or she is behaving this way. Or did you? And are you drawn to relationships where you’re always catering to another person?
“As a start, you need to feel like you deserve health and happiness and that your thoughts and feelings matter. There needs to be mutual respect and a balanced seesaw of effort in the relationship,” said West.
Then, take small steps. Your goal should be to work together with your partner to create more of a balance and come up with a mutual solution. You can start small, but be very concrete. For example, you could say, “It would be really helpful to me and cause a lot less stress if you did X or Y.” You might find that your partner had no idea that he or she was being selfish or controlling in that area.
Once you see how receptive your partner is, you can go from there. This will likely involve multiple conversations with your partner. And as you dig deeper, it’s not necessarily going to be fun, especially if your partner is stubborn, isn’t open or even willing to change.
If the conversations—even the small ones—aren’t working, bringing in an unbiased outside observer, like a counselor or therapist, can be really helpful, so that your loved one can hear feedback and confirmation on how their actions are perceived.
Then, if your partner really won’t change, then it may be time to ask the hardest question of all: Is it time to get out? “Remember, your desire to have an equitable, mutual relationship is important to both your happiness and your health,” said West.
“If you are in a toxic AND abusive relationship, your safety is paramount,” said West. Please refer to the following resources: