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Toxic Relationships (1): How to Identify Them

Updated: Apr 4

I chose the topic of toxic relationships to open my blog with because it seems to occupy the attention of the largest group of my students aged 15-17 years, and I have already promised extended material. During our Elective Psychology class, we briefly discussed toxic relationships as an example of the approach-avoidance conflict in the chapter dedicated to stress and coping, lesson 1c in the textbook, p.291. As toxic relationships induce stress not only among teenagers, I believe that their study can be helpful to anyone really.

Our (intimate) relationships consume a lot of our resources: mostly time, energy, and money. We tend to be more invested in them the fewer friends, siblings and relatives, hobbies, and engaging professional commitments we have. For this reason, romantic involvement to some may constitute the core of their existence, the focal point of most or all of their feelings and thoughts, while for others, it is just a sort of a side hustle that causes no big drama when gone wrong. That said, the table below will be more useful to the “romantic” kind among you or those who are entering an intimate relationship for the first time. Whatever your situation might be, the below 10 aspects of any relationship may provide orientation about the 2 possible directions we choose from to navigate our (inter)actions (with others).

*Before you read next, I'd like to highlight that the table presents perfect = ideal = absolute = black-and-white oppositions while life is multicolor - natural and real relationships are a colorful mix of situations (places, times, and ways/ wheres, whens, and hows) in a unique combination only you two are capable of designing. However, as sterile and flat as the descriptions below may appear, their usefulness lies in the fact that we need to be able to imagine a "pure white" when we feel in the "dark" so we can get out of there. We evaluate ourselves relatively, but we invent the absolute ideal "toxic" and the ideal "healthy" to give ourselves a sense of linear direction (progress or regress) in what would otherwise be for us an endless circle of spinning around ourselves like a peg-top or aimlessly wandering like drifter plankton. Both toxic and healthy are just labels for the fictional directions and very real mental-emotional states we choose to spiral down or up into.

Aspects of the relationship

Toxic relationship (of burning ourselves)

Healthy relationship (of building an extension of ourselves)

  • What are the people who fall into such a relationship in general?

Low self-esteem (projected as/ hidden behind a mask of overly high self-esteem) results from the weakening of character daily at work and play. Factors for the weakening of character are a sense of unresolved guilt and shame, social and emotional isolation, lack of purpose and meaning, lack of motivation, energy, sleep, and/or even nutrition.

Balanced/ realistic self-esteem is based on the character strengths they apply daily at work and play. These strengths constitute the 6 virtues of courage, wisdom, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Factors for the strengthening of character are social and emotional inclusion, the quest for purpose and meaning, finding motivation, and having enough energy, sleep, and nutrition.

  • ​What brings them together?

The (unconscious) desire to make use of each other (never spoken out loud) The self-neglect and the lack of will/ ability for self-care and self-love => self-destruction and self-hate bring about the egoism to need someone else to take care of us and love us (=> be needy and in a desperate search for a partner to provide/ import what’s missing) There is a siren-like hook sweet 1st round and nasty rounds from then on. More on this question in the next posts on Toxic Relationships.

​The desire to create something new together (bond, family, children, product, event, business, etc.) Only people capable of self-care, self-love, and self-respect are ripe enough for healthy love (=> they do not need it imported, they make/create it like an extension bridge between two healthy, wholesome entities that are more than enough separately to have "a surplus" to invest in a third entity that will stand between them as a glue-like bond to the point when 2 become 1 by becoming 3 or more.)

  • How do the partners perceive the getting-together act?

​Partners perceive that their getting together comes automatic and magnetic as if unavoidable and by the command of some anonymous but irresistible force (of nature) that dictates and puts the two together against their individual will to stay away from each other. Partners perceive a sense of danger and loss of control over themselves and the circumstances that they fear. Partners wish they could make it alone but feel unable to exist without the other in their lives.

Partners perceive that their getting together comes as a voluntary act of their personal free will they feel in control of. Each partner knows they can make it with or without the other, but they choose to do it together. Each partner perceives the (newly) created bond as a fragile product of teamwork. Partners perceive a sense of mutual empowerment and self-control over themselves and the circumstances that they enjoy.

  • What do the partners want?

Partners claim to desire stability and predictability, yet it kills the passion and attraction they crave. Both partners want the unattainable: strong emotional highs without the lows of the reality (= facing their weaknesses, fears, self-abandonment, etc.) they find unbearable. By aiming for the stars, they get the progressively worse of outcomes they dread but anticipate.

Partners do not claim any desire (for each other or else in life). Both partners are more than happy with whatever life would bring as a gift for their strength of character individually and as a couple. By accepting work on self as necessary and desirable instead of “the lows of reality”, they are surprised by the outcome beyond their wildest dreams. Predictability brings stability and fosters the bond further.

