Understanding Change in Toxic and Abusive Relationships

Do you know if you’re in toxic and abusive relationships and what this means to improve the relationship? Are you in an exhausting and tense relationship? Does your partner sometimes treat you in ways you find unacceptable? Do you feel used and controlled? Would you like your relationship to improve and you’re wondering if this is possible?

Unhealthy relationships have a severe impact on your mental health and can even have physical consequences because the effects are so extensive. The most damaging types of unhealthy relationships are those with a toxic or an abusive partner. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are critical differences, including how to approach trying to improve the relationship. Understanding the differences and establishing whether your partner is toxic or abusive is valuable because it can help you determine what will be necessary for them to change, your role in improving the relationship, and the likelihood of them changing.

No matter what type of partner you have, it’s important for you to take care of yourself. Most toxic and abusive partners are highly demanding while also making it difficult for you to be happy, so it’s common for people with unhealthy relationships to have poor mental health. You might not be able to get your partner to change, but you can find ways to make yourself happier.

Approaching the topic of change with your partner and with yourself can be easier and more effective if you know whether they’re toxic or abusive, and you understand what is needed for them and the relationship to change.

What is the difference between toxic relationship and abusive relationships?

What types of behaviour are toxic and when does mistreatment become abusive? What makes toxic and abusive partners different? Why does the difference matter?

Although they’re both unhealthy and harm your mental health, abusive and toxic relationships aren’t the same. The critical distinction is the intent driving your partner’s behaviour and how they want you to be affected by the way they treat you.

Broadly speaking, a toxic relationship takes more energy than it gives and negatively impacts your mental health. Because relationships vary so much from person to person, what makes a relationship toxic is highly dependent on the individuals. Behaviour that would make a relationship toxic for one person can be harmless for another, such as both partners yelling when they get upset or expecting lots of texts when they’re apart. (These aren’t necessarily healthy behaviours, but if neither partner is upset by them, then they don’t need to be problematic.)

Although one partner can have the majority of the unhealthy behaviours, it’s much more common for both partners to have some toxic habits, in addition to ways they could change that would make the relationship healthier. Therefore, it’s possible for one person to think the relationship is toxic while the other considers it healthy, or both partners can be affected by how they treat each other.

Toxic people don’t always realise they’re acting in ways that are damaging the relationship and making life harder than it needs to be for their partner. They can think they’re acting reasonably and it’s their partner who doesn’t understand what types of behaviour are normal in a healthy relationship. Its common for toxic partners not to understand that effort, sacrifices, and compromises are needed to have a healthy relationship. They can also think they’re entitled to act in ways their partner isn’t, such as being jealous, having their emotions taken care of, or refusing to compromise in disagreements.

But most toxic partners don’t want their partner to be hurt and feel miserable in the relationship. They might think that their partner needs to adjust their expectations, but their goal isn’t to make their partner lose their confidence, think badly of themselves, or be afraid.

Abusive relationships, however, are characterised by one person’s need to have power and control over their partner. Abusers use many different tactics to achieve this control, such as putdowns, insults, undermining your confidence, minimising or ignoring your contributions and capabilities, playing the victim, aggression, threats, intimidation, manipulation, physical violence, spreading rumours, turning your friends and family against you, and much more.

Please be aware that the type of abuse that is being referred to in this article is coercive controlling violence (also known as intimate terrorism), which is characterised by one partner’s pattern of behaviour that is designed to harm, punish, frighten, and victimise their partner. It can be in response to real or perceived threats, insults, and provocations, but it can be premeditated as well, such as someone hiding their partner’s keys so they’ll be late for work and blame themselves.  

It’s different from the more common type of abuse in relationships – situational couple violence. This type of abuse is in response to specific incidents. One or both partners can use situational violence to abuse their partner. A couple could finish dinner, then one leaves the table and starts playing games on their phone. Their partner demands to know why they aren’t helping clean up; quickly they’re screaming at each other and throwing dishes.

Both forms of abuse are highly damaging to the relationship and the mental health of both partners, as well as illegal, but coercive controlling violence is far more harmful because instead of largely existing to deal with powerful emotions, the purpose is for one person to destroy their partner’s sense of self to make them easier to control.

An abuser’s behaviour is motivated by the belief they’re entitled to a relationship that meets all their needs and doesn’t take any work. Abuse gets an abuser what they want. Their mood swings, outbursts, sulks and manipulation keeps them from being held accountable for their actions and lets them avoid responsibility. They get to have everything in the relationship on their terms: they set the tone, only fight about things that upset them, decide when fights are over, and much more. If they’re asked to contribute by cleaning up after themselves or giving up an afternoon to do something their partner wants, they can belittle, intimidate, withdraw, or use any other tactic that will get their partner to drop this request, and probably not make the same request for some time.

