These Toxic Ideas Are Ruining Our Relationships

These Toxic Ideas Are Ruining Our Relationships

They say there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing, but sometimes too much is just…too much. The following beliefs might be beneficial in small-to-moderate doses but can cause headaches, nausea, itchiness, depression, and the demise of our relationships when taken to the extreme.

While there is validity to the heart of this one — people who are only there for the good times but disappear for the messy stuff are not generally people who you want to commit to doing life with — beware of the inverse. There are people who will rejoice in your pain and misery and disappear the minute you are back on level ground. And perhaps these people are angels, just there to help guide you through the worst of it, or perhaps they love feeling superior to your pain. Either way, you probably want a balance and not an absolute.

My friend C. was amazing during the early days of my divorce when I was feeling overwhelmed and not sure where to begin when it came to packing up my house and moving. She stopped by — unannounced — with food one day and called me from the driveway offering me the choice: She could either leave the food on my doorstep if I wasn’t up for company, or she could bring it in and eat with me. I opted for the latter, and was glad of the company, though I mostly just cried and then apologized for crying the whole time she was there. She showed up again the next day and helped me start deconstructing my beautiful kitchen, and she was there through many of my worst moments, checking in with a text here or a phone call there. I was so grateful for the connection with her and told her so.

I tried not to rely too much on her — no one wants to be weighed down by constant negativity from others, and besides, that’s what my therapist was for — though I noticed that the minute I started feeling joyful again, she faded away, and it wasn’t for my lack of trying to connect.

This one is insidious. While people do change over time, entering into a relationship with someone based on potential or with the intentional desire to change them isn’t healthy for either of you. We all possess a huge amount of potential that we may or may not eventually actualize. But falling in love with potential will leave both parties frustrated. A major key to peace and happiness is allowing other people to be who they are (and either accepting that from the beginning or moving on to a situation that is more compatible.)

My former husband’s superpower was seeing potential in situations, whether that meant yard design, business operations, or in people. I loved that talent when he directed his vision to landscape but constantly felt like I wasn’t good enough as I was when he turned that focus on me. I let him know that the steady pressure I felt from him to do more, be more, earn more made me hyper-aware of the ways in which I was lacking and falling short of his expectations. His response? “I am just trying to make you be better.” We’re divorced now.

This is the one that I hear most often from my single male friends who are dating. They find a girl they fancy, and despite the fact that she hates travel and they want to live abroad, or that she has a cat and they are allergic, or that she never wants children and they’re (supposedly) actively wife shopping for the future mother of their children, they give it a go.

When you disregard core values that would show you are aligned and compatible with another in favor of steaming up the sheets, don’t be surprised when it eventually fizzles out. (Also, you don’t have to compromise on this: There are people with whom you will be both compatible and have chemistry!)

The unspoken idea that goes along with this is that an “I love you” is accompanied by the idea that that justifies crappy treatment. People often use this (with the big hairy “but” included) to defend behaviors that don’t feel good to those of us on the receiving end. It includes being overly controlling (with regards to money, how we dress, who we spend our free time with, and where we go, etc.,) snooping in our private affairs, even stalking.

“Just because you love me, doesn’t mean I feel loved by you.” — Mel Robbins

Love is a verb. It’s an idea. It’s a choice — and one we make repeatedly, daily. When you really love someone you want them to feel loved by you, and so you check in with them. You try to find out if there’s anything they need in order to feel loved that they aren’t getting. Defensiveness has no place here. Neither does arguing. You don’t get to tell someone else how they’re feeling; you only get to provide a space for them to share.

This is also known as confusing boundaries with cliffs.

Boundaries are inarguably a good thing, and are meant to protect us. Most people who have had a fair bit of therapy will talk about boundaries in their relationships — what they will tolerate, what they won’t, and how to communicate that with their partner. There are scads of articles advocating for boundary setting, and admonishing the perils of ignoring your own boundaries (I’ve even written a couple).

But what happens when we confuse relational boundaries with needs?

What happens when we become hyper-focused on ensuring our needs are met by a partner, and if they aren’t — constantly and continuously — we threaten to throw the relationship off the cliff?

At their best, boundaries are standards for how we treat others and allow them to treat us. They’re ways to say, This makes me highly uncomfortable and I will not tolerate this. It’s not about controlling someone else’s behavior; It’s about letting them know in advance that their actions are their decision, but that you won’t be a party if they opt to make certain choices. Your actions are also your decision.

Cliffs, then, are ultimatums. They can rise up (or drop off) quickly, and the minute someone is feeling like their partner isn’t giving them what they need, that cliff appears. We eye it like we are contemplating jumping in (or chucking the relationship). But relationships are dynamic and fluid and as such can change. The energy each partner has for the relationship at any given moment is subject to many variables; how stressful the day at work was, what other pressures are going on, general health and well-being, mental energy, physical energy, and so on.

Lately, there seems to be a trend of people who are so focused on themselves and their needs and stridently enforcing their boundaries, that they are forgetting to consider the relationship’s needs. The minute these folks aren’t getting the attention they desire from their partner, they disregard the relationship as a whole and consider chucking it off the cliff. I know this because I have been there (though I didn’t make the throw).

Part of exiting a toxic relationship is that after, you become hyper-aware of the indicators that led to those unhealthy dynamics. This extreme vigilance causes you to infer patterns with new partners that don’t yet exist in this relationship, but that caused pain in your past partnership. For me, it was emotional neglect. My ex was extremely self-focused, to the point where there was no room for him to consider anyone else’s feelings or needs — mine included. He became extremely emotionally withdrawn, and so now I am very aware of when my partner, who is usually attentive and communicative and invests effort to make sure we both feel connected, becomes more withdrawn or stressed. There was a point, almost a year in when I wondered if this was the beginning of the end. I saw his stress and reclusion and immediately inferred my ex’s patterns from it, and wondered if this was the cliff.

I let him know that I saw that he needed space to process, and that I was going to give him that space, but that it also lit up a wound in me. And then I went hiking with friends so that he would get that space that he needed — a valley instead of a cliff — and when I returned, we both felt refreshed and energized and better able to connect.

Taking the global view of our relationship — great on the whole, but suffering slightly at the moment — and allowing room for his needs strengthened our entire relationship, and prevented that cliff moment.

Relationship dynamics are tricky, and it’s too easy to take something that might be beneficial in small amounts and twist it into something harmful. But until we recognize that only we are responsible for our happiness, take a global view of our relationships, and make aligned decisions for what we want and need, we will continue to poison our most important connections with toxicity.

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