There is a difference between healthy relationships that deal with difficulties and difficult relationships that cannot manage to exist without being in a constant state of crisis. Sometimes, a difficult relationship can be nurtured into a healthy one; but, an unhealthy relationship that goes way beyond being difficult, as rarely, if ever, able to become manageable; let alone, healthy, because it lacks the ability to maintain a stable emotional environment. The characteristics of an emotionally unstable relationship tend to affect more than just feelings. A severely unstable relationship can distribute so much stress that it affects physical health, as well as, the ability to maintain personal responsibilities at home and on the job. Such a relationship has come to be known as “toxic.”
A toxin is substance when infused, injected, or exposed by proximity, causes a destructive result. Some toxins have an immediate effect; while others, require exposure to them over time to do their damage. From deadly neurotoxins, such as from venomous snake bite, to the damage of alcohol abuse, poison, in any form, has a deteriorating effect. Detoxification (otherwise known as “Detox,”) is the process to purge a toxin from the body to promote healing from its effects. Originally associated with alcoholism, Detox has come to include overcoming the harmful effects of all kinds of toxic dependencies and addictions. As with any other toxin, healing from a toxic relationship is just as important for one’s health and well-being. Given the duration of exposure and the intensity of a relationship’s toxicity, it may require some time and effort to heal from its negative effect.
“So, what determines if a relationship is a toxic one?” A “toxic relationship” is labeled such because of the intense turmoil and conflict within it. Unlike a mutually supportive relationship, a toxic relationship cannot maintain unity because it suffers from internal sabotage. In most cases, the internal conflict overshadows anything from without. In other words, a couple fights more against each other than they do together against outside challenges. The turmoil comes from within the relationship causes it to constantly battle against implosion. While difficulties, such as financial pressure, illness, or injury present challenges to any relationship, a toxic relationship will manufacture its own crisis’; thus, helping to create financial and physical problems, if they don’t already exist. Simply put, a toxic relationship can break you and make you sick. A relationship that keeps a person in such a constant state of chaos that earning a living, sleeping and eating well, and maintaining other good relationships, is demonstrating characteristics that are toxic.
By its nature, a toxic relationship is filled with emotional drama designed to manipulate a certain result by the one(s) creating it. Because the drama is so severe, it not only undermines relational stability, it inflicts intense emotional stress that can have lasting traumatic effect – hence, the word “toxic.” While the contributing factors that create the dynamics of a toxic relationship may vary, the most common is simply bad behavior. It is men and women behaving badly very badly. The variation and intensity of such bad behavior presents deeper questions about its causes and complexity. Why people do what they do is a question that has intrigued great minds for centuries. Motives are something that will never be fully understood without the ability to look into the consciousness of another human being. What we can do is study what we can see; such as, chemical/hormonal imbalances; mental capacities; as well as, personal history and experiences. A better understanding into the causes of bad behavior can be helpful; but, for the purposes of this discussion, I want to direct the attention to recognizing the “what’s” of a toxic relationship more than the “why’s.”
Toxic relationships are full of hidden agendas and ulterior motives. Though the previous statement may sound like a “why,” it isn’t. Without attempting to answer why there are hidden agendas and ulterior motives present in toxic relationships, the fact is that they are consistently present and active within them. Manipulation is the oxygen a toxic relationship breathes. Unlike a healthy relationship that is respectfully honest, a toxic relationship is manipulated by double-talk and emotional blackmail. While some toxic relationships can have two equally unhealthy individuals battle for dominance, most usually consist of a dominant manipulator (abuser) and the target (victim). Granted, “It takes two to fight,” but most toxic relationships are driven by one person more than the other. In many cases the “target” is a trusting individual; commonly with co-dependent tendencies, making him/her more easily vulnerable to manipulation. Whether fueled by addiction and/or behavioral problems, a manipulator could not accomplish much without the cooperation of his/her target. Unknowingly, a victim can become an accomplice in helping to sustain a toxic relationship.
One of the most destructive traits of a toxic relationship is its ability to perpetuate itself. By its nature, it is contradictive; destroying any resemblance of a healthy existence while sustaining an on-going campaign of turmoil and confusion. Emotions make it “hard to see the forest for the trees.” Even “devotion” can be used as a manipulative tool to compel a victim to remain in a destructive relationship and perpetuate its unhealthy cycle. The devotion felt by a victim can motivate him/her to try harder and harder to make the unhealthy relationship better. Guilt and false-hope are weaknesses of a victim; often, helping to facilitate and perpetuate a dysfunctional relationship. Victims unknowingly become “enablers” to an abuser when they fail to see the nature of a destructive relationship for what it is. They tend to accept it as “status quo.” Trusting, devoted individuals make the best victims for abusers because they’re able to manipulate a victim by appealing to his/her sense of devotion; keeping them there for more abuse.
