To spare you the suffering he’s known personally, Thomas Fiffer offers 3 ways to identify poisonous partners who can wreak havoc with your life.
“If I’d only known then what I know now …”
“I never saw it coming …”
“Hindsight is 20/20 …”
How many times have you felt this way about an intimate relationship, one into which you poured your love and generosity, you time and energy, your heart and soul, only to end up poisoned—brought to your knees, retching and convulsing, sick unto death, in desperate need of an antidote?
It happened to me, and I know it’s happened to many of you, too.
And it sucks—big time.
But love comes with risks, right? And sometimes heartbreak is unavoidable. No pain, no gain.
But some pain is avoidable, like the “preventable accidents” I’m constantly warning my kids about.
The thing is, unlike toxic chemicals, people don’t come with warning labels. So to avoid the pain of poisonous relationships, you have to remove the blinders of love (I know, sorry about that) and coldly assess a partner’s potential to hurt you. Of course, every partner has the potential to hurt you. The core of intimacy is vulnerability. But some partners do more damage than others. Soul-searing damage that burns your insides. Cumulative damage that takes years to undo. Toxic damage that brings you to the brink of physical collapse and emotional disintegration. If you’ve been through a relationship like that—and managed to get out of it—you know exactly what I mean. And boy, do I feel for you.
So how can you prevent this near-death experience from happening again, or if you’ve been fortunate, from happening in the first place? To keep you safe, I’ve devised three simple questions you can ask yourself to help identify toxic partners. While they come out of my experience in dating and marriage, they apply equally to other types of personal and professional relationships.
1. Is it always all about them and never, or rarely, about you? Attraction works some serious magic. When you first meet a potential partner with whom you have chemistry, you’re insanely curious and hopelessly enchanted. You want—make that need—to know everything about this amazing individual, and where they’ve been hiding from you for so long. You spend hours absorbing each other’s personal histories, soaking up their life story, and marveling over how much you have in common. You’re drinking in another spirit, and the process is … intoxicating.
In healthy relationships, this discovery process is mutual, a fairly equal exchange of information. In dysfunctional relationships, it’s lopsided, with one person dominating the conversation, interrupting or acting impatient while you speak, needing to top your story with one of theirs, and often not remembering things you’ve said. While these behaviors don’t sound appealing in a partner, we often miss this red flag—and especially with truly fascinating people—because we’re so besotted with them. This is it, we say. Life will never be dull with this firebrand as my partner. True, but it also won’t be your life; you’ll just be along for the ride on theirs. If it’s all about them, when you do actually say, “What about me?” they’ll act horribly offended and make themselves the victim, accusing you of being a backseat driver. And if they eventually kick you out of the moving vehicle (as these types often do), you will have missed out on pursuing your own goals and dreams.
I’m not saying you have to do exactly half the talking in the beginning, but the 80/20 rule is a good one to apply here. If you’re talking less than 20% of the time, your potential partner expects you to hang on his or her every word, and he or she shows little or no genuine interest in you and your story, you can expect to be increasingly marginalized—and increasingly miserable—as the relationship progresses.
2. Does your potential partner take your feelings seriously or dismiss and deny them while telling you what you should feel?
You say, “I’m tired, and I’d like to stay home tonight.”
You hear back, “Come on. You’ll feel better when we get to the party, and I’ll be lonely there without you.”
You say, “I don’t feel well. I just need to rest tonight.”
You hear back, “You don’t look sick. Can’t we just have some fun?”
You say, “When you do x, it hurts my feelings.”
You hear back, “Get over it. I can’t believe you’re upset over that.”
You say, “Sometimes I feel like you don’t appreciate me.”
You hear back, “You should be grateful for everything I do for you.”
Here’s a painful truth. Attraction creates the illusion of trust. When you find another person physically and emotionally appealing, you become convinced they are a good psychological match as well. The message your brain sends is, because they’re attractive, they must be right for you. And if they’re right for you, perhaps even “the one,” you can trust what they tell you, even if you disagree with it and know in your heart it’s wrong. This suspension of your own independent judgment can have devastating long-term consequences on your own decision-making, stunting your emotional development and destroying your self-esteem. Fortunately, there’s a little voice inside your head (yes, that one), the one you tend to dismiss when it threatens to interfere with your short-term pleasure, that says, “Hey, hold up a minute. Listen to your gut instinct. Something isn’t right.” That’s the voice you need to trust, not the smooth talking tones of a person who doesn’t respect your needs.
3. Is the person fear-based or values-based? This can be a hard concept to wrap your mind around, but once you get it, things that feel foggy suddenly become remarkably clear. When it comes to making decisions, does your potential partner act out of fear or from a place of principle? The motivating fear can be fear of intimacy and commitment, fear of rejection, fear of losing control, even fear of success. Whatever it is (and sometimes it’s a combination), people ruled by fear don’t act rationally, and they can’t accept your rational explanations or decisions, because their fear reaction has been triggered and won’t stop until it’s soothed. Jealousy is a prime example of a fear reaction. The values-based contrast to jealousy is someone who wants you to enjoy friendships and independent activities in the relationship because that person values those things him or herself. Fear is one of the most destructive and toxic emotions, paralyzing its victims or causing them to harm others to protect themselves. If your potential partner’s actions and decisions strike you as self-soothing and disconnected from a strong system of values, you will be thrown under the bus in a relationship every time the person experiences fear.
Unlike more obvious wounds, poison can sneak up on us incrementally, making us a little sicker and a little sicker until suddenly we’re gravely ill. I encourage you to asking these questions and use your answers to steer clear of potentially toxic partners can keep you and your relationships safe and healthy.
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