Sometimes we don’t have the words to describe our experience with another person. We just know that when we’re around them, we feel troubled, anxious, and stressed, maybe even scared. There might be a pit in our stomach, or we end up in arguments we don’t even want to have. Dysfunctional patterns can ruin relationships, but when these patterns are deep-rooted and long-lasting, they can start to seem normal. How can you tell what is considered a toxic relationship, and what is just a normal part of relating to other sinful, imperfect humans?

While “toxic” has become a buzzword, sometimes it’s a freeing concept. It’s the key to unlock a door of confusion and distress, allowing you to identify dysfunction and move towards more life-giving relationships.

Toxic People Are Everywhere?

The term “toxic relationship” is derived from a 1995 book by Lillian Glass, and since then it’s become a wildly popular way to describe dysfunctional situations. Oxford named “toxic” 2018’s word of the year.

Some people believe the word is overused, offering a copout for persevering in love. Christian writer Amanda Lutz says:

“Judging by today’s standards for toxicity in relationships, everyone I love is ‘toxic.’ If we hold this attitude, no one is allowed to have a bad day. The overabundance of this label takes away the idea that friendship is seasonal. I’ve known my two best friends for five and fifteen years. There have been seasons where we’ve not been our very best selves, but I’m so thankful for honest conversations and the grace they gave me. Good relationships give you the grace and space to make mistakes. Love gives second chances.”

No relationship is perfect, and we all have room for improvement. As Christians, we believe that God makes us holier over the course of a lifetime, through the process of sanctification. The Bible frequently tells us to be forbearing and patient with each other (Colossians 3:13, 1 Peter 4:8, Romans 15:1-2). While it might be easier to label someone as toxic because they’re difficult to love, that’s not the goal.

Instead, understanding toxic patterns can help you love others well. Enabling toxic and dysfunctional patterns isn’t loving.Love does what’s best for the other person and allowing someone to take advantage of you isn’t good for you or them.

Setting boundaries protects your spiritual and emotional health so you can love others out of strength, not weakness. It’s also necessary – and biblical – to acknowledge when someone is hurting you and doesn’t want to change. God’s Word tells us to guard our hearts (Proverbs 4:23), to confront sin (Matthew 18:15-17), and to avoid foolish arguments (Proverbs 20:3, 26:4, 2 Timothy 3:5, Titus 3:10).

What’s a Toxic Relationship?

Let’s get back to Lillian Glass, who coined the term “toxic relationship.” Here’s her definition of a toxic relationship:

“Any relationship [between people who] don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, where there’s disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.” (emphasis added)

According to Time’s reporting of her description, these relationships are “consistently unpleasant and draining for the people in it, to the point that negative moments outweigh and outnumber the positive ones.”

So, a toxic relationship is characterized by ongoing issues such as:

  • Mutual lack of support.
  • Unhealthy conflict.
  • Consistent unpleasantness and negativity.

All relationships have their ups and downs. All romantic relationships go through the stage of infatuation and a honeymoon phase, which eventually wears off. But a toxic relationship will be overarchingly unpleasant. If that’s your relationship, and you’re thinking, “I just need to deal with it because marriage is supposed to be hard,” it’s crucial to recognize that dysfunction isn’t normal. You don’t have to settle for a dysfunctional, toxic marriage.

Toxic relationships are often mutually reinforced. One person engages in unhealthy behavior, the other person reacts to it, rinse and repeat. These modes of behavior can become habitual and familiar which is why it can be so difficult to break the pattern. Even unhealthy behavior can provide a sense of comfort. At least you know what to expect. Unfortunately, that’s what makes change so daunting.

When Does Toxicity Become Abuse?

Some experts say that abuse is a form of toxicity, while others say that it’s different, but either way, you can distinguish an abusive relationship from a toxic one. In a toxic relationship, both partners may feed into the dysfunction, but in an abusive relationship, the victim is not at fault (this is not to say the victim is perfect, but they are never responsible for being abused).

