What Is a Toxic Relationship?
A toxic relationship is characterized by ongoing negative behaviors and dynamics that harm the individuals involved. It results from basing a relationship on fairness, where both parties constantly evaluate what they believe is fair and become resentful when their expectations are unmet. This leads to a state of will-conflict, where each person fights for what they feel is rightfully theirs, often disregarding the needs and well-being of their partner. Will-conflict is the most destructive element in all relationships.
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Toxic Relationships
Most couples believe basing their relationship on what’s fair should keep them together. Actually, it drives them apart because it doesn’t leave room for self-expression and accepting differences or disagreeing openly, honestly, and respectfully. Basing a relationship on what’s fair results and obligation, leverage, resentment, building a case against your partner, entitlement, and eventually feeling empty and despair. Will-Conflict results from basing your relationships on what each person believes is fair and is the most destructive element in all relationships. These are the common signs of a toxic relationship.
Signs and Symptoms
Warning signs of a toxic relationship include possessive and controlling behaviors, consistent boundary violations, and a one-sided nature where one partner’s needs consistently overshadow the other’s. In other words, one person is on the field of the relationship and the other person is in the stands. One person is working hard to keep it all together and their partner is observing.
Medical conditions, mental health disorders, and high blood pressure are often presented to healthcare providers as the problem. While these health conditions and common symptoms are problematic, they may be driven by acute stress and stress responses to relationship toxicity.
In a toxic relationship, there is a lack of trust, communication, and respect. Abusive relationships, including emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and even physical violence, may be present, causing significant harm to those involved. Physical health, emotional well-being, and mental health are all affected.
Manipulative behaviors and a lack of empathy further contribute to the toxicity, preventing any possibility of a healthy relationship or genuine connection. Toxic Relationships are not just comprised of toxic behavior. Two toxic people make the concoction together, just in different ways. Often one person identifies their partner as the toxic partner but doesn’t recognize their contribution to the toxic relationship.
Toxic relationships result in will-conflict. Polarization, emotional fusion, and willfulness are other terms for will-conflict.
How Relationships Become Toxic
The Line of Giving and Receiving
In any relationship, a boundary exists between giving and receiving, like the boundary between inhaling and exhaling. Both individuals in the relationship are givers and recipients. Ideally, in a healthy relationship, you give freely and open-heartedly without expecting anything in return, and your partner receives graciously, simply saying “thank you.” This creates a strong connection between the two individuals (the inhale). It also allows both individuals to have space to be themselves (the exhale).
Givers and Recipients
However, the direction of the relationship is determined by how two people receive in their relationship. Receiving from your partner occurs based on what each person thinks is fair or freely. Even when you give freely, gladly, and open-heartedly without expecting anything in return, the recipient may still feel obligated or indebted to you. The giver may be unaware of this and believe that the recipient is receiving the same way they are giving. This disconnect can often lead to misunderstandings and stressful situations, potentially turning good relationships into bad ones.
Couples communicating their expectations and preferences openly and honestly open the door to better understanding each other. Both individuals are givers and recipients. Recognizing the freedom each person has to receive as they choose keeps the weight of responsibility on each individual. The line of giving and receiving is always present in every relationship. The question therefore is not how your partner gives as much as how you receive. Do you receive freely expressing gratitude and thanks, or do you feel obligated back to your partner?
Motives for Giving and Receiving
Obligated receiving and entitled giving don’t work in personal relationships because they are two sides of fairness. They bind both people in different ways to performance. Fear drives both responses and makes you the point of reference or the subject of the relationship. Both entitlement and obligation are efforts to connect only on your terms and result in polarization, over-connection, over-investment, personalization, resentment, feeling stuck or trapped, less communication, and, paradoxically, the inability to come together.
- How does focusing on connection result in such disconnection?
- How do you actively encourage your partner’s independence (exhaling) when you have invested so much of yourself in the relationship, focusing on the connection?
- How do you allow your partner to be separate or different from you when your happiness and well-being is in them?
- How do you make room for your partner to be themself in areas dearly crucial to you?
Two approaches to answering these questions are available to you. The first answer is to base your relationship on what each person thinks is fair and leads to will-conflict. The second answer is to base your relationship on personal freedom and choices. Let’s look at the first approach.
The Process of Giving and Receiving
A recipient may feel like they’ve got to walk on eggshells, keep the peace, please you, or avoid conflict allowing obligation to enter the relationship. The giver doesn’t obligate the recipient and doesn’t necessarily know the recipient feels obligated. So a giver does more and can’t understand why their partner isn’t thrilled with all they’re doing “for” them.
Over time a blow-up occurs over the most negligible difference or disagreement, and you scratch your head and don’t understand what went wrong. The obligation is living just below the surface of your relationship. You have given freely, but your partner feels obligated, and you can’t figure out what’s happening.
