It’s not always easy to tell if you’re in a toxic relationship. Part of the problem is that many unhealthy relationship habits are baked into our culture, and we just consider them part of the norm.
For those of you freaking out that your relationship might be unhealthy, here’s a handy guide, courtesy of author Mark Manson.
A toxic relationship is a deal with the devil. You resign your identity and self-worth to this person or this thing, and in return, that relationship is supposed to offer the meaning and purpose for your life that you so desperately crave. But what you don’t realize is that by sacrificing your identity to one person or thing (or one person-thing, not here to judge), the relationship generates more insecurity, not less. It envelopes your life, demanding all of your time and attention, rendering all other meaning moot, all other relationships worthless.
If the thought of losing your relationship feels as though your life would be over, then you’re probably cocooned in a toxic relationship.
And look, it’s not just people who are toxic. Workplaces can be toxic. Family members can be toxic. Groups such as churches, political groups, self-help seminars—you can have a toxic relationship with all of them.
Toxic relationships are flames that consume all of the oxygen from our hearts, suffocating the other relationships in our lives. A toxic relationship soon becomes the lens in which you view all other relationships in your life. Nights out with friends are dominated by unloading the drama and baggage you’ve accumulated since you last saw them. You find yourself unable to hold conversations that don’t relate to your relationship for more than a few minutes.
Compared to your toxic relationship, the world feels like a cold, bland, grey mess. You couldn’t care less. You find yourself compulsively thinking about your relationship, even in places where it’s irrational or inappropriate—at a basketball game, in the middle of a job interview, while calling your mother on a Tuesday, while listening to your kid’s shitty violin recital. Nothing else matters. Nothing else feels like it should matter.
When enrapt in a toxic relationship, friends will find you selfish and unbearable, family members will disapprove and then quietly distance themselves. Some friends or family may try to help, telling you that your relationship is hurting you, but this will usually make things worse, not better. Outside people’s attempts to intervene will only be interpreted as more drama to stoke the toxic flame.
Because the drama is always calling the toxic relationship into question, the relationship demands all of your thought and energy. But then the relationship only punishes you further for this thought and energy, enabling a downward spiral of shittiness. Toxic relationships are black holes. Not only do they suck you in deeper and deeper, but they have their own force of gravity. Any attempt to break away just stokes the drama flame further, which then sucks you right back to where you began.
Toxic relationships often have a “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” quality to them. When you’re in them, you can’t wait to get away from them. But when you’re away from them, because you’ve lost your identity, you have no idea what to do without them.