Signs of Abusive and Toxic Relationships: What’s the Difference?
Dr. Cristina Davis
Recently, there has been an uptick in the discussion around “toxic” relationships. Toxic relationships are real, but toxic does not necessarily mean abusive; however, it is important to note that there may be some overlap, and yet, a distinction is needed.
While all abusive relationships can certainly be characterized as toxic, not all toxic relationships are necessarily abusive. In this article, practical steps to addressing toxic relationships and a clear explanation of abusive relationships are discussed.
What are toxic relationships?
Toxicity can be found in various relationships including romantic relationships, friendships, and even relationships with family members. Often an individual may feel drained, angry, or depressed after interacting in such relationships.
The relationship may leave you feeling misunderstood, manipulated, or attacked. The relationship may bring out an unflattering side of you and you may find yourself doing or saying things that are uncharacteristic of you.
If you believe your relationship has a toxic quality, but you want to maintain the relationship, you may want to consider what changes are needed to ensure you can maintain your emotional health and well-being and implement the changes.
For instance, if an individual suspects they may be in a toxic relationship, they may benefit by reflecting on the specific dynamics within these relationships, identifying what behaviors are toxic, considering creating some distance and what boundaries are needed, and implementing them accordingly.
In addition, meeting with a therapist may be helpful as well as this can help with accountability to take steps to change, and reflection on what attracted you to this type of relationship, so you can develop insight about the type of people you seek out for companionship.
How to distinguish a toxic relationship from an abusive relationship?
Although there may be some overlap between toxic and abusive relationships, the use of these terms needs to be clearly defined to better understand which one an individual may be in. Toxic is not always abusive, but abusive is always toxic.
In toxic relationships, manipulation may be evident, sometimes subtle, and other times, not. Passive aggressive communication may also be evident. This form of communication allows the individual to convey something with their words that is incongruent with their overt behavioral expression.
For instance, an individual may say they are not angry, but will refuse to make eye contact, may have furrowed eyebrows, and demonstrate behaviors that would suggest they are angry such as making additional noise that is unnecessarily loud when completing a task. Specifically, some individuals may stomp around the kitchen, exhale loudly, slam cabinets or loudly load or unload the dishwasher.
Notice how their behavior may make those around them question if the person is upset, but also feel confused because the passive-aggressive person may suggest they are “fine” when asked directly. Other examples include backhanded compliments, subtle digs, and engaging in the silent treatment.
This often leaves the other party feeling confused as it is not immediately clear as to what the person using passive-aggressive communication is attempting to suggest. If an individual is in a toxic relationship, they may want to consider setting and asserting boundaries, creating some distance, and seeking the help of a therapist, pastor, or trusted friend. Manipulation is also found in abusive relationships as well.
Traditionally, abusive relationships have been referred to as Domestic Violence (DV), and more recently, referred to as Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). Abuse often starts with subtle forms such as psychological and emotional manipulation, but it can escalate to physical violence.
There are two roles in these specific relationships, the victim, and the perpetrator. The perpetrator will go to great lengths to maintain control over the victim including isolating or alienating the victim from loved ones; controlling various aspects of the victim’s life; tracking the victim’s whereabouts; stalking; hiding the victim’s belongings and suggesting uncertainty of where the items are; physical and sexual violence.
These behaviors may escalate if the perpetrator believes that the victim may attempt to leave the relationship. There is a significant power differential in these relationships, characterized by power and control and is sometimes subtle to outsiders.
In healthy relationships, when these concerns are addressed, the partner will recognize how their behavior was harmful, even if that was not their intention, and will work to change it (and it will stop). Similarly, in IPV, the offending partner will apologize, and attempt to convince the victim that the abuse will not occur again, but it will occur again.
Also, the offending partner may downplay and ignore concerns and blame the victim. IPV often has a pattern that has been maintained over time. It starts with a period of tension building (often blamed on external factors), followed by an incident of abuse. Afterward, there is a honeymoon period, and it is during this time that the offending partner will claim they are sorry for their actions, lavishing the victim with gifts and promises of change.
This will be followed by a period of calmness in which the victim, unfortunately, believes that their lives have returned to “normal.” Eventually, the cycle will repeat, and the honeymoon period will be less and less convincing and shorter over time.
