Keys to detect toxic relationships
- The meaning of toxic relationships
Toxic relationships are unhealthy relationships which include a series of behaviours, attitudes, thoughts and emotions that are a source of distress for one or both partners. These attitudes are part of a spectrum and may vary from simple behaviours and attitudes we need to work on, to more extreme cases of abuse.
It would then be important to determine which aspects of the relationship can be worked on in order to reduce the distress. In some situations, changes cannot be carried out for different reasons, leading to the need to decide whether to leave the relationship for good.
It is preferable not to use the term “toxic” when referring to these types of relationships: there are no “toxic” people, but just certain unhealthy attitudes and behaviours we need to detect and change so they don’t affect ourselves nor people around us.
- Healthy relationships
Healthy relationships consist of the following elements:
Respect: Valuing each other’s beliefs and opinions, accepting and loving one another for who they are as a person and at the same time, to be able to set boundaries comfortably and safely. Another aspect would be to support each other’s hard work and dreams and cheering for each other’s achievements, and also understanding what the other person might be feeling, even when we don’t fully comprehend them.
Comfortable pace: Extreme emotions are not a symptom of love. The healthiest relationships are the ones where we don’t feel rushed or pressured, we feel safe and comfortable, and the relationship moves at a speed that feels enjoyable for both. The intensity must be comfortable, and no anxiety provoking or producing a high level of distress.
Trust: To have evidences and proof of our partner not willing to do anything to hurt us, and not having to question the other person´s intentions constantly. Trust is also about respecting each other´s privacy by placing trust on each other, and giving them the benefit of the doubt. There are certain situations where we lose trust and the only way to regain it would be to have proof that the circumstances leading to the loss of trust are never to be repeated again and both people are willing to repair the damage caused.
Individuality and independence: It is important that we have space to be ourselves, and to give our partner the same freedom. For example, we can be supportive with partner´s hobbies and relationships with friends and family.
We don’t need to know or be involved in every part of their lives. It is also important not to have to compromise who we are, and continuing to see our own friends and doing the things we love, as well as supporting our partner to pursue new hobbies or make new friends and not basing our own identity on a partner´s.
Of course, there are some exceptions, for example when the compromises and agreements between both people are being disrespected. In those cases, we can set limits and boundaries and communicate to our partner what is happening and how it is making us feel. Another exception is when there is an imbalance, and we are focusing a lot more on our Independence and not taking care of our relationship, or when we are focusing on taking care of our partner but not working on our independence.
Honesty and communication: Being truthful and candid without fearing how the other person will respond or the possible consequences (they stop talking to us, they get mad, …). Fear never comes out of the blue; it is a learnt response and therefore the goal would not be working on reducing the fear but on the causes that led to its appearance in the first place. Honesty is also about being able to share the full truth about our life and feelings with each other without needing to hide things and to be capable to speak honestly and openly to avoid miscommunication, responding to disappointing news in a considerate way. It is not about communicating each thing that comes to our minds but to be able to not be scared of doing so.
We are all different people and we all can jump into conclusions or make wrongful interpretations and therefore communication is key when working towards understanding one another. Assertive communication respects both our rights and also the other person´s, with empathy and respect and it is therefore the best communication method we can learn and implement.
Healthy conflicts: Openly and respectfully discuss issues, confronting disagreements non judgementally and recognising the root issue and addressing it respectfully. Talking through the situation, taking a short break away from each other if the discussion gets too heated, handling anger in healthy ways (deep breaths, counting to ten, time out…), respecting partners wishes of having space to think before resuming arguments, to understand the other person´s point of view and empathise with it even when we don’t agree, and to look for common grounds or compromises so that the needs of both people are respected.
Taking responsibility: Owning our actions and words, admitting when we made a mistake and genuinely apologising when we have done something wrong. It is important to take ownership for the impact our words or behaviour had, even if it wasn’t our intention, without placing blame on the other person.
Kindness: Being caring and empathetic to one another, providing comfort and support. Kindness is given and returned, and with compassion for the other person and the things they care about.
Equality: The relationship must feel balanced, both partners putting the same effort into the success of the relationship, not letting one person’s preferences and opinions dominate. Hearing each other out and making compromises when we don’t want the same thing and feeling our needs, wishes and interests are just as important as the other person’s. Each partner not always getting his or her way, and acknowledging different points of view and being willing to give and take. To be flexible.
Stability: It is important both members are working towards common goals (although they can also have their own personal goals). When arguing, the relationship itself cannot feel endangered, threatened or called in question so it is not perceived as unstable (for example, when having a heated argument, to not continuously going back and talking about ending the relationship). It is important for the relationship to be perceived as solid and secure, important matters and relationship goals should not feel volatile and temporary.
Healthy sexual relationship: Engaging in a sexual relationship that both partners are comfortable with, and not feeling pressured or forced to engage in sexual activity or sexual acts outside our comfort zone or without consent. Not being scared of being abandoned, or cheated on or of them feeling annoyed when we don’t fulfil their sexual desires.
- Red flags and keys to detect them
The following signs may help us detect when certain behaviours are a source of distress:
- Communication difficulties: Criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness, lack of communication, sabotage, being unsure whether to express our emotions, hateful comments or name calling, …
- Lack of respect or trust: Boundaries not being respected (for example when both people have agreed to have an open relationship and one of the rules is to be with just one other person at a time and that agreement is disrespected), guilt tripping, betrayal, dishonesty, trust issues, purposely ruining partner´s reputation, achievements or success, …
- Intense emotions: Being worried or nervous, the relationship is perceived as too intense or overwhelming, extreme mood swings or changes in our personality that never existed before the relationship started, feeling guilty, or going crazy or that we are never right, feeling insecure (and we have never felt that way or we don’t feel that way in other areas of our life)
- Dependence: The relationship is built on the need to feel needed.
