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Understanding toxic relationships

Toxic relationships can be dangerous. Especially if you don’t know that you’re in one. Learn the signs of one and how to escape. This could save your life.

Ed Latimore
Ed Latimore
Writer, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

Toxic relationships never start out that way. Most of us have enough self-worth to at least avoid the obvious warning signs of toxicity, but what happens when the emotional abuse starts when you’re well into the relationship?

A toxic relationship is an interpersonal relationship of any kind between two people that predominantly consists of negativity and control. There doesn’t have to be verbal or physical abuse, but this can happen.

There are four types of relationships we can have:

  • Romantic
  • Platonic
  • Business
  • Familial 

Any one of these relationships can become polluted with toxic behavior, but what does that behavior look like?

What are the signs of a toxic relationship?

Toxic relationships start with toxic people.

The most obvious red flag of a toxic person is how they treat you. The problem is toxic people don’t often make it obvious that they are this way. 

The person mistreats you, makes you feel confused and alone, and ruins your self-esteem. When you try to talk to them about the problems, you’re met with gaslighting, belittling, and outright insults and put-downs. Oftentimes, they just walk away and pretend like there was never a problem in the first place.

Toxic people are often volatile, insecure, and they belittle you to compensate for their own low self-esteem or lack of agency. They’re inconsistent and unpredictable but are occasionally nice to you to keep you on your toes and less likely to end the relationship.

You’ll find yourself always walking on eggshells around them and overthinking your actions to keep the peace and prevent them from lashing out with verbal abuse and physical violence.

To survive around them, you become hyperaware of your behavior and their reactions to you. You pick up on their habits and facial expressions so you can more accurately predict what mood they’re about to be in or what they’ll do next.

You develop deep empathy and compassion skills and turn into the type of person you probably always wished you had yourself.

What causes a toxic relationship to develop?

Toxic relationships usually begin when the person feels alone. In these moments, they feel like they don’t belong or are aren’t acceptanced, so they start to search for it in any way they can. 

Toxic relationships happen when we convince ourselves the person is a mirror of us. If you’re a good-hearted, genuine person, it can feel impossible for someone to be the opposite of that. It’s unfathomable to you that someone can be evil or selfish, so you assume that the person is innately good like you, but just not showing it.

You tell yourself that if you did something better or hadn’t done x, y, or z, they wouldn’t have reacted the way they did. You blame yourself and take responsibility for their actions while they take no accountability, even though they’re the problem.

However, people are the way they are, and their character will stay the same at the end of the day no matter which fool believes their act. So the way they treat you now is the same way they’ve treated people in the past and will treat new people in the future if they choose not to change

How your childhood influences your choice to stay in an abusive relationship

Your adult behavior stems from what you learned in childhood.

So if you’re in a toxic relationship, the person you’re with is probably similar to a bad relationship from your past. This negative relationship could have been:

  • An ex who cheated on you
  • A controlling parent who tried to force you to become who they never could be
  • An sibling who always competed with you
  • A bully who always put you down at school
  • Any relationship with a friend or loved one that that was forced but took a toll on your mental health

The unhealthy relationships you had with the people in your past are why you let people treat you a certain way.

[Read: How to let go of the past]

We learn a certain behavior and assume it’s the way the whole world functions and the way you have to function in order to survive. You don’t know it’s not normal until you see something else beyond what you know. 

Humans are biologically programmed to do whatever we can to survive, so whatever seems to work, we continue doing. You learned that walking on eggshells or blaming yourself for everything is the best way to survive. As you got older and left those situations, you still kept doing those behaviors because they worked and you weren’t taught any other way to act.

This happens not only in romantic relationships, but in families as well—especially ones where almost all the family members have the same viewpoints and values. You may have been the outcast in your family with different beliefs, interests, or goals.

You could have been the butt of every joke or called “too sensitive” at the family functions. Maybe you tried standing up for yourself at one point, but they always dismissed you and you were forced to put up with it. You learned that no matter what did, nothing worked.

Support, love, and connection are vital. People in toxic relationships learned that it’s better to have some love or some connection than no love or connection at all. Having at least one person to depend on, even if that person is toxic, is better than nothing and increases their chances of survival.

“Daddy” and “Mommy” issues come from unhealthy relationships as a child

This is how toxic relationships become a pattern if we don’t change them. The way you interact with people will remain how you acted in your original role. People joke about “daddy issues” and “mommy issues”, but there’s a lot of truth to this concept.  

Daddy issues

If your dad had anger issues, was controlling, or cheated on your mom, this influenced your perception of men and power. It could’ve taught you that power mismatch is a normal part of a relationship or that fighting or raising your voice is the only way to communicate.

If you had an absent father, you could’ve learned that uncertainty is normal and that it’s better to have them sometimes than not at all. This teaches daughters that all men are this way, and it will transfer over to the men she will date. She’ll stay loyal to an inconsistent man because thinks that this is how men show love.

She’ll either think:

  1. It’s better to deal with him than have no boyfriend experience 
  2. Changing him will compensate for her lack of a father figure and teach her that it wasn’t her fault.

