Toxic you? Toxic me?

The topic of toxic relationships stirs up a lot in me and surprisingly not all of what it stirs up is bad! Perhaps it might be a good idea to explain what I am talking about when I use the word relationship. Romantic - certainly, but also work relationships, friendships, parental relationships (as a parent and as a child) and therapeutic as well.


There was a time in my life when I used to view myself through the lens of being in a relationship or not. Happy me was in a romantic relationship and a less happy me was not in a romantic relationship. I viewed other relationships as functional and consequently, they were not long-lasting and not fulfilling.

Enough about me, what is a toxic relationship? Generally, it can be considered a toxic relationship if one or both parties are:

  • not getting their needs met
  •  hurtful or indeed harmful behaviours are present in the relationship 
  • either party is in the relationship because the fear of not being in a relationship is stronger than the pain of the relationship.

So be it the financially dependent parent, the previously abused partner, the partner who feels responsible for the other party or the partner who does not feel as if they matter and is clinging on to the relationship in the desperate hope that the other party will change. I would describe all of these as toxic relationships. Not exhaustive descriptors by any means but are sufficient for the purposes of this article.

Tough reading for some but is it necessary for the truth to be comfortable? So what can be done? Firstly I would offer that nobody else can change a toxic relationship for you, that is something that only you can do. This is perhaps a scary idea but the roots of a toxic relationship can be said to lay in the idea that we are somehow not strong enough, not capable of effecting change. In counselling speak - low self-worth. This idea can trap us in relationships and cause us considerable stress and grief. It is certainly an idea that I as a counsellor see repeatedly.

When a client is given the space to see that what once worked for them is no longer working for them and that it is not acceptable to be in a toxic relationship, then they are in a better position. They are then able to consider their self-worth, their agency, and their ability. I do not for a moment consider this to be easy but if change happens by action not by chance it is necessary. A step on the journey that will enable the client to make the changes in their life that can lead them to a place where they feel more comfortable, more satisfied, perhaps even more fulfilled.

In counselling this is exactly what I provide. A safe and supportive space where a client can begin to describe their relationship. When a client is able to describe their relationship they are able to view it as a whole rather than being confused by the daily detail, the turmoil and stress. They are then able to be critical, and positively critical. They are better able to see what roles are being used by them and the other party. They are able to see how what once worked well might be not working so well now. Being able to do this presents the client with an opportunity. It is very rewarding to be able to see a client going through this.

When a client is able to see their relationship as it is, not as they hope it will become or what it was, then the opportunity to consider how it can be changed is present. I have seen this experienced by clients as a very powerful and important realisation. Then the client can consider how they might want to change the relationship. These changes can be multiple and can take a lot of work, effort in other words. Sometimes the change chosen by clients is to end the relationship. Difficult when feelings of responsibility, guilt and low self-worth (how will I ever find another relationship, for example) are being felt.

Oftentimes it is realising that the changes necessary (speaking up for themselves, setting boundaries) and being given a supportive and non-judgemental space to explore how to do this is necessary. This is something I seek to do as a counsellor. Other times it is okay to be vulnerable, to listen to the partner's criticism and to be able to accept perfection as an ideal and not a requirement.

The need to turn off the incessant social media messages or perhaps to view them differently might be required. This might mean owning their stuff but also being able to discern that other people's opinions are just that, their opinions and the relevance we give them is our choice.

To sum up, whatever the type of relationship, we have the ability as individuals to change it. We may decide to change it radically or in small, discrete ways but knowing that we can change it is important. We may decide to not change ourselves and to let the relationship take its course. This is acceptable as well. Acceptance is a very powerful attitude. I would offer that as long as we don't let the unacceptable become acceptable then acceptance can serve us well. Should we choose to accept it? Easier said than done sometimes.

In transactional analysis (TA) a model that is often used is that of a seed. With the right conditions, the seed will grow and eventually become a fully mature plant. On that journey, it might encounter strong winds, excessive heat, and not enough light or water. By seeking to rectify these deficiencies/adversities a farmer can enable the plant to reach maturity.

In relationships, we may encounter criticism, moods, excessive demands, and feelings of being worn out or neglected. With the help of a counsellor, we can seek to make the relationship function better for us. Ultimately leading to a fulfilling and rewarding relationship. Perhaps it is better to try, and fail than to never try!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Chelmsford CM1
Written by Steve Fayers, Counsellor / Therapist | Certified Trauma Therapist
Chelmsford CM1

I am a person, a counsellor, a parent, a flawed human being who has struggled with life. Struggled with addiction.
I would rather struggle than give in and accept a life that does not meet my needs and wants.
I am trying to be the best person I can be.
"I will not go quietly into that goodnight " (paraphrased Dylan Thomas)

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