How to know when you are in a toxic or abusive relationship*
This is a blog about health and fitness. Health is not, of course, in a vacuum – part of health is healthy relationships. And if those relationships are unhealthy or abusive, that impacts our physical and mental health. Ironically, my unhealthy relationship is responsible for this blog. Fitness has given me the confidence that the toxic relationship I was in completely tore down. It’s no longer something I do but it’s part of who I am. This experience is more common than people think- and it cuts across all racial, economic, and geographic lines. This is what I want to talk about this topic – because it’s too important to not talk about.
WARNING: Can contain triggering material about domestic violence.
How success can be a smokescreen
There is this perception out there that smart, successful women would never let themselves be caught up in an unhealthy relationship. We have the means to support ourselves, so we can just exit stage left the second we are disrespected, right?
The evidence is entirely to the contrary. For example, Nigella Lawson, a domestic goddess worth $25 million, made headlines for pictures surfacing of being grabbed around her throat by her then-husband, who wrote it off as a “playful tiff” in response to scrutiny by the press.
And it’s all over the world. Reeva Steenkamp, a world-renown model from South Africa with legal career aspirations, was shot dead by her Paralympian boyfriend Oscar Pistorius in 2013 after a history of emotional and physical abuse in the relationship. Across the ocean, at the University of Virginia, the world was shocked when they learned of the murder of Yeardley Love, one half of a golden couple that included a UVA lacrosse player, George Huguely. Despite warning signs and previous evidence of violence in the relationship, her friends said that “nobody put it all together.” She was found beaten to death in her own bedroom by the Charlottesville police, and Huguely was later convicted of her murder. Half of women killed worldwide die at the hands of their family or intimate partners.
None of the above examples that finally ended up in the public eye came out of nowhere. In all cases, there was a history and a pattern of unhealthy codependency and abuse. For the most part, there was silence – from both the person experiencing it, and the people surrounding them.
Why we don’t talk about it
These “celebrity” examples are closer to home than a lot of people know. The problem is we don’t talk about it. The person going through it is either in denial or ashamed. When they are honest, they are often victim-blamed for not “just leaving.” or “not getting help.” But I understand why they didn’t leave. I understand why they didn’t ask for help. For 10 years, I was trapped in a relationship with all the same bad signs that no one talked about until after the fact.
During these 10 years, for the most part, I was determined to project an image of success, both at work and at home. Like many other women in this situation, I didn’t leave because admitting the truth would have shattered that image. I had Churchillian determination that drove me through years of school and ascending to a coveted career. I could not be a “failure”. There had to be a way that my well-educated, problem-solving mind could “figure it out.”
That wasn’t the only driver. There was also a Pandora’s box of shame that I refused to open. The truth was pathetic and embarrassing. Everyone at work would lose respect for me, if they knew. My friends would not understand. My family would suffer needlessly.
And I was married. I wanted to stay married. For what it was worth, being married and having some “issues” was better than being single and alone. And most of all, it was too daunting to leave and step into the unknown. So my solution was to focus on what I could control – my charade to the rest of the world.
Why the wake-up call is so hard to answer
The ultimate ending of the 10 years of insanity culminated in what I call “the crash of 2013.” As that year began, my life as I knew it ended. On one partiuclar night, I met my “jumping-off point.” This is a place where you may have gone in another context – a bottom, an absolute crossroads where you either walk to the left or the right and there is no turning back either way. Like many life-changing events, it happened in the blink of an eye. It was one of those nights that I could have ended up like Yeardley or Reeva. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, this invisible force, these jaws of life, just pulled me out of the wreckage. And in the light of day, all the signs that I ignored came together in one big neon flashing sign that said: CHOOSE LIFE.
That wasn’t my first wake-up call. The crash of 2013 was also not the first time I left. It was the first time I stayed gone. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a woman leaves her partner an average of seven times before staying gone for good.
