How Do You Know If a Loved One Is in a Toxic Relationship?

Ashley Darby isn't the only one who is dealing with this issue.

Although The Real Housewives of Potomac’s Ashley Darby has a loving relationship with her mom, whom she supports financially, she has been struggling for years with her mother’s “toxic” boyfriend. The interpersonal tension has caused major stress in Ashley’s marriage with her estranged husband Michael and, in Sunday's episode, Michael explained to Ashley that their relationship couldn't move forward until the issue with her mother is resolved and Ashley cuts off her mom financially, since her mom stayed in that toxic relationship.

But what exactly makes a relationship toxic and how can so many people (including those in the same family) have differing opinions on the topic and how to handle it? To get to the bottom of it, Personal Space consulted with Dr. Kristen Fuller, a physician and author who educates the public about preventable diseases and mental health disorders, to learn what qualifies as toxic, what signs to look for if you are worried about a loved one’s partner, and how to express concerns in a helpful way.

According to Dr. Fuller a “toxic relationship” is a relationship in which “one or both partners acts in a malicious way either consciously or subconsciously to hurt themselves, the relationship or their partner.” Toxicity comes in many guises, including but not limited to “name-calling, manipulation, relentless control, physical abuse, lying, gossip and all the internal turmoil that results from being in an unhealthy relationship.”

Dr. Fuller explained that it is important to address these issues, because a toxic relationship can damage the person involved and have persistent negative effects long after that relationship ends. However, it is important to note that not everyone in a bad relationship is necessarily in a toxic one. Sometimes a partner may not be the right fit because their “personalities or lifestyles do not align,” and so fights may ensue when “there is a difference in their core values” or views on communication. While this may not be the best fit for a relationship, it wouldn't necessarily qualify as toxic.

For example, acting in a toxic manner is being intentionally harmful and having “malicious thoughts and actions that hurt the other partner,” Dr. Fuller explained. “There is a huge difference between not buying flowers on a birthday and screaming at your partner because they did not clean up their mess.” The former may constitute “pure forgetfulness,” while the latter is malicious.

Dr. Fuller also noted that toxic people usually behave that way for a reason, with most having “underlying triggers,” which can include “a history of abuse or trauma, depression, poor interpersonal skills or low self-esteem.” There are red flags if you think you or a loved one is involved with a toxic person who is turning the relationship destructive.

These are some warning signs associated with toxicity:

  • Lying
  • Apathy
  • Narcissistic personality
  • Refusing to listen to concerns or deal with conflict
  • Unapologetic
  • Not willing to admit mistakes
  • Constantly blaming others
  • Any form of abuse
  • Trash talking others
  • Trying to control
  • Being manipulative

Although these traits may seem like obvious trouble, Dr. Fuller explained that recognizing and/or admitting to being in a toxic relationship can be difficult, because many people are “blinded by love” and temporary happiness. Additionally, many people “feel they may be lonely without that friend, lover or sibling.” They might even “intellectually recognize a toxic person or situation, but their emotions end up having more influence over their decisions than their intellect.” This certainly seems true for Ashley’s mom, who didn't argue that her boyfriend wasn't in fact toxic, but admitted that she would feel lonely if she were to break up with him.

Dr. Fuller advised that while confronting a family member or loved one about a toxic relationship, the “most important point to address is that they can be happy either by themselves or in another relationship that is healthy.” No relationship should be the “end all be all” (yet many individuals in toxic relationships feel that their world will end if the relationship does not last).

According to Dr. Fuller, “many people who grew up in toxic homes find it hard to accept loving relationships, because they’re not familiar with them.” In these cases, “familiarity breeds comfort rather than contempt.” So, although the person may be aware that the relationship has red flags, “they are attracted to what is familiar (more toxic relationships) which they often experience as normal.”

Even though Ashley’s mom may have understood what she was saying, she demonstrated that it would be scary for her to cut ties with her relationship. Dr. Fuller explained this is a common phenomenon, and people may believe what the toxic person said about them (i.e. that they’re stupid, ugly, worthless, etc.). Although this may appear insoluble, Dr. Fuller identifies some good news — the “toxicity can be reversed with therapy, self-love, setting boundaries, establishing positive relationships and self-help groups.”

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