There’s no class in high school on how to not be a shitty boyfriend or girlfriend. Sure, we get taught the biology of sex, the legal ins and outs of marriage, and maybe we read a few obscure love stories from the 19th century on how not to be an ass-face.
Without clear ideas from adults, what we’re left with is basically trial and error, and if you’re like most people, it’s mostly error.
Enter: a string of toxic relationships as we fumble through an already complex dating world.
One of the problems is that a lot of toxic relationship habits are baked into our culture. We worship romantic love—you know, that dizzying and irrational kind that somehow finds breaking china plates on the wall in a fit of tears somewhat endearing. And we scoff at practicality or unconventional sexualities.
Men and women are encouraged to objectify each other and to objectify their romantic relationships. Thus, our partners are often seen as achievements or prizes rather than someone to share mutual emotional support.
What Is a Toxic Relationship?
Many of us enter the dating world not even knowing that a lot of our beliefs about relationships are toxic to begin with. So let’s first get clear about what a toxic relationship is:
A toxic relationship occurs when one or both people are prioritizing love over the three core components of a healthy relationship: respect, trust, and affection.
This might sound crazy to some people, but love should not be the reason to stay in a relationship, and that’s because it can cloud our judgment in these other very important areas.
If you prioritize the love you get out of a relationship over the respect you’re given, you’ll tolerate being treated like a doormat. If you prioritize love over trust in the relationship, you’ll tolerate lying and cheating. If you prioritize love over affection in the relationship, you’ll tolerate a cold and distant existence in the relationship.
We tolerate bad relationships for all sorts of reasons—maybe we have low self-esteem, maybe we’re not self-aware enough to realize what’s going on, maybe we don’t have a good handle on our emotions, and so on. But all this does is create a superficial, psychologically unhealthy, and potentially abusive relationship.
6 Signs of a Toxic Relationship You Might Think Are Normal
Toxic relationships can take on a few different forms, but I’ve found a number of telltale signs of bad relationships that many people either ignore or, worse, think are actually signs of a healthy relationship.
Below are six of the most common tendencies in relationships that many couples think are healthy and normal but are actually toxic behaviors and harming what you hold dear.
1. The Relationship Scorecard
What Is It?: The “keeping score” phenomenon is when someone you’re dating continues to blame you for past mistakes. If both people in the relationship do this it devolves into what I call “the relationship scorecard,” where the relationship devolves into a battle to see who has screwed up the most over the months or years, and therefore who is most indebted to the other.
You were an asshole at Cynthia’s 28th birthday party back in 2010 and it has proceeded to ruin your life ever since. Why? Because not a week goes by that you’re not reminded of it. But that’s OK, because that time you caught your partner sending flirtatious text messages to a co-worker means you can have at her for her supposed infidelity, so it’s kind of even, right?
Why It’s Toxic: The relationship scorecard is a double-whammy of suckage. Not only are you deflecting the current issue by focusing on previous wrongs, but you’re ginning up guilt and bitterness from the past to manipulate your partner into feeling bad in the present.
If this goes on long enough, both partners eventually spend most of their energy trying to prove that they’re less culpable than the other, rather than solving what caused the present issue. People spend all of their time trying to be less wrong for each other instead of being more right for each other.
What To Do Instead: Deal with issues individually unless they are legitimately connected. If someone habitually cheats, then that’s obviously a recurring problem. But the fact that she embarrassed you in 2010 and that now she got sad and ignored you today have nothing to do with each other, so don’t bring it up.
It’s crucial to understand that by choosing to be with your significant other, you are choosing to be with all of their prior actions and behaviors. If you don’t accept those, then ultimately, you are not accepting your partner. If something bothered you that much a year ago, you should have dealt with it a year ago.
2. Dropping “Hints” and Other Passive-Aggression
What Is It?: Instead of saying something outright and out loud, a partner tries to nudge the other in the right direction of figuring it out. Instead of saying what’s actually upsetting you, you find small and petty ways to piss your partner off, so you’ll then feel justified in complaining to them.
Why It’s Toxic: Because it shows that you two are not comfortable communicating openly and clearly. A person has no reason to be passive-aggressive if they feel safe expressing anger or insecurity within a relationship. A person will never feel a need to drop “hints” if they feel like they won’t be judged or criticized for honesty.
