Is Your Partner Toxic or Just Clueless?

Find out if there's hope for your relationship or if you're wasting your time.

Posted Sep 30, 2019

Bigstock w/ permission
Source: Bigstock w/ permission

I was recently working with a client who, after 17 years of marriage, told me she was ready to leave her husband.

She was upset at the way he was treating her and felt angry that his behavior was, as she described it, cold, controlling, and unkind. She forwarded me an article that she had read on narcissism and told me that she felt he might fit the profile. She then told me something that made me question her assessment: She said he had just started therapy a few months ago and was trying to work on his “issues.” When I probed further, she said he had never been abusive, didn’t have any drug or alcohol problems, to her knowledge had not been unfaithful, and was for the most part a good father. She also told me that what was stopping her from leaving was that she was terrified of hurting him because when they had first married, he had been very kind and loving and she felt he was a good man. But things had changed after they had children.

The more we discussed the relationship, the more I wondered if it could be saved. As a therapist who spent several years working in a domestic violence program, I have a keen awareness of what truly toxic relationships look like. Often, when working with clients, I find I am in the position of trying to help them realize the unhealthy nature of their relationships.

But this one was different. 

All relationships start out good; otherwise, people wouldn’t start them in the first place. But most people are never taught how to keep a good relationship going. We inevitably default to whatever we learned growing up in our own families, and if that wasn’t picture-perfect, there may be a lot to learn about how to be a good partner and keep a relationship healthy. Without that information, most people just fumble their way through relationship after relationship, learning through trial and error what works and what doesn’t. That doesn’t make them toxic individuals.

Finding a good relationship isn’t easy; most people would say it’s one of life's biggest challenges. Once you find one and it’s been good for a while, but then it starts to disintegrate, it’s hard to know whether to just end it or whether it has the potential to be fixed. 

So how can you tell if your partner is toxic or really just clueless?

  1. Don’t self-diagnosis your relationship with online articles. Online articles, like this one, can be valuable sources of information. (Some are better than others.) But they are only meant to be guides. In the last several years the number of online articles about narcissism has skyrocketed. It’s a word you now hear and see everywhere. And, yes, they are fascinating individuals who can cause others a lot of pain, but true narcissistic personality disorder is present in less than 1% of the population. Most people who behave badly in relationships aren’t truly narcissists. If you have serious concerns about whether you are in a relationship with a narcissistic individual, or anyone with a serious mental health or substance abuse problem, it’s always best to consult with a mental health professional on how to deal with the situation. Your own safety and mental well-being have to be the priority.
  2. Communicate about the problem. Many people who are unhappy never really talk about the problem. The first thing I ask any client who is unhappy in a relationship is whether they have told their partner what they just told me. The answer is almost always “not really” or “not in those words.” Communication can be scary and vulnerable, but it is necessary for bringing two people closer together. "I don’t want to hurt my partner" is often cited as a big reason for not talking openly, but if you don’t tell someone what you are really thinking and feeling, the other person is going to be clueless about the problem and can’t do anything to work on it. "It should be obvious" isn't a fair assessment. While it would be nice, your partner can’t read your mind and likely has a completely different viewpoint on the issue that you won’t know about unless you communicate. 

    How you communicate can make a huge difference as well: Stay focused on your feelings and try not to blame or make your partner wrong. This is harder than it sounds. Also, ask for the solution you want. For example, if you feel like you are always being ignored, instead of saying, "You never pay attention to me and that really hurts," try, "I've been feeling sad that we don’t spend as much time together as we used to. I miss you and I’d like it if we could make more effort to have alone time during the week."
  3. See if your partner is willing to do the work. Once you start to openly communicate about your concerns, one of several things will likely happen: He or she will listen to what you say and respond with concern that results in some type of action. Or they will be defensive, dismissive, and/or patronizing. If you have been together for some time it might take several discussions to know which one your partner is going to choose. If your partner is willing to hear your concern and address the problem, that’s a good sign. They may still be clueless about what they need to do, but a willingness to change means they are invested and willing to work on improving the relationship.
  4. Make sure you are doing your own work. Two people in a relationship create a dynamic for which both share a responsibility for. It isn’t your partner’s job to make you happy. Each partner has the responsibility to take care of their own health and emotional well-being so that they can create a healthy couple. The more work you do on yourself, the easier it is to see whether the issues in your relationship are fixable or not.

My client and her husband started couples counseling together. She was somewhat surprised at how responsive and willing he was to work on improving their relationship. She realized he was still the good man she had fallen in love with, but she learned through the process that she and her husband had had different upbringings and different expectations that had shaped the course of their marriage. Her husband wasn’t a toxic person, but he was unaware of how his behavior was affecting her—and she was unaware that her lack of communication was preventing him from understanding her needs. They are still working things through, but they are both a little less clueless, and a lot happier with their relationship.

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