When we think of toxic relationships, we often think of violent physical abuse, like the Chris Brown and Rihanna situation. While it’s shocking how common violent relationships still are – with about one in four women affected – the reality is that more of us are in destructive relationships than we might think. Destructive and toxic relationships aren’t only about violent physical abuse, they are just as much, if not more, about emotional abuse and psychological manipulation. But this abuse is usually invisible, meaning it’s often ignored, and consequently many don’t realise that they’re experiencing more than a rough patch in their relationship, but rather serious abusive behaviour. Would you know if your relationship had gone toxic?
Sarah*, who was with her ex-boyfriend for over two years, didn’t. “He was extremely needy and clingy, but I thought that was just his way of showing his love and affection towards me,” she says. “He always wanted to know exactly where I was, who I was with and what I was doing, and he got really angry and upset if I didn’t reply to his messages immediately. In hindsight I can see that it was just very controlling.”
Other signs of a toxic relationship include excessive and unreasonable jealousy, blaming you for everything, not listening to what you’re saying, ignoring your feelings, threatening to leave you, or telling you to leave. They might also try to control you and your decisions such as clothing, friends, family, work, and social activities, and often give you a hard time for spending time with your friends and family instead of them – but there are countless more signs of toxic behaviour which vary from relationship to relationship. If you feel like you’re constantly walking on eggshells around your partner because you’re afraid your actions or words might have consequences, your relationship is toxic. Findings show that around 40 percent of women have experienced this kind of emotional abuse, although due to its invisible nature, the number is probably even higher.
Mayah put up with her ex-boyfriend’s toxic behaviour for a year and a half. “It would make me feel extremely anxious when he was with his friends because there was always alcohol and drugs involved,” she says, but when she approached him about her feelings, she was shut down. “He’d act like he understood what I meant but then he always went off anyway and did exactly what I told him made me uncomfortable, he just did it behind my back with his friends,” she says.
Lies, manipulation and disrespect – what causes people to behave in such a toxic way?
“We learn our patterns from early childhood, from watching unconsciously how our parents behaved, what they do and what they tolerate, how their interactions are,” says psychologist Dr Carla Marie Manly. “Generally, we take those patterns with us into adolescence and then early adulthood. You really have to look at the individual and see how they grew up, because usually, the toxicity, the verbal abuse, the physical abuse, the criticism, all of that doesn’t come out of nowhere.”
According to psychotherapist Avril Carruthers, 60 percent of us are securely attached to our primary caregivers, meaning that they gave us consistent loving and appropriate care. But the remaining 40 percent of us can be anxious about or avoidant of emotional intimacy, because we’ve been taught as children that it’s not safe.
“For example, if a caregiver is overly anxious or needy, the child can respond to this by likewise developing a fear of separation and becoming clingy,” she says. “Alternatively, parental anxiety can become suffocating control, and that results in a child who fears being consumed by the energy of a close relationship, and so becomes aloof or cold.”
On the other end of the spectrum the parental style is detached, unpredictable, or inconsistent, so they convince themselves they don’t need affection, and they avoid it. “Beneath this is a deep fear of abandonment, because their experience with closeness is untrustworthy,” says Carruthers. “And as they become closer to a partner in an adult relationship, fear of abandonment might make them lash out in irrational rejection, or fear, or aggression, or they might believe they will be dumped as soon as their new lover sees what kind of a person they are.”
As a consequence, they might reject their partner first, pre-emptively, or manipulate interactions so they are indeed abandoned, proving their point.
In order to minimise this kind of toxic behaviour, it is important that children grow up in a healthy household. “If a child is growing up in a good enough environment where mum and dad talk, and talking is normal, and going deep in conversation is normal, and love is normal, then that becomes a child’s way of approaching adult relationships,” says Manly. “Many times, in a toxic relationship you’ll have somebody who is simply doing what they learned to do as a child to feel safe.”
When it comes to why people stay in these relationships where they are clearly not being treated well, their low self-esteem often plays a significant role. “People who choose to ignore signs of disrespect on all levels in their partner generally have a long, complicated or intense history with them involving what they believe is compassion, but which often hides co-dependence, or the need to be needed,” says Carruthers.
The people who accept disrespectful behaviour on a daily basis as a part of their relationship often feel like it’s all they deserve and even use their toxic relationship as a way to deflect and self-punish. “The people we deliberately choose reflect how we feel about ourselves, and we often do this unconsciously,” she says.
In Sarah’s case, it was a combination of low self-esteem and not knowing what a healthy relationship looked like. “I grew up in a household where no one communicated properly and my parents argued all the time, so I just accepted it and thought it was normal,” she says. “The arguing and fighting and yelling became so familiar after a while that I didn’t want to leave.” Manly describes this feeling as being ‘comfortably uncomfortable’ with the abuse. “They grew up with abuse, so the abuse feels deserved, it feels normal, and the walking on eggshells feels normal. It’s just like, ‘yeah, this is what I grew up with, this is life’,” she says.
She also adds that in many cases, the toxic person comes into relationship wearing a mask because they are afraid that somebody won’t love them, and they don’t want anyone to see their vulnerability, but after a few months into the relationships, after the phase that is also known as the ‘honeymoon-phase’, the mask comes off.
