Sarah always agrees to nights out with her work friends, but as the date gets nearer, she starts making excuses. Her colleagues joke about her cancel culture and go out and have fun without her. What they don’t realise is Sarah wants a social life, but she fears the backlash from her husband Giovanni.
‘Just getting dressed up, putting on make-up and going out with the girls would spark such a reaction in Gio that it’s not worth it,’ admits 26-year-old Sarah, a pharmacy assistant, who works in the same building as her researcher husband. ‘He will either fly into a rage, accusing me of dressing to attract other men, or he’ll sulk for weeks, giving me the silent treatment, which is miserable.
‘I feel as if I’m walking on eggshells all the time. The only time he’s happy is when he’s making decisions and I’m agreeing. I admit, it’s easier to do as he says and as he wants, but now and then, it would be lovely to have some time away from him.
‘We travel to work together, meet at lunchtime and go home and spend our evenings together. If I suggest we do things differently, he gets angry.’
Experts believe Sarah is in a toxic relationship – one where her husband Giovanni controls and manipulates her to such a degree that she cuts herself off socially. Because many people don’t report this type of behaviour, figures are inaccurate, but according to the National Centre for Domestic Violence in the UK, one in five adults will experience domestic abuse during their lifetime – that’s one in four women and one in six or seven men.
And in Dubai, a 2020 report by The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (DFWAC) revealed that of 580 people who contacted them due to domestic violence, 74 per cent had suffered at the hands of their spouse. Of those, 100 per cent had suffered emotional abuse, while 69 per cent reported verbal abuse and 57 per cent had been victim to neglect and deprivation.
Life coach Amanda Davies, who runs Pinnacle Life Coaching in Dubai, believes control is at the heart of most forms of toxic relationship, and says these partnerships don’t usually fall into just one category.
‘Although they have distinct characteristics, most of these types of toxic relationship overlap,’ says Amanda, ‘and many have elements of controlling behaviour, gaslighting and manipulation. Whichever type of toxic relationship people are in, there’s no denying the suffering involved.’
So, what is a toxic relationship? How do you know if you’re in one and what can you do about it?
If your partner has the upper hand, dominates you or dictates some or all your activities, actions, hobbies, weight or physical appearance, even the food you eat or the way you wear your hair, you’re in a controlling and toxic relationship, says Amanda.
‘They don’t praise or give compliments and they’re more likely to make derogatory comments about you to foster your insecurity and dependence on them,’ says Amanda. ‘They can dictate who you see socially or even isolate you from friends and family. They may even monitor your phone calls and social media activity or restrict your access to money.
‘Typically, this takes place behind closed doors so family and friends have little or no idea of the extent of the possessiveness, manipulation and guilt trips which can, for outsiders, be disguised as caring.’
UK life coach and trauma therapist Becki Houlston advises: ‘Learn to speak up about how you’re feeling. Start your sentences with: ‘I feel ….’ or let them know that you don’t feel the same way. You could point out that you don’t have to agree, or that certain things, like seeing your friends and work colleagues socially, are important to you.’
If your partner is so self-absorbed that it’s all about them, or they lack empathy and need constant admiration, you could be with a narcissist, warns Amanda.
‘Narcissists have a fragile ego and a hunger for constant praise and validation, as well as your full attention,’ she says. ‘Initially, they may adopt a charm offensive and their personality may match yours, mirroring your desires and interests and giving you the impression they’re your soulmate. But this can be misleading, and the narcissist’s personality will change over time.
‘They are the master of manipulation, with charm offensives, guilt trips and subtle emotional blackmail. ‘If you’re with a narcissist, you may question yourself, your worth, your sanity and even your own reality. You may stop trusting your own instincts and start to believe what the narcissist is telling you.’
According to Becki, there are two types of narcissists – the overt narcissist, who’s loud and charismatic and always has to be the centre of attention, and the covert narcissist, who appears vulnerable and lacking in confidence and wins you over with their sob stories.
‘Whichever type they are, nothing is ever their fault,’ says Becki, ‘and they never examine their own behaviour.’
The ideal way to handle a narcissist is to have no contact with them, and get them out of your life, advises Becki.
