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5 Signs of a Toxic Relationship

Abuse isn't the only thing that can make love unhealthy.

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

If you're in an abusive relationship (physical or emotional), you know it's toxic. Maybe not in the beginning, but eventually. And you may minimize it. You may struggle to leave. But you know there is something wrong: There is no doubt that the relationship is unhealthy. If you are unsure, your friends and family will keep reminding you. It is there and seen. And it's just a matter of time before you address it or leave.

But what if a relationship is not abusive? Can it still be toxic? Yes, and these relationships are just as dangerous, if not more, than an abusive relationship because you may not be aware that it's harming you. Like boiling a frog, a toxic relationship can kill you slowly inside, stunt your growth, lower your self-esteem, and disconnect you from you, without you knowing it. Toxic can happen over time. That's what makes toxic relationships so dangerous—many aren't obvious. Toxic can be a very slow leak, but a leaky faucet can drown you.

That's why it's important to step back once in a while and review. Not as an evaluation; as a check in with yourself. Maybe you're the one who's making the relationship toxic?

Here are five signs of a toxic relationship.

Subtle Character Assassination. Assassinating one's character isn't always obvious. You can do it without bad intentions. 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, wussy. 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 about. 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 he or she will internalize. "F you" to one person can be a high five to some people or an insult to others. Any dialogue or behavior, intended or not, that takes away from one's worth is character assassination. And over time, this can create hairline cracks in your relationship container.

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 can not wear, or what you can and can not 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, and that we may not be aware that 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 not be their best and if it's your wants and not theirs, you can be controlling without even knowing it. It doesn't matter where it comes from: Any dialogue, behavior, or design, intended or not, that takes from one's truth and freedom is control.

Jealous Passive-Aggressive Behavior. There's nothing wrong or toxic about feeling jealous. If you're human, you have felt jealous before. It's what you do with that feeling that determines whether you make a relationship toxic or not. Is he transparent about his jealous feelings but then also processing it with his therapist? Or is he blaming you for them? Does she want you to do something or change so she doesn't have to deal with her feelings of insecurity?

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 can not wear, all represent jealous behavior. 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 it 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 issues and that's okay. No one 's perfect. We all have egos. But if we never take ownership, 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 repeating patterns. They are living in the past. They are defensive. When people don't take ownership, they flip their relationship magnet, and this can make a relationship toxic, because if a relationship is not always growing and evolving and deepening, it is stagnant. And a stagnant relationship, one that only goes in circles, is a toxic relationship. Loving someone isn't just about comfort and feeling good; healthy love means discomfort, and if you don't take ownership, there is none.

Negativity for Too Long. We all go through winters. We all have bad days. But if your partner makes no effort to catch light, 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 relationship 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 negativity, 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. And they're not obvious so we can miss them. And since they're not detected, they grow and eventually turn into a virus that puts cinder blocks around both feet of a relationship, and can slowly drown both parties.

So ask yourself if any of these are happening in your relationship. But more important, what can be done to stop the leak, and to turn the boil down.

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