  • What are the building blocks of the relationship?

Self-delusion -> delusion of each other; Hide instead of heal flaws in self -> Hide instead of heal flaws in the other dishonest with self -> dishonest with the partner; unreasonable jealousy -> self-pity -> anger is alternating with indifference, (self-)abandonment, and neglect; (physical) attraction is alternating with disgust and rejection.

The hot-cold polarity is evident in all aspects of the relationship (daily activities can turn from nothing at all into a storm) “Storms”, rejection, delusion, flaws, and dishonesty are “cured” with empty promises that grow bigger and more unrealistic as time in the toxic relationship grows/passes by. The partners live either in the wishful thinking about the bright but unattainable for some "external reasons" future or in the nostalgia of an embellished past but seldom in the actual decisive present. "All lovers swear to do the impossible, but do not do even the possible" - William Shakespeare. The constant ping-pong between the oppositions makes the partners indecisive on almost all questions so they constantly seek consultation and advice and are surprised that they are actually seeking consolation and a handset to talk to. Verbal dissection of the relationship hijacks all conversations.

Realism -> honesty -> trust -> friendship -> stable comfort in each other’s company. The building blocks are:

  • shared positive experiences

  • shared values and agreement on the use of the 5 languages of love: touch, verbal recognition, gifts, help, and quality time together.

  • shared responsibilities about children, money, work, (free) time management, and sex.

All the above fosters the bond to the point where promises are not necessary to bring comfort or the illusion of trust between the partners. Whatever the present might bring is more than enough and beyond to make both partners happy simultaneously. Decision-making is quick, and the right choices are obvious to the point when theory and words are unnecessary. The practice of love for one another is uninterrupted by (self-)doubt and fears. The confidence in self and the partner eliminates jealousy of one another but also blinds the partners to the spontaneous jealousy of the people outside of the couple towards them.

  • What are the partners for each other?

"Black" mirrors of each other and self (magnify and reflect the negative, shady parts of our personality, the weaknesses in our character)

A couple of one fool (co-dependent) and one cruel (contra-dependent) changing positions. "True-to oneself" equals "untrue-to-the-partner". The fool constantly commits self-scarifies in the hope of proving their "love and trueness" to their partner, which appears even more foolish to the cruel, who gets even crueler. Enemies (hidden behind the mask of lovers; the partners do not trust each other enough to move to more than that – husbands/ parents). In such a hostile environment, the partners cannot survive for too long if it is not for the triangle of Victim – Tyrant – Savior ,which prolongs and sustains the toxic relationship. The enemies are at the same time both victims and tyrants for themselves and for each other. The savior is played by an external party such as a sibling, parent, lover, neighbor, relative, or friend who is willing to help by providing love and comfort for the suffering “victim” they perceive as innocent and deserving better. Ironically, the help and love they provide one of the partners or both of them only feed the toxic relationship making a fool out of the savior who is left with nothing else but to leave the toxic triangle/ make the topic taboo if they are a family member or "just" a friend.

“White” mirror of each other and self (magnify and reflect the positive, bright parts of each other's personality, the strengths in their characters) A couple of one wise and one loving changing positions. Fidelity comes naturally by default as “true to the partner” equals “true-to-oneself” and lasts for as long as each of the partners stays true to themselves = applies their strength of character in all interactions, forgives and learns from their mistakes; has the growth mindset and perseverance to keep moving in the same direction. Friends -> supporters/ allies The involvement of a 3rd person (a side love affair) in the relationship signals the self-betrayal, later appearing as a betrayal of the partner and then the end of the healthy union. Usually, the breakage of the healthy relationship (the separation of the partners) also leads to a separation from the lover so that the “cheater”, who cheated themselves first, falls from two chairs on the ground. Ultimately the ex-partners sense the loss of something precious (trust, faith, and true love) that makes them feel lost.

  • What is the motivation for the partners to stay together?

The partner is the means to a fictional goal. Either way, there are co-dependencies and contra-dependencies on hopes/ shared property/ shared work(space)/ shared society., etc. “I love you because I need you.”; "I will die for you (and I do) because I do not like you for who you are (really, and so I prefer my idealized version of you in mind), I do not like myself when I am with you, I do not like what you have made out of yourself and me, and I do not like the part of me that you bring out."

The partner is the goal itself. Partners are socially, emotionally, and financially independent of each other.

“I need you because I love you.”; "I live for myself (so I can love you then)." “I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you. I love you not only for what you have made of yourself, but for what you are making of me. I love you for the part of me that you bring out.” - Elizabeth Browning

  • What is the partners’ perception of their relationship?