“The mask doesn’t get taken off overnight, it’s taken off gradually, and because of the gradual nature of the toxicity appearing, the other person doesn’t notice it,” says Manly. “So they stay for several reasons. One, because they didn’t notice it happening, so how do you get out of something that you didn’t notice was happening? And the other reason is that they have truly fallen in love with the person and think they can fix them by loving them.”
They think that only they can understand and fix their behaviour, but the truth is, a toxic person can never be fixed by someone other than themselves. If they don’t realise that they need to work on themselves and work on becoming a better, healthy person, it’s time to leave, because the abuse will only get worse over time.
Even though the signs of emotional abuse are more subtle than physical abuse, the effects are just as, and sometimes even more, detrimental to the victim’s mental health. Effects can include low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia and social withdrawal or loneliness.
“They simply decay,” says Manly. “Their self-esteem decays, and their self-competence decays, and their sense of feeling safe decays. At the foundation of our needs is the need to be safe, and the toxic person is often highly adept at making that other person feel unsafe, it’s like they get joy out of it,” she says.
They are, bluntly put, bullies. They manipulate their partner to the point where they become emotionally unsteady as a result of the abuse.
“He made me feel like shit,” says Mayah. “He never understood the heights of anxiety and stress and emotions I felt because of his behaviour and his manipulation at times, and I ended up being right about my worries – he slept with another girl one night when he was intoxicated and lied to me about it.”
This ‘bullying’ also causes complete loss of independence, which makes the toxic relationship feel like an addiction to the victim that they’re dependent on. “While it is harmful to stay in a toxic relationship, it stops us from thinking about why we do,” says psychotherapist Ari Sotiriou. “It reinforces the thought that we cannot do without this relationship. And why would one stay in a toxic relationship if doing without it could be considered?” It’s this dependency that a toxic person uses to manipulate their partner into thinking they’re nothing without the relationship.
Sarah experienced this feeling as well. “I lost myself completely in that relationship, I didn’t have any kind of own identity apart from being his ideal girlfriend, I thought I was nothing without him,” she says. And so, the abuse continued. “Every time after we had an argument and he threatened to leave me or told me to leave, and insulted me to the point where I’d break down crying in front of him, he’d come running back to me later, apologising and telling me how much he loved me and that it would never happen again,” she says. “But of course, it did.”
This cycle of abuse, in which the victim submits to the abuse, and becomes passive and submissive and loses all kind of independence, is defined in psychology as ‘learned helplessness’ and is very common in toxic relationships. The cycle generally consists of several stages, including the abuse, then apologies from the abuser and the so-called honeymoon-phase, the promise never to hurt the victim again, and then a calm period immediately afterwards in which there is no abuse, which reinforces the victim’s decision to stay. But then the cycle starts all over again.
Once they finally get out of a toxic relationship, victims of psychological abuse feel different kinds of emotions, depending on the reasons why the relationship ended. In some cases, they are lucky enough to realise their self-worth and leave the relationship with a feeling of control and confidence. “A triggering factor for a person to decide to leave a toxic relationship is the realisation that it is possible to find the ‘rewards’ they seek from the relationship within themselves, rather than continually seeking an external gratification,” says Sotiriou. “It is some maturation of the self, a growing up of some kind.”
However, in many other cases, they are confronted with feelings of failure and sadness when looking at the relationship’s demise and what could have been, knowing that they lost someone and something they considered to be very precious and important to them.
They might be disappointed in their partner for treating them badly, or disappointed in themselves for having chosen someone who is toxic.
Another feeling that often comes up is a feeling of resentment. “This is something that I really work with people on clearing out, because holding on to resentment is never healthy,” says Manly. “And then, if they don’t do the self-work after having been in a toxic relationship, they carry all of that hurt and negativity forward into the next relationship.”
The most important thing that the victim needs to do after leaving a toxic relationship in order to end this cycle of unhealthy behaviour, is deal with their emotions. This can be a long and painful process, because they actually have to rebuild their whole life and identity, which might have been buried for a long time; “Because for the length of the toxic relationship, they don’t know who they are, and are just functioning to cater to the other person,” says Carruthers. This suddenly has to change when the relationship ends, and what is important during this very vulnerable, emotional stage, is finding reliable emotional support, like support groups or friends that they can trust. “Whatever they need to rebuild autonomy and self-confidence takes time and enormous courage; it’s a long process”, she adds.
Talking about your experiences to other people is not only an important step in the process of healing and moving on, but also in the process of breaking the cycle of toxic relationships and raising awareness.
Toxic relationships will always exist until parents teach their children healthy behaviour by actually showing it to them in their own relationship or marriage. But again, the main problem is that the cycle of toxicity and unhealthy relationships is exponential: the more toxic people have children and influence them in a negative way, the more toxic people there will be, and the more toxic relationships there will be. Basically, the sad truth is that there will always be these kinds of people and relationships, but by acknowledging and reflecting on our own unhealthy behaviour and working on building healthy relationships, we can help ensure that our children grow up in a loving environment where communication is safe and healthy, which is crucial for their approach to future relationships.
* name changed for privacy reasons
Words, Rebecca Huber