Relationships offer us an enormous potential for growth. In the safe haven of a loving relationship, we become braver, more confident, more resilient, more compassionate and more generous. But sometimes, unbeknownst to us, we develop unconscious habits that become toxic and impede our growth as individuals and a couple. As humans, we are conditioned to repeat what gives us joy or fulfils our need. But, it’s precisely because it’s a habit—an automatically repeated pattern—that what worked once may lose its appeal if mindlessly repeated.
Any habit has the potential to become toxic. Let’s look at some toxic relationship habits that are considered as normal.
1. Teasing, kidding or joking in public
At a dinner party, Ruby tells a “cute” story about something foolish her partner Jose has done. It’s intended to be amusing and, as expected, most people around the table laugh. However, Jose’s face goes red as he looks down, clearly embarrassed, and not without reason. The incident was something most people would have kept private. He smiles with closed lips and darts a look at Ruby, who laughs loudest of all, seemingly oblivious to the discomfort she has caused. Later, when Jose mildly suggests to Ruby that he was embarrassed and would prefer her not to share private things in public, Ruby accuses him of being oversensitive and having no sense of humour.
Sometimes it can be funny, even endearing, when a partner tells an amusing anecdote about us. But the above example indicates in the joke-teller a degree of unawareness and lack of consideration and respect for her partner. If this situation is repeated, the relationship eventually becomes demeaning and demoralising.
2. Constant texting
When they first got together, Jessica would text Ivan throughout the day at work with little messages of varying degrees of intimacy. At first, Ivan found them sweet and he would reply instantly. But soon, he began to find them as needless interruptions. He expected that the frequency of texts would reduce with time. However, even after months, Jessica was unable to go more than an hour without some sort of contact. And if he didn’t respond right away, her anxiety would escalate to the point that she couldn’t continue what she was doing at work and would have to speak to him. Though it was easy for Ivan to respond immediately with one of the pre-set messages, he found her texts tedious and intrusive. Worse, it had encouraged a constant neediness in her; besides, she came to expect his prompt response as normal. It was a pattern that made him feel resentful and guilty, and simultaneously more difficult for Jessica to outgrow.
3. Us vs Them
Whenever they came home from a party with friends, Leon and Frank would discuss other couples in a critical way, but made their own partnership out to be so much healthier. In the beginning, they did this to try to understand some behavioural patterns in others they found puzzling or annoying. But as this habit went on, it became a way for Leon and Frank to congratulate themselves on not being like that other couple. They’d created an alliance that made them feel safe, but they didn’t realise that such self-congratulatory behaviour blinded them to their own assumptions, prejudice and judgemental attitudes, which impeded their growth.
4. You know I can’t do that
Lucy said she was too nervous to learn to drive. She was also extremely anxious using public transport, meaning that her partner had to drive her everywhere she went. At first, he’d been concerned and happy to help but over time it became something she took for granted.
Disability aside, when one partner insists that he or she is unable to manage something most people can do, the other partner can feel forced to deal with something they’d not bargained for. It can be anything—from household or financial matters, to parenting, social outings or staying faithful. An unhealthy situation can arise that actively prevents growth, and is a way of manipulating a partner into taking more than their share of responsibility.
5. We’re soul mates
Most people found it charming the way Shobhana introduced her husband and herself as soul-mates. However, along with the image of soul-mates went certain requirements and restrictions that the couple accepted as normal. For instance, they had to go everywhere together, and if one was unable to attend a function, the other wouldn’t go either. It also meant that whatever one of them was feeling, the other was expected to understand without being told, and to feel the same emotion too. They somehow agreed that they never needed to ask the other for anything—generosity and sharing were expected. They told each other they never needed to apologise, because understanding and forgiveness were a given in this relationship. Inevitably, though, it became suffocating, and misunderstandings, wrong assumptions and resentment arose.
When a relationship involves this kind of energetic merging or fusion, any attempt by one of the partners to individuate or differentiate in a healthy way, becomes a matter of deep distress for the other partner. A co-dependent relationship such as this often develops from one partner’s neediness and the other’s need to be needed, protect and “fix” the other.
6. Gender role expectations
These days gender roles are a lot more fluid than they used to be, and shared financial and child-rearing responsibilities are common. But often couples fall into the expectations of fixed gender roles, whether for familial, cultural or traditional reasons, without examining their own personal values. When this happens, the habit of going along with the status quo can become something that hinders growth severely. This becomes further complicated in cases where the influence of an older generation of family members is a factor to be respectfully considered.
7. Parents first
Some partners focus so strongly on their parental duties that they forget to continue to cultivate their marital relationship. Your relationship can become toxic if the needs of children outweigh their parents’, leading to smother-mothering and poor partner role-modelling for the children.
A toxic relationship habit will often fly under our radar. It’s something we do automatically, without consciously choosing or thinking about it. What can alert us to it is the feeling of frequently being diminished or resentful. To create a relationship that is exciting as well as nurturing and fulfilling, we need to be in the present and be open to the challenge of pushing our self-protective boundaries. Being aware of our habits allows us to decide whether they are healthy or toxic and thereby enables us to make conscious choices—choices that will eventually help us to live a healthier, happier and more fulfilled life.