Having healthy relationships is extremely important for our psychological and physical well-being but all too often, people can find themselves stuck in toxic relationships.
Feeling safe and connected with other people is fundamental for psychological well-being; we are social beings and a safe connection with others is necessary for our survival. It is currently thought that our nervous systems are constantly unconsciously scanning for social safety and that until we sense that we are safe, our bodies cannot get out of alert mode.
This means that destructive relationships are literally bad for our health.
If you are able to have healthy, connected, authentic relationships in your life – whether they be with family, friends or romantic partners – you will be able to weather anything life throws at you in a way that preserves your psychological well-being.
However, being stuck in destructive relationship patterns will affect us deeply over time, both psychologically and physically. Unresolved and/or ongoing trauma is manifested through the body, and so the damage that destructive relationships can do can take years to recover from.
So there is no getting away from it; having toxic relationships has negative effects on your well-being in every area.
The good news is that there is always a way to change things. If you find yourself in a destructive relationship, the first thing that it’s important to remember is that it’s not your fault. Taking part in a destructive relationship cycle is something that you will have learned to do, unconsciously, based on the experiences you’ve had in childhood and the relationship patterns you’ve learned.
Children absorb everything and accept it as if it were normal – this is an important part of our survival, as our primary directive is to make sure that we are not rejected by our caregivers. That means that even toxic relationship patterns will feel familiar and comforting to us, if we have internalised them growing up. While it’s not your fault that you’ve learned to relate in a way that doesn’t nourish you, as an adult you’re the only person who can be responsible for breaking that pattern.
By understanding the main reasons behind a destructive relationship pattern and learning the tools to change it, you can finally start breaking free.
What is a destructive relationship?
A destructive relationship is a relationship that is harmful to your wellbeing. It involves toxic dynamics, where both people in the relationship engage in toxic behaviours. It’s important to realise that while one person might be more visibly manifesting behaviours that are easily recognisable as toxic, the other person is also contributing 50% to the relationship; and so enabling those outwardly toxic behaviours in another person, for example, is also and equally toxic.
This means that while it’s important to recognise what the other person might be doing, perhaps more important is the need to look inwards and reflect, to think about what you are bringing to the destructive relationship you find yourself in and how you participate in it. If you can do this (and you’ll probably need a professional to help you, as so much of what we do is outside of our awareness) then herein lies your power, your agency to change things.
This is why self-awareness and honesty are key to knowing and changing how you are showing up in your relationships.
One thing that can help you to recognise a destructive relationship is the emotions that it leaves you with on a regular basis. You can ask yourself questions such as:
- How do I feel after spending time with this person?
- How does it make me feel when I interact with them?
- Do I feel energised or drained?
- Do I feel nurtured or frustrated?
- Do I feel heard, seen and acknowledged for my thoughts and feelings?
If the answers to these questions highlight that you aren’t feeling good being around the other person, then don’t ignore it – you need to take a closer look.
Ultimately, a destructive relationship leaves you feeling energetically drained, mentally, emotionally and physically.
Constant conflict that isn’t being constructively resolved, along with passive aggression, dishonesty, contempt, dismissiveness, manipulation, control and gaslighting are a few examples of things that occur in a toxic relationship dynamic.
You may also notice that the relationship takes over a lot of your thoughts, your mental energy and your time; for example, you may find yourself furiously arguing for hours on WhatsApp when you should be working, or when you’re out with your friends.
Toxic relationships literally pull us away from our lives, from our sense of being grounded; and they dismantle our sense of self over time. We experience more anxiety, preoccupation, worry, anger and sadness than joy, peace, love and fulfilment.
Any form of abuse or toxicity – whether subtle or obvious – has no place in a healthy relationship and should always be addressed, even if it doesn’t feel like that dynamic dominates how you feel in the relationship. For example, if your partner, friend, the parent or anyone else close to you belittles you, yells at you, is passive-aggressive or acts in any way that hurts you, it’s time to speak up and take action.
Everyone deserves to be treated like they are a valuable person, and the first person who needs to do that is you. Participating in toxic dynamics means that you are by definition devaluing yourself because no one can treat you badly if you don’t allow it. It’s not easy to break these patterns, and both parties need to be ready to do the work in order for the relationship to change.
Sometimes it’s necessary to leave the relationship altogether, while other times the pattern can be broken while the relationship continues, with the help of a therapist.
Why do we find ourselves stuck in destructive relationships?
It has been reported that abusive relationships (emotional, physical, mental or sexual) have increased over recent years and are experienced by both teens and adults.
Unfortunately, it’s more common than not to have experienced a destructive relationship at some point in life, and sadly that is a reflection of the fact that most people have experienced a level of emotional dysfunction in our relationships growing up.
