Toxic behaviours within a relationship can be one of the main factors why a couple in crisis will seek relationship therapy or marriage guidance.
When a couple is unable to break the relational pattern of conflict, it is usually then that they will seek professional support to help them to navigate their way back to a healthy relationship.
I will stipulate, couples counselling is not solely for those who are married, but anybody within a committed relationship and would like to improve the quality of the relationship.
“Sometimes, it is a drama being played out, with the
same root cause causing conflict, but with a change in dialogue,
each spouse having a role in how the argument unfolds and develops.”
As a psychotherapist, I help couples to improve their relationship through communication skills and teach them the tools to learn how to resolve conflict, I often use methods that are researched, tried and tested. Therefore it works, it’s very effective in getting the desired results and with the right amount of time and effort, it can really help to provide insight into the dynamics of a relationship.
Once a couple can become aware of how they relate to one another and why, then it is the first step in starting the process of change.
One tool I often refer to when helping a couple to improve their relationship is based on Gottman’s concept of the four horsemen of the apocolypse.
The Gottmans’ are a husband and wife duo who are well known relationship experts with many publications, teaching and research methods into what makes a relationship work.
The title the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse from biblical terms is rather dramatic, but I think it needs to be, the negative relational patterns within a romantic relationship often are.
Sometimes, it is a drama being played out, with the same root cause causing conflict, but with a change in dialogue, each spouse having a role in how the argument unfolds and develops.
When I present the The 4 Horsemen when working with couples, it is designed to offer a space of reflection and self awareness.
This helps each individual become not only aware but accountable for their behaviours during conflict.
Once you recognise for yourself what some of your unhelpful behaviours are within your relationship, you can then both actively endeavour to make actionable changes to respond or react differently, which helps your relationship become healthier and stronger.
I’ll start with the act of criticising as it’s a term we are all familiar with and there is usually an awareness at how unhelpful it can be in a relationship.
Being critical of your partner by personal attacks usually start with something like:
“I hate it when you…”
“You always do this…” or even
“What is wrong with you…”
It can lead to more toxic behaviours that becomes invalidating to how the other person thinks or feels:
“That doesn’t even make any sense…”
“You’re being ridiculous….”
Essentially criticism is some form of complaint, with a real sting. It’s letting your partner know where you think they have failed or are not good enough. It’s making the other person feel as though their thoughts or feelings are invalid or their feelings don’t matter.
There are a lot of “you’s” in this dialogue, it’s finger pointing, it’s blaming and deflecting the argument from ourselves, without actively listening or taking our partners’ values into consideration, pointing critical blame directly onto our spouse.
When you feel criticised, you feel as though you are under a personal attack, and a natural response can be to then become defensive.
When you feel under attack it initiates your stress response and spikes your cortisol levels where you enter into fight or flight mode.
Although it is a normal reaction to respond to stress, this real physiological response is an unmatched response to the situation when you are in a relationship and engaging in toxic behaviours.
When you feel like you’re under attack, you might perceive yourself in the role of the victim, feeling harshly judged and needing to protect yourself.
Putting yourself in the role of victim means you are also not listening to or validating the experience of your spouse, as you are too busy thinking of your rebuttal to protect or defend yourself.
When you are in this mindset, you are unable to consider a rational unbiased view from this perspective.
This results in making excuses and the “yeah, but’s” come out, followed by cross blaming:
“well I only did that because you…”
When you are in defence mode, often you are so busy lining up your rebuttal, you aren’t actually truly listening to what your partner has to say.
Whether they are making a valid point or not.
It’s very likely that you then get caught in this negative cycle of cross blaming each other, without valuing or listening to your partner’s perspective.
This means you are both unable to resolve or accept your differences.
This could be seen as one of the most toxic behaviours within a relationship.
It is the most destructive negative behaviour within a relationship that can often predict the state of your relationship and can be an indication whether your relationship can stand the test of time.
Using sarcasm, negative body language such as eye rolling, or sitting with your back toward your spouse, loud sighing and acting belligerent are all unhelpful behaviours when communicating in a relationship.
The act of contempt toward your partner is based around a lack of respect and when the language becomes verbally abusive it becomes increasingly toxic.
It is being intentionally mean or spiteful with the intent of emotionally hurting your spouse.
You become hostile, use profanity, deroragtory terms and insults. You might belittle your partner’s point of view in order to make them feel small or insignificant.
There is an air of arrogance, as you know best and see yourself in a superior position, valuing your own feelings, thoughts and perceptions as fact.
You become patronising, condescending and really an unpleasant person to be around.
During a state of contempt it is literally impossible to listen to your partner’s perspective, problem solve or attempt a reconciliation and you are likely to be communicating from the worst version of yourself.
"...This helps each individual become not only aware, but accountable for their behaviours during conflict."
Stonewalling is giving your partner the silent treatment, removing yourself from the confrontation using a passive aggressive stance.
The silent treatment is an avoidance tactic and often it is used as a way of punishing your spouse.
You become withdrawn from all communication and make no attempt toward reconciliation. Living together in uncomfortable or stony silence breeds contempt and frustration, making no healthy movement towards resolving your differences.
Usually stonewalling your partner often backfires, as it never achieves anything good.
Your partner doesn’t suddenly change their perspective and become apologetic, and sometimes enjoys the peace and quiet!
If anything it breeds your own feelings of anger and the tension and resentment continues to build.
Visual representation of toxic behaviours typically described in a couples counselling session.
Conflict is a normal and healthy part of what makes a relationship, but it’s when behaviours become toxic that it begins to have a long-lasting negative impact on the relationship.
You need to have conflict in a relationship to grow, learn how to problem solve and resolve issues so that it doesn’t negatively get in the way of a loving relationship.
It is not the fact that you argue that is unhealthy, but is very much how you argue.
It’s important to recognise when toxic behaviours become a regular occurrence in your relationship and what you can do about it.
You can then become aware when it is the right time to look for help from a relationship therapist, who can offer you both support to move away from the toxic behaviours of the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse and into managing healthy conflict.
For further reading about toxic behaviours in relationships I would recommend the book The 7 Principles of Making Marriage Work. You can visit the link to purchase your own copy of the book, where I will receive a small commission if you purchase through the link. This book has proved very helpful while working with couples to improve their relationship.
I’m Lizandra Leigertwood and I’m counsellor and psychotherapist in St Albans, Hertfordshire. I help individuals and couples to improve their relationships through better communication and a stronger connection. You can find out more about couples therapy with me here.
To book an appointment or arrange a consultation with me, you can get in touch today by using the confidential contact form, I usually respond within 24 hours.