PHOTO: Jessica Felicio
Text: Alejandra Misiolek
A toxic relationship is a relationship characterized by a dynamic that is co-created by both partners and that is emotionally damaging.
A toxic relationship is a relationship characterized by a dynamic that is co-created by both partners and that is emotionally damaging to one but mostly to both of them.
While a healthy relationship contributes to our self-esteem and emotional energy, a toxic relationship damages self-esteem and drains energy.
What do we mean when we say that these relationships are co-created?
No relationship is unilateral, they always happen bidirectionally. What we do affects the other and determines how the other will respond to us. Our response is always in reaction to what the other does. Furthermore, our response modulates what the other will do next. So, in relationships we are trapped in a relational matrix* of mutual influences. Let´s have a look at an example.
If I tell you:
- “Please pick up your shoes” calmly and add: “I would really appreciate it. You know how important is order for me”
- “Why can´t you pick up the shoes?! You are always doing that! I hate it. Why are you doing this to me?!”
These two ways of saying the same thing are very different, they are triggered by different circumstances and they will trigger a different emotional reaction.
- Do do you think that what and how I say affects the other person?
- Do you think that what the other person did previously affected my tone?
This is the bidirectionality of interaction: If you are generally nice to me and only sometimes leave the shoes there, then my first answer is more probable but if you never pick up your shoes, then probably it will trigger my second response.
So let´s get back to toxic relationships. If I am in a toxic relationship, it does not mean that my partner is toxic and I am a victim. What is toxic is a pattern that was co-created by both participants and it became a vicious cycle. It means that I also contributed to this dynamic and only by understanding how we both contribute, can we change this dynamic. Nevertheless, changing a vicious cycle is not easy because rarely are we aware of the patterns when we can´t see them from the outside. In other words, we are frequently missing the perspective.
So when I am in a toxic relationship, there is always my responsibility, too?
Well yes. Why? Because why would an adult stay in a relationship that will almost inevitably damage him or her emotionally and/or physically? Probably because they got hooked on each other and created something that is called a collusion, that by definition is never beneficial for anybody.
What would be an example of a collusion (Willi, 1993)?
If I have an insecure attachment style I am always afraid of being rejected or of being alone. So, I find a partner who takes very good care of me and is always there for me. He helps me with my problems and gives me advice on how to progress in life. But with time, we develop a dynamic of him paternalizing me. I start to feel useless and he, by “helping me out” all the time, creates my dependence on them and contributes to my even lower self-esteem. I develop a feeling that without him, I won´t cope.
How is it toxic for the other person? Probably, overtime, they start to feel overwhelmed by this dependency of the other person and they may get tired. They will complain and belittle the other person even more and thus create even more dependency. A vicious cycle is co-created.
Are there types of toxic relationships?
In the next post I will describe the most typical dynamics that create toxic relationships in couples.
* The relational matrix is a concept introduced by Stephen A Mitchell and makes reference to the co-creation of relationships represented in the Escher´s Drawing Heands.