Picking up the pieces and stepping into the unknown was scary, profoundly anxiety inducing, and completely unnerving. I had to start ALL over again. That is where my passion for fitness began. Through fitness, I got springboarded back on my feet. I found my way back to my family, friends, and career, but as a better, stronger version of myself. This is where I ultimately found and connected with my faith. Faith, which was fueled by my miraculous second chance, is what got me through everything else that’s happened the last eight years.
Why talk about it now
Even though I made a lot of mistakes, I wouldn’t change a thing. One big reason is because of all the things I learned about myself and about relationships, especially all the signs of unhealthy relationships. The most baffling thing about unhealthy/abusive relationships is that we are sometimes completely unaware that we are even in them.
This is why I wanted to tell my story and write this article. According to the United Nations, over 70 percent of American women experience violence from an intimate partner.
I know that many of us have experienced this, are experience, or could experience this. The actual circumstances may differ, but the feelings are the same. The feelings are there for a reason. They are a sign that something needs to be looked at more deeply.
First we will define what type of relationships are abusive, then I will go into the signs that a relationship is unhealthy.
What is a toxic or abusive relationship?
Abuse takes place in two forms: emotional and physical. And both are a lot more common than we think.
Emotional abuse can take many forms. Emotional abuse can include verbal assault, dominance, economic control, isolation, ridicule, or the use of intimate knowledge for degradation. It targets the emotional and psychological well-being of the victim, and it is often a precursor to physical abuse.
Many people think abusive relationships are these stereotypical women getting pushed down the stairs. It’s not that simple. Physical abuse can also encompass stalking, unwanted or forced sexual acts, aggression towards objects, like punching through walls, or reckless endangerment, like aggressive driving. Reeva Steenkamp, who we talked about earlier, had called her mother before her death in 2013 while her boyfriend was driving the car at over 100 miles per hour with aggressive music blasting.
In 2013, I was just beginning to take that first step out, and the horrid events leading up to Reeva’s death were all over the news. When I read about that, chills went down my spine. I had experienced that many times. And that’s the ultimate form of helplessness, being trapped in a car flying down the I-95 and thinking you are living the last few moments of your life. What really shocked me was I have spoken to many women who have experienced this car-as-a-weapon intimidation. Even if it’s not an actual car, being with someone who constantly takes you on a rollercoaster is scary, exhausting and unhealthy. So many women want to get off, but feel glued to the seat.
Signs of a toxic or abusive relationship
You are constantly being manipulated or controlled
Did the relationship go from 0 to 1000 quickly, with a lot of grand gestures and drama early on?
Do you find yourself apologizing a lot and constantly wondering what you did wrong? Or do you think everything is your fault?
All of the above are varieties of emotional manipulation and abuse. In a dating world where we are used to aloofness, communication by emojis, and non-commitment, one can easily be swept away by “love bombing.” And that type of overly attentive treatment is a common precursor for emotional or other types of abuse later on in the relationship. One common bad sign is the constant need to control the flow of information or actions of the other perosn. And retaliation in response to feelings of jealousy or lack of control.
If you constantly are reassuring the other person or defending your actions, if there is a “blame game” or constant berating, if you are getting stonewalled or the silent treatment, and if you are constantly confused by “what just happened,” you may be in an unhealthy relationship.
You are being gaslighted to their version of “reality”
A close cousin of manipulation is gaslighting. Gaslighting refers to attempting to make you question your own memory, perception, or sanity. Your partner may make you feel like you are being paranoid for questioning something that is off about their past, their finances, or any other suspicious behavior, like hiding their phone. You are the crazy one for believing that you are being deceived, cheated on, or lied to.
The thing about gaslighting is that you don’t often know it’s even happening. The lines between the lies and reality got so blurred for me, I couldn’t tell the difference after a while. In general, if you are questioning or doubting yourself a lot, that’s a sign you are not on stable ground in your relationship. Your partner should be a source of strength and help you vet tough decisions, not create the issues that make your head spin.
