Toxic Relationships: An interview with Prof. Dr. Ella Roininen

The International Business student and Storyteller, Sven Lohmeier, formulated the questions and interviewed Prof. Dr. Ella Roininen on the topic of Toxic Relationships.

Ella is the Professor of International Management and D&I Lead for Karlshochschule.

Why is it that toxic relationships exist, do you see an connection with toxic masculinity or gender in general? (Even feminism on an extreme level) 

Toxic relationships are not limited to men dominating women, although the ways masculinity and femininity are constructed in society does pave way to abusive behaviour. Here I refer to feminist theorising. The recently passed-away postcolonial and intersectional feminist bell hooks made a wonderful analysis of the tolls of patriarchy on empathy and intimacy in their book The Will to Change. Men Masculinity and Love. Rebecca Solnit writes striking radical feminist essays about power and violence. J.J. Bola writes to young people about masculinity and patriarchy in his book Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined. 

However, we need to be careful to connect abuse only with men’s dominance over women, as this may prevent men, people in same-sex or polyamorous relationships, trans, inter and gender non-conforming people from getting help. Because of the urgent and highly justified imperative to stop violence against women, men in particular may find it harder to recognise the abuse they are subject to, and reluctant to get help, precisely because it does not fit into our ideas of masculinity.     

In general, women’s emancipation and society’s changing gender norms and relations create more spaces to recognise and leave abusive or otherwise bad relationships.

Early and later feminist achievements, such as women’s access to education, work outside home, child care, independent finances, and to power and decision-making, the creation of sexual, reproductive and abortion rights, the declining societal and legislative pressure to marry and stay married, and generally a broader acceptance of different life choices, all protect from abuse and violence.

And of course feminist theorising helps to understand more about society’s gender constructions and dynamics, different gender, sexual and intersectional identities, and positions of privilege and marginalisation of different groups of people. None of this is just academic babble, but at the very practical level work against intimate partner violence and abuse.

In addition, feminists have pointed out that policies and structures need to be in place to help people into safety when they decide to leave an abusive partner, and prevent the ex-partner form controlling them through shared custody arrangements, law suits, or stalking. Unfortunately, there never seems to be enough money for these mechanisms, and the legislation lacks behind. In other words, these needs are yet to be fully recognised and taken seriously. 

Could toxic behavior be liked to our understanding of culture and society in capitalistic environment? 

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An interesting question. Abuse and toxic behaviour are surely older and broader phenomena than any economic system or ideology. The world history is a testimony of people mixing up societal power—having socially constructed privileges such as certain skin tone and/or financial status—with power to use and control people and other creatures with a “lower status”, physically and emotionally. Yet I am tempted to draw some parallels between the neoliberal consumer society and a sense of entitlement to the other person. The neoliberal idea that everything is consumable, the individualistic thinking and being soaked in goods and experiences, could blur one’s sight of boundaries, one’s sense of what is ok to do to other people.

Capitalistic storytelling also bombards us with exciting and enticing stories of happily ever after, love conquering all, happy families in which love flourishes—of course with the car, the furniture and holidays to fit the suit! Norms of the nuclear family, heteronormativity, monogamy, and prioritising partnerships over being single, are however not just what is being sold to us as a way of living, but they are also structuring work and care in society, how resources are distributed, and whose voice gets heard. These discourses can create us more spaces to stay in an unhealthy relationship than encourage us to leave one behind, both at socio-cultural as well as financial level. Joan Acker, for instance, theorises about the idea of love and family as part of the capitalistic production machine. When these stories are strong in our heads, we may find it difficult to recognise, admit and act when the reality of our lived relationships turn out differently. 

Furthermore, neoliberal discourses, as do the discourses of gender and abuse, tend to place the responsibility of fixing structural problems on individuals. This may enforce the mechanism of abuse in which the victim sees themselves as part of the problem. They may blame themselves for not being or behaving right, for pushing their partner’s buttons, or for not being assertive enough. They may spend money on trainings, books and therapies to learn how to be a better partner. If I attach myself to a discourse that says my dysfunctional relationship is something that I need to work on, instead of something that is entangled with the culture, society, power and politics, it is much harder for me to plan constructive action, let alone organise any collective resistance with other victims of abuse.

