Some relationships Can be Toxic… and We might not Recognize it!
The question most often asked is, “How do you not know that you are in an unhealthy relationship?’ To most people, if they were in an unhealthy relationship, it would be obvious. But if you grew up in a toxic home, or find yourself in a toxic relationship, the fact that you are in one may not be as obvious as you may think.
How could it not be obvious? How Could You not know?
Simply put, the relationship doesn’t begin as toxic.
If you just met someone, and they put you down right off the bat, would you be looking for a second date? When we meet someone, we always put our best foot forward as we want to impress them. Toxic relationships don’t always begin that way. In fact, most people who are abusive/controlling are the most charming people you could know.
On the outside, most of them are very likeable, helpful, successful, friendly, and nice. They will go to great lengths to impress you, wine and dine you, and make you fall in love with them. They don’t appear to be threatening at all. Many of them you would never guess even had a temper because they are able to control it very well when they are around others.
But when you are in private, and after some time has passed, life becomes a different story.
Jekyl and Hyde Syndrome
The phrase has been coined to describe what a controlling and/or abusive person’s behaviour is like. It fits the personality very well. On the outside and in front of others, they are charming. They know how to play the part because if anyone knew the behind the scenes situation, their cover would be blown.
They do not want anyone to know they have anger or control issues, and are masters at keeping things contained. Also, if you are in a toxic relationship, by the time that you find out that it’s bad, you’ve already fallen for the person. Additionally, the erosion of the relationship comes slowly.
Many controlling/toxic/abusive people will:
- Find out what “hot buttons” their partner has. What do they fear? What triggers a reaction? Then they will use it against them. For example, if a person’s father left them at a young age, and they have a fear of abandonment in relationships, when the abusive person does not get their way, they will walk out. This behaviour triggers a fear response in the relationships, and maintains control for the abuser. How? Because their spouse will go to great lengths to get them back, be apologetic, and be upset. They will avoid suffering the pain of being left. Therefore, the spouse’s behaviour will change just to avoid the emotional pain.
- Tell you that if you wouldn’t do (fill in the blank) then they wouldn’t get mad at you. They tell you that you are at fault for their bad behaviour and are masters at avoiding responsibility. In fact, most often, they will not take responsibility at all.
- Many of them play head games to get their own way. They may deny behaviour, twist your words, twist reality, and make you think that you are crazy just to get their own way. Fear and manipulation become the biggest bargaining chips in maintaining their balance, but in doing so, they end up crushing your soul.
- They call you mean names, use subtle put-downs, passive-aggressive tactics, or criticize you to decrease your self-worth. Having high self-esteem going into the relationship doesn’t prevent you from falling for a toxic person. The put downs are gradual, at first, and they try to convince you that you need to change because they love you, want the best for you, or are telling you what everyone else thinks, but doesn’t want to say. They make it appear as if they are helping you… but they aren’t. Later in the relationships, the criticisms are more direct.
- The isolate you from family and friends. They systematically remove your support network so that you won’t go to others to confide in them that the relationship is toxic. Other people would offer a clear perspective into the relationship and tell you to get out. The controlling person does not want this since most have rejection issues of their own. They will gradually control who you see, or start strife in the relationship. If they cause strife, they will play the victim by twisting the situation around for their own purpose. For example, you have been friends with someone for twelve years. Your boyfriend does not like them because you have a close relationship, they are a support, and they can speak into your life. They tell you that your friend is jealous of the relationship- especially if they are telling you to leave- and they are trying to drive a wedge between you. If the friend starts to have fights with the boyfriend, he will use it as fuel to support his argument.
- Discussions are often planned with family. Car rides to family events become a rehearsal of what to say, and what not to say. After events, often there is a list of criticisms as to why you said this, how you behaved, how inappropriate/embarrassing it was for them, and they will pick apart your actions. Eventually, you will be silent because you know that anything you say will be held against you, and will spark an outburst.
- Arguments become more frequent, and increase in intensity. You look back and realize that you used to fight just once a week and now it’s three times a day. You cry more than you laugh, and you don’t feel good about yourself. Your life has become more permission-based than your own as your spouse has taken everything over and make you completely dependent on them. They have gained complete control.
