Every relationship can going down a toxic path if partners don’t support and nurture it. In this article, experts share tips on how to recognise various signs that something's wrong – and how to fix it.
A toxic relationship is the worst kind of human contamination; it affects a person inside and out. I speak from experience. A healthy relationship, on the other hand, makes us a better person, boosts our self-esteem, confidence, and happiness, and has a positive impact on the way we view the world, and more importantly, ourselves.
A relationship can turn toxic when a caring partner becomes a negative force. Neglect and lack of communication can make it noxious, says Valentina Tudose, relationship coach at Happy Ever After, a Hong Kong-based dating agency.
“A loving partner who puts the happiness of the other above his or her own, and who is willing to put in the hard work to facilitate growth, is almost never going to create or tolerate toxicity in a relationship,” says Tudose. “However, this has the potential to happen if they also feel ignored, deprioritised or not heard.”
So what defines a toxic relationship? Is it about obsession and/or being controlling?
Simply put, a toxic relationship lacks the fundamental requirements that support and enhance the growth of a partnership. It encompasses a range of negative emotions, from permanent anger and constant conflict, to contempt, to a lack of respect, and abuse.
Abuse takes many forms, from physical to emotional to psychological. “Gaslighting”, in which one partner wears down the other by psychological means, to the point where the victim begins to question their own sanity, has also come to be recognised as a form of abuse.
“Healthy balanced relationships are those that make us feel good about ourselves, where we feel loved, supported, and cared for, so that we are able to grow and thrive,” says Tudose. “They tend to be based on fundamental requirements such as mutual respect and support, admiration, and a good balance between give-and-take.
“The sad truth is that sometimes even relationships that start with rainbows and butterflies can turn negative and toxic after a while. It is each partner’s responsibility to determine when they can no longer tolerate the toxicity of such a relationship,” she says.
Tudose says there are many reasons even idyllic relationships can become unbearable.
“First, not many people understand the significance of determining their relationship requirements upfront, so they focus on superficial things like sexual chemistry, a favourable financial status or looks – or all of these things – which means very soon they discover they were never truly compatible in the first place,” says Tudose.
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Also, we reap what we sow. So don’t be lazy and never stop working on your relationship to ensure it stays loving and supportive, because it’s a long-term investment.
Some couple mistakenly believe that just be getting together their job is done and don’t invest time to nurture the relationship, says Tudose. “As a result, they grow apart, losing intimacy and connection as well as respect and admiration for each other,” she says.
The best way to protect your relationship is to be very clear that your requirements are being met. Don’t ignore red flags like controlling or angry behaviour, and avoid heaping unnecessary judgment and criticism on to your other half, she says.
Watch: How to keep your relationship from turning toxic
There are many indications that a relationship is no longer – or never was – good for you; they are what we often describe as deal-breakers. This can include a lack of trust and respect, hostility and aggressive behaviour, lack of communication and continual avoidance of issues, a desire to control everything the partner does or says, constant conflict or drama, criticism, judgment and jealousy, and dishonesty.
“Essentially any type of behaviour that is undermining the other partner and makes them feel bad about themselves is a sign something is really wrong with the relationship,” she says.
Anyone can end up in a toxic relationship.
“People who are most vulnerable to being caught in such a relationship are the ones with a low sense of self-worth who need external validation to feel good about themselves. It is, however, a self-fulfilling prophecy that when we don’t love and accept ourselves and seek approval from others, this external validation will never be enough,” Tudose says.
Some good can come out of a toxic relationship: the motivation to work on your self-worth and get off a self-destructive path before long-term damage stops you having healthy relationships later in life.
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The question is: can it be fixed before resorting to a potentially messy and painful break up?
“Good relationships are like a well-oiled machine – they do need an MOT every now and then,” says Tudose [MOT is a British term referring to the regular roadworthiness checks vehicles must pass]. “If you want to avoid getting to a toxic stage, give your relationship regular care and attention. I often suggest to my clients to create connection rituals which allow them to periodically sit down with each other and evaluate the ‘state of the relationship’.”
If a relationship has become unbearable, it is time to seek help from an expert or trusted individual.
“As the key feature of a toxic relationship is disempowerment through loss of self-worth, it is often necessary that the victim seeks professional help to get clarity about what is really happening and get the strength to leave,” Tudose says.
“Many people who seek help to leave toxic relationships say, ‘I lost myself completely, I don’t know who I am any more.’ This loss of identity, feeling aimless and worthless are among the most damaging effects of toxic love. Most people feel at some point or another in their life that they are not good enough and any relationship that reinforces this negative belief is simply not worth saving.”
So how do we recognise a relationship is on a slippery slope? There are some key questions we need to ask:
1) Does it make me feel good about myself?
2) Do I feel safe, supported, and valued?
3) Do I ever feel manipulated, or pressure to do things I am not comfortable with?
4) Is this relationship based on honesty and trust?
5) Are my personal requirements being met?
As long as you are aware of the signs, or learn to start recognising them, you can protect yourself from heartache, or help others in need who may be drowning.
Watch next: 12 Signs You're in a Healthy Relationship