February 25, 2020 | Courtesy of Oprah Magazine written by Lacey Johnson
Pictured Dr. Karen Phillip
Contributions from Dr. Karen Phillip, Australia's leading lifestyle and relationship doctor.
There comes a time in every great love story when the grand illusions begin to shatter and the imperfections shine through. After the rush of endorphins stabilize, the bathroom habits are exposed, the red-hot romance may begin to cool, and that "happily ever after" seems to be playing out startlingly different than you once imagined.
In healthy marriages, deep admiration, commitment, and friendship remain intact long after the rose-colored lenses have faded. But what happens when you discover a world of dysfunctions and incompatibilities on the other side of the honeymoon phase? Perhaps your spouse pollutes your peace of mind—filling you with dread when you hear their footsteps nearing. Or, worst of all, what if your sanity and safety come into question? In short, what if your marriage becomes toxic?
While even the most loving couples ebb and flow in their attraction, connection, and intimacy, there are some signs to look out for—ones that might point to a toxic marriage and make you question whether or not you should get a divorce. We convened with the experts to help you determine if you and your partner have some tender, loving work that can be done to save your marriage, or if it’s possible that your union is so toxic that you should consider moving on to breathe cleaner air. Because, legally bound or not, a life of “turn the other way” is no way to live.
It feels like your thoughts and opinions are locked on mute.
In a toxic marriage, you're seldom "allowed" to communicate your feelings, needs, and perspectives. And, in the rare instance that you’re given a mic, their voice seeks to overpower yours. Your spouse may belittle, dismiss or scoff at any fair attempt to express yourself.
But when the marriage is healthy, your partner is attuned to what you think and how you feel—leaning in closely to learn all of the ways your genuine needs aren’t being met. “A healthy spouse never dismisses their partner's feelings, thoughts or opinions, and never tells their partner what to do, say or think,” says Dr. Karen Phillip, counseling psychotherapist and author of Communication Harmony.
It seems as if you don't have control over your day-to-day decisions.
Where you go, how you dress, how you speak and who you speak to—do you choose these things based on your own desires? Or, do you make your daily decisions with the intention of dodging a negative reaction from your partner?
Katie Hood, TED Speaker and CEO of One Love Foundation says that this kind of decision dictation is a classic warning sign that you’ve fallen under the rule of a possessive, controlling partner. “If you feel like you are living your life in a constant, stressful effort to not provoke a negative reaction from your partner, that’s a strong clue that you are in a toxic relationship,” she says.
Compromise is an infrequent visitor in your home.
You feel like you have minimal pull in all major decisions, because your spouse’s actions and words convey that their preferences and priorities supersede yours—from the art and furniture that fills your home, to how and when you will be intimate. The window of compromise is seldom cracked, and any time you invite it into the conversation, it’s treated like an unwelcome stranger.
“If the relationship isn’t balanced—if one party is always making the decisions without lovingly and wholly hearing the other person out, that is a marker of a toxic relationship. In a healthy relationship, the decisions are made equally and mutually with respect to both parties,” says Hood.
When you try to set boundaries, they're ignored.
Let’s say you tell your spouse that your boss has enforced strict rules about avoiding personal calls and texts during working hours, but they bombard you with notifications anyway. You ask them not to share certain pictures from your beach vacation with anyone, but you later learn that their friends have seen them all. Or, maybe one of your family members is moving through a turbulent time and has sworn you to secrecy, but your spouse won’t stop poking for details.
Toxic partners value what they want more than they value your comfort and security. “A loving marriage means being considerate of each other’s feelings, as well as being open and understanding of your partner’s needs,” says Dr. Phillip.
They sabotage or guilt trip your efforts to evolve.
Anytime you attempt to activate your inner champion—perhaps transforming your eating habits, training for a half-marathon, or interviewing for a big-shot promotion, your partner may fracture your emotional legs with subtle jabs, all the while highlighting your shortcomings. They may even denounce your newfound efforts of self-improvement as being selfish or unfair to the marriage.
