Sometimes certain relationships are a challenge. It could be with your partner. A family member. A friend. Your boss. The problem is when this is more than just an occasional disagreement. That happens in the best of relationships. No. This is something quite different.
All you know is that your relationship is so bad that you may find yourself feeling chronically anxious, sad, scared, and unhappy around a specific person. You can’t really pinpoint why. Something feels off, but you just can’t seem to put your finger on it.
Looking back, this relationship may have started off great! It might be someone you dated or married. In the beginning, your new partner was attentive, caring, and SO much fun to be with! As time went on, though, things changed. Tensions built from seemingly nowhere, and the fun times seemed to become few and far between. This can become a painful way to live, in particular if this has now become the norm… or perhaps when you look back, you realize it may have always been this way. And maybe you are doubting yourself, and saying things like, “it’s really not that bad.” You find excuses for the other person. You may even begin to think that it really is you that is the problem.
I’ve had many clients come to my office over the years thinking there was something solely wrong with them. When in fact, the root cause was something far different than what they thought.
Maybe this sounds like you?
You find yourself feeling sad, confused, overwhelmed in life and work. Things just seem to be hard – for no reason. You’re mentally preoccupied with your significant other, wife, husband, another family member, a friend, or your boss. You feel absorbed by whatever “daily blow up” has presented itself from that person. All you want to do is be home in bed, but not if that person is around. When they are around, everything is just tense.
Herein lies the rub. It’s not always so easy to see what is happening right in front of us. Sometimes we are so close to something, so immersed in the situation, that we don’t even see this coming.
It’s possible that you may now be in a relationship that has turned toxic.
There’s that word: toxic. Immediately, barrels of chemical waste come to mind. I’m not saying the object of your affection has turned into a vat of acid. However, some of the patterns or habits he or she may have might not be healthy for the relationship, or for you. If you have young children involved, or this is an adult family situation, more than one or two people may also be feeling impacted by the toxic person.
Note: Without a professional evaluation, it is not possible to accurately diagnose someone. Having said that, it is possible that the person who is chronically toxic may suffer from a condition known as Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD for short.
In general, someone who has BPD quite often presents with a history of childhood trauma. The trauma could have come in the form of ongoing physical and or mental abuse, abandonment, threats from others, or other life experiences that were threatening. Genetics may also play a role here.
A childhood like the one described above, is an extremely painful and scary way to grow up. Left unresolved, the child can develop a profound case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In many instances, untreated PTSD can result in BPD.
This is not to say that the toxic person in your life has BPD. Again, this specific condition can only be diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional. The reason I bring this up is that there is at least the possibility that the person you are attempting to cope with may have BPD.
Here are 12 common signs that a relationship is toxic.
You’re not sure who is going to show up.
Upon entering the space for day, whether that means waking up or coming over for dinner, you’re not sure which mate will be there. The loving caring one, or the one who is critical of everyone, everything, and makes the atmosphere generally unpleasant. It’s very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation.
You find yourself doing what THEY want all the time.
When you’re discussing what to do for the evening or weekend, and you express that you don’t want to do something, how does the other person react? Do they pout, sulk, or give you the silent treatment until you change your mind? You often have the feeling that you are being manipulated. Relationships are full of compromise from both parties. If you feel you are the one who is having to compromise and give in constantly, this is a sign you may not be in a balanced relationship any longer.
They are constantly afraid you are going to leave them.
Everyone can be insecure at times. But if your partner is reluctant, angry, or put-out when you want to have a girl’s (or guy’s) night, this could be a sign of something more.
Talking, but not.
What I mean here is that you talk, but not about things that are important. This could be feelings about the relationship, or what to do about a conflict that has come up in the schedule. Small talk is fine, but if a deeper conversation is needed and there is serious reluctance on one or both ends to go on, afraid of the emotional reaction that is to come, it’s a problem. Again, it’s the pattern of this that is not healthy.
Anger, lots of it.
Someone who is prone to fits of anger, with little to no provocation, can be especially dangerous. This is a big Red Flag. The potential for things becoming physical is real. Their need to be “right” seems more important than their need to be close. Deep down they can’t believe that there is something wrong with them.
Harshly critical of you.
It’s OK, even healthy, to disagree with our wife, girlfriend, or mate. However, if this disagreement progresses into the berating stages, just going on and on about how utterly ridiculous “the thing” is, how idiotic it is to think “that” or what have you, then it’s a problem.
