Toxins are everywhere—from the itch of a mosquito bite to the swelling of a rash from poison ivy. In some cases, toxins cause momentary irritation. In other cases—such as with a malaria-infested mosquito bite—the wound becomes deadly. This is also true in relationships. Most couples engage in toxic communication sometimes. For some couples, the toxins fester and destroy their bond. But toxic wounds can also be healed. This is most likely to happen when couples let go of their toxic communication habits.
We believe there is always hope! Ten signs of toxic communication are listed in this post. Learn to identify these toxic communication habits quickly. Then, stop them fast and communicate better!
What is toxic communication in relationships?
Toxic communication deeply wounds the person we love. Sometimes, toxic communication directly attacks the other person’s character. But toxic communication can also be indirect—such as insinuating our partner is the problem. It can also be passive—like with contempt or when giving the silent treatment. In these cases, nonverbal communication implies, You are not worthy of my time, my attention, or my love. Toxic communication always damages the relationship. It also creates a sense of toxic shame. Toxic shame is a deeply rooted feeling of being unworthy or “less than.” And we have never known this type of shame to be helpful to anyone.
Fortunately, couples who know better can do better!
Toxic Communication Habits
Galatians 5:15 says, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” This is a strong warning for couples who detect toxic habits in their bond.
Refusing to address toxic communication makes about as much sense as arguing in a mosquito-infested swamp. Both are recipes for pain. Below is a list of ten signs of toxic communication. Recognizing toxic communication habits is the first step to ending the contamination. Every couple engages in toxic communication sometimes. So don’t use this list to shame your partner. That would be toxic!
The goal is to identify your toxic communication habits quickly. The best place to begin is by examining yourself. When you notice a toxic communication pattern, call for a time-out. Then, take a break from the conversation to reregulate. Finally, come back together and communicate better!
Ten Signs of Toxic Communication
Toxic Communication Examples: Withholding physical affection, approval, privileges, praise, material possessions, or things that would give pleasure or make life easier for the person we love.
This toxic communication habit involves withholding love and affection. This is often done as a form of punishment. Withholding is toxic because it is a direct violation of the traditional marriage vows. Couples pledge “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until parted by death.” Withholding says, “You can have my love. But only when you agree with me.”
Sometimes withholding is an attempt to enter into a quid pro quo agreement. Relationship researcher John Gottman says: “We become emotional accountants only when there’s something wrong with the relationship.” He notes that typically, couples attempt to enter into quid pro quo agreements only when the relationship is already deteriorating.
Hitting Below the Belt
Toxic Communication Examples: Humiliating your loved one. Using intimate knowledge to hit “below the belt.” Any communication that evokes shame.
Toxic shame is a feeling that you are worthless or of less value than an ordinary person. Tapping into a loved one’s shame to get one’s way is an obvious low blow. There’s an old joke about a husband speaking to a friend. The husband says, “I hate arguing with my wife. She always gets all worked up and historical?” The confused friend asks, “Don’t you mean hysterical?” To which the deflated husband replies, “No, I mean historical. She brings up every wrong thing I ever did!”
This toxic communication style makes our loved ones feel small. It also increases defensiveness and has kept many couples talking in circles for hours. Low blows are another toxic communication habit that practically guarantees the situation will get worse.
Giving the Silent Treatment
Toxic Communication Examples: Speaking only in short, snappy sentences. Keeping conversation to the bare minimum. Then, quickly making an exit. Refusing texts or calls (especially if your loved one doesn’t know where you are/is concerned for your safety ). Cutting off communication altogether.
Each month, over 5,000 people ask search engines, “Is the silent treatment abuse?” These individuals know that being disconnected from their loved one hurts! A study published in Science Magazine in 2003 found that the anterior cingulate (the part of the brain that registers physical pain) also lights up during social exclusion. The research paper entitled Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion says the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Findings state, “Paralleling results from physical pain studies, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was more active during exclusion than during inclusion and correlated positively with self-reported distress.”
Solitary confinement is the harshest form of punishment in our prison system. When I share with couples the idea that the human brain registers physical pain and being emotionally disconnected from our loved one in the same region, there are always nods of agreement.
Toxic Communication Examples: Using humor as a “weapon.” Making light of our loved one’s pain. Refusing to take the conversation seriously. Minimizing by “laughing the problem off.”
Humor can be a powerful ally for couples. Small doses lighten the mood and help couples reconnect. But humor used incorrectly is toxic. Toxic humor includes teasing, sarcasm, and ridicule. Toxic humor makes light of a loved one’s pain. Humor also becomes a toxic communication habit if it is used to deflect and redirect. Nonstop joking during serious conversation is also toxic as it keeps our loved one from feeling heard.
Remember, there is a time and a place for everything. If you use humor to lighten the mood, be sure to watch your loved one’s face. Is it rising or falling? Toxic communication habits will create tension and lower your loved one’s mood. Toxic humor demeans and shames. When used correctly, humor can be a repair that draws the two of you closer. Thus, asking, “Is this bringing us together or pushing us apart?” can be a powerful way of evaluating if your humor is toxic.
Toxic Communication Examples: Knowing your partner’s “triggers” or “hot buttons” and using them to your advantage. Using inciting language and accusations like “never” and “always.” Attempting to make your partner “the problem.”
We believe that your loved one is never the problem. Instead, the problem is the problem. Happy couples identify the specific problem. They name it (such as lateness, overspending, business, or messiness) and attack the problem together.
