Discover how toxic relationships come to pass, what they look like, and some ways to reduce the toxicity of your relationships.
Toxic relationships are defined by two chief characteristics: power imbalances and cycling back and forth between good and bad treatment (Dutton & Painter, 1981). Let’s break those two components down a bit.
Would you tolerate a terrible relationship if you had the power to easily walk away from it? Many of us wouldn’t. Toxic relationships can sometimes persist because there is a power imbalance. The person causing harm to the other must have some leverage in the relationship, something that the victimized person wants. This could be money, shelter, or work, but it could also just be love or social connection--basic needs which support our well-being.
In some toxic relationships, this works both ways, with each person having more power in at least one domain of the relationship. For example, a man might stay with his wife because he has no other source of emotional support, even though she is also emotionally abusive. At the same time, she might stay with him, even though he is physically abusive because otherwise, she will have no financial support.
This example leads us to the other aspect of toxic relationships: not every part of the relationship is bad because an entirely bad relationship would never reward you for staying in it. In a toxic relationship, the person you’re relating to, whether it’s a friend, family member, or parent, is not just physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive or neglectful; they are also sometimes caring, attentive, generous, and even self-sacrificing.
This causes what has been called “traumatic bonding” (Dutton & Painter, 1981). At the same time that people in toxic relationships may be traumatized by their experiences in the relationship, they are also emotionally attached to each other because of that trauma. This can make it hard to leave, or change, these relationships.
What a Toxic Relationship Looks Like
In all relationships, people move toward and away from each other, depending on a variety of factors. For example, in a healthy relationship, you might move away from your partner when you feel the need for independence, but you might move toward them when you feel anxious or when you feel like you need to have a conversation about the relationship.
In toxic relationships, people move toward and away from each other in ineffective or damaging ways; they also make moves to get “one up” on the other person, or to put the other person “one down” (McLemore, 2003).
This can look a variety of ways (McLemore, 2003). For example, moving toward somebody can look like controlling, engulfing, or attacking the other person. Meanwhile, moving away can look like avoiding, freeloading, giving them the silent treatment, or ghosting them.
What Causes Toxic Relationships?
A helpful way to understand how toxic relationships form is to understand the impacts of not getting attachment needs met. Attachment theory tells us that how people relate to each other as adults relies in large part on how they did (or didn’t) get their needs met as children (Hazan & Shaver, 1987). If we learn harmful but effective ways of getting our needs met as children, we tend to carry some form of those behaviors into adulthood (Bartholomew, 1997). Typically, these behaviors revolve around making sure we get the care that we need, often through controlling others (Reder & Duncan, 2001).
That makes it sound like one person is the problem, right? Actually, abusive relationships generally only persist when two people who have unhealthy ways of relating connect with each other (Motz, 2014). This may be the case between a parent and child, where the child has learned unhealthy attachment behaviors from the parent, or it may happen between two adults who separately learned these harmful, even abusive behaviors. A person with a secure attachment style will not stick around and tolerate abusive behaviors; they know that they deserve better. But a person who has learned their own unhealthy ways of relating is more likely to get stuck in trying to make a toxic relationship work.
Tragically, these toxic ways of relating are often modeled by parents, internalized by their children, and reenacted by those children when they grow up (Motz, 2014). It is hard for children to witness these behaviors and not come to learn and identify with those behaviors. And since these behaviors tend to be learned from the people who love them, children learn to associate them with love, to the point that toxic ways of relating start to seem like loving acts.
This also helps explain why so many people linger in toxic relationships. In fact, the more emotionally attached we are to people who abuse us, the more likely we are to come back to that relationship again and again, despite the negative consequences (Griffing et al., 2002).
How To Move On
A key way to break out of toxic relationship patterns is to reject power dynamics that cause one person to be above or below the other (McLemore, 2003). What would this look like? This looks like shifting from disengaging and besting the other person to attaching to and caring for the other person (McLemore, 2003).
For example, disengaging can look like stonewalling somebody, or simply giving in to something you don’t want. Instead, try to let them in, but not too much. If your romantic partner wants to go out dancing tonight, and you’re not in the mood, engage with them while holding boundaries. It might look like saying, “I appreciate that you want to spend time together. I want that, too, but I don’t have the energy for dancing. What else would be fun for us to do tonight?”
It’s important to differentiate between times when we do something unhealthy in our relationships versus relationships that are themselves toxic. We all sometimes act on negative feelings in unhelpful ways. But if a relationship feels that way often – if it seems like you and the other person really bring out the worst in each other, and you’re not sure how to fix it – we hope you find your way to some help. Sympathetic friends, family members, and even therapists are waiting to support you in reducing the toxicity of your relationships.
Bartholomew, K. (1997). Adult attachment processes: individual and couple perspectives. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 70, 249-263.
Dutton, D. G., & Painter, S. L. (1981). Traumatic bonding: The development of emotional attachments in battered women and other relationships of intermittent abuse. Victimology: An International Journal, 7(4), 139-155.
Griffing, S., Ragin, D. F., Sage, R. E., Madry, L., Bingham, L. E., & Primm, B. J. (2002). Domestic violence survivors' self-identified reasons for returning to abusive relationships. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 17(3), 306-319.
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. R. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.
McLemore, C. W. (2003). Toxic relationships and how to change them: health and holiness in everyday life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Motz, A. (2014). Toxic couples: the psychology of domestic violence. Routledge.
Reder, P., & Duncan, S. (2001). Abusive relationships, care and control conflicts and insecure attachments. Child Abuse Review, 10, 411-427.