Foreword: This article is not intended to antagonise any specific person or point to any one person in the author’s life. At times I had to deal with toxic behaviours that took a lot of work, on other hands in certain situations I had unintentionally been the toxic partner. We must understand that all relationships take work, because what separates love and infatuation is the full acceptance of another person (the bad and the good) and the intentional effort to support each other, which sometimes means having to change ourselves. I hope that through this we can all become more self-aware of the toxic traits of our partners and ourselves, a process through which we may become more realistic and capable of finding more love.
What makes a toxic partner?
A toxic partner generally exhibits several of the following characteristics:
- diminishes your self-esteem by poking fun of sensitive topics or insults you to other people
- Is neglectful or dismissive of your needs
- Verbally or physically assaults you
- Makes you feel ashamed
- Isolates you from friends and family irrationally
- Blames you for mistakes and does not take accountability
- Is dishonest
- Always prioritises themselves and makes problems about them
Why are they toxic?
Every day we have to make thousands of decisions, a large clump of which go towards “How do I behave?”. Every morning you have to choose what to wear, right? Now imagine if every time you wanted to do something you would have to look at your closet and decide what to wear. This would be overwhelming! That is why humans operate at the level of habits and how we choose to act has often been predetermined by our genetics, our experiences and our moods which operate at the subconscious level. Although deciphering why we do something is almost like trying to extract raw ingredients from a soup, it is the aim of psychology to answer these questions. In other words, the behaviours we see are often caused by a multitude of factors that have complex interactions, hence, usually their behaviour is due to more than just one factor.
Reason 1: How they were raised
Psychologists believe “toxic” antisocial behaviours are caused by unmet needs in early childhood. Relationships with caretakers, which may include parents or other people responsible for your upbringing with whom you had an emotional bond, are strong determinants of how you deal with your emotions. If your family condone dealing with issues with violence, you may also endorse this. If they did not place value in communicating your emotions, you have limited explorations with your emotions. This may lead to you bottling your emotions, neglecting feelings of others and diverting accountability for your own or others emotions. This can manifest in partners who are dismissive of how you feel, may publically make fun of you or disregard your needs.
Reason 2: Attachment styles
People with unmet needs will have to find ways to cope with the emotional stress. The most popular theory described people’s personalities within relationships as avoidant, anxious or a mix of both and secure. It was first described by Bowlby in the late 20th century based on how babies react when their mothers leave. An anxious person tends to be uncomfortable with distance as often the emotional support their parents provided was unpredictable and inconsistent. These partners may often be seen as controlling, needy and manipulative when they are not aware of their insecurity or have manifested poor ways to deal with them. An avoidant person may dodge conflict and fear intimacy as caretakers often neglect them. These people may often be partners that are sweet and suddenly disappear, or disappear when you need them. The goal here is to become a more “secure” lover, one who can objectively manage situations and see things for what they are without projecting their trauma on their partner. Recognize here that a good partner should be able to help you be more secure and that someone’s attachment style does not have to be a deal breaker.
Reason 3: Societal roles
A study by Cuxart et al. 2021, found that there was peer pressure to be in relationships and that “toxic gender roles” were enforced. Men inclined to violence were portrayed to be more masculine as they were seen as more confident and more protective, hence, more attractive to women. In this study, women rated “bad boys” or those with traditional dominant male personalities more unattractive IF they were not aware of the health consequences of toxic relationships. Therefore, it is also important for us to not justify hurtful and abusive behaviours simply based on cultural standards.
We should further recognize that in societies where the power dynamics between men and women are still drastically different, certain societal beliefs may manifest in harmful behaviour. For example, in a patriarchal society, failing to live up to beliefs such as a woman must do the housework can become punishable. Men who grew up taking pride in their strength and being shown or allowed to be violent may partake in physical abuse. This however does not mean the responsibilities lie solely within men. In the same society, men who do not fit the beliefs may also be punished or shunned. Men who fail to provide, are shy or physically weaker may be physically or verbally abused by their partners too.
We condone their actions/ we accept the love we think we deserve
Often our caretakers are the ones who provide us with our idea of what it means to love. Any departure from this may feel uncomfortable. This is why many people are often stuck “reliving their own trauma”. Partners returning to abusive relationships may do so despite knowing that it has negative outcomes. If we have not been provided by a love that is nurturing and supporting of our true character, then we may find it hard to recognize when a relationship has truly become toxic.
