What is — and is not — a toxic relationship

And why it’s sometimes really hard to tell what constitutes abuse

We don’t have enough good resources on toxic relationships.

Media and pop culture is arguably even worse (with even the likes of Disney raising questions about Stockholm syndrome and sexual assault.) And bickering between TV couples is incredibly popular. Everyone — even the occasional “expert” — is fumbling around just as much as we are, so Googling returns nothing of real value.

Some toxic behavior is obvious

  • Physical harm
  • Refusing to take responsibility (always the victim)
  • Arguing without allowing resolution (continuing to unload far beyond the other person accepting blame and apologizing)
  • Contempt
  • Deliberate emotional harm or harmful manipulation
  • Preoccupied with “imbalance,” “power,” “respect,” “being in charge,” and “calling the shots.” (The more someone is obsessed with these, the more insecure and toxic they are.)
  • Regular, unresolved conflict or “drama”
  • Threats to break up, leave, or “kick the other person out”

But some abuse is fuzzy

Like, what’s “emotional abuse,” and who’s responsible for what?

Here’s the real thing with trying to chalk up someone’s character purely by talking about isolated behavior:

Most behavior, both “good” and “bad,” can be both abusive and not abusive. It all depends on context.

“Good signs” don’t automatically make a partner “good”

Sometimes abuse doesn’t look like abuse.

Master manipulators will hit everything on the list of “good partner,” and the people they date will see this and overlook or excuse the bad shit.

Like, he’ll spend 95% of his time being the textbook example of “Perfect Partner,” and then he’ll spend an hour criticizing your character and blaming you for shit long after you’ve apologized.

But then he’ll be “great” again the next day.

This guy’s abusive.

“Bad signs” don’t automatically make a partner “bad”

Because of the following considerations:

Some “bad behavior” is normal — sometimes

This shit ain’t black and white.

I’m not saying it’s good. But I am saying people are imperfect.

I mean, for real, show me the person who’s never stooped to any of these, and I’ll show you a person who’s bottling and doing harm in other ways.

Passive aggression. We’ve literally all said “I’m fine” when we weren’t fine. At least once.

Criticism. We’ve all thrown stones — even little ones. What’s more helpful is discerning when “criticism is not intended to be helpful but rather to belittle.”

Negative energy. I mean… for real here? People who are “never” negative are bullshitters, bottlers, or simpletons. They are off-putting, fake-smiling or empty-minded monsters whose DNA should be eliminated from the gene pool.

Lying. Yeah, except those white lies regarding what you think of their mother.

Avoiding each other. I mean, I guess the difference here is “perpetual” versus “when disagreeing,” but this is gonna happen sometimes.

“Hostile atmosphere.” (“You should never be around hostility because it makes you feel unsafe”) Wow. Welcome to life, my friend. Sometimes people get mad. Constant anger is a sure sign of an unhealthy relationship, but sometimes conflict feels “uncomfortable.” Deal with it.

Jealousy. Even the most sane, stable, secure people experience the occasional pang of “hey…”

The difference, of course, is whether this behavior is so common that it starts to define someone’s character — and the dynamic of the relationship.

But again, sometimes this happens. The difficulty is knowing how often is “okay.”

Some of this is on you, not your partner

Don’t you dare pin any of this on anyone but you:

Feeling like there’s no point. Okay, I’m no psychiatrist… but this sounds like depression, fam.

You only think about making him or her happy. Yo, how is that their fault? This is a “you” situation to work out.

You’re “not yourself.” Somehow this is on someone other than you? My friend, this is always on you. “If you find yourself changing your opinions to please someone else, you’re in a damaging relationship.” No, you are damaged. On your own.

Anxiety. Your partner isn’t here to hold your hand and kiss the “boo-boo” that is your daily life.

Feeling drained. “If, instead of feeling happy and productive, you’re always mentally, emotionally, and even physically drained, it’s time to re-evaluate.” Yeah — yourself.

You can’t “do anything right.” Either you suck at this, they suck at this, or your codependence is calling. If this feeling has never happened before, it’s the third.

