Our behavior is a small thing that makes a big difference in our relationships.
This morning I saw a middle-aged woman ferociously slam the car door in her husband’s face and storm off into a department store. Then, an hour later, I couldn’t help but notice two 20-something friends sitting next to me at a local coffee shop, the man staring down at his iPhone the entire time his friend shared with him her concerns about her sister’s drug addiction. And just now I came across someone’s rant on Facebook about their significant other that concluded with, “ALL MEN are exactly the same!”
Most of us have likely done something similar in our relationships at some point, because relationships aren’t easy, and sometimes we make missteps. In fact, let’s be honest – we’ve all acted in toxic, damaging ways at one time or another. None of us are immune to occasional toxic mood swings. But that doesn’t excuse what we do to each other.
With practice, we CAN do better.
Over the years, through our coaching practice, Getting Back to Happy course, and live events, Marc and I have worked with thousands of individuals and couples looking to fix their failing relationships, and we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to make this happen. One of the most significant realizations is the fact that most failing and failed relationships (both intimate and platonic) suffer from the same basic behavioral issues. I’m sharing them with you today in hopes that doing so will help you catch yourself in the act, so you can course-correct when necessary.
The Big Four
Believe it or not, roughly 90% of the failing relationships we’ve witnessed over the years suffered from one or more of the following:
1. Using complaints and disagreements as an opportunity to condemn each other.
Complaints are OK. Disagreements are OK too. These are natural, honest reactions to a person’s decisions or behavior. But when complaints and disagreements spiral out of control into global attacks on the person, and not on their decisions or behavior, this spells trouble. For example: “They didn’t call me when they said they would because they were busy and forgot, but because they are a horrible, wretched, evil person.”
Remember, there’s a big difference between who someone IS and what they sometimes DO.
2. Using hateful gestures as a substitute for honest communication.
Frequent name-calling, threats, eye-rolling, belittling, mockery, hostile teasing, etc. In whatever form, gestures like these are poisonous to a relationship because they convey hate. And it’s virtually impossible to resolve a relationship problem when the other person is constantly receiving the message that you hate them.
Also, keep in mind that if someone you love makes a mistake and you choose to forgive them, your actions must reinforce your words. In other words, let bygones be bygones. Don’t use their past wrongdoings to justify your present righteousness. When you constantly use someone’s past wrongdoings to make yourself seem “better” than them (“I’m better than you because, unlike you, I didn’t do XYZ in the past.”), it’s a lose-lose situation.
Replace your negative thoughts with positive communication! Because the truth is, if you’re throwing hateful gestures at a person instead of communicating with them, there’s a good chance they don’t even know why you’re being so mean.
When communication between two people isn’t open and honest, there’s a lot of important stuff that never gets said.
3. Denying responsibility for your role in the relationship.
When you deny responsibility in every relationship dispute, all you’re really doing is blaming the other person. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem here is never me, and it’s always you.” This denial of accountability just escalates every argument, because there’s a complete and utter breakdown of communication.
The key thing to understand is that you have a choice. Either you’re choosing to be in a relationship with another person, or you aren’t. If you’re choosing to be in, then you are responsible for it. Denying this means you’re giving up all your power to the other person – you’re their victim, regardless of circumstances (positive or negative), because you’ve given them 100% of the responsibility for the relationship you have with them.
So remember, even when the behavior driving a relationship dispute belongs to the other person, the only way to find common ground, or simply create more healthy space for yourself, is to first own the fact that you are 50% responsible the relationship at all times. Once you do, you have the power to make progress one way or the other.
4. The silent treatment.
Tuning out, ignoring, disengaging, refusing to acknowledge, etc. All variations of the silent treatment don’t just remove the other person from the argument you’re having with them, it ends up removing them, emotionally, from the relationship you have with them.
When you’re ignoring someone, you’re really teaching them to live without you. If that’s what you want, be clear about it. And if not, drop it!