This is because toxic people often fear being one-upped, outdone, or left behind. Because of this insecurity, you may be shamed, ridiculed, or pumped full of venomous language that causes your charisma to fade, your momentum to stall, and subsequently, asks that you crawl back into a shell of stagnancy.
But in an optimal marriage, your partner’s love is abiding, inviting you to step out bravely into the world and stand up taller. Nothing about the relationship shrinks you into someone smaller than you aspire to be. “A loving partner wants to see that you are happy, and wishes to ensure that your life is fulfilled and complete in all areas,” says Dr. Phillip.
There may be secrets to unmask.
The excuses and explanations just aren’t adding up. You may have discovered hidden bank accounts, elusive bar tabs or dubious emails. Or, maybe it’s as though every day is a maze of confusion, and no matter where you turn, another trail of uncertainty appears. When you attempt to seek clarity, or perhaps, confront a possible indiscretion, they either distract you or gaslight you, responding with a tight-lipped refusal to address your concerns.
“Healthy marriages should consist of deep friendship, which begins with authenticity and trust,” says Monica Berg, Chief Communications Officer of the Kabbalah Centre, and author of Rethink Love: 3 Steps to Being the One, Attracting the One, and Becoming One.
Bottom line: dishonesty contaminates the soil of relationships—because a bond is only as lasting and strong as the truth it's built upon.
They disempower your individuality and attempt to isolate you from others.
Though you may be legally intertwined, marriage is not enmeshment. Rather, it is two distinct identities with unique ambitions, talents, temperaments and histories who have committed to maneuvering through life alongside each other. Whether you have little in common or nearly everything in common, being married doesn’t mean you cease to be your own person. Each individual should exercise their right to friendships, hobbies and passions. So, if your spouse tries to siphon your individuality and quarantine you from society, it might indicate serious trouble ahead.
Hood says that the process of isolation cannot be overestimated because it's a sign of toxicity. “Under the disguise of ‘I love you so much that I want to be with you all of the time and have you all to myself’ is a method of abuse—one that asks you to give up your personal dreams and connections to any part of your life that exists outside of the relationship. It shrinks your support network and destabilizes you,” she says.
They violate your privacy and personal space.
This could involve a myriad of actions. For example, they may purposely eavesdrop on your conversations with your mom. Or, you may be awoken in the middle of the night with an interrogation about an old picture from college they discovered in your phone. Perhaps your partner rummages through the contents of your computer files or dresser drawers in search of everything and nothing at all. In extreme cases, it may begin to feel like every day is a game of entrapment.
“Unhealthy love has a desperate, jealous and punishing edge to it, forcing its way into your privacy and seeking to have knowledge and ownership over all parts of you,” says Hood.
Anytime there's strife, they deflect responsibility.
Disagreements between loved ones are inevitable, but Hood says an essential ingredient in harmonious partnerships is taking ownership over your piece of the equation. So, in the case of a relationship gone toxic, if you ask your partner why they erupted at you on the street curb, they may claim that your wandering eye caused them to go crazy.
“With a toxic partner, it will never come down to, ‘I’m truly sorry. I was wrong in that situation, and I will work to make sure that doesn’t happen again.’ Toxic, abusive partners don’t want to take ownership (in situations where they objectively should) and will avoid doing so again and again. And, when they seem to take ownership, it’s manipulative and over-the-top, with no change in behavior to support it,” she says.
You feel insecure.
The strongest marriages in the world aren’t given immunization from occasional malaise. So even if you’ve anchored the most devoted partner under the sun, disagreements and dry spells will knock on your door from time to time, because you’re two imperfect humans trying to navigate an imperfect world. When fiery words are spewed in the throes of frustration, there is an inner knowing that tempers will cool and forgiveness will shine over you eventually.
But, in a toxic marriage, that sense of safety can't be accessed. You may find your blood pressure skyrocketing when your spouse fails to return your calls promptly, or you may become a nervous, tremoring wreck over the most insignificant misunderstanding—traumatized by repeated threats of abandonment or infidelity.