Toxic communicators attempt to blame and shame each other. Button pushing might involve attempting to get your partner to “flip his lid” by focusing on those things you know will make his or her blood pressure rise. But it also includes attempts to make your partner the problem. Usually, this backfires. Button-pushing increases defensiveness and increases the likelihood of a toxic spiral. It’s not uncommon for stonewalling to follow button-pushing.
Toxic Communication Examples: Going emotionally flat, like a stone wall. Being physically and mentally present but emotionally distant. Highly defensive. Checked out of the conversation.
Stonewalling is defensiveness to the extreme. It usually means our loved one is experiencing diffuse physical arousal. This means his or her system is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol—the stress hormone. It involves an increased heart rate (usually over 100 beats a minute). Stonewalling is often an attempt to retain some sense of control when it feels like our world has been flipped upside-down.
Stonewalling can be the adult equivalent of saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Or “I’m rubber. Your glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” Stonewalling is often a form of protection. And the stonewaller has his or her guard up to the extreme. The problem is this lack of communication is also toxic and painful.
Toxic Communication Examples: Nothing is ever good enough. An attitude of “gimme.” Expecting your loved one to “fill your emotional cup” and keep it full. Insisting on your way with no room for negotiation. Refusing to look for win-win solutions or to find “a middle road.” Putting a loved one in a double bind. Insisting your partner violate personal values and healthy boundaries, or acts in a way that is out of alignment with his or her character.
For the person on the receiving end of the demand, the situation often feels hopeless. A loved one may give in to get the argument over with, only to resent it later. Constantly demanding more makes finding win-win solutions nearly impossible.
The esteem therapist refers to this as external control psychology. He suggests that this type of communication is toxic because it always damages the relationship.
Criticism and Contempt
Toxic Communication Examples: Eye-rolling. Character attacks. Making your loved one “the problem.” Sneers, put-downs, and name-calling. Any insinuation that your loved one is “less than.”
Criticism and contempt are two of John Gottman’s Four Horses of the Apocalypse. When these ingredients are present, the end of the relationship usually isn’t far behind. Criticism and contempt involve attacking your loved one vs. attacking the problem. These toxic communication habits do not need to intend to cause pain. Even a so-called “innocent eye roll” can be wounding.
It’s important to remember that toxic communication patterns do not need to have toxic intent to harm the marriage. If your loved one perceives the communication as demeaning, it’s toxic.
Toxic Communication Examples: Apologizing before understanding the problem. Apologizing with no intent or desire to change. Using an apology as a way to avoid conflict. Being intentionally hard on oneself in order to villainize your loved one.
How could apologizing possibly be toxic? If you’ve met an over-apologizer, you know. Sometimes he apologizes too quickly or too soon. He may apologize without understanding what he’s apologizing for or how his actions impact you. Apologizing early might also be used to avoid difficult conversations.
Apologizing becomes a toxic communication pattern when used like a Monopoly “Get Out of Jail Free” card. In other words, the flavor of the conversation is I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ You should no longer be mad. I should be off the hook.
A true apology requires understanding. This is followed by repentance, or a willingness to give up the bad behavior. Sometimes restitution, or a desire to correct the wrong, is also needed.
Toxic Communication Examples: Keeping a record of wrongs. Holing a past event over your loved one’s head. Pathologizing your loved one. Assigning ill intent to your loved one. Turning simple problems into character issues. Acting as “the morality police” in your relationship.
When someone is in character analysis mode, they are quick to tell you what you did wrong and why you did it. Your character is put on trial. This toxic communication style will try to convince you that you are guilty every time. Most people can admit to making a mistake. After all, everyone makes mistakes.
But when our character is attacked, the normal human reaction is to go into defense mode. Attacking a loved one’s character is not only wounding, but it also makes it less likely we will be heard. Remember, it’s almost impossible to hear a complaint if you are feeling personally attacked.
Character analysis is a toxic communication habit that can trigger a toxic spiral. So avoid it!
How to Communicate with a Toxic Partner
Toxic communication often extends both ways. And while some partners may be truly toxic, it is rare for someone to be “all bad.” Thus, we discourage using language like “my partner is toxic.” This type of language is shaming and toxic itself. If you truly are with a toxic partner, then you’ll both want to seek professional support. The toxic partner will need to address his or her issues. And you’ll want to address any underlying issues that cause you to enter into a toxic relationship in the first place.
The good news is we believe there is hope. Toxic communication habits are learned behaviors. This also means they can be unlearned.
Unlearning Toxic Communication Patterns and Communicating Better
According to John Gottman’s research, 96% of the time a conversation begins harshly, it also will end harshly. Toxic communication habits often start small. Then, they build into a toxic spiral. Couples may transition from a toxic attack-attack style to an attack-defend pattern and, finally, to a toxic defend-defend mode. Toxic spirals often end with both partners shutting down.
We believe that couples have to know themselves to lead themselves. Couples can learn to recognize their toxic communication patterns and interrupt them. This interruption is important because only 4% of couples in Gottman’s observations were able to turn a harsh conversation around. This means that once a conversation became toxic, the odds are not in your favor.
Fortunately, these steps for interrupting toxic communication patterns are simple—although not necessarily easy. First, identify that toxic communication is taking place. Next, call for a time-out. Then, take a break to regulate. Finally, come back together, start softly, and communicate better!
No matter how toxic your communication may have been in the past, we believe that couples who know better can do better. Even a 1 percent improvement in a win. So if your next conversation goes better than your last one, you are on the right track!
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