Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård as Celeste and Perry in Big Little Lies. No amount of menace is okay in a relationship. (Image courtesy HBO)
Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård as Celeste and Perry in Big Little Lies. No amount of menace is okay in a relationship. (Image courtesy HBO)

Are you in a toxic relationship?

Controlling behaviours, denigration and cruelty are key indicators, but if that seems too complicated to assess, you can just ask yourself: Am I more stressed when I’m around my partner than when I’m not?
By Vanessa Viegas
UPDATED ON FEB 13, 2021 10:30 AM IST

“If you’re frequently anxious, doubting yourself or feeling drained and unhappy around your partner, it’s likely that you are in a toxic relationship,” says psychotherapist and relationship counsellor Aman Bhonsle.

A toxic relationship is defined as one that makes you feel uncomfortable about your life or who you are. It’s an equation in which one person has fallen into a habit of making the other feel there’s something wrong with them, and the other ends up feeling shamed and small.

“There’s a lot of blaming, a lot of guilt-tripping, coldness and unspoken feelings,” says Bhonsle. “A constant ‘You did this therefore I did that’. Typically, there’s a certain cantankerousness and frustration that defines such a relationship, with even the positive patterns a result more of habit than affection.”

Controlling behaviours are a common marker. These are usually a unidirectional flow of directives on how to speak, behave, dress, eat. “Often these comments are made under the guise of the other person watching out for you,” says psychologist and relationship counsellor Nisha Khanna. “Also look out for signs of control over your contact with the outside world — monitoring of your phone, social media accounts, even bank accounts.”

Toxic relationships are marked, Khanna adds, by displays of lack of trust, resentment and a loss of intimacy.

Can it be fixed? 

You can try to repair a toxic relationship, says Khanna. But a crucial first step is admitting that there is toxicity and it needs to be addressed. The three necessary phases would look like this:

Acknowledge: It is impossible to transition to a healthier pattern of loving, says Bhonsle, without openness and willingness from both partners to invest in correcting the toxic patterns. How this stage unfolds will determine whether the relationship can be salvaged.

Explore: Any reconciliation needs to be negotiated. It cannot be dictated or achieved through arm-twisting. Explore how the toxicity began, and how it was allowed to continue, in ways that ensure both partners emerge more vigilant.

Redefine: Re-examine how you treat each other and where your boundaries ought to lie. Return to a place of compassion and self-responsibility. This will mean talking more, and more honestly. Seek the help of a counsellor if this stage proves more difficult to navigate than you had expected.

A big part of redefining a formerly toxic relationship is recognising what a healthy one looks like. A good relationship is a place of kindness, support and encouragement, where the aim is for both people to help each other achieve goals that are both individual and shared.

A toxic relationship will also have good days that may look like this, followed by series of damaging events that leave the subject of the abuse confused and frustrated. Over time, the subject will begin to feel worthless, isolated, even deserving of the ill-treatment. “The self-doubt is a precursor to anxiety, and that can become its very own beast in the long run,” Bhonsle says.

It helps to lay down non-negotiable rules and boundaries, whether these are words or actions. Whether the relationship is repaired or ended, it is also important to ask why you stayed in it, Bhonsle says. “Was your self-worth linked to a successful or good-looking partner? Was it the financial support, or the fear of being lonely, that made you stay? Once you see the truth, it will set you free.”

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