Note: We also recently covered these toxic behaviors at one of our live events…
Five More Worth Avoiding
Although not quite as prevalent as the four mentioned above, these behavioral issues are still incredibly common relationship-killers:
5. Using emotional blackmail.
Emotional blackmail happens when you apply an emotional penalty against someone if they don’t do exactly what you want them to do. The key condition here is that they change they’re behavior, against their will, as a result of the emotional blackmail. In other words, absent the emotional blackmail they would live differently, but they fear the penalty – or punishment – and so they give in. This is an extremely unhealthy relationship behavior.
The solution, again, relies heavily on better communication. There should NOT be a penalty, just an honest conversation. If two people care about each other and want to maintain a healthy relationship, they absolutely need to be “allowed” to openly communicate ALL of their feelings to each other – their true feelings – not just the agreeable and positive ones. If this is not “allowed” or supported by one or both people involved in the relationship – if one or both people fear punishment for their honesty – lies and deceit will gradually replace love and trust, which ultimately leads to a complete emotional disconnection. (Read Emotional Blackmail.)
6. Withholding the truth.
Trust is the bedrock of a healthy relationship, and when trust is broken it takes a long time and commitment on the part of both parties involved to repair it and heal. The key thing to remember here is that secrets can be just as deceitful as openly telling a lie.
All too often, I’ll hear a coaching/course student say something like, “I didn’t tell him but I didn’t lie about it, either.” This statement is a contradiction, as omissions are lies. If you’re covering up your tracks or withholding the truth in any way, it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes out and trust in the relationship completely breaks down. So speak the truth, always.
Being honest is the only way to be at peace with yourself and those you care about.
7. Putting each other on the back burner.
Failing to carve out quality time for your important relationships is one of the most unhealthy relationship mistakes of them all, and yet it often flies under the radar… at least for a while… until everything begins to fall apart.
The truth is relationships are like every other living entity in the sense that they require nurturing in order to survive and thrive. It’s easy to allow the rush of our busy lives to take over, especially when we have young children, work, hobbies, friends, and a body that demands nourishing food and regular exercise. But your relationship with someone is a body as well, and if it’s not nourished with quality time every week, it will start to wither.
Dedicate ample time every week to focus exclusively on those you care about. Nothing you can give is more appreciated than your sincere, focused attention – your full presence. Being with someone, listening without a ticking clock and without anticipation of the next scheduled event is the ultimate compliment.
8. Needing or expecting your relationship to always be easy.
When your marriage, friendship, parenting, etc. gets difficult, it’s not an immediate sign that you’re doing it wrong. These intimate, intricate relationships are toughest when you’re doing them right – when you’re dedicating time, having the tough conversations, and making daily sacrifices.
Healthy, long-tern relationships are amazing, but rarely easy 24/7. Resisting the hard times and seeing them as immediate evidence that something is wrong or that you’re with the wrong person only exacerbates the difficulties. By contrast, finding the patience and mindfulness to view the challenges as an opportunity to work together will give your relationship the energy and strength needed to transcend the problems and grow even stronger in the long run.
9. Expecting your relationship to solve all your personal problems.
It’s easy to believe that it’s your partner’s or best friend’s job to make you feel happy and whole. But the truth is, while a healthy relationship can bring tremendous delight to your life, it’s not their responsibility to fill in your empty voids. That’s your responsibility and yours alone, and until you accept this responsibility (for your unhappiness, frustration, boredom, etc.), problems will inevitably continue in your relationship.
Another way of looking at this is to realize that healthy relationships contain two people who practice self-care as individuals. When two people meet, the biggest prize always goes to the one with the most self-acceptance. He or she will be calmer, more confident, and more at ease with the other person. Truth be told, what you see in the mirror is often what you see in your relationships. Your petty disappointments in your partner and friends often reflect your petty disappointments in yourself. Your acceptance of your partner or friends often reflects your acceptance of yourself. Thus, the first step to having a truly healthy, long-term relationship with someone else is to have a healthy relationship with yourself.
The floor is yours…
If you can relate to any of these toxic behaviors, remember, you are not alone. We all have unhealthy personalities buried deep within us that have the potential to occasionally sneak up on us and those closest to us. As mentioned above, the key is awareness – recognizing these toxic behaviors and then course-correcting when necessary.
