Even a good relationship may have brief periods of behaviors we could label toxic on the part of one or both partners. Human beings, after all, are not perfect. Few of us have had any formal education in how to relate to others. We often have to learn as we go, hoping that our basic style of relating to significant others – often learned from our parents and/or friends – is at least reasonably effective.
As mentioned above, however, dysfunction is the norm in a toxic relationship. The toxic partner engages in inappropriate controlling and manipulative behaviors on pretty much a daily basis. Paradoxically, to the outside world, the toxic partner often behaves in an exemplary manner.
Note: Any relationship involving physical violence or substance abuse is by definition extremely toxic and requires immediate intervention and, with very few exceptions, separation of the two partners.
A toxic individual behaves the way he or she does essentially for one main reason: he or she must be in complete control and must have all the power in his or her relationship. Power sharing does not occur in any significant way in a toxic relationship. And while power struggles are normal in any relationship, particularly in the early stages of a marriage, toxic relationships are characterized by one partner absolutely insisting on being in control. Keep in mind, the methods used by such an individual to control his or her partner in a toxic relationship may or may not be readily apparent, even to their partner.
With the above in mind, let’s look at some of the more common types of dysfunctional behaviors that a toxic partner may use in a relationship with a significant other. These categories should not be seen as exclusive.
Side note : I have used the word victims to describe those who are involved with toxic partners.
This type of toxic individual will constantly belittle you. He or she will make fun of you, essentially implying that pretty much anything you say that expresses your ideas, beliefs, or wants is silly or stupid. A toxic partner will not hesitate to belittle you in public, in front of your friends or family. The toxic partner wants all the decision making power. Unfortunately, if you tolerate this deprecating behavior long enough, you very well may begin to believe you can’t make good decisions.
This type of toxic individual will often tell you that you’re lucky to have them as a partner, that no other man or woman would really want you. His or her goal is to keep your self esteem as low as possible so that you don’t challenge their absolute control of the relationship.
The “Bad Temper” Toxic Partner
Often these individuals have an unpredictable and “hair-trigger” temper. Their partners often describe themselves as “walking on egg shells” around the toxic partner, never quite knowing what will send him or her into a rage. This constant need for vigilance and inability to know what will trigger an angry outburst wears on both the “victim’s” emotional and physical health.
Again, it is noteworthy that this type of emotionally abusive partner rarely shows this side of his or her self to the outside world. He or she is frequently seen as a pleasant, easy-going person who almost everyone likes.
As you would expect, if you confront a “bad temper” partner about the inappropriateness of their anger, they will almost always blame their temper outburst on you. Somehow it’s your fault they yell and scream. This disowning of responsibility for their dysfunctional behavior is typical of a toxic partner.
A toxic relationship can, of course, occur not only between two individuals in a committed relationship, but also between friends or parents and their adult children. Control in these relationships, as well as in a committed relationship, is exercised by inducing guilt in the “victim.”
The guilt inducer controls by encouraging you to feel guilty any time you do something he or she doesn’t like. Not infrequently they will get someone else to convey their sense of “disappointment” or “hurt” to you. For example, your father calls up to tell you how disappointed your mother was that you didn’t come over for Sunday dinner.
A guilt inducer not only controls by inducing guilt but also by temporarily “removing” guilt if you end up doing what he or she wants you to do. For guilt-prone individuals, anything or anyone that removes guilt is very desirable and potentially almost addictive, so the guilt inducer has an extremely powerful means of control at their disposal.
Incidentally, guilt induction is the most common form of control used by a toxic parent(s) to control their adult children.
If you’ve ever tried to tell a significant other that you’re unhappy, hurt, or angry about something they did and somehow find yourself taking care of their unhappiness, hurt, or anger, you’re dealing with an overreactor/deflector.
You find yourself comforting them instead of getting comfort yourself. And, even worse, you feel bad about yourself for being “so selfish” that you brought up something that “upset” your partner so much. Needless to say, your initial concern, hurt, or irritation gets lost as you remorsefully take care of your partner’s feelings– and somehow your toxic partner finds a way to make this your fault!
