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What Are The Signs Of A Toxic Marriage?

What Are The Signs Of A Toxic Marriage

A toxic relationship is a relationship characterized by behaviors on the part of the toxic partner that are emotionally and, not infrequently, physically damaging to their partner. While a healthy relationship contributes to our self-esteem and emotional energy, a toxic relationship damages self-esteem and drains energy. A healthy relationship involves mutual caring, respect, and compassion, an interest in our partner’s welfare and growth, an ability to share control and decision-making, in short, a shared desire for each other’s happiness. A healthy relationship is a safe relationship, a relationship where we can be ourselves without fear, a place where we feel comfortable and secure. A toxic relationship, on the other hand, is not a safe place. A toxic relationship is characterized by insecurity, self-centeredness, dominance, control. We risk our very being by staying in such a relationship. To say a toxic relationship is dysfunctional is, at best, an understatement. Keep in mind that it takes two individuals to have a toxic relationship, meaning our own words and actions matter as well. Initially, we’ll look at the behaviors of the toxic partner, but we must look equally hard at the individual who is the recipient of the toxic behavior.

Types of Toxic Relationships

Even a good relationship may have brief periods of behaviors we could label toxic on the part of one or both partners. Human beings, after all, are not perfect. Few of us have had any formal education in how to relate to others. We often have to learn as we go, hoping that our basic style of relating to significant others often learned from our parents and/or friends is at least reasonably effective. As mentioned above, however, what defines a toxic relationship is dysfunction as the norm. The toxic partner engages in inappropriate controlling and manipulative behaviors on pretty much a daily basis. Paradoxically, to the outside world, the toxic partner often behaves in an exemplary manner. Any relationship involving physical violence or substance abuse is by definition extremely toxic and requires immediate intervention and, with very few exceptions, separation of the two partners. A toxic individual behaves the way he or she does essentially for one main reason: he or she must be in complete control and must have all the power in his or her relationship. Power sharing does not occur in any significant way in a toxic relationship, meaning one person is overtly passive whether they know it or not. And while power struggles are normal in any relationship, particularly in the early stages of a marriage, toxic relationships are characterized by one partner absolutely insisting on being in control. Keep in mind, the methods used by such an individual to control his or her partner in a toxic relationship may or may not be readily apparent, even to their partner.


This type of toxic individual will constantly belittle you. He or she will make fun of you, essentially implying that pretty much anything you say that expresses your ideas, beliefs, or wants is silly or stupid. A toxic spouse will not hesitate to belittle you in public, in front of your friends or family. Even though you may have asked your toxic partner to stop belittling you, he or she will continue this behavior, occasionally disguising it by saying, “I’m just kidding. Can’t you take a joke?” The problem is they are not kidding and what they’re doing is not a joke. The toxic partner wants all the decision making power. Unfortunately, if you tolerate this deprecating behavior long enough, you very well may begin to believe you can’t make good decisions. This type of toxic individual will often tell you that you’re lucky to have them as a partner, that no other man or woman would really want you. His or her goal is to keep your self esteem as low as possible so that you don’t challenge their absolute control of the relationship.

The “Bad Temper” Toxic Partner

“Controlling by intimidation” is a classic behavior of a toxic partner. Often these individuals have an unpredictable and “hair-trigger” temper. Their partners often describe themselves as “walking on egg shells” around the toxic partner, never quite knowing what will send him or her into a rage. This constant need for vigilance and inability to know what will trigger an angry outburst wears on both the “victim’s” emotional and physical health. Again, it is noteworthy that this type of emotionally abusive partner rarely shows this side of his or her self to the outside world. No one else would label the relationship toxic, meaning he or she is frequently thought of as a pleasant, easy-going person who almost everyone likes. As you would expect, if you confront a “bad temper” partner about the inappropriateness of their anger, they will almost always blame their temper outburst on you. Somehow it’s your fault they yell and scream. This disowning of responsibility for their dysfunctional behavior is typical of a toxic partner.

The Guilt-Inducer

A toxic relationship can, of course, occur not only between two individuals in a committed relationship, but also between friends or parents and their adult children. Control in these relationships, as well as in a committed relationship, is exercised by inducing guilt in the “victim.” The guilt inducer controls by encouraging you to feel guilty any time you do something he or she doesn’t like. Not infrequently they will get someone else to convey their sense of “disappointment” or “hurt” to you. For example, your father calls up to tell you how disappointed your mother was that you didn’t come over for Sunday dinner. A guilt inducer not only controls by inducing guilt but also by temporarily “removing” guilt if you end up doing what he or she wants you to do. For guilt-prone individuals, anything or anyone that removes guilt is very desirable and potentially almost addictive, so the guilt inducer has an extremely powerful means of control at their disposal. Incidentally, guilt induction is the most common form of control used by a toxic parent(s) to control their adult children. Frequently, a spouse or significant other will disguise their guilt-inducing control by seemingly supporting a decision you make – i.e., going back to school but will then induce guilt by subtly reminding you of how much the children miss you when you’re gone, or how you haven’t been paying much attention to him or her lately, etc. As with all toxic behaviors, guilt-inducing is designed to control your behavior so your toxic partner, parent, or friend gets what he or she wants.