Dr. Phillips says it’s vital that a feeling of deep love and security exists against the backdrop of your commitment, and if there is uncertainty, you must ask yourself, “Does my spouse make me feel unimportant—even disposable?” If so, it may be time to reconsider the marriage.”
The relationship is highly argumentative, chaotic, or volatile.
You may experience exalting highs—the kind that inspire romance novels, and rock-bottom lows—the kind that have you ugly-crying in traffic. The climate of your household is never allowed to be pleasant for long.
Your partner may strike with harsh punishment or ridicule, sometimes following it up with Oscar-worthy apologies, showers of praise, and thick layers of tearful self-deprecation. You may feel like you’re often walking on eggshells, never knowing when something you do or say might rattle their emotional cage. “The real danger in tolerating volatility in a relationship is that, over time, you start to think that the adrenaline rush you get from the push and pull is normal, but it isn’t. It’s actually quite damaging to your mental stability and your sense of healthy relationships in general,” says Hood.
Hood stresses that authorizing a partner to create verbal firestorms for trivial reasons is dangerous to your psyche long-term. “The constant cycle of breaking up and making up causes you to lose your emotional footing, and then you lose the ability to advocate for yourself as a person,” she says.
It may appear as though your spouse is always keeping score.
Acts of affection and love are seldom exchanged freely—not without an expectation of something in return. Instead, the relationship feels transactional. For example, anytime you’re given a back rub or a neck massage, they quickly drop a reminder of what they are owed. If they greet you with a tall glass of wine after a hellacious work week, they will use their act of ‘generosity’ as a ploy to benefit themselves later on. They may suggest that your financial or household contribution pales in comparison to theirs—so it’s your job to make it up to them in other ways.
Berg says that loving your spouse in a way that endures and uplifts involves a dance of giving and sharing. “Marriage is not a transaction, and the consumer mindset should never be applied to it. When we do that, it becomes ego-driven love, which is all about, ‘What are my needs? What can I get out of this?’ versus loving somebody for their essence,” she says. If your love seems ego-driven, it might be a sign of a toxic relationship.
Intimacy is becoming obsolete.
Genuine intimacy transcends physical connection and sexual satisfaction. It involves emotional affection. Sometimes it looks like sharing a painful situation and being met with a soothing embrace, a tender kiss, or a word of encouragement. Or, it could simply be cuddling on the couch. True intimacy is having a soft place to land, and involves the exchange of your personal desires and goals as well as your demons.“When intimacy is withdrawn or completely missing, each partner will begin to feel unimportant, and the relationship struggles considerably,” says Dr. Phillip.
They're hyper critical.
Let’s say you spent hours moving pots around in the kitchen, preparing an elaborate, dinner for your friends, but your spouse shrugs and mentions that you burnt the potatoes. Perhaps you took effort to look your best for your anniversary date, booking a blow-out. But your expectations were deflated the instant you turned the corner for your big reveal and were met with no compliments.
“After the euphoria of new love is worn off, criticism slowly begins to show up. But when it becomes that we constantly criticize our partner, the person has two choices: they can either believe you and it can begin to destroy their confidence, or they will eventually stop caring about what you have to say. When there is persistent criticism, it sets a negative tone, builds resentment, and destroys connection,” says Berg.
Your light is dimming.
In the healthiest of marriages, brighter versions of each of you continuously emerge the longer you are together. Your spouse amplifies your self-confidence and strength, cheering you on.
But a toxic marriage dampens your confidence, spirit, and zest for life. Conversations with your spouse never reinforce your self-belief or invite inspiration to the table. If your partner doesn’t encourage you to grow in any area, while relentlessly shrinking your enthusiasm, you may be one-half of an unhealthy commitment.
Your core values are wildly different, and it’s wreaking havoc on the future you envision for yourself.
Let’s say you're saving for retirement, but your spouse’s favorite pastime is racking up the credit card debt. Perhaps you deeply ache to fill a big, suburban house with children, but your spouse has decided that parenthood is an unwanted responsibility. If so, your union may be in trouble.