A toxic relationship may involve two partners who argue all the time and don’t resolve conflict, but no one is habitually controlling the other person.

An abusive relationship can involve violence or gaslighting. Often, the victim wants to work on the relationship, but the abuser feels entitled to “winning” and having the upper hand.

Here are some other signs of an abusive relationship that distinguish it from a toxic relationship (Healthline):

  • Diminished self-worth
  • Chronic stress and anxiety
  • Separation from family and friends
  • Interference with work and/or school
  • Fear and intimidation
  • Name-calling and put-downs
  • Financial restriction
  • Gaslighting
  • Violence or the threat of violence

If you see any of the above signs in your relationship, pursue physical and emotional safety, and don’t try to fix the relationship. You can’t change an abuser.

Types of Toxic Relationships

Toxic relationships don’t just happen in marriage; they’re often found in our families of origin. Dysfunctional upbringings make toxic patterns seem normal into adulthood.

Friendships can be toxic as well:

“A toxic friendship is unsupportive, draining, unrewarding, stifling, unsatisfying, and often unequal…While a toxic friend doesn’t have to lay claim to all of these charming characteristics, they do seem to bring on their nasty behavior on a consistent basis, as opposed to those of us who just have a bad day once in a while and take it out on some of the people we care about the most – our friends.” (WebMD)

You might experience dysfunction at work, too. A toxic work environment is draining, stressful, and lowers morale.

Signs of a Toxic Relationship

Are you wondering if your marriage or romantic relationship is toxic? What are some of the warning signs that a romantic relationship is dysfunctional? One or both people may be toxic in a relationship. Here are a few examples of toxic characteristics, behavior, or effects:

  • Lack of remorse
  • Lack of empathy
  • Low conscientiousness
  • Lack of accountability
  • Lack of self-awareness
  • Triangulation: using a third party or parties to get involved in a conflict instead of addressing it directly
  • Sabotage: making a relationship go wrong on purpose, due to underlying issues such as abandonment issues.
  • Not offering support
  • Using unhealthy communication styles like sarcasm, criticism, or hostility
  • Patterns of jealousy, resentment, dishonesty, disrespect, etc.
  • A feeling of constant stress
  • A feeling of walking on eggshells

Remember, some of these factors will occasionally be present in most relationships. But if there are many of them and they overtake your relationship, characterizing it more negatively than positively, then your relationship has probably become dysfunctional.

How to Fix a Toxic Relationship

Can your relationship recover from dysfunctional patterns? The answer is, “It depends.” Here are a few things to consider once you’ve recognized that your relationship is toxic:

Start with yourself.

Do you have healthy boundaries? Do your actions contribute to the current relationship dynamic? (For example, are you enabling alcoholism, or getting involved in destructive arguments, etc.?)

Don’t hesitate to seek individual counseling to sort through these issues. Your counselor can help you understand the roots of your behavior. And you can begin to ascertain whether your spouse (or parent, friend, etc.) is willing to change and work on the relationship.
If both people are willing to change, start working towards healthier patterns together.
The bad news is that you can never force someone else to change their behavior. The good news is that changing your mindset, outlook, and habits will improve your life and possibly influence the other person to change as well. Change takes time and motivation isn’t instantaneous. Don’t give up.

If the other person does want to change, the following dynamics are required to make change last, according to Healthline. This is true for any relationship with dysfunctional or toxic patterns:

  • Willingness to invest. Making a relationship healthier takes an ongoing, long-term effort.
  • Acceptance of responsibility. Unless both people are taking responsibility for their own behavior, lasting change can’t happen.
  • Work on understanding. The focus has to shift from defensiveness to a desire to listen and understand each other’s perspectives, even if you don’t agree.
  • Get help. Counseling can help you walk through this process of change.

Don’t give up on your difficult relationship. Change can be right around the corner. Make your first appointment for individual counseling, couples counseling, or family counseling today.

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