The Over-reactor/Deflector

If you’ve ever tried to tell a significant other that you’re unhappy, hurt, or angry about something they did and somehow find yourself taking care of their unhappiness, hurt, or anger, you’re dealing with an over reactor/deflector. You find yourself comforting them instead of getting comfort yourself. And, even worse, you feel bad about yourself for being “so selfish” that you brought up something that “upset” your partner so much. Needless to say, your initial concern, hurt, or irritation gets lost as you remorsefully take care of your partner’s feelings. A variation on this theme is the deflector: You try and express your anger or irritation regarding some issue or event – your spouse stays out with his/her friends two hours longer than they said they would and doesn’t even bother to call – and somehow your toxic partner finds a way to make this your fault! The deflector is confused that the information you’re bringing to his or her attention is in direct conflict with their self-perception. This is so uncomfortable that they inadvertently convince you that you’re the one with “work to do.” Perhaps you are being too sensitive. Or perhaps instead of an apology, you’re offered a calculated question: “But do you love me?” Suddenly the criticism is replaced with praise.

The Over-Dependent Partner

Odd as it may seem, one method of toxic control is for your partner to be so passive that you have to make most decisions for them. These toxic controllers want you to make virtually every decision for them, from where to go to dinner to what car to buy. Remember, not deciding is a decision that has the advantage of making someone else namely you responsible for the outcome of that decision. And, of course, you’ll know when you’ve made the “wrong” decision by your partner’s passive aggressive behavior such as pouting or not talking to you because you chose a movie or restaurant they didn’t enjoy. Or you choose to go to spend the weekend with your parents and your partner goes along but doesn’t speak to anyone for two days.
Passivity can be an extremely powerful means of control. If you’re involved in a relationship with a passive controller, you’ll likely experience constant anxiety and/or fatigue, as you worry about the effect of your decisions on your partner and are drained by having to make virtually every decision. Separate from your own anxiety or fatigue, it’s important to consider the root of your partner’s control here. This type of toxic marriage, by definition, may hinge on control induced by anxiety. The Journal of Neuroscience has reported that the pre-frontal cortex allows us to be flexible in our decision making while logically weighing the consequences of one decision over another. Anxiety “disengages brain cells” and may play a role in your partner’s insistence that you have all the power, and therefore all the risk in a potential perceived “mistake.”

The “Independent” (Non-Dependable) Toxic Controller

This individual frequently disguises his or her toxic controlling behavior as simply asserting his or her “independence.” “I’m not going to let anyone control me” is their motto. This toxic individual will only rarely keep his or her commitments. Actually, what these individuals are up to is controlling you by keeping you uncertain about what they’re going to do. Non-dependable will say they’ll call you, they’ll take the kids to a movie Saturday, they’ll etc. etc., but then they don’t. Something always comes up. They usually have a plausible excuse, but they simply don’t keep their commitments. In this relationship, “toxic” means they control you by making it next to impossible for you to make commitments or plans. What’s even more distressing is that this type of toxic individual does not make you feel safe and secure in your relationship. It’s not just their behavior that’s unpredictable; you’re never quite sure that they are really emotionally committed to you, that you and your relationship with them are a priority in their life. You’ll often find yourself asking for reassurance from them, reassurance that they love you, find you attractive, are committed to your marriage, etc. Their response is often just vague enough to keep you constantly guessing, and is designed to keep you doing what they want to “earn” their commitment. The anxiety you feel in such a relationship can, and often does, eat away at your emotional and physical health.

The User

Users especially at the beginning of a relationship often seem to be very nice, courteous, and pleasant individuals. And they are, as long as they’re getting everything they want from you. What defines a toxic relationship with a user is its one-way nature and the fact that you will end up never having done enough for them. Users are big-time energy drainers who will in fact leave you if they find someone else who will do more for them. Actually, a really adept user will occasionally do some small thing for you, usually something that doesn’t inconvenience or cost them too much. Staying in a relationship with a user is like paying $1,000 for a candy bar. You really aren’t getting much for your investment.

The Possessive (Paranoid) Toxic Controller

This type of toxic individual is really bad news. Early in your relationship with them you may actually appreciate their “jealousy,” particularly if it isn’t too controlling. And most, but certainly not all, possessives will imply that once the two of you are married or in a committed relationship, they’ll be just fine. These toxic individuals will become more and more suspicious and controlling as time goes on. They’ll check the odometer in your car to make sure you haven’t gone somewhere you “shouldn’t,” they’ll interrogate you if you have to stay late at work, they will, in short, make your life miserable. They may even use technology to their advantage, using smart devices to check on your physical location or doorbell cameras to eavesdrop or verify you actually arrived at home when you said you would. Over time they will work hard to eliminate any meaningful relationships you have with friends, and sometimes even with family. They do not see themselves in a relationship with you; they see themselves as possessing you. Your efforts to reassure a toxic possessive about your fidelity and commitment to them will be in vain. If you stay in a relationship with such an individual you will cease to really have a life of your own.

Divorce Lawyer

When you need a divorce lawyer, please call Ascent Law LLC for your free consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you.

Michael R. Anderson, JD

Ascent Law LLC
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506
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