Can you fix a toxic relationship? How about an abusive one?
If you’re in an abusive relationship, the first step is to ask yourself if you really want to fix your relationship.
An abusive partner does not respect you. They think that they are entitled to control your existence and your experience as a human. They’re no longer in their relationship with you to help you, or to nurture the entity that is a relationship together. I’m not here to judge you, whatever your decision is. I can’t force anyone to take any kind of action. But if you recognize that your partner is hurting you or harming you through the desire to control you, it’s likely that your relationship will never be a balanced and healthy one. That’s not universally true, and I know that leaving a relationship is terribly hard – sometimes impossible. But it’s worth asking the question. Do you want to fix this relationship?
If yes, read on. If no, stay tuned for posts about leaving abusive relationships.
The second step is to identify what aspects of your relationship are dangerous or unhealthy. I’d suggest getting your own therapist, because if you’ve been in a relationship for any length of time, you’ve likely lost some sense of perspective of what behaviors are healthy and which are not.
Abusers don’t start off a relationship flipping out every time something happens that they don’t like. They slowly build up to a level of abuse that their partner can tolerate, and then up the level of harm as time goes on. Toxic people often try to suppress their emotional responses early in a relationship, likely because they know that their behavior is unacceptable. It takes time for trust and intimacy to build, and with that building, the toxic person will open up more, and show more of their volatile emotional reactions. By the time someone realizes that the relationship they’re in is dangerous or unhealthy, it will be impossible to look at it without the history of that relationship coloring their view.
Having a therapist gives you someone who is fairly objective, who can help you pick through your own needs and wants and help come up with a clear list of problems that need solutions. A therapist will let you vent what you’re feeling and listen receptively, and give you a reality check if your picture of your relationship is skewed.
One important thing that a therapist can help you do is to identify if your relationship is toxic or abusive. Remember from a previous post, toxic relationships are caused by a person feeling out of control and using unhealthy and disproportionate responses to deal with their stresses, and abusive relationships are caused by a person taking control over their partner because they feel entitled to manipulate or dominate them. Recall again from our last post that people currently involved in relationships are more likely to label the cause of an unhealthy dynamic as toxicity. A therapist (and a healthy support system) can help you really analyze the behaviors that your partner is displaying to determine if your relationship needs work, or if it needs to end.
If you can’t afford a therapist, I suggest journaling to complete this step. Even if you’re not a visual processer, the ability to break down the problems you identify in your relationship into smaller and smaller pieces can be really valuable when you hit the problem-solving stages.
The third step is to decide what kind of ultimatum you’re willing to issue to your partner. If you’re willing and able to leave them if they won’t change their behavior, come to terms with that within yourself. If addressing your partner about the problems in your relationship provokes a fight, you will need to stick to your guns and make good on any promises you make (“if you don’t stop stealing my money, I’m going to take you off the account”).
The reason you want to do this before addressing your partner is so you don’t make rash decisions that you may regret in the heat of an argument. You’ll want to plan the entire conversation out before it happens, including what the end of the relationship or dynamic might look like. You don’t have to hold that possible end over your partner’s head like a threat, but it will give you the confidence you need to be firm, knowing what you plan to do next if the conversation doesn’t work.
The fourth step is clear communication of your needs. It’s time to talk. This is not a time to be subtle or to beat around the bush – you need to meet your partner with a problem that needs solving, and get them on board.
If saying “you’re hurting me” will make your partner angry and likely to hurt you, a) see step one, and b) try doing it with a trusted friend around. Someone your partner likes and doesn’t want to write off. You might even be able to do it with a friend of your partner’s that you’re less close with, by saying “hey, I need to have a hard conversation with ____; can I ask you to be nearby to provide support for them?” It may make your partner more defensive, and could make the conversation more difficult, but your safety is the most important thing here.
I want to be really clear, though. If you’re genuinely concerned that your partner will lash out and hurt you because you want to talk about your feelings, this doesn’t seem like a salvageable relationship. This looks like a relationship that you need help leaving.
Confronting your partner angrily will put them on the defensive, which is not a productive place to begin any conversation. You need to begin by explaining that you have some feelings, and you’d like to share those feelings with them. “I feel hurt when you _____” and “I get upset when I hear you say _______” are good examples of how to share your feelings with someone volatile or easily hurt.
Using “I” statements may sound like hokey advice, but it’s stuck around for a reason – what you want to share with your partner is *your* experiences. You’re not here to tell them what their reality looks like, you’re here to share your own reality.
If they try to argue with you, gently remind them that you’re sharing what your views are here, which are *not up for debate*. You can be quite clear with that – regardless of what they believe is actually going on in the relationship, the validity of your views are not what’s wrong with your relationship. Your views are valid, and your feelings are valid. That is NOT what the conversation is about.
“It makes me feel hurt when you call me spacey, because I feel like you don’t respect my intelligence. Whether or not you actually respect my intelligence isn’t what I’m talking about – I’m letting you know that it hurts my feelings when you say that.”
This conversation will likely go one of two ways: they will get very apologetic, or they will get mad. If they get apologetic right away, move to the fifth step.
If they get angry (and you’re not in immediate physical danger), do your best to stay calm. Whether their behavior stems from toxicity or abuse, one way they can succeed at derailing you is by making you angry – then the conversation becomes about the argument and their feelings as opposed to their bad behavior. You’ll become distracted by their anger, and your productive conversation will grind to a halt. You can point out things like ‘anger in response to you sharing your feelings is one of the problems that concern you’, that ‘this conversation is about how they make you feel guilty for having emotions’, etc. You can calmly say “I’m sorry that you’re feeling hurt by what I’m saying, but your hurt doesn’t make my words untrue.”
