A Marriage Therapist shares How to Tell If You’re in a Toxic Marriage and What to Do About it
If you’re like most people, you want your marriage to be a happy and healthy one. So how can you tell if your marriage is toxic? Marriage and Family therapist Tamara Thompson, LMFT located in New York City shares that "Most people can identify that relationships that involve emotional, verbal, or physical abuse are toxic. There are vast amounts of behaviors that sometimes fall under the radar because they are not as overt. Oftentimes, when I meet couples who are looking for tools to support their relationship, they may know that something does not feel, “right” but they do not necessarily classify it as toxic." In this article, we share tips to help you identify a toxic marriage, and how to approach the situation to make sure your relationship is healthy.
What Classifies as a Toxic Marriage
A toxic marriage is a relationship where two people are constantly in conflict. Both partners may be struggling to control the dynamics of their relationship, continually causing pain and distress for each other. Each partner may be unpredictable, aggressively arguing their point of view without listening to their partner’s needs or desires. In a toxic marriage, there are often conflicting values and priorities which lead to constant power struggles and disagreements. This type of relationship breeds an unhealthy level of mistrust and resentment that can become entrenched over time if left unchecked. When one person demands obedience while their partner feels trapped by the constant need to please, this can create an atmosphere where any attempt at compromise is fruitless. Toxic marriages are damaging not only to those involved but also to family members that may get caught up in the drama between them too. Tamara shares the following signs she encounters in therapy:
- Lack of trust, with accusations around doing something deceitful, and not giving one another the benefit of the doubt. Usually, one partner feels like they have to prove that they did not do anything “wrong.”
- Autonomy is discouraged, usually due to one partner's controlling behaviors/tendencies.
- You are dishonest with one another and the relationship is plagued with white lies, omissions, and deceit.
- You feel like you can not be your authentic self around them because you fear criticism, judgment, or aggression.
- Nonstop narcissism and making everything about them. The focus is on one partner and their experience of the relationship with little to no regard for the other partner's experience/feelings.
- Blaming your partner when something goes “wrong.”
- The relationship drains you. You feel depleted and as if you give more energy to them than they give to you.
- Unreliability and inconsistency make it impossible to feel emotionally safe in the relationship.
- You do not feel seen in the relationship. You feel unsupported, undervalued, demeaned, and even verbally attacked.
- You feel less and less confident and over time your self-worth diminishes around your partner.
- You find yourself feeling like you are being manipulated into doing things you do not want to do and feel as if you have been gaslighted.
- Judgment takes the lead. There is a lack of compassion and what can feel like a never-ending critique.
- You bring out the worst in each other and rather than helping one another grow, you are holding one another back.
- You're constantly confused by the person's behavior. Actions, energy, and words are usually contradictory or not aligned.
- You and your partner experience anger and frustration when you are around one another.
- You are calling one another names, being disrespectful, criticizing, or there is contempt
These negative patterns can limit the spouse's personal growth and consequently lead to various physical and mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Over time these marriages can become emotionally draining for both parties without either partner feeling heard or understood. No matter how long it has been going on, this pattern of behavior needs to be addressed for the marriage to thrive in the long term.
How toxic relationships can affect your Health
Tamara explains that "The severity of stressors the body can exhibit under the duress of a toxic relationship varies/spans from feeling run down to more serious issues such as high blood pressure and heart problems. When a person is in a toxic relationship, their bodies usually produce cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenaline aka epinephrine (associated with fight and flight/helps the body prepare for danger)." Under the duress of a toxic relationship, the combination of both cortisol and adrenaline causes stressors in the body that can manifest physically and show up as:
- Difficulty sleeping
- High blood pressure
- Weakened immune system
- Higher risk of heart problems including heart palpitations
- Muscle tightness, body aches, and pains.
