Forward Ethos is an effort to use mental health practices to create a place of balance for anyone who desires it. We provide dialogue, support, free resources and products to overcome day-to-day struggles, as well as provide a springboard for healthy community. 

Why Your Relationship Is Toxic (Or Not!)

Why Your Relationship Is Toxic (Or Not!)

"Find Your Tribe. The ones that make you feel the most YOU. The ones that lift you up and help you remember who really are. The ones that remind you that a blip in the road is just that, a blip, and not to mistake it for an earthquake. And even it were to be an earthquake they’d be there with the Earthquake Emergency Supply Kit. They are the ones that when you walk out of a room, they make you feel like a better person than when you walked in. They are the ones that even if you don’t see them face to face as often as you’d like, you see them heart to heart."

-Jennifer Pastiloff

“Am I in a toxic relationship?”

This is a question that surprisingly few of us ask! Most of us were probably trained to look out for abusive relationships, often romantic ones. A lot of us would be rightly suspicious of violence, or threats of violence. However, depending on our environment and upbringing, we often miss signs of other behaviors that may not (yet) be physically abusive, but can be emotionally dangerous or super unhealthy at best.

You know that relationship or situationship that just drains your soul? If not a romantic relationship, maybe it’s a toxic friendship, or relationship with a family member. It might even be a general environment such as a workplace that draws your energy and your ability to be your best self. You know “that situation”, it is probably the relationship where your grades plummeted, or that job where you countdown the clock to leave and are silently plotting when to put in your two weeks notice. Maybe it’s that sibling that always left you broke, not just financially, but emotionally, because of addiction issues or family problems. It is that relationship or those relationships; the ones that just took, and took, and took, but for some reason never filled you up.

We come to accept these feelings of uneasiness in relationships, where you are made to feel like you are on the verge of abandonment, or that you are a bother or a burden to someone. You may realize that you were constantly apologizing, or feel rage at others around you. These are all signs that you are now, or have in the past, been exposed to toxic dynamics that have changed your interactions in an attempt to balance the situation. These are compensation measures for an unhealthy and unbalanced relationship. Right now you might feel like this article is blaming you, but guess what? You are also a sufferer of unhealthy relationships too! It goes both ways!

Why does it matter?

Often these situations seem harmless. We make excuses or we cling to certain values taught to us, like “family is family” or “love sometimes hurts” or “a job is better than no job”. These principles are often rooted in our deep desire for stability and closeness, which is perfectly reasonable, but most times at a steep cost. It plays out that when we stay in these situations because they are familiar, we begin to be bitter, angry, and lonely. We stay in these situations for years and we are drained of our energy and potential, we don’t achieve the life we dreamed of, we begin to resent or blame others for our failures, and in the worse cases, we self medicate, or we abuse those around us emotionally, physically or in other ways. And the cycle continues. 

We have all heard of the “generational curse” and feel it is a looming outside force that causes our families to reproduce poor outcomes, but it is quite the opposite. It is the small act of accepting and enabling poor life situations that snowballs into domestic misery. We then unknowingly teach these poor habits to our children and they innocently accept them. Then the cycle repeats. So, for example, accepting that violation of boundaries from your in-law might seem like a small bother that might not be worth the conflict, but when we examine it further, ask yourself "what kind of dynamic am I accepting into my life and how will it affect my overall health and well-being?" Accepting these unhealthy dynamics might seem like a small and insignificant choice, but it can balloon into bad relationship habits, and recurring conflict that can threaten to divide families and even end marriages. From this perspective we can start to challenge these toxic situations and prevent them from snowballing into bigger life altering outcomes.

But wait, what makes a relationship healthy?

Before we define what makes relationships unhealthy, and what that looks like, we should probably first cover some basics on what makes them healthy. A healthy relationship:

  • Makes both of you better people
  • Makes both of you feel safe, secure, and supported
  • Helps both of you grow as people
  • Involves patience with shortcomings that goes both ways
  • Contains kind treatment that goes both ways
  • Has trustful tendencies, giving the benefit of the doubt
  • Involves two people who see each other as equals
  • Involves compromise by both parties
  • Involves a respect of healthy boundaries set by both parties

This is not a comprehensive list, but I want to really emphasize that both sides aspect. For a clear model of this, read stories about Jesus, his relationships with his disciples were all characterized by these traits. This is more deeply explored in this blog. In an ideal situation, you would be focusing on checking off all of these boxes, and the other person would be doing the same. Now for the signs of a toxic relationship:

Signs of a toxic relationship

  • Unreasonable imbalance in relationship dynamic (e.g. One person is more powerful, or is the “savior” of the other. This is separate from normal and healthy difference in roles such as parent/child, employer/employee, leader/constituency etc.)
  • Unreasonable insecurity (constant checking of phones, social media, paranoia)
  • Intimidation or manipulation (physically or via threats of harm, or self-harm)
  • Lack of respect of the person (Interests, dreams, etc. You don’t actually feel allowed to be yourself [1])
  • One side takes emotional responsibility in arguments or conflicts
  • Lack of personal growth/contempt for change

