Toxic Relationship Patterns that Kill Love

Couple in toxic relationship pattern ignoring each other

In a recent blog post I introduced the five stage of marital satisfaction: enchantment, disillusionment, obligation, friendship and mature love. In this post I want to talk about four toxic relationship patterns that prevent you from moving forward from disillusionment or obligation to friendship and love.

These four patterns come from marriage research at the University of Denver. In one study, the researchers followed 150 couples for 13 years, before marriage and after, gathering massive amounts of information about their satisfaction, adjustment, commitment, sexual practices, communication, and so on. They also video-recorded these couples interacting and subjected their conversations to many hours of analysis. They’re now able to predict with high accuracy which couples will remain together and which will divorce. (If you’re interested in reading more, they’ve published a book entitled, Fighting for Your Marriage.)

These researchers have come up with four toxic patterns that keep you stuck in disillusionment and obligation and eventually destroy love and lead to divorce. I’ll talk about each of them below, using examples from the authors of the study.

Toxic Relationship Pattern #1: Escalation

Escalation is when arguments turn into a war of words. A comment or criticism is received defensively setting off an increasing spiral of self-defense and/or blame and accusations against the other. Each round of interaction ups the ante so things get worse and worse. Each person perceives him or herself as right and their partner as wrong and their agenda becomes about winning the argument but to the detriment of their goodwill and friendly feelings.

One of the most damaging things as arguments escalate is that partners say hurtful things that threaten the very lifeblood of their marriage. In truth, they say things in the heat of the moment that they don’t really mean and yet really hurt their spouse. And once negative comments are made, they are hard to take back.

For some couples, escalation is subtle. Voices may not be raised but the negative-to-negative interaction is real nonetheless. The more they occur and escalate, the greater the couple is at risk of future problems as they gradually erode friendship and goodwill.

Examples of Escalation

couple fighting

Ted: You’d think you could put the cap back on the toothpaste.
Wendy: Oh, like you never forget to put it back.
Ted: As a matter of fact, I always put it back.
Wendy: Oh, I forgot just how compulsive you are. You’re right, of course.
Ted: I don’t even know why I stay with you. You are so negative.
Wendy: Maybe you shouldn’t stay. No one is barring the door.

Here’s a more subtle form of escalation:

Max: Did you get the rent paid on time?
Donna: That was going to be your job.
Max: You were supposed to do it.
Donna: No, you were.
Max: Did it get done?
Donna: No. And, I’m not going to either.
Max: (muttering) Great. Just great.

I want to be realistic. All couples will argue and even escalate at times. But happy and stable couples are able to recognize the pattern and steer out of it more quickly. That usually happens when one partner backs off or says something to deescalate or break the negative cycle. It may be softening a tone, acknowledging a point of view, or throwing in a little humor. There are lots of ways to do it if you recognize what is happening and make a commitment to deescalate.

Toxic Relationship Pattern #2: Invalidation

A second toxic pattern is invalidation. This is a pattern in which one partner puts down the thoughts, feelings, or character of the other. The putdown may be subtle like, “It’s not so bad,” as a spouse is talking about an upsetting event. Or, it might be more explicit like, “You’re crazy.” The long-term effect of invalidation is to lower self-esteem and create resentment in the targeted spouse.

Invalidation can take many forms-criticism, sarcasm, contempt, name-calling, non-verbal looks of disgust, or even ignoring another. Whatever the form, it hurts and leads to covering up who you are or what you think and feel. It’s too risky to do otherwise.

Examples of Invalidation

example of toxic marriage pattern of invalidation

Wendy: “You missed your doctor’s appointment again! You’re so irresponsible. I could see you dying and leaving me, just like your father.”
Ted: (hurt) Thanks a lot. You know I’m nothing like my father.
Wendy: He was irresponsible and so are you.
Ted: (dripping with sarcasm) I’m sorry. I forgot my good fortune to be married to such a paragon of responsibility. You can’t even keep your purse organized.
Wendy: At least I am not so obsessive about stupid little things.
Ted: You’re so arrogant.

This is pretty obvious invalidation by both spouses. You can feel their contempt as their argument settles into an attack on one another’s character and even slips into the first pattern of escalation.

Here’s another, more subtle form of invalidation:

Maria: (tearing up) You know, I’m really frustrated by the hatchet job Bob did on my evaluation at work.
Hector: I don’t think he was all that critical. I’d be happy to have an evaluation like that from my boss.
Maria: (with a sigh and turning away) You don’t get it. It upset me.
Hector: Yeah, I see that, but I still think you’re over reacting.

