How do you decide if someone’s behavior is toxic or if it’s abusive?
That’s a really, really difficult question. It can be tough to clearly assess what someone’s motivation is through a lens of love or a lens of pain. We all have personal context that colors our judgment.
We’re often inclined to give our loved ones the benefit of the doubt, making it difficult to see if we’re being manipulated. Admitting that a partner’s actions towards us are abusive is a hard hurdle to jump – we’re more likely to explain away their dangerous behavior as disproportionate action/reaction cycles – toxic behavior.
On the other hand, we are likely to view the actions of an ex-partner as deliberate abuse because we no longer have the context of love and affection in a relationship to balance out the pain that we’re feeling. With someone we used to love but now feel anger towards, we are likely to label their behavior as deliberate and controlling – abusive behavior.
Both toxicity and abuse are harm-causing behaviors, but one speaks to someone’s character and their feeling of entitlement to control other peoples’ existence and experiences, and the other speaks to unhealthy responses to stress or discomfort.
If we’re trying to judge what someone’s motivation for their behavior is, the best thing we can do is to try and find some context for their actions. As a behaviorist, my job is to try and figure out what triggers behaviors and what rewards behaviors.
Questions to ask when looking for causes (motivation) behind behavior:
- What precedes this behavior?
- Are there consistent outcomes to the behavior?
- Is there an end goal to the behavior?
- Is there a pattern of this behavior?
So how do we use this to determine if someone’s behavior is toxic or abusive?
Well, we need to find out what kind of reward they’re getting. Every behavior has *some* kind of reward, says behaviorism. Common rewards for behaviors are: positive social feedback, avoiding consequences from peers or authority figures, physical pleasure, avoiding negative physical stimuli, and self-satisfaction (usually connected to long-term goals or self-image maintenance).
Toxic behaviors – disproportionate reactions – usually are rewarded by avoiding negative or unpleasant things *in the moment*.
If you ask your partner to do the dishes and they freak out in response, they’re reacting to avoid doing a task they don’t want to do, or to avoid the negative feeling of having to complete a task that takes executive functioning, something they may be short on at that time.
If an instance of social discomfort leads to completely blocking a friend out of their social circle, they’re reacting to avoid shame for bad behavior, or to avoid the work of mending a friendship.
If you express pride at an accomplishment and your partner responds by starting a fight, they’re reacting to avoid feeling bad about a lack of similar accomplishments.
The disproportionate reaction becomes what the conversation is about, and then the conversation moves away from that negative stimulus. It’s like a kid acting out in class when they don’t know the answer to a question – they get to avoid feeling embarrassed, and move into something predictable and without shame (being berated for bad behavior which they CHOSE to exhibit, as opposed to feeling shame for a lack of knowledge, which they didn’t choose to have).
This doesn’t mean that we can excuse the bad behavior, but knowing it’s cause can help us do something about it.
Abusive behaviors – controlling ones – usually are rewarded by seeking positive things, or avoiding negative or unpleasant things *in the future*.
If your partner hits you, it’s to make you more docile and manipulable in the future, creating the ideal relationship partner for them.
If someone sexually assaults a partner, it’s to gain the feeling of power and control over another person.
If someone puts their partner down, and tells them that they’re worthless or useless, it’s to drastically skew the apparent difference between them and their partner – their partner is worse, so they must be better.
Another way to discover where the behavior is coming from is to look at context. A toxic partner usually won’t be able to stop themselves from “acting out” in circumstances where other people can see them. Their behavior to their partner is consistent, regardless of the context or setting, because they’re just working to avoid negative consequences in the moment. An abusive partner will not act abusively in front of other people (unless involving other people is part of the abusive behavior), because being outed as an abuser will bring negative consequences, and they are able to control themself when it suits them to do so. Someone in both an abusive or toxic relationship will work to avoid certain topics that trigger their partner’s displeasure, but an abuser will be able to control that displeasure when it would be disadvantageous to display it.
If someone is trying to discover if their friend, partner, or friend’s partner is abusive, looking for context will provide the most information, combined with the motivation for the behavior.
The reason we draw the distinction between abuse and toxicity is because toxic people are trying to avoid things in the moment through an overreaction or through acting out, and abusers are trying to manipulate a situation to best suit them in the future, and each of those need to be treated differently.
I do want to be clear in each piece of this series: toxic behavior can be just as harmful as abusive behavior. It’s worth talking about them differently because they should be treated differently, but toxic relationships are damaging, and need to be addressed decisively. Also, though I’m making a distinction between the cause for both of these behaviors (out of control vs. need for control), toxic behaviors that move from hurting someone to harming them are abusive. Whether you hit someone through a grab for power, or through an inappropriate expression of anger, hitting someone is abuse, is assault, and is unacceptable.
Next up, Can you fix a toxic relationship? How about an abusive one?
How should a community address toxic dynamics versus abusive dynamics?