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How to Identify Toxic Relationships

How to Identify Toxic Relationships

If you have a relationship with a toxic person, whether that is a romantic relationship, a friendship, or even a family relationship, you might often find yourself frustrated, drained, and confused about how to handle the situation. It’s hard to know how to set boundaries with people or know when to cut ties with someone that you care about.  You may not recognize how toxic the relationship has become until you take some time to really think about the patterns that have been established.

What Are Toxic Relationships?

Toxic relationships tend to drain your energy, because the patterns of behavior from a toxic person can be confusing, hypocritical, and exhausting.  Some people actually thrive on the conflict and drama that they create in their personal lives.  The reasons why people do this are just as confusing, and usually not worth your time to try and figure out.  It usually has to do with personal insecurity and poor emotional intelligence.  Trying to change the other person or have healthy boundaries can be just as exhausting, because ultimately you can’t change someone who doesn’t want to change, or who doesn’t see the toxic patterns in their own behavior.

There are many signs that the relationship you are in is has become toxic, which means you need to think about changing some things to protect your own mental health and establish healthier relationships with this other person.   Again, this could apply to a friendship, a romantic relationship, or another personal relationship, even a co-worker or supervisor.  The toxic person in your life may not display all of these sings, but they likely will display at least a few of these signs if their pattern of behavior is unhealthy.

Here are 10 things to look out for that indicate you are in a toxic relationship:

1: You get upset at this person, but then you end up apologizing to them for something else entirely. They have a way of turning arguments or disagreements around so that you end up feeling guilty for everything, even things that are not your fault. They rarely take responsibility for their own faults, and when confronted they turn the focus back to the person who is calling out their behavior.

2: You are constantly accommodating their needs, but when you need help or support, they aren’t there for you. Toxic people tend to latch on to other people who are givers and empaths, but they are often not willing to give support back to other people.

3:  They make a lot of promises or agreements, but they rarely follow through with what they say they will do. They are willing to follow through with things that will benefit themselves, but toxic people will not prioritize other people’s needs, so if they see no benefit to themselves, they don’t follow through with their commitments.

4: They are constantly complaining, but they never do anything to change their circumstances.  They may blame everyone else for issues, but never take responsibility for solving their own problems.  You may find yourself caught up in trying to rescue them often or fix their problems for them.  They start to assume that you will be there to fix things for them, and they may even become angry when you don’t fix their problems for them or bail them out from the consequences of their own behaviors.

5:  They may be negative more often than not.  They will avoid doing things because they insist that things will not work.  They may avoid making changes because they always find barriers to making progress or changing their behavior.  Even when you try to cheer them up or point out the positive in situations, they will still shut down any solutions you offer or refuse to acknowledge anything positive.  It can be hard to be around people like this after awhile because they start to negatively affect your mood, too.

6: Toxic people may avoid issues altogether by denying that a problem exists, or avoid hard conversations by just saying they have nothing to say, or giving one-word answers when you are trying to resolve a problem or talk about an issue.  They may also stall, saying that they will do something later, or wait for someone else to do it.

7: You feel like you have to walk on eggshells or watch what you say around this person to avoid an argument or problem.  A toxic person may become highly defensive if you try to raise any issue that you want to talk about. They also may have a tendency to say things that are hurtful or condescending, so you become defensive too, so as not to find yourself under attack in some way.

8: They may expect you to read their mind, or know how they feel at all times, so that when they become upset you may be the one who gets blamed. You may find yourself trying to do the right thing, but no matter what you do, they end up finding fault with something you did or said. Toxic people can be extremely difficult to please, because they expect others to cater to them, yet they will easily find fault in others when mistakes happen or if they don’t get their way.

9: They may ignore your boundaries when you try to set limits with them, but they become upset when you try to enforce those boundaries.  Toxic people feel victimized when other people set boundaries with them, and so even if you try to set healthy boundaries, they may not respect your wishes or accuse you of abandoning them when you try to stick to those limits.

10: They may make fun of you or otherwise say hurtful things, but if you get upset they accuse you of being too sensitive or of not being able to take a joke.  When you stand up for yourself, they distance themselves from you to punish you for doing so. It might seem easier to just let things slide, even when you feel hurt, because trying to address how you feel will just result in an argument or more denials from the toxic person.

