How to know when working on your relationship is toxic

Are You “Working Hard” on Your Relationship? Maybe You Should Stop

A guy friend of mine I’ve had a crush on for a year confessed to me the other day that he is “working hard” on saving his relationship. He’s thinking about leaving his girlfriend (no, I’ve never met her and don’t know who she is). He and I both work in mental health and have gotten to be pretty close in the last year we’ve worked together. I’m not going to lie– obviously, I’ve got a vested interest in the outcome in this scenario, but since they live together AND they’ve been together like a decade, I assume it will end with them staying together and a marriage proposal, so I’m just trying to be a good friend.

However, that being said, he went on about how he’s “lost himself” in this relationship and had recently begun to take better care of himself and even going back to the gym. And apparently his girlfriend is not happy about this and this has created friction. Now I don’t know him super well and don’t know all the details of things going on, but the few things he told me made me sit down here tonight to write this.

I can’t help but put my therapist hat on as I’m listening to him and I’m thinking how insecure she must be to chastise him for taking care of himself.  She accused him of being “selfish” because his time at the gym takes away from him spending more time with her. And he feels guilty about it, trying to “figure out” how to meet his needs and hers, which clearly (to me) are mutually exclusive. So I surmise the reason he’s “lost” himself is because over the years, he has placated her time and time again, relinquishing his needs in favor of hers, to the point where he feels guilty for having any needs at all. And, he’s suddenly grown a backbone and getting pushback from her.

It’s the proverbial “smoke and mirrors”. Whenever one partner starts to feel threatened at the others’ growth, it’s time to take a step back and examine this person’s motivations. There appears to me to be a power imbalance in her favor, and he is now attempting to assert himself and take his power back, and she doesn’t like it. 

Now if he was going to the gym for 3 hours a day, that would be excessive for anyone working a full-time job as it woudln’t leave time for a partner or really anything else. But that’s not what he’s doing. But what stood out to me is, HE’S the only one doing any “working” on this relationship. He’s not asking her to “do” anything, except maybe change her expectations for what a healthy relationship is supposed to be like.

And this is the crux of this blog post–when you’re the only one doing any work in a relationship, this is a HUGE red flag. Don’t relationships take two? Isn’t it supposed to be 50/50? You each give and receive equally? It’s not supposed to be one person doing all the giving and the other all the receiving

From my trained perspective, I see a codependent relationship, and one in which one partner (my crush) submissively gives in to her demands on a consistent basis. It got me thinking about what else about him bugs her that he’s “working on” to try to make her happy. Perhaps she peppers him with questions about where he goes, what he does, how he spends his time and who he’s talking to such as,”Who was that text from?’ “ Why did you tell your sister you were free Sunday?” ”Are you really going out with your friends on Thursday night?” “ What am I supposed to do while you’re gone?” 

If you’re in a lopsided relationship like this, please, stop working on it and work on yourself. Because the only way to please this type of partner is to subjugate all your own needs for theirs. It’s controlling and abusive to treat your partner this way. This subtle form of abuse can be passive-aggressive and gaslighting. “What, no, don’t be silly, I’m not jealous I just want to spend more time with you that’s all” “Do you really have to call your mom/go to the gym/have coffee with your brother/go for a run/play poker with your buddies/watch the Superbowl without me”—fill in the blank. If this resonates with you at all, please take heed.

If it feels like it’s always them, them, them, it’s because it is.

He actually told me their sex life hasn’t been good for awhile either. Now I’m thinking whoa, is he flirting with me? And then he says how he’s been trying to “spice things up” but she’s just not interested. Again, therapist hat on, safely in the friend zone, I say “hmm, well over time things can get routine.” Which is true. But taken as a whole, to me it’s just another symptom of her selfishness. I may be totally wrong, but maybe this resonates with you. Someone who’s consistently getting their own needs met at the expense of their partner’s is probably not very giving in the bedroom either. They could just be sexually mismatched, who knows. But I’ve been with selfish men, and it feels shitty. It’s all about them, their needs, they come and you don’t, and it doesn’t even occur to them you might be feeling pretty unsatisfied and used. They like what they like, and don’t want to try anything new, and so we feel ashamed that we have any sexual needs at all that don’t match theirs. Surely, we are the problem.

Why do we allow this?  We are grown-ass adults. When you consistently put your partners’ needs ahead of yours, the relationship is no longer 50/50. So “working on” your relationship is basically you just saying yes to keep the peace all the time, and losing yourself in the process. If only it were so obvious, right? It’s not. It’s insidious. And you don’t owe your partner 100% of your time. Or even 70%. If you’re in a relationship where you’re the only one giving up anything, this is the definition of toxic.

So, my guy friend is “trying”. He is trying, basically, to become someone completely different than who he is, to please her, and to keep the relationship. There’s a world of difference between working WITH your partner 50/50 on serious relationship issues such as figuring out how to practice your faiths (if they’re different), parenting challenges, financial matters, dealing with friends and siblings, career choices. When someone says they’re “working on their relationship” what exactly are they working on? The point here I’m trying to make is “working” takes two. It is not one person giving up things they enjoy for self-care, their mental health, and other healthy relationships and activities in order to keep that partner from being “mad” at them. Do not be fooled. It is NOT the same thing. This is psychological abuse. These controlling partners are TOXIC with a capital T. I highly recommend you begin to advocate for yourself and set some healthy boundaries. If you get pushback, and you will if you’re in this type of relationship, then I highly recommend you start working to end this relationship as fast as you can, before you lose yourself even further.

