What do Toxic & Abusive Relationship Mean?
Do you feel like you are trapped in a toxic or abusive relationship? Many couples coming to therapy do not realize that they are in a toxic or abusive relationship. They come to get help because there is a lot of hurt, anger, disappointment and the burden of the relationship is wearing them down.
They say that marriages are made in heaven; then why does hell break loose in some relationships? The fact is that intimate relationships are complex in nature. An ideal model will be a fine balance of interdependence, mutual respect, love, and understanding. But in the realistic world, marriages or intimate relationships are not always happy ones. Most couples come to a comfortable level of understanding and lead happy lives. There are others who may not be happy, but continue to live together. Furthermore, there are some relationships that become toxic and unbearable and some, abusive traps. In such toxic and abusive relationships, there is not only a breakdown of the marriage, but also a serious and imminent threat of physical, emotional, and psychological damage to either one or both the partners.
In the current Covid-19 lockdown, there has been a swell in such incidents world over. The sudden lockdown has put many people in dangerous situations at home locked up with abusive partners and nowhere to go to seek help. The National Commission for Women (India) recorded a more than twofold rise in the incidents of gender-based violence during the lockdown. Unfortunately, there are not many organizations in India that register or take up men’s complaints of abuse.
What is the difference between Toxic and Abusive relationships?
Toxic and abusive relationships are unhealthy and damaging relationships. The difference between the two is often ambiguous, even to the people involved. If the damaging behavior is because of how the person is, we call it toxic and if the person makes a conscious choice to behave in damaging ways, we call it abusive. Toxic relationships are about a disproportionate action/reaction cycle, whereas abusive relationships are about power and control. It is still confusing to distinguish, isn’t it? Let me give some day-to-day examples:
- You wash your partner’s favorite shirt along with other clothes. The shirt gets color from them. He reacts by screaming and accusing you of doing it on purpose and slams the door on your face.
- You forget to add salt to a dish while cooking. Your partner throws the plate and gets up angrily without eating.
- When you berate your partner when he/she asks for some help
- When almost all conversations end up in an argument
- When often there is a “You v/s. Me” dynamic in the relationship.
Here the action/reaction cycle is disproportionate and can be categorized as Toxic & Abusive Relationship
Please remember that we all have some bad days and may react disproportionately to a situation. One-off incidents should not be confused as being toxic relationships. If such reactions make up most part of the relationship, we should recognize it as being toxic.
In a toxic relationship the interactions between the partners are usually tensed, strained, and turbulent. Such relationships may be one-sided or two-sided. In a one-sided toxic relationship, one partner is able to respond appropriately to problems while the other blows them out of proportion. In a two-sided toxic relationship both parties respond in a hostile manner with each other, often over-reacting to situations.
Domestic abuse is not a random act of violence. Most victims assign such acts of violence to the abuser's lack of control over anger and believe that they (the victims themselves) are somehow responsible for it. Several studies on domestic abuse show that the abuser is in total control when they hurt their partners. In my experience as a counselor, I have come across several victims of domestic abuse who have bruises well hidden from the public eye. However, domestic abuse or violence is not always physical. It is about control. Be it financial, sexual, emotional, or psychological, the intention of the abuser is to gain and be in control and the attitude is that of an entitlement to take charge of another human’s experiences and existence.
Behaviors that threaten or cause harm are abusive behaviors even if it is a disproportionate reaction to a genuine frustration. Fighting is not uncommon in relationships and it is not necessarily a sign of toxicity. Sometimes both partners fight at similar levels and fight frequently due to the inability to communicate effectively; it is definitely unhealthy but may not be toxic. If one partner is calm and the other is screaming and shouting, the action/reaction cycle is not balanced. Watch out for an abusive partner who instigates or manipulates their partner into getting angry and then taking control of the situation by staying calm.
The difference between toxic behavior and abuse is not always clear. Both are unhealthy and cause long term damage to the relationship as well as the people involved. The need to know the differences, though, is to be able to understand how to respond to the abuse and the abusers. (If you are helping a victim of abuse your response to the victim should not change irrespective of whether it is a toxic or abusive relationship.)
Knowing where one stands in the equation of a relationship is half the battle won. Understanding your situation helps in taking necessary actions and safeguarding yourself physically as well as emotionally. The idea is not to shift the blame in a marriage that may not be working, but to know what actions to take either to save it or leave it.
Having an open conversation with your partner is a good beginning to bring about some change. Talking to a counselor, especially if both parties agree to, can help in understanding and regulating your own behaviors in interacting with each other. If you have any reason (there may be several reasons and it is not for anyone to judge your decision) to be in an abusive relationship, seek help from family and friends or a counselor. Let the abuser know that others know of the abuse. File a police complaint or inform the right authorities such as National or State Women’s commission. There are many support groups for women who are facing domestic abuse. Get legal advice; know your legal rights.
If you know anyone in your family or friends who is in an abusive relationship, understand what they are going through and how to support when they seek help. (Please avoid giving advice). It is possible that they only want someone who will listen.
Please remember abuse in any form is not acceptable and should not be tolerated!!