Toxic relationships suck, don’t they?
They poison your life and yet, sometimes, you can’t get out of it.
Sometimes things are good, and they don’t really seem that bad.
And then you aren’t even sure you’re in a toxic relationship.
What to do then?
Well, this article will help you clear your mind.
Check these categories below and see if one or more fits your current relationship.
- Toxic Relationships
- #1. Abusive Relationship
- #2. Psychopath / Sociopath Relationship
- #3. Narcissistic Relationships
- #4. Scorecard Relationships
- #5. Mutual Assured Destruction
- #6. Competitive Relationships
- #7. Downward Spiral Relationships
- #8. Toxic Relationship Dances
- #9. Never-Ending Bickering
- #10. Power Struggle Relationships
- #11. Emotional Roller Coaster
- Getting Out of Toxic Relationship
To begin with:
What is a toxic relationship?
A toxic relationship is a relationship that drags you down, drains you emotionally and slows you from moving forward in life.
A toxic relationship is doesn’t always move downward though. Often it presents up and downs which makes it harder to pinpoint the amount of toxicity (read more in roller coaster effect).
However, the overall effect on your life is always negative.
#1. Abusive Relationship
First of all, one of the worst and most common.
The abusive relationship.
It’s not always true that it takes two to tango, and in abusive relationships the abusive partner can be the one responsible for all the toxicity.
Both genders can be abusive, but the sad award here goes to men: the majority of abusive individuals are men.
Abusive relationships can be violent, but not all of them are.
Some emotionally abusive relationship look perfectly normal on the outside. The abuser can be a professor, a doctor or a polished-looking office worker.
Here is one non-physically violent example from The Breakup.
His way of disrespecting her publicly is verbally violent and emotionally abusive.
#2. Psychopath / Sociopath Relationship
Not every single relationship with a psychopath leads to a toxic relationship. But when they do, they often cause immense pain.
Sociopaths are obsessed with social dominance and winning and they see the world as a big chessboard. And you might be a pawn in it.
It’s possible they will fake feelings and pretend to love you only to make you fall in love with them.
Their relationships usually follow a known pattern:
- Idealization (bring you up and make you believe you two are soulmates)
- Devaluation (turn the tables: they stop coming after you and start devaluing you)
- Discard (they move to the next target, sometimes dropping you in the most painful way possible)
If you want to read more there’s a book with a great description of a sociopath relationship called Psychopath Free.
Most psychopaths and sociopaths are men.
But there are some women too. And Gone Girl is a great example of one:
#3. Narcissistic Relationships
If you like emotional shallowness and selfishness, then pick a narcissistic partner.
Narcissists have a grandiose sense of self -often not backed by reality-, and believe the world revolves around them. They are all about appearances and what others think of them.
Narcissists also lack empathy.
Indeed they only care about you as long as you can do something for them.
This often includes their partners and their own children, which has devastating effects on the children’s psyche.
A narcissistic relationship is toxic because they are also manipulative and play plenty of games.
You cannot develop a relationship based on mutual knowledge and appreciation and you cannot have real emotional bond with a narcissist.
There are a few different kinds of narcissists and there several good movies that portray them.
This one is from American Beauty.
Notice the distance between them, both physical and emotional. He is acting rather crazy of course, but that’s also the point: she is not one bit concerned about what’s happening to him. Or God forbid, how to reconnect with him.
And she could care less to keep her daughter out of their problems.
Indeed, as soon as her daughter walks in, she tries to use her to pile up pressure on his husband.
#4. Scorecard Relationships
Keeping tabs means to keep scores as to who has done what.
Don’t get it wrong here: most healthy relationships do entail a give and take (law of social exchange).
However the focus in great relationships is on giving and the pleasure of giving. And the partner does the same.
The give and take thus happens naturally because both are happy of giving.
John Gottman confirmed with research that the happiest relationships do not keep score.
The relationship becomes toxic when the focus instead is on what we get. Giving only becomes a tool to get something, and that’s a draining, poor relationship to be in.
#5. Mutual Assured Destruction
Mutual assured destruction (MAD) is a term borrowed by military strategy.
And in a relationship, it’s the most toxic way of keeping score.
The mindset is: “you hurt, so I hurt you back”.
It’s easy to see how this makes for horrendous relationship, which can escalate in some serious issue.
The movie The Break-Up, shows a lot of mutual harming.
Especially after the actual break-up:
#6. Competitive Relationships
Great relationships are mutually supportive.
Poor, toxic relationships instead see the partners trying to tear each other down.
Often it’s the man who starts it.
It stems from an internal insecurity and he does it to feel superior and in charge. The woman is then forced to do the same to defend her dignity and/or to stop the onslaught.
The men who engage in competitive devaluation have usually a fixed mindset and weak egos.
To fix this dynamic, it often helps to:
Here is a great example of what a competitive relationship looks like:
He also always and only refers to his wife as “beautiful”. And he says she looked exactly like the woman he wanted. Another sign of narcissism.
#7. Downward Spiral Relationships
In the downward spiral one partner self destructs and the other follows suit.
