This article was originally published on August 30, 2016, and has been updated.
Having a toxic relationship isn’t as uncommon as you think.
Love is a dance of connection and disconnection. Some of us need more connection, others need independence.
What if I told you there were only two roads to making a toxic relationship healthier?
Road One is breaking up and finding a more secure partner.
Road Two means viewing the problems in the relationship as a slingshot for growth.
Even if you fall on opposite ends of the spectrum, the relationship can work!
But the only way it can work is if you both see problems as a catalyst to understanding and respecting each other’s differences.
If you don’t, holding hands quickly turns to pointing fingers.
If your partner’s idea of closeness makes you feel like you’re suffocating, or if you feel like your partner intentionally ignores you, the best thing you can do for your relationship is to talk about it.
By examining moments of disconnection, both partners will gain profound insight so they can begin learning how to give each other what they need.
I’ve put together these four exercises to help turn your toxic relationship into a healthy one.
Exercise 1: Talk about it.
If one of you is feeling ignored or overwhelmed by your partner’s needs, use the exercise below to understand each other better.
Instructions: Think of the last argument you had. Rate the following feelings on a scale from 1 (100% felt that way) to 5 (0% felt that way).
During our fight I felt:
- Like leaving
- Like my opinions don’t matter
Now explore what triggered those feelings.
Rate what triggered those feelings on a scale from 1 (100% felt that way) to 5 (0% felt that way)
- I felt unimportant to my partner
- I felt cold toward my partner
- I felt rejected
- I felt overwhelmed by demands
- I felt excluded
- I didn’t feel attraction
- I didn’t feel affection
- My sense of dignity was compromised
- I couldn’t get my partner’s attention
- My partner was dominating
Answers: There are no right or wrong answers here.
Each answer depends on your reality.
The goal of the exercise is for both partners to understand each other. The only way to do that is to recognize one vital element that makes relationships last.
That vital element is…
Both points of view are valid.
When partners believe there is only one truth, they fight for their own position. That belief is a dead-end.
There is only one assumption that will make the conversation about disconnection or too much closeness beneficial: that in every fight, there are always two points of view, and both are valid.
Once you and your partner accept that idea, it’s no longer necessary to argue for your own position.
Now you can focus on understanding your partner’s position, and work together to find a mutual solution thereby creating a less toxic relationship.
There are always two sides to every conflict.
Once you understand and acknowledge this, you’ll quickly find that reconnecting comes naturally.
Exercise 2: Revisit the past.
Now that we’ve identified your emotional reaction, it’s time to get in a time machine and revisit your past.
See if you can find a relationship between earlier traumas or behavior and your current reaction.
Note: If you’ve been sexually harassed, raped, or experienced any other trauma your partner is unaware of, now is the time to bring it up. In my work with others, I’ve found that sharing our deepest pain with our partners truly helps them understand us. It also gives them the ability to gently work with us on traumas so we can begin to heal together.
This list will help guide you.
When I (or my partner) turned away, it reminded me of:
- An earlier relationship.
- Past traumas or hard times I’ve had.
- The way my family treated me growing up.
- My deepest fears and insecurities.
- Unaccomplished dreams I have.
- Events I have not emotionally dealt with yet.
- Ways other people have treated me.
- Things I always believed about myself.
- Nightmares that keep me up at night.
Take time to discuss each other’s answers.
Ask open-ended questions so you can understand each other better.
This isn’t about who feels worse or who is more right. It’s about taking the time to truly understand each other’s insecurities and deepest fears.
When your partner tells you something that shocks or surprises you, say, “tell me more about that.”
You’ll learn more in one answer by truly listening than you will in years of trying to guess why your partner does what they do.
Exercise 3: Write it out.
Now write out a short summary of your point of view in the disagreement, followed by your partner’s point of view.
If you did the exercise right, you’ll quickly see that your views of what happened and why they happened in the way they did are not matters of “fact.”
All of us are complicated people whose emotional reactions are determined by a lifetime of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and memories.
Exercise 4: What’s your role?
It’s our natural setting to make distance and loneliness our partner’s fault.
We might even decide our partner is to blame entirely for a toxic relationship.
But no one is to blame.
To break the pattern that is causing the emotional roller coaster in the relationship, both partners need to take responsibility for the problem—both need to admit playing some role.
To help you, read the list below and rate things that may have contributed to your feelings of needing more affection or more space.
Note: Do not try this if you are still upset.
When our emotions are tense, fighting becomes nonsense.
When partners try to resolve a conflict when they are upset, they are more likely to say regrettable words that will harm the relationship.
Taking a 20-minute break and focusing on the positives of your relationship will do wonders for coming together to solve the problem.
Use the list below to take some ownership of your contribution.
Rate the following on a scale from 1 (100% felt that way) to 5 (0% felt that way)
- I’ve felt highly sensitive lately
- I haven’t expressed a lot of appreciation toward my partner lately
- I’ve felt very stressed and irritable
- I’ve been extremely critical lately
- I haven’t shared much of what has been going on in my life lately
- I feel depressed
- I may have a chip on my shoulder
- I haven’t been very affectionate lately
- I haven’t focused on being a good listener lately
Now write out how you contributed to this problem.
“I can now see that my contribution to this problem was…”
Now take a minute to write out some ways you can change the situation in the future.
“When an event like this happens in the future, I can make it better by…”
Offer your partner one tip so they can avoid this problem with you.
“To avoid this problem in the future, my partner could…”
The more you work through the exercise, the more you will turn towards each other when the relationship hits a rough patch.
Instead of using conflict to push each other away, you can use it to bring you closer.
The emotional bond in your relationship will deepen, and you’ll cultivate a profound friendship that can handle any problem the world throws at you.
That doesn’t mean you’ll never have arguments again. You will. It just means those arguments will no longer undercut the relationship and render it toxic.
These four exercises will teach you a lot about your partner and yourself. It’s going to take courage to stay vulnerable and open when you are frustrated, hurt, or angry.
When a couple seeks safety in withdrawal or in the blame of the other for not getting close, it is not love that has failed; it is they who have failed love.
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P.S. Are you unsure about whether you have a toxic or healthy relationship right now? Use my free checklist to help you figure it out.