Look, relationships are hard — and none of us are perfect. We've all been guilty of being less-than-kind to our partner at one point or another, that's just life. But sometimes occasional digs or the offhand mean comment are more than just a bad moment — and are actually signs that you're a toxic partner.
Beyond physical abuse, some relationship red flags may be dismissed as common ways to cope. That’s a mistake. Esteemed relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman has pinpointed four additional categories for toxic behavior in relationships: Incessant criticism, regular defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. These behaviors are so destructive to relationships that Gottman refers to them as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
Within those categories, there are plenty of subtle habits that can be toxic, according to two relationship experts we talked to. The good news, though, is there are plenty of ways to overcome bad behaviors and make a relationship even stronger. (The exception being when there is violence. That, the experts agree, is always cause to end the relationship and seek help from a licensed therapist.)
If you find yourself struggling time and time again with different partners, the harsh truth is the problem may be with the common denominator: you. “If you are tempted to blame all your relationship woes on your partner, chances are you’re overlooking your role in the problem,” says marriage and family counselor Jessica Wade, who explained it is vital to accept responsibility.
Words spoken in anger can’t really be taken back. Marriage and family counselor Lisa Bahar explains statements such as “you’re crazy” or “what’s wrong with you?” lead to invalidating environments. In these cases, the root of the problem is often a rush to reaction.
“Check the facts of what you are reacting to versus assuming you know what is going on,” Bahar says, adding it helps to learn “healthy assertion skills” instead of resorting to passive-aggressiveness.
Another common behavior that can wear on a relationship is refusing to accept influence from your partner. More than simple stubbornness, Wade explains this can be harmful if your partner doesn’t think his or her opinions are valued. Fortunately, she says that can be overcome by committing to truly hearing out your partner.
Contributing toxicity to a relationship isn’t just about how you treat your partner but also how you treat yourself. Wade explains that if you rely on the relationship to feel good, “That’s a sign something underlying should be addressed.”
This may come to a head, she says, with threats of self-harm. “If you’ve ever said or even thought, ‘If you leave me, I’ll kill myself,' or something similar, it’s time to take a break from the relationship and get help now.”
As innocuous as it may seem, Wade cautions that giving the silent treatment or withholding sex over small transgressions are signs of manipulation. Sure, you might feel like you’re just trying to send a message, but there is a better way to express your frustrations.
Take for example the milk your partner can’t seem to remember from the store: Rather than pouting, Wade suggests calmly explaining to your spouse that is delaying dinner and will require you to make a return trip to the store. She notes, “Scolding, yelling, and punishing are rarely effective with children, so skip it in your relationship, too.”
In a 2010 study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defined physical violence as “slapping, pushing or shoving.” Under those parameters, more than five million men reported being victimized by their partner in the previous year. With such a thin line between the kind of slapping that doesn’t leave a mark and something much more dangerous, that is simply unacceptable. What’s more, Baher explains “harmless slapping” is symptomatic of an inability to appropriately express your feelings — which means it is likely best to step back from the relationship and seek help from a professional counselor.
In the existence of these behaviors, the key is first accepting there is a problem. That, Wade says, will give the relationship a better chance at success — and you a better set of coping skills going forward.
“What I’ve seen is that most people don’t always realize their behavior is harmful,” she says. “Once they understand the impact it has on the relationship, they can and usually do desire to make a change.”
Originally published June 2016. Updated April 2017.
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