This is an all too common toxic relationship among drug addicts.
One partner was doing drugs or starts doing drugs and then introduces the other into the drug scene.
At the beginning all seems great.
The new experiences, the excitement of the forbidden and walking the path together all make for memorable feelings.
The partner introducing the other to the new experiences takes on the role of the shepard and the leader.
If it’s the man, it’s very exciting for the woman and she can come to idolize him (see Christiane F for a movie example, awesome movie by the way).
If it’s her to drag him, he will develop a perverse attachment.
Then they keep going down together each dragging each other down.
It often entails lots of drama and possible escalation into violence (see Sid and Nancy).
The song we found love in a hopeless place is a story of a highly toxic relationship until she finally breaks free.
And he keeps spiraling down.
#8. Toxic Relationship Dances
Toxic dances are relationships where one partner takes on a role that only exists in relation to the other.
Not all dances are toxic relationships.
For example, the man taking a more traditional man and the female taking a more traditional female role is not toxic.
However there are a instances where dysfunctional relationships become toxic.
Here are some:
- Authority & Rebel: one partner lays down the law and the other undermines it
- Parent & Child: one partner plays the wise and rational side, the other the clueless baby
- Saint & Sinner: the saint rescues, the sinner gets in trouble (dependent/codependent)
- Chaser & Runner: one partner seeks intimacy and contact, the other runs for independence
- Planet & Sun: one partner demands and expects, the other caters to every whim (often in narcissistic relationships)
Here is an example of a parent child relationship dance from Sex And The City:
Read more here on dysfunctional dances:
#9. Never-Ending Bickering
Gottman’s research says that conflict is not always bad.
However, two conditions must be met:
Contempt is the worst of them all.
Contempt communicates that we feel our partner is inferior and not good enough. It’s an emotion of superiority and disgust, and disgust is the opposite of love.
When contempt enters a relationship a vicious circle starts which results in divorce in more than 90% of the cases.
And divorce is often better than a toxic relationship.
The argument in Forgetting Sarah Marshall has lots of contempt verbals and nonverbals:
Her: ‘Oh, I’m Aldous Snow. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. ‘No, no drinks for me, thanks. ‘Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.’
That’s a lot of contempt there.
#10. Power Struggle Relationships
Some individuals, most often men, are power addicts.
Being a power addict means that every little suggestions, argument, dispute or feedback is distorted into a war.
A war that he needs to win.
Power addicts aren’t always direct about it though.
Sometimes they just make up excuses to delay or deny you so that you can’t “win” with your request.
Maybe you want to change channel on the TV and they aren’t even watching.
But they reply: “wait a second, I need to hear this”
Or maybe you ask him to take you to the dry cleaner on the way home.
And they speed towards home saying “sorry I really need to run home to make an urgent call”.
They make up stories because they need to have the last word.
Some women fall for the power addict because they confuse their steam-rolling approach for strong leadership.
It’s not strong leadership though. If anything, it’s a sign of an internal weakness.
Power addicts make for truly toxic relationships, and refusing influence has been shown to be a leading indicator of break-ups.
#11. Emotional Roller Coaster
The big question:
What really keeps people into a toxic relationship?
It’s the roller coaster effect.
Some people indeed do not really want to get out of a relationship.
Some partner are perversely attracted to their toxic partner.
And what causes that attraction is the roller coaster of feelings.
When a toxic relationship can drag you down, down, down and then take you up, up, up, that’s extremely addictive to our brains (something we mentioned in how to drive him crazy).
Not all toxic relationships present a roller coaster of feelings and emotions, but those that do are the hardest to break free from.
The Oscar winning “La Vita E’ Bella” presents an avoidant/anxious toxic relationship with the typical roller coaster effect:
Notice all the drama, how devastating it is for her.
But then… He comes back and rescues her.
When he rides back she forgets of all the nastiness that preceded it.
She forgets it was him who abandoned her there.
Now, she feels that he is her rescuer on a shiny armor.
And that he is the only one who can make her feel great.
Getting Out of Toxic Relationship
How to end a toxic relationship?
If the advise was as simple as “just end it”, toxic relationship probably wouldn’t exist at all in the first place.
Some life roadblock can get in the way.
Some people for example feel tied by children, low self esteem, fear of repercussions, lack of options, financial dependency or social pressure.
However, as a rule of thumb, human psychological biases often make changes seem much scarier and difficult than they actually are.
Indeed usually, under heavier scrutiny, most of the roadblocks can be removed or mitigated.
Research for example says that a divorce is better for children than growing up in a house with a bad relationship.
And tackling lack of options and financial dependency will improve your life as it also set you free from toxicity.
What about social pressure?
People who put pressure you to stay in a toxic relationship are not usually people you should listen to.
They either don’t care about you or don’t know what you’re going through.
In either case, they should have no say on what’s best for you.
Here is a more in depth article on getting out of toxic relationship.
You can’t fly with the eagles if you keep hanging with the turkeys.
The quicker, the safer; the earlier, the better.