An abuser’s behaviour is designed to make you feel worthless and dependant on them. You can’t be strong enough to not be affected by abuse because an abuser will always find a way to treat you worse and make you suffer.

Although they would prefer it if their partner was happy in the relationship, what they actually want is compliance. Their partner’s emotions aren’t that important to them, especially when they threaten what is important to them. An abusive partner can claim to love their partner and genuinely have strong feelings for them, but ultimately, they don’t view their partner as an equal who deserves trust and respect.

Abusers know how their behaviour is affecting their partner, and they don’t care. For them, getting their needs met is more important than making the relationship enjoyable for their partner. Abusers want their partners to feel bullied and incompetent because that makes them easier to control. In the mind of abusers, their partner exists to meet their needs. And they’ll treat their partners in whatever way is necessary to get what they think they’re entitled to.

The cost is emotional intimacy and the shared sense of purpose that is at the core of healthy relationships, but this doesn’t affect most abusers since that’s not what they want to get out of relationships. In order for them to miss this, they would have to learn to value relationships instead of just using them as a way of getting their needs met.

Despite what some people claim, abuse – with a partner who engages in coercive controlling violence – is never mutual. Abuse is characterised by one partner’s domination over the other through control and intimidation, and it’s impossible for two people to have the majority of the authority, so partners can’t both be abusers. They can both treat each other terribly and act in ways that are unacceptable, but only one can be an abuser.

The critical distinction between a toxic or an abusive partner is their reason for acting in ways that harm the relationship. Someone who makes a relationship toxic may or may not realise how they’re affecting you, but they don’t want to make you into their victim. Abusive partners do – they want power and authority so they attack your self-esteem to make you lose confidence and feel afraid, which makes you easier to control. If what they’re doing and saying doesn’t upset you, they’ll find something worse because they want you to be hurt.

Can a toxic or abusive partner change?

The value of knowing if your partner is toxic or abusive is having a better idea of what is required from them to change and what your role in improving the relationship can be.

Insisting that a toxic partner is abusive can cause them to believe you’re over-exaggerating their behaviour and make them resistant to change, while also potentially minimising your role in changing the nature of the relationship. And attempting to improve an abusive relationship without recognising that your partner is abusive – by trying to be a better partner, going to couple’s therapy, or persuading them seeing a mental health professional without the context of abuse – is likely to make the problem worse. Couple’s therapy is designed to help both partners change and improve as equals – abusers think you’re beneath them and that its your responsibility to change, while traditional individual therapy can reinforce their beliefs that their emotions are more important than your own. So how you instigate change and what needs to be done depends on whether your partner is toxic or abusive.

To change a toxic relationship, both partners must be willing to be honest, trusting, take responsibility for their actions, and self-reflect. Even if one partner has far more toxic habits than the other, you both must seriously examine your own behaviour and be willing to change to improve your relationship. It’s rare for only one partner to act in ways that make the relationship more difficult than it needs to be, and expecting just your partner to change and make sacrifices wouldn’t create a healthy relationship since it’s necessary for both partners to be willing to accommodate the other. Your partner may have more work to do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t change your behaviour to improve the relationship.

If a toxic partner is willing to examine their behaviour and change some of their habits, and you are as well, then it’s possible for the relationship to improve and become healthy. But knowing what should be changed and how to make these changes sustainable can be difficult. You could believe that your partner is refusing to change when they actually don’t understand what you want them to give up or start doing.

You might need to work together to determine what types of change are necessary and what you would benefit the most from addressing. Telling your partner ‘I want you to be nicer to me’ or ‘I feel like you don’t trust me and that bothers me’ isn’t as helpful as explaining what you don’t like, what you would like them to do instead, and make a plan for how you’ll tell them when they’re doing something you asked them not to do, as well as being willing to do the same yourself.

Discussing changes like this isn’t always easy, especially if you struggle with communication, honesty, or vulnerability, so many couples would benefit from working with a professional. They can act as a neutral third-party, ask you and your partner questions that help you understand the challenges of the relationship, and give you techniques that help you initiate and maintain improvement. It’s possible to improve a toxic relationship without the help of a professional, but it can take more time and energy.

But a toxic or abusive partner theoretically being capable of changing doesn’t mean you should wait indefinitely for them to improve. It’s possible that you and your partner aren’t compatible, or they can’t make the changes you would need to be satisfied with your relationship.

