Toxic Relationships Guide

When should you let go? Our guide helps you assess the situation, and take action.

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Last updated
May 12, 2023
min read
Toxic Relationships Guide
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  • You wouldn’t be the first guy to question why he sticks it out with a certain someone. What’s in it for him?
  • Well, if he is constantly arguing with or hiding from his partner (how exhausting!), then probably not much.
  • But let’s not call it a day just yet! There’s a few simple things you can do for your partner and yourself, to escape the fights and pestering. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Relationships Aren't Easy

Okay, so we can all agree that relationships are hard.

We’re all guilty of being a little testy or passive aggressive with our partners on occasion - particularly pre-coffee, post-brews. Don't beat yourself up about it, we're all human.

What happens when the these battles are triggered by less than just a bad day in the office? Or losing this week in Fantasy Football? Or wanting to watch Game of Thrones when your other half wants to watch Married at First Sight? What happens when these arguments are now part of your daily conversation with the person that you are supposed to care deeply about?

So what is a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship is one where the happy couple are not supportive of each other any more. Perhaps they never were, but they were consumed by that honeymoon period.

  • They are constantly arguing and one person (or both) intentionally aims to put the other person down.
  • They are consistently competing for small and practically insignificant wins (e.g. “I cooked and cleaned tonight. Aren’t we supposed to be a team?”).

For most toxic relationships one (or both) people are severely jealous, insecure, distrusting, or dishonest. Basically, when one person just wants/needs to control everything the other person does. This can also share similarities with a problem known as co-dependency.

They need to be fixed!

If lots of little arguments aren’t dealt with properly, they can fester and bubble under the surface until they are literally toxic. It will feel like you’ve lost all control and that you are constantly miserable with your partner. It’s not a ‘sometimes’ thing. It’s truly toxic if you’re feeling sad, worried, or exhausted most of the time.

Sadly, this feeling of walking on eggshells won’t fix itself. One (or both) of you will need to make some serious changes for this toxicity to stop.

They can affect the best of us

Toxic relationships aren’t reserved for the weak, fragile or shy. The strong-minded, stable and tenacious are just as vulnerable.

Turning Toxic

It all starts with the first bite… right?

Well, Dr John Gottman Ph.D. of the practical relationship book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, suggests four red flags:

  • Criticism - attacking the person rather than explaining a concern. (e.g. "I'm not being harsh, I'm just being honest.")
  • Contempt - calling them names, mocking them, using ‘jokes that aren’t really jokes’, or being outright selfish.
  • Defensiveness - fishing for excuses, playing the victim, or being passive aggressive.
  • Stonewalling - outright ignoring your partner.

Gottman thinks these are so destructive he calls them the The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! That’s your cue to lift your arms above your head and silently yell to yourself “will this ever stop?”

Overuse of emotional weapons

It’s likely that you’ve used contempt, criticism, defensiveness or even stonewalling to really make your point in an argument. Again - you’re human. And it’s likely to have worked for you, because you got a reaction. But your partner is thinking the same thing. So you both continue to use these weapons against each other to defend yourselves and in that way, the game remains ‘fair’.

But at this point, you and your partner are stuck in a really bad, unhealthy habit and you’ve forgotten how to talk in any other way.

Are you in a toxic relationship?

Let’s look at this objectively:

Is your partner always worried about who you’re with? Have you stopped to think about why you haven’t been round to a mate’s to watch the BigBash this season?

On the flip side, are you staying out for another round on a Tuesday cause you’re not looking forward to what you’d be walking into if you went home?

One-sided toxic relationship

It's not easy to lay blame, but with relationships it could be one person being the dick, or both. When it's one-sided; where one of you just never seems to be happy and the other does everything they can to avoid upsetting them.

When both are to blame

Alternatively (and commonly) both people have fallen into a bad habit of being cruel or passive aggressive with each other. It’s a ‘he said, she said’ kind of thing. And everyone is playing the victim or thinks they are just plain right, without thinking about how the other person might be feeling.

The Signs of Relationship Apocalypse

If you’re both always butting heads with each other, or not seeing eye-to-eye. How does anyone have time to hear what the other person has to say? If you sense that your partner doesn’t understand anything you’re trying to say anymore, or care about what’s important to you, then it’s easier to not try at all.

As a result one, or both of you may be feeling:

  • Shame or worthlessness (not being accepted for who you are),
  • Fear,
  • Sadness or anxiety (intense worry),
  • Exhaustion and helplessness,
  • Insecurity (not knowing what happens next),
  • Disinterest in having sex with your partner,
  • or paranoia.

You may also be dealing with physical hang ups like a lack of sleep, over sleeping, feeling tight-chested, or getting heart palpitations. And being in a constant state of stress may be putting you at greater risk of heart disease and thyroid problems which is NOT what you need right now (or ever).

