Source: rido, 123rf
When we’re in a relationship that is going wrong—and particularly if we have a recurring history of failed relationships—we might be tempted to look at why this is happening. As part of our investigations, we might discover that we have a tendency to choose partners who are abusive in some way and display toxic behaviours.
The word toxic relates to toxins (poisons), and “toxic behaviours” include those which leave us feeling deeply affected—as if we have been exposed to a substance which is inherently damaging.
Toxic behaviours within relationships include:
- Disrespect of boundaries
- Silencing the other
- Physical abuse
Identifying a partner’s toxic behaviours can be helpful. But if you’re in a relationship that is built on fragile foundations—with volatility, distrust, and fear at its heart—it’s possible that you could be the one who is creating the toxicity.
If that’s the case, it’s best to start by putting aside some of the behaviours themselves for a moment. Consider, instead, what is behind some of your behaviours that could be considered toxic—in other words, what is driving you to behave in a toxic manner. It may be one of these five factors:
1. You fear abandonment.
If you have a fear of your partner abandoning you, you may respond in ways which are designed to get that person to stick around. You might become clingy or suspicious of their motives, checking their phone constantly or devising manipulative ways of stopping them from seeing friends or developing their own interests. Not only do these behaviours keep you trapped in that fearful state, but they can also end up driving away the person you love.
2. You feel bad about yourself.
If you feel bad about yourself—perhaps feeling a sense of shame about who you are and suffering from low self-esteem—you might end up projecting your own feelings of low self-worth onto your partner. You might direct criticisms and put-downs at them, or say nasty things about their friends and family in order to make yourself feel better. You might engage in hurtful behaviours, such as cheating on your partner, because you’re expecting them to reinforce your beliefs about yourself at some point by making you feel bad.
3. You cannot communicate your needs.
If you have always found it difficult to express what you need in life—from the most practical of needs to your deepest emotional needs—chances are, you’ll take this into your intimate relationships. Instead of openly communicating your needs to your partner, you’ll find roundabout ways of trying to tell them when something is wrong.
This might involve going in a huff or using passive-aggressive means of “getting back at them” when they’ve upset you, rather than expressing yourself directly. Being on the receiving end of these behaviours is extremely frustrating, confusing, and upsetting.
4. You are looking for a partner to be everything to you.
In healthy relationships, there are clear boundaries between you and the other person. This means having time apart, exploring your individual interests, and having your own social connections. It means that you have a sense of self which represents you as an individual.
When you’re coming to a relationship with a poor sense of self—perhaps because you have been subjected to emotional abuse in your past—it can be very difficult to define yourself as an individual. At the least, this can be annoying for the other person (for instance, if you never offer an opinion about where to eat out) and at the most, you might develop highly toxic behaviours, such as refusing to allow the other person to do things without you or becoming upset and controlling when they assert their independence.
5. You fear commitment.
If you are coming to a relationship with an underlying fear of commitment—perhaps because you failed to receive the right type of love as a child—you may act out this fear in your romantic relationships. You may tell your partner that you’re committed to them, but you’re actually always on the lookout for someone new. You might be there physically in the relationship but emotionally, you hang back. When accused of your lack of commitment, you might engage in gaslighting behaviours, including telling your partner they’re imagining it or lying about your intentions.
If any of the above rings true for you, it’s important to remember that awareness is the first stage in creating positive change. It’s also important to remember that we often unconsciously choose partners who recreate situations from our childhood. If you fear abandonment, for instance, chances are you may choose a partner who provides a real possibility of abandoning you—triggering all those behaviours you have when you fear abandonment.
Behaviours are toxic, and behaviours stem from our perceptions about ourselves and the world around us. This is something that you can work on. If the problems are pervasive and long term, you may find it useful to engage a therapist to work with you.