How to be Happy

“Hold on loosely, but don’t let go,

If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control”

–38 Special

The lyrics to this 1981 song  came to mind recently as we made a family decision to train our indoor-only cat Peppermint to be an indoor/outdoor cat. We grew frustrated and disgusted that all attempts to solve his indoor spraying problem ceased to halt his behavior. We followed cat whisperer Jackson Galaxy’s suggestions to put litter boxes where he was spraying, and it worked until it didn’t. Peppermint showed his continued displeasure with us by choosing new locations to pee on, such as my husband’s guitar amp. We knew we needed to do something, but what??

We thought a cat leash and daily outings would make him happy, but all it did was leave him more determined than ever to escape.  And escape he would–if one of us didn’t slam the back door hard enough and the wind caught it, he’d bolt and be gone for days. He didn’t seem to have the usual cat-smarts in marking his territory, so we realized we needed to keep him indoors permanently. Even though eventually he’d return, unharmed and frisky from his adventures, we always wondered where he’d gone and what he’d been up to, feeling so betrayed by him. He’s so loved and spoiled! Why would he want to leave us? These infrequent escapes gave him a taste of the very freedom he craved,  and he continued to punish us by spraying.

So we made a plan, and early this spring, we began to execute it. My husband would let him out for about 15 minutes a day, following close behind like watching a toddler learning to walk. I would do the same, and we’d take turns. We’d open the screen door he so desperately clawed to escape from, and Peppermint surprised us by not bolting out but rather sniffing the corners, rubbing his chin on them (marking his territory) and trepidatiously tiptoeing out into the big outdoors. He would step slowly like the prissy boy he is, unfamiliar with the feeling of cold, wet grass on his paws. Everything was so exciting and new, like a blind man seeing for the first time.

As he became accustomed to his new-found freedom, we’d extend the time he’d get to spend outdoors to a half-hour. Being summer, we’d just porch sit and watch him, giving him more and more space and less hovering every day. But we knew we wanted a GPS tracker “just in case” he disappeared again.

During a trip to Petco, we asked the clerk if they sold some sort of GPS tracker for pets. She explained they didn’t, but there was one called “Tile” that’s supposed to be used for helping you find lost keys and such, but she’d recommended it to many pet owners. We ran and bought it at Best Buy and it works by syncing the little while Tile he wars on his collar to the Tile app on our cell phones.

All four of us in our family are always logged in, so  we are all notified of his location. The map on it shows us where he is if he is within a 200 square-foot radius. Therein lies its limitations, because Peppermint often exceeds the radius and is unlocatable. The app alerts us to his whereabouts if he’s within that radius and you simply click “find” and a chime rings on the tile on his collar, which can be heard once you get close enough to him. So far, he’s content to just lay on the back lawn, watching the birds and the chipmunks, and often naps on the bricks in the shade under a tree.

It’s now the end of August, and the longest Peppermint has been gone has been 10 hours. We now have no choice but to leave the house if we can’t find him, but he’s proven he always comes back. It is miraculous to see him voluntarily walking up our porch and coming into the house; it was always a trick-him-and-grab-him to get him to relinquish his freedom. In fact, yesterday, I knew it was going to rain, and my Tile app let me know he was out of range. I walked the perimeter of our yard calling his name, and sure enough he was playing hide-and-seek with me. I could see him in the bushes. He refused to come to me, so I told him I loved him and “it’s going to rain honey!” and walked away.

Sure enough, ten minutes later, there was a cloudburst and guess who was completely drenched, meowing for his very life, on the other side of the screen door. He knows where home is.

Peppermint is now the most affectionate he’s ever been. He sleeps with us now all night long; he used to sleep alone downstairs in his cat bed. He hasn’t ever responded to his name the way a cat should, but now he does. We all feel he’s so much happier now. He’s indoors when he WANTS to be, not because he’s been imprisioned. When we hold him now, he doesn’t try to get away. He closes his eyes and purrs. And for now at least, the spraying has actually stopped.

I am fully aware that there are coyotes and owls and all sorts of dangers lurking in the shadows just waiting to harm my beloved kitty, but he was miserable, and he let us know it. Likewise, if we keep try to keep away temptations from our significant others by the noose of emotional blackmail, we actually increase the likelihood of them becoming unhappier, not the opposite.

What truly keeps someone coming back is the freedom to choose, every day, that they WANT to come back. The tighter the leash, the more my cat, and our significant others, want to escape. Have the courage and trust to take it off completely, and feel the peace that comes with relinquishing control.

“Your baby needs someone to believe in,

and a whole lot of space to breathe in”

–“Hold on Loosely”, 38 Special

















Welcome to Lauren’s blog!

This is the post excerpt.

Hi everyone!

Welcome to my blog! I’ve been writing several blogs over the years: two are private and one well, I just outgrew it and realized it was too milquetoast even for me. I’m brazenly going where I’ve never gone before. I’ve held back for too long my true thoughts and feelings on many things, and I’m just bursting.

I LOVE feedback so please don’t hold back. I can take it. If you agree with me, AWESOME!! If you don’t, well, I’m hoping my writing will sway you to at least have an open mind and consider another way of looking at things. We learn from each other.



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