The International Business student and Storyteller, Sven Lohmeier, formulated the questions and interviewed Prof. Dr. Ella Roininen on the topic of Toxic Relationships.
Is an unhappy relationship automatically toxic?
By far not. There are many reasons why a relationship may go wrong or we experience dissatisfaction in a relationship. Also, most, if not all people, can behave toxic. “Toxic” meaning in this context power dominance over an another person, a partner or someone who is emotionally close or in some other way dependent of you. This does not automatically mean that the relationship is bad, or that abuse is going on in the relationship. Rather, it shows that we are all flawed human beings trying to figure out love and emotions.
How to identify a toxic relationship?
If you have to fear your partner’s reactions to your ways, and this happens frequently, you may want to investigate if your relationship has an unhealthy pattern. For instance, if your partner is even mildly violent, pushing you, calling you names or threatening you, your kids or pets with violence or neglect, it is a big red flag. If your partner is controlling your behavior, what you say and do, or how you dress and present yourself, you are in danger as well. You may also experience your partner imposing on you whom you spend your time with, or how you spend your time together. They may be ostracizing you, that is, withdrawing from you for a shorter or longer period of time to show the consequences of your ‘bad’ behavior. They may be gaslighting you, that is, rewriting the reality to you so that you feel like you cannot trust your feelings and observations about their unreasonable or illogic behavior. They may also downplay your emotions, or try to destabilize you in a conversation by twisting your words, darting from topic to topic, or by provoking an emotional response, especially when you try to stand up for yourself. All these are examples of toxic patterns in a relationship.  
Toxic relationships are about power abuse that keeps repeating in different forms, no matter what you do, and very likely escalates over time. Your compliance to your partner’s wishes is not changing these dynamics in the long run. So it is not a rough patch you’re going through as a couple, or a communication problem, or other relationship issue you may face and try to solve together. At the heart of it is an attempt to control the other person and what they say, think, and do. The goal is to erode the ability of the target to live their own lives and make their own independent decisions.
As a matter of fact, I prefer to talk about abuse in relationships. Physically abusive relationships work along similar patterns than emotionally abusive ones, and an emotionally abusive relationship can escalate into a physically abusive one. When there is physical abuse, there is also emotional abuse. Even though physical abuse can be life threatening, we shouldn’t take emotional abuse any lighter. It can really dim your light, create an environment where you are just existing, but not living.
In this interview, I focus on emotionally abusive relationships, but I’d like all readers to keep in mind that if someone is repeatedly not respecting your boundaries, whether physical or emotional, they are unlikely to respect them more in the future, and you may eventually end up in a life threatening situation.
What makes a relationship toxic? How can a non-toxic relationship be described?
I think the best way to identify an emotionally abusive relationship is to ask yourself: Can I behave and express myself freely to my partner, or do I have to adjust to their moods and wishes? Are my boundaries constantly being violated? Do I feel like the crazy one in the relationship? Have I tried to talk about this to my partner but they are not seeing the problem, or are making me feel guilty about it? Do I keep explaining these things away to myself and my friends?
And above all, ask yourself: Am adjusting and complying to my partner’s demands more than initially made sense to me in order to avoid conflicts? If I saw this happening to someone else, would I think it’s reasonable relationship behavior? Unhealthy relationship patterns can become normalized over time. You no longer question the sense of things that initially may have startled you. You give up reasoning about them with your partner because it doesn’t lead anywhere. In this way, you have accepted the distorted rules of the relationship and may also feel reluctant to talk about this to a close friend or family member, because this will cause you feel they “don’t understand” or “get my partner wrong”.
Needless to say, when I am talking about adjusting, I am not talking about normal compromises in relationships, like dealing with conflicting interests and trying to work them out. I am talking about random and unreasonable demands on you, which violate your boundaries and sense of security: You say no to sex, but give in to avoid a confrontation; want to snack but don’t, because your partner scolds you about it; going to see a friend, but cancel, because you’ll get a silent treatment or they fly into a fit of rage… Obviously, all of these were normal individual liberties, less your partner made them seem abnormal.
Relationships are seldom smooth. Human beings tend to have their emotional issues, which closeness and intimacy bring out and intensify. Toxic people can be clever in figuring out their partner’s deep needs and ‘flaws’, and use them to gain control.
Furthermore, all of us behave unreasonable from time to time and as a consequence, feel insufficient in our relationships to others. This may make it difficult to recognize abuse, as we know that we, too, can do better. But this does not put us in the same line with the toxic partner. You mess up, realize it, fix it. You messing up does not justify abuse and control.
How would you classify toxic, can there be different stages of toxicity?
Abusive relationships obviously don’t start abusive. The abuser is unlikely to decide ‘I am going to emotionally torture my partner’, or the victim think ‘I am going to put myself into a bad relationship’. But over time and with increasing closeness the abusive patterns start raising their head and it’s hard for both parties to see, resist or stop them. Our will for romance is strong, and this can make us resist some initial warning signs, such as they always wanting to decide for both or not liking to hear a ‘no’. Throwing temper tantrums or making odd comments about your previous life… And so we get deeper. Being in love makes us bare and dependent on the other person’s acceptance, they have power over us, and so we may end up compromising more than we’d otherwise do. We may not want to ask or hear any difficult questions about the way the relationship is going, and ignore the signs of our declining wellbeing. It is quite natural to try to adjust to the situation in order to maintain the feeling of being a couple and having a future together.
This doesn’t make one a weak person or someone who’s particularly gullible, has a traumatic background, emotional problems or miserable life. In fact, practically anyone can end up in an abusive relationship, whether successful and strong in life, or one having a rougher ride. One can be of any age, gender, cultural, educational, physical, ethnic or socio-economic background and worldview. We all need love and we want to believe in love, and this can sometimes get us in trouble. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than this.
