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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jon

4 Toxic Relationship Habits Many People Think Are Normal

There’s not a relationship certification class that teaches you how to not be a terrible person. There’s no minimum standards test for dating or marriage – like the DMV is to driving. When you get a driver’s license, passing the DMV test doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a good driver, but it tells other drivers that you have the opportunity to be a good driver because you’ve passed a minimum standards test. If you’re going to get into a relationship, you need to pass a minimum set of standards test. This article is that test. Whether your single or married, this article is for you.

One of the most misguided things that fuels toxic relationship habits is our culture’s concept of love. This foolishness is hardwired into American culture. I hear it all the time and so do you: “I’ve fallen in love with her.” “It feels magical when I’m with him.” “I’ve met my soulmate.”[1]These things sound nice and make us feel all tingly inside but offer nothing in terms of real-world usefulness. Many people worship at the altar of Eros[2] and scoff at the practicality of a committed loving relationship.

A lot of self-help relationship books and articles aren’t helpful at all. This article isn’t meant to be part of that nonsense. I wrote it to be packed with value. Each main section is organized into three subsections: 1. What is it? 2. Why is it toxic? 3. What should I do? It will help you identify behaviors that are toxic and provide you with a solution. It’s your relationship compass, your guide in the octagon of dating, the True North of marriage advice, the bedrock on which you can build a lasting relationship.[3] Without some set of standards, all couples are left with is mostly trial and error. I don’t want you to stumble along in relationship ineptitude (I don’t think you do either), so let’s get to the juicy stuff.

1/ The Relationship Scorecard[4]

What is it? It’s when one person keeps score by blaming the other for past mistakes. Relationships that do this can quickly devolve into a kind of purgatory – you’re not quite living in hell, but you’re so close you can see it. People that participate in score keeping usually value being right over being connected. They think to themselves, “If they can be less wrong than the other person in the relationship, I’ll always have a leg up.” So they keep score. Oftentimes this tactic is used to avoid dealing with a current issue. It works like this:

1. A problem arises or mistake happens.

2. The person who caused the problem/made the mistake is confronted.

3. The confronted person then reaches into the past and drags out any number of issues.

Why is this toxic? It’s toxic because it’s a dysfunctional way of trying to justify your behaviors – even when you’re wrong. Second, it keeps your partner walking on eggshells by living under the threat of having something they did 1, 5, 10, or 30 years ago dragged into the present. This, in turn, distracts from the current issue and is a way to manipulate your partner into feeling like they can never be enough for you.

What should I do? Deal with issues individually unless it’s a recurring problem and something in the past is legitimately connected to the present issue. But what about past problems that really need addressed? Sometimes past hurts need to be talked about so set aside time to do it when you’re both calm. Trying to discuss critical issues when you’re in the middle of WWIII is a terrible idea because people’s perceptual field narrows (like looking at life through a straw) and they have a difficult time tuning in to what you say.

2/ Dropping Hints

What is it? It’s indirect, passive-aggressive communication. Instead of openly saying what’s bothering you, you make petty, vague statements that leave your significant other feeling confused and angry. When they react, you then play the victim. Examples:

1. It sure would be nice if you called more often, you know I love hearing from you.

2. Why can’t you be more like Bob? He’s such a nice guy.

3. Wouldn’t it be great if you actually planned a vacation this year?

4. We never do anything fun anymore.

Why is this toxic? It shows that one or both of you are not comfortable with honest, sincere communication. It’s a sign that the fabric of the relationship isn’t sturdy enough for open and direct communication. If one party doesn’t feel comfortable enough expressing their own negative emotion, they will oftentimes resort to dropping hints.

What should I do? Instead of dropping hints, work on stating your feelings openly and honestly. If you want to go out on dates more often, state your desire openly: “I’d like to go out more often. How could we make this happen?” Think about what’s going on inside of you as accurately as you can so you can talk about those feelings as accurately as you can. This will take practice and may feel awkward and clunky at first. No one becomes a pro at anything overnight. Keep working at it and you’ll get better.