So, which of these toxic behaviors have you struggled with? Which ones have interfered with your relationships? How do you cope? Leave a comment below and share your insights with us.
Also, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign-up for our free newsletter to receive new articles like this in your inbox each week.
Patrick Hardy says
M&A, your emails and blog posts have been nothing short of amazing lately! This one is such valuable reference for anyone in a relationship of any kind. There’s actually a married couple I’ve known for well over a decade that’s in the process of divorcing because their relationship fits several of these of these behaviors to a T. It’s so sad, and yet I saw it coming.
I’ve been married for 28 years, and it’s because my wife and I work on it, and compromise, and communicate daily. It’s worth the effort–it really is! I think this blog post could be a terrific exercise to sit down with my wife and say, “Let’s talk about these behaviors. Let’s be aware of them.”
Thank you guys!
Such a perfect summary if important reminders for me, Angel and Marc. After taking your course last year, and using the self-inquiry tools you taught me via coaching, I ended up resolving the issue of condemning my husband’s character. I was absolutely holding every one of his flawed character traits against him, and defining his entire character in my eyes by these traits that frustrated me. And everything I loved about him was just ignored. But not anymore. It’s taken me awhile to shift my thinking, but doing so has improved our relationship tremendously. I’ve learned to think and communicate more compassionately, and have healthier conversations that actually ease tension instead of creating more of it.
Excellent article – as always.
And I was actually at the live Think Better event where you recorded the video you embedded. I wish I had a recording of the entire event.
Anyway, this one has really got me thinking again about how many of those behaviors happened in my marriage, and how I also want to make sure I don’t carry them into my current relationship. I now realize it wasn’t just one of us who was toxic–it certainly wasn’t just him. We both contributed to the mess and ultimately allowed all the petty toxicity to take the place of love and listening. And it all lead to a divorce that I never wanted. It takes two to be in a relationship–good or bad. None of us are perfect. I’ve sure learned that I need to be aware of the toxic stuff I’m giving as well as the toxic stuff I’m getting. Stopping such behaviors before they begin is hard, but important.
I don’t always comment on your posts, guys, but I do read them all and I own your paperback book, and I’ve given it to friends and family as gifts. What you write is always such a blessing! Thank you, and I hope to see you at another live event sometime.
Thank you so much for this. I sometimes get so carried away in an argument, just because my partner did something I did not like or that hurt me. even when they try to apologize I just keep attacking and then give the silent treatment. I am hoping that keeping these points in mind will help me. I do not want to lose the love of my life.
You are forgetting another behavior; letting outside influences interfere, whether that be your occupation, your friends, or your inlaws.
You are right – this is arguably the most damaging and hardest to fix.
John Jurkiewicz says
I am a clairsentient who works with other people helping them identify and build their careers. I have been doing this for 18 years and I have found that when a personal relationship is toxic it clouds all of the other aspects of ones life including their career. I get a very uneasy sense when working with someone if their energy is strained or blocked. Until they find some peace in their relationship everything else remains out of balance. Thanks for this piece. I’ve shared it with my community
This couldnt have come at a better time. Thank you!
My dysfunctional reaction to conflict has nearly cost me one of the most important relationships in my life. I can now see my part and choose to do something different. I appreciate your work and your generosity in offering this info through your blog.
Thank you so much! For some of us that are yet to get married, we’re really learning a lot and these articles are preparing us to face any challenge we may encounter in the future. I sincerely appreciate it!
Every one of the 9 apply to my marriage. Ugh, I’m miserable!
When you are married to a toxic person or a narcissists, you are in a very tough place because you are dealing with someone who is incapable of empathy and open communication and the give n take that is necessary for a healthy relationship and a healthy you. For your own sake, figure out how you can disengage from this person. You do have the power to leave – just make sure that you can leave safely. If you can not leave safely, learn how to disengage emotionally and self soothe. Best of luck – getting yourself back is worth it.
AMEN. Leaving cuts like 1000 razor blades, staying feels like your soul is on a meat slicer set to extra thin.