When guilt and emotional blackmail do not work, a master manipulator will turn to punishing a victim by creating one chaotic situation after another. Through lies, false accusation, the enlistment of outside sympathizers, a manipulator can create “hurricanes of drama” so intense that a victim finds him/her self trying to hold on to just get through them. Too often a victim thinks he/she will be able to resolve “the problem” after the storm has passed. This is a mistake because there’s never enough calm between storms to identify the problem; let alone, repair it. The closer one might get to the problem, the more drama is created to divert from the issue at hand.
A toxic relationship is a “tar baby.” The more you struggle with it, the more stuck you become. You cannot reason with the unreasonable. It’s honorable to try, but the more unreasonable things become in spite of your efforts to the contrary is evidence you’re in a toxic relationship. If what you have read, thus far, seems to describes a relationship you’re in, then, heed what I’m about to say.
The first step in healing from a toxic relationship is: Recognizing you are in one.
Seeing the reality of a toxic relationship for what it is one of the most difficult things to do when you’re in one. Because emotions are involved, it’s hard to see that a relationship with someone you care about is toxic. Maybe, reading an article such as this will help you have a more external perspective of the internal turmoil you find yourself living in. If you’re in a relationship in which you face more struggle from within than you do from without, then, you’re in an unhealthy relationship. If you’re in a relationship that is so constantly in turmoil that it is affecting your health, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, then, you’re in a toxic relationship. If it continues, it can ultimately affect your career and financial stability; as well.
As the number of people with behavioral problems is increasing, the number of toxic relationships is on the rise. Many with behavioral disorders go undiagnosed and undetected; at least, until they’re unleashed on unsuspecting victims. Even then, behavioral disorders are too often labeled as behavior just demonstrating “irreconcilable differences” between two people.
You may feel it judgmental to determine a relationship you’re in is toxic. You may feel that, if there is a problem with the relationship, you’re just as responsible as your partner. While there may be some truth to that, the fact remains that, if you’re in a toxic relationship, you need healing from its poisonous effect.
A half-truth can be just as damaging as a whole lie. Trusting, conscientious individuals tend to prolong their involvement in a destructive relationship because they do not want to judge their abuser. Whether by a “Stockholm Syndrome” (where captives bond emotionally with their captors) or by a nave’ attempt in “objectivity,” the fact of being in a destructive relationship is something that needs to be recognized for what it is. You can leave the judgment of another’s soul to God, while still being honest with yourself about his/her behavior, as far as, you and your relationship is concerned.
The second step in healing from a toxic relationship is: Getting Distance.
Because a toxic relationship is too severe to nurture healthy growth and maturity, it will yield more mental and emotional injury the longer it is allowed to continue. That’s why acquiring and maintaining a safe distance from a toxic relationship is essential to healing from its harmful effects. As with any affliction, it is necessary to get away from the cause of injury. Like any exposure to a toxin, healing can never begin until a safe distance is reached between the source of a poison and the one being contaminated. Sometimes, a healthy distance can be achieved while remaining in the relationship, but should only be attempted with the help of qualified therapist for protection against any further emotional or, potentially, physical injury. (See step 3 below.)
A toxic relationship is not unlike a raging fire burning out of control. As a “controlled burn” can quickly turn from a blaze to wildfire, a manipulator’s pressure to apply “a little heat” can turn to a “scorched earth” policy in a blink of an eye. To “manipulate what you can control,” and “destroy what you can’t,” is the manipulator’s only real code of conduct. That is why the only truly safe place to be is a distance beyond the reach of the turmoil. Regardless, of whether it’s because of addiction or a disorder, a relationship that is toxic is not something anyone should remain in as is.
Love motivates us to endure hardship. That’s a natural part of a sustaining relationship; but, it’s one thing to endure hardship from outside a relationship, and another to suffer injury from within it. Although, time and space are not by themselves the healing remedy of wounds from a toxic relationship, they are necessities for the healing process to begin. Relationships change. Sometimes, they end. While some end with civility, toxic relationships rarely do. Because you cannot reason with the unreasonable, ending a toxic relationship usually requires a deliberate departure; even, sometimes, an escape to move beyond the reach of its destructive effects. Stepping away is a responsible choice for your health and well-being. It is a preference for peace over turmoil; for dignity over defamation; and for honesty over deceit and manipulation.
