How do we know the difference between a rough patch in an otherwise healthy relationship, versus the emergence of toxicity?
Relationships are complicated. They all are, including ones with parents, friends, and colleagues, but intimate partner relationships can be especially complicated. This type of relationship requires two unique individuals, with two different perspectives, backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, and even baggage, to come harmoniously together and share a life.
The thing is, individuals grow and change, as do relationships. Sometimes, a once seemingly flawless union can take an unexpected turn for the worst. This can be confusing. When things start to go awry, how do we know the difference between a rough patch in an otherwise healthy relationship, versus the emergence of toxicity? The following are important elements of intimate partner relationships, broken down to explore a few examples that speak to the differences:
In a healthy relationship, open communication is necessary in order to create safety, intimacy, and partnership on daily obligations and stressors. There are two parts to healthy communication: 1) speaking, and 2) active listening. During healthy communication, each partner listens to understand, and is not just waiting for their turn to speak; this allows both partners to feel heard. Couples won’t agree all of the time, but there should be a level of felt respect and emotional safety that allows each individual to speak freely without worry of repercussions from the other.
In an unhealthy relationship, an indicator of toxic communication is a sense of walking on eggshells, because emotional safety does not exist and one partner fears the other partner’s reaction to their communication attempt. Various toxic communication styles may contribute to this experience. For instance, relationship expert Dr. John Gottman identifies the following communication styles as indicators of separation/divorce in his book The Seven Principles of Making a Marriage Work:
Conflict is normal. Even in a healthy relationship, we can lose our temper and say things we don’t mean; it is how we recover afterwards and what we learn that matters most. Healthy conflict resolution includes taking accountability for your role in the conflict, genuine apologies, learning from mistakes to change future behaviour, and a willingness to compromise. If compromise cannot be met, or conflict prevails, partners are willing to work through the issues on a deeper level, for instance in couples counselling.
Conflict can certainly be toxic. When extreme, this can take on the form of emotional and physical abuse, which is never acceptable. Less obvious emotional or psychological abuse can emerge. An example of this is Trauma Bonding. If your partner picks unnecessary fights, and argues to win rather than to solve the problem at hand, it is possible that Trauma Bonding is occurring. Trauma bonding is the cycle of punishment (the argument) and reward (the make-up) that creates intense emotional bonds that can be difficult to recognize and detach from.
In a healthy relationship, there is give and take. Influence refers to the degree in which one partner takes the other partner’s thoughts, opinions, and feeling into consideration. Shared influence equates to shared power; both partner’s inputs are equally respected and valued. One partner may have more influence in one decision, with the other partner having more influence in another; this exchange of influence and power is welcomed by the couple, because it leads to solutions and best possible outcomes. Importantly, shared influence is necessary in order to compromise.
When one partner does not allow influence from the other, power and control dynamics become off balance, which can be a sign of toxicity within a relationship. One partner may seek total power and control over the relationship, not allowing influence from the other partner. To gain this totalitarian influence, multiple tactics can be used. Examples of such tactics include minimizing, denying, blaming, intimidating, creating isolation for the other partner, and solely controlling the finances. It is also possible that this can escalate to physical and sexual abuse, which again, is never acceptable.
Keep in mind, communication, conflict resolution, and influence are only a few elements of any relationship, and merely scratch the surface of the dynamics at play within an intimate partner relationship. If you are questioning whether or not your relationship may be wavering on the side of unhealthy, have identified it as unhealthy, or are looking for strategies to improve your healthy relationship, talking to a professional can help you to gain some clarity, define the issues, and seek proactive resolutions.
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