Feeling obligated to your partner results in a change of perspective about the giver. A giver may be simply conversing about everything they have done for the recipient making conversation with no ill intent behind their comments. How the recipient receives these comments reinforces the obligation they already feel. If the recipient blames the giver for their feelings of obligation, they may also begin believing the worst about the giver.
When this happens, the recipient receives innocent comments the giver makes as leverage. In fact, the giver may not intend to leverage the recipient at all. Every comment is questioned because the recipient believes the worst about the giver, and the recipient resists the giver as a result. Feeling obligated and leveraged, the recipient is much more emotionally reactive to the giver, blaming them for the feelings of obligation and leverage.
To be certain, some givers give in an attempt to leverage the recipient based on all they’ve done for them. This usually results in pushback, resistance, or both. No other person has the power to leverage you unless you allow it. Attempts to control another person are classic manipulation and only effective if you participate by giving your choices away. This is a classic developing toxic relationship behavior pattern. The result is that either one or both people feel trapped and unable to escape the unhealthy behavior pattern of obligated receiving and entitled giving.
Resentment is typically directed at the giver but is the recipient’s responsibility. You resent yourself for giving into the obligation and leverage you feel. The recipient’s dependence on the giver fuels feelings of obligation, leverage, and resentment. The giver does not have the power to obligate you, leverage you, or make you resent them. These feelings are your reactions to how you have received at the line of giving and receiving. You can always receive freely, rejecting any obligation, leverage, or resentment.
Resentment builds over time with a cumulative effect resulting in more self-protection and less empathy toward your partner. Reluctance to trust each other grows the more you resent your partner. Compromising yourself to keep the relationship together, you don’t know how not to feel obligated, and your resentment grows. Why should you live in a dirty house because your husband is lazy? That’s not fair. Why should you change the oil in your car when you cook all the time? That’s not fair.
Feeling stuck and trapped, you resent that you have no way out of the obligation you feel. Eventually, you resent your partner for not seeing you or releasing you from your obligation. interestingly, your partner cannot release you from your dependence, obligation, or resentment. As a result, you feel stuck and trapped in the relationship, blaming your partner. Resentment prevents either person from considering their part in their relationship stalemate.
By doing all kinds of things “for” your partner, you develop an attitude of entitlement or a sense of what you deserve from your partner. Is balancing the relationship ledger or trying to measure up because of your partner or you? Yes, because of you. Does your entitlement have anything to do with your partner? No, nothing at all. When you don’t get back from your partner what you feel like you deserve from them, you end the relationship angry, frustrated, exhausted, but most of all, in despair. Nothing you ever did was good enough, and you could never measure up or be good enough to get your partner to value you as much as you appeared to value them.
Toxic individuals become abusive partners when they don’t get what they “deserve.” Equally, your partner may feel angry for the obligation and leverage you’ve exerted on them or expect from them. Unhealthy expectations result in unhealthy behavior and unhealthy relationships.
The entitlement of the giver feels suffocating to the recipient, denying them room to exhale or be themselves in the relationship. Giving to get demands the recipient play by the rules the giver establishes whether the recipient agrees or not. Entitlement is living just below the surface of your relationship. You have given to get, and your partner, feeling obligated, resents you just as much as you resent your partner for not giving you what you “deserve,” Obligation and entitlement originate in the heart of the recipient and the giver because neither trusts their partner to give them what they want when they want it.
Emptiness and Despair
Using fairness as an approach to a relationship leaves you empty inside. You believe giving to get will result in a mutually satisfying relationship. Still, you believe you give more than your partner and feel empty inside. Giving to get characterizes this below-the-line relationship approach, resulting in exhaustion and emptiness. Ultimately, you have nothing left to give, feeling wholly depleted and blaming your partner because they’ve not reciprocated what you needed. Your emptiness comes from how you approach relationships, and it doesn’t work. Placing your life in your partner’s hands, you have nothing left to give and don’t know where to go from here or what else to do.
Illustrating A Toxic Relationship
Sarah and John have been married for ten years. Over time, they’ve realized that fairness in their relationship means equally dividing household chores. However, Sarah works longer hours, leaving her exhausted, while John measures their relationship by their salaries.
Sarah feels obligated to cook dinner every night she tells herself that’s what a good wife does. Her feelings of guilt and shame prevent her from addressing her feelings of obligation or asking for help. Both are contributing equally but differently to their dysfunctional relationship.
Does John’s expectation of Sarah obligate her, or does she obligate herself? Her need to keep the peace and adhere to being a good wife prevents her from directly expressing her thoughts and feelings. Sarah’s obligation is about her and will eventually profoundly affect how she feels about John. Sarah could tell John she feels obligated and set herself free from her obligation deciding how much she cooks or doesn’t cook. Her obligation is hers, no matter how much John expects dinner every night.
