Updated: Apr 2
When we think about toxic relationships, we often have the thought of, “It could never happen to me.” We want to believe that our judgment is enough to weed out those who are toxic to our health and form relationships with others where mutual respect and love exists. Unfortunately, not everyone has your best interests in mind. And if you identify with being someone who is high-achieving, there may be even more complications thrown into the mix.
While we often think about toxic relationships in the heteronormative sense (between a man and a woman), toxic relationships can happen in any intimate partner relationship regardless of one’s sexual orientation. With this fact in mind, we’re going to talk about intimate partnerships with gender neutral pronouns (they/them).
According to Perpetua Neo from Business Insider's article, high achievers are willing to put in the work to their relationship to ensure that it succeeds. If you think about it, this makes sense: if we live in a world that makes us stress perfectionism and achievement, your intimate relationships aren’t immune to those high standards and expectations. We’re also told frequently that when you put in hard work, the output will be greater than or equal to it. Even when we ignore the red flags in a potential partner, we may think, “I can work with that,” or, “I’ll help them change over time.” In reality, you have permission not to “work with that” and we do not have the power (nor the responsibility) to change other people. This can be hard to accept, though, and especially when we want the picture-perfect, Hallmark relationship.
Toxic people may target high-achievers because they are aware of the resources the high achievers can give. They’re aware of how high achievers may work to maintain the relationship, and they might even get something out of it in return. Be it gifts, sex, attention, manipulation works in many forms. And because we may be focused on trying to maintain the relationship, we might think that giving as much as we do is okay even when we aren’t receiving much in return. All of this gets mixed up with the expectation that when you’re in love with someone, you’d do anything for them. While that sentiment is sweet, this could lead to serious exploitation and manipulation.
An obvious reaction to this would be that these are things that could easily be caught and avoided. And while it may hold some truth, toxic people are good at building relationships. You won’t see all of the red flags right away. In the same way you slowly bring a pot to a boil, toxic partners will slowly plant their red flags until you get used to them being there. Before you know it, you may be in a field of them. They may react with anger and immediately shower you with love and affection. They may call you names and then take you out on a romantic evening. Each wound will be plastered over with a thin bandage that does little to stop the next, but just enough to think it won’t happen again. Mixed with high achieving mindsets and expectations, you work toward maintaining a relationship that hurts.
Let’s be clear, though: this is not your fault. People who want to manipulate others for their own personal gain, regardless of how romantic it feels, are the ones who have responsibility here. To avoid the victim blaming game, we need to change the narrative of how we talk about manipulative people.
So what are things that you can do?
Be kind to yourself. The rhetoric that we say to ourselves might be from messages we’ve heard in the past. Sometimes that voice of, “You need to be doing more,” isn’t actually from you. You have power of how kindly you speak to yourself, and you are deserving of that kindness. And in the context of your relationship, you don’t have to aim for perfection.
Explore where perfectionism comes from for you. Those of us who are high achievers may have anxious thoughts, also called cognitions. There are ways to explore this. It may help to fill in the blank: If I am not perfect in this area, then _______ will happen. Or this: If I am not perfect in this area, then this means _______ about myself. How true are these thoughts? Where did these thoughts originate? Where did you hear these thoughts before?
Know and maintain your boundaries. In every relationship, you get to have a say of how much you give and how much you take. You also have a say in what makes you comfortable and uncomfortable. You are allowed to voice these things to your partner and stand up for your boundaries when you don’t want them crossed or violated.
Seek support. If you’re experiencing a lot of distress from your relationship or have noticed a pattern of the things we talked about in this blog, it won’t hurt to seek support from a trusted friend or professional.
Change the narrative. If you ever have, are, or find yourself in a toxic partnership, remember that it is not your fault. Our society often plays the victim blaming game where we say things like, “You should have seen the signs,” or even, “Why didn’t you leave when you realized it?” Toxic relationships are tricky and complex mine fields to navigate and the reality is, you may not have known. What negatives others see tends to be a toxic person’s true colors after days, months, and even years of manipulation.
Therapy can be a way to engage in all of these tasks. A good therapist will give you tools to be self-compassionate rather than self-critical, help you learn to know where thoughts came from and challenge them, create and maintain boundaries, and be a strong support. A good therapist will also help you and others challenge the narrative of victim-blaming and help assign the right responsibility to those who should be held accountable.
At Cultured Space, we are here to empower you so that you can live a more full and authentic life. We are aware that there are unique differences in the ways that people may experience toxic relationships and perfectionism that may be linked to your own constellation of identities.
Your journey can start today.
The right help is here.