It is also important to note that abuse is not restricted to romantic relationships, but similar patterns than described in this blog can take place in family relationships, friendships, or even at work places.
Did you already have experiences with toxic relationships?
Yes, I experienced both physically and emotionally abusive relationships. Years ago, I experienced some harsh physical violence by a boyfriend. This happened a couple of times over a period of one year—I didn’t stay longer. What strikes me now is that no-one close to me interfered, really. I don’t know if that would have helped anything, but still I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to openly condemn any obvious abuse and violence and offer support for the victim. Curiously, I didn’t leave because of the violence, but because the guy was altogether messing up my life. That hurt me more than the blows. I had another close touch later in life, but having been there, saw the warning signs early enough to get out.
Much later, I was in love with a person that was manipulative and toxic in a variety of ways, and I got deep into adjusting to him; it caused me even physical symptoms. Just as I describe above, over time I lost the sight of what’s normal and ok in a relationship. Only some years later, through pain, knowledge and self-reflection, I realized that I am not the crazy and impossible person he made me up to be—quite the opposite force in our relationship, actually. This was the turning point in how power operated between us, and I could start getting him out of my system. I can tell from my own experience: Being weakened by a person you trust and think you love, it takes guts to stand alone. Yet only after we broke up did I grasp the whole extent of the toxic patterns I had endured, and how they had affected my well-being. It was a huge release, but it took a long time to get over the resentment, anger, sorrow and self-blame, to heal. As evident in both of these examples, it is quite typical to toxic relationships that the victim is not fully aware that’s abuse that has been going on until the relationship is over. That’s why spreading awareness on relationship abuse is immensely important.
Despite the difficulty of these experiences, I don’t feel tragic about them. I may have been a victim of abuse, but that does not make me victim in life. These experiences helped me to become more empathetic and tolerant, and better understand human beings. They inspired me to closely study the topic and openly speak about it. It made me very sensitive to relations of power, which I find a huge strength.
Someone might say I have a pattern of attracting abusive partners, but I’ll dispute this. To me this is a testimony of how frequently abusive behavior happens and how easy it is to encounter. According to Amnesty International, one in three women has experienced physical violence by a partner or ex partner, and every fourth victim of intimate partner violence is a man. Gender non-confirming people and and sexual minorities are not exempt either. We need to keep sharing these experiences to make them more visible and easer to get help.
From your perspective which personal experiences might foster toxic behavior?
Do you mean what makes a person toxic? I don’t feel qualified to respond to this question, as I don’t have deep enough psychological knowledge about it. Well, I’ll try anyways… I did mention control a couple of times already. Toxic behavior is an attempt to control the relationship, the other person, perhaps aspects of one’s own life and emotions, too. It is an attempt to gain power over the other person by making them weak and compliant. Feeling big and in control probably creates some sense of security to where it’s lacking.
What would you recommend to a victim role person in a toxic relationship/What to do from a victim’s perspective?
My first and foremost question to a potential victim: Do you have evidence, over time, that that your partner wants to change and is actively working towards it? Has the partner consistently improved their behavior, stopped harming you and your mutual relationship?
It is not possible for you to change the person, you cannot love them to become whole. They have to want to change.
An abusive person may be—and here is a big MAY—able to change through their own awareness and serious effort. You are not responsible to stick with them through this process, even if they admit their destructive pattern and apologize for it to you. An apology may even serve the function of keeping you close while the abuse is not going anywhere. Your first and foremost responsibility is to yourself and possible vulnerable persons who are part of the household.
If you decide to leave, experts advice to take a clear break, if in any way possible (sometimes social and economic factors prevent one from leaving). Your sense of reality is distorted and your emotional involvement to the relationship is too high for you to be able to take distance and keep contact at the same time.
The Netflix series The Maid is a great illustration of the many facets of an emotionally abusive relationship. We see how difficult it is to leave, in a practical as well as emotional sense. We also see that the abuser is not only a bad and evil person, but also a caring and loveable one. This is the conflict that one has to get straight in their head to be able to leave, else one just gets altogether fed up and disillusioned by their partner.
Is there any help at the Karls where one can talk or get help in relation to toxic relationship?
Well, you guess it: One can always book an appointment with me or Juliane Hoss, our in-house psychologist. Our talks are fully confidential and we are no strangers to situations which may be sensitive to you to talk about, and may be your first time to articulate them. Moreover, anyone reading this blog who wants to talk about the potentially toxic patterns or experiences in their relationship, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
There are national helplines, too. In Germany it is 08000 116 016, hilfetelefon.de/ . Here you can get help anonymously and in numerous languages.
If you are in a toxic relationship, you may feel small now, but you are a creature of love and talent. You’ll fill your lungs with fresh air again and look around in wonder of all the possibilities that open to you as a free person. In an ideal case, you are able to maintain the most beautiful moments of your past relationship in your mind, because they were there, too. It was not all bad and your partner had wonderful sides in them too, otherwise you wouldn’t have chosen them. And of course there’s plenty of fish in the sea, when you’re ready to go again. Having experienced a toxic relationship doesn’t make you flawed or traumatized for life. You are capable of building a life that you want and good, harmonic and equal partnerships.
 Klemi, A. (2006) Henkinen Väkivalta Parisuhteessa, University of Jyväskylä.  Kelly, Z. (2008) #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou
The part 2 of this Blog Series will be available soon. More from Prof. Ella can be seen here: On Inclusion: An interview with Prof. Dr. Ella Roininen – Part 1 | Blog Karlshochschule