- Deflecting responsibility: Making excuses for unhealthy behaviours, blaming partner or other people for their actions (“if you didn’t do that then I wouldn’t be doing this”), making partner feel like its their job to keep them happy, blaming partner for things that are out of their control, making partner feel responsible for our actions. The damage inflicted on the partner must never be an excuse for the other person to hurt them back nor to justify harmful actions or behaviours.
- Hostility and volatility and instability. Unhealthy conflicts: Relationship feeling like a rollercoaster with extreme ups and downs, changing our behaviour in order to avoid upsetting our partner, strong or unpredictable reactions, for the conflicts to be repeated over and over and not to be willing to compromise so the relationship doesn’t move forward. Giving ultimatums or talking about previous conflicts every time there is an argument. Instability is perceived when the relationship goals are at stake after an argument or a conflict (“if you don’t do this then I will cheat on you” or “if you continue thinking that way, I don’t want to be with you”) and for that situation to be the norm, so it becomes a source of distress for the other person. It also comprises having disproportionate consequences (frequency, duration and intensity) from small conflicts.
- Isolation: To feel our partner wants us to spend less time with family or friends, or to stop caring about activities we used to enjoy, or to not have time to our own intimacy and activities. Another example could be for our partner wanting us to quit our job, school or hobbies to make them happy, or for them to get mad or unhappy when we have our personal individual areas.
- Abusive and controlling behaviours: Violence of any kind (verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, …), jealousy, hostility, intimidation, volatility, deflecting responsibility, … Threatening to hurt self or others if we don’t do as they say or stay in relationship, using force to get their way, threatening to do something drastic if the relationship ends, feeling like we cant say “no” or the other will end the relationship or there will be negative consequences, guilting partner into having sexual intercourse, pressuring or forcing partner into sexual activity against will or without consent, losing control by getting violent, yelling or threatening partner.
- What to do?
Sometimes patients ask for ways to convince the other person to change. Our answer is simple: It is important for both people to be willing to change, to work on the relationship and to compromise. Nobody changes if they are not willing to do so and there is nothing to do to convince them. One of the things that usually works is to communicate them that even when they don’t want to change there are certain situations and behaviours that lead to conflicts and distress and therefore it is important to find solutions for them even when we don’t understand the reasons why those behaviours would affect our partner. At the end of the day, arguments affect both people in the relationship. The situations never disappear by themselves without finding solutions for them.
Tips for a healthy relationship:
- Treating your partner like a good friend
- Handling conflicts in gentle, kind and positive ways
- Being able to repair after conflicts and negative interactions
- Listening to our emotions (being aware of what we need and the reasons why we feel a certain way and to be able to find solutions)
- Being aware of the negative and false interpretations of the other person´s behaviour.
- Having our own interests and hobbies as well as sharing others with our partner
- Assertive, empathetic, open and honest communication
- Problem solving strategies
- Self-awareness of our own negative thoughts
- Working on our self esteem
- Empathy (towards your partner and yourself)
- What can I do for a friend that is in a toxic relationship?
Another aspect people usually are concerned about is the actions to take when we realise a friend is in a toxic relationship. It is usually difficult to detect the red flags when inside the relationship, so it is not uncommon that our friend might be in denial.
One of the things we could do is to not criticise their relationship, to be honest but gentle, empathetic and non-judgemental. We can also help our friend to build their self-image by looking for groups or activities or interests for them, so we can promote for them to have their own individuality outside the relationship. We can also check in often, so they can come to us when needed and for them not to be afraid of any judgement from our side.
“Make sure the door is always open for your friend to come to you, and the second your friend asks for help, be there in full force”.
- When should we seek professional help?
Mood swings caused by the relationship, self-doubt, lowered self-esteem, withdrawal of interests, hobbies, work, friends or other important areas of your life.
- Fear, anxiety, extreme guilt and shame
- Multiple breakups with the same person, multiple arguments, violence, disrespect, mistrust
- Incapability of being alone or difficulty leaving the relationship
- Negative changes in your personality. For example, a person that has always been calm and they are suddenly doing things they’ve never done before in other relationships (family, friendships, other romantic relationships…)
- Going against your own values, principles or desires
- Loss of interest, fatigue, difficulty concentrating or physical symptoms related to stressful situations (migraines, bowel irritable syndrome, vomiting, dizziness), panic attacks, difficulty breathing or other physical symptoms that appear during or after any stressful situation.
- Resources in Spain
Emergency number: 112
Crime victim support service: Servicio de ayuda a las víctimas: +34 900 150 909
Support for women (24-hour helpline): +34 900 580 888
Domestic violence and abuse: +34 900 100 009
Confidential English-language helpline and free emotional support from anywhere in Spain: (www.samaritansinspain.com): +34 900 525 100
Phone gender violence: 016// +34 900 116 016
Suicide, crisis and support line (El teléfono de la esperanza): +34 902 500 002
Service for the Victims of Sexual Harrassment (Servicio de atención a víctimas de agresiones sexuales): +34 91 574 0110
Sinews Multilingual Therapy Institute (Instituto de Terapia multilingüe): +34 91 700 19 79