- Increase Anxiety
- Stomach and digestion issues
- Exhaustion and feeling run down
How to tell if you are in a toxic marriage
A toxic marriage can leave you feeling drained, disrespected, and unappreciated. If you're in a toxic marriage, recognizing the signs is the first step towards improving your relationship or getting out of it. Start by looking at how much time you invest in understanding your partner and listening to their needs. When you truly listen to each other without judgment, couples can create a deeper connection necessary for a healthy marriage. Additionally, look at whether your conversations throughout the day are positive or negative. Are you more hostile to each other than supportive? If so, that could be an indication that things aren’t going well. Does one of you hang onto past arguments rather than move on from them? Lastly, note if both parties still have respect for each other: can you disagree with each other without being disrespectful or nasty? Keep an eye out for these indicators that may signal a troubled relationship before it’s too late.
What to do if you realize you are in a toxic marriage
If you find yourself in a toxic marriage, it is important to take prompt action and make serious efforts towards introspection and restoring the marriage or moving on. Tamara states "You must both be able to acknowledge the toxic and unhealthy patterns in the dynamic and take accountability for your role. Owning your role is crucial, as it takes two people to co-create a dynamic." She goes on to explain that "In couples therapy, successful couples are the ones that are both willing to invest time and energy into changing the dynamic. One partner changing can ultimately change a dynamic, however, to create a healthy, successful relationship, equal investment is necessary. One of the first questions I ask when first meeting a couple is, “are you willing to allow your partner to show up differently? This is crucial, for people to show up differently, they have to be given the room to do so. So often partners put each other in a box and have a hard time believing that their partner can change." Each partner can begin by identifying which behaviors they have been practicing and then learn the corresponding “antidote” to correct the behavior. Identifying their shared vision for the type of relationship they are trying to create and how they would like to feel when they are with their partner. A shared vision/goal for the relationship helps keep couples feeling connected, intentional, grounded, and hopeful.
The first step also includes seeking help by talking to a mental health expert, a trusted person from a faith-based community, or family members. Consulting a therapist might rationalize the situation and open conversations that may have not been discussed in the marriage. At the same time, spending some time alone for reflecting on feelings, strengths, values, and purpose in life could be helpful too. It is also important to consider if remaining in this relationship still works for you or if it’s time to walk away. If it seems like divorce is the answer, finding an experienced divorce lawyer and scheduling an appointment can be the first step toward new beginnings in life.
Strongly Consider Therapy
Both individual and couples therapy is extremely important for couples in toxic relationships because it can help heal old wounds and behaviors that may have come from experiences they have not yet processed or healed from. Therapy holds people accountable. Therapy is exploratory and curious and can create a safe space where people can share without feeling judged. Oftentimes, individuals learn their communication style from their family of origin and understanding how that is showing up currently can make all the difference. Attachment styles and love languages are discussed in therapy and help partners understand their wants and needs. Couples therapy is crucial for couples in toxic relationships.
A licensed professional can provide communication tools and guidance based on information provided regarding each partner. The therapist has an opportunity to observe the dynamic with real-time enactments which provides an additional perspective. Participation in couples therapy gives partner’s a shared activity and shows each partner that they are both investing in one another, themselves, and the relationship. Some couples do not realize how toxic or unhealthy their relationship is until they come to therapy because the behavior has been modeled for them or normalized in their family of origin. Sometimes partners have a hard time hearing one another based on past hurts. Having a third party/therapist/mediator can help each partner hear the other differently. The therapeutic process can completely revamp a dynamic. If partners are open to putting in “the work” they can work towards creating the relationship they desire.
Ultimately, in any relationship, it is important to recognize when there are signs of toxicity. Whether it's verbal or psychological abuse, emotional manipulation, controlling behavior, or something else entirely, if that’s what you are experiencing in your marriage you can always reach out for help. It can be difficult to analyze a situation objectively from the inside; therefore, counseling may be beneficial to better understanding one another and improving communication and conflict resolution skills to create healthier relationships in the future. Even though identifying a toxic marriage may not seem like the best news, remember that strength and hope is available and that taking the right steps can lead to healthier coping habits and better quality of life.