Updated: Nov 21, 2020
I hear this question a lot. And there’s always a lot of pain behind it. Days and nights of something much more than frustration and disappointment. We’re talking about real hurt, pain, and damage here.
But how do you know your marriage is toxic? Suppose your partner is unsupportive. Or not affectionate enough? Or is honest to the point of being hurtful sometimes? Does that point to toxicity? Or what?
There are three levels of badness, and it’s hugely important to keep them clear.
There are imperfect marriages. This is where most of us are, actually. Some of our needs aren’t being met, and maybe a couple of those unmet needs are pretty important to us. We might find ourselves sometimes wishing things were better. Occasionally things get bad, but the marital ship finds a way to right itself.
There are bad marriages. This is where it’s gotten more or less clear to you over time that you’d be happier leaving than staying. Because you’re generally unhappy with your partner. It may be that while there are a lot of good things, there are way too many bad things. It may be that while there aren’t many bad things, there aren’t many good things either. But what makes the marriage bad instead of toxic is that it’s not damaging your emotional or psychological health to stay, at least for, let’s say, the next year or two.
But toxic marriages are different. Now we’re not in the area of “not getting along.” We’re in the area of emotional and psychological poison. Literally. Here are some of the most important signs:
“There’s no ‘me’ in this marriage.” Somehow it’s turned out that your needs, your interests, the things you care about, the things you like to do have no place in your life with your partner. There’s no you in your life. You wouldn’t have given it away all by yourself. You must have tried to claw some of this back. But your partner made it impossible. This is toxic.
Too often you’re made to feel small. It could be a constant stream of little put-downs. It could be your partner’s unrelenting superior attitude. It could be the way you never end up being right, or feeling in the right. Or the way you are so often made to feel stupid or crazy. This is toxic.
An atmosphere of dislike. Forget about love. People will love each other all the way through the most toxic of relationships. The key point here is either that you flat out dislike your partner and/or you feel your partner dislikes you. You know what I mean by dislike: when one person can’t stand being with another person. And if you live with someone like this, this is toxic.
You just don’t matter. This is different from being made to feel small. This is being made to feel like you don’t exist. There might be no put-downs at all. You might be treated quite politely. But here it’s as though your needs, your thoughts, your very existence barely registers for your partner. Except for sex, maybe. Maybe. And this is very different from when the two of you are too busy to have time for each other: that’s a toxic lifestyle. But if you have the feeling that you just don’t matter, you’re in a toxic marriage.
You feel your partner is driving you crazy. It’s hard to know how to capture this in a few words. But here are some examples: Your partner is always stressed out and so always stresses you out. Your partner is hugely annoying. Your partner is always on your case, nagging you, bugging you. Your partner is a dithery mess, so much so that you get sucked into your life feeling like a dithery mess too. I hope this gives you the picture. All this is toxic.
And what do you do about this?
Honestly? Just get out. Or try six months of couples therapy with a really good couples therapist. And, if nothing’s changes very much, then just get out. Because...come on! What are we talking about here? A toxic marriage.