What do you do? Should you Get a divorce?
The list mentioned above is a partial list. There are many other factors, but these are the most common. The big tell-tale sign is that if they don’t make you feel good about yourself, empower you, encourage you, support you, and let you make your own decisions (within the proper context), then the relationship is indeed toxic.
If you look back and don’t recognize who you’ve become, it’s toxic. When you loose the ability to make your own decisions, or feel inept at even taking care of yourself or the kids, the relationship is unhealthy. If you live in fear, or the thought of your spouse coming home generates anxiety, the relationship isn’t good.
Divorce should be the last option, and here’s why:
God can do all things, and He can turn your situation around. Your most powerful weapon is always prayer. But in order for prayer to be effective, there must be a heart change. God can’t speak to a hard heart- but He can soften it. You may begin to hear the person speak words only God would say, and the Holy Spirit may begin to convict them thereby changing the behaviour.
God doesn’t like marriages to dissolve, but He doesn’t like abuse either. Abuse is a form of oppression, and we are told to model the relationship between Christ and the church in our marriages. If our marriages do not model this type of love, God will step in.
The abused person should never be told to stay if they are being harmed in any way. If the abuse is severe, and a detriment to them emotionally/physically, then a period apart may be beneficial for your well-being. However, leaving your spouse without working on the relationship isn’t the answer either. You should always try to reconcile and bring the problem to their attention. Most abusers/controlling people do not know they are this way. Many of them model the behaviour after parents and see their actions as normal.
You should try to seek counselling, but be aware that it may be tricky. You need someone who has dealt with this issue before, and who is able to exercise discernment. Remember at the beginning of the article I mentioned that they are masters of disguise? Many of them in counselling sessions are able to play the victim to divert attention from themselves and on to you. Do be open, though, as it takes two to make a marriage work.
Recognize that you can’t change the other person, but you can change your response. Boundaries are essential in the relationship because the abuser often doesn’t recognize when they’ve stepped over them. They also need to be enforced- and regularly. For instance, if they start yelling at you and putting you down, you can simply say, “I will not speak to you until you calm down so that we can discuss this rationally.” Or, “I will not tolerate you speaking to me that way. If you can’t refrain, then I will walk out of the room. You can speak to me when you’ve calmed down.” Then you follow through.
You tell them when their behaviour was inappropriate. Most abusers don’t know their actions aren’t good- they just see it as normal- because of conditioning. It takes a while for them to renew their minds to a new way of thinking because the concept at this point is foreign to them.
Also, get help for yourself. That is the most important thing, and I can’t emphasize it enough. Find a good support network. Become the person that you are proud of. If any fears or insecurities exist, then conquer them with the mindset of proving to yourself that you are able. It will be the most empowering thing that you will do.
Learn what the lies are, and tell yourself the truth. Don’t fall for the lies as they will hold you in bondage. Learn what the truth is about yourself, and who you are in Christ.
Learn to forgive. It’s not about accepting the behaviour as much as just letting go of all the anger, hurt and resentment. Most abused/controlled people come to the realization that the relationship is not healthy. They realize they’ve been lied to, mislead and manipulated. Some become depressed, while others become bitter. But none of these options allow for proper healing.
Be aware that as you begin to assert yourself, the abuse may escalate. Most controlling people don’t like giving up control because it makes them feel anxious. They will do anything, and say anything to remain in their comfort zone. It’s important for them to realize that you are changing for you, and to be a better person for them. It’s not being done to hurt them in any way, as most of them are at heart afraid that you will leave. You may have to assure them that you want to work it out, but it can’t be at your expense.
Often times when we change, our spouse’s do, too. If fear, rage, lies and manipulation have no effect, you have stripped the person of their power over you. The goal isn’t to break the person, but to build a firm foundation on which a marriage can stand on for years to come.
Abuse and control tear apart marriages, and are never built on a firm foundation. But the good news is, that it’s never to late to shore things up. It just takes a lot of work, God, and time for healing to take place.
Our next article is on emotional healing from toxic people and how to become whole again.