Empower Your Emotions
Relationship Problems and How Relationship Counseling Can Help
Signs of a Toxic Relationship
A relationship therapist or counselor can teach you how to improve relationship skills to achieve more assertive communication or enhanced emotional intimacy — but they cannot necessarily heal an abusive relationship.
This is because toxic relationships are characterized by at least one party not being interested in learning how to improve relationship quality, at all. Identifying toxic signs in a relationship can be confusing, specifically because abusers seek to confound their victims at every turn — by sending “double messages” and presenting themselves in a way that is directly opposed to their true motivations.
Reading toxic signs in a relationship can also be challenging because people struggle to determine what qualifies as “normal” relationship problems that deserve a chance to be worked out, versus dangerous levels of toxicity that warrant the end of a relationship. This is where professional help can really come in handy.
A qualified relationship therapist or counselor can help you to pinpoint your true needs, desires and boundaries so that you can discern if you wish to continue trying — or if you would rather give yourself permission to stop trying. They can also educate you about the “red flags” that should signal the end of a relationship, for anyone.
Essentially, a relationship is not worth continuing to invest in, if trying to salvage it will risk causing one or both of the participants harm — in such cases, there are indicators to look for in both parties.
Abuser-Oriented Signs of a Toxic Relationship
Sometimes, it’s easy to begin parsing out details and miss the “forest view” of a situation. Too much analysis (also known as, “analysis paralysis”) can actually lead to making excuses for someone’s bad behavior, so we’ve kept this list simple. If you see any of these — it is time to get help, and get out!
Abusers seek to defer personal accountability onto someone else, at all costs. They gain and maintain psychological control over their victims by conditioning the victim to falsely believe that everything is their fault. If you are consistently being blamed, this is the number one “tell” that you are living with an abuser. Here’s your sign to get out of that toxic relationship — it’s the only sign you need!
Abusers will often try to control their partners’ dress, behavior, money, activities or associations — and then justify this behavior as a form of “love”, “affection” or “insecurity”. Like anyone, abusers may feel insecure sometimes — but while most of us take responsibility for our moments of insecurity by communicating them forthrightly and accessing self-help resources (like this article), abusers actually restore their sense of confidence and well-being by diminishing their victims. The more confused, hurt, disillusioned, debilitated and generally “off balance” an abuser can make you feel — the better and more “secure” they feel.
Intermittent Conditioning means combining a positive stimulus (like a commitment to “work on the relationship”) with a negative stimulus (like shaming). It is the cornerstone of brainwashing because it trains victims to accept abuse, as part and parcel of trying to get their most basic emotional and other needs met. It is in this way that abusers systematically break down self-esteem, until the victim becomes adapted to the abuse — to the extent that they have a hard time recognizing that they are even being mistreated. Intermittent Conditioning is the primary way that abusers construct and maintain delusional thinking in their victims, making it hard for them to leave — “after all, sometimes he’s really sweet.”
Victim-Oriented Signs of a Toxic Relationship
Many people seeking information on how to improve relationships or how to spot the signs of toxic relationships forget that several key indicators of any dangerous relationship manifest in the victim. These are natural symptoms in response to being abused:
If you feel like your feelings and needs don’t matter to your “partner” — it’s likely because they don’t. If your self-care has eroded or if you have stopped connecting with friends, family or healthy activities, these are clear evidence that you are with an abusive person.
If you find yourself doubting your worth, mistrusting your reality, questioning your sanity or apologizing just for being who you are — these are significant markers of manipulation by an abuser. They will methodically calculate the ongoing destruction of your internal sense ofidentity and equilibrium.
Many people are afraid of their emotions because they were never taught how to decipher the vital instinctive information that they provide. In fact, all feelings are actually instructions from our exceedingly wise nervous system. Acknowledge and embrace the messages that your body, your emotions and your instincts are trying to convey. If you are experiencing chronic anger, rage or fear — in the form of “walking on eggshells, or worse — listen to it. You can trust your “gut” because its job is to protect you.
Anxious Avoidant Relationships
There are three possible attachment styles that begin forming at birth, based upon an infant’s sense of bonding with their mother — and these attachment styles can each affect adult interpersonal and romantic relationships.
Anxious attachment styles require a little bit of additional reassurance to feel safe and loved, while avoidant attachment styles feel threatened if someone gets too close. Then there is the “secure” attachment style which is exactly what it sounds like — secure and well-adjusted.
