Relationships take various forms, and they go through their own peaks and valleys, just as with the rest of life. In a marriage, for instance, the couple might move from the honeymoon phase and into a season of financial hardship that tests their ability to resolve conflict and problem-solve. Some couples will struggle with that, while others will deal with the conflict and difficult circumstances in a healthy manner.
Again, couples go through all sorts of things, and many healthy relationships will face challenges, sometimes with mixed results. However, the mark of healthy relationships is that they don’t remain in a state of conflict, nor do they endlessly repeat the same mistakes without learning or growing from them.
In other words, difficult seasons will come, but healthy relationships weather those storms through mutual respect, affection, good conflict management skills, and so on.
In other relationships, what’s lacking are these same hallmarks of a healthy relationship. These toxic relationships are a hotbed of simmering conflict – one or both partners are in constant fight or flight mode, and they are not happy or fulfilled. There can be toxic patterns in a relationship, but a toxic relationship is one in which those patterns are a feature, not a bug in the system. Below are a few signs to look out for that might point to your relationship as being toxic.
Emotional detachment in a toxic relationship.
In a healthy relationship, the partners are emotionally connected and vulnerable to one another. They share themselves, offer one another validation, and show that they care for each other in various ways. Emotional detachment can happen for a season, say for instance if one partner is in a time crunch at work. However, sharing one’s feelings with their partner is what makes for a healthy relationship. Emotional detachment can happen in various ways, including:
You don’t celebrate each other’s wins. In a healthy relationship, the couple supports one another and celebrates their respective wins. If the atmosphere in the relationship is one where your wins aren’t celebrated, and possibly where an air of competition reigns, that could be problematic.
Negative spontaneous emotional reactions. Your partner’s gut-level impressions of you, such as whether they like you or find you interesting, or whether they think you are competent, or how you might compare to other people – all these can point to the health of your relationship. A relationship dominated by spontaneous negative emotional reactions is a cause for concern.
Lack of self-disclosure. Relationship health is supported by emotional self-disclosure, where you are vulnerable with, listen to, and mutually support each other. Sharing your important feelings within the relationship matters, as does listening well and being responsive to such self-disclosures. If this interplay of sharing and listening well is absent from the relationship, it is cause for concern.
Few positive non-verbal behaviors. We speak with more than just our words. We can use touch, our faces, our bodies, and the tone of our voices to communicate alongside our words. A relational environment where there are few positive non-verbal behaviors such as smiles, laughter, hugging, etc., might point to an unhealthy dynamic in the relationship.
It’s also important to ask yourself if the dominant tone of your relationship is one of affirmation or criticism. Of course, we don’t always get things right, but if your spouse is constantly criticizing you – how you dress, how you look, speak, act, and so on, that’s not a healthy situation. Emotional detachment, if it becomes a habit, signals the deterioration of a relationship, and it needs to be addressed.
A lack of safety in a toxic relationship.
In a relationship, it’s important for you and your children to feel safe. Safety can be emotional or physical safety. With emotional safety, do you feel able to express your emotions without feeling judged or like you’re failing somehow? Do you feel like people care how you feel, and that your emotions are taken into consideration?
Physical safety can be compromised if you’re threatened with violence, or if resources such as food, clothing, health care, and shelter are held at ransom. Relationships marked by the lack of safety are likely toxic.
No boundaries or boundaries are repeatedly violated
Boundaries are important for the health of any relationship. Boundaries signal that each person has their own personality and needs, and respecting those boundaries shows consideration and promotes individual integrity. Boundaries can center around finances, privacy, use of time, friendships, sex, and much else.
If in your relationship you either don’t have boundaries or the boundaries you set are violated repeatedly, it may signal a toxic relationship. Each relationship needs boundaries to prevent it from slipping into codependency or other similar dysfunction, and when boundaries are violated, there need to be consequences. Repeated violations of reasonable boundaries display a fundamental lack of respect that needs to be remedied.
Constant cover-ups in a toxic relationship.
Spouses often cover for one another. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including not wanting them to look bad, or wanting to spare them from something uncomfortable or humiliating. There is a line between that and covering up bad behavior for them so that they escape accountability, or so that truth about them doesn’t get out.
If you find yourself often covering up for your partner because they were drunk, rude, physically, or verbally abusive, and so on, that points to a toxic relationship dynamic. You shouldn’t be part of their personal PR and cleanup crew, and covering up for them reveals unhealthy (possibly codependent) dynamics in the relationship.
Lack of freedom in a toxic relationship.
In a meaningful relationship with our significant other, we should feel the most accepted and loved within that space. When we are with our friends, these are supposed to be the people that get us, that understand our weirdness and welcome us, nonetheless. In our family, that space above others is where we ought to feel appreciated, loved for who we are, and feel that our best interests are high up on the agenda.
If you feel that you don’t have freedom in your relationship, it’s possibly problematic. Possibly problematic because sometimes we want more freedom than we ought to get, like a teenager wanting to stay out way beyond what their parent thinks is wise, or if a spouse wants the freedom to commit adultery.
Rather, the freedom in mind here relates to things like feeling the freedom to be yourself, to make mistakes, to be with people such as your friends and family. It’s a problem when you’re constantly criticized for being who you are, if any mistakes you make are closely scrutinized while those of others aren’t, or if you get isolated from people such as your family and friends.
You should be able to meet with your family and hang with your friends, but when your partner wants to isolate you, it’s a sign of toxicity and may be a prelude to other abusive behaviors.
A lack of mutuality in a toxic relationship.
At the heart of a relationship is what you do for each other. You celebrate one another; you are there for one another during your tough times; you rebuke one another when there is a need for it, you forgive each other for mistakes that you make, you take on responsibilities to help one another flourish, and you each make compromises for the sake of the other.
If you find yourself in a situation where this is flowing in one direction, that could be a sign of a toxic relationship. A lack of mutuality in a relationship is a cause for concern that you should take seriously. There ought to be a healthy give and take within the relationship, and while things are never balanced equally, there should be some level of reciprocity in how you do things in your relationship.
It cannot be that only one person constantly needs to be forgiven, that one person is the one who makes the compromises, or that only one person needs rebuke. A relationship is the coming together of equals, and that means each of you must receive dignity, respect, and consideration.
If you detect these signs of toxicity in your relationship, having a conversation with your partner about them can help you begin addressing the issue. With the help of a couple’s therapist, you can turn a toxic relationship around, but it needs you both to show up and put in the work.
“Holding Hands”, Courtesy of Shelby Deeter, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hugs”, Courtesy of Candice Picard, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “I give you my heart”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Holding Hands”, Courtesy of Pablo Heimplatz, Unsplash.com, CC0 License