'I'm a Sex Therapist, I Know How To Spot Toxic Relationships'

A toxic relationship is one that is not healthy—it's poisonous. When I think about that in the relationships I've had or in those I've seen with friends or couples I work with as a sex therapist, I think of anything that has been abusive, controlling or manipulative. Those behaviors are toxic, but they can sometimes start out very small and then begin to grow.

That's what is scary about toxicity in a relationship. Eventually you may wonder how you got there, because when you first became a couple it wasn't like this. But maybe it was? Maybe there were small signs, because sometimes we really don't pay attention to red flags.

Signs of toxic relationships

Of course abusive behavior should not be tolerated, but sometimes as a therapist I see signs of abusive behavior in the way couples I work with talk to each other. I see that a lot in the couple I'm working with now; in the fights they have. When they are angry, they go from saying "I love you" one minute, to "f*** you"" the next. And those are words you can't take back when you have reconciled. They hurt. I have also seen clients where one partner in the couple is belittling or embarrassing the other in public. Saying something like: "They are so stupid." The road back from that is very difficult.

Chronic secrecy is also a big sign of a toxic relationship. When I'm seeing a couple together, I will sometimes also see them individually. If, in our individual sessions, they are telling me secrets that they would never tell their partner and saying that they hide certain things, that's really toxic. There is a difference between privacy and secrecy. Some things are private; your phone is private and your passcodes are private. But when you have developed strategic ways of being secretive, for example having "John" saved on your phone as "Joanne"—that's not healthy. The minute I see that, I suggest we talk about it. I ask the person what prevents them from being honest and what is behind that.

Controlling behaviors are also very toxic. For example, controlling the other partner's whereabouts, what they wear, who they are talking to or what time they come and go. Sometimes you want to know where your partner is, and that's fine. But when it's done in a controlling way it can be toxic.

I've seen that toxic controlling behavior in friends' relationships; where they can't go anywhere without getting permission from their partner. They have to say where they are or they have locators on their phone so their partner knows where they are at all times. For some relationships, this monitoring is the norm and both parties are OK with it. But it's when it becomes a little more about control, when one partner begins to feel suffocated or pressured, or when that person begins to lie, saying they're somewhere else, it's definitely a problem.

Toxic relationships are unhealthy for those involved
Stock image. Getty/iStock

Causes of toxic relationships

Oftentimes, with couples I work with, toxic behavior is coming from unresolved issues of insecurity or past trauma and betrayal that may or may not have to do with the current relationship. It may even date back to problems with the individual and their mom and dad. But when those issues are unresolved and they fester, they can begin to surface as controlling or toxic behaviors. People build patterns of behaviour that they can then bring into a relationship. These might start out small and people might not even label them as toxic, but over time they build.

I worked with a couple where an affair was happening—the male partner was having an affair, another sexual relationship, and he was not willing to give it up. He was saying in a couples session that he was going to give up the affair, but in private sessions with me he was saying he had no intention of doing so. He exhibited a pattern of disregard and disrespect for the other person's feelings. In fact, during this whole relationship, he showed a pattern of entitlement and disregard for women, one that was unfortunately passed down from the example given to him by his elders. Ultimately, he was not willing to shift from this perspective. He also harbored unresolved anger towards his wife which he struggled to reconcile. This type of behavior from the male partner showed up as a pattern in lots of different areas, and over time it deteriorated the relationship.

One thing I do is help a couple become aware of what has happened in their lives. Something—although I am not suggesting it is the fault of the partner on the receiving end of the bad behavior—could be triggering this person to respond in a toxic way. Self awareness and couple awareness is really important, and sometimes that may involve individual work with one partner. The couple will still need to work on the relationship, but that individual is really going to need to work on those issues, so they are not repeating those patterns of toxic behavior.

There will usually be confrontation in relationships; arguments and disagreements. The problem is not the argument, it's how you move through it with conflict management and resolution.

If every argument deteriorates into verbally abusive behavior or it becomes physically abusive behavior, then of course it has to stop and the relationship has to end. Verbally abusive behavior is certainly enough to end a relationship, but it's also important to remember that once a person starts abusing on one level it can easily become abuse on a different level; psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse and financial abuse.

If there are signs of toxic behavior present in one or both partners, and there is a willingness to move on and resolve them, I suggest couples I work with have a conservation. If a person is reacting in a certain way and hurting their partner and doesn't want to, they may benefit from asking themselves what is going on, without pointing the finger at their partner. It is important to own your behavior and take accountability. Maybe that will require some individual counselling. Or perhaps the first step is having a conversation with the other partner about what is happening and what it is resulting in, and acknowledging what isn't working.

I have had couples before who get into a verbal match. They're not hearing each other and are listening only to respond. I suggest they write each other a letter to explain how they feel, because it's hard to interrupt a letter. I find that really helpful when couples are having a hard time verbally communicating. They can read the letter back and see how the other partner feels.

There are relationships I have seen come through toxic behavior, but it does take time and awareness, and I would never encourage acceptance of emotional or physical abuse in any form. Any work on ourselves requires us to slow it down and sometimes people can lack patience. It requires tolerance and patience to become self aware and change behavior.

Gwen Butler LCSW, CST is an AASECT certified sex therapist specializing in sexual health and pleasure. She offers individual and couples counseling and workshops at her private practice in Long Island, New York. Her book Indulge: 25 Indulgences to Unlock your Sensual Self is available here.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.