“Can you be in a toxic relationship without realizing it?” a reader recently asked. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the answer to that question is “Absolutely,” especially if your childhood experiences incorporated a lot of unacknowledged toxic behavior. Humans are drawn unconsciously to the familiar, which is a very good thing if you were loved and supported as a child and are securely attached; the chances are excellent that you’ll be drawn to people who remind you of home. Unfortunately, since attachment styles function unconsciously, if you were raised in an environment that made you vulnerable and afraid, unlovable and inadequate, it’s a pretty safe bet that you will, at some point, find yourself in a relationship that makes you feel just as you did in childhood.
Your inability to see the toxicity isn’t just a function of familiarity. People who like controlling and manipulating others aren’t always obvious; to keep the game going—it’s the rush they like of watching others squirm because it makes them feel powerful—they usually use covert means. After all, if you were aware of how you were being played, you’d be likely to leave.
Toxic patterns emerge in romantic connections, familial ones, and even in friendships. If you’re beginning to feel as if the time you spend with someone is bringing you down, you may want to check for these sometimes six subtle styles of toxic behavior.
1.They prey on your insecurities
Rather than use the intimate knowledge gleaned from close connection or acquaintance to build your relationship, toxic individuals make note of all your hot buttons and manipulates you by pushing them. They self-aggrandize by making you feel lousy about yourself so, when you talk about a problem you’ve had, they’re quick to tell you that they’d never find themselves in that kind of pickle or, if they did, they’d handle it much more intelligently than you did. Physical appearance is often a favorite target, delivered in a quiet but disparaging way such as, “I’ve never seen you in that color before. Not sure that would have been my choice” or “I honestly think that what you had on yesterday was much more flattering.” Other personal choices often are targets too: “What you’ve done is interesting but did you know that Martha Stewart focuses on less being more? You’re definitely on a more is more tear.”
Many toxic types, including those high with narcissistic traits, thrive when there’s an audience, and sometimes that audience is just you. The grandstander—whether he’s in a crowded room or sitting next to you on the couch—needs undivided attention to feel good about himself (or herself). Sometimes, that involves making you feel unimportant and small and, other times, it’s just about making sure you appreciate how truly fabulous he is.
3.They love one-upsmanship
Does it sometimes feel as though the song “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” is always playing in the background when the two of you are together? Have you ever noticed that whenever you start talking about something you’ve done, he has a story or anecdote that trumps yours? Thought your vacation in California was great? Well, it was nothing compared to hers in Paris. Pleased with how work is going? Well, his work is going gang-busters and he’s snagging a huge bonus to boot. Sometimes, the one-upsmanship is just a way of making you feel small and, other times, it’s a way of making the toxic partner feel just splendid. Never mind pulling out those photos of your garden. She’ll either have better ones or tell you that she’s too busy to garden. Her gardener, though, is quite fabulous.
4.They marginalize you
There are subtle ways of making someone feel less than or unimportant, and toxic people usually avail themselves of all of them. This includes talking over you or interrupting you mid-sentence when you’re alone or, in the company of others, saying something dismissive such as, “Don’t mind her—she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” Stonewalling in the middle of what’s supposed to be a discussion is another way of putting you in your place, and usually gives the toxic partner even more control as you get frustrated and angry. This is a pattern with a name, Demand/Withdraw or DM/W. In the end, once you’ve started yelling, the pattern gives the toxic partner the upper hand, allowing him to assert his superiority by saying, “I can’t talk to you because you’re always so angry.” (Even though some women do stonewall, the pattern skews more to men in the Withdraw position.)
5.They play hardball
Challenge the toxic person and he or she is likely to tell you that what you’re saying is a deal-breaker, and if you want to leave now you should just walk. It’s an all-or-nothing game for the toxic partner—he or she needs you to be compliant or it’s just no fun—so the best way of keeping you where the toxic partner wants you is by threatening to end the game. A toxic partner will probably add a pretty long list of your shortcomings to make you feel as guilty and insecure as possible. Poof! You’re manipulated enough to try pleasing anyway you can. Buttons pushed! Mission accomplished!
6.They love mind games
Among the phrases toxic people love are these: “I never said that,” “It never happened,” “You misunderstood completely,” “Why do you always have to project “or “Who knew you had such a rich fantasy life?” Yes, it’s called gaslighting and it’s another way toxic people have of manipulating you, by focusing on your neediness and insecurities. If you were raised to doubt the validity of your thoughts and feelings, you’ll be particularly vulnerable.
Recognizing that you’re in a toxic relationship is just the first step. The second is realizing that, yes, you deserve more and better.
Photograph by Jonas Weckschmied. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
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