This will be the case even if your childhood family relationships seemed outwardly fine to you, because a lot of relationship toxicity is covert, and so can be hard to spot; this is where a therapist can help you unpick and unlock any unhealthy patterns that you may be unconsciously repeating. And one thing is certain: the longer you are in a destructive relationship cycle, the more damage it will do and the more normalised it becomes in your life.
Getting caught up in a destructive relationship cycle can happen when people don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like, which makes it more difficult to recognize toxicity, as it feels ‘normal’. A healthy relationship feels safe because it’s honest and intimate and filled with mutual empathy, compassion, love and healthy communication.
If you’ve never experienced this then you won’t know what it feels like, and so you are likely to feel comfortable with toxicity and conversely, uncomfortable when healthy relationship dynamics show up.
Destructive relationships can be difficult to spot and can definitely seem deceivingly positive at first; however a therapist will help you to understand that even the patterns that felt ‘good’ at the start (eg receiving intense attention from the other person) will not actually have been healthy, when you have a deeper awareness of what your patterns are, along with your unmet needs, and how you, therefore, might be vulnerable to feeling wooed by toxic behaviour from others, when it is framed as being ‘caring’.
The warning signs that a relationship will develop into a destructive one usually show up early on, but often we ignore them because we are full of hope or optimism, or because there is great chemistry.
One way to start reflecting on this subject is to look for patterns or cycles that you have been repeating.
Some examples of questions you might ask yourself are:
- Have you been in more than one relationship where you have been abused in any way?
- Have you had several relationships where there has been a lack of respect, poor communication, neglect or other destructive behaviour?
- Do you find yourself in relationships where there is always a push/pull dynamic?
- Where there is a lot of drama?
- Do your relationships repeatedly seem to have the same issues and the same negative outcomes?
If you answer yes to these questions, then there is likely to be a destructive cycle at play. Understanding how you’ve been ‘trained’ to behave in relationships and getting to the bottom of why you are engaging in a destructive relationship dynamic is key to breaking the pattern and to your capacity to have the right type of relationships.
Breaking the pattern
It all begins with working on the most important relationship in your life first – the relationship with yourself. Most people don’t truly know themselves; they’re not sure about their own wants and needs and they don’t know who they want, or even who they can be.
Therapy is key here because you need to shine a light on your unconscious ways of relating and increase your awareness, both of yourself and others. The more you know yourself and the more you strengthen your sense of self, the more you will be able to tune in to your inner, authentic emotional compass.
By working on getting to know yourself better, you’ll learn more about what it is that you need and what makes you happy. With a stronger sense of self and a commitment to treating yourself as a valuable person, your values will take a more prominent role and you’ll begin to raise your standards.
By learning more about who you are, you will have an easier time saying no to experiences that deplete rather than nourish you and setting boundaries where you refuse to let toxic people get close to you. You’ll more easily recognize what is hurting you and what’s good for you. This is the first and most important step.
Remember that you are not to blame for how you were programmed in the past, but you can take responsibility for who you are now, and how you have behaved in the past. As you gain self-awareness, then healing and change can begin.
Working with self-compassion and forgiveness is a big part of the work, which is why it is best to work with a professional therapist – because you are unlikely to be able to suddenly, magically, relate to yourself with love if you have been caught up in relationships that devalue you for years, not least because those relationships will have destabilised and harmed your sense of self-worth.
Create a new path for yourself
Working on your self-esteem and feeling worthy takes time, as does learning what healthy relationships look (and more importantly, feels) like. It’s hard to practice new ways of being, and they will feel fundamentally ‘wrong’ at the start, as your old patterns will be screaming at you that you’re going down the wrong road. So there will be a lot of resistance, but your therapist can help you to work through it.
Feeling this resistance is completely normal as your brain is doing its job to protect you, according to how it’s been wired to help you survive. It’s your job to teach your brain that continuing this destructive cycle is not the way to feel safe and to give it new experiences of feeling safe by making different choices.
The more healthy boundaries you set in terms of what you accept, the better you will feel about yourself. This in turn increases your self-esteem which gives you the confidence to set more healthy boundaries with more ease.
It’s okay if your voice shakes at first; if saying no to abusive behaviour or mistreatment makes you scared. Just remember that practice is the only way through. With time, you will rewire your brain and teach yourself to feel comfortable with what you know is right for you.
As you strengthen your relationship with yourself, you will hear your intuition more clearly and you will learn to put love first; the love for yourself and loving behaviour from and towards others.
As you decide that you will only bring love and truth to your relationships, you will break the cycle of dishonesty and toxicity. When you know that it will be uncomfortable, you can be prepared for the discomfort, and committed to working through it.
As you reinforce the positive outcomes of your new actions, a new cycle will begin to form – the cycle of healthy relationships. And those are what we need to thrive.