In love, we often revert to this younger self that felt unloved. It is this gap or void people find talk about. We try to fill this void in our relationships hoping that our partner will fill this void. We become the proverbial child that needs to be taken care of. We become vulnerable and powerless in the pursuit of the love we so desire, so just like we hoped our caretakers would change to love us the way we needed, we condone their actions for the droplets of the love we desire. Just like a child-caretaker relationship we become powerless to change the dynamics as we have given them so much power to influence us.
It is not that you attract toxic partners but you pick them and condone their actions.
We have a “Hero” mentality
If we are someone who is highly empathetic, as in we are able to see and relate to the pain of others. We may often be inclined to help others that we see struggle. This may make us become people who over-compromise: people who cater to others every need, always helpful and self-less. However, this can often attract narcissists who believe they are better than everyone else (note that this does not have to be genuine superiority, it may simply be them overcompensating on self-esteem too). Narcissists believe everything must cater to them without them giving anything back as if the world revolves around them. They may make a facade where they are innocent and caring at first but are self-centred at their core and the empath, seeing themselves as if they solved the narcissist’s emotional turmoil, they may finally receive the love they craved. As you may expect this is a recipe for disaster.
This narrative is further enforced if the caretaker’s are narcissistic themselves. It does not mean they are not willing to share or take care of you. It may simply mean they do not have the emotional capacity to deal with emotions themselves so may over-rely on their children, project their anger at them, place themselves at centre of issues and have difficulty apologising. These are also qualities of a narcissistic partner, hence, we become trained to cater to someone’s needs and again relive our trauma. Although we cannot choose our parents we can choose our partner. So choose wisely.
Being to selfless
We already introduced the idea of being so empathetic to the extent that you place someone else’s emotions over your own. This is not a bad thing, in fact, it is an important social skill. Where it goes wrong is if you have not constantly catered to someone else and get nothing in return.
“You cannot pour from an empty cup”.
You have denied your own needs for so long you may not even have the practice to express them. Perhaps people had seen you as selfish and demanding and this had deterred you from ever voicing your need. You must understand without saying what you need, you cannot receive exactly what you need.
We also have a tendency to put people “on a pedestal”, being so empathetic, we only see the good in them and deny the flaws. In order to be less entranced by a toxic partner, we must see their bad qualities for what they truly are. We must also recognize within an unsuitable partner that beyond the relationship, they may have redeeming qualities so that we do not lean on the side of antagonising them.
First we must recognize that the relationship is unhealthy. A few questions we may ask is that is this person diminishing our self-esteem? Our quality of sleep? The quality of the relationship you have with yourself, your work and your friends or family? Then we must understand that prolonged mental effects will also affect our physical health. Knowing it is bad for you is the first step to change.
Identifying patterns and triggers
As much as it is about understanding the patterns in our partner, it is also about understanding the patterns we ourselves exhibit. Psychologists recommend journaling down when exactly these displeasures arise in your relationship? If you tend to argue when a certain topic comes up or especially after you have just met your parents, it may be a reason to assume the issues are somehow intertwined. Once you have found these triggers you may want to try to avoid them or minimise their effect. Relating this to attachment styles, let’s propose a theoretical person named Sam gets anxious when their partner is away on a business trip and has not been responding to their texts. They may in this moment remind themselves that maybe they are in a meeting and note that their partner had always been responsive at night. They practise open communication and decided to send a message in the morning that reads “Hi, miss you lots. Having many meetings today, I will get back to you as soon as I can”. (Adapted from the book Attached by Levine and Heller)
We must also understand that as we as receivers play an important role in how the message or behaviour they exhibit. If we choose to overreact in this instance of misunderstanding we may make them defensive. If we choose to ignore it we may become burdened by our bottled emotions. In both cases, this may push us to conclude that our partner is toxic. Hence, we must both understand them and understand ourselves. We must know it is okay to sometimes feel insecure because the key to love is being vulnerable. We must be able to subjugate ourselves to be emotionally dissected in order to accept a healing love. In this we must love our bad qualities as much as our good qualities, being able to communicate and present this so we can improve as people.
Communication, action and support.
As already established, communicating your needs is the best way to make it clear what you need and allow for you to receive what you ask for. However, communication is only the starting action to healing. We must continually put in the work for introspection, to become secure and build the resources required to become who we desire to be. One way to do this is to build a social support network of friends who will keep you accountable and give you a more neutral opinion. They should be people who have your best interest in mind whilst giving you the autonomy to deal with the issue yourself. Experiencing love from friends can be an important factor in identifying an “unloving relationship” and preventing you from being pressured into a potentially damaging relationship to feel the void of love.
Best of Luck,
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