Emily Davis left an abusive relationship. She thought she had healed from the trauma.
But when she entered a new relationship, things started to fall apart.
She’d start big fights over small things. She was paranoid and fearful, and controlling because of it.
“And I was like, oh my God, I’m yelling at him in the way that I used to get yelled at,” she said.
Davis quickly realized that she had become a toxic partner.
“It’s basically a fear of not being good enough at love,” she said. “It manifests in a lot of guilt. It manifests in control issues and trust issues.”
“Toxic” might be a buzzword, but it’s a broad term for unhealthy behavior in a relationship. And while there’s a lot of advice out there for how to identify a toxic partner or parent, identifying your own behavior as toxic takes serious self reflection.
Charese Josie, a licensed clinical social worker, says there are three main questions you should ask yourself.
As Davis’s story shows, toxic behaviors in a relationship are usually learned behaviors. When someone acts that way, there’s a reason from their past.
Josie tells her clients to “own their stuff”; that is, address the things in their past that might have influenced the way they’re behaving.
That can be an abusive relationship. It could be loss. Or, more commonly, it’s stuff that happened in childhood, like witnessing abuse.
Your past isn’t your fault. But oftentimes, people try to pretend those things never happened, not knowing how much past trauma is continuing to influence their lives.
“They witnessed dysfunction and they never learned how to have a healthy argument,” Josie said. “They might say, ‘I’m not gonna hit you,’ but they’ll get so close to it that they’ll be emotionally abusive.”
In other cases, unresolved grief or loss from your past can mess with your attachment to your current partner. You might be constantly afraid they’ll leave you.
There’s a reason it’s such a big deal to identify why what you’re doing is toxic. You’ll never change without it.
If you don’t address the root of your behavior, you might end up stuck in a constant loop of failed or unfulfilling relationships.
“Either they’ll find someone who enjoys the dysfunctional relationship just as much as they do,” Josie said. “Or they’ll end up alone.”
You don’t have to break up with your partner just because you’ve been toxic in the past. But it’s important to communicate with them from the get-go.
Once Davis realized the unhealthy ways she’d been approaching the relationship, she told her partner that she was aware of the way she’d been acting.
She explained the context behind those actions.
“It should always come from a place that you’re trying to grow the relationship,” she said. “It’s not an excuse that you had this past. It’s, ‘Hey, I want you to be aware of this, and if you see me doing these things, make me aware of this.’”
For instance, if you know you’re dealing with anxiety, and you know you need a few minutes of alone time every day, make sure you tell your partner that.
That way, they know exactly what you want from them. Your partner can actually be someone to lean on through the healing process.
Intentional communication is always a good thing, Josie said. But especially in this context.
Many of her clients think they’ve been communicating well, when really they’re communicating in overly general terms.
One client said he wanted his wife to “be a wife.”
He thought that was clear. But Josie had to work with him to unpack what that really meant to him.
Davis is a proponent of journaling as you begin to work through your toxic behaviors.
Sit down and write down all of your fears in the relationship. Every single one.
Once they’re out there in the open, you know what to tackle.
“I think it’s 100 percent possible to fix,” Davis said. “But it’s a continued effort and you have to be very aware that you’re trying to fix it, and your partner has to be aware of it too.”
Seeking counseling or other professional help is a good way to help along the healing process.
Or, if you don’t feel comfortable with one-on-one help, consider joining a support group to talk through what you’re feeling.
“People think they should know the answers to their problems,” Josie said. “You don’t have to know the answer. That’s what counseling is for.”
Davis, an author and anxiety coach who focuses on relationships, said that counseling and therapy helped her overcome her own fears. It helped her get out of the pattern she’d been falling in.
Every step of the way, she told her partner all about the things she was learning. They were able to heal together.
“Me and my partner have an amazing relationship,” she said. “It didn’t start out that way.”
Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.