There are many other things that toxic people may do that are confusing, hurtful and unhealthy.  Unfortunately it can be hard to set boundaries with people like this, and you may still care about them and want to continue to friendship or relationship.  However, you need to remember that you cannot change another person, especially someone who does not see the need for them to change.

What To Do If You Are In a Toxic Relationship

Sometimes, you may be able to keep the person in your life, but you might have to cut back on how much time you spend with them.  If you are in a romantic relationship with someone who exhibits these patterns, then you really need to consider whether you can continue to tolerate this kind of dynamic in your relationship.  It is possible for people to change, but you might need help from a professional, and your partner has to be willing to look at their own toxic patterns.

If these patterns are present in the workplace, you may not have any choice but to try and find other employment, especially if the person is in a supervisory position over you.  While you always have to carefully weigh your options when it comes to work, staying in a toxic work environment can cause long-term stress and contribute to a decline in your overall mental health and quality of life. When it is a co-worker you have difficulties with, you can try to limit your conversations to work-related issues and avoid contact with them outside of work.

Other times, when it is a family member or a person that you can’t or don’t want to cut out of your life, you have to start to adjust your expectations and limit how much time and energy you give to this toxic person in your life.  Although it can be difficult, you have to ask yourself some hard questions about whether you can continue to spend your emotional energy in a relationship with someone who does not respect your needs or feelings. Setting boundaries and limiting your contact with toxic people are often the best strategies to avoid these relationships have a significant negative effect on your life.

For more information on setting boundaries and emotional intelligence, check out these other posts:

Emotional Intelligence Series: Setting Boundaries

10 Ways to Practice Emotional Intelligence

9 Tips To Deal With Difficult People

Relationship Series: How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Relationship Series: How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Sometimes the hardest thing to overcome in your relationship is not what’s happening right now, but what happened to you in the past and how that affects you today.  This post in my Relationship Series is going to address how the pain from your past hurts your relationship today, and how you can work to overcome that pain so that you can thrive in your current partnership.

I frequently tell my clients that for a relationship to work we need two people who both want to be in the relationship.  If we have that we can do a lot to work through things and make the relationship stronger and able to withstand lots of challenges.  One of the ways that you can do to be present in your relationship and make it more meaningful and fulfilling is for you to do the work that needs to be done to understand how past pain has impacted you and work to release those past burdens from your current partnership.

There are many ways that our past pain can hurt our partnerships. Being aware of how your past has impacted you emotionally will help you to have a healthier approach to resolving conflict with your partner and build the relationship you really want. Here are a few common ways that your past may be holding your partnership back:

  1. Past trauma or abuse has damaged your sense of self-worth

When you have experienced a trauma, such as childhood abuse, domestic abuse (an emotionally or physically abusive relationship), a specific traumatic incident or a major loss that significantly affected you, you may struggle with feelings of low self-worth. This can affect your partnership because when you carry around the burden of these traumatic emotions, you may be seeking a level of validation from your partner that s/he is not able to give enough of to heal that past trauma.

When we struggle with low self-esteem, we feel temporarily better when other people validate us and show us love.  But that feeling never lasts because you still don’t feel good about yourself and you constantly want more validation from your partner. This can leave your partner feeling frustrated or helpless because although they may be trying to express love and support for you, it never seems to matter or be enough.

When you make the decision to face and heal the trauma you have endured and build your self-esteem and confidence, you will not need constant validation from your partner, because you will feel good about yourself anyways. Making the commitment to address this past trauma can be an asset to your partnership, but more importantly, a way for you to heal and release yourself from past pain.

  1. Past betrayals have impacted your ability to trust

Perhaps you have experienced infidelity in past relationships, or even in your current one. Betrayal may come from infidelity, but it could also come from other things, such as issues related to finances, substance abuse, or emotional betrayals. Whatever the source, when we feel betrayed it makes it hard to trust other people, especially your partner.

Regardless of who betrayed you, it may be your partner who feels the impact of that lost trust. Our partner is usually who we want to trust the most, but the pain of past betrayals make that hard. If your partner was not the one who betrayed you, you may need to ask yourself if you are misplacing this loss of trust. Your partner will never be able to make up for the mistakes of another person, and misplaced blame can damage your emotional intimacy. Realigning your hurt and releasing your partner from the responsibility to heal the betrayals that came from other people will enable you to stop past betrayals from impacting your relationship today.

