A significant part of taking compassionate care of ourselves is one we often overlook: having healthy romantic relationships—relationships built on honesty, respect, trust, safety and kindness. Sometimes, however, we find ourselves in toxic partnerships.
Maybe we don’t even realize we’re in an unhealthy relationship. Maybe we do but don’t think we deserve better. (You do.)
I talked with therapist Michele Kerulis, EdD, LCPC, about the signs someone is in a toxic relationship, why we stay in these relationships and what we can do. Kerulis also is a professor of counseling at Counseling@Northwestern, an online Master of Arts in Counseling Program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University. You’ll find her insightful words below.
Q: How do you define “toxic relationship”?
A: In an ideal relationship, partners bring out the best in each other. Toxic relationships tend to bring out the worst in partners. A toxic relationship is when people prioritize a bad relationship which then impacts other areas of their life including emotional safety, friendships, family relationships, career, and/or financial circumstances. Healthy relationships include feelings of comfort, security, and partnership and toxic relationships involve suspicion, uncertainty, and emotional instability.
Q: What are some signs that you’re in a toxic relationship?
A: Toxic relationships tend to have patterns when partners are excited to be together, have a slight build of irritation, experience a circumstance that results in elevated difficult emotions, and questioning if they should stay together. Sometimes there will be a breakup yet the partners do not believe the relationship is really over.
Feeling insecure and lacking trust in your partner is a sign of a toxic relationship. Partners who cancel on a regular basis with extreme excuses, call only during certain hours, text instead of calling, and have been confronted about lying, are likely involved in toxic relationships.
Q: Why do we let ourselves get involved in these kinds of relationships or stay in them once we know they’re toxic?
A: After a break it is common to miss the other person, long for the companionship, and feel uncomfortable being alone. That is why some people will return to a partner who is not a good match. Then the toxic cycle begins again. People have a hard time sitting with uncomfortable emotions. Those emotions seem to vanish when we focus on another person or get back together with a toxic partner.
However, those emotions are not really gone, they are just pushed away. When attention is focused on the other person we have a distraction and therefore do not have to sit with the discomfort. It is easier for some people to ignore or push away the uncomfortable feelings than to really look inside and work through their situation.
Q: What are some myths about toxic relationships?
A: A myth about toxic relationships is that people cannot get out of the toxic cycle. They say things like, “I know he is not good for me, but I love him and we know each other so well.” Or, “We are not good together but it’s all we know.” Leaving something familiar, such as a toxic relationship, stirs up people’s world and they think they can’t manage without a partner. The truth is, we as people can function as individuals.
Q: Please share what readers can do to navigate these relationships.
A: One way to navigate relationships is to really think about the reasons you are staying with your partner. Weigh the pros and cons and take an honest look at how being in the relationship brings you joy together and in your individual lives. If you find that you can recall more unpleasant situations than happy times, you are probably in a toxic relationship.
Breaking up is difficult, but it can open the door for you to focus on your own wellbeing and give you an opportunity to learn how to manage your emotions. Sitting with and working through uncomfortable emotions takes time and practice. A counselor can help you understand the meaning behind your actions and emotions and help you learn skills to make life choices that are in your best interest. (MT: You can learn about helpful ways to navigate difficult emotions here and here.)
When you close the door to toxic relationships, you open space in your life for something positive. Embrace your worthiness and step into feeling love on your own instead of feeling dread when entering into a toxic space.
Dr. Michele Kerulis is a professor of counseling with Counseling@Northwestern and former program director of sport and health psychology at Adler University in Chicago. She is a certified consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, a member of the United States Olympic Committee Sport Psychology Registry, and a content expert in sport and exercise psychology. She is a past president of Illinois Counseling Association and takes time to advocate for counselors and clients on Capitol Hill. Dr. Kerulis is an active freelance writer, private practice clinical therapist, public speaker, and section editor for Chicago Scene Magazine.