How To Stop Anticipating Toxic Behaviors In A Healthy Relationship
It can seem easy to let love in when you’re experiencing how affectionately a partner deals with you, tends to you in your love languages, how little there is to hide, how willing they are to sit with you while you piece together your thoughts. As a shameless lover girl, I often give myself permission to indulge in the everyday romances of life, to say nothing of a big, bold, blossoming relationship. It’s easy to get swept away by the feels of a flourishing partnership, and yet sometimes, out of nowhere, you might find yourself bracing for toxic behaviors. What is that?
“It’s the romantic equivalent of imposter syndrome, a lingering thought that insists romantic goodness isn’t available to you.”
Maybe you’re in a new healthy relationship with a person who feels nothing (nothing) like your ex, and yet, your survival instincts are preventing you from reveling in this healthy connection. Despite everything being a reflection of a nourishing and emotionally stable relationship, the promise of toxicity seems so near, so often. It’s the romantic equivalent of imposter syndrome, a lingering thought that insists romantic goodness isn’t available to you. Waiting for toxic patterns to show up in relationships that present as healthy is a sign that you are accustomed to chaotic, ungrounding versions of romance and, thankfully, is reversible behavior.
What do we mean by “toxic”?
Dr. Jasmonae Joyriel, PsyD is a licensed psychologist and the founder of Ignite Anew, an agency that offers immersive healing retreats to women and couples. She explains that for someone to be considered “toxic,” they’re usually “causing harm and eroding the emotional, psychological, and/or physical health of those in relation to them. This can be family, friends, or lovers. A toxic relationship is a dynamic that develops between lovers/partners that destroys the integrity and stability of the relationship.” This experience can leave you feeling that all relationships are similarly unstable.
“For someone to be considered ‘toxic,’ they’re usually ‘causing harm and eroding the emotional, psychological, and/or physical health of those in relation to them.'”
When thinking about the distinction between healthy and toxic relationships, Nazaria Solferino and Maria Elisabetta Tessitore write in their study “Human Networks and Toxic Relationships” that in a healthy relationship, partners can easily maintain “a capacity for self-determination and take benefit from reciprocity.” Alternatively, in a toxic relationship “emotional dependence enters into play, making the partner our exclusive interlocutor, so that being happy and enthusiastic depends exclusively on the other person, just like drug addiction.” In other words, toxic relationships feed off emotional dependence which may go unchecked as you enter new relationships, hoping for new patterns in love.
How to heal from toxic relationships
Taking the time to heal from past traumas is essential before you can truly embrace a new relationship. There’s no need to isolate yourself during your healing, but moving through the effects of your previous relationship is essential if you are going to give up current behaviors that stem from it. Dr. Joyriel identified five pillars that are essential to healing from toxic relationships:
“There’s no need to isolate yourself during your healing, but moving through the effects of your previous relationship is essential.”
1. Permission to have trauma. Acknowledging your experience and allowing yourself to begin to process it are the necessary first steps.
2. Awareness of what triggers you. Take time to notice what is happening around you when you begin to anticipate toxic behaviors. Was it a specific phrase or action that is connected to your past? Notice where you hold this tension in your body.
3. Tools to navigate the expected and unexpected reminders of trauma. Don’t remain alone in this feeling. Process alongside others, whether in a therapeutic setting with an expert or by reading a book on the topic. Dr. Joyriel recommends “The Body Keeps The Score” by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk; “What Happened To You?” by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey; and “The Myth of Normal” by Gabor Maté and Daniel Maté. As a bonus, seek out “The State Of Affairs” by Esther Perel, LMFT to explore infidelity, a key feature of many toxic relationships.
4. Reflection and acceptance of how you got to that period, relationship, or low place. Once you’re ready, begin to think about what brought you into a toxic relationship. This is hard work, and everyone’s conclusion will differ, but understanding the circumstances of your past relationship will make it easier for you to identify when you are outside of them.
“Don’t remain alone in this feeling.”
5. Time. Time is the main ingredient that allows any of this processing to take place. Don’t try to rush the process.
Dr. Joyriel is a huge believer in retreats, therapy, and podcasts as additional tools to guide you through these steps, toward a secure relationship rather than a toxic one. Remember that even if you’re in a new relationship and sharing the best intentions, this healing phase challenges you to exist in a way that is new to you and can pose difficulties. Think of this as your unlearning era.
How to identify red flags versus anxiety
If you have experienced toxic relationships, it is common to be confused about identifying if your partner is really exhibiting relationship red flags or if you’re simply bracing for the worst. Progressing along your healing journey can eventually allow you to free yourself of behaviors that are tied to your past, and more fully embrace what is happening in the moment. But if you’re still healing, how can you tell?
“To distinguish a true red flag and personal anxiety, you have to trust yourself. To trust yourself you have to be connected to yourself. You have to listen and communicate with yourself enough to explore what your inner wisdom is trying to tell you. To be capable of tolerating the discomfort that is required to trust yourself, you first have to heal,” Dr. Joyriel explains.
