Toxic relationships

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 4:43pm

"We need each other and perhaps we need each other to need ourselves," Giselle, 30, told me, somewhat bitterly. "I realise that somehow I keep him needy because, if he ever gets better, I am afraid that he will leave me."

Her husband, Edward, is an alcoholic and an intellectual. Giselle spent years trying to help him with his recovery, and while it gave her a sense of purpose, it fed into her fear of abandonment and low self-esteem.

Relationships like this create abusive and obsessive behaviour grounded in neediness and control, rather than love and respect.

Edward would constantly criticise Giselle to avoid dealing with his addiction. Giselle finally left him after suffering depression and anxiety issues. Until she left, Giselle was controlled by Edward. She would seek his approval and didn't dare use her own initiative.

Power is the driver of toxic relationships. Manipulating others to satisfy our own needs can be done through emotion, fear and seduction. Some people get locked into trying to save their partner again and again. The co-dependent partner often finds some kind of reward in this, such as fulfilling a desire to be needed, perhaps with a sense of control and self-worth.

Human relationships are guided by needs and influenced by the subconscious. The chemistry of love becomes intensified between two people when they imagine that they will find what they are looking for in each other. It is never an accident when we form ties with someone who will dominate, manipulate or avoid us. Our subconscious is always searching for what it knows, or what it has experienced in the past. Some partners find it is difficult to leave a toxic relationship because they want to relive the past.

According to Susan Forward, an American psychotherapist, some parents exhibit "dysfunctional behaviour". This can include manipulation, unpredictability, alcoholism, and physical and psychological violence - all of which contaminate the psyche of a child, conditioning their relationships and long-term well-being.

Giselle said her father was similar to Edward. He was brilliant but treated people with scorn. The toxins from the family-of-origin can bring a strongly addictive element to a child's adult life.

Healthy relationships are characterised by a feeling of lightness, freedom, comfort and security. As described by psychotherapist Thomas D' Ansembourg, unhealthy relationships bring about three types of loss: loss of autonomy, loss of energy and loss of self-confidence.

From a body-mind perspective, everything that affects our mind, will affect our body.

When we are in unhealthy relationships, we feel anxious and we experience exhaustion, and loss of sleep and appetite. It is important to listen to our body complaints, as these are messages and warnings. As soon as a relationship produces negative physical reactions, we must pay attention to them.

Detoxifying your relationships does not mean changing a toxic person, but disengaging from a toxic bond. The longer we engage, the more difficult it is to disentangle ourselves. The difficulty comes from the fact that the intensity of the toxic relationship increases with time, with the frequency of the contact, and the intimacy that develops.

Working out your responsibility, understanding your needs and laying down limits are the keys to rebuilding a healthier relationship with yourself and others. The better we are able to treat ourselves, the more loving and balanced relationships we can enjoy.

Rennie Chiu is a social worker with the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society