If your partner is unwilling to address their behaviour, you can still choose to change how you treat your partner. Recognising ways you make the relationship challenging and deciding you’ll try to break these habits can reduce the levels of negativity between you and your partner. Ideally your partner will want to also treat you better, but even if they don’t, choosing to address your actions and give up ways of behaving that you aren’t proud of is often an empowering experience that shows you how much control you have over your life. Without your partner’s contribution, the relationship can only improve so much, but you can begin to introduce change and boost your mental health without their participation.

If you and your partner are in a relationship where situational couple violence is common, it may be possible for you to repair your relationship by working together, but this would likely be much easier with the help of a professional who can teach you various skills related to communication, emotional regulation, and other practices that are needed in healthy relationships.

If you didn’t have examples of healthy relationship in your lives growing up, you might not be aware of the benefits of healthy relationships. The way most people act in relationships is heavily influenced by what they were exposed to growing up. It’s also common for people whose parents had a volatile relationship to be used to the high emotions that characterise unhealthy relationships, which makes the tranquility of a healthy relationship feel flat and uninteresting. So you might not only be lacking some of the skills that are highly useful in building a maintaining a healthy relationship, but you could also not know how to measure the quality of your relationship. This would make improving your relationship without professional help possible, but challenging.

Improving a relationship with an abuser, however, is a very different process.

You can’t change an abuser or improve your relationship by working together to fix the problems. There could be unhealthy dynamics that would need to be addressed for the relationship to become healthy, but you can’t resolve difficulties within the context of abuse. Abusers must first learn? to want to have a healthy relationship and see you as an equal with wants and needs of your own before any real and lasting changes can be made.

Very few abusers will decide on their own that they want to change; usually it’s to avoid consequences. These can be legal consequences or you telling them you’ll leave if they don’t change.

Changing your behaviour in an attempt to make an abuser less abusive can’t work because they expect perfection and blame all their problems on their partners – even things that are their own fault; if an abusive partner gets a speeding ticket on the way home, they can say it’s your fault for expecting them to be on time. You can never be good enough to make your partner stop abusing you because no matter how much you give them, they’ll always expect more.

Some abusers will put conditions on changing, such as saying they’ll only call you names once you raise your voice or that they’ll be more honest but you aren’t allowed to ask where they were when they come home late.(minimise their behaviour) But this isn’t true change – it’s a different form of abuse where they use abuse as a threat to manipulate you into behaving the way they want.

They can also say they’ll change but you have to ‘help’ them by creating a calm home environment or not doing anything to set them off. This isn’t change either because they’ll soon find excuses in your behaviour that excuse their abuse, which they can then justify.

In order for change to be genuine, it requires:

  1. Taking responsibility by admitting that they’ve been abusive and acknowledging all their past abusive behaviours, without minimising or justifying what they did. This requires acknowledging that they chose to be abusive – they weren’t defending themselves or matching how you treated them.
  2. Recognise how their abuse affected you and anyone else in the family (such as children) in both the short and long-term, without bringing up how they’ve been affected by their behaviour. This also needs to include acknowledging their pattern of control and how it was motivated by their entitlement.
  3. Treat you respectfully, including when either of you is upset, through both actions and words.
  4. Develop a positive image of you by not focusing on your flaws and mistakes, and recognising your strengths and the things you do for them.
  5. Doing their best to make up for what they did and accepting any consequences this may warrant. You could be angry at them for a long time and unable to trust them. Your partner might not like this, but they need to give you permission to act in accordance with your feelings rather than suppressing them for their benefit. This includes accepting that you may never fully trust or forgive them, and recognising that you don’t owe them trust and forgiveness.
  6. Commit to improving without placing conditions on their good behaviour – they can’t give themselves permission to yell if you start yelling or play the victim if you’re impatient with them.
  7. Accept criticism, feedback, and requests for changes, while also being honest about their mistakes. This is a part of making long-term changes that applies to all people who are trying to better themselves. not just abusers.
  8. Give up their entitlement and privileges.

It’s very common for abusers to claim that they’ve changed and treat you better for a while, but unless they’ve made the progress listed above, then they haven’t stopped being abusive.

Changing from an abuser to someone who respects their partner and values equality in a relationship can happen, but it’s highly difficult and almost impossible without intensive professional help. This takes time and commitment, and almost always involves slip-ups and denial that there’s still a problem.

At any point they can decide that they were happier as an abuser and life was easier so they should go back to the way things were. They need to know that if they do, there will be consequences; the most powerful consequence that is within your control is telling them that you’ll leave if they continue to be abusive.

