What is a toxic relationship?

Domestic violence myths and the impacts of toxic relationships. Introduction of attachment and how this forms development from child to adult. Trauma may be from present relationship or may be predisposed because an unrealised attachment pattern.
Toxic relationships

A toxic relationship leaves you feeling cold, angry, resentful, numb, helpless, lost, sad or undermined.
Domestic violence is often misunderstood. Yes, there are hotlines and refuges for people who have been beaten by their partners and have bruises to show for it. Who have harrowing narratives of fearing for their lives and knowing that they needed to get out before they were killed? Violent domestic violence is prevalent, and the statistics are abhorrent.

However Domestic Violence does not have to include violence, and many people are impacted by non-violent abusive relationships. Some bruises and impacts do not show on your skin. Toxic relationships of any kind are going to show impacts. Because we want to connect safely and consistently to all people, so when we don’t it hurts, we are left confused and unsure of ourselves.

Toxic relationships can be emotionally abusive. Poor communication, shutdowns, blocking, inconsistency, refusing to recognise your needs, absenteeism, refusing affection, name-calling, anger, alcohol abuse, poor conflict management, control and the list goes on. It isn’t pleasant and it can show up in all relationships that we might invest in.

People can have a toxic relationship within the home at work or in their family. It can be the friend, who has suddenly ghosted you, who ran off with your partner, who took advantage of you. Or maybe it is the mother who refused to give you affection or the father who chose to work rather than play. Maybe it’s the boss who hovers over you and takes the credit for everything you do or the toxic colleague who undermines you in meetings and plays at being your friend.

When these relationships are at play, we are left with a sense of insecurity. Something is not right, something is not okay. However, what do you do about it? Should you just suck it up? Should you confront the person?
Most people will attempt to suck it up and put up with it. After all, most people are good underneath it all right and maybe they don’t really mean it?

Well, maybe! Although also 10% of the population are psychopathological which indicates antisocial pathological disorder and narcissistic disorder traits and that means there are many people out there who do not experience empathy and do not take responsibility for their actions. Violation of others’ rights are common, which displays symptoms that include failure to conform to the law, inability to sustain consistent employment, deception, manipulation for personal gain, and incapacity to form stable relationships (Fisher KA, Hany M. Antisocial Personality Disorder, 2021).

These people are self-serving and will undermine your vulnerability and kindness. They will not take responsibility for how they impact the world without intervention. It is not your job to help them take responsibility either. A psychopathological person is not necessarily a violent killer however they do create silent emotional scars and suck the life out of anyone who is in a relationship with them. If that is you, it is going to hurt and even if you do leave, it is still going to hurt long after.

So, if 10% of the population are undiagnosed psychopaths then what about the other 90%? Good question.
Well, we are all storied and our narrative is built through our learning, conditioning, and our lived experience. Sometimes the blueprint of our life is set out via past intergenerational trauma. Or our parents give what they can with what they have got at the time. Maybe it wasn’t enough, or nobody helped them to give more?
Life experiences can affect relationships where silence can ensue if not handled well or maybe the opposite happens and anger becomes the coping strategy. Both silence and anger hold unspoken pain and hurt for both parties. The sense of self is altered to adapt to the other and then it is internalised. Then shame is invited into the party and there is a whole world of unexpected and uninvited impacts.

Let’s talk about attachment patterns. Because these underpin alot of how we experience our world and also whether we have the knowledge of what a safe relationship looks like.  Attachment is the conditioning and adaption of behaviour to the experience you had received as a baby/child from your caregiver. This means the way you learnt how to be and how the world was when you were pre-verbal. There are four types of attachment patterns that show up in relationship. By relationship I mean with yourself as well as with others.  Unfortunately, these are not your choice and therefore can lead to some complicated and distressing outcomes in adulthood.

First, there is secure attachment which is based on the ‘you are okay, I am okay’ mindset. It allows for healthy conflict, separation from others, recognition and acceptance of difference. If you are securely attached you are likely to have received warmth and attention when your needs showed up as a baby. This does not mean you are immune from difficult relationships or trauma but it does mean that you can reattach to your healthy safe reasonably quickly because your foundations are solid.

Anxious attachment – Will form when a caregiver is over-anxious, stressed, maybe in a domestic violent relationship unable to meet the needs of the child consistently.  The baby may be brought up with fear and concern about their future and whether people can be trusted.  They may have experienced the world through violence leading to a perception of the world being unsafe and unstable.  Low self-esteem, a strong fear of rejection or abandonment, and clinginess in relationships are common signs of this attachment style. This can lead to controlling behaviours in order to keep a relationship going despite it clearly not working. 

Avoidant/Ambivalent- is formed when a caregiver has not responded to your needs as a baby. Leaving you distressed for long periods of time. The result is you learn that your needs are not important and therefore adapt to an environment where you do not recognise your needs or anyone else’s. This can lead to cold, lone wolf experiences, where the child that becomes an adult can not ask for what they want in a relationship and therefore will reject or isolate themselves if there is discomfort. 

Then lastly there is Disorganised attachment – this forms when a parent is truly chaotic with their caregiving, they are there one minute, then violent, then neglectful, then loving. Emotionally the child is put in a washing machine with their wants and needs. So their attachment develops in the same way never knowing what they want, how to get it, or how to receive it. The parent often has a history of intergenerational trauma, addictions or complex mental health.

All of us have needs but sometimes we do not have a healthy way of recognising them or asking for them to be met.  We have a defined attachment pattern and depending on which one you have been given will depend on how you respond to relationship and how you seek out safe/unsafe /friends or partners. We seek what is naturally familiar to us! 

It is possible to unlearn this experience and to find new healthy ways to attach to people through reconnecting safely first in therapy, working through the relationship injuries of the pastand then being able to take your new sense of self out into the outside world. Toxic relationships can sometimes be created because of the blind spots in our past, once we learn what they are and how they are impacting our lives a person can become accountable for themselves. This is hugely empowering for people who struggle with consistency in relationships. 

So, if you are recognising yourself in this blog, you are not alone. Also, you are not to blame for experiencing this. The impacts of the toxic relationship can be reduced over time. 

It can reveal parts of ourselves that we identify as ugly, and I can help to reframe them as your survival.
You can get back your sense of self. It is going to involve a whole lot of loving to you, identifying what your needs are and meeting them again and again. If you cannot do that, then look for support from others who can. The most effective way is through a good therapist who can facilitate you to live authentically and find your way again. 

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