So why do we hang around?

Good question! Why do we go back for more, even after our mates have warned us against it (again, and again, and again...)

Well, at the start most people experience the romantic feelings of being with that person forever. But as time passes the cracks start to reveal themselves and you get to know each other’s sore spots… But you hold onto the good times. So you choose to put those little fights behind you (despite the frequency), and don’t realise you’re in a mad spiral.

Often, it's not until you’re a few kids and a mortgage in when you realise that something has to give.

How do you stay hooked?

You may not have heard of renowned behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner, but you’re certainly a victim of what he called ‘conditioning’.

Basically, behaviour is encouraged when there’s reward, or when something is taken away. Like training a dog. If you always gave the dog a treat after he rolled over, he will keep rolling over for a treat. Likewise, if you were to move the bone on the other side of the fence, he would stop digging for it.

Waiting for the next great moment

In reality, the toxic relationship leaves us unhappy, unsexy, unwanted and under-appreciated.

So when the conversation is more like: awful, awful, mean, great, awful, awful, awful, great, great, mean, awful, great… those great moments are really great.

On the flip side, when you think things are improving, WHAM! You’re back in the sin bin. It’s unpredictable, but you hang around to see when the next ‘great’ moment is and how long it sticks.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Let’s think about it another way; it’s very human to protect the thing that you’re already invested in.

In economics, it’s called a ‘sunk cost’; you’re already in so deep, you may as well dig a little further in case you strike gold! In fact, a study in Portugal investigated the human condition of ‘loss aversion’ in relationships. Despite the pain and sadness, we keep investing time, money and energy in a relationship to prevent further pain and sadness.

Or to repair the situation, rather than redirecting our TLC elsewhere. This is particularly true if we’ve really committed to the other person (the kind where there’s cake and rings).

It also just comes down to being financially entangled; having a home and a joint board game collection. Your mates and mothers all know each other, and you may even have a few little ones running around that need you both to get along.

It's time to make a decision

Well, it may sound simple, but the results are in. Remember Waldinger? The guy who runs one of the longest studies of adult happiness? He says that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Now, that may not be how you’re feeling right now. But let’s have a look at our options as to how to get back to ‘good’.

Why do I have to change?

Realistically, if this were a work colleague, you could just put your headphones in and pretend you were on the phone every time they approached your desk. But this is your home life. And it’s personal. So that approach is unlikely to fly.

Avoiding the issue can make you feel better for a minute, or an afternoon. But it’s not going to really solve anything and you’re likely to end up going round in circles till your final day. Unfortunately, it may even get worse.

Your four real options:

Accept the relationship.

  1. As is, warts and all - realising that you can’t change it all on your own may just calm the nerves, but it may not be realistic.
  2. Feel miserable - it is certainly an option, but it’s not ideal.
  3. Change the relationship - let’s leave this point here and come back to it.
  4. Leave the relationship - this is hard to chew. But it’s an option that you might need to consider if you and your partner struggle to see eye to eye.

Having a conversation about it

A good opportunity to kick things into gear is to talk to your partner honestly; without quips or backhanded compliments.

Pick a time when you know your partner will be in a good mood (this is critical to a successful conversation) and tell them what you’re worried about. Be patient. And ask your partner to do the same. It’s not going to be comfortable so take it in turns to really make it ‘fair’.

Then, agree to get professional help

If they are willing, go and see a counsellor. Many relationships at some time or another will need to get help from a professional. You’ll have the opportunity to get everything off your chest. As will your partner. And they won’t be taking sides so you’ll be forced to take it in turns!

Pulling the plug

Are the pros outweighing the cons? Are you getting more than you’re giving?

If you feel as though you are still walking on eggshells at home and the counselling isn’t changing much, then perhaps it’s worth considering whether this relationship is working for you. Perhaps it’s time to remove yourself from that environment completely and leave the relationship.

Spend time with mates

Leaving a relationship will be rough. There is a lot to think about. But who have you got that you already depend on? I mean the friends and family who won’t mind you dropping in randomly, if you’re in a bad mood. The ones that will help distract you by taking you to a game.

Do something for yourself

Check in with those things you enjoy doing - running, camping, board games, or perhaps it’s time to get the boys together for the basketball comp. You’ll feel a truckload better after reinvesting time and energy in yourself. Perhaps it’s time to learn something new, break these habits and give yourself something new to talk about.

See someone, on your own terms

Personal counselling or visiting a psychologist is a good opportunity to dust yourself off and rebuild your confidence and dignity. These can certainly take a beating after a long time in a toxic relationship. Look for one on LYSN, here.

There are some big calls you’ll need to make now. Put yourself first and make sure your mates know what’s going on so they can help out.


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