Dr. Phillips says that optimal marriages require that both parties agree “on all matters that directly shape their future, including household conditions, children, finances, career and other big decisions.”
Because if your values aren't in harmony, your goals and, in turn, your day-to-day actions, won't be either. So while small incompatibilities about subjects like holiday plans, music selections, and kitchen cabinet colors are inevitable, when it comes to the big, life-altering matters, the two of you should be gazing at the same vision board.
But even if your marriage seems toxic, it’s not necessarily too late to reset.
Berg says she believes rehabilitation is almost always possible, so long as genuine love remains. “If both partners are willing to have emotional intelligence and clarity about what is not working in the marriage, and there is a desire and willingness to take action, even some of the most toxic situations can be reversed. The number one ingredient needed to move forward is for both parties to get beyond the ego and have a mutual consciousness about what needs to be changed.”
“In the healthiest marriages, people still do unhealthy things from time to time. It’s part of being human. But if both parties learn the language of healthy versus unhealthy, and mutually want to keep the toxicity out of the marriage, they will know how to effectively communicate when they feel hurt, manipulated or disrespected in some way," says Hood.
At the end of the day, every human is trampling through conditionings and traumas that may not be optimizing their relationships. Life is a continuous effort to figure things out, and Hood believes it’s the intention behind our actions that determine whether or not a relationship has real promise. “Marriage is about navigating two different people’s desires, histories, and priorities, so none are perfectly aligned and healthy 100 percent of the time. But it’s about, when you know better, and when you learn the language, how will you use that information?” says Hood.
When it comes to building a healthy marriage, there are simple steps to thrive.
Two people may go into a marriage with the most pure and loving intentions, but once life happens and faulty conditions take the reigns, the door is often left ajar for toxicity. Berg believes that there are simple steps you can take to clean up a marriage that's been contaminated: Intentional connection. Gratitude. Prioritization. Repeat.
“Even on the days when you come home and you don’t have time (or the desire) to talk with your spouse, make an effort to hug each other for 10 seconds. When you do this, your endorphins and dopamine levels are elevated, and you create a loving connection automatically,” says Berg.
Next comes the gratitude bit, which should not be underestimated. “You’ve got to find a means of expressing your gratitude for your spouse—whether a list or a journal containing reasons why you chose them to be your partner, and why you will continue to choose them.”
Lastly, you must show your partner that not only are they a priority to you, but that their overall sense of fulfillment in life is a priority to you as well. “Never be too busy to experience things they care about with them, and never be too distracted to accept their sincere affection. Continue to grow in a friendship with them, learning new things about who they are. Show them, in a myriad of ways, that you’re happy and grateful to be their person,” says Berg.
While love is worth fighting for, some relationships may be too toxic to be saved.
Hood says that the most confusing part about ending a toxic relationship is that there is often sincere love woven through the dysfunction—whether it’s the memory of a love that has faded away, or elements of love that have persisted through time. This reality, she says, is part of what makes toxic relationships so difficult to identify and exit, and why one might stick around for years—even decades.
“The real danger is that, by the time the dynamic becomes increasingly toxic and then extremely abusive, the abused feels trapped, maybe even losing sight of what is real. And that's when it can become dangerous,” she says.
As miserable as a relationship may be, the proposition of boxing up a life you’ve built with someone, untangling from sacred ties, and reentering the world solo can often feel like an arduous task. Dr. Phillip says it is often so overwhelming and scary for people that she has witnessed clients allow themselves to live in bad marriages with partners who refuse to change. This, she says, is when you have to seek safety and support, as well as allow yourself to mourn the loss of the good. “Relationships are not meant to be hurtful, frightening, or even especially hard work. And everyone deserves so much more than a life of ‘settling for it,’” she says.
Hood keeps an image of her 3-year-old self on her work desk at all times. It serves as a reminder to treat herself with the same compassion, gentleness, and fierce protectiveness that she would give to the smiling little girl in the picture. But, most of all, it inspires her to encourage everyone within her organization’s reach to do the same. Because time doesn’t mean anyone stops being worthy of the happiness and safety they have always deserved.