Does it ever feel like you’re constantly working on your relationship without any signs of improvement?
Being in a toxic relationship can feel like being a mouse trapped on a treadmill – constantly running around but getting nowhere. Clients often turn to me for help when they feel depleted, disempowered and exhausted from trying to fix their damaged relationships.
A big step in my process for helping my clients to jump off that treadmill and get on with their lives is to help them recognize that they can’t fix their relationship no matter what they try or how hard they work.
One of my clients, Jim, came to see me two years after he’d separated from his wife. He was in the midst of very painful and messy divorce proceedings, with his ex-wife doing everything in her power to make his personal life and relationship with their children difficult. Jim felt like he was constantly scrambling to meet her demands and found it exhausting trying to keep up with her changing expectations. Many of our initial sessions were taken up with Jim utterly confused at her behaviour which was bewildering to him.
One of the signs that you’re in a toxic relationship is that you’re over-compensating for your partner’s needs and behaviour but nothing you do is ever right. You feel like you’re constantly trying to please them despite getting little back in return, but you’re the one left feeling responsible for the negativity in your relationship. It’s your love for them and your past conditioning that makes you cling on to the hope that you can turn things around, but there may be other elements at work here that you don’t even realize exist.
Controlling and manipulative relationships can make you feel like you’re going crazy
When you have a controlling partner, you’re often left feeling betrayed, powerless and unable to quite fathom what’s going on and why you feel that things are wrong. It’s the love hormone, oxytocin, that makes you strive to stay connected to your partner and fight for your relationship to survive even though you feel like you’re going crazy at times.
It may be patterning from your past that’s making it hard to recognize that your partner’s behaviour is manipulative.
Even though Jim had left his relationship, he was still having to deal with his ex’s controlling behaviour. Jim had grown up in a family that had made him feel insignificant and worthless. If he ever asserted himself or made a request to do something his own way, he would be ignored or told to keep quiet. Jim thought nothing of this as it was his ‘normal’. As a result, he didn’t even realize that he was being bullied and controlled by his wife.
During their marriage she had no interest or even the capacity to work as a team player, instead, she wielded absolute power over domains such as what money was used for and how much time he was allowed to spend with his sister, who he was close with. Any attempt he made to negotiate with his wife was met with rage and an insistence that he was imagining things – this is known as gaslighting.
It’s all too easy to blame yourself for being in a toxic relationship
You might be in a state of denial over your relationship convincing yourself that you’re to blame for the difficulties and if you could only please your partner more, then they’ll understand and be loving again. Trying to find accommodations to make that taps into your partner’s sense of fairness seems like a logical and reasonable way to mend a broken relationship, but when they don’t understand the concept of being a ‘team player’ and work with you, you keep trying to blame yourself for not being clear enough or that there must be more you could do to make things work.
No matter how cruel Jim’s wife was, he hadn’t yet faced up to the reality of who he’d married. He continued to expect that she would one day act in good faith, and in the meantime, she left the marriage with all the money and full custody of both kids.
Facing reality is paramount to moving on and fixing your life
When I worked with Jim, I helped him realise who he is in bed with (these days that’s only figuratively speaking).
He began to understand that his ex-wife has a severe personality condition – most likely antisocial personality or narcissistic personality disorder. While this may sound as if we were demonising her, in fact, understanding her condition helped Jim to see that she is a master manipulator who is incapable of empathy. Her personality disorder means she is organised around maintaining power and control, even if it means using her own children as pawns in the game.
Once Jim understood her condition, he was able to move past being shocked by her behaviour and complaining about her during our sessions. This freed him up so that we could develop a strategy for dealing with her actions and enabling Jim to find a way forward with his life.
If you’re feeling trapped in your relationship and feel that it’s going nowhere no matter what you try, get in touch with me today to talk things through and recognize the elements that are stopping you from living your life the way you want to.
Developing elegant solutions to complex personal issues
Daniel Lichtman MA (Couns Psych)
Daniel offers single session and multi-session packages of in-person and online counseling. Online coaching allows you to gain support privately and discretely, wherever you are in the world.
Registered Psychotherapist (PACFA Australia) and Certified Transformational Coach (Circling Institute, USA) with over 8,000 hours experience.