What to do if you are in an IPV relationship?
Abuse is never acceptable. If an individual believes they are a victim of IPV, they must leave. However, this may put the individual leaving the relationship at significant risk of danger, and unfortunately, the process of leaving or even considering leaving may take time as the victim may not initially be ready to leave. Often, the victim does not even realize that they are being abused, but feels like they are going “crazy.”
Although women are more often the victim of IPV, men can also be victims, and unfortunately, harmful myths that men cannot be abused contributes to men not reporting abusive incidents. Sometimes, men may internalize these myths and will excuse their wife or partner’s behavior. However, I often challenge men to consider whether the behavior would be abusive if the roles were reversed.
Some important steps to take if you believe you are in an abusive relationship include the following: Report the abuse when or shortly after it happens (physical, sexual, and any threats to harm you such as verbal threats and posturing and any threats to harm themselves).
Keep a to-go bag ready and in a safe place when you need to flee. Tell a trusted friend, family member, therapist or medical provider, or pastor. Plan to leave and make sure others know about your plan.
In an abusive relationship, there is a clear power dynamic that may be executed with subtle acts, which often leaves the victim feeling helpless, deeply unsure of themselves, and afraid. Often, the perpetrator is highly manipulative, and they along with well-meaning people in the victim’s life will contribute to the gaslighting in these relationships either by dismissing, denying, or minimizing the signs of abuse or blaming the victim.
It is especially difficult because the victim may begin to blame themselves or believe they deserved the abuse. In addition, the victim may begin to follow suit with the behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes of the perpetrator as the victim may receive praise or a neutral response from the perpetrator when doing so which can feel loving in contrast to the baseline treatment they have experienced and become accustomed to.
It can often be very difficult for an individual to admit to themselves when they are in an abusive relationship. The IPV perpetrator will use various forms of manipulation that will make the victim increasingly vulnerable and susceptible to the power and control dynamic. Luckily, mental health and medical providers are better trained now in identifying when IPV patterns are present.
If you are wondering if you may be in an abusive relationship, here are some things you may want to consider/ask yourself:
- Do you feel afraid of your partner?
- Do you feel you must ‘tip-toe’ around your partner?
- Do you feel like you may be going crazy?
- Do you feel guilty or uneasy about spending time with family or friends?
- Do you feel like your partner monitors your phone calls, who you talk to, where you go, or even show up (without notice) wherever you are?
- Do you ever feel when you are not with your partner, you need to respond immediately when they call or text for fear of what they might do if you do not?
- Do you feel hypersensitive and hyperaware of any sign that your partner is unhappy?
- Do you feel exhausted and depleted?
- Do you find yourself making excuses for your partner’s behavior, mood, etc.?
Now, consider the following and ask if your partner ever seems to engage in any of the following:
- Does your partner listen to your phone calls, monitor who you talk to, and what you are doing, and behave disgruntled or respond with the silent treatment?
- Does your partner ever hide your phone, keys, or other items from you?
- Does your partner ever deny something they did even though you both witnessed it?
- Does your partner ever threaten to hurt or threaten to take away your children or pets?
- Does your partner ever hit you, threaten to hit you, or posture you?
- Does your partner treat you poorly in front of your friends or family?
- Does your partner threaten to commit suicide or hurt you if you leave?
- Is your partner frequently jealous or possessive, even of your relationships with family members?
- Does your partner prevent or deter you from seeing your friends or family?
- Does your partner limit your access to financial funds?
- Does your partner limit or prevent your movements?
- Does your partner ever threaten to humiliate you by exposing sensitive information about you?
Toxic relationships are different from abusive relationships. However, abusive relationships are toxic. If you believe you are in a toxic relationship, be prepared to set and implement necessary boundaries and get some distance from the relationship.
If you believe you are the victim of IPV, do not keep it to yourself. Tell a trusted friend, family member, medical provider, mental health provider, and/or pastor, and consider the necessary steps for safely leaving the relationship.
“Pointing the Finger”, Courtesy of Hannah Xu, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Distressed”, Courtesy of Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Weeping”, Courtesy of Fa Barboza, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Suspicious”, Courtesy of Alexander Krivitskiy, Unsplash.com, CC0 License