If you’re in an abusive relationship (physical or emotional), you know it’s toxic. You may minimize it. You may struggle to leave. But you definitely know it’s unhealthy. If not the bruises on your arms, the cuts on your feet from all the eggshells, or the pent-up anger in your heart, your friends and family have been telling you for a long time now. So it’s just a matter of time before you’ve had enough. Before you finally realize you deserve better more.
But what if a relationship isn’t abusive? What if he’s never laid a hand on you, gaslighted you, or played mind games? What if he has never abused you physically or emotionally? Can the relationship still be toxic?
And these relationships are just as if not more dangerous and damaging than an abusive relationship because you may not be aware that it’s harming you. Like boiling a frog, these relationships can kill you slowly inside, stunt your growth, lower your self-esteem, and disconnect you from you, without you knowing it. That’s what makes it so dangerous. You are not aware of it. Toxic isn’t always obvious. It can fly under the radar, be a slow burn, a tightening of the vice.
Toxic can be a very slow leak. But a leaky faucet can still drown you.
That’s why it’s important to step back once in a while and take a closer look at your relationship. Not as an evaluation. More of a check in. With yourself. Because when we’re in something, it’s hard to see. Time can blur things. Or maybe it’s not your partner. Maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re the one who’s being toxic in the relationship. And don’t even know it.
So let’s do a quick check-in.
Here are five signs that may signal that your relationship is toxic.
Subtle Character Assassination
Assassinating one’s character isn’t always obvious. You can be doing it without intending to. Many of us grew up belittling friends and siblings as a way to connect, especially boys who spent a lot of time in locker rooms. Idiot, loser, bitch, pussy. But also women who shame other women: Slut, whore, maneater. (Wait that’s not a thing. Sorry, I grew up in the 80’s listening to Hall & Oates.) Anyway, this can carry into adulthood.
When I was in my early thirties, I called my girlfriend a “pig” once after she ate the rest of the fruit while I was in the restroom. Of course I was joking and I didn’t think it was a big deal. But she also struggled with an eating disorder that I did not know of. So it was a big deal.
It’s not about whether you mean what you say or not; it’s about how your partner is wired and what she will internalize. “F— you” to one person can be a high five, but an insult to another. Any dialogue or behavior, intended or not, that creates an unsafe space and takes away from one’s worth is character assassination. Over time this can create hairline cracks in your relationship container, making it toxic.
Control Without Knowing It
Checking up on you, accusing you of talking to people you “shouldn’t,” purposely making friends or family feel uncomfortable when visiting, punishing you by making you feel bad about something, demanding a report on your actions and conversations, not allowing any activity which excludes your partner, telling you what you can and cannot wear, what you can and cannot eat. All of these are obviously examples of controlling behavior.
But control can also come in decaf, a subtle between-the-lines push that can make people do things out of guilt or other things, depending on one’s story, that we may not be aware we’re doing. We can get people to change by leveraging who they are and what they’ve been through. Not intentionally. It may not be coming from an evil place. You may just want the best for them. But your best may not be their best and if it’s your wants and not theirs, you can be controlling them without even knowing it. It doesn’t matter where it’s coming from. Any dialogue, behavior, or design, intended or not, that takes from one’s truth and freedom is control.
Jealous Passive-Aggressive Behavior
The feeling of jealousy is normal. There’s nothing wrong or toxic about feeling jealous. If you’re human, you have felt jealous before. It’s what you do with those feelings that determines whether you make a relationship toxic or not.
Yes, checking your phone and emails behind your back, wanting to know where you are at all times and who you’re with, and telling you what you can and cannot wear, are all jealous behaviors. But so is the heavy energy or pouting that he’s not taking responsibility for because he’s jealous of something or someone. So is the passive-aggressive, “I’ll just stay at home then” or pulling away/indirectly punishing you due to his jealous feelings. This is also jealous behavior, but flies under the radar and may not be tagged as such. But enough of it can make any relationship toxic.
Never Taking Ownership
We don’t always own our shit and that’s okay. No one ‘s perfect. We all default to defense at times. But if we never take ownership of our piece, it turns the relationship lopsided and ultimately toxic. Ownership is what makes relationships grow. If people don’t own, they are not learning, expanding, and evolving. They are blaming. repeating patterns, and living in the past. When people don’t take ownership, they flip their relationship magnet. And this can make a relationship toxic.
Negativity for Too Long
We all go through winters. We all have bad days. We all enter long dark tunnels. But if your partner makes no effort to catch the light, do everything possible to change their state, their energy, their attitude, always dragging you into their cave because you’re the closest person to them, that can turn the relationship toxic.
I used to be a very negative person. I used to put my unhappiness on who I choose to love at the time. It wasn’t intentional. I didn’t know the damage I was doing. I didn’t realize how heavy and unfair it was to carry one’s negativity. I took people hostage without intending to or knowing it. Over time it made my relationships toxic.
We have a responsibility for our own happiness. If we’re not happy, fine. No one’s happy all of the time. But then we should be working on that while getting support from our partner, not putting it on our partner. If we don’t do anything about our negative behavior, thinking, and energy, we are taking them down with us. Whether we intend to or not, we are affecting our partner’s quality of life. Over time, this can turn a relationship toxic.
Subtle character assassination, control without knowing it, jealous passive-aggressive behavior, never taking ownership, and negativity for too long, are all common behaviors we have been guilty of in our relationships. If not all of them then at least one. And they’re not obvious so we miss them. And since they’re not detected, they grow and can eventually turn into a virus. This virus puts cinder blocks around both feet of our relationship. And the relationship slowly drowns. Until one day you wake up and realize that people have drifted too far to turn back.
So ask yourself if any of these is happening in your relationship. But more importantly, what can be done to stop the leak? To turn the boil down. Before it’s too late.