Sense of urgency/ fatality/ things falling apart. Discord and bad timing: “When I want you, you do not want me, and vice versa.” The contra-dependent man and woman act as if they declare: “Abuse me, I love you even more then!”. The co-dependent man and woman act as if they declare: “Lie to me, I love you even more then!” because abuse and lies are what prolong the relationship, and thus the promise of returning to the passion of first-time spark that never comes again and makes the future prospects bleaker; pessimism and dissatisfaction are the norm. The practice of love dulls the experience.

Sense of ease/ calm/ support/ things are going somewhere. In sync with each other and perfect timing: “When I am ready, you are ready, and vice versa.” Regardless of the gender, both partners act as if they declare, “The more I love you, the more I love myself, and the more I love myself, the more I love you!” There was no first-time spark to reminisce about, but every next time intimacy and passion get better. This brings a sense of optimism for a brighter future. Satisfaction is the norm, as practice makes perfect.

  • How do close friends and family perceive the relationship?

As a bad, toxic, unhealthy, evil, a waste of time and potential, going nowhere, dangerous (to be around), and not fun to be around.

As good, healthy, with good perspective, secure, inspirational, admirable, stable, and fun to be around.

  • Final outcomes

Domestic violence (the ultimate “eat-each-other-out” mode) and even homicide. Shame, physical and emotional isolation from self, each other, friends, and society. In such conditions, taking a break from the relationship could be life-saving. The relationship feels best at the beginning and gets progressively worse from there. The moment when separation comes to call feels like “the desire for each other is gone, and we need a break to recharge and build ourselves, so there is something new to waste and burn next time.”

The couple is a core of a wider community (ex., a family/ class/ other entity). Pride and connection with self, each other, friends, and society. The relationship feels sterile at the beginning and gets progressively better from there. The more time is spent in the relationship, the harder it is to break it because it grows ever more satisfying. The difficult part is to start it = trust blindly in the other that it will only get better even if there is nothing that suggests so at first glance (there are no flying sparks and hypnotizing looks, just the sense of freedom, lightness, and warmth).

If you are in a relationship at present

but you are not certain about the predominant direction you move together in, the toxic/healthy nature of the relationship will get apparent as the relationship progresses in time and enough evidence has been accumulated. However, clarity can be achieved only if you dare to evaluate the evidence fairly and avoid the traps of excuses such as denial, delusion, or ideology. Such traps rest on the disconnection from your own sensations because they are too painful or too pale to the point where some sort of rationalization hides behind the glory of fictional constructs such as duty, fate, destiny, and other self-imposed limitations on the will.

Remember Sophocles' words, “Time reveals all hidden things and hides all clear things.” As paradoxical as this sounds, applied to relationships, it simply means that you grow more and more aware of the relationship dynamics as time in the relationship grows and you become increasingly oblivious to them as time out of the relationship grows.

If you have identified that you are a part of a healthy, committed relationship - Congratulations! You have all the reasons to celebrate your success, but don't forget to keep up the good work! The only thing for you to fear is fear itself! How very meta! You rock, and you rule, rising above and beyond yourself at a place called happiness and joy in the flow of the present here and now. And you happen to share this with someone so very special! You have created what everyone is looking to acquire, so do not be surprised if your fortunate situation attracts jealousy in any shape or kind. Still, your immense capacity to love, forgive, and build strong bonds will be the way to fight any conspiracy against your precious union.

If you have identified that you are a part of a so-called toxic relationship - Do not despair! Sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn so that you can win the next bigger round better! Everything is fixable! "Where there's life, there's hope." ― Stephen Hawking, and "What does not kill you makes you stronger!" - Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols. The quotes, though, apply only if you could learn from the past and change the direction at present and for the future. I wish you could always know that whatever you do is worthy and that you are ultimately loved, accepted, and appreciated already - your (continuing) existence is proof of that!

If you have never experienced any of the above

directly or indirectly, you can check the excellent illustrations of Stephanie Shtal in her book "Yes, no, maybe."While I do admire her narrative abilities, I disagree with the pessimistic conclusion of the book. I believe that as long as you dedicate yourself to giving more than you ever thought capable of giving to yourself in the name of your own self-actualization, those whose self-actualizations vibrate on the same wavelength will join next to you - not under/ over/ ahead/ behind you, but right next.

Finally, remember that Earth is an imperfect place and, in practice, there are no perfectly toxic or perfectly healthy relationships. The theory is supposed to be "perfect" so that it can guide us when disconnected from our own guidance. Sadly, every disconnection is a little death, and every theory falls right from the tree of knowledge. On the other hand, you know you are eating from the Tree of Life when you do not need any theory or advice - how blissful and complacent that can be for the shortest while! Part of the tragedy of happiness is that we tend to get so content with the present that we become negligent about the weight of the past and the judgment of the future that sooner or later, start showering as if out of the blue to pop the party. I wish you all a life that does not need my blog. However, if you are still not there and would like to read more on toxic relationships, you can check the next related posts below!

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