Please keep in mind that this is also not a comprehensive list by any means, but it gives you a basic picture of what to look out for. Also keep in mind that some of the best life advice I’ve received is that there is no 50/50 in marriage. There are momentary life circumstances that might call for one person to be more understanding or pull more of the weight for a time. But, it should not be the overall dynamic of the entire relationship. The simplest guide ever is found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, and you probably already know it:

 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Check your relationship for these things. Is he patient? Is she kind? Also, check yourself. Are you being the best relative, friend, boyfriend, or wife you can be? Or, on the flip side, are you maybe working too hard to be the best person in this relationship? Are you giving, and giving, and giving, and never receiving in return? Are you possibly loving, or giving, or doing kind things to receive love or acceptance in return? If you are, beware that where there is no balance, burnout and resentment will inevitably set in. You will be amazed at your capacity to hate someone who you previously loved with all your heart! Because you assumed if you provided self-sacrifice you expected they would return the favor. Please, don’t fall into the trap of not valuing yourself in a healthy, balanced way and become less than yourself because someone didn’t live up to what you believe them to be or even who they might have said they were.

What’s your fair market value?

As accountants and finance people would know, the fair market value of anything (e.g. a house, a car, or your used iPhone) is only as much as someone is willing to pay for it. But, if you set your asking price too low, no one is going to call you and say “that price is too low, how about I offer you its fair market value?” What they will do is swoop in, hurry up and buy your product, celebrating themselves for getting a great deal off “some sucker” who didn’t know what their product was worth.

What makes you afraid to negotiate?

I am not a naturally assertive person at all. I recently was shopping for a car, and the temptation I struggled with was to accept whatever price the dealer gave me. I was so concerned about being nice, or not offending the salesman, or his manager, that I was afraid to fight for sales terms that wouldn’t cripple our family finances. It made me uncomfortable to argue down the price of the car, and I didn’t even bother to push for a higher trade-in price for my old car. I put my needs below the dealership’s needs. The issue wasn’t really that I was afraid to negotiate the price of the car, but that I lowered the price of myself. We do this all the time in our relationships.

What makes you afraid to negotiate? Do you feel like the low estimation being placed on you is a fair price? Do you feel like you couldn’t do better anyway? What things have you experienced that affects how you see yourself? Was it childhood abuse, an injury, or disability? Or do you feel so unattractive that you’re sure you can’t do better?

A two-way mirror

Cooley’s Looking Glass Self states that we develop how we see ourselves based on how others see us.[2]  The crazy thing is, after a while, once we have a self-image, people then use that to determine how they see us. This is a time for self-reflection. Take some time to think about who you are. How do you see yourself? Do you like yourself, honestly? Or do you see yourself as less than others? Where did you get those messages from? Understand that the way you see yourself is a huge influencer in how others see and treat you. If you constantly find yourself in unhealthy relationships, ask yourself, “What ways in which I see myself cause me to attract this kind of person?”

So, what if your relationship actually is toxic?

Get help. Now. Seriously. Even if your relationship is not to the extreme of being abusive (yet), a toxic relationship can still do harm to your body and mind that can take years to overcome. Talk to a trusted wise person who can help. A counselor is even better. If both of you are still determined to make the relationship work, then you both need help, as there are probably emotional issues and/or traumas that are at the root of whatever is making the relationship toxic. However, the most important point is that you need to be prepared to break it off if necessary. If you are unwilling to, due to pity for the other person, fear that they will not survive, a discomfort with loneliness, or any other reason, you will continue to be trapped and held hostage. If you are in conflict about how these people make you feel about your choice to take care of yourself, it is helpful and healthful to keep in mind that you are only responsible for your own feelings, values, thoughts and experience, and no one else’s. Threats of self-harm, or a portrayal that they cannot make it without you is actually a huge red flag that you are not in a healthy relationship, that you’re being sucked dry, and that this person is in dire need of professional help. Also, being berated for your choice is also a sign that this person is not best for your well-being. In the end, the only person who can change your environment is you. We pray for you good courage and peace as you embark on your journey to increased wellness.

Related: How To Own Your Emotions and No One Else's

How to move forward

We've created resources designed to help you assess and begin to deal with this specific issue. We have a free community area that gives you access to guide sheets relating to the topics discussed in this blog. Check out our free community resource area to access downloadable PDF guide sheets for this blog and much more:

The Baggage Breakdown

The Baggage Breakdown

How To Own Your Emotions and No One Else's

How To Own Your Emotions and No One Else's