Couple in a field holding hands but walking away from each other

How to know if you’re in an emotionally toxic relationship

by Fran Creffield - January 4, 2013

Do you feel good about yourself in relation to your partner? Does the energy between you enhance your life or drain you - leaving you unable to fulfil your other commitments appropriately?

It’s hard to see from the inside if you are in an emotionally toxic relationship. Here are a few questions to ask yourself which will help you establish whether this relationship is still serving you

Not all relationships are healthy but there are levels of dysfunction which only the people on the inside can really know the full impact of. A relationship may start off well, begin to turn unhealthy if problems are not addressed and eventually become toxic if the couple stay together  and ‘act out’ their pain and discomfort while placing responsibility for the problems with the other person rather than addressing the issues themselves.

How do you feel about yourself in relation to this person?

In an emotionally toxic relationship the focus of your attention will be on the other person. You are sure that if they stopped doing whatever it is that is making the relationship impossible – drinking, lying, cheating or not working etc. – that all would be well. They are the one with the problem and you are the one trying to control the solution. It may be the other way round and your partner is on your back the whole time criticising and controlling and nothing you do ever seems to please them or you know that your behaviours are unacceptable but you still feel compelled to do them despite the obvious damage.

Whatever the dynamics are you are both aware that something significant needs to change but neither party will take responsibility for the problems. This can feel very intense and is often accompanied by fierce fights and passionate reconciliations – as though you are both locked into a way of relating that gets progressively more painful but which you can’t break free from.

The question to ask yourself is how does this relationship make you feel about yourself? Do you feel kind, loving and generous towards this person? Is your self esteem high and your sense of value increasing as you get deeper into the relationship or are you feeling horrible inside – mean and spiteful, angry beyond belief and desperately trying to hide it in every other part of your life? Maybe it is beginning to affect your work and relationships with other people.

When the image you are trying to present to the outside world and the reality of your experience in your relationship are so far apart the relationship has become toxic to you. It will progressively damage your self-esteem, confidence and ability to break free the longer it goes on – you need to take action either by leaving the relationship or by getting outside help from a professional relationship counsellor.

Is this situation familiar?

Often an unhealthy relationship is part of a pattern of relating to people – you have the same relationship over and over again but with different people e.g. the emotionally unavailable man who turns out to be an alcoholic; the girlfriend who puts everything else ahead of your needs and the relationship; the violent, jealous or possessive partner or the overly critical and dominant spouse. It doesn’t matter what the configuration is the question is have you been here before?

Often the pattern is set in childhood in our relationships with our parents. As adults we are unconsciously drawn to the same kind of situation in an attempt to make peace with the past. The only way to break the pattern is to go back to the original situation and find healing and reconciliation there – many people needs professional help in order to do this.

Have you had enough yet?

Not everyone who is in a toxic relationship wants to do anything about it – they seem to thrive on the high drama and intense passion it creates and cannot imagine any other way of relating to people – nice, well-adjusted and emotionally available partners can seem boring in comparison.

Next time you are complaining to a friend about your relationship or feeling the pain of another disappointment, abuse or frustration ask yourself – Have you had enough yet? – only when the answer is ‘yes’ will you take the necessary steps to change how you are in relationships. You cannot change the other person but you can change how you relate to them. Even if you leave, if you don’t look at your patterns and ways of relating the chances are you will attract the same situation again.