If your partner IS the one who betrayed you, then you have some work to do as a couple to sort out how to overcome that betrayal. This might mean that you have a lot of discussions over time about the impact of the betrayal, but eventually there will come a time when the power of that betrayal needs to be diminished. Ongoing infidelity is a different matter entirely. But when you make the decision to continue on working in your relationship after a betrayal, then it should not be something that gets dragged into every argument or brought up at every conflict. Sometimes counseling is in order, other times you may be able to work through it together on your own.

  1. Past mistakes have left you feeling guilty and defensive

Sometimes you are the one who has made a mistake, either by betraying your partner or due to other mistakes you may have made in the past.  This can cause feelings of guilt and shame, which sometimes manifests as defensiveness. Defensiveness can cause you to be hyper-sensitive to criticism.  You already feel guilt and shame about mistakes you’ve made, but maybe you don’t really want to hear about it from your partner. You may already feel burdened with feelings of shame or disappointment about not living up to your own values, creating problems that could have been prevented, or falling short of your responsibilities. Sometimes this gets taken out on your partner because you already feel so bad about yourself that you don’t want to hear any more criticism, so anything they say gets taken out of context or blown out of proportion. This can cause lots of arguments and often little issues turn into big problems for no good reason.

Part of healing this problem is about forgiving yourself, but the other part is about being able to withstand some criticism about your actions or decisions. Sometimes your partner may need to feel heard, so you need to be the one doing some listening. Other times, you may need to accept that you made a mistake and try to make up for it as best you can. This isn’t an easy solution, because it takes time to build back trust and you will have to withstand feeling uncomfortable as you acknowledge your mistakes. The good news is that sitting with that discomfort, acknowledging your mistakes, and acknowledging your partner’s feelings will allow you release the defensiveness so that you can move past the guilt and shame of past mistakes.

  1. Past conflicts have built up and created distrust and resentment

Sometimes things just build up over time, and problems seem to fester and resentment grows. Maybe it’s not about any one thing or a specific act of betrayal, but a more general sense of discontentment that comes with life just getting hard and hurtful conflicts building up resentment over time. This can manifest itself in your relationship as frequent conflicts, loss of interest in intimacy, and revolving problems that never get resolved. When this happens you need to reconnect with each other as couple and identify what has been holding you back.  Perhaps there is tension around relationships with your partner’s family, and you felt s/he never stuck up for you enough. That can turn into a resentment about not feeling supported by your partner or thinking that they value other relationships more than your partnership as a couple.

It’s not fun to look at emotions like resentment, jealousy, or anger. Yet those emotions are part of being human, and your partner might actually relate to those feelings when you talk about them.  Acknowledging how those past conflicts and resentments have built up to your partner can help you get to a place where you can renew your commitment to one another by creating a shared vision together of your future, and working towards the goals that you both have for your partnership.

 

How Releasing Past Pain Benefits Your Relationship Today

These are just a few ways that the emotional pain we have experienced in our lives impact our ability to connect with and respond to our partners. No one wants to keeping feeling the pain of the past over and over again, but holding onto negative patterns in your relationship will not help you to heal from those emotional injuries.

You are likely in the relationship you are in because you love and care about your partner and see a future with them. Creating a future for yourself and your partnership starts with healing from past pain so that the past doesn’t define your future. No one should be defined only by their past experiences, good or bad.  This means that good deeds done in the past doesn’t excuse bad behavior today, the same way as bad behavior in the past shouldn’t define who you are and what you care about today. We all just have to keep pressing forward to become the people we aspire to be.

Our experiences shape who we are and they can help us learn about ourselves and what we do and do not want or what we will or will not tolerate in our relationships.  This doesn’t mean though, that those experiences have to define all of our choices in the present.

You can choose to be emotionally vulnerable even though you have been hurt in the past. That is an act of bravery. You can choose to acknowledge your own shortcomings in order to become the person you are meant to be. That is an act of growth. You can choose to acknowledge the ugly parts of your feelings like jealousy or resentment that you don’t feel proud about. That is an act of truth-telling and honesty.

Acknowledging these feelings and expressing them assertively is hard, but it’s a necessary part of building a stronger partnership where you feel heard and where you feel capable of expressing your emotions and building strong communication with your partner. If you feel weighed down by emotional struggles that are influencing your relationship dynamics, think about how things could be different if you really decided to confront that past pain and stop letting it rule over your relationship. This doesn’t guarantee that you will instantly feel better, but it will make you more confident in knowing how you feel and being able to release the pain from your past that doesn’t serve you any longer so that you can have the kind of partnership you want for your future.

