Relationships come in many shapes and sizes. Some are platonic, others are romantic; some relationships are deep, and they’ve been a part of your life for as long as you can remember, while still others may be brand new and just finding their way; some of our relationships are exciting, while others are a bit pedestrian.
Whether it’s marriages, friendships, relationships between colleagues, siblings, or neighbors, relationships permeate our lives. These relationships can be healthy, but they can also be unhealthy. When we talk about toxic relationships, what we mean is simply that there is something about the relationship that is unhealthy.
If we picture relationships like plants, toxic relationships are those that have been struck by blight, are under attack from a pest, or are lacking certain nutrients such as sunlight and water. Such a tree doesn’t reach its full potential. Similarly, with toxic relationships, the relationship, and the people in it aren’t thriving and are nowhere near reaching their potential.
Marriage is the most intimate relationship a person voluntarily enters. Doing life with someone is a huge commitment that touches every aspect of your existence. Because you’re physically and emotionally vulnerable with the person you’re married to, if the marriage is unhealthy, that hits closer to home than when other relationships experience dysfunction. Being in a toxic marriage can negatively affect your health and overall sense of well-being.
Signs of a toxic marriage
A toxic marriage may be evident from the outside, but it may not be so obvious for the people in it. For them, they may have become numb to the dynamic in their relationship, so that toxic marriage for them is just “the way things are,” or the way things have become and the new normal.
In other cases, a couple may be aware that there’s something not right in their relationship, but they struggle to attach the label “toxic” to their marriage because it seems too drastic or dramatic to call it that. But it’s important to face situations squarely and address issues before they deteriorate further.
You don’t have to attach the label “toxic” if you’re uncomfortable with it – in that case “unhealthy,” “troubled,” or “dysfunctional” may be more helpful in correctly diagnosing the situation. What then are the signs of such a relationship?
Effective communication is the lifeblood of a healthy marriage. It’s how you plan, let each other know your needs or what’s happening in your life, and share your hopes and dreams. When your verbal communication is non-existent or laced with sarcasm, ridicule, or anger, that’s a huge red flag.
Your non-verbal communication also matters – rolling your eyes, huffing, turning your body away from your spouse, sharing no physical contact through hugs or gentle touches – all these also communicate that something’s amiss in your relationship. Shutting yourselves away from one another points to a problem in the marriage.
Feeling isolated and lonely
A marriage is a partnership. When joys and sorrows come, you share them with your spouse. If you find that in your marriage you feel isolated and lonely, that you’re on your own with raising and fending for the kids, or that your spouse is uninterested in you and what’s going on in your life, that’s problematic.
You get undermined and your self-confidence takes a hit when you’re with your spouse. Time spent with your spouse can be many things – mundane, exciting, or energizing. Organizing your calendar or charts for school pickups isn’t necessarily riveting material for most people.
However, if you find that time spent with your spouse is typically discouraging and disempowering, that may signal an unhealthy marriage. If after you spend time with your spouse you find yourself feeling down, and your self-confidence takes a nosedive, that’s an issue.
It might be an issue of your spouse being hypercritical of you, your appearance, your ideas, or something else. It might be because they ignore you. It may also be because they are dismissive of you. It may be that the words shared between you tend to make you feel discouraged. These and more issues may point to a dysfunctional marriage.
You’ve turned your backs on your vows
Part of what makes a marriage healthy is that the people in it are willing to do the work required to keep things going. Marriage takes work to retain its integrity and vitality. Turning your backs on your vows by falling into patterns of infidelity and neglect might indicate that your marriage is unhealthy.
Your needs are not met or considered
Marriage takes two people to work, and each person has their unique needs. When decisions are made, are the perspectives and needs of both taken into consideration? Are the needs of both, whether it’s affection, sexual intimacy, attention, spiritual growth, rest, and good health being accounted for and provided for?
If the relationship is skewed toward meeting the needs of one partner, as happens in codependent relationships, that dysfunction undermines the marriage and stunts the growth of both parties. Marriage is about both parties serving each other, as Bible passages like Ephesians 5 remind us. If one person’s needs are consistently elevated above those of the other, that too is an unhealthy dynamic.
Your thoughts and ideas are dismissed or disregarded
Each of us brings a wealth of experiences and ideas to any relationship. Of course, those experiences and gifts differ; someone might be a whiz with numbers and handling finances – in that case, they may be more adept with the checkbook.
One person may have a keen eye and aesthetic sense, while another is a DIY Jedi. God has gifted us all in diverse ways. Each person brings something to the relationship, and even in those areas of ‘weakness,’ being dismissed is problematic.
It has to do with intent and delivery, as well as creating a space where each spouse feels free to contribute even if they let their partner make the call because they’re the best person to handle it. If one or both of you feel like you’re not a partner in the relationship, that you don’t have a say in how things go, that’s a red flag for the relationship.
Your physical and emotional safety is compromised
If angry words, clenched fists, and objects flying are a regular feature in your marriage, whether it’s one-way or everyone participates in it, your marriage is unhealthy. Our spouse should be the person we feel safest with, and if they are no longer a safe space because they are physically or verbally abusive, the marriage is no longer a space for flourishing.
Anger manifests in different ways, including hurling insults, punching walls, or using the silent treatment. Emotional or verbal abuse also takes many forms, including controlling behaviors, manipulation, ridiculing your spouse in private or public, or calling them names.
One’s physical safety can also be compromised in several ways, including being grabbed, prevented from leaving a room, slapped, or sexually assaulted. No one should ever feel unsafe anywhere, especially in their marriage. Being compromised in this way indicates a toxic marriage.
What to do about an unhealthy relationship
What is broken can get fixed. With hard work and the proper interventions such as therapy and separation where safety is an immediate concern, a marriage can be restored and strengthened. In some cases, the more permanent step of ending the marriage may be the only option especially if one or both parties don’t want to work on things.
It’s an important first step to acknowledge to yourselves as a couple that there is a problem. Unless you see that there is an issue that needs to be fixed, you won’t begin the work to get things back on track. So, take a moment and a clear-eyed look at the dynamics in your relationship.
Many couples take the path of therapy when things are already in steep decline, and this happens for several reasons. The couple may not think their issues are that bad. Minimizing or just ignoring the issue only lets it fester. For some couples, the cost of therapy may be prohibitive. And for yet other couples, the thought of letting an outsider into the inner sanctum of their lives seems like a daunting and potentially embarrassing prospect.
Your marriage is worth investing in, and so take the time to investigate the options available to you. If the cost of therapy is the concern, consider saving toward therapy, or explore options such as group therapy that tend to be cheaper.
Consulting with a spiritual leader or pastor is another possibility, as they often extend their services at low or no cost. Marriage therapists are trained professionals that see many, many couples in situations like yours. Not only are they discreet, but they create a safe space within which to unpack the questions and issues that are stunting your marriage.
Whether or not you think the issues in your marriage are that bad, spending time with a trained professional who understands relationship dynamics and can provide you with the tools you need to get your relationship back on track may just be what you need for your marriage to flourish.
“Bride and Groom”, Courtesy of StockSnap, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Stressed Out”, Courtesy of Nik Shuliahin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Love & Respect”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Wedding Bands”, Courtesy of Sandy Millar, Unsplash.com, CC0 License