‘If that isn’t possible, never call out a narcissist and never tell them they’re a narcissist, as you will be wasting your breath,’ she says. ‘Decide what’s important to you and pick your battles. Sometimes, it may be a case of staying under the radar and keeping the peace. You could need some acting skills.’
When we talk about abusive relationships, we often think of physical assault or violence, says Amanda, but abuse can also include psychological, emotional, and verbal abuse.
‘It can be insults, threats, controlling language, put-downs, criticism and making you feel worthless, invisible or using shame, fear, guilt and intimidation to manipulate you,’ she says. ‘In economic abuse, your partner may demand to know what you spend money on or make you financially dependent on them.
‘There’s often a cycle of abuse where minor arguments escalate and erupt into threats of, or real violence. Afterwards, the abuser may apologise, shower their partner with affection and promise to change.
‘The abused partner may well become timid, self-conscious, and frightened to speak up. They’ll suffer in silence, hiding the abuse from family, friends and children.’
Becki advises: ‘If you can, confide in a trusted friend so you don’t feel alone. Abuse, and especially emotional abuse, can be very confusing. You will be told that you deserve what is happening and that you are the problem, so keep notes. By writing down all the occasions when you’re being abused, you’ll notice how subtle it all is.’
If you and your partner rely heavily on each other for emotional and psychological support, as well as physically and socially, you could be in a co-dependent relationship, says Amanda.
‘Personal boundaries and your sense of self are blurred or absent, and you may neglect your own needs, consistently putting your partner’s needs above your own,’ she explains. ‘There’s a lack of individual identity and autonomy, excessive emotional intimacy and little emotional space. People-pleasing is seen in these relationships – it’s hard to say no, and you may struggle to set boundaries.
‘Co-dependency can lead to difficulty being on your own and you may feel insecurity at the thought of being left alone or abandoned. You may neglect family, friends, hobbies and interests.’
Becki points out that in co-dependent relationships, there is no I, and you and your partner will align with each other at all costs.
‘This type of relationship may make you feel a sense of safety, but it isn’t healthy, and it doesn’t allow for any personal growth,’ she says.
If you’re in a co-dependent relationship, start to be curious about your own thoughts, feelings and opinions, suggests Becki.
‘Don’t always look to your partner to answer a question and make sure you’re not finishing each other’s sentences,’ she urges.
Subtle and confusing, gaslighting is when a partner blatantly denies events or conversations, twisting or rewriting reality, and dismissing memories, says Amanda.
‘A gaslighter will trivialise concerns and feelings, shutting down any real discussion, shifting blame and leaving you feeling responsible for everything,’ says Amanda. ‘The gaslighter claims you misunderstood or forgot, and they leave you questioning your judgement, sanity and perceptions. You end up appeasing the gaslighter to avoid arguments.’
Becki adds: ‘This is a very sneaky one – it’s when you’re told your version of reality is wrong. The gaslighter deconstructs your identity. You start to doubt yourself and believe what you’re being told – that you’re going deaf, that you didn’t pay your debts, that you were unreasonable, that it was your fault they pranged the car. Eventually you don’t trust yourself to do simple things, like write an email.’
Become a detective to save your sanity, suggests Becki. ‘Make a note of the times when you’re told something is your fault, that you’re imagining things or when your version of reality is overturned,’ she says. ‘Talk to trusted friends who know you well. If your partner says you’re going deaf because you don’t hear them when they answer a question, record them on your phone. The long silence will prove your point. Your hearing’s fine. They didn’t answer!’
How To Leave A Toxic Relationship
Don’t underestimate the courage needed to leave a toxic relationship, says Amanda, who has the following advice:
- Plan well – consider logistics, finances and safe housing options. If there are children involved, prioritise their safety.
- Seek professional help – Therapists and counsellors can guide you through the emotional complexities of leaving and help you develop coping mechanisms for the future.
- Gather resources – hotlines, shelters and advice bureaux can offer vital confidential support and assistance with leaving and starting a new life.
- Cut ties completely – A clean break is crucial for healing. Resist urges to engage with the abusive partner. Block their calls and social media contacts. Change your number and avoid posting on social media.
- Focus on rebuilding your life – Reconnect with supportive people, rediscover your passions and prioritise activities that bring you joy and happiness.