Not all abusers can truly give up their core beliefs and values, so for your own health and safety, you should be willing to leave. You can lose years of your life and endure tremendous damage to your mental health while waiting for changes that may never happen. You can be committed to doing what you can to stay together, but if your partner won’t change or it’s clear they can never meet your needs, then leaving may be the best decision you can make. If you’re going to stay no matter what, then there isn’t a truly motivating reason for your partner to change.

Leaving for a short period of time, also known as taking a break, can be a very powerful way to get a toxic or abusive partner to change their behaviour. Abusers can especially be affected because an important part of their abuse requires sending you the message that you couldn’t manage without them – leaving proves that you can. You could also believe you’re not capable of being a whole and happy person without your partner, and taking a break shows that although you may miss your partner and have challenges, you can still make it on your own. Additionally, a short separation can give you the space to rediscover who you are as a person and what life is like without the constant tension of an unhealthy relationship.

Breaks are often most effective when you say how long you’ll stay away and commit to not returning sooner than you said you would – if you tell your partner you’re not coming back for a month and return two weeks later, you’re reinforcing their belief that you rely on them and won’t actually leave. Returning should be conditional on them changing their behaviour and with the promise that you’ll leave again and for longer if they don’t stay committed to treating you better.

Changing the course of a relationship is typically very challenging and requires commitment and investment from both of you, but if your partner is abusive then they will have far more work to do than you do.

Prioritise your mental health as well

Toxic and abusive relationships are tricky and mentally taxing. You don’t need to wait for your partner to change before you can start improving your life. Getting your partner to change and treat you better can only do so much to improve your mental health. Most people – especially those in relationships with someone toxic or abusive – can benefit from identifying things they could do that would make them happier and taking control of some of their more harmful thoughts.

Unhealthy relationships impact your mental health, but a relationship with someone toxic and especially an abuser often does a great deal of damage. Ideally, you would begin to repair this damage once there isn’t someone harmful in your life, but if your partner isn’t ready to start changing and you’re not prepared to leave, you can still begin to take care of yourself. Choosing to do things that make you happy and addressing habits and characteristics that you aren’t proud of – without the context of pleasing your partner – can prove that you’re capable of change and shows you how good doing something positive for yourself can feel.

Some (or much) of what you’re doing will likely be undermined by your partner, since you taking care of yourself can be a threat to them and their ways of treating you, especially for an abuser. An abusive partner can become even more volatile if they see that you’re starting to pay more attention to yourself.

Caring for your metal health in a toxic or abusive relationship with a partner who doesn’t want to change is difficult, but addressing the damaging thought patterns and self-neglect that usually emerges in relationships with someone toxic or abusive is an essential part of improving, as well as making you feel more capable of advocating for yourself, which is necessary when confronting a toxic or abusive partner with their behaviour and demanding accountability.

If you have a toxic relationship, you can work together to both find ways to stop hurting each other and make one another happier. But if your partner is abusive, it doesn’t matter how many toxic characteristics you may have – they need to stop being abusive before you can both start working on the relationship.

Introducing change in a relationship is rarely easy. Giving up behaviours that make a relationship unhealthy almost always requires unlearning long-held beliefs about what types of behaviours are acceptable and what is necessary. You and your partner may need to rethink what relationships can or should be like, determine what you’ll each need to do to achieve these changes, and understand why this is important to you. This can help you find the strength to leave if your partner isn’t willing or able to become the person you need them to be to for the relationship to be enjoyable.

However, how this can be done depends on whether your partner is toxic or abusive. Improving a relationship with a toxic partner can be much more collaborative – they may have more beliefs and patterns of behaviour that harm the relationship than you do, but you can work with them to introduce changes and encourage them to adopt different beliefs and behaviours.

This isn’t the case with an abusive partner. Even if you have harmful habits yourself, relationships with an abuser can’t become healthy until they’ve learned to give up abuse. This is a highly challenging and complex process that not everyone is capable of, and it’s almost impossible for them to change without specialised professional help. You’re still able to address your own mental health challenges and take steps to empower yourself and feel better, but your relationship can’t become healthy until your partner learns to give up abuse.

You can’t approach change in a relationship with an abuser the same way you would with a toxic partner. This is why it’s important to know the difference between toxic and abusive, understand the nature of abuse, and accept that if you have an abusive partner, there’s very little you can do to change the nature of the relationship.

Taking action to improve an unhealthy relationship is important, whether this means doing what you can to improve the relationship or leaving. Changing or leaving an unhealthy relationship can take an incredible amount of strength and commitment, but it’s worth the effort because of how much of a positive difference it can make in your life.

(Visited 48 times, 1 visits today)

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *