Identifying toxic traits in your significant other
As humans, we are hard wired to seek connection with one another- we have an innate need to belong (Baumeister and Leary, 1995) which fuels our pursuit of meaningful, social bonds.
At times, this need can be so overwhelmingly strong that it prevents us from noticing if the relationship has taken a turn for the worse.
“I didn’t even know that the way she was behaving was unhealthy- I thought this is how relationships work…and Iwas also scared to be alone if I said anything and she broke up with me” says Om, 24 years, in a therapy session.
The extreme manifestation of relationship toxicity is abuse. However, there are other subtle forms that are not abuse but are still toxic in nature and can often lead to an abusive relationship and while everyone can tend to act in an unhealthy manner with their partner from time to time, it is the frequency, duration and intensity with which it occurs that will make it problematic.
Added to that, pop culture narratives that have been prevalent across the board do nothing to solidify the notion of heathy relationships. It consistently perpetuates abuse, harassment, jealousy and extreme control as love stories to strive towards and replicate.
From extreme abuse in “Kabir Singh” to “Twilight”, where Edward repeatedly stalks Bella to “The Notebook” where Noah threatens to throw himself off the Ferris wheel if Allie doesn’t go out with him- these narratives romanticise the toxicity in one’s significant other as being a measure of ‘true love’. These are viewed as so called gestures of love which are reinforced by the ‘happy endings’.
Surrounded by the wrongly perpetuated notion of relationships, an intense need to forge a bond, one’s ability to clearly identify warning signs in their partner can get clouded. Like Om, many individuals find themselves in a toxic relationship without knowing how they got there in the first place or even recognise it is toxic.
So how can you identify toxic traits in your partner?
-One of the biggest warning signs is possessiveness manifesting in extreme jealousy, which can often be shrouded as being ‘protective’. As an emotion, jealousy is normal to feel- however, when it turns into extremely controlling behaviour is when it becomes a red flag. Examples of this sort of behaviour include getting very upset when you speak to or interact with people they do not approve of, falsely accusing you of infidelity.
This can slowly spiral into ‘not allowing’ you to meet or speak to certain people or engaging in activities they do not like or approve of, resulting in isolating you from your support system and creating an unhealthy dependency on them.
-When your partner is unwilling to apologise and take responsibility for their actions and instead holds you solely responsible for their mistake or as the reason why they acted in that manner is when it becomes necessary to pay attention.
-Using coercion and guilt as ways to manipulate you and get you to do what they want. For example, threats of self-harm or harm to yourself or your family members if you do not behave in their desirable way, withholding of affection, making you feel guilty for trying to draw healthy boundaries or when you stand up for yourself, Using the relationship itself as a threat - What Om tapped into is the fear of setting healthy boundaries for himself when the outcome was going to be the loss of the relationship.
-Verbal aggression, constantly criticising / belittling you which leads to a loss of confidence in yourself and brushing the criticism/insult off as a ‘joke’ or as you being ‘oversensitive’.
-Physical abuse that threatens your very safety – slapping, punching, hitting, using objects to harm, kicking and so on.
-Infidelity and betrayal which includes your partner cheating on you physically and emotionally. It could also include a disrespect of your privacy by sharing sensitive and private information about you with other people, consistent lying, backbiting / being two faced.
-Inability to trust you that shows through constant suspicious of who you are with and where you are manifesting through checking up on you, cross checking the information you have given, demanding ‘evidence’ to prove your whereabouts through photographs of who you are with or sudden video calls.
“She kept asking me to send photos of who I was with , once I even had to send her a screenshot of my friend’s Linkedin profile to prove that I was hanging out with the same person- or else she would get hysterical” (Vikrant, age 29)
The experiences of Om and Vikrant are not rare- many individuals understand the gravity of the situation only when it escalates into extreme behaviour. However, the escalation doesn’t happen overnight- it is usually the culmination of all the red flags making Awareness of and identification of these warning signs of paramount importance.
We never dream it can happen to us…till it does. As Katie Hood, CEO of One Love foundation and dating violence expert says “Abuse sneaks up on us disguised as unhealthy love”.
We owe it to ourselves to understand the features of an unhealthy relationship so we can then take the necessary steps to change the course be it seeking professional help through couples counselling or re-evaluating the relationship altogether.
*All names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the clients mentioned.