You are conditioned to leave certain topics off the table
You can’t talk about his drinking, or what happened the night before. You can’t talk about having kids. You can’t talk about finances.
While you may be expected to be transparent about everything, toxic relationships often take a one-way street. If certain topics concerning the other person cannot be questioned, that is a sign of an unhealthy relationship.
Either by specific decree or a silent understanding, there are topics you feel like you cannot bring up because you may set the other person “off,” or they simply will not engage. After a while, you learn to sweep things under the rug. But healthy relationships confront issues head-on.
The right person will make you feel like you can talk about anything, anytime. You don’t have to co-sign their BS.
You are leading a double life
For a long time in my life, I was like a chameleon. I blended in when I needed to, and if anyone began to suspect something wasn’t right, I changed my colors and slithered into obscurity. With my friends, I projected an image of happiness in my marriage and talked about all the great vacations we were taking. At work, I put on a show of calm and collected confidence. My weekend was always great. I had beautiful flowers on my desk. My ring was big and flashy. All a masquerade for a terrible and hollow existence that was entirely a farce.
Once the relationship was finally over I was completely drained, and that was not only because of the trauma but also because being a fake is exhausting. Now, the chameleon is gone. I am the same person at work, at home, at the mall, when I get gas, and with my friends. To me, this is the definition of living an authentic life.
You’re dealing with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Mr. Too Good To be True can only keep up the act for so long, but when the other shoe finally drops, Mr. Hyde rears his ugly head. This is where many women typically experience abuse – on the Mr. Hyde side.
This way of living life is unbearable. Not only are you walking on eggshells, but all the people who know you and are interacting with the other party are doing the same. And as we know, no matter how careful we are or how lightly we may tread, the eggshells are bound to crack. If you feel like you have to constantly watch what you say, or that your partner is unpredictable, this is a sign of an unhealthy relationship.
Your career is suffering
If you are reading this blog, you are probably an ambitious go-getter. And especially for women, we often have to make sacrifices to climb the corporate ladder. Working long hours to get promoted. Sometimes having to encroach on personal or family time. But if your partner doesn’t support you, either by making you feel guilty or constantly putting you down, that’s worth examining. And emotional abuse of highly successful women is actually very common.
For me, the toxic situation at home was inevitably showing up in subtle ways at work. I couldn’t focus, because i was worried about what it would be like when I came home to my partner. Knowing that I can totally focus on doing my work now gives me such a sense of relief and concentration. If your relationship is undermining your career, or if you constantly feel like you have to choose, that’s worth examining.
I watched my friend Allison go through a similar situation. A smart investment analyst, she ended up losing her job because her toxic relationship with her fiance was completely tainting her concentration at work. The engagement ended shortly after that. Two years later, she is engaged to someone wonderful and a managing director with a corner office. Having faith for the middle is key.
Your other relationships are suffering too
In a National Institute of Health Study, isolation was a commonly reported effect of emotional and physical abuse in younger women.Isolation can be emotional, not just physical. I remembered the ironic feeling of being surrounded by hundreds of people and feeling completely alone.
One classic sign of an unhealthy relationship is that the person becomes isolated from their family and their friends. These relationships may erode slowly over time, but eventually, those who love us either get cut out when they get too close or are so distanced that the relationship becomes estranged over time. Or there may be a falling out because a family member or a friend expresses concern.
I was really good at freezing people out after a while – including my friends and family. The truth is they are going through this situation too, and they feel helpless. The minute that you are really done, not only will they understand and take you back, but they will give you a standing ovation. That feeling of being able to look the world in the eye again is priceless.
You feel trapped
When COVID happened, I was no stranger to the feeling of being on “lockdown”. But I would take quarantining at home over the way I was trapped before. It’s like a constant weight on your chest, and wearing a mask you can never take off.