The Over-Dependent Partner
Odd as it may seem, one method of toxic control is for your partner to be so passive that you have to make most decisions for them. These toxic controllers want you to make virtually every decision for them, from where to go to dinner to what car to buy. Remember, not deciding is a decision that has the advantage of making someone else – namely you – responsible for the outcome of that decision.
And, of course, you’ll know when you’ve made the “wrong” decision by your partner’s passive aggressive behavior such as pouting or not talking to you because you chose a movie or restaurant they didn’t enjoy. Or you choose to go to spend the weekend with your parents and your partner goes along but doesn’t speak to anyone for two days.
Passivity can be an extremely powerful means of control. If you’re involved in a relationship with a passive controller, you’ll likely experience constant anxiety and/or fatigue, as you worry about the effect of your decisions on your partner and are drained by having to make virtually every decision.
The “Independent” (Non-Dependable) Toxic Controller
This individual frequently disguises his or her toxic controlling behavior as simply asserting his or her “independence.” “I’m not going to let anyone control me” is their motto. This toxic individual will only rarely keep his or her commitments. Actually, what these individuals are up to is controlling you by keeping you uncertain about what they’re going to do.
Non-dependables will say they’ll call you, they’ll take the kids to a movie Saturday, they’ll etc. etc., but then they don’t. Something always comes up. They usually have a plausible excuse, but they simply don’t keep their commitments. As a result, they control you by making it next to impossible for you to make commitments or plans.
What’s even more distressing is that this type of toxic individual does not make you feel safe and secure in your relationship.
Users – especially at the beginning of a relationship – often seem to be very nice, courteous, and pleasant individuals. And they are, as long as they’re getting everything they want from you. What makes a relationship with a user toxic is its one way nature and the fact that you will end up never having done enough for them. Users are big time energy drainers who will in fact leave you if they find someone else who will do more for them.
The Possessive (Paranoid) Toxic Controller
This type of toxic individual is really bad news. Early in your relationship with them you may actually appreciate their “jealousy,” particularly if it isn’t too controlling. And most, but certainly not all, possessives will imply that once the two of you are married or in a committed relationship, they’ll be just fine.
Don’t believe it for a moment.
These toxic individuals will become more and more suspicious and controlling as time goes on. They do not see themselves in a relationship with you; they see themselves as possessing you.
Your efforts to reassure a toxic possessive about your fidelity and commitment to them will be in vain. If you stay in a relationship with such an individual you will cease to really have a life of your own.
Keep in mind that the toxicity of the above individuals is clearly a matter of degree. You may have experienced some, if not all, of these behaviors – hopefully in a mild form – occasionally in your relationships. And that’s the key word: occasionally. In a toxic relationship these behaviors are the norm, not the exception.
Most of us manipulate once in a while, play helpless, induce guilt, etc. We’re not perfect nor are our relationships. What distinguishes a toxic relationship is both the severity of these behaviors and how frequently they occur.
So why do people behave in toxic ways and why do others put up with such behaviors? The answer is the same for both individuals: poor self-esteem rooted in underlying insecurity. Toxic individuals behave the way they do because, at some level, they don’t believe they are lovable and/or that anyone would really willingly want to meet their needs. Their partners stay with toxic individuals because they too believe they are unlovable and that no one would willingly meet their needs.
But aren’t controlling individuals often narcissistic, don’t they simply have inflated egos, believe they’re entitled to everything they want at no cost to themselves?
Occasionally, particularly in the case of the toxic user, narcissism may be part of the problem, but narcissism itself is often a reaction to underlying insecurity.
The paradox is this: If you want to improve your relationship with a toxic partner, you have to be willing to leave that relationship if nothing changes. If you’re unwilling to do so, you have very limited power available to you. Your toxic partner will know ultimately, regardless of what they do, you really won’t leave.
So before you attempt to confront a toxic partner, make sure your self-esteem and self-confidence are good enough for you to know that you will be all right if they end the relationship with you (or you end up having to end it with them). If you’re not there I strongly urge you to get therapeutic help and/or to join a co-dependency group.
In the next issue we will conclude on toxic relationships with thoughts on toxic relationships and also advise an individual what to do if put into such a predacament.