Toxic Relationships vs. Abusive Relationships

Toxic Relationships vs. Abusive Relationships

What is the difference between a toxic relationship and an abusive relationship?

A lot of people use either of those phrases to talk about unhealthy or damaging relationships, but we don’t have a clear breakdown as to what constitutes as toxic behavior, and what constitutes as abusive behavior. It’s often ambiguous, even to the people involved, and usually comes down to a gut feeling – if the damaging behavior is just how a person is, we call it toxic behavior. If a person is making the conscious choice to behave in damaging ways, we call it abuse. But how can we tell which is which?

The shortest possible answer is that toxic relationships are about disproportionate action/reaction cycles and abuse is about control.

What is a disproportionate action/reaction cycle?

  • When you ask your partner to do the dishes and they break down because they had a hard day, but it happens every time.
  • When your partner accidentally puts your sweater in the dryer, and you scream at them for ruining your clothes.
  • When every conversation turns into a fight.
  • When disappointments trigger anger.
  • When you ask your partner for help, and they treat it as if you’re unable to do anything on your own.
  • When your partner is having a tough time, and you berate them for it.
  • When social events cause lasting drama.
  • When your relationship has a “me vs. you” dynamic.

Any of these on its own could be a sign that someone’s having a bad day, or that there’s some kind of underlying or subconscious issue causing an emotional explosion. If a relationship consists largely of disproportionate responses to actions, though, it’s a sign that the relationship is a toxic one.

A toxic relationship is a volatile one, and it can be one-sided or two-sided. A one-sided toxic relationship involves one partner who is able to respond proportionately to problems, and one partner who blows problems up, or who makes all of their problems their partner’s problems. A two-sided toxic relationship involves two (or more) people who respond poorly to each other, both over-reacting in response to issues.

How is abuse about control?

One myth about abuse – domestic abuse, especially – is that abusers are consumed with anger, and that they’re out of control. That they hurt their partners because they’re unable to stop themselves. Several studies on domestic abuse, however, shows that abusers are entirely in control when they harm their partners. That it’s not an accident or a loss of restraint. There’s a chilling article that I read last year that included transcripts of conversations between domestic abusers; they said things like “and that’s when I’d punch the wall, to freak her out” or “I would never hit her on weeknights, because then her coworkers might ask her about it.” It’s calculating and deliberate.

Readers know from previous posts that gaslighting – a deliberate abuse technique – is all about taking control over a person’s sense of reality. Financial abuse is about controlling how another person lives their life. Sexual abuse is at its core about power, which is a form of control. Emotional abuse is designed to reduce someone to a more manipulatable state, where they can be controlled. I suspect you’re seeing the pattern here – most kinds of abuse boil down to feeling entitled to take charge of another human’s experiences and existence.

There is a fairly wide overlap in the Venn Diagram between toxic behaviors and abusive behaviors. Behaviors that threaten or cause harm are abusive behaviors, even if they stem from a disproportionate response to a legitimate cause for frustration. If someone’s reason for punching a wall is disproportionate anger to being yelled at by their partner, that’s a toxic form of expressing anger, and can be looked at as abusive behavior.
If someone defends themself from harm, that is not abuse, and that is not necessarily a mutually toxic relationship. If one person physically threatens or attacks their partner, and their partner physically fights back, that is not abuse. It may be a mutually toxic relationship, but reasonable defense is not a disproportionate reaction to harm, and is therefore not inherently toxic.

Fighting happens in many relationships, and is not necessarily a sign of toxicity. Sometimes people fight because there are serious problems and they don’t have the ability to communicate clearly. If a relationship involves a lot of fighting – mutual fighting, where both members engage to similar levels – it’s not necessarily toxic (though it’s probably unhealthy!). If fights blow up over little issues, or if one partner picks fights, or baits their partner into getting upset, that’s a clear disproportionate response to where their partner is at. If one partner is calm and the other is screaming, the action/reaction cycle isn’t balanced. (That being said, sometimes abusive partners will manipulate their partner into getting angry, and then take *control* over the situation by staying calm. “Look how irrational you’re being,” they show with their calm demeanor. “You’re unreasonable, and I’m the person who’s in control of themself.”)

Not all toxic behavior is abusive, and most abuse can’t be chalked up to a toxic dynamic. There isn’t always a clear difference, but it’s worth remembering that toxicity stems from a lack of control, and abuse stems from one person trying to take control. I’m not here to excuse toxic behavior – it’s unhealthy and unacceptable, and people shouldn’t feel stuck in toxic relationships. It can cause similar trauma and harm as abuse can, and can cause long-term damage to the people involved. Volatility can be exciting or sexy, but it can also be dangerous or painful.
Abuse is a strong word, and I don’t like using it lightly. And toxic *can* be a strong word – like I said, toxic relationships can cause serious and lasting harm! But it’s worth looking at the distinction between the two terms, because motivation and intent do mean a lot in the continuing conversation of how to respond to abuse and abusers (even if intent does not equal impact, and shouldn’t change how we respond to the people who have been hurt).

…Next(ish) up, how DO we respond to toxic behaviors in our own relationships, in our friends’ relationships, without our communities?


What happens when one person says they experienced abuse and the other person claims a generically toxic relationship?

4 thoughts on “Toxic Relationships vs. Abusive Relationships

  1. I have done some bad things in my former relationship, and have accepted 100% of the blame for its failure when he decided he could no longer trust me. I could not bring myself to like his sister, even though I knew he loved his family more than anything.

    But having been apart from him for nearly four years, I have come to realize that he was far from being an angel to me and that there were many red flags that I have missed even early on when 19 y/o me was so in love with the idea of him (also toxic to love ideas of someone). He really did not understand the pain and trauma I have experienced from social rejection, despite us both being on the autism spectrum. He has called me a “narcissist” for not wanting to be a third wheel in a group, assuming I wanted to be the center of attention instead. He has also told me to doubt my own intuition when I felt that others did not like me, that I was just paranoid and had social anxiety even though I have actually experienced bullying and afraid to experience it again. He also was friends with a former coworker and took it upon himself to relay her complaints about me instead of ask her to speak to me directly. It makes me upset that he never saw the faults in the way he treated me, but decided to burn bridges with me believing he was innocent.


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