I had an intervention once.
It wasn’t like the tearful ones that you see on TV, where a load of loved ones read notes from their pockets begging their person-who-might-have-a-problem to find themselves again.
No, it wasn’t like that at all.
But my mother did get me in a place where I couldn’t easily escape – her car – and, sweetly but sternly, expressed that she had something to say and that I wasn’t going to like it. She told me: “You can’t choose who you love. But you can choose who you’re with.”
I remember seeing her eyes mist while I sat, staring ahead, and just said, “Okay.”
At the time, I was in a toxic relationship.
I was in a relationship with a man who was always unhappy with me. He loved the idea of me much more than he loved my actual self, and he implicitly held me to a standard that I could never attain because it wasn’t reality. He wanted the Melissa that he had painted in his head, not the one standing in front of him.
Although he never caused me direct pain, physically or emotionally, he was constantly disappointed in me – and therefore distant, leaving me in a constant state of desperation.
The night before my intervention, my mother had walked in on me screaming crying on the phone.
I guess that hearing your twenty-something-year-old daughter crying, night after night, eventually weighs on a mother. So she had to say something.
And I’m glad she did.
Because the truth was, despite it all, I loved him – and that love was not enough.
We need to let go of this notion that it’s harrowingly romantic to work through a relationship that doesn’t feel good, that we should stick with someone who doesn’t serve our higher selves.
And because the emotional connection of love isn’t a binding contract, you can love someone and still let them go.
But how do you know for sure if that’s what you need? How can we tell if our relationship isn’t serving us – if it’s hurting us beyond what’s normal – and if we might be better off alone or in search of someone else?
I can’t quite answer that for you. Mostly, it’s a gut feeling that something isn’t quite right and hasn’t been for a while.
But I can at least offer you some guidance in how to think through it – in how to decide whether or not your partner is one you want to choose to be with.
1. Are They (Implicitly or Explicitly) Trying to Gain Power and Control Over You?
I used to work as a domestic violence prevention educator. I went into schools and community organizations to explain relationship dynamics, and I talked about everything from how to build a healthy relationship to how to improve unhealthy communication to how to spot an abusive partner.
As you can imagine, I got a lot of questions and was privy to a lot of personal stories.
Most of all, and heartbreakingly so, participants frequently asked, after listing out their partner’s behaviors, if I could tell them if they were abusive.
Solemnly, I would tell them, “I can’t answer that for you. But I have two things that I want you to think about to help you work it out for yourself.”
And I would ask them to reflect on two questions: 1) Is it a pattern – something that happens over and over again, over time? And 2) Are they doing it to gain power and control over you?
That is, are they engaging in the actions that they are with the intention of changing your behavior?
Are they accusing you of cheating when you shut your phone off to have dinner with your parents, with the intended outcome being that you always answering when they call?
Are they telling you that they don’t like who you are when you hang out with your best friend and that they’d rather spend more time alone with you, with the intended outcome of your becoming socially dependent on them and them alone?
Are they saying that their jealousy is just a flaw of theirs that you’ll have to learn to love, that they only get jealous because they love you, that their rage is your fault for not being sensitive to that, in hopes that you’ll stop hanging out with your ex?
Because when your partner manages to change your behavior – when you find yourself increasingly changing your usual way of being in order to avoid conflict with your partner – then they gain power and control over you.
And that’s more than toxic.
And that’s not exactly what I want to talk about today, although Everyday Feminism has plenty of resources available for that.
Today, I want to talk about unhealthy relationships – relationships that may not necessarily entail abuse, but that are painful and confusing.
I want to talk about toxic relationships – so called because instead of nourishing your growth, as a relationship should, they slowly wither you away like poison in your system.
Because I think that sometimes we get stuck in circles in our minds asking ourselves whether or not a partner is abusive, when really, we should be asking ourselves whether or not they’rehealthy for us.
Because relationships with abusive partners are bad – but so are relationships with toxic partners.
Because unhappiness is unhappiness – and you deserve better.
So if you answered “no” to this question, this article is still for you. It’s for exactly you.
And if you answered “yes” and think that you or someone you know might be involved in a relationship with an abusive partner and you’re interested in knowing what your options are, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.7233.
2. Is the Relationship Mutually Beneficial?
Quick. Pull up the last cover letter that you wrote to send in with a job application. Trust me, I’m going somewhere useful with this.
Read it through. Tally up how many times you tell your potential employer how their company or organization might benefit you. And then tally up how many times you tell them how youmight benefit them.
It should be about equal. Because what you want to prove to them – and take heed of this if you’re on a job hunt – is that the relationship is mutually beneficial.
I read a lot of cover letters when we hire people here at Everyday Feminism, and I’ve learned that most people do a lot more of either one or the other – and that’s imbalanced.
Relationships are kind of like that.
Because for any relationship to work – whether romance or employment – there has to be a clear and obvious understanding that you both need one another on some level and that you both will fulfill your duties to bring the other adequate satisfaction.
And in a relationship with a toxic partner, what tends to happen is that you’re bringing your partner a whole lot of satisfaction, but they’re not really bringing it for you in return.
And then the relationship isn’t mutually beneficial anymore. Instead, it’s a relationship where one person gains and the other person loses.
We – especially women – are often taught that being a good person (and, by proxy, a good partner) means making someone else happy.
But rarely are we taught to remember that we, too, should experience happiness in our relationships.