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For more information about relationships and building a strong partnership, check out my author page for a link to my book for couples “Work It Out: A Survival Guide to the Modern Relationship”  and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.

 

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For more posts in this series, please see:

Relationship Series: Shared Values

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences

Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Emotional intimacy is the feeling that brings us closer to one another and allows us to be vulnerable and build trust with our partner.  Yet this is often the most difficult part of building a relationship for many people, precisely because of the vulnerability that building emotional intimacy requires.

Building emotional intimacy in your relationship is something that happens over time, but it can wax and wane over time during the course of a long-term partnership. Sometimes a couple may feel very close to one another in the early stages of a relationship, only to find that the intimacy is drained over time as life’s responsibilities take precedence and tensions heighten due to conflicts. Other times, there may be conflicts that arise in the course of building a partnership that have roots in a fear of vulnerability and an unwillingness to open up and be vulnerable with your partner.

Establishing and nurturing the emotional intimacy in your relationship is a key part of having healthy communication, healthy conflict resolutions skills, and restoring trust in times of turmoil.  Building emotional intimacy requires a few things though, including:

  1. Facing the fear of vulnerability
  2. Understanding your feelings
  3. Taking responsibility for your own feelings
  4. Knowing your own value
  5. Being willing to take risks

Understanding the power of vulnerability and the work that you need to do as an individual to be ready for emotional intimacy can help you strengthen your bonds as a couple and build trust and partnership.

Facing Your Fears: Why Is Vulnerability So Hard?

Vulnerability is very difficult for us as human beings because we have an innate need to protect ourselves, which includes protecting ourselves from emotional pain.  None of us want to risk being emotionally vulnerable with someone only to have them violate your trust and hurt you in some way.  We protect our emotional vulnerability because it hurts so bad when someone rejects or mocks or exploits that vulnerability. This can make it hard to build trust in our relationships, especially if you have been hurt by someone in the past, which is true for many of us.

I always like to take a look at the sociological reasons behind many of our behaviors, problems, and needs.  In this case, the fear of vulnerability can be trace to our deepest instincts for survival.  As humankind evolved over the millennia, being vulnerable or too trusting could be dangerous.  If you put misplaced trust in someone, it could mean death.  We have evolved to look for threats and make calculations about when we should trust someone and when it could be too dangerous.

This translates into our relationships now in many different ways. You may not want to tell your partner about something in your past because you fear being judged harshly. You may also fear that they will look at you differently or treat you differently.  You may not want to talk to your partner about your insecurities, because you worry they will see you as weak, or perhaps violate your trust by using your insecurities against you.

There are many ways that our fear of vulnerability factors into our relationships, but ultimately the cost is that emotional intimacy is not as strong as it could be and this could cause conflicts.  Facing the fear of vulnerability and recognizing how important being vulnerable with your partner is will help move you forwards to building stronger bonds as a couple.

Understanding Your Feelings

If you don’t understand your own feelings, it will be impossible to communicate them to your partner.  Learning to identify how you feel and communicate that feeling is a key step in building emotional intimacy. This may involve you really looking deeper into your own emotional life to examine and express your feelings to your partner.

This is where it becomes important to distinguish between a thought and a feeling. “You’re being an asshole” is not a feeling. This statement is a thought or an opinion, not a feeling.  So when you say “I feel like you’re being an asshole” you are actually not expressing your feelings at all. Try to examine how you actually feel before you communicate those feelings to your partner.  “I feel disrespected when you speak to me in that way” is a better way to communicate and express what you’re really feeling.

You need to know how you are feeling when conflicts arise so that you can actually say what that feeling is.  Many conflicts can be resolved not by deciding who is right or wrong, but by listening to how an event or statement impacted both partners on an emotional level.

Taking Responsibility for Your Feelings

Part of building a strong emotional bond with your partner is taking responsibility for your own feelings, as well as understanding the limits of your partner’s impact on you.  This means that while your partner’s words and behaviors certainly have an impact on your emotional life, you are ultimately responsible for how you handle your own feelings.

