Toxic relationship, toxic partner?
Toxic relationships. It’s a hot topic, and a difficult one. Three related articles passed across my feed recently –
“5 Questions to Ask Yourself If You Think Your Partner Is Toxic”
“13 Subtle Signs Your Partner Is Emotionally Abusive.”
“It’s not your relationship that’s toxic, it’s your partner.”
It occurs to me that as the definition of abuse in relationship continues to broaden, and as terms like “toxic relationship” and “toxic partner” are popularized, fewer and fewer marriages and relationships are going to be deemed healthy or legitimate.
I have no doubt that the light cast by articles like the ones named is valuable and illuminating for some people, but every light also casts a shadow. A possible shadow cast here is the self-righteousness, avoidance, and psychological projection that can slip in when we are quick to define a relationship or a person as abusive, toxic, or otherwise irredeemable.
The exclusive focus on identifying victim and villain / oppressor and oppressed suggests fundamentalist ideology at work and leaves no room for examination of deeper psychological structures, especially your own. If your partner matches the profile of emotionally abusive or toxic, you are apparently off the hook. No self-examination required. Your innocence is just as assured as their guilt.
Toxic partner? Or normal marital sadism?
One of the signs of a “toxic partner” according to this article is –
“…Are they engaging in the actions that they are with the intention of changing your behavior?”
I work with couples daily and I can tell you that this applies to virtually everyone in relationship. We manipulate each other, often subtly and often unconsciously, with the hope of changing each others opinions or behaviours. It is what people do. The question isn’t IF it is happening, it’s HOW… and what will we do about it.
One option is to read articles on the internet and then label your partner toxic and your relationship unhealthy. Probably an appropriate option in some cases.
On the other hand, marriage and family therapists David and Ruth Schnarch use the term “normal marital sadism” to illustrate the point that marriage and relationships inevitably bring out the worst in people as well as the best.
Relationships also provide opportunities to confront our own part in the explicit, implicit, or complicit dynamics of sadism, masochism, cruelty, manipulation, meanness, pettiness, power plays, abdication, and so on that will arise.
Uncovering our own hidden strategies
Another quote from the linked article above –
“Because when your partner manages to change your behavior – when you find yourself increasingly changing your usual way of being in order to avoid conflict with your partner – then they gain power and control over you.
And that’s more than toxic.
When your partner gains power and control over you, it may indeed be defined as abusive. But there might also be other forces at work. If you find yourself “increasingly changing your usual way of being in order to avoid conflict with your partner” you might decide that you’re in a toxic relationship, or you might ask yourself… Why. Why are you avoiding conflict? What is your role in this dynamic? What happened to your power? How did it get away from you?
It may be true that your partner is playing out a domination/control strategy in your relationship. We all unconsciously employ various strategies for navigating life and relationships. Have you adopted a submission strategy for yours? Is “The Martyr” archetype activated in your life? Or maybe “The People Pleaser?”
Sometimes a person will knowingly attempt to overtly control or even gaslight their partner, but far more often what we encounter are two people’s unconscious strategies calling the shots from below conscious awareness.
In a move that can change everything, you might be called on to stand up for yourself in the relationship. Or it might be time for a closer look at how you understand and navigate the many different kinds of power that run through our lives. The author of the article quoted suggests that power is the same as control, but control is just one of many kinds of power (please see James Hillman’s extraordinary book “Kinds of Power”).
Power struggles in relationship, complicity, self-confrontation
People regularly give up their power and also try to wrestle it from their partner through complicated dynamics that are not easily reducible to “toxic relationships” or even abuse.
While labeling a person toxic or unhealthy does give you an easy out (and sometimes that out is necessary), it can also become a crutch, an excuse for avoiding the difficult work of examining the ways we might abdicate our own power and blame others for our feelings of powerlessness.
For example, I’ve worked with plenty of mothers of young children who feel powerless and controlled in their relationship, but when we dig deeper we find that it is actually guilty feelings about taking time for themselves that keeps them feeling stuck in their lives. Where these guilty feelings come from is a good question and another topic, but suffice to say that the “toxic partner” story no longer holds water; in fact their partner may actually be their biggest advocate for change and self-empowerment.
I’ve also worked with plenty of men who panic in the face of a woman’s anger or disappointment. These men betray themselves at the drop of a hat if they feel strong emotions rising in their partner. Paradoxically, the partners of these men, upon deeper inquiry, are often desperate for the experience of being able to express anger or disappointment in their relationship without their partner automatically conceding or shutting down. Neither party are particularly happy with their habitual strategies.
In both these examples, and in many others, it is confronting our own complicity in the power dynamics of a relationship that becomes the true act of empowerment.
Let me be clear, certainly there are times when it is appropriate to label a relationship abusive and get out. But if we use popular definitions to label our partner or relationship without ever examining our own habits we can rob ourselves of potential understanding and even reconciliation.
Not long ago it was generally accepted that relationships had a “power struggle” phase. The new relationship idealism seems not to allow even for this.
Power struggles, “normal marital sadism,” and a myriad other expressions of the darker side of togetherness can be used as evidence that a relationship or a person is fundamentally “toxic” (bad, wrong, narcissistic, gaslighting, hysterical, crazy etc), AND these same expressions can be used as opportunities for expanding our ideas of relationships and of our experiences in them. Of course this is risky territory; the blade of discernment is called for.
I’ve worked with many couples (some of whom have previously had their relationship or partner labelled toxic or abusive by other counsellors) who choose to explore these darker sides of relationship together and have found the experience, though difficult, also illuminating and occasionally even bonding. Of course there are no guarantees.
Portraying relationships as two-dimensional utilitarian transactions to be defined as either “healthy” or “toxic” seems to be the flavour of the day, but this misses a vast swathe of what relationships actually are, which is usually some of both and a whole lot more.
If you’re interested in these ideas, internet articles might be a good start (some of my own are included below), but are no substitute for the depth of thought that good old fashioned books provide. Some of my favourite books on these themes include –
The Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch
The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner
Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel
Soul Mates by Thomas Moore
Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
A Little Book on the Human Shadow by Robert Bly
Further reading on this website –
Counsellor confession… “I hate my partner.”
Gaslighting, shadow, and abuse – How protecting our unconscious can sabotage our relationships
Contradiction and paradox in relationships – The difficult work of holding opposites
The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 1)
Understanding relationships – Depth, darkness, and feeling your way from below
“Contradictions, Manipulations & The Tyranny of Orgasm” – Relationship podcast
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