This is clearly a more subtle form of invalidation. Instead of really listening with empathy, Hector discounted what Maria was feeling. He might think he’s helping and cheering her up with a message like “It’s not so bad.” But Maria is feeling bad because her husband has told her that what she feels is not valid.

Common Yet Harmful

I find this type of invalidation common. Not out of bad intent, couples often dismiss or put down the feelings of their spouse usually because they are threatened by what they are hearing or they want to make things better, or don’t know a better way to respond.

Invalidation prevents closeness and intimacy. As a matter of fact, invalidation is one of best predictors of relationship unhappiness. It is highly toxic.

The way to prevent invalidation is to show respect and acknowledge your partner’s feelings or point of view. It comes as you learn to listen to really hear one another without thinking you have to agree with them or solve their problems. It is simply granting space for your partner to be who and where they are at this moment.

Examples of Validation

Here are some examples of validation rather than invalidation.

Wendy: (very angry) I’m really mad that you missed the doctor’s appointment again. I worry about you being around with me in the future.
Ted: (hurt) It really upset you, didn’t it?
Wendy: You bet. I want to know that you’re going to be here for me, and when you miss an appointment that I’m anxious about, I worry about us.
Ted: I understand why it would make you worried when I don’t take care of myself.

Now back to Maria and Hector.

Maria: (with a tear) You know, I’m really frustrated by the hatchet job Bob did on my evaluation at work.
Hector: That must really tick you off.
Maria: Yeah, it does. And, I also get worried about whether I’ll be able to keep this job.
Hector: I didn’t know you were so worried about losing this job. Tell me more about how you are feeling.

What a different response from Hector. Can you see how his response builds trust, unity and goodwill in their relationship? It can seem like a little thing but it’s really big.

Toxic Relationship Pattern #3: Pursue and Withdraw

A third toxic pattern is pursue and withdraw (or avoidance). One spouse plays the role of “pursuer” by bringing issues up and trying to get a discussion or decision. The other spouse plays the role of “withdrawer” by either avoiding discussions or shutting down (stonewalling). Withdrawing may be tuning out, getting quiet and refusing to talk, leaving the room, or even agreeing with what’s being asked just to end the conversation. Avoidance is preventing the conversation from happening in the first place.

Examples of Pursue and Withdraw

Paula: When are we going to talk about how you’ve been handling your anger?
Jeff: Can’t this wait? I have to get these taxes done.
Paula: I’ve brought this up at least five times already. No, it can’t wait.
Jeff: (tensing) What’s to talk about, anyway? It’s none of your business.
Paula: (frustrated and looking right at Jeff) Tanya is my business. I’m afraid that you may lose your temper and hurt her, and you won’t do a darn thing to learn to deal with your anger.

Jeff: (turning away and looking out the window) I love Tanya. There’s no problem here (leaving the room as he talks).
Paula: (very angry now, following Jeff) you have to get some help. You can’t just stick your head in the sand.
Jeff: I’m not going to discuss anything with you when you are like this.
Paula: Like what? It doesn’t matter if I’m calm or frustrated—you won’t talk to me about anything important. Tanya is having problems and you have to face that.
Jeff: (quiet, tense, fidgeting)
Paula: Well?
Jeff: (going to the closet to grab a sweater) I’m going out to get a drink and have some peace and quiet.
Paula: (voice raised, angry) Talk to me, now. I’m tired of you leaving me alone when we’re talking about something important.
Jeff: (looking away from Paula and walking towards the door) I’m not talking, you are. Actually, you’re yelling. See you later.

A Common Dance

Unfortunately, this is a common dance when it comes to handling difficult issues. Generally, one partner plays the role of pursuer who brings up an issue and the other plays the role of withdrawer by finding ways to not deal with it. Studies show that women tend to be the pursuer and husbands the withdrawer, although the pattern may be reversed.

This pattern can become a negative reinforcing cycle. The more the pursuer pushes, the more the withdrawer retreats, causing the pursuer to push more and the withdrawer to withdraw further. So, it is important if you’re caught in this pattern to realize that you’re interdependent. What each of you does prompts the very thing you dread from your partner.