Your partner cannot be responsible for making you happy. You have to take responsibility for your own happiness, because if you leave it up to anyone else, you will always be disappointed.  Of course our relationships impact our mood and our general life satisfaction. Relationships with others in general are arguably the # 1 most important factor in how happy people are. You can have all the money in the world but if your relationships with other people are terrible, you will still be lonely and unhappy.

However, it is not your partner’s responsibility to fill you up and make you happy. I have seen some couples where one person is bending over backwards to make their partner happy and yet there is still conflict and tension because the other person is ultimately not happy with themselves.  You have to own your feelings and take responsibility for your own emotional health rather than requiring your partner to always say or do the exact thing you need in order to feel happy.

Sometimes this means expressing your needs rather than expecting your partner to know what your needs are. You may have to be really clear about what your needs are, because your partner may sincerely not know. If you want more verbal reassurance from your partner, you need to be able to say “Sometimes I just need you to listen and tell me it’s going to be okay because we’ll get through things together”.  Expecting them to know exactly what you need to hear to feel better is not always a fair expectation.

Knowing Your Own Value

Another important building block of emotional intimacy is knowing your own value.  Sometimes, those feelings of insecurity and fear of vulnerability brings conflicts into our relationships when we don’t know our own value and want others to show us that we are valuable.

Certainly you want a partner that values you and expresses that to you.  However, just as with owning your own feelings, you ultimately have to know your value and be able to feed yourself the confidence you crave rather than expecting your partner to fill that void. Being confident in yourself allows you to create emotional intimacy because it helps mitigate the risk you take when you open yourself up to be vulnerable. When you know that you can be vulnerable because no matter what you still love and value yourself, then it is easier to open up to others, especially your partner.

Willingness To Take Risks

Once you understand and own your feelings and feel confident in your own value, then you need to be prepared to take risks with your partner to create that emotional intimacy you want.  This means actually doing the work of facing your fear of vulnerability to let someone know when you feel hurt or devalued in reaction to something that has happened.

Opening up to your partner to be vulnerable is a risk, because it is always risky to let your guard down and let someone else into your emotional space. Yet it is precisely this act of being vulnerable and open with your partner, even when it hurts and you fear they may not give you what you need, that the deep emotional bonds are created. The beauty of this risk is that sometimes you will take that risk and be vulnerable, which allows you to find out that your partner not only validates your feelings, but also opens up in return.

This shared expression of vulnerability is the process by which emotional intimacy is built and strengthened. When you have more of these intimate moments together, you will create a stronger bond together as couple and will feel safer with each other because you understand each other on a deeper level.  That is what most couples are seeking when they are looking for someone to share their life with, and that is what the power of vulnerability will bring you.

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For more information about relationships and building a strong partnership, check out my author page for a link to my book for couples “Work It Out: A Survival Guide to the Modern Relationship”  and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.

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For more posts in the Relationship Series, check out:

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

Relationship Series: Shared Values

Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership

How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences

Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership

 

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

I’m going to be starting a new series on relationships, and this will be the first post and  cover Couples Communication. I previously did a series on Cognitive Distortions that resonated with many of my readers, so this will be another series in which I will go in-depth to cover a lot of information in one area over a series of posts.  Here I will cover the 3 main communication styles and how they impact your relationship, and cover how to use assertive communication for better conflict resolution.

I have worked with countless couples in therapy, and the number 1 thing that couples come in seeking help for is communication.  This makes sense, because communication is really the cornerstone of any relationship. In fact, even when I am seeing people for individual therapy, we also often end up going over communication styles and assess what can be improved in the area of communication because it is SO important in every area of your life.

For couples, communication problems are often at the heart of so many problems that couples face.  In a relationship, the health and strength of the relationship isn’t measured by how much conflict you have with each other. All couples have some conflict, so being conflict-free isn’t the goal. The problems arise when it comes to how you resolve that conflict. When you learn to communicate well, then you can resolve conflicts in a healthy and productive way that nurtures and supports your relationship rather than in a way that tears down your bonds and causes pain and distress.

What are the 3 communication styles?

Essentially, there are 3 forms of communication, and as a couple you may both use different forms of communication during conflict, so depending on what your tendencies are as a couple both of you may need to do some work to change how you communicate with each other. The first step towards building healthier communication as a couple is learning what kind of communication style you are using and figure out whether it is healthy or if there needs to be some changes.

