Stop destroying your love with harsh criticism.
In my relationship book, Why Can’t You Read My Mind?, I discuss the real source of where most relationships become toxic—your own thoughts! Sadly, there a lot of walking wounded out there! By “walking wounded,” I mean the scores of people who feel unfulfilled, or worse, emotionally neglected or abused, in their intimate relationships. It seems that everywhere we turn, we unfortunately see and hear about people who are unhappy and emotionally hurting, often severely, in their quest to feel loved. Most of these unfortunate couples struggle due to what I refer to as “relationship toxicity overload.”
Here are what I consider the top three signs of toxic relationships:
- Criticism and contempt. According to Dr. John Gottman, criticism and contempt are highly destructive in loving relationships. Signs of criticism and contempt may appear as your partner distastefully making fun of you.
Criticism takes the not so exalted status of being the first on John Gottman’s famous Four Horsemen (the other three are contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) of the Apocalypse, which predict divorce with more than 90% accuracy. Criticism is destructive to relationships when it is:
About personality or character, rather than behavior
Filled with blame
Not focused on improvement
Based on only one “right way” to do things
Criticism in intimate relationships begins, in most cases, on a small scale and escalates over time. It then moves in a downward spiral with increasing resentment. The criticized person feels controlled, which frustrates the critical partner, who then steps up the criticism, increasing the other’s sense being controlled, and so on.
Contempt expresses the feeling of dislike toward a partner, and implies that the other person is considered worthless and undeserving of respect. Contempt is communication through insults, name-calling, tone of voice, as well as facial expressions. Contempt eats away at a relationship rapidly and painfully.
One female client of mine would tell her husband he was sexually inadequate in response to him criticizing her excessive spending habits. Quite a toxic mess, for sure! Contempt can also appear as one partner criticizing another in public. Acting superior also conveys a contemptuously, toxic message. To experience the one you love, or once loved, ripping you with incessant fault-finding barrages is highly demoralizing and emotionally unhealthy.
- Avoidance. Do silent treatment-like, arctic winds whip off her shoulder and knock you over, leaving you breathless and hopeless? Does he deprive you of physical affection but then complain that you are too needy? Do you feel that every time you try to clear the air, he disappears into it? Does he refuse to go to counseling? Avoidance is a very passive-aggressive form of relationship toxicity and it often gets progressively worse over time.
Negative relationship energy. You feel hopelessly lost in negative energy. At the end of the day, and most of the time during it, do you feel increasingly beaten down, emotionally bankrupt and numb? Do you feel that the times you do positively connect with your intimate partner are all in vain, only to just get sucked up by overwhelming negative energy? Does it seem that any initially promising positive changes are unsustainable?
Be honest with yourself
I certainly have seen far too many couples throw in the relationship towel way too early. At the same time, if your relationship is truly toxic, and your partner will not work with you to make changes, then it may be time to leave. Recognizing, and continuing to acknowledge, the persistent signs of a toxic relationship can empower you to get out of it. Above all, know your value! Prolonging the agony of a truly toxic situation will have deleterious effects on both you and your partner. When possible, see a qualified relationship counselor before making significant relationship decisions. Even if you decide to leave, it is important to learn your role in the toxic relationship dance so you don’t do a repeat performance!
Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with over 23 years of experience specializing in child, adolescent, couples and family therapy. Follow him on Twitter.