If you are left feeling depressed, anxious or fearful because of a relationship you are in, you may be in a toxic relationship. This relationship might be with a partner, one or both of your parents, or an adult child, a friend, or even a work colleague.
The signs of a toxic relationship
It may be easier to spot a very abusive relationship where there may be obvious signs that something is wrong – constant arguing, shouting, even physical violence - but within a toxic relationship the signs can be quite different. We might describe a relationship as toxic if there are repetitive and destructive patterns of behaviour between two people. Some of these behaviours can be:
- Selfish or demanding
- Controlling and/or rejecting
- Manipulative or using ‘emotional blackmail’
- Demeaning – using cruel or belittling comments
- Dishonest - lacking in trust and with displays of jealousy
In a healthy relationship you are likely to feel secure, safe, respected (even when there are differences of opinion), listened to, cared about, and that there is a mutual understanding and love between you.
In a toxic relationship you are likely to feel insecure, criticised, that you have little self-worth, and that there is an abuse of power between you. Toxic relationships also tend to be compulsive; even when you realise you are in such a relationship it can be difficult to change it or get out of it because the pull feels too great.
We are more likely to get involved in a toxic relationship if we have had negative relationships in the past, with our parents and family as we were growing up, for example. This means we are more likely to get involved with people who have similar qualities to those attachment figures from our past, even if those qualities are negative and destructive ones. It also means that we are more likely to seek out and provoke the very behaviours in others and ourselves that are so damaging, usually as a way to protect ourselves from a fear of getting too intimate. It is very much an unconscious process, and it may be that we are not aware of our own part in continuing the destructive cycle.
The mother-daughter relationship
One very common toxic relationship is that between mothers and daughters. While conflicts are normal within any relationship, it can be particularly difficult for daughters when they are left feeling helpless, rejected and depressed by their relationship with their mother. If you are the daughter of a so-called ‘toxic mother’ you may recognise a number of the relationship characteristics listed earlier in this article.
A mother's conditional love
You may also find that you are in an ‘enmeshed’ or ‘merged’ relationship with your mother, meaning that it may be difficult for you to have your own life without feeling responsible for your mother’s happiness, or invaded by her needs, wishes or demands, or a sense that your mother’s love is conditional upon you being or acting in a certain way.
The narcissistic mother
Alternatively, you may have a mother who showers you with attention and supports your endeavours, but mostly because she needs to feel fulfilled through your achievements or can claim her part in your success. Being raised by a mother with narcissistic traits can mean that daughters grow up feeling emotionally ‘empty’; they can doubt the validity of their own emotions while longing for the love and validation of a close relationship that seems to evade them.
While mothers involved in toxic relationships may be struggling with a fear of abandonment; daughters will probably be struggling with a range of conflicting emotions that are limiting their personal development and growth.
How therapy can help
If you feel you are struggling in a toxic relationship then therapy can help you to understand how your attachment style may impact on the relationships you have, help you move towards overcoming fears of intimacy, and help you discover what you need and want from your life when you feel you can free yourself from the limitations of a toxic relationship.