Communication can be broken down into these 3 styles:

  1. Passive

Passive communication is when you are attempting to let someone know how you feel without really coming out and saying it. Passive behavior can mean being avoidant and choosing NOT to discuss problems when they arise, usually because you don’t like conflict or you want to avoid an argument.  Passive communication can be giving someone the silent treatment, or it could be using non-verbal cues like rolling your eyes, crossing your arms, giving someone a mean look, or walking around the house huffing and puffing but then saying “Nothing” when your partner asks you what’s wrong.

  1. Aggressive

Aggressive behavior is pretty clear when you see it: yelling, screaming, slamming doors, violence, insults, inappropriate sarcasm meant to cut the other person down, condescending comments. This way of communicating is harmful and damaging to relationships, and damages intimacy and the mental health of both people in the partnership.

  1. Assertive

Assertive communication is open, honest, and direct when it comes to expressing your thoughts and feelings. This kind of communication feels good because you are expressing yourself and making your points, without attacking your partner or shutting down their thoughts and feelings. Assertive communication is about standing up for your thoughts, feelings, and rights, without trampling on your partner’s thoughts, feelings, or rights.

What does it mean to be Passive-Aggressive?

Some people use the term passive-aggressive to describe themselves or others, but I dislike that term, because what it really amounts to is using passive behavior or communication to convey an aggressive sentiment or emotion.  When people say someone is being passive-aggressive, they usually just mean the person did something passive, but they meant it in an aggressive way.  Ultimately it’s passive behavior, and it’s still unhealthy for relationships.

What Does Unhealthy Communication Look Like?

Unhealthy communication is either passive or aggressive. These two communication styles are often part of a cycle that builds up over time and conflicts start to sap the energy and joy out of your relationship. You don’t want conflict so you avoid sensitive issues. Then resentment builds up until one or both partners explode.

Passive behavior is unhealthy in relationships because it does not resolve problems, but instead leads to resentment building up as emotions are stuffed down and problems are ignored. This often results in the “volcano effect”, where resentment and hurt feelings builds up over time, but is never addressed, until something triggers an explosion, and then aggressive behavior breaks through and there’s an unhealthy, aggressive argument.

Aggressive communication also doesn’t resolve conflict, because when you are aggressive towards your partner, the other person will do one of two things: they will feel intimidated and shut down, because they are trying to stop or avoid the aggressive behavior, or they will feel threatened and get defensive, also becoming aggressive and escalating the situation further. Now you’re both yelling at each other and nothing is getting resolved. Many couples who argue in this way find themselves highly stressed, often hurt, and insecure about the status of the relationship because it feels so volatile.

Aggressive behavior hurts your partner and reflects poorly on you if you are the one engaging in this communication style. It also has the effect of damaging the intimacy in your relationship and breaking down your emotional connection to each other. It’s harder to trust your partner when they are aggressive, and conflict doesn’t get resolved because the focus ends up on stopping the aggressive behavior rather than resolving the original problem.  Aggression also contributes to passive avoidance, because when one person is trying to avoid the aggressive attacks, they do not bring up issues that they have because they are walking on eggshells all the time.

What Is Healthy Communication for Couples?

Healthy communication for couples happens when both people learn and practice assertive communication with each other.  This means addressing problems when they come up and understanding how situations impact each other as a couple. When you both practice assertive communication, then when conflict arises you have a discussion, not an argument.  Assertive communication doesn’t come easily to everyone, but it is a skill that can be learned and practiced.

Assertive communication involves first understanding your own feelings and being able to communicate your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in a way that is open, direct, and honest. This happens when you take the time to reflect on how something your partner did or said made you feel, and then focusing on communicating your feelings, rather than just criticizing your partner’s behavior.

Often the problem is not, for example, that your partner intended to do or say something to upset you, but the way something happened may leave you feeling disrespected, hurt, or confused. It is important to communicate how their behavior or words made you feel, by saying something such as “When you said ……, I felt…..” rather than just ignoring the hurtful comment or responding with aggression such as “Don’t you dare you speak to me like that!”

How Do I Use Assertive Communication with my Partner?

There are many opportunities to practice assertive communication. You likely already do use assertive communication at times, but you may also alternate between passive or aggressive communication depending on the dynamics in your relationship.  Focusing on practicing assertive conflict resolution will benefit all your interactions over time, and you will become more confident in how you express yourself.