Therefore, it can be helpful if pursuers can learn to back off a bit and withdrawers are willing to deal more directly with the issues at hand. In fact, it’s hard for pursuers to back off entirely if withdrawers don’t commit to communicating. One way to do this is for the withdrawer to play a more active role in defining the timing and means of engagement. This gives them an opportunity to feel some control over their communication rather than feeling like he or she is always reacting to concerns of their partner.

Of course, there are times when withdrawal, or better said, a time-out, is a better alternative than a conflict escalating to the point of physical aggression. About 25% of couples report some form of pushing, shoving or hitting in the previous year. Such aggression is an outgrowth of couples not learning how to deal with conflicts in better ways.

Toxic Relationship Pattern #4: Negative Interpretations

The final toxic pattern is negative interpretations. This is when one spouse consistently believes the motives of his/her spouse are more negative than they really are. He/she looks at everything (even good things) through a negative filter. These interpretations become cemented into the fabric of their relationship. Over time, the pattern demoralizes the more positive spouse.

Examples of Negative Interpretations

toxic relationship pattern

Margot: We should start looking into plane tickets to go visit my parents this holiday season.
David: (thinking about their budget problem) I was wondering if we can really afford it this year.
Margot: (in anger) My parents are very important to me, even if you don’t like them. I’m going to go.
David: I’d like to go, I really would. I just don’t see how we can afford a thousand dollars in plane tickets and pay the bill for Joey’s orthodontist, too.
Margot: You can’t be honest and admit you just don’t want to go, can you? You don’t like my parents.
David: There’s nothing to admit. I enjoy visiting your parents. I’m thinking about money here and not your parents.
Margot: That’s a convenient excuse (storming out of the room).

David really would like to visit Margot’s parents and yet her negative interpretation prevents her from seeing it. She believes the budget is just an excuse, but for David it’s real. If a negative interpretation is strong enough, it is hard to challenge.

Here’s another example of negative interpretation.

Alfred: You left the car out again.
Eileen: Oh. I guess I forgot to put it in when I came back from Madge’s.
Alfred: (with a bit of a sneer) I guess you did. You know how much that irritates me.
Eileen: (exasperated) Look, I forgot. Do you think I leave it out just to irritate you?
Alfred: (coldly) Actually, that’s exactly what I think. I’ve told you so many times that I want the car in the garage at night.
Eileen: Yes, you have. But I don’t leave it out to tick you off. I just forget.
Alfred: If you cared what I thought about things, you’d remember.
Eileen: You know that I put the car in nine times out of ten.
Alfred: More like half the time, and those are the times I leave the garage door up for you.
Eileen: Have it your way. It doesn’t matter what reality is. You’ll see it your way.

This is more than a minor argument. It’s a long-standing tendency for Albert to put a negative interpretation on Eileen’s behavior. Such interpretations become more frequent when the relationship is more distressed. It’s a sign of big trouble in the future.

Negative Interpretations are Destructive

Negative interpretations are destructive, in part because they’re hard to detect and counteract. The reason is a “confirmation bias” which means we tend to interpret events in terms of our preconceived beliefs. Like the line from the song, The Boxer, “All lies in jest till a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” If Alfred believes that Eileen doesn’t care, he won’t see her acts of caring or he’ll put a negative spin on them that reinforces his original belief.

What helps, however, is for the spouse with the negative interpretation to learn to hold their perceptions more tentatively, not as truth but a point of view. If this is you, can you look for other evidence that contradicts what you’ve been telling yourself? If you believe your partner is unsupportive, look for examples of when they are supportive. They’re likely to be there. It also helps if the other partner can really hear their partner out or let them fully explore their point of view before challenging them. People are much more likely to be influenced if they know someone understands what they’re saying.

How Can You Apply This to Your Communication?

So, we’ve now talked about four patterns, toxic to your relationship. And be aware that there is not something wrong with you if you find yourself in these patterns. Most couples will show some of them at different times in their marriages. Most important is that you begin to recognize them so they aren’t automatic.

So, I’m inviting you to pay attention and find ways to interrupt them. Awareness is the first step. You need to see them. Then you have to commit to making different choices, doing something that is going to bring unity and goodwill rather than frustration and alienation. You don’t need to wait for your partner to join you in this. You can do a lot to bring positive changes to your marriage by recognizing and changing your part in these patterns.

And by the way, I just launched a new course on creating a happy marriage in which you get a ton of information about how to improve your relationship. Check it out by clicking here.


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