DEAR DR. JENN,
I've been in an on-again, off-again relationship for years. Our fights are super explosive and intense — we tend to go below the belt and say things we regret. I spend way too much time in tears. I know this isn't healthy, but how do I know if the relationship has become 'toxic' and beyond the point of repair? —Toxic Twosome
If you have to ask, well, you are probably there. While all relationships have their ups and downs, couples need to know how to work through conflict — it's what sets healthy relationships apart from toxic ones.
The ability to fight fairly not only predicts the likelihood of a breakup, but also a couple’s future health. According to marital researchers at the University of Utah, 93 percent of couples who "fight dirty" will be divorced in ten years. If you're belligerent, disrespectful, defensive, or aggressive during your fights, you may win your argument, but you are likely to lose your relationship.
Relationship researcher John Gottman, who is best known for his ability to predict divorce with 94 percent accuracy, has identified four common predictors of divorce: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
While it's possible to work through these issues and learn to fight fair, there are some behaviors that I'd consider truly toxic deal breakers in a relationship. These behaviors are so serious that they prevent a couple from being able to develop a close relationship and a safe connection. One example of this is abuse. Any abuse — whether it is physical, emotional, or sexual — is totally unacceptable. If your partner has hit you once, there is always the possibility that he will do it again, and you will never be free to be totally honest with him or her again.
If you ever suspect you're in danger do not pass go and attempt to diagnose your relationship — prioritize seeking safety first and foremost.
Here, a few other toxic deal breakers in a relationship:
1. Emotional unavailability
Being slightly emotionally unavailable is common during the early phases of dating, but within a relationship it can be toxic. You can’t have a serious relationship with someone who is unable to be giving, loving, and present, or who constantly pushes you away — nor should you have to settle for someone who doesn't fulfill your emotional needs.
2. Addiction or compulsive behavior — unwillingness to get help
Wherever there is addiction or compulsivity, emotional intimacy cannot exist. This kind of behavior puts a wall between you and your partner. Enabling addiction and other dangerous, compulsive behaviors helps one person to self-destruct and causes the other to harbor toxic resentment.
While a partner who is working a strong 12-step program and is clean and sober can be in a healthy relationship, willingness to get help is key. If your partner has a serious problem that is hurting the relationship, you should not be expected to stand by and watch as he or she self-destructs.
3. Habitual cheating
Some people consider cheating to be a surefire relationship ender, but there is gray area. People make mistakes. While cheating is never okay, there is a big difference between someone who screws up once and someone who is a habitual cheater. The latter shows a pattern of hurtful behavior, poor impulse control, and a lack of honor. While you can teach relationship skills to your partner, you cannot teach character. What you see is what you get, no matter how much you may want to change it.
4. Compulsive lying
Compulsive lying is another sign of a toxic relationship, which may also present itself with cheating or addiction, if your partner attempts to cover up their behavior with continuous deceit. Whether it is a sign of a lack of conscience or a full-blown antisocial personality disorder, this is a sign of a toxic relationship, and should be a deal breaker. If you can’t trust your partner to tell the truth, your relationship is doomed.
As hard as it can be to leave any relationship, if you're in a toxic relationship that's destructive to your well-being, the only option is to leave.