Practicing assertive communication also enables you to keep the focus on the conflict, rather than your behavior. Too often, partners can blame each other for their behaviors while arguing, which enables the original problem to slip out of focus while the argument turns into who is in the wrong for their response to the conflict.

To practice assertive communication, start to use some of the following statements when you want to discuss a conflict or situation that needs to be resolved or expressed:

  • I feel hurt when you say….
  • It is not fair that……
  • I feel resentful when….
  • My biggest fear is…
  • I felt let down when you….
  • I didn’t deserve…
  • I’m most angry when…..
  • I want you to understand that….
  • I accept that you…
  • I hope that you understand…
  • I need to ask you to….
  • I need to tell you that….
  • I feel scared when….
  • I feel supported when you…

 

These are all the beginnings of assertive statements that center your thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Using these kinds of statements will help you to communicate more assertively, but it will not stop your partner from reacting either passively or aggressively.  Both people in a relationship need to agree to work on using assertive communication for you to transition from having arguments to having discussions.

However, you don’t have to wait for your partner to get on board to start practicing your own assertiveness. You still have a responsibility to be healthy even if your partner doesn’t want to change. However, if your partner is not willing to engage in finding solutions to how you both communicate, then it might be time to evaluate whether you both want the same things out of your relationship.

Ultimately, practicing your communication with your partner will help you to become more assertive and confident in other areas of your life.  Your partner is who you want to feel the safest with though, when it comes to expressing your feelings, so make sure that you are making healthy communication with your partner a priority.

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For more information about relationships and building a strong partnership, check out my author page for a link to my book for couples “Work It Out: A Survival Guide to the Modern Relationship” and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.

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For more posts in this series, please see:

Relationship Series: Shared Values

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership

How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences

Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership

Grief Is Happening, Holiday or Not

Grief Is Happening, Holiday or Not

NOTE: This post was written by Hannah Guzewicz

If you are someone in grief, the holidays can be an interesting time of year. There is so much merriment and joy; anticipation and celebration, and yet there is a natural counterbalance that happens for those who have lost a loved one which comes in the form of support and acknowledgement of your grief that may have been absent before. There are some seemingly universal truths that are experienced in grief but it can also be profoundly misunderstood.  Some simply cannot comprehend that grief is not something one can “get over.”  Some do understand this and still expect grief to follow predictable paths.  Even those who have experienced grief themselves sometimes believe they understand what grief is for another person. If you have lost someone, you have likely counted the days, weeks, months, and years without your loved one, taken time to mark birthdays and death anniversaries, and felt some sort of obligation to keep that person alive in holiday traditions. These feelings and rituals can linger for many people.

Therefore, with any proximity to grief or if you yourself are grieving, you have undoubtedly seen essays, books, and social media dedicated to allowing space for grief during the holidays. There are reminders that you can and should take time for self care and that you do not have to enjoy the holidays. This is all true.

But what if your journey with grief has diverged a bit? My son died 5 and a half years ago when he was only 10 months old. It was unexpected and traumatic.  He was happy and smiling in the morning and gone that afternoon. In the aftermath, I experienced all those countdowns and marking the passing of time but eventually the ceremony of all that started to hurt me more. I had to let go of keeping every single milestone sacred to care for myself. Today, while things are different and my choices aren’t what they would have been without loss, the holidays really are a joyous experience for me. I love the celebrations, music, and lights. I cherish the family time and traditions so often I end up feeling guilty that I’m not extra sad during this time of year.

It’s a hard position to explain to people. Losing a child at any point is excruciating and even many years later, trying to talk about that time doesn’t just bring up sadness for me. There is a physical crushing pain in my chest.  It is hard to breathe and hard to swallow. The loss was life altering. I have deep wells of patience and grace for others that far exceed any I had before and also some fiery anger, intolerance, and fear that surprise me some days. I am a different person. Different not only because of life lived and lessons learned: different because the loss of my son changed my physical body, my emotional mind, and my soul. I will never be over that day. And yet, I can sometimes feel shame and guilt when people (with the kindest intentions) check in on me during the holidays and I am enjoying the season. In grief, certain times of pain are expected and yet I find the smaller less symbolic moments are when I feel most crippled. Like seeing a brother and sister walking home from school together knowing my daughters will never know their older brother. Or witnessing my older daughter teaching and protecting the younger and feeling so angry that she will never know the care of her older sibling.