Sons of this type of man learn that dominance and aggression lead to success with women. He sees that possessiveness and inconsistency are acceptable behavior not just for women, but for all types of relationships. And this is how intergenerational cycles start.

It’s almost never intentional, unless the person has Antisocial Personality Disorder (AKA the disorder of psychopaths and sociopaths classified in the DSM-5). It’s never purposely modeled and taught; It’s just all that you know. 

Your parents probably never learned any other way. They were taught by their parents that power dynamics, lack of empathy, or ineffective communication are normal. Instead of seeking professional help to deal with these issues, they didn’t even realize they were issues in the first place. They’ve unknowingly taught it to you.

Kids raised in this environmenttend to act out as a coping strategy for control. They might start yelling out in class, disrupting the teacher, and always getting in trouble. Their parents get a phone call from school and the kid gets into even more trouble at home. While the parents know their kid has behavior issues, they’ll be unable to understand why.

Mommy issues

When a person has “mommy issues”,  they feel uncomfortable around women—especially ones who exhibit similar characteristics to their mom.

If you had a controlling or critical mother growing up, you likely have a distaste for women or feel insecure around them. If you’re a man, you can—quite literally—have a fear of becoming intimate with women. As a women, you won’t trust other women and it may be difficult for you to make friends. 

Also as a child, you didn’t have the freedom to express yourself freely. Everything was either explicitly dictated by orders or implicit manipulated by criticism. Everything from how you carried yourself, your interests, your beliefs, or even your physical appearance—you didn’t feel safe being yourself around her and always had to walk on eggshells. in order to stay safe, making yourself a doormat with no boundaries as a young, impressionable child.

This dynamic taught you that being yourself will not keep you safe. It taught you that the only way to receive love is to behave the way someone else wants. You grow up believe that unconditional love isn’t a thing, but that conditional love is better than no love at all.

How to leave a toxic relationship

Once you recognize how detrimental toxic relationships are to your mental, emotional, physical well-being, then you owe it to yourself to leave that situation. However, this often way easier said than done. The following steps can help you leave destructive relationship and get your health and wellness back on track.

Get help

This is the first step because it’s the most important one. You have to accept that you are incapable of leaving this person on your own. Otherwise, you would have already done it. Sometimes we become codependent on the very people who do the most damage. In this codependence, we believe that we can’t survive without them. This is false.

If close friends or family members are unable to help you, the national domestic violence hotline is an invaluable resource to help you get out of abusive relationships. They’re available 24/7, completely confidential, and can valuable guidance on legal and civil matters that you will inevitably have to face.

Commit to leaving

Not only do you have to make the decision to leave, but you have to stick with it. There will be several times where you doubt that it’s a good to abandon the relationship. You’ll think about the good times and try to justify or rationalize their toxic behavior.

This is why it’s important to seek help and have people to talk to. Listen to them when they try to convince you that leaving is the best option. If your self-worth and self-esteem have taken a hit, it will be difficult for you to imagine that you don’t need this person in your life. However, you must remember that your mental health is more important than a relation where there is a lack of trust, constant abuse, and relentless gaslighting.

Give it time and accept the pain

Like any other breakup, it takes time.

The challenge with leaving a toxic relationship is that unlike being dump, you’re the one who ends the relationship. That means that you have the option to start it up again and very often, people who leave these types of relationships tend to run back after a lonely night or two.

You have to accept that it will hurt. Even though you’re doing something good for yourself, it can be emotionally draining to leave any relationship—especially when you’ve likely got a case of Stockholm Syndrome. You may be tempted to check their social media or ask mutual friends how they are, but you have to resist so your brain can get over this person. 

According to research published in the Journal of Positive psychology, it takes around 11 weeks to get over someone while a separate set of polling data suggests that it takes around 18 months to get over a marriage. It can be even longer if it’s a toxic marriage and you keep running back to the person everytime you’re feeling lonely.

So prepare yourself for anywhere from 4-18 months and you will almost certainly feel better. 

No one wants to be in a toxic relationship

It’s a big misconception that people get into these types of relationships out of choice; that they want someone who mistreats them and can leave at any point but choose not to.

Understand that it’s not what the person wants; they just believe that toxic behavior is a sign of love. Platonic, familial, and/or romantic love. They want to be loved and are accepting the only love they know or think they deserve.

“We accept the love that we think we deserve.”

— Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

If this sounds like you, don’t be ashamed or upset with yourself. You’re just a person. We’re all just people who are programmed to do what makes sense when we have no choice but to survive in the chaos. 

But understand that by staying passive and not standing up for yourself, you’re letting yourself get hurt over and over. It’s okay because now you can learn a new system of beliefs and a new way to carry yourself that will attract healthy people


Ed Latimore
About the author

Ed Latimore

I’m a writer, competitive chess player, Army veteran, physicist, and former professional heavyweight boxer. My work focuses on self-development, realizing your potential, and sobriety—speaking from personal experience, having overcome both poverty and addiction.

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