There’s no such thing as a perfect relationship. Every relationship, whether it’s with your romantic partner, a friend, or family member, will have its ups and downs. But what makes something toxic versus having healthy disagreements is that in healthy relationships both parties are willing to negotiate, listen, and attempt to make improvements. In toxic relationships there is no accountability with either one or both parties in the relationship. It can range from subtle toxicity on one end, to the extreme in the form of abuse on the other.
How Do You Know You’re in a Toxic Relationship?
I’ve heard clients say, “I’ve been in worse relationships.” Sure, there may be no abuse going on, but is it fulfilling? Is it satisfying? Does it lead to your own personal growth? Are you able to express your hopes and dreams? And is the other person supportive of those hopes and dreams? What about the other way around? It may not be in your best interest to continue the relationship if no one is willing to improve it.
If the relationship is at a point where you feel like your values and priorities are being compromised, like your partner isn’t willing to compromise, hear you, or understand your needs (and vice versa!), then that might be an indication that you or the other person are not committed to the relationship. When this happens, it can spiral into unhealthy patterns.
Different Types of Unhealthy Relationships
Some relationships can be unhealthy in that they are stagnant. They prevent you or the other person from growing or pursuing your goals. The relationship is stagnant or holding you back from pursuing your goals. Either one or both people are complacent, don’t support the other person from achieving their goals, or fear change and what it might do to the relationship.
Codependency can happen in any kind of relationship. You become so enmeshed and overly invested in your partner. It looks like dropping everything for the other person; putting your needs aside; not having your own hobbies or interests; and cutting other people out of your lives. Everything you do has to revolve around the other person. It could be the result of the other person trying to be controlling, or perhaps that one of you is a people pleaser. Everyone has their own contribution to the relationship, not just one person.
Some people have a tendency to want to always help, fix, or rescue other people. When you are so focused on helping someone else, you’re not able to grow, improve, or be a better version of yourself because you’ve put their needs ahead of your own. This can create a toxic relationship because it can lead to feeling suffocated or resentful. It also doesn’t give the other person the space to grow themselves, leading to codependency.
Another indicator that your relationship is unhealthy is that you don’t feel safe to open up and share your needs, thoughts, and feelings. You’re afraid you’ll be criticized, shamed, ridiculed, or even ignored and dismissed when you ask for help or share your hopes and goals. Are you afraid to say no when requests are made of you because you fear they won’t want to be with you anymore or will be mad at you? When you feel obligated to fulfill their requests out of fear, constantly feel shame, self-doubt, guilt, or like you’re being gaslit, these are all signs that you are in a toxic relationship.
Unhealthy relationships can also take the form of passive aggression, straight up aggression, or manipulation. If you want to understand more about the difference between being assertive to get your needs met versus being confrontational, read this blog post.
If you are in an unhealthy relationship, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to end the relationship (or at least not yet). To get your relationship back on track and have your needs met, you first have to identify your values, beliefs, and priorities. Take the time to reflect, journal, or talk to your therapist.
Once you have a clear idea of your values, beliefs, priorities, goals, etc., verbalize them to your partner or the other person in the relationship (parent, sibling, friend, etc.) and allow them to express theirs as well. They might not know what their values and beliefs are right now, so give them time to reflect on it.
Then ask for assistance. What do you need from them to support those values and goals? How can you support them? How can you support each other?
Set firm boundaries and communicate them to the other person. If you’re going to set boundaries, they need to be repetitious. It’s not just stating it once. You have to keep repeating it so the other person knows you are serious and adheres to them.
When someone sets boundaries for the first time, the other person often retaliates. This can be in the form of not believing you (why you need to be firm and repetitive), unintentionally crossing those boundaries (maybe they forgot and need reminding), subtle manipulation, or can be more extreme, like intentionally manipulating you or dismissing you. Are they taking you seriously? Do they even care? Are they blaming you and not taking any accountability? Is this a mutually respectful relationship? Or is there toxicity? If they retaliate or are dismissive, it could be out of fear. They might be afraid that the relationship will change, you’ll change, or that they’ll lose you.