The ideal goal for the conversation is for your partner to say, “well, what do you want me to do about it???” Because when they say that, you’ll already have a list of ideas to offer them.
That brings us to the fifth step: making changes.
People with toxic (disproportionate) responses to problems are often struggling with mental health problems. That’s not your burden to carry, but it’s worth working around, if you’re committed to solving the problem that is your unhealthy relationship. It will be helpful for your partner to go to individual therapy sessions as well (therapy for everyone!), but if they’re in a deeply unhealthy and possibly resentful place in their life, you can’t make them have a productive therapy experience. But you can make it a condition of your staying in the relationship, that they begin seeing a licensed professional to help them deal with whatever problems are causing their unhealthy responses to you.
Relationship therapy or mediation is one of the best things you can do for an imbalanced or toxic relationship. You need a neutral third party who can sit in front of you and your partner and help you process your relationship dynamic together. You can make this a condition of staying in the relationship as well, if you feel like that’s the ultimatum that needs to be made. But your partner needs to hear that your relationship is unhealthy from someone other than just you. It’s also likely that you, through having been in a toxic or abusive relationship, have developed coping mechanisms that are unhealthy for you or both of you, as well. You can address those things in your own therapy sessions that you set up in step two, but it will help your partner and it will help your relationship to have the both of you on equal footing in the therapist’s office, both working on your relationship and unhealthy dynamic together.
You need to set up careful communication strategies between you and your partner. Pre-plan what each of you will say or do if you feel like you’re being treated in an unhealthy manner. It can be as simple as a “hey, just fyi, it looks like you’re spiraling to me” to as complicated as colored flash cards that you hold up in difference scenarios to give elaborate warnings. There are too many possibilities for me to map them all out here, but one thing is important: you agree ahead on time on the methods of communication that you’re going to use. Whether it’s key phrases that are important, or the time of day that you share your feelings that are important, or how you address them afterwards that is important. You need to both be consistent. You both need to be willing to give equal amounts of labor to this step. You need to talk out every single altercation, so nothing falls by the wayside and becomes a bad habit again.
(If you both are, like, too tired to deal at any given time, that’s fine sometimes, but ignoring your problems also can’t become a habit. Maybe you can each get one “get out of processing free” card per week, or something.)
It should be noted: a manipulative or abusive partner will use therapy or your carefully planned communication tools to pretend that they’ve reformed, that they’re ready to be a healthy partner for you, and will find more insidious and subtle ways to try and control you through that positive language. If your therapist tells them to spend more time verbalizing their emotions, they will use manipulative language while verbalizing to make you feel like you’ve been neglectful or harmful. If you have a system where one of you flags out their partner when they say hurtful things, your abusive partner will flag you out and make you feel like *you’re* being hurtful, even when you’re not. If you try to plan sex in order to rekindle intimacy in your relationship, an abuser will use that to goad you into saying that you consent to sex that you don’t actually want to have. It’s necessary to keep going to therapy of your own, keep talking to friends, keep journaling – anything to make sure that your grasp on reality stays as firm as possible.
And if your partner is dragging their feet, or doesn’t share in therapy, or doesn’t respond when you communicate in the ways that you set together, it’s likely that your relationship will never be healthy. You need to be willing to walk away, if you’re able to. You can never be in an equal partnership with someone who doesn’t put in equal effort.
Lastly, you need to engage your support system.
Being really clear about what kinds of support you need is important – if your friends just want to badmouth your partner, it’s not going to feel helpful while you try and fix your relationship. You’re allowed to set boundaries even in your healthy relationships! You can say “hey, Alex and I are trying to repair our relationship. I know I’ve been complaining about him a bunch lately, but we’re both putting in a lot of work right now! So please refrain from saying crappy things about him when we hang out for ladies night.” Friends want to defend you, but if they badmouth your partner, then it’s going to build up a lot of resentment – either towards your partner, or towards them!
You can also ask friends to take you out for drinks, to talk you through difficult steps in this process, to be there when you confront your partner, or just to text when you’re feeling blue. It can feel really isolating to try and repair a bad relationship – all of your friends think that you’re bananas and are encouraging you to get out. None of them want to hear that you’re working on reconciling with someone who hurt you so badly. But you can ask them to support you in the ways that you want to be supported. If they want to help you, they’ll be willing to stretch themselves a bit also.
(Keep in mind that your friends say things to you because they love you. If they tell you that your relationship is abusive, not just unhealthy, try given them a closer listen)
If you want to repair an unhealthy relationship, that’s your call. As a communication coach, as a sex educator, as a friend, I support the choices that you want to make, and I want to give you the best tools to be able to take these steps. Just be careful not to fall into the “sunk cost fallacy.” Just because you’ve spent four years on a relationship doesn’t mean that you have to stay in that relationship forever. You can ALWAYS start over. You are never irrevocably stuck.
So if you want to repair your relationship because you love your partner and you truly feel that they will put in the work to create an equal and healthy relationship, that’s great. But if you’re doing it because you’re too tired to think of starting over, maybe reassess your resources. You will be better off long term if you drop a resource drain and rebuild your life than if you keep sinking your time and energy and life into a relationship that will only ever hurt you.