Feeling trapped can take a few forms. For some women, they are financially trapped. Even if you have your own income, marriages and serious relationships can entangle finances. It’s not the flip of a switch to completely disentangle, move out, find a place to live, get a car, get time off and support from your workplace.
Almost in every case, it’s emotional codependence. The other person “can’t live” without you. Oddly you worry about what will happen to THEM. The emotions of the relationship are usually all-consuming and again, cannot be flipped off like a switch.
Once I was no longer “trapped,” I realized what I had been missing. It was like my senses were in overdrive. The sky looked amazing, food tasted great, music sounded so good. That’s what being free fells like, I thought one day as I was driving in my car, just listening to the radio and having an amazing time. Fitness and what I can do with my body and mind is part of that freedom.
Here’s what I learned for my next relationship:
- Take your time to figure out who you are, what you want, and what you don’t want in a partner. We don’t all have to be defined by a relationship to be happy. In most of my 30s, I was into my fitness and all the friends I was making, soaring in my career, and happy with who I was and my freedom. I love the person I am with, but I don’t NEED him.
- Don’t worry about being “alone.” If you are in an unhealthy relationship, just remember that being alone is not the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario is already happening. You’ve been brainwashed into ignoring the fact that you are a catch and are destined to find that person you deserve. The universe has that person in your head that you’ve always dreamed of waiting. It may not be on your timetable, but have faith, because they will be in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time. But you will never meet them, if you don’t take the risk now. High risk, high reward.
- Convey your deal breakers early, and up front. If you are not ok with not being texted back, say that. If you need that person to know you are really tight with your family, tell them that in no uncertain terms. Whatever the big questions are about career, kids, or geography, get that addressed. Maybe not on the first date, but definitely in the first 3 months. Believe me, life is too short to waste your time.
- See how the other person fights. We all fight. The key is to fight fair, and in a respectful way. That’s actually possible, I learned.
- Watch the other person’s relationships with others– how they treat their parents, siblings, friends. Watch their interaction with your family, your co-workers, and your friends. Observe their interactions with stangers – the taxi driver, the waitperson, the cashier at CVS. All of that matters and is indicative of character.
- If you are married, or share finances, don’t be blindsided. Regularly check your bank and credit card statements. At least consider and discuss a prenup. Even if you aren’t married yet or don’t take that option, have your own money and accounts set aside in addition to any joint assets or account. You don’t have to hide it – I don’t. It’s an assertion of your independence and protection of everything that you have worked so hard to earn.
- If you are the friend, coworker, or the family member, and you feel like you are helplessly watching, say something. And don’t dance around it. Be clear. Even if that means losing the person, you are losing them anyway. At the very least, just tell them you are here if they need help. I had a colleague say that to me, when I desparately needed to hear it. That planted a seed of hope, especially hearing it from someone higher up in the company. It’s like someone showing up with a giant net when you are in a free fall.
This isn’t a checklist that is possible to pass and guarantee a healthy relationship. But it is my experience in what I did to make sure that the next person I invested my life in would support me and accept me on my terms.
Finally, I leave you with this thought – almost every friend of mine has had at least one toxic relationship in their past, even if it’s not happening now. Talking about it is cathartic. Some of the points I made here are from hearing their stories. If you don’t want to talk about it, I would recommend at least writing a letter to yourself and then keep it around as a reminder of what you so bravely conquered.
If you can get through tough life situations, no matter what form they take, you can achieve any goal, whether it’s fitness, career, or personal. We all have that grit lying beneath us. That grit is fuel to feed your faith when you face other challenges. What you got through in the past can get you through anything in the future.
If you or someone you know is affected by domestic abuse, call the national domestic abuse hotline at 1800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit their website at www.thehotline.org.
*Note: Because this is my experience, I am talking in this context about a domestic relationship from the point of view of a “she,” but recognize that men can be victims.
**No part of this article is intended to constitute legal or professional advice.