There is no week that goes by before you hear of a relationship going sour to the extent of serious crimes of abuse being committed. Nobody really hopes for a bad and toxic relationship.
However, the journey to a toxic and abusive relationship is a series of missed steps that later lead to serious harm. If you are keen enough, you can pick the tell-tale signs of a relationship that is bound to be toxic.
Common signs include, but are not limited to, the following:
Unregulated and hostile environment
According to Dr Marian Stansbury, a feeling of safety and security to express your authentic self is a determinant for this environment. Watch out for signs or actions that border on a controlling attitude, threats, intimidation, manipulation, secretiveness and selfish ambition.
If you begin to experience tension, you are subjected to unnecessary stress by your partner, or you are never given an opportunity to express yourself your way, then your relationship is not healthy. This is the moment you need help to bring things back on track.
Feeling demeaned and put down by your partner
In good relationships, partners encourage rather than criticise each other. If your partner uses excessive criticism and is always putting you down, rather than showing value and encouragement, then you need to stay alert.
Most partners use this as a controlling tool, to keep you on the edge all the time and to instil fear in you. This behaviour can be as a result of many things. In some cases, it could be differences in income or personality, a complex that makes the other person feel insecure, leading them to use various tactics to gain control.
Such treatment is meant to create a level of insecurity and fear where we are not secure enough to stand up to the abuser. We are instead meant to feel inadequate and less significant in the relationship.
Of course this builds up to a level where one partner just walks out of a relationship even without warning. Other times, it may end up ugly, especially when one chooses to stand up for fair treatment. Because of the perceived challenge to his or her authority, the abuser at times may become hostile and even turn physical.
Suspicion and lack of trust
There are cases where trust deteriorates in a relationship because of personal fears one has towards the actions and behaviour of their partner. This happens when a partner feels that there are things being hidden from them.
In most cases, the lack of open and authentic talk in a relationship leaves behind unclear areas where more dialogue could have dispelled any fears and suspicion. For some relationships, these feelings lead to a build-up of inner displeasure or anger.
In other cases, if such feelings persist, they create distance and a deliberate urge to avoid the other. Communication that involves phases of assurance and affirmation can clear the air.
Furthermore, suspicions can only be heightened where either spouse withdraws into their own space. Loving a person and not behaving in a loving manner is hypocrisy. With time, spouses live separate lives because this, as far as they are concerned, gives them a level of sanity. Really? This is a level of toxicity that acts like poison that kills one slowly.
As much as everyone has a right to their feelings, in relationships, open and unhindered dialogue removes ambiguities and wrong assumptions. An environment infested with pride, arrogance, mistrust and secrecy refuses to acknowledge that their partner’s feelings are valid and worth being listened to.
When you express how you feel and ask for what you want, does he/she listen and make an effort to meet your needs?
Turning verbally or physically abusive
Abuse of whatever level should not be tolerated in any relationship. An environment that tolerates animosity, unresolved issues, unmet needs, and unresponsiveness places the couple on the edge.
Anything small will trigger a fall out that could be evidenced in dirty fights and competition that could soon hurt the children as well, if the couple has any. Verbal abuse like name calling is toxic to a relationship. Using bad or sarcastic language to hurt someone is not the way to resolve conflict or communicate hurtful feelings.
It is important for each partner in a relationship to be able to express themselves honestly for authentic connection to be felt. In situations where truth is not shared in love, some partners make the choice to take their partner on a daily guilt trip.
For example, there are moments your partner tells you that they are upset, angry, disappointed, annoyed, or irritated with you for one reason or another. When you respond back with your perspective on the issue, they feel guilty and even apologise.
Of course you feel vindicated and choose to go on making them feel like they were so bad to have done what they did. Taking such a course of action may be satisfying in the short run, but will damage the relationship in the long term.
In an article I read a while back, the sad fact is that people who use guilt trips are usually entirely focused on getting the result they want and entirely blind to the damage their methods can cause. This is not only a toxic environment but one that will lead to the death of a relationship.
How we grew up informs how we handle our relationships
Before I conclude, it is fair to state that our childhood upbringing and experiences, including the way our parents related to us, has left an imprint in the way we think and behave when we are with other people.
This behavioural pattern later influences our relationships and our decision-making processes. Many times, therefore, it is easy for one to import the environment they grew under into their current relationship.
To understand how those in relationships in the past have influenced you, ask yourself these questions: Is the negativity and critical beliefs just starting or do they have some traces of your previous life and upbringing?
Is there current or past relationship that is limiting your full expression and identity? Are you living under excessive fear and anxiety that is a result of your partner’s actions or your past life?
Other times, toxic relationships may result from entering a relationship with an already damaged person.
In such a situation, doing good homework is key. Seeking the intervention of good counsellors could also help. If you are still dating such a person, ending the relationship is your only hope.
Staying put in this kind of environment could be a catalyst for future abuse or could gravitate you towards condoning a toxic environment.
Do you have a value system?
Everyone must have a hierarchy of values or priorities that help determine how they look at life and make decisions. Such values influence what you tolerate, dislike, are attracted to or repelled by.
For example, marrying someone for certain benefits regardless of their character flaws is wrong and a great avenue for future abuse.
I mentioned in an article I wrote previously in this column that owning your own relationship demands that you hold yourself accountable to your choices and actions. Be upfront and forthright with your ideals, convictions, values and feelings.
Six steps to leave a toxic relationship
Ending a bad relationship can be really complicated, so here are some things you should use to make the process as easier.
1. Build a safety net: If you're thinking of ending a relationship, make a plan on how you are going to deal with the transition. Where will you stay? What possessions will you need to bring along? Don’t do this haphazardly. This process should be well thought out.
2. Set a goal to be independent: If you do not have a career or a way to support yourself, it is time to begin carving this path. Go to school, get training, get a job (even a low level or part-time job). Your financial independence is one of the main roads to freedom.
3. Let someone know: No more secrets. Confide in a family member or friend so that they can help you with the process. If you feel threatened, inform the local authorities that you are going to need help.
4. Seek professional help: Leaving and recovering from a toxic relationship will take effort and time. Reach out to support groups or counsellors who are experienced in relationship problems.
A therapist can be a great impartial resource to guide you and hold you accountable for creating and meeting your goals. An experienced family law attorney is also necessary. You will need to reflect on some of your own behaviour in the marriage as well.
5. Stop talking to your partner: Toxic people are very cunning and can use emotional blackmail to lure you back in. When you make the decision to separate or end the marriage, terminate any form of communication with them unless you have children and need to co-parent.
In this case, only communicate on concerns about the children. If you need to file a restraining order, so be it.
6. Indulge yourself with things you love doing: Being part of a toxic relationship is extremely detrimental to your self-esteem. It will take some time before you are ready to be part of another relationship. Don’t rush this! Take time for yourself.
To help yourself recover, make time for hobbies that you ignored during your marriage. Start working on a pet project or your own business. Take that trip you've always wanted to.