I recently discovered I was hurting someone’s feelings when I made what I thought was just playful little jabs at them. I honestly was just joking around, and didn’t realize they took the tease seriously. I am trying to replace this behavior with building the other person up when I can.
Now that I’m aware I was hurting someone I have stopped this practice with everyone as I didn’t want to be hurting anyone’s feelings. When you’ve done this for a long period of time it really is hard to change the behavior. The odd response I’ve received from some has been, “Aren’t you going to tease me about……?”
My deceased husband did this, but unfortunately never stopped even days before his death. Years of little hurts here and there and his comment was always…”you’re just too sensitive”
I frequently get remarks and resonses from my wife, like:
“Oh, I NEVER do that, but YOU do it ALL THE TIME”.
I want so much to correct her….but you’re saying I should just let it be?
Marc Chernoff says
Frank, obviously there’s a grey area to any relationship situation. But generally, if there’s a specific behavior someone you care about has that you’re hoping disappears over time, it probably won’t. If you really need them to change something, be honest and put all the cards on the table so this person knows how you feel and what you need them to do.
For the most part though, you can’t change people and you shouldn’t try. Either you accept who they are or you choose to live without them. It’s might sound harsh, but it’s not. When you try to change people, they often remain the same, but when you don’t try to change them – when you support them and allow them the freedom to be as they are – they gradually change in the most beautiful way. Because what really changes is the way you see them.
Thank you for some excellent relationship advice. I used to call my marriage “dysfunctional” but have stopped saying that word it’s so negative and brings things down even further. I am separated from my husband now and we both did a lot of things wrong. Trust and respect go a long way but sadly that was never built into our marriage. I think one reason was fear and not being true to myself. It has taken years for me to stand up for what i believe in and be true to myself. Sometimes when we are crushed inside, we have no voice and when asked “what do i want”…questions like that floored me. But thankfully i started to respect myself first and i think that is the beginning to any healthy future relationship.
I am the exact same way! But now free a year and a half my husband and I were able to grow up enough and are trying to work things out . Good luck and best wishes!
Caroline Driver says
I’m guilty of the silent treatment, but only because I never learned how to say what I feel without it coming across as passive aggressive, and so I fear the conflict and aggression that I will get in return. As soon as someone shouts at me, I’m 5 years old again or 10, or 17, and I can’t think of the assertive way to say anything at all. So silence always seems the better option.
I hear you, but if you’re done learn to express it. Otherwise it turns into resentment and that leads to a messy explosion down the road.
Educative. Your articles make the going get better as the tough gets going.
The timing of this article could not be better! I was just looking for a couples counselor in my area when this email showed up in my inbox.
My partner and I have been struggling for quite some time….3 years. Your articles on How to love someone who is grieving and How to love someone who is depressed helped me immensely. I am barely hanging on right now. We have zero communication and although he has agreed to counseling in the past, I think when it comes right down to it, he is going to resist. He has been through a lot and it has changed him so much and it has damaged our relationship. I feel like I am always giving and compromising and supporting him through his challenges, yet never getting anything in return. I feel very unloved, unappreciated and unwanted.
Petronella Mwape says
You are right I felt like that also. My husband was just like your husband, and not until I asked him for divorce did he start showing love. But it’s been difficult for me to tune my mind backwards for I already told myself this is it–the end of the road. Nevertheless this article has helped me.
Petronella, I told him last August that I was leaving. I found a nice townhouse, gave notice to our landlord and told him he needed to find somewhere to go because Our relationship was affecting my mental health. A week later, he promised he would be better, he would be more positive and he agreed go to counselling. We moved in October – to MY townhouse……the lease and all bills are in MY name. He has made minimal changes and has found every excuse to avoid counselling. I’m torn because on one hand I can’t imagine my life without him and yet I also can’t imagine living the rest of my life like THIS. Sad.
Four years ago I married my soulmate. We divorced two months ago. She pulled each one of these behaviors out of the bag and then projected them onto me. You cannot have a relationship when the goalposts are moved several times a day. This is a great list of recommendations and it’s going in my self discovery and relationship notebook.