And hey. You should. You should experience growth, benefits, and joy in your relationship.
So, like in the cover letter activity, ask yourself: In this relationship, what do you bring to the table? What do you offer to your partner – emotionally, intellectually, sexually, and even financially – that benefits them? And what do they offer you?
And – just like in the cover letter activity – those lists should be pretty evenly spread.
3. Are You Expected to Sacrifice When They Won’t Even Compromise?
When you think of the word “sacrifice,” what comes to mind for you?
For me, it’s goats and blood and stuff, mostly. But it also comes with a general feeling of sadness and defeated resolve.
What about when you think about the word “compromise?”
Because I see people shaking hands and smiling when I think of that word. That’s way different from bloody goats.
The thing is, we often think of these two words as interchangeable. We conflate “sacrifice” and “compromise” a lot in our society, especially when we’re talking about romantic relationships – and we shouldn’t.
Only one of these has a place in our relationships.
When we make a sacrifice, what we’re doing is giving up something that’s meaningful to us in order to allow someone else to have their way. It’s one person getting exactly what they need, while the other gets the exact opposite of what they need. And we already covered “mutually beneficial,” remember?
When we make a compromise, though, we work together with our partner to figure out how to come to a conclusion that minimizes damage and maximizes satisfaction – even if neither party gets exactly what they want.
A sacrifice in a relationship might look like your partner refusing to accompany you to your office party, where you’re being given an award, because they “hate your coworkers.” A compromise would be agreeing to stay only for a couple of hours.
A sacrifice in a relationship might look like your partner expecting you to go vegan because they are. A compromise would be agreeing to use separate pans in which to cook your meals.
Your partner, in general, shouldn’t be asking you to make grand sacrifices.
But if you find that your partner is consistently expecting you to sacrifice your needs, rather than entertaining the idea of a compromise, then they stand to gain a lot more from the relationship that you do.
And that’s toxic.
4. Are You Comfortable Expressing Yourself to Them (And Do They Respect Your Needs)?
Pretty regularly, I open a conversation with my partner with something along the lines of “I just wanted to check in about _____,” where the blank represents some potential misunderstanding or the acknowledgment of one of us doing something hurtful.
What follows is usually a quick back-and-forth about whatever The Thing is, just to make sure we’re at an understanding and have a game plan for how to deal with it going forward.
And then – this is the important part – he ends the conversation by thanking me and reminding me that I can always feel free to broach any subject with him, however controversial or awkward.
That is a normal, healthy, adult way to handle potential conflicts.
And the only reason why I know this information is because of how many times I was in relationships with partners who didn’t pay me the same basic courtesy.
At the end of the day, if you feel like you’re walking on eggshells around your partner, afraid to tell or ask them something, then something is wrong.
Some conversations are uncomfortable to have – that’s real, and it’s never fun. And especially if you’re admitting to something that you did wrong or asking a partner to admit their own wrongs, you might be nervous about bringing up the topic. And that’s okay.
But if you’re fearful that your partner is going to shut down the conversation, express annoyance at your insistence to talk, minimize the importance of the discussion, or if you suspect that your partner won’t follow through on what you (reasonably) ask of them, then really, that’s disrespectful.
Ask yourself: Is this an appropriate conversation to have at this time and in this space? Are my needs rational and fair? Is this discussion important to me and to the success of our relationship?
And if the answers are yes, then ask yourself: Will my partner respond reasonably and genuinely to my concern? Will my partner, even if they get emotional, treat me with love and respect during this conversation? Is there a high likelihood that I’ll feel better once the conversation is over? Will my partner try to come up with a solution with me?
And the answers to those questions should also be yes.
Because relationships take two people. And part of caring about another person is showing up for them and hearing them out.
5. Are You Happy Most of The Time – Or Is the Relationship Confusing or Painful?
This, at the end of the day, is the absolute most important question when trying to work out whether or not a relationship is serving you.
And you wouldn’t know it if you listened to any generic love song on the radio.
Because we have a really damaging cultural understanding (that you can hire me to talk about endlessly) about love: It’s supposed to be confusing and painful, and it’s working through that which makes it worthwhile and romantic.
But I want to let you in on a little secret: Relationships aren’t easy – and they aren’t always fun – but they’re not supposed to hurt.
And the biggest clue, I think, to whether or not your relationship is a healthy one is to consider how happy you are.
You may not be blissfully happy constantly – and I don’t think that would necessarily be healthy either – but your contentedness should be up, and feelings of confusion and pain should be minimal.
And if you’re not sure how to measure this, you can even try recording your emotions in a journal. You can use this list of feelings words to get you started. Most of the time, your feelings should be positive.
And if your partner – or the dynamics of the relationship – is hurting you, or if you find yourself frequently confused about the state of your union and without the comfort to discuss it, then you might be living in emotional disarray.
And that confusion breeds anxiety and resentment, both of which are visceral, I-feel-like-my-lungs-are-filling-slowly-with-concrete emotions that can seep out into your body through your veins.
And that toxicity can eat you alive.
Sometimes your partner is going to hurt your feelings. And sometimes your partner is going to confuse you.
But if that’s the MO, rather than a rare occurrence, then the bottom line is: This relationship might not be the healthiest for your well-being.
My mother was right, of course: I can’t choose who I love, but I sure as hell can choose who I’m with.
But that’s usually easier said than done.
Eventually, I did walk away from that relationship and detoxed my heart back in shape.
Because love should feel good.