How to Tell If Your Relationship is Toxic

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Hey Wendy:

My husband and I have been together for eleven years. I feel our relationship might be toxic, but I can’t really gauge it. We only fight a handful of times a year, but when we do it can get very nasty and we become very mean.

In the past year, whenever we talk about any subject (things as simple as what are we going to buy our eight-year-old to eat) his voice will get very loud for no reason whatsoever (as if he was angry and/or upset with me). The two excuses he has given me are:

1. “I get too passionate/involved in X or Y subject.”

2. “If you raise your voice by even one decibel, I have to raise it by at least five in order to protect myself from your anger.”

As you see, in both instances where he drastically raises his voice…it’s never his responsibility.

This constant raising his voice is worse than those occasional fights. He really is pushing me away, and I can’t help but lose emotional connection. Very important: we both have had very recent adult diagnosis of autism, and on top of that he also has ADHD.

Is there something to be done about this?

Jan T.

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Hey Jan,

I’m not a doctor, an autism specialist, or an expert on ADHD, so you’re going to need to consult with those folks on the medications, coping mechanisms, and workarounds for those extra pieces of the marital puzzle. I did, however, consult with my favorite person with severe ADHD, and he’s collaborated to give us some wise advice here. In regards to your joint autism diagnosis, I feel it would be helpful to approach this news as an opportunity to learn more about this newly discovered common ground between you. Many folks with autism find it challenging to communicate their thoughts and emotions effectively to others, so this may be a good starting point of discussion with a doctor or therapist.

In regards to what I can help with—the relationshippy side of things—we’ll start by checking to see if your relationship is indeed toxic, and what you can do to alter detrimental behaviors. Here we go!

IMPORTANT QUALITIES FOR A HEALTHY PARTNERSHIP

In a healthy partnership, everyone…

  • Means Well: You’re good people who mean well and who care for each other and act accordingly.
  • Can Admit When You’re Wrong: You are willing to say, “I don’t know” and “Oops, I’m sorry” and “I messed up” and “I was wrong about that” when you’re actually in the wrong.
  • Has High Integrity: You mean what you say, and you say what you mean. No passive-aggressive bullshit. No coverup comments that are untrue and/or inauthentic. No passing the blame off onto someone else. If you have high integrity, you own your own part of the partnership.
  • Loves Each Other: Sometimes we’re so stuck in our patterns and routines we don’t notice when the love is gone—and that what’s taken love’s place is distain. This is a soul-searching moment, Jan. Is the love gone? And if it is, are you willing to bring it back? Because love isn’t something independent from you. You have some say as to whether you’re going to rekindle it or not.

So, Jan, how did your partnership stack up: healthy or not so much?

What’s your part in this?

Once you have done some relationship reflecting, talk with him about it.

TWO PARTS TO TALKING: HOW AND WHEN.

HOW: My beloved person with firsthand ADHD knowledge, Zack, offers this to you.

As someone with ADHD, and has, as your husband puts it, a very passionate wife, may I suggest some advice from the great and very subtle comedian, Steven Wright. When Steven started as a comedian, he would react to the audience—they got loud, he got louder, and it perpetuated. They would get louder and the comedy turned into a not-funny shouting match. One day, he had an idea: go quiet. Really quiet. And the audience responded. They wanted to listen. They picked up his vibe. So, following his advice, if your husband goes loud, relax your voice even to a disturbingly calm level. It takes a little practice. If you are feeling passionate and excited, turn that into a slow burn—instead of the raging fire, be the cool ember that lasts for days.

I have nothing else to add on the “how,” so up next, the “when.”

WHEN: Anytime you are both ready to take a time out in your relationship. Not a break-up, but a disruption in the patterns of daily life and a moment to decide together how things can go differently. Use my free Full Moon Ritual to set yourself up for success for this couple’s relationship meeting.

Watch the videos to understand how to set the stage so that all goes as smoothly as possible. Then replace my 16 Full Moon questions with these seven questions that you’ll ask each other back and forth, one at a time, in this order, please:

1. Is there something you aren’t speaking up about in our relationship?

2. Is there anything you need that you aren’t getting from me?

3. What signal can we make up right now for us to both use so things don’t escalate between us?

4. When I did ____, I was showing my love for you. How did this make you feel?

5. How I experienced love by you recently was when you ___.

6. What I most appreciate about you right now is ___.

7. What I love about our partnership right now is ___.

As an aside, I do this type of meeting every single month with my partner (at or near the full moon, hence the name). We’ve done some variation of it the entire eight and a half years of our relationship. It keeps the relationship clean, clean, clean. September’s full moon just passed and the effects will linger until the new moon—just in case you believe in that stuff—so get that meeting on your calendar right now.

However you go about it, your relationship sounds like it could use a leveling up for sure. I hope this process helps you see what’s happening more clearly, and that the two of you can put your heads together to create a new, happy way of life.

CHANGE TOXIC TO HAPPY

If you want to make real and lasting change at the very core of your relationship’s foundation, grab my Happy in Love Relationship Workshop. It’s an audio series (videos too if you want to watch along) that will give you a completely new framework for your marriage and open the door to more happiness, freedom, connection, and safety. It’s a fluffy title, Happy in Love, but it’s aptly named—Happy in Love is a substantive and meaty workshop that delivers results. It’s also cheaper than one session of couple’s therapy.

Let me know how it goes, and good luck!