People argue and they fight, even when they care for each other. Relationships are famously difficult and it’s little wonder that there are many of us who have trouble recognizing the line in the sand—and yes, it’s there—when normal turns into toxic. This doesn’t happen to everyone, of course; people who grow up in families where relationships are strong, love is openly expressed, boundaries are minded, and respect is the operative word have a built-in alarm system when connections go darkly south.
That’s not true for those who came of age in fractious households in which adults used abusive language or manipulative tactics to manage the family. These insecurely-attached people don’t have a solid mental model of what a healthy, thriving relationship includes—and the behaviors it doesn’t.
I learned this lesson in my twenties when I was dating someone who was emotionally volatile. He was different from the other guys I knew—totally self-made, had been abandoned by his mother as a child and raised by a tough, authoritarian father. He went to a prestigious college on a football scholarship, earned an Ivy League MBA, and had all the accoutrements of success.
But he was volatile and, one night—I don’t remember what we were arguing about—he grabbed for me and pulled me toward him by the gold chain I was wearing. I was screaming, pounding at him, when the chain snapped—leaving a red mark on my neck. I showed him the door and, thankfully, he simply left.
But even though it was the threat of physical violence that set off my alarm, the truth was that he’d been treating me badly for months in more subtle ways. Because my mother’s treatment of me in childhood included a number of hurtful behaviors, my own sense of what constituted “toxic” wasn’t keen enough to know the difference.
So, forty years later, I offer up a list of five toxic behaviors everyone should recognize and no one should tolerate. It doesn’t matter who’s behaving in this way and the rule is no tolerance, whether it’s a spouse, a lover, a parent, a sibling, a friend, or a co-worker.
It’s been called the most toxic pattern in a relationship and it’s common enough that it’s earned its own acronym in research: DM/W or Demand/Withdraw. Escalation is built into this conscious withdrawal and refusal to talk since the person who wants the discussion will ratchet up her (or his) demands the more the partner withdraws. There’s a gender bias—men are more likely to be in the withdraw position—but women stonewall too.
Stonewalling is controlling and manipulative and has nothing to do with being shy, inarticulate or being tongue-tied about emotional connections. Don’t make excuses for a stonewalling partner, especially if the behavior is accompanied by contempt. There’s a reason marriage expert John Gottman calls it one of the four Horsemen that doom a relationship.
Things go wrong in life: mistakes are made, vases get broken and bumpers get dented, dry cleaning doesn’t get picked up, and you forget key ingredients at the grocery store because you left the list on the counter. But when your partner or friend uses that moment to attack you—beginning sentences with the words “You always” or “You never”—you’re no longer in healthy territory. Using a simple mistake to segue into a recitation of your flaws is verbal abuse, no matter how familiar it sounds to you. John Gottman calls this “kitchensinking.”
A term taken from a play from 1930s and a movie made of that play, gaslighting involves convincing someone that an event never happened or words were never uttered in an effort to make her feel she can’t trust her own perceptions and even, in extreme cases, to doubt her own sanity. (I’m using female pronouns but men can be gaslighted, too.)
Unloving and abusive parents often gaslight children—denying that they said what the child heard or that they did what the child witnessed—which can have lasting effects, among them a normalization of this kind of denial. Gaslighting is by its nature predatory since the person doing the gaslighting is using your own self-doubt and insecurities as weapons against you. There is never any situation in which this behavior is acceptable.
4. Threatening—whether veiled or not
This sounds pretty obvious but you’d be surprised by how many people don’t always hear the underbelly of the words, “If you don’t…. then I will….” Relationships in which there is one person who has more literal power in some area of life—that could be a parent or a spouse who makes most or all of the money or even any relationship that has some other imbalance—often incorporate this kind of behavior seamlessly.
Threats don’t exist in a vacuum; there are usually other ancillary behaviors such as marginalizing the person, denigrating her or treating her with contempt, or using personalized criticism that facilitate the aggression and make the person being threatened normalize the behavior. This kind of emotional grandstanding isn’t okay even when it doesn’t include a physical threat. You hear me?
When things go wrong, people feel better if there’s some kind of explanation and, alas, for toxic folks, blame is one way of connecting the dots.
Blaming one person for whatever goes wrong has the added “benefit” of permitting you to evade any personal responsibility. That’s why it’s easier for a parent to focus on the so-called troublemaker in the family than to address her or his own failures as a parent. Scapegoating also helps people who are easily angered or thrown for a loop by random events to process what’s happened—even though it does require a really twisted version of illogic.
Let’s say the locked car in the driveway was vandalized. Dad is really frosted at the cost of replacing the windshield. It turns out that Suzie didn’t turn the porch light on when she came home. Theoretically at least, the porch light might have discouraged the vandals so—get ready for the leap—it’s actually Suzie’s fault that the car was vandalized.
Yes, totally crazy thinking and crazy-making too for Suzie but that’s how scapegoating works and it happens more often than you think. And it’s never okay.
Making sure that you don’t normalize any of these behaviors is a first step. The second is holding the people who behave in any of these ways accountable.
Photograph by Cristian Newman Copyright free. Unsplash.com