Toxic Love – The dysfunctional attraction

By Michael Nel – Clinical Psychologist

Toxic relationships can be defined by a continuous psychological, emotional or physical abuse. When a person is subjected to this type of destructive behaviour in a relationship it may lead to psychological trauma, depression and anxiety. Toxic relationships are characterized by persistent criticism and judgement, devaluing of partners, inappropriate control, possessiveness, overly jealousness behaviour, suspicion, emotional manipulation, dishonesty and a constant power struggle with escalating aggression. Most relationships, do exhibit at some stage some of these symptoms, but in toxic relationships, dysfunction are the norm and are characterized by continued exposure to a persistent pattern of psychological abuse.

When couples try to make sense of toxic relationship they often use a limited perspective. Couples react in the moment, to what they see and feel and fail to try and understand that dysfunctional patterns are developed in early childhood. Harville Hendrix in the book, Getting the Love You Want says that we unconsciously pick partners based on unfinished business from our childhood and those unresolved issues play out in our intimate relationships.

It is absolutely normal for any healthy family to consist of some unhealthy parts and a healthy family has no more guarantees to be functional than an unhealthy family to be dysfunctional. In Stop Walking on Eggshells, a how-to book for surviving a toxic relationship with a partner with borderline personality disorder, authors Paul Mason and Randi Kreger describe the projections of unhealthy, split off parts ourselves on our partners. Fundamentally, all relationships contain some distorted parts. These distorted parts co-existence in a symbiotic relationship with the healthy parts and this facilitates further growth and personal development. These unhealthy, unloved or unappreciated parts of ourselves are intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously projected into a relationship in an attempt to heal these wounds. This is an unconscious effort to make the unhealthy, healthy. Relationships then become a fertile play ground for learning about these parts. In contrast, toxic relationships lack the capacity to offer this corrective experience we unconsciously desire. In a healthy relationship these unhealthy parts are reflected back to us, as parts that needs healing or parts that is good enough. Hopefully, we made the right choice in a partner that can hold, contain and understand these parts.

Toxic relationships often go wrong when the couple initially meet. In a study conducted on ulterior motives in relationships at the University of Oregon, with over a thousand students participating, questions were asked about expressing affections in a new relationship that was not really felt. Nearly 90% of the participants admitted they had used affection in a persuasive or manipulative way in the beginning of a new relationship with ulterior motives. From the onset unhealthy parts are suppressed in an attempt to sustain a healthy relationship. This comes at a price of honesty true intimacy and authenticity. Initially couples consciously or unconsciously lie to themselves and one another to protect the relationship. Over time, the unhealthy parts emerge.

In cutting cords from a toxic relationship various school of thoughts and counselling paradigms are available, not withstanding zero tolerance of physical abuse. In counselling toxic relationships, my focus is on facilitating a deeper understanding of the individual’s own unhealthy parts and the dysfunctional attraction to the relationship in the first place. I have often noticed that individuals failing to address their own “woundedness” produce feelings of being a victim in a toxic relationship. Trapped in this victim role all the focus is on the partner’s inadequacies, in contrast to energy being invested in the capacity to self reflect. As long as individuals continuous to be stuck in a victim role, they are continuously attracted to the dysfunctional relationship. In conclusion, the approach to understanding a toxic relationship is an individual journey of self-realization. Only the love and respect of ourselves can replace the addictive love of a toxic relationship

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