Am I in a Toxic Relationship?

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Am I in a Toxic Relationship?

By Teena M.D. Scott, MFT 

Interestingly enough many people equate relationships to being in love or dating someone.  While that is a type of a relationship, there are many more.  Relationships ensue when a series of events between two people are expected to occur, frequent contact, or one person’s actions are reliant on another person’s actions or inaction.  A great example of this is the relationship we have with our trash collector, our trash collector is reliant on us to sort, and bring out the trash from our homes, while we rely on them to empty our cans completely and not leave our cans in the street to be ran over.  This is a working relationship.  Both our actions are complimentary to each others in order to have an effective productive outcome. 


Toxicity occurs most often when the engagements in a relationship with another person causes, anxiety, stress, hurt, demoralization, and or a decreased sense of self worth.  So before I get into the highly anticipated discussion of toxic intimate relationships, I want to highlight an example of this in our family systems.  The parent-child relationship can be a tricky subject, and while a father and son could also be engaged in a classic toxic relationship most often we see this in the mother and daughter relationship.   Some daughters have the privilege of calling their mothers their best friend.  Have you ever seen your mother’s text run across your cell phone and suddenly feel butterflies in your stomach and a tense sensation around your heart?  That may be the result of being in a relationship with a mother who can be very judgmental, and or uncomplimentary. 

After reading this article my goal is for you, the reader, to understand how you are powerful enough to change the way you respond and participate in these toxic relationships.

The first step to managing or healing is to identify that there is a problem in the relationship.   If the relationship is abusive and there is an immense level of fear and anxiety, simply ask a lot of questions.  Often, when we are able to ask another person a series of questions it raises their awareness that there may be a problem.  Yes, I am saying that most often when we are in relationships with people who are toxic, mean, judgmental, condescending, and selfish, — and, no they are not aware of the negative impact that they are having on others.  Here are a few techniques to attempt to insert when trying to decrease the amount of negativity in the relationships we care about and cannot easily walk away from.

Try to get on the same page.  This is the easiest way is to identify common gripes after asking them several questions without rebuttal.  These are additional techniques that will decrease negative communication and hurtful feelings. 

Instead of what they are doing wrong comment on the feelings that you observe after a negative experience, and include yourself.  It will decrease the person’s need to be defensive.  For example,  “wow, I notice we both get upset when we feel cut off or interrupted in a conversation.” 

Take some self accountability!  This may look like, “I can see how it would be irritating for me to come straight home and go to bed every night.  I can’t imagine how I would feel if you ignored me, I am sorry.  I want to work on that.”

 Expecting the storm before the calm.  What is this?  Well after two people identify that there is a need for change in this relationship, it usually gets worse before things get better.  This is normal, change is very difficult for most people in general.  Increase the communication and talk about how you experience the change.  It is most important to use “I” sentences as it allows the person to hear you opposed to planning their response because they feel the need to defend themselves.  In the therapeutic realm we call this a persons homeostasis, a person’s norm whether it be positive or negative.   Remember they have been accustomed to communicating and or behaving in this manner all of their lives. 

A few things to remember about change: 

  • It is perfectly natural for people to protect their norm.  It is human nature to resist change.

  • The best way to get around this difficult shift is to call the elephant out in the room.  “So, it’s probably going to be really difficult for us to change, compromise, and or concede that we have been hurting each other.  How would you like to plan ahead to cope with these truths?”

Going to therapy is often the last intervention a person will seek out, before trying any and everything on their own.  This may be the strongest intervention available if all else fails.  A clinician who understands the generational effects of a person’s ancestors on their communication patterns will allow a person or persons to reach these outcomes: 

1.      Sometimes understanding this is the best a person has to offer:  In most parent/child relationships, this is often the case.

2.      It’s okay to leave, it really is: while this may not be the fact in a parent/child relationship, it certainly applies to most intimate, professional, and friendships (I did not expand on how we are often engaged with that male or female friend who ridicules us and undermines our achievements every chance they receive).  Look for more on that in the next article following this one.

3.      Your loyalty belongs to you:  the number one thing that binds us to an unhealthy relationship is an overwhelming sense of obligation and what many humans identify as a strength of both character and integrity, one’s loyalty. 

Ask yourself is your loyalty to others causing you to stay in a relationship that prevents you from living your best life?  If the answer is yes, it is a toxic relationship.