“They’re just never happy” or you’re “always on eggshells.” Uh huh. But would they agree with this statement? Or are you assuming agency over someone else’s emotions? Is this perhaps your own insecurity or codependence talking? Bc this could just as easily be a “boundary” issue.

You’re not happy. It’s not your partner’s job to make you happy. It’s yours.

Some of this comes and goes

Look, abuse and toxic behavior is never “constant.” The abuser will sometimes be nice — they have to be, otherwise the abused would leave.

One article uses words like “always,” “constant,” “persistent,” “nonstop,” “ceaseless,” “continuous,” “never-ending.”

This author is either (a) suggesting that no relationship quite constitutes “toxic,” or, more likely, (b) exaggerating toxic behavior, which is toxic in and of itself.

A relationship can be toxic even if shit’s not “constant.”

Most of this is subjective.

Take this, for example:

“All take, no give.” Oh, but are you giving more? Are you “giving” more but also leeching more energy in codependent horse shit? Bc when it comes to give and take, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

“Lack of trust.” Okay. This could be their behavior — or it could be your own low self esteem.

“Narcissism.” Pretty sure the ratio of “people accused of being narcissists” to “people who are narcissists” is like 10:1. That, and we’re all a little narcissistic and that baseline amount isn’t what experts are talking about when they talk about narcissism.

“Fault.” Is it truly all their fault? Is it possible some of it’s your fault, but you just have trouble admitting blame?

Sometimes the same behavior is both good and bad

The real toxic people are master manipulators, and they know precisely how to put on a show to draw this whole thing out as long as possible.

Meeting your friends and family

Toxic: They won’t want to meet them, and won’t invest in their interaction once they do.

Healthy: “They will be genuine, enthusiastic, and as interested in getting to know your loved ones as they were to get to know you. They will ask engaging questions, offer to help with the dishes, and treat you like the gem you are, reassuring your parents that you are in great hands.”

Toxic: They are enthusiastic and interested. And they’ll have everyone — maybe even themselves — convinced it’s genuine. They will offer to do the dishes — because they have deep-seated insecurity and need to be liked. They will reassure your parents you’re in great hands — as though you, another human being, are ever “in” someone’s hand. (Gross.)

Texting

Toxic: They will have “erratic texting patterns” or text “when they feel like it, at random times, and more often than not, when they are bored or horny,”

Healthy: “They text you on a fairly predictable schedule and check their phones often enough that you can count on a text back even during busy times.” …K.

Toxic: One or both of you will demand continuous reassurance and come unhinged without regular, reliable texting . One or both of you will expect responses within hours, and regard anything longer as “toxic.”

Healthy: Both partners can go a few hours — even a day — without coming unhinged at a lack of text. Both people are permitted to respond “when they feel like it,” not because they’re obligated to.

Supporting your growth

Toxic: “They feel threatened or insecure about your hobbies and interests.”

Healthy: You “promote the growth of yourselves as individuals and as a couple. You support each other’s interests even if you don’t share that interest. You actively explore things together as a couple that you both enjoy and add interest, fun, and vitality to your relationship.”

Toxic: They support you financially so that you can pursue your dreams — because they get off on having the control in the relationship. They will expect you to “behave” in return, and will hold it over you in arguments.

Differences in libido

Toxic: They try to persuade their partner to match their own levels of desire, either by pressuring them with sex — or withholding it.

Healthy: “They try to persuade their partner to match their own levels of desire” (by…???)

Autonomy

Toxic: You don’t do anything together

Healthy: You do some things together

Toxic: You do everything together

Balance

Toxic: Only take

Healthy: Give and take

Toxic: Only give

Point is: even “good” behavior can be toxic AF.

Behavior that’s always healthy:

Taking responsibility for mistakes.

“Disagreeing” rather than “arguing,” and looking for resolution rather than ranting

Seeking to understand before being understood

Growth and change, as individuals and as a couple.

Never deliberately retaliating with real harm, in response to real or perceived harm.

Working on your emotional health before asking anything of others.