What To Do Instead: State your feelings and desires openly. And make it clear that the other person is not necessarily responsible or obligated to those feelings, but that you’d love to have their support. If they love you, they’ll almost always be able to offer that support.
3. Holding the Relationship Hostage
What Is It?: When one person has a simple criticism or complaint and blackmails the other person by threatening the commitment of the relationship as a whole. For instance, if someone feels like you’ve been cold to them, instead of saying, “I feel like you’re being cold sometimes,” they will say, “I can’t date someone who is cold to me all of the time.”
Why It’s Toxic: Holding the relationship hostage amounts to emotional blackmail and creates tons of unnecessary drama. Even the smallest hiccup in the flow of the relationship results in a perceived commitment crisis. It’s crucial for both people in a relationship to know that negative thoughts and feelings can be communicated safely without it threatening the entire future of the relationship. Without that freedom to be honest, a couple will suppress their true thoughts and feelings leading to the creation of an environment of distrust and manipulation.
What To Do Instead: It’s fine to get upset at your partner or to not like something about them—that’s called being a normal human being. But understand that committing to a person and always liking a person are not the same thing. You can be committed to someone and not like everything about them. You can be eternally devoted to someone yet actually be annoyed or angered by them once in a while. On the contrary, two partners who are capable of communicating feedback and criticism without judgment or blackmail will strengthen their commitment to one another in the long run.
4. Blaming Your Partner for Your Own Emotions
What Is It?: Let’s say you’re having a crappy day and your partner isn’t exactly being super sympathetic or supportive about it—maybe they’ve been on the phone all day with some people from work, or they got distracted when you hugged them. You want to lie around at home together and just watch a movie tonight, but your partner has plans to go out and see friends.
As your frustration with your day—and your partner’s reaction to it—increases, you find yourself lashing out for being so insensitive and callous toward you. Sure, you never asked for emotional support, but your partner should just instinctually know to make you feel better. They should have gotten off the phone and ditched their plans based on your lousy emotional state.
Why It’s Toxic: Blaming our partners for our emotions is selfish and a classic example of the poor maintenance of personal boundaries. When you set a precedent that your partner is responsible for how you feel at all times (and vice-versa), this can easily lead to a codependent relationship. Everything—even down to reading a book or watching TV—must be negotiated. When someone begins to get upset, all personal desires go out the window because now you have to make each other feel better.
The biggest problem about codependent tendencies is that they breed resentment. Sure, if my girlfriend gets mad at me once in a while because she’s had a shitty day and is frustrated and needs attention, that’s understandable. But if it becomes an expectation that my life revolves around her emotional well-being at all times, then I’m soon going to become very bitter and even manipulative towards her feelings and desires.
What To Do Instead: Take responsibility for your own emotions and expect your partner to be responsible for theirs in turn. There’s a subtle yet important difference between being supportive of your partner and being obligated to your partner. Any sacrifices should be made by choice and not because that’s what’s expected. As soon as both people in a relationship become responsible for each other’s moods and downswings, it gives them both an incentive to hide their true feelings and manipulate one another.
5. Displays of “Loving” Jealousy
What Is It?: Getting pissed off when your partner talks, touches, calls, texts, hangs out, or sneezes in the general vicinity of another person and then proceeding to take that anger out on your partner and attempt to control their behavior. This often leads to insane behaviors such as hacking into your partner’s email account, looking through their text messages while they’re in the shower, or even following them around town and showing up unannounced.
Why It’s Toxic: It surprises me that some people describe this as some sort of display of affection, figuring, incorrectly, that if their partner isn’t jealous then that somehow means they don’t love them enough.
This is absolutely clownshit crazy. Rather than being loved enough, it’s actually just controlling and manipulative. And by transmiting a message of a lack of trust in the other person, it creates unnecessary drama and discord. Worst of all, it’s demeaning. If my partner cannot trust me to be around other attractive women by myself, then it implies that she believes that I’m either a) a liar, or b) incapable of controlling my impulses. In either case, that’s a woman I do not want to be with.
