Updated: Sep 29
Very often, people will be quick to label their relationship as toxic or abusive when things aren’t working. But is it either and what’s the difference?
Often, there are overlaps with toxic and abusive behaviours, there is no clear line that divides the two. It’s all about context: What is happening? Where is it happening? Who is involved? How is it happening and why? Toxicity and abuse can occur in any relationship: Between lovers, parents and children, colleagues at work, friends and siblings. It can also be very subjective and related to the individual's perception. In one situation, the behaviour can be toxic, in another it can be abusive and in another it can be neither.
Relationships create such unique dynamics that are only known to the two involved, so what is toxic for one couple may not be for another. Since no two relationships are ever the same, it’s hard to make definitive statements about what is right and wrong, acceptable and not acceptable. I’ve worked with thousands of couples and I can tell you that there is no normal. What one couple perceives as fighting, another finds as intellectually stimulating. What one couple feels is rough behaviour in the bedroom, another may find sexy. What one couple sees as controlling behaviour, another may see as support.
It is always advisable to get professional help to understand what's really going on in the relationship. When you're in it, it's hard to see things objectively and that's when people begin to accept and normalise toxic/abusive behaviour, making excuses for it and justifying why they're staying. If you are unsure, then there are some specific signs and behaviours that can indicate that something more sinister and damaging is going on. So how do you know? Very simply, toxic behaviour arises out of a lack of control while abusive behaviour is all about one person taking control of the other. Here are some differences to consider:
One or both people engage in reactive behaviour that is out of proportion to the event that is happening. You ask your partner to help make dinner and they lose their temper with you, saying they can't because they've had a bad day, but it starts to happen every time you ask.
There is a lack of healthy, effective communication from either side so most conversations turn into a fight.
Toxic people are often needy, creating dramas just to get reassurances.
Toxic people always behave like the victim by shifting blame in any given situation.
There is an unwillingness of either to take responsibility for their unworkable behaviour.
When expectations aren’t met, the resulting frustration triggers a passive-aggressive reaction.
Both people choose to tear each other down instead of support each other to win.
Everything becomes a competition (Who did it better? Who makes more money? Whose parents are worse? Who’s more educated? Who’s trying harder?)
When both people refuse to be on the same side and live in a ‘me vs. you' dynamic.
Toxic relationships can often be transformed with the right tools from professional help.
The abuser is always in control. They make conscious choices to behave in damaging ways that are all about manipulation, domination and control of the other person.
The abuser’s behaviour is calculated and deliberate.
Typically abusers start with emotional/mental abuse and then it escalates from there into physical/sexual abuse.
They plan and think ahead: “I know that when I shove her she’ll do what I want” or “I won’t hit her when I know we’ve got a social arrangement because I don't want people to see the bruises.”
Abusers are masters as gaslighting, constantly undermining the other person's truth and reality.
Abusers control all areas of the relationship – financial, sexual, behavioural, social, etc.
An abuser wants to manage and be in charge of all aspects of the other person's life and experiences (who they can see, what they can do, where they can go, what they can wear, how they can speak, etc).
Abusers are bullies who harass, belittle and dominate others.
The abused often makes excuses for the abuser's behaviour when confronted by friends / family.
Abusers impose their opinions and ways relentlessly over others. Their view is the only one that matters.
Abusive behaviours will not change and those relationships need to end, preferably with professional help from therapists and/or authorities.
It's important to note that fighting is not always a sign of toxicity or abuse. Mostly, fighting happens because people lack workable communication techniques to be able to talk about their feelings and frustrations. When you can’t express yourself clearly or communicate in a workable way about how you’re feeling and what is not working for you, then your interactions will dissolve into fights. This can be overcome through therapy and finding more workable tools around communication.
So, how do you know when you're just fighting or when something more damaging is happening?
Fighting becomes toxic when:
One or both people insist on nitpicking about little issues that have already been discussed and 'resolved'.
There is a refusal to be present or to pay attention when the other person asks to talk about something that's important to them.
When one or both people’s feelings and concerns are disregarded as not being important enough.
When nothing is heard or received and is always thrown back in the other person's face.
When nothing gets resolved and the same fights keep happening about the same issues.
Fights become abusive when:
The Abuser consciously starts to manipulate their partner into reacting in a specific way (tears, fear, anger) so they can then dominate the situation by being calm and making statements like: “I don't know why you’re screaming at me, look at me... I’m not shouting, I’m being perfectly calm” or “I don’t understand your anger here, I’m not doing anything to you” or “I don’t know why you’re crying, can’t you control yourself? You don’t see me behaving like that.”
When things are escalating but the abuser is remaining cool and calm while continuing to provoke the other person to get out of control.
Any emotional, mental or physical attack occurs.
Whether is it toxic or abusive behaviour – both are unhealthy and unacceptable. Both behaviours can erode self-esteem, self-confidence and self-respect. Both can cause trauma and have dire long-term consequences to the people involved.
If you find yourself in either a toxic or abusive relationship, it’s time to get help. Speak to friends and family and tell them you need support. Speak to a professional therapist or coach who can help you understand the situation and give you workable coping mechanism to deal with all of it. If you've tried to make it work and still nothing is changing, it may be time to walk away from the relationship. If it is more serious, call the police if you fear you are in danger. There are shelters or organisations that specialise in helping people to leave bad situations.
Reach out, there is always another way.