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3 Relationship Killers: Contempt, Negativity, and Neglect

Getting past toxic fighting paves the way for greater understanding.

Key points

  • The way someone thinks about their partner impacts how they feel and behave, for better or worse.
  • Toxic behaviors in relationships come from distorted thinking patterns. Reframing one's thoughts helps to end toxic fighting and restore love.
  • If someone repeatedly can't give their intimate partner the benefit of the doubt, it may be time to move on.

The way you think impacts how you feel. And, how you feel drives how you behave. Let's turn to an example of a couple in their late thirties, Julie and Greg. If Greg interrupts Julie, a natural, healthy thought may be, "This is annoying, he's not listening to me." She may then feel mildly disappointed with how the conversation went. This, in turn, may lead her to express her concern to Greg that she did not get to finish her thought.

If, however, Julie went toxic in her thoughts and reaction, she might say to herself, "He always interrupts me and makes it about him." Or, "Greg is all about Greg and he really doesn't care at all what I think or how I feel." Then Julie may feel very hurt. This unhealthy way of thinking and feeling could then lead to unhealthy behaviors such as Julie going down the Silent Treatment Expressway, by passively-aggressively withdrawing. Or, she may be on the "Bottle It Up And Explode Later Plan" and end up yelling.

Becoming One of the Walking Wounded

When you live in a pattern of toxic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, you likely will feel like one of the many walking wounded. By "walking wounded," I mean the masses of people who feel unfulfilled — or worse, emotionally neglected or abused — in their intimate relationships. It seems that everywhere we turn, we see and hear about people who are unhappy and emotionally hurting, often severely, in their quest to feel loved.

Let's now shift from toxic thoughts in your head to what toxic relationships actually look like. Here are what I consider the top three signs of toxic relationships:

1. You get pulled into criticism and contempt. A female client of mine would tell her husband he was sexually inadequate — "Guess what? You're lousy in bed!" — in response to him criticizing her excessive spending habits, retorting, "I get more attention from store clerks than from you!" Quite a toxic mess, for sure. According to relationship researcher John Gottman, criticism and contempt are highly destructive in loving relationships. Signs of criticism and contempt may appear as your partner distastefully making fun of you. Contempt can also appear as one partner criticizing the other in public. Acting superior also conveys a contemptuously toxic message. To experience the one you love, or once loved, ripping you with incessant fault-finding barrages is highly demoralizing and emotionally unhealthy.

2. You feel hopelessly lost in negative energy. Do you feel that the times you do positively connect with your intimate partner don't matter, because you later get sucked up by overwhelming negative energy? Does it seem that any initially promising positive changes are unsustainable? At the end of the day, and most of the time during it, do you feel increasingly beaten down, emotionally bankrupt, and numb?

3. You knowingly neglect your partner. Does their silent treatment knock you over, leaving you breathless and hopeless? Do they deprive you of physical affection but then complain that you are too needy? Do you feel that every time you try to clear the air, they disappear into it? Do they refuse to go to counseling? Neglect is a very passive-aggressive form of relationship toxicity and it often gets progressively worse over time.

Keep It Real With Yourself

Recognizing, and continuing to acknowledge, the persistent signs of a toxic relationship can empower you to get out of it. I certainly have seen far too many couples throw in the relationship towel way too early. They never learned to identify and dispute their toxic thoughts.

Going back to Julie and Greg, she could remind herself that Greg is stressed out at work. She can also reframe his interruption as him giving in to feeling impatient due to his anxiety. Further, she would give him the benefit of the doubt, focusing on the times he is kind, considerate, and a good listener.

At the same time, if your relationship is truly, persistently toxic, and positive reframing just won't cut it, then you need to take an honest look at what is going on. This is even more the case if your partner will not work with you to make changes. In this case, it may be time to leave.

Prolonging the agony of a truly toxic situation will have deleterious effects on both you and your partner. When possible, see a qualified relationship counselor before making significant relationship decisions. Even if you decide to leave, it is important to learn your role in the toxic relationship dance so you don't keep doing it. Above all, know your own value.

For more, see 9 Toxic Thoughts That Can Destroy Your Relationship