Psyche of a Toxic Relationship

Toxic relationships, it’s a term that almost everyone’s used to describe themselves or others when things with their partner aren’t going great. Coined by psychology expert, Lilian Glass, the term has gained popularity over the decades. In an interview with TIME magazine, she describes it as a both partners being unsupportive of each other, frequently conflict and disrespect as well as seeking to compete and undermine one another. Lots of great articles already exist talking about the signs of a toxic relationship and what you can do about it. But a toxic relationship isn’t necessarily one person’s fault, rather it sometimes takes two to tango. 

So, what leads to toxic and unhealthy relationship? And why?

Conflict resolution styles

One reason may just come down to you and your partner’s approach to conflict. Generally, there are four ways people react to conflict; positive-problem solving, conflict engagement, withdrawal and compliance.

  • Positive-problem solving involves sitting down with your partner to discuss the issues and problems the both of you are having, eventually reaching a compromise and understanding. 
  • Conflict engagement involves directing personal attacks on the partner or losing control during an argument
  • Withdrawal; you or your partner show no interest in discussing or even ignores them
  • Compliance is the not defending one’s interest and position, often giving in to their partners demands and wants 

Do these things sound familiar? 

We’ve all experienced or even done some of these things at some point during tense moments and arguments. But continuously engaging in unhealthy conflict resolution styles contribute to further strain and resentment in our relationships. When both partners possess unhealthy approaches to conflict, this heightens the intensity of the conflict and argument. To put simply, the problem isn’t with the problem itself but lies in how we approach it. 

Out of four types of conflict resolution styles, positive problems solving is often associated with greater partner satisfaction and positive development. The other three styles are associated with less satisfaction and development within a relationship. 

More than often, we learn these approaches towards conflict from relationships we’ve had with others, whether good or bad. And when we enter a relationship, we often just try our best and apply what we learned and know when we were younger. Sometimes we pick up on habits and behaviours that bring more harm than good. But that’s okay, we can still learn and change.

Lack of empathy

Ever asked yourself, why doesn’t he/she get it, why do they always do that or why do they always get mad for no reason? More than often, we’re missing an important piece of the puzzle. Empathy is a crucial tool to help us identify and fill in the gaps in any relationship, let alone the romantic kind. The ability to make our partner feel they’re being heard and understood whether it be by words or actions, builds rapport, respect and connection. It allows us to see things from our partner’s perspective as well as understand their feelings and thoughts. Coming into a relationship without empathy leads to a lot of assumptions from both sides, whether it be their preferences, opinions or beliefs. Soon enough, you find yourselves fighting and escalating over minor issues and having the same argument over and over. Behaviours such as judgmental criticism, passive-aggressiveness, the silent treatment become the norm. Toxicity in a relationship ultimately stems from the failure to understand each other’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions, which lead to further misunderstandings and antagonism. Luckily, an easy way to solve this is just to listen. Listen to them talk about their day, their hobbies, their beliefs or opinions. It isn’t just about hearing what they’re saying, it involves asking them about the stuff you’re unclear about and convey their meaning back to them. You don’t necessarily have to agree with them, just acknowledge how they feel and think. Everyone deserves a chance to be heard.

Trust and closeness

The degree of trust and closeness you and your partner have for each other also influences how healthy your relationship is. Aron & Aron (1991) posits that when individuals enter a relationship together, they include or incorporate their partner into their sense of self. Closeness can be best understood as the blurring of boundaries between one’s self and partner, which leads us to act more selflessly for our partner. When the boundary between both partners sense of self remain strong, it becomes harder to identify the other’s needs and wants. Rather, we tend to prioritize our own needs and wants. When this happens, we or our partners can then experience feelings of dissatisfaction and discontentment. The feelings can then manifest themselves in form of unhappiness, jealousy, anger, mistrust, resentment and anxiety. Just the ingredients for the perfect storm.

Now that I’ve covered the basics about what turns a relationship toxic, what do you do now? The next time you’re having difficulties with your partner, try being calm and empathic with them. Listen and acknowledge how they feel. But also let them know your side of the story. Reach a compromise. Your relationship may not be perfect, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to better yourself. Good and honest communication is the first step to a healthier relationship.


Mindfulness and Romantic Relationship Outcomes: the Mediating Role of Conflict Resolution Styles and Closeness - Close relationships as including other in the self - The Secret to a Happy Relationship Is Empathy -