You’re unhappy more often than happy.
Do you find yourself sulking around? Are you struggling to find joy in things, dreading going home in the evening? Are you feeling like your outlook has become unusually negative, or maybe else has commented that it has? This could be a sign that your environment, and those in it, is not the right one for you.
They are constantly changing the plans.
Flexibility and spontaneity are great and have a place in life! However, if you have been banking on getting together with friends or going out with for a date night, then the other person suddenly ditches what was set up for something else (outside of a true emergency), then it’s not a good sign. This happening once in a while is one thing. Maybe at the start of the relationship, clear expectations weren’t shared. If this is a habit, happening more than once or twice, beware.
They make threats.
When you are with someone who is this toxic, you are inevitably going to have major disagreements with them. In addition to fits of anger, they may resort to making threats. The threats can come in many forms: threatening to leave, financial abandonment, disownment, divorce, physical punishment, emotional punishment, denying access to other loved ones, permanent estrangement, vowing to punish those who do not agree with them. The list goes on.
You realize that others also feel uncomfortable around them.
You may or may not have shared your pain with others about your situation. Don’t be surprised if you are not the only one who feels the same as you about this person.
They refuse to get help… or sabotage help when it is offered.
People seen as toxic often have a very difficult time in counseling. One of the primary reasons for this is that they are afraid that the therapist will see them clearly. This can be quite frightening for someone with BPD. They are, by nature, highly anxious and any threat, perceived or imagined can be frightening for them. Because of this, toxic people tend to avoid therapists. But sometimes the opposite is true.
In general, they almost always leave at precisely the time that the therapist does not agree with their view of themselves. For someone with BPD, they are afraid that the therapist will abandon them. Rather than risk being abandoned, the person with BPD becomes the abandoner. They leave therapy.
Quite often, they never see another therapist again. Or they go from therapist to therapist in the hopes that they will find someone who will agree with their view of the world. Anything but face the reality that they are the ones who actually set up their own abandonment.
In short, therapy can be excruciatingly painful for them. It’s understandable. It’s important for you to realize that to be someone who suffers from BPD and be in a therapist’s office can truly be a frightening experience. They are afraid of being exposed. Often, they will use the defense of attacking the therapist in the hope that the therapist will agree with them. If not, they simply leave.
You feel like you are walking on eggshells whenever they are around.
If there is one sure sign that you are in a toxic relationship it is this: You find that this person believes that you are the primary source of their unhappiness. They rarely, if ever, take any responsibility for how they create suffering in themselves, and others. This is the tactic of a bully.
Instead, they get angry, sulk, have pretty become much a “downer” a good deal of the time, their anger has now become bitterness, and they have become an “emotional black hole”, sucking the emotional life out of you. In their eyes, you are the problem. You are the “crazy” one. You never give them enough.
They may reluctantly acknowledge that something was their fault. They may even apologize. They may praise you to the point of excess. They operate from extreme positions. You are either “all good” or “all bad”. For someone who suffers from BPD, there is very little of life that they experience as gray. People are seen in black and white terms. As a result, anyone in close proximity to them is likely to experience a sort of emotional whiplash. It’s like being on a rollercoaster of thoughts and feelings. You feel anxious and tense almost all the time.
In short, you feel like you are walking on eggshells whenever you are in their presence. This is a painful way to live.
What can you do?
If you can identify with more of the signs above than not, here are a couple of tips for you to consider.
For right now, strive to be calm in the face of conflict, offer honest feedback from a place of caring, follow through with what you say you’re going to do. These things will act as a diffuser and help the break the cycle in which the relationship finds itself.
Don’t argue with the other. It only fuels their rage and feelings of impotence. They may not have the ability to be reasonable when things are emotionally inflamed. Set a limit to protect yourself. One of the very best ways to do that is to quietly but firmly disengage.
Unless there is an immediate threat to your health and safety or that of others in the family, try not to make any major life decisions until you have enough information to make a truly informed decision. Until then, don’t let your own impulses force you into a premature decision.
I hope that this article has been helpful. Any one or combination of the above signs and symptoms can be terribly difficult. I understand. If you need an objective ear to listen or help you navigate through this painful situation, please give me a call or send me an email. I’ve helped many others through this particular situation. I can likely help you get a clearer picture of what is happening, and share various options that may help you cope better, and feel better.