Patricia Shark says
Toxic is like the drink. I was always in relationships that I had no control of who I was. And when I made that change to fixing it by reading and practice your coaching I became a happy healthy person. I may not be in a relationship now but I also don’t feel I need to be in one. I am thankful for the e I get that help me find myself again. I am a good person kind and compassionate .
Petronella Mwape says
I was engaged in a relationship and developed love for this person, but suddenly this person just went quiet with out a reason. No communication. Doesn’t want to talk. Anyone have any experience with something like this?
Marc and Angel, thank you for all of your powerful and positive messages. Your book and blogs have really helped me through a dark time. I was married to a covertly aggressive narcissist for 20 years and it was very emotionally and psychologically destructive to me. Love nurtures and evil destroys your spiritual growth. Some more relationship killers that my wuzband did. NOT LISTENING – it takes work to truly listen to another person and he just was too self-absorbed and needed to dominate the conversations. BLAMING AND SCAPEGOATING – narcissists lack the ability to be responsible for their own behavior. LACK OF VULNERABILITY – I put this one in because it was my first red flag that something wasn’t right about my ex. He couldn’t really share his feelings or have open communication because he thought that others would “use” that information against him.
I think Sam also has a good point. Relationships are difficult enough without having a bunch of other people involved. While they might mean well, it usually only leads to misunderstandings. I personally feel that couples also need time alone together to truly connect and be able to reveal their true selves. I’m the guilty party here for not making time for the other person and I realize now how much that probably hurt, so I know I have to try harder.
It’s also important to note here that a lot of the times, our doubts are unfounded. The complaints aren’t always about them! The key here is direct communication and real connection, not just on paper. Give it a fighting chance! And sometimes compromise and meeting each other halfway also helps!
No guilt, no blackmail, no ultimatums, just a simple request for connection…
I think I just realized something about our working relationships as well that I wanted to share.
I once had a supervisor I worked with at an old branch, and in anger one day I told her that I hated her. This is something I spoke about pretty early in my coaching sessions with M&A because I knew I was wrong to do that; I felt guilty almost immediately. I called her a year ago and apologized but I still feel like I need to talk about the circumstances that led up to it.
Firstly, it’s important to note that we were once friends, but then I started to withdraw because of my studies. Our relationship became strained as several derogatory and sometimes condescending comments (both ways) were made without being dealt with. The working relationship became strained to the point where no one even bothered with a cursory good morning although we sat next to each other everyday. Then my mom passed away and I was having a very difficult time dealing with it but what hurt the most was a lack of even an acknowledgement from this person. The Account Manager had offered his assistance if required but she was very silent. It hurt more than I wanted to admit.
Then came the argument where she was advising customers not to come to me, to come to her instead, this was also a blow, then the argument about sharing the responsibility of opening the cabinets in the morning and the worst one was where she used my pain against me in an argument and said that I was picking a fight with her because I have emotional issues! I couldn’t be more hurt and angry..
This is also why in spite of all bad things that are being said about me to the managers at Risk Management about my character, sexual orientation and mental and emotional health, I chose not to retaliate. But I also feel that we are now more than even so it’s time to stop now! I wish I could convey how it felt to be ridiculed in front of a particular manager in Risk Management at the supervisors launch of the banks Blue Thunder revitalization in 2015 but I don’t think I can.
I probably shouldn’t be saying this as every time I try to defend myself against her or the other Supervisor, there is retaliation which wears me down and makes me ill but I’m trying to be more confident as Angel says and letting my side of the story be heard. In order to fully understand why I was unhappy in my old branch, an honest, confidential conversation with past and existing coworkers would need to be done which of course would be very difficult.
Joanne Tom Yick says
Thank you for your inspirational and life saving emails which I receive almost every morning. I make my morning cup of tea, sit in my garden and read your posts. It is how I start my day…it is what gets me through my day. I am soon to be divorced for the second time in my 57 years. I have a better understanding of my behaviors and my husband’s that contributed to our failed marriage. I now have the strength to go through our divorce knowing that it is the better choice for me. Thank you so very much.