If you are not consistent in reinforcing your boundaries, you can’t expect the other person to respect those boundaries. That’s why repetition is important. How many times have you set the boundary? Once and then no more discussion about it? You can’t blame the other person for forgetting or for even trying to take advantage. If you don’t take your own boundaries seriously, you can’t expect the other person to. Even non-toxic people will take advantage, not because they are manipulative, but maybe out of habit. We spend a lot of our time on autopilot, so they may have forgotten about your boundaries, didn’t realize that boundary was set, or may not realize they are dismissing it. So if you don’t remind them when they’ve crossed the line, it’s as if the boundary doesn’t exist. Healthy relationships have their flaws, but it’s about compromise. Both of you have to be willing to care about the other person’s thoughts and feelings.
What a Healthy Relationship Looks Like
If you set boundaries and the other person has adjusted to them or attempted to, they respect your values and priorities, and they support you, then you are probably in a healthy relationship.
Think of shifting gears: when you have gears in a motor that are aligned, they come together and work together. When you set new boundaries, the teeth of the gears aren’t exactly aligned. When the other person retaliates, the gears get jammed up. But as the other person adjusts to your boundaries, their gear shifts to align with your gear so everything works smoothly. The other person attempts to put in the effort to make adjustments in order to meet your needs and respect your boundaries.
As I said above, healthy relationships aren’t perfect all the time. Sometimes your gears may be out of alignment, but if you both put in the effort to get them working together, that is the foundation for a strong and healthy relationship.
Limit Interaction or Letting Go
After setting boundaries, you still notice that the relationship is toxic and no changes have been made since the initial conversation and the reminders. Nothing is being worked out. If the other person continues to retaliate and has not shifted gears at all, you are likely in a toxic relationship. If they are being dismissive of your boundaries and needs, and it feels like the relationship is just taking from you and not nourishing you, it’s time to make a change. If there’s no room for improvement and you are stagnant or regressing, be mindful of what that looks like and what your threshold is. Then decide if it’s time to let go of this person.
Identify the positive supports around you. You don’t have to do this alone, whatever kind of relationship this is. You want to acknowledge that you have support and utilize that so you can have an independent life. Establish that structure and support before you cut ties. And remember to know your boundaries and stick to them throughout the entire process.
After you have established your independence and support network, it’s time to have the conversation with the other person. Explain to them that there’s been no shift or effort on their part to make any adjustments. Be specific about changes made and not made, how the relationship regressed, is harmful, and is holding both of you back. State how your boundaries were overstepped and why that won’t be tolerated. Restate your goals, hopes, beliefs, and values and how they aren’t supportive of those. You can say things such as, “I feel like I’ve regressed,” “This relationship isn’t bringing positivity to my world,” “The relationship is draining me,” “It’s taking away from me,” “It’s keeping me from what I’m trying to accomplish,” “This relationship is exhausting,” or “I’m not getting anything out of it.” You can’t control their reaction, but you can control what you do next. They may be angry, dismissive, or hurt, but the whole point of this is to make sure you are doing what is best for you.
Set new boundaries about what you want contact with that person to look like if there is to be any. Again, they may not adhere to your new boundaries, so you have to stay firm and remind yourself, and the other person, of what they are.
Therapy Can Help You Let Go of a Toxic Relationship
It isn’t easy to let go of relationships, especially if you’ve been in it for a long time. Are you afraid to take these steps of setting boundaries, enforcing them, or limiting contact? What is this fear stemming from? Could it be your own unhealthy habits interfering with speaking up for yourself and putting your needs first? Are you a people pleaser? If you are scared to take these steps, talking to a therapist can help you gain clarity on what you want out of life and how to achieve it. Dr. Violante provides teletherapy (online video therapy) to adults living in New York and Florida who are ready to move forward and make positive changes in their life. Contact her online or call 754-333-1484 today to learn more.