Generally, abuse and violence breath from everything that works to isolate people from one another and create competition between people. Caring, connecting and sharing about our experiences and vulnerabilities work towards the opposite.

Can a toxic relationship be changed or fixed? 

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If so, the only person who can stop the abuse is the person doing it. An abusive person can work on themselves and perhaps change through their serious effort and by getting therapeutic support. I am not saying change has never happened or is never going to happen, but if you are in an abusive relationship, you need to ask yourself what is the price you are ready to pay for your love. It can be a long process and may just perpetuate your life-draining and potentially dangerous situation. Again, I’d like to relate to ‘The Maid’ the series, in which the protagonist returned to her partner, believing he had changed. Just to fall deeper into the ‘cave’ of the abuse.

In my own experience, some abusive patterns vanished as I set my boundaries to the partners in question, but new ones emerged to replace them. It’s a rollercoaster ride that makes you dizzy and nauseous when it’s going round and round long enough. I don’t think I left them too soon or didn’t give them a fair change to get their act together. On the other hand, I won’t say “I should have left earlier”, either. People don’t leave before they are ready to leave, and hence we should not blame ourselves for having tolerated any bad behaviour. Which is of course easier said than done!

In sum, your love cannot fix the abusive partner. A relationship can change only when the abusive partner is ready to take an honest look at their behaviour, get help, start respecting your needs and boundaries, and stick with all this long enough for a real change to take place. You are not responsible to stay throughout this process. If you become aware that abuse keeps happening in your relationship, and you still want to stay, take care to build up your support system and inform yourself of the potential consequences of your choice to your mental and physical well being, social relationships, and progress in life. Loving  a person and sticking with them through thick and thin is a wonderful idea, but you are also wise to know your limits.

How can communication help to avoid or fix an toxic relationship? 

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Generally speaking, it is always good to communicate one’s boundaries. By stating your boundaries, you state to yourself who you are and what you are prepared to accept, and what not. Over time, this is bound to lead to a better relationship to yourself, and better partnership dynamics, in which everyone feels understood and respected. 

However, if your partner is mentally or physically violent, your assertiveness may provoke further abuse. For instance, one of the most controlling forms of emotional abuse is shutting out. This means showing you the ‘consequences’ of standing up for yourself by resorting into an impenetrable silent treatment or making threats to leave you. In the worst case you’ll repeatedly feel irrelevant, lonely and abandoned, and to avoid this adjust your behaviour. In this way, the abuse works exactly as intended.

Furthermore, in some cases it’s not possible to have a rational conversation with an abusive parter. They may proceed to control the topic of conversation by different tactics, such as destabilising you by darting from topic to topic, blaming you for everything, minimising your experience, gaslighting, or poking long enough to get you upset. In this way, trying to communicate your boundaries to the abusive partner may lead you to repeatedly feeling worn down and guilty.

When you know about tactics such as crazy making, emotional baiting or gaslighting, you are better able to recognise them in a communication situation. This can save you from being manipulated. You can observe the situation in a more detached manner, and decide to walk away from it until the person is ready for a more constructive interaction.

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What can you do in order to get out of a toxic relationship? 

Naturally, you first have to become aware of the abuse. That’s why it is so important to disseminate information on this topic. There are good resources available these days: helplines, books, websites, and Ted talks.

Becoming aware of the abuse doesn’t mean you can take action immediately. It may take years and many trials before you are ready to go. You may have to piece yourself together before you have the courage to leave. You may need to sort out your finances, work and child care. You may want to (re)activate your friends network. Sometimes this means opening up about your situation for the first time to someone outside your relationship. On the same note, you may also have to deal with losing shared friends and being judged by relatives.

Or, quite simply, you may need time to say long good bye to your idea of big love and future together.

I think and hope that most people, being aware of the abuse and having the right information about it, leave when they are ready to. I view humans as wanting to flourish and grow in life, and this is the drive that pulls one out of stale water into the open seas, to new adventures awaiting in the horizon. But no one should feel bad about the amount of time and trials they need to get out, and even about deciding to stay. It is everyone’s good right to choose their partner as long as they are hurting only themselves.  

