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4 Things That Can Turn Any Relationship Toxic

How to keep intimacy and avoid toxic traps.

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Coupling up and committing can bring enormous joy and well-being. When done poorly, however, what once felt like closeness and intimacy can easily turn toxic. Here are four ways the fruit of a relationship can sour.

1. Desexualizing Your Partner

The passage of time, the stresses of life, the demands of children and work, and other influences can eventually make what was once a close couple distant. What begins as an emotionally connected and sexually intriguing union may all too easily become a roommate or brother/sister type connection. This is because when life is difficult (as it invariably becomes at different points of time) people may treat each other like just one more problem to manage. They erroneously think it takes too much energy to keep up their emotional and sexual connection with their partner. When overwhelmed with work, kids, or life, people may look for shortcuts, which takes a toll on their romantic relationships. In those circumstances, eventually you look into your partner’s eyes and only see what tasks need to be discussed. You stop emotionally confiding in them; romance goes out the window.

Desexualizing your partner can be insidious. At first it may seem harmless — “We are just busy right now” or “She travels a lot for work, we can catch up when she returns.” But over time, the distance redoubles until you realize one day that you are sleeping with a stranger. Avoid the entrenchment of this pattern by prioritizing your romantic relationship over everything else. If you feel you don’t have the time, you are overestimating what it takes to connect with your partner. A few sincere and thoughtful remarks can draw the bond tighter. One romantic dinner a week when you focus on each other, not tasks or children or what plans need to be made, can make all the difference.

2. Secrets and Lies

As soon as one member of a union starts lying or keeping secrets, the fruit of the relationship sours. If you are lying to your partner, there is only one way to make it better: Confess. Lying begets lying, and before you know it, your partner will be an anxious mess, second-guessing and questioning your every move. The typical next step will be you blaming your partner for being "crazy," thus making him or her all the more paranoid. Don’t do this to your partner or yourself. If you feel the need to evade or lie, ask yourself, Why is this particular thing hard to share with your partner? Then work up your courage and express it to them. You may say, “I noticed I stopped off at the bar on the way home from work today and didn’t want to tell you; I am not sure what that’s about, maybe missing my single days a bit.” Whatever it is, it is better to say it than to lie and keep secrets. Being truthful with each other, even with the more difficult revelations, increases intimacy and closeness. You start to feel as if you can share anything with your partner, and they will still love you, unconditionally.

3. Disrespectful Treatment

It's astounding how often some couples have accepted and doled out disrespectful speech and actions toward one another. Each time you say something mean to your partner, you put abusive energy into the air. This makes people feel smaller and worse about themselves, and you likely end up feeling guilty or like a “bad person.” Arguments can quickly turn into character assassinations, cursing, and name-calling when two people have not developed the skills to argue while still respecting each other. When this happens, you end up arguing about how you are arguing as opposed to discussing the real conflict between you. As a result, areas of discontent go unresolved and unhappiness grows. Arguing and getting angry at each other is normal when people are close, but hold each other to a decent human standard — no name-calling, no disrespectful treatment, and no abusive actions.

4. Overly Relying on Outside Influences

The strength of a romantic bond is diminished when one member begins to consistently rely on someone else for their needs. Everyone solicits opinions, and everyone needs an emotional support system outside of their romantic relationship. However, if you or your partner is consistently relying on someone else to make decisions or to do the heavy lifting of life for you, your romance will evaporate. After all, a huge part of romantic love is feeling as if someone knows everything about us and always has our back. If you outsource this to a third party, that closeness and intimacy will dissipate or never develop. Even if you do not wish it, you will feel the distance grow when there is a third person in your marriage. If a pattern of toxic love describes your relationship, there is a way out of the spiral. In my workbook, Toxic Love-5 Steps, I describe specific strategies for how to overcome this pattern, and to start attaching with healthy romantic partners.

Jill Weber, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C., and the author of The Relationship Formula Workbook Series, including Toxic Love — 5 Steps: How to Identify Toxic Love Patterns and Find Fulfilling Attachments, Breaking Up and Divorce — 5 Steps: How to Heal and be Comfortable Alone and Building Self-Esteem — 5 Steps: How to Feel 'Good Enough.' Follow her on Twitter @DrJillWeber and on Facebook, or visit