The third step in healing from a toxic relationship is: Getting Help.
Don’t go it alone. Find a qualified, licensed therapist who can help you deal with unhealthy effects of toxic relationship. If you’ve been in a toxic relationship, you have been wounded. Wounds need tending. They need to be sanitized and cleansed of all debris. Any remnants from the when the wounds were inflicted, need to be carefully removed. The effects of betrayal and false accusation from a master manipulator are damaging. A professional can tend those wounds and help to walk you through the steps of recovery. It’s easy to minimize the damage from being in a toxic relationship like it was to minimize the evidence you were in one before you saw it for what it was. Your well-being is a professional’s only objective.
Being in a toxic relationship, especially, for a long period of time, has a destructive effect – even, on previously healthy individuals. Just like with any toxin, prolonged exposure leads to increased harm. Even for a victim who was just trying to exist and maintain within an unhealthy relationship, the toxicity is damaging and infectious.
Like a virus that infects a healthy person, so can a toxic relationship infect and affect a person in it with symptoms that need to be treated. Whether a prisoner of war, or a prisoner of “love” – a debriefing, if you will, is appropriate for anyone coming out of such a negatively controlled environment. That’s where treatment comes in. Therapy with a qualified professional who is trained to deal with such issues is a good place to start.
One symptom from a toxic relationship will be guilt guilt heaped upon you by another, and from your self. It will be the by-product from relentless manipulation, as well as, the revelation of misjudging a relationship you thought to be something it was not. Obviously, victims of toxic relationships would not enter them if they thought they would turn out to be toxic. Being wrong about the true condition of a relationship can make you feel guilty.
Because betrayal is a common ingredient of a toxic relationship, humiliation is also a common feeling associated with it. Nobody likes to play the part of a fool, or made to look like one by someone we trusted. Dealing with guilt is not uncommon for victims of abuse. Guilt associated with “allowing” someone to fool you is a common emotion.
Try to keep in mind that you did not intend to enter an unhealthy relationship and that, in itself, is a healthy thing. Remind yourself that you are now in a healthier place and will utilize the insight you’ve gained from your experience not to make the same mistake again with professional help to deal with any subconscious tendencies, you won’t.
The fourth step in healing from a toxic relationship is: Keep Going.
Keep going 180 degrees from where you were. Keep taking steps. Each and every step in the direction away from an unhealthy relationship is a right one to take. While some toxic relationships can be stopped by mutual agreement, most require the victim to refuse to perpetuate the harmful cycle any longer. Looking back can tempt a victim to return to the familiar. Sometimes, even the lure of the familiar, even when unhealthy, can seem more attractive than the unknown. Reflection on the past can be a helpful exercise as long as you don’t allow yourself to be drawn back into an unhealthy relationship you’ve worked so hard to recover from. We are creatures of habit. We’re creatures of bad habits, too. So, surround yourself with good people who care about you and won’t stand by to watch anyone mistreat you.
You can’t reach a destination if you don’t continue your journey. Continuing on the road to recovery will insure you get there. Keep moving away from what you’ve already suffered enough. Remind yourself what you left and why you left it behind. Remember, time, by itself, will not heal all wounds; but, it, along with distance, will provide a place to pursue the steps towards recovery and make recuperation possible.
The fifth step in recovering from a toxic relationship is: Forgiveness.
Forgiveness is hard when something as intimate as a relationship has been the source of such personal pain. Even when forgiveness is finally found for someone who made life a living hell, it may still prove to be easier to find for that person than it will for your self. Balance, I believe, is the most difficult challenge of the human condition. Forgiveness is no exception. It’s important to forgive others. It’s equally as important to forgive your self.
Sometimes, forgiveness is something accomplished in degrees. Sometimes, it just takes time achieve. It may require a renewed decision to forgive each time we discover sensitivity from a wound thought to be healed. Whatever it takes, purpose to find in your heart forgiveness to extend to others, as well as, yourself. Forgiveness is the heart of the matter. And, at the end of it all, it is what matters most.
As in any form of recovery, healing comes faster for some than others. Realizing a toxic relationship is not the loving relationship you thought it was is part of the healing process. Stepping away is, also, a part of it, too. Finding a qualified professional to help identify; address; and correct the negative effects of a toxic relationship, is another. Continuing to make progress will protect against returning to repeat the cycle of chaos. And, forgiving one who hurt you, as well as, yourself, will be to your healing benefit.