John points out that he makes twice as much money as she does and shouldn’t have to carry the weight of household chores and prepare dinner every night. At the same time, he can’t understand why she is always exhausted and has no interest in an intimate relationship with him. His lack of empathy increases her emotional stress and can result in emotional distress in their increasingly unhealthy relationship.
Sara’s part in their increasingly stressful and potentially toxic relationship is that she does not know how to tell John what she thinks and feels as her own advocate. Increasingly the cycle of abuse and abusive behaviors continues. The more she attempts to accommodate and comply with John’s demands, the greater her blood pressure and heart rate go up, resulting in acute stress and needing to see her healthcare provider.
In this example, John and Sarah’s toxic relationship is a mixture of Sara’s fear, obligation, and shame, reinforcing John’s presumption and entitlement. Neither person recognizes the unhealthy relationship they are fostering.
The most destructive element in all relationships comes from the will-conflict that results from neither person getting what they want when they want it. This conflict of wills results in two people resisting each other, becoming emotionally fused and polarized against each other.
Feeling Stuck and Trapped
Both Sarah and John feel trapped in their relationship and blame each other. Having placed their lives in each other’s hands and basing their relationship on what each thinks is fair, neither knows how to do anything different.
Building a Case
John and Sarah have done everything they know to keep their relationship together. The harder they work to keep it together, the more it comes apart. Their efforts to save their relationship have resulted in it coming apart. They are at a complete loss at this point, having built a case against each other. She silently resents him for not recognizing her exhaustion, while John feels resentful that she doesn’t meet his expectations. This festering resentment is a hallmark of toxic relationships.
Sarah and John have long since believed they deserve more from each other than they’ve received. John expects Sarah to meet his wants and needs based on how much he does for her. Sarah expects John to understand her without communicating her thoughts or feelings.
Emptiness and Despair
Sarah and John, once deeply in love, now feel empty and in despair. They question why they stay together, but the fear of loneliness keeps them entwined in their toxic cycle of dependence, obligation, leverage, resentment, entitlement, emptiness, and despair.
Will conflict becomes the driving force in their relationship. They engage in heated arguments, resist each other’s perspectives, and struggle to have conversations. This constant conflict prevents them from any connection and ultimately threatens the survival of their relationship. They no longer hear each other because they adhere more to how the other person has victimized them than to each other. Self-protection and emotional reactivity format their relationship where love and concern once flourished.
Solutions for Your Toxic Relationships
Path to Healing
Seven Principles for Making Your Relationships Work: A Spiritual Guide for Greater Connection, Love and Intimacy is a book to help individuals and couples simply learn how to have a relationship that works without using this framework of fairness. The outline is below.
- Be Still is not merely an absence of motion; it’s an active engagement with the present, a conscious unfolding of the now. Being Still allows you to empty yourself to hear and know another.
- Honor Your Relationship means recognizing others as more than convenient arrangements or transient affiliations. This principle encourages a shift from using each other to elevating and celebrating each other.
- Do Justice When we practice justice, we create a haven of self-regulation, celebrating our partner’s hopes and dreams for their sake. Discerning between what is mine from yours and giving it back, the definition of justice breathes life into dry bones.
- Ask, Seek, and Knock are acts of profound faith, courage, vulnerability, and transparency, resurrecting communication from accusation to conversation.
- Receive Freely is not passive; it’s a courageous act of co-creation where you and your partner, hand in hand, make something greater than the sum of individual contributions. The one plus one equals three math equation points to a gestalt in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
- Hold As A Gift is a revolutionary act in a world of entitlement. It means you see your relationship not as a right but as a grace—a miraculous occurrence you didn’t earn but were fortunate enough to experience.
- Give Hilariously is giving with abandon, an absurd sense of joy defying reason and decorum. You give hilariously like you’ve tapped into God’s reservoir of love, an inexhaustible divine affection.
Getting Help with Will-Conflict
Recognizing the signs and patterns of toxic relationships is crucial for one’s well-being. Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries, practicing open and honest communication, and prioritizing self-care are often touted steps in breaking free from the toxic dynamics of basing a relationship on “fairness.” Still, these are ineffective when the relationship has deteriorated and will-conflict is fully engaged.
Seeking the help of a relationship therapist or a trained mental health professional can provide valuable guidance and resources to address and navigate the challenges of a toxic relationship. Unfortunately, not all mental health professionals can effectively identify and treat this toxic behavior.
Remember, a healthy relationship is built on trust, respect, and mutual support, where individuals can grow and flourish together. Taking a deep breath and seeking confidential assistance from a counselor trained in systems theory and with a clear track record of knowing how to apply systems concepts to relationships can be the first step toward a happier and healthier future. A Clinical Member in the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) with a number of years working with couples may be a place to start looking for a qualified therapist. Therapistlocator.net