What To Do Instead: Completely trust your partner. It’s a radical idea, I know, because some jealousy is natural. But excessive jealousy and controlling behaviors are signs of your own feelings of unworthiness, and you should learn to deal with them and not force them onto those close to you. Without fixing that jealousy, you are only going to push your partner away.
6. Buying the Solutions to Relationship Problems
What Is It?: Whenever a major conflict or issue comes up in a relationship, instead of solving it, you cover it up with the excitement and good feelings that come with buying something nice or going on a trip somewhere.
(Or worse—like getting married.)
My parents were experts at this one. And it got them real far: a big fat divorce, and 15 years of hardly speaking to each other since. They have both since independently told me that this was the primary problem in their marriage: continuously covering up their real issues with superficial pleasures.
Why It’s Toxic: Not only does buying stuff brush the real problem under the rug (where it will always re-emerge, and even worse the next time), but it sets an unhealthy precedent within the relationship. This is not a gender-specific problem, but I will use the “traditional” gendered situation as an example. Let’s imagine that whenever a woman gets angry at her boyfriend/husband, the man “solves” the issue by buying the woman a gift or taking her to a fancy restaurant. Not only does this give the woman unconscious incentive to find more reasons to be upset with the man, but it also gives the man absolutely no incentive to actually be accountable for the problems in the relationship. What’s the result of all this? A checked-out husband who feels like an ATM, and an incessantly bitter woman who feels unheard.
What To Do Instead: Deal with the problem. Trust was broken? Talk about what it will take to rebuild it. Someone feels ignored or unappreciated? Talk about ways to restore those feelings of appreciation. Communicate!
There’s nothing wrong with doing nice things for a significant other after a fight to show solidarity, regret, or to reaffirm the commitment. But one should never use gifts or fancy things to replace dealing with the underlying emotional issues. Gifts and trips are called luxuries for a reason—you only get to appreciate them when everything else is already good. If you use them to cover up your problems, then you will find yourself with a much bigger problem down the line.
How to Turn a Toxic Relationship Into a Healthy Relationship
Remember that a toxic relationship is one where love is prioritized over everything else, including respect, trust, and affection for each other. It’s more than just a “rough patch”—it’s a recurring, long-term pattern of bad behavior on one or both sides. So how do you shift these patterns in a relationship?
Now, the road from a toxic relationship to a healthy one is not an easy one. I’m going to be honest: most people won’t be able to do it. BUT—there is a chance things can change for the better. You have your work cut out for you, but if you can do the following three things, you have a shot at making it work:
- BOTH partners are willing to change. Seems pretty obvious, but if one of you isn’t serious about making the relationship better, well, that’s your answer. On the other hand, if you’ve both expressed a genuine willingness to work things out, you may proceed…
- BOTH partners recognize the lack of affection/trust/respect and are willing to work on it. Even if you both want things to get better, you still have to admit that a problem exists and agree on what needs to be fixed. This is harder than it sounds. One person might feel like they aren’t trusted and so they think that’s what needs to be worked on. The other person, however, has no trust in the relationship because there is no affection. Or one person might not totally be honest about what the problem is—they don’t want to be the one who says they don’t trust the other person, for example. Whatever it is, you have to be clear and honest about what’s keeping the relationship toxic.
- BOTH partners can communicate in a healthy way without excessive blaming or judgment. You can be willing to work on things, you can even be on the same page about what the real problem is, but if one or both of you is out to blame the other person, it’s just not going to work. It really doesn’t matter whose fault it is if the goal is to move the relationship in a healthy direction. That means both people have to prioritize the relationship over their selfish desires to be right or to “win.”
Again, fixing a toxic relationship is not an easy thing to do, but most things in life worth doing are not easy. You might also decide to end the relationship at some point, and that’s okay, but if you’re both willing to work on it, then it’s worth the effort and the awkward conversations and, yes, even the pain.
If you’re ready to embrace the pain and turn your toxic relationship into a healthy one, I’ve got just the thing for you. My Healthy Relationships Course in The Subtle Art School dives deep into what creates the toxic dynamic in relationships and how to get out of it. You’ll get practical lessons and exercises that you can work through with your significant other. Check it out.