“We are drawn to what is familiar, not what is healthy or good.”– Dr. Jasmonae Joyriel, PsyD
If you are worried that you may be inadvertently attributing toxic traits to your partner, here are some guiding questions you can ask yourself: Is this person offering me more peace than confusion? Are they emotionally available? Are they emotionally intelligent? Do you leave their presence feeling listened to and valued? In time, these questions can help you locate your emotions and carry you to a space of clarity and emotional safety.
Note that by engaging in this form of self-listening, the aim is not to erase past experiences or trauma. Dr. Joyriel asks us to instead consider it as a way to confront the parts that have been exposed to toxicity, and then release it from the body, letting the heart, emotions, and nervous system heal. “By doing this, you demonstrate your ability to protect yourself and that gives you the space to explore anxiety and discern fear from flags,” Dr. Joyriel adds.
It is not uncommon for those who have been in toxic relationships before to find themselves in one again. As Dr. Joyriel explains, “We often get into relationships that remind us of previous relationship dynamics. We are drawn to what is familiar, not what is healthy or good.” If these questions lead you to the realization that your partner is toxic, consider safe ways to extract yourself from the dynamic.
How to foster a healthy relationship
If you’re in a new and supportive relationship, Dr. Joyriel offered some advice on how to cultivate trust instead of dwelling in fear. Following these guidelines can help to create a solid foundation for your new partnership, offering a newfound sense of security:
1. Learn to speak the language of your body. Track what is happening in your body. Dr. Joyriel states that this is your nervous system talking to you. Note that there are different physiological sensations when your body is scared of something new versus scared of something wrong. Learning these subtleties will allow you to better navigate difficult situations with your partner.
“Note that there are different physiological sensations when your body is scared of something new versus scared of something wrong.”
One way to address this is through practicing body scans. A body scan can take as little as 2–3 minutes and can be done anywhere. Beginning at the top of your head, you acknowledge any sensation, tension, or pain present — without acting on it. Repeat this while slowly “scanning” downwards to your face, neck, back, chest, arms, hands, fingers, stomach, sacrum, legs, feet, and toes. When you notice something, describe the sensation. Think about other times you have felt this same sensation. Is there a pattern to when that sensation arises? Does this specific event fit that pattern? If not, what about this event (often a sign of a trigger) feels similar? If this can’t be done in the moment, it is also a wonderful reflective exercise to process and learn from.
2. Share freely. Share your fears. Share your doubts. What is their response? Does the response calm you or shame you? You cannot erase bad relationships, you can only heal and grow from them. If someone shames you for having had them, they are most certainly not for you.
3. Be honest about what you need in a relationship. People cannot be held responsible for not giving something that they do not know you need — and you cannot be sure if your partner is unwilling or incapable of giving it unless you ask for it.
“People cannot be held responsible for not giving something that they do not know you need.”
Remember that, in response, there are different kinds of “no”s and “yes”s. Dr. Joyriel explains, “Partners can definitely say ‘no.’ The question is: Why are they saying ‘no’ and is it something we need a ‘yes’ in?” She provides the following example: “If I am non-monogamous and my partner needs monogamy, I have every right to say ‘no’ and my partner absolutely deserves a monogamous relationship. However, if I want non-monogamy because I’ve been hurt in the past but am willing to work towards monogamy, that context may impact the desire to stay in the relationship and the relationship’s sustainability.”
Fully disclosing your needs will prevent causing “new wounds” that open up around sensitive topics like marriage, kids, sex and intimacy, spirituality, monogamy, and division of roles.
4. A healthy relationship is built on clarity. Don’t try to be Miss Cleo. Take the stress out of assuming, predicting, and investigating by just asking. Start from a place of true curiosity and willingness (not interrogating) to learn and understand. Or simply state what it is you don’t understand and ask for help connecting the dots. Again, the treasure is in the response. A healthy relationship will relish clarity. A toxic one prefers ambiguity and confusion.
“Start from a place of true curiosity and willingness (not interrogating) to learn and understand.”
5. Trust your gut. At the end of the day, you have to trust your gut. You cannot operate in a healthy way or in a healthy relationship if you cannot have trust in yourself. If your self-trust is the problem, seek out support to explore how to relearn this skill. Without this conviction, it is possible that you’ll find yourself in another confusing or difficult situation.
Becoming comfortable with the healing and habits that are necessary for a healthy relationship takes time. But, by developing self-trust, learning personal triggers, and keeping an open discussion with your partner, stable relationships will eventually feel like an achievable reality again. A supportive partner will be alongside you for the ride, even if they don’t immediately understand your journey. The beautiful fact is that healing from previous toxic relationships can go hand in hand with building a stronger, new one.
Amara Amaryah is a Jamaican essayist, author, and wellness and travel writer born in London. Her life writings are interested in voice — often voicelessness — and reclamations of identity through definitions of home. Her freelance journalism explores health, joy, self-knowing, and more. Amara now travels and lives slowly in her favorite places around the world. She writes the “Life Is In Love With Me” newsletter.
Featured image is from J. Hannah