It’s important to make a clear break if you decide to go. You are not responsible for the ex partner’s well being, even if it seems to be declining. This is connected to the abuse, as are attempts to reconnect one way or the other; they keep you tied to the harmful situation. At that point, you need to put your best foot forward to taking care of yourself. 

Sometimes abusive partners leave you cold turkey, when they become aware that it’s over. Try not to blame yourself about this either. It has nothing to do with you, even if you may feel excruciating pain and like you are wrong in every way imaginable. Considering all the court and stalking cases people end with their abusive ex-partners, it is a blessing in disguise.

I also advice to be aware of some expressions that can mask abuse as love, such as “on-off relationship”, which can refer to the fact that the person is still being manipulated and keeps returning to the unhealthy relationship situation. Some other expressions to watch for: crazy love, soul mates, bad temper, fighting, difficult/complicated relationship… 

Even if leaving the relationship means being lonely from time to time, having to rebuild one’s self-confidence and even life, perhaps find a new love if you choose to, it’s bound to be a better option than being constantly hurt, controlled and limited, having to walk on eggshells, being in physical danger or having psychosomatic symptoms. In short, missing out on so many things you have to give to the world. Were you made to fill up the other person, make them satisfied of yourself, and conform to them, or were you made to be and do something greater? Who is worthy of your love and affection? What is the price you are paying in terms of energy, progress, happiness and connection to other people? What do you want to do with this gift called life? What will your kids learn about relationships if you stay? 

   

If you realize you are the toxic part in an relationship, how can you change your behavior?  

As I don’t have the insight into minds of abusers, I can only speak for us who sometimes behave toxic. Everything starts from critically reflecting your behaviour, and from accepting that it is your responsibility to change yourself. That no-one else is the cause of your reactions, even though it feels the other person is triggering them. Study about toxic behaviour, power, self-destructive though patterns, dominance and misogyny, and get external help in form of professional therapy. The therapist can guide you to deeper self-knowledge and can help you cognitively spot the situations that lead you to react in a toxic manner, start altering your reactions.

This is unlikely to be an easy ride, as you may need to look at sides of yourself that make you feel ashamed and remorseful of yourself. But as a reward, you’ll have a better feel of yourself. You’ll feel less often guilty about your behaviour, or dwell in regret. Your relationships will be more open, equal and intimate. In the best case, you start noticing more and more situations of power misuse around yourself, and learn to stay more often at the eye level with others. Behaviours that may have formerly been part of your repertoire, such withdrawing to make a person need you or getting a kick out of someone obeying your orders no longer appeal to you, just to mention two examples.

About regret: Important isn’t what happened in the past, but how you’re dealing with it at the current moment and where you are going to in your life!

What can an bystander or outsider do if we detect a toxic relationship among friends or family? To what extend shall we bring up the topic or „intervening“? 

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It is extremely difficult to intervene. The messenger is in danger to get killed. For the victim, it is easy to say afterwards “Why didn’t anyone say anything”, but the truth to be told, as long as you are not ready to see your toxic relationship for what it is, other people’s interventions are unlikely to help. You will feel loyal to your partner and think other people don’t really understand, are jealous, want to mix up with your life…  

Nevertheless, it is important to try our best to help the victim recognise if they are in danger, and find out how they are feeling about it. Every situation, personalities and personal dynamics are different, but perhaps you can start in the least confrontational manner, asking if everything is all right, suggesting you have noticed some tension in the house (without blaming anyone specific), neutrally remarking about the oddity of some situations you’ve observed taking place between the couple, and of course making it clear that you are available for a talk whenever needed. You may need to strategise a bit, be mindful of how you express yourself, and of course ground everything on empathy. It’s not a bad idea to reflect upon the situation with a confidant, either.

Typically, the person in an abusive relationship no longer has the feel of the normal. Their reality may be distorted, or they are trying to hide painful aspects of the relationship even to themselves. So it is important to signal that what’s going on doesn’t appear right from the outside, or that the person seems to have changed, and not for the better. Gently of course, understanding that they may be scared, and/or love and depend on the abusive partner, and are fully committed to them at that point. 

If a person opens up to you about their experiences, seeking for support, it is generally good to ask a lot of questions: “What happened?”, “Why do you think it is so?”, “How does it make you feel?”, “What would you like to do next?”… Try not to judge—anyone.

Sometimes people are aware