Anxious attachment and avoidant attachment both do well in relationships with secure attachment, which is even reflected by their statistical presence in the global population — with anxious at about 25%, avoidant at about 25% and secure at about 50%.
Unfortunately, most individuals with anxious and avoidant attachment styles are attracted to each other, rather than to their ideal mate. This corrosive combination within an Anxious Avoidant Relationship helps to actually affirm the core fears of both parties — the anxious person’s need for reassurance makes the avoidant feel “smothered”, and the avoidant’s rejection makes the anxious person feel wounded.
Anxious Avoidant Relationships are defined by an ongoing rhythm of negative intensity (like breaking up) and positive intensity (like making up) that is often mistaken as “passion” and provides ample intermittent conditioning to keep the starved, anxious party “locked in”. “Round and round” they will go, in an addictive cycle that ultimately destroys the self-esteem of the anxious person — while the avoidant emerges unscathed.
And just like a pathological abuser, as much as an avoidant may reject you when you are available — they do not necessarily want you to leave, because you supply their needs for love and affection. These Hoovering relationships (like the vacuum) in which someone never wants you around, but uses several tactics to “suck you back in” if you attempt to leave, are yet another example of Intermittent Conditioning.
Avoidants and abusers can actually be considered “first cousins”, in many ways. They both provide a constant dosage of intermittent “push-pull”, “back-forth”, “in-out” through Hoovering relationships that “hook” anxious individuals in to “chasing” love that that is simply not there.
Neither one of them are interested in changing, either. The pathological abuser cannot neurologically formulate the empathy or accountability required to want change, while the avoidant is simply not interested in this proposition — why change, if you can get a steady stream of victims to supply all of your needs while you take no risk and give nothing? Finally, they also often employ abusive tactics, although for slightly differing psychological motivations. Avoidants will abuse to keep a victim from getting close, while a pathological abuser will harm for the sheer pleasure of enjoying their own power.
If you are now trying to determine whether you are with a pathological abuser or an avoidant — don’t bother. The “fallout” for their victims is exactly the same.
Healing Anxious Attachment
Since victims are conditioned to believe that everything is their fault, they are usually scouring the internet to consult various resources on how to improve relationships and work on their “issues” — while the abuser or avoidant sits back with no interest in this level of investment.
So those who are able to identify themselves as having an anxious attachment style are often reading books on “healing anxious attachment” and reaching out to relationship therapists in an effort to seek “anxious avoidant relationship help” — not realizing that they do not need any help!
Please understand this wonderful news: If you have an anxious attachment style — nothing is wrong with you! You simply need to find a secure partner, and there are plenty of them “on the market”, capable of commitment and naturally inclined toward expressing love, reassurance, affection and attention.
Be aware that abusers also lure by giving lots of attention. The best way to differentiate between an abuser, an avoidant and a secure is that the latter will not rush commitment or “pull out all the stops” in an adrenaline-filled “whirlwind romance” — they will simply be themselves, date for a while, happily get to know you, and appreciate your imperfections as much as your strengths.
Essentially, anxious individuals and recovering victims who wish to meet someone truly compatible and available must prepare to “detox” from the adrenaline rush that abusers, narcissists and avoidants supply in the early courtship phase. Likewise, victims seeking to leave a toxic relationship will face biochemical detox from the addictive force of intermittent conditioning.
How Relationship Counseling Can Help
People usually seek relationship counseling to improve communication issues, since most would agree that communication is the foundation of all relationships. Well, communication is the foundation of all healthy relationships — but it will not work with an unwilling parter. In fact, sharing your needs and feelings with an abuser or an avoidant frequently gives them added “ammunition” to use against you.
While working with a professional can help to strengthen couples coming in for premarital counseling, nontraditional relationships, blended families, assistance managing other relationships (like with in-laws, for example), sexual issues and, on rarer occasions, even with infidelity and unfaithfulness within a longstanding union — if you can identify with the “signs of a toxic relationship” that have been outlined in this article, it’s highly recommended that you schedule an individual appointment with a relationship counselor to begin processing the end of your relationship.
There is no need to question the symptoms that you are enduring, you can take them at “face value” — because people in relationships with healthy and responsive partners do not go through this! Get help to rebuild the self-esteem and resilience that you will need to escape.