3/ Holding the Relationship Hostage

What is it? Threatening the commitment of the relationship. It works like this: One person in the relationship isn’t happy about something. Instead of discussing the issue that’s bothering them, they attempt to strong-arm the other individual into getting what they want by threatening to end the relationship. Examples:

1. “I guess I need to find someone who’ll talk to me more.”

2. Instead of saying, “I’d like to do more romantic activities,” they say, “I can’t be in a relationship with someone who never does romantic activities.”

3. In a fight they say something ominous like, “I just can’t do this with you anymore.”

Why is this toxic? It’s emotional blackmail & creates unnecessary drama. The bottom line is this: if you continue to threaten to execute the relationship, you’ll eventually wear the other person slick and they’ll call your bluff. (I’ve seen it happen in session. I felt like applauding and cheering the person on.) It tells the other person that nothing in the relationship is ever certain. It undermines stability. It creates a culture within the relationship where communicating negative information isn’t understood within the larger context of the safety of the relationship – one person is constantly reminding the other that the relationship isn’t strong enough to withstand honest communication. When both parties don’t feel free to be honest it creates distrust and manipulation, this in turn creates compartmentalization within the relationship where one person hides aspects of their life from the other while the person threatening the relationship is constantly trying to figure out what the other person is hiding.

What should I do? Stop threatening the fabric of the relationship and understand that committing to love a person and always liking them aren’t the same thing. You can be annoyed at someone and 100% committed to them. Learn to cultivate a sense of fear within safety in your relationship. In other words, the safety that the relationship provides is greater than the fear of making a mistake.

4/ Buying Solutions to Problems

What is it? Any time a major conflict arises instead of solving it, you cover it up with the excitement and good feelings that come with buying something or going on a fun trip.

Why is this toxic? It brushes the problem under the rug and establishes an unhealthy pattern regarding how problems are handled. Example:

Let’s say the guy in the relationship messes up. Instead of discussing the problem he buys the woman an expensive necklace and takes her out to a nice restaurant for dinner. She tries to talk about the issue at dinner but gets shut down by her man with something like, “Why are you trying to ruin a great evening?”

This is bad for two reasons: first, it subconsciously reinforces the idea to the woman that she’s “bad” for wanting to bring up negative issues.[5] Second, it cultivates an environment where the man isn’t accountable for what he did and the problem he caused.

What should I do? Resist the temptation to sweep the conflict under the rug. Instead, communicate with your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend. Were your feelings hurt? Initiate a conversation about how to avoid that in the future.

Sidenote: There’s nothing wrong with doing something kind or buying something nice for the other person to show that you messed up and you’re still very much committed to the relationship. The problem arises when doing something kind or buying something nice becomes a cover for meaningful communication.

Toxic relationships aren’t easy to fix. But if you’re both willing to work at it, then it’s well worth the effort. I believe good counselors should be able to provide people with different perspectives that are useful. They should provide meaningful answers that will withstand the searing heat of reality. To that end, I hope what I wrote accomplished that and you feel better equipped for a successful relationship.


[1] I had to take a break when I was writing that sentence because I threw-up in my mouth just a little bit. [2] In Greek mythology, Eros is the god of sexual love. It’s also where we get our English word erotic from. Ironically, Eros was also the son of Chaos; the original primeval emptiness of the universe. Interesting that a life filled with careless sex and multitude of partners also leads to chaos, don’t you think? [3] That’s a ridiculous exaggeration. I got caught up in the moment and completely carried away… sorry. [4] These subheadings were taken from: I think Mark is a brilliant foul-mouthed writer. Reader discretion is advised. [5] As a general rule, most women’s go-to stress emotion is guilt. Ladies, if this is you develop strategies to determine whether or not you should feel guilty in a given situation. You can trip to the coffee shop, you take a trip to the store, and you can take a trip to the beach, but don’t take a guilt trip.

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