The good news is that whatever loss you have experienced, there are multitudes of resources that can help you cope with grief in the minute-by-minute journey of finding how to live with your loss. And it is perfectly normal to experience sadness and stress around the holidays with grief. But despite the universality of grief, it is also deeply personal, so if the holidays are not painful for you, don’t let concern or care from others inject guilt into your experience.  Joy, whenever it happens, does not diminish the love you had or the grief you will always carry. Hold onto the moments of joy you have and know that wherever your grief may take you, you are not alone.

 

5 Ways to Support Mental Health this Holiday

5 Ways to Support Mental Health this Holiday

Many people struggle during the holidays for a lot of different reasons.  The holiday season may coincide with anniversary of the loss of a loved one, or may be a reminder of the estrangement or difficulty of family relationships. Despite the fact that these conditions are true for many people, suicides rates actually decrease during the holidays.  The CDC reports that suicide rates are lowest in December, contradicting much of the information published about depression during the holidays.

However, despite the fact that suicide rates may not be spiking during this time of year, it remains a fact that you or someone you know may be struggling emotionally during the holidays. How can we all be more supportive and make sure that our hearts and homes are open to those we care about this season? Just as importantly, how can we make sure that we remain connected and caring throughout the new year as well? Here are some things to keep in mind as you think about mental health awareness during the holiday season:

  1. Reach out

If you notice that someone you care about has withdrawn or if you know a person that struggles with their mental health, this is a great time to reach out to them and let them know that you’re available.  Ask if they have plans over the next couple months and let them know when you know you’ll be available.  Lots of people have events, parties, and trips scheduled this time of year, but letting those you care about know when you’ll be around will make it more likely they will reach out to you as well during those times.  It can be hard for people who struggle with their mental health to reach out for help, and they may be especially disinclined to do so during the holidays because they may feel that they are intruding on others during their holiday plans. For those that do not have a lot of plans, it may feel like an isolating time. One way to be supportive is to think about all of your friends, family, and neighbors, and ask yourself about who could use some company this holiday.

  1. Ask

As mentioned above, it is often hard for people with depression, grief, or other mental health struggles to ask for help when they feel isolated or sad. When you reach out to others, ask how they are doing and if they are getting their needs met.  If you know that they have been grieving or may be feeling upset due to an anniversary, invite them to talk about it if they want to.

  1. Respect Needs

While most people will appreciate your actions when you reach out to offer support, some people may need to have some personal time or withdraw from some of the holiday festivities.  This is not necessarily a bad thing. Isolation and withdrawal may be necessary self-care strategies for people who are struggling. These strategies only become unhealthy when people are thinking about self-harm or who want connection with others but are unable to have that connection for any reason. If someone tells you that they feel like they need some alone time, respect their decision but just reiterate that you are there if and when they need support or company.  Let them know that they do not have to talk about what they are feeling if they don’t want to, but that you can always just hang out to have some good times together as well.

  1. Re-engage

When people want some space, you can give them some time to have privacy, but this doesn’t mean you need to disappear forever.  You can reach back out after a couple weeks or after they have verbalized that they are ready for company or contact again. Just re-engaging with them may allow them to start moving past their seasonal slump. Again, this is a time when people who are struggling with their mental health over the holidays may be ready to be around others or enjoy company again, but they may have a hard time reaching out and asking for help if they have already asked for space.  Just remember that people’s needs change, and being open and adaptable is the best way to be supportive.

  1. Be Personal

Sometimes it can be hard to know what the right thing to say is to those who whom you know are struggling with depression, grief, anxiety, or other emotional struggles. The best way to approach this is to just be sincere and to be personal.  You don’t have to be vague or general when you talk about mental health.  You can ask about how they are handling the anniversary of their loved one’s death, or if they want to talk about the feelings that they experience during the holidays. You can also offer some of your own personal thoughts and about how you relate to or understand their feelings. That can be immensely helpful for people who may not know that others around them have similar feelings or struggles.

 

The most important thing to remember is that while the holidays are filled with joy and gratitude for many people, there are also those for whom the holidays can be challenging. Although more people are aware now of this problem, we sometimes don’t always know what to do to support someone whom we know might be struggling. Remember that you don’t have to have the solutions to all the problems to be helpful.  Just knowing that people care is sometimes the only thing that can make things better.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, where you can get crisis intervention, free confidential support, and resources for you and your loved ones.