Relationships are all about love, trust, communication, respect with a healthy dose of compromise involved. A healthy relationship would be one that has these essentials invested in equal or near-equal levels from both the parties. An imbalance in any of these would make a relationship less healthy, but still workable if the parties involved are willing to rectify it. But a toxic relationship is a heavily skewed relationship where generally only one party is giving it all they’ve got, while the other uses the relationship as a tool of manipulation.
In the book and the movie ‘Gone Girl’, Amy, the seemingly perfect wife, was a murderous, manipulative, selfish person who fed on the unsurety and emotional immaturity of her husband. She first pins her own murder on Nick, then manipulates him into staying in the marriage because of her pregnancy. He agrees only because he’s afraid of facing criticism and exclusion from society.
This movie is an extreme as far as toxic relationships go; one would have to be blind not to see it. But how about the children’s classic ‘Beauty and the Beast’?
A poor and selfless girl, Belle, is abducted by the Beast, and then falls in love with him. Why? Because Stockholm Syndrome dictates so. The beautiful mansion housing talkative, conniving clocks, candlesticks, tea-pots and spoons, goad her to bear the angst, isolation and pressure from the Beast, who keeps her perfectly happy in all material matters except in the things that should matter.
While the overt message of the story is that love overcomes all flaws, love should not come at the cost of self-effacement or debasement. Toxicity can be a result of personality (Amy in Gone Girl) or circumstance (The Beast), but in both cases, the relationship becomes a blackhole that feeds on mistrust, lies, fear and subjugation, resulting in the demise of the relationship or the emotional mutilation of the vulnerable party.
Before you think – that sounds like my in-laws, make no mistake, toxic relationships are not limited to relationships where there is an intrinsic imbalance of power. They go beyond that into the realm of parenthood, family, friendships and professional relationships too.
Your clingy best friend, who absolutely needs to have you around for everything, no matter what your emergency, is using you as his emotional crutch. The boyfriend, who physically abuses you in private but tags you in all his love-poems on his Instagram profile, is bad news. Your PHD guide who drives you insane just to get a kick out of seeing you suffer is a Narcissist (please look up this term; Narcissists are the ultimate in toxic personalities). Blood relations, who manipulate you into being no more than a vehicle for their desires, are not family. In fact, after suffering three narcissists in my life from family alone, my definition of ‘family’ has changed. In many cases, family is a veil that hides all kinds of misdemeanours and manipulative behaviour, but that is a discussion for another article.
Realizing that you are in a toxic relationship is the first step towards making a better relationship because you are willing to admit that there is a problem that needs to be resolved. These pointers may help you confirm your suspicion:
- Exhaustion: All relationships are hard work but toxic relationships leave you feeling enervated. No matter what you do or say, everything is rebutted, trampled upon, or never enough. You keep telling yourself, telling them, next time you’ll do better, but every single time leaves you feeling like you are on the losing side. There is a never-ending sense of loss and tiredness and your best is not good enough for them.
- No Communication: No matter how many times you try to resolve an issue or even just talk about it, you face a wall. Every discussion becomes a fight. There is no reasoning with a toxic person because they are always right. They do not respond well to ‘no’s from you. In fact, you don’t have a right to say no to them. You either acquiesce to them or face the music.
- Avoidance: Healthy relationships nourish you and you want to spend more time with such people. In a toxic relationship, you may appear willing to spend time but only because you have no other choice. Because the alternative is facing their wrath. This may happen because you have external, apart from internal pressure, to keep up pretences (like Nick in Gone Girl) or because you are trauma-bonded to the toxic person, by trying to appease them so that their ‘good behaviour’ phases last longer. But sub-consciously, you avoid that person. Being in the same space as them makes you fidgety and anxious, which is the next point.
- Beware! Landmine: Being around them is like stepping into a field riddled with hidden landmines. You learn to keep your mouth shut, to do whatever they want you to do, to keep the anger and the fits at bay. You internalize behaviour patterns and responses that give you moments of peace even if it comes at the cost of your own humiliation. You begin to avoid everything and anyone who threatens to disturb this notional peace. Your relatives are coming over, who your spouse doesn’t like? You tell your relatives to come over when he’s not around and hide it from him. Your bestie is jealous of your new friend? You contrive ways to keep them apart. They keep bombarding you with passive-aggressiveness like snide comments, below-the-belt-jokes, your incapacities and faults are shoved in your face every day, but you take it all and don’t retort because you are in survival mode, and with an abuser, this is the only way you can survive. Eventually you give up trying to be who you were and try to be content in being who they want you to be, because it keeps the Hulk away.
- Loneliness: Outwardly, you may seem like a team, but within the relationship, you feel bottomless loneliness. You feel isolated in your misery that no one else can see because you have been perpetuating the farce of a happy relationship. Narcissists are especially good at isolating their victims. They monitor who you interact with and what you talk about. Your previous relations may be denounced and you’ll be pushed to limit your interaction with them. You must be the perfect other half of the relationship at all times, but from the abuser himself, you’ll get no companionship because they are not in the relationship for your company. They are in it because they love wielding their power over you, which brings me to the next point.
- Power-play: Ideal relationships have no imbalances of power but no relationship is ideal. A parent-child relationship is the best example of a skewed relationship. In some cases, even after attaining adulthood, parents may still manipulate a child because inherently parenthood forces a sense of inferiority in the child. The child, now an adult, always perceives the parent’s superiority as a part of a ‘normal family’ set-up. In toxic relationships, the abuser has always an upper hand in the relationship, due to monetary, physical or intellectual superiority, or a better status in society, or family hierarchy, to name a few reasons. Conversely, the abuser may act like a harmless victim while propping you up as the big, bad wolf to coerce and shame you into doing their bidding. Over-possessiveness, over-jealousy, competition are all indications of an abuser’s need to control their victims.
- No Boundaries or Privacy: There is no space for respect in a toxic relationship. You don’t have a voice, you don’t get to have opinions. You will be ‘advised’ which you must take and act on it. Your needs may be just barely met, but you will often be told how you should be grateful that they considered your needs. You may be allowed to do things you like to do, but your space, time and self-esteem does not exist for them. Many daughters-in-law in Asian cultures will admit that they feel like they are only earning their keep as in the marital home because their families are providing them essentials. A toxic person will claim all of your time and resources often giving you excuses like – “You aren’t working; you will do housework.” “Your money is my money because we are a couple, but my money is not your money.” “I get a say in your matters because I’m older than you and family, but you must hold your tongue.”
- Gaslighting: The term means manipulating someone into questioning his or her own sanity. Even if you do voice your disapproval in how they treat you, you will be told you are ‘going insane’, ‘splitting hairs’, ‘can’t take a joke’, ‘too sensitive’ or something dismissive like that. Remember, a toxic person will NEVER agree to being wrong. If they do admit, they always seem to have a reason for it that you must excuse. “I acted that way because I had a shitty day at work.” “I have personal problems going on; have some shame.” “I never had a good family so I don’t know how to be a good person.” In the end, you will second-guess yourself and conclude that you were the one at fault for even bringing it up when they are going through so much.
- Endless Sacrifices and Compromises: You find yourself making time for all their needs, all their whims too. But when it comes to you, it comes out as, “This is the way I am”, “I’m too old to adjust”, “I don’t have time for this” or “I’m going through so much myself!” Victims often find that they expend all they have over the abuser and still not get them to even appreciate what they’ve done. Toxic people are blackholes with a never-ending appetite and you are their feed because you still cling on which makes them feel that they must be superior to you. Hence you must sacrifice, never they.
- Distrust: You think you must trust them in the relationship but your gut reaction is wariness and fear. In a healthy relationship, trust comes effortlessly, but in a toxic relationship you never willingly trust the abuser because subconsciously you know the cycle of trusting-breaking of trust.
- Abuse: There should never be any room for unprovoked physical violence in any relationship but often, toxic relationships get physically abusive. If not physical, then there is always some sort of emotional manipulation or harassment involved. Stray incidents of superiority, narcissism, silent treatment and anger are there in every relationship. But if your relationship consists mostly of dark, depressing days, if you are constantly fearful for your life or sanity, and if you have depression or suicidal thoughts because of the abuser, get help immediately and please remember, there is nothing wrong in seeking out help.
No one deserves relationships that leave them feeling unloved, uncared for and incomplete but unfortunately, ours is not a perfect world. Now that you have identified that you may be in a toxic relationship, please work towards removing the imbalance. Communicate your feelings and your desires, talk, fight for the relationship, seek help and if everything else fails, leave as soon as you can.
A healthy relationship sets you free, helps you breathe, gives you space to grow.
It should never feel like a cage.
Pradita Kapahi, 2021. @praditachandola
Disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive list of signs of a toxic relationship. Remember that as times change, the definition of a toxic/abusive relationship changes too. These are helpful pointers that may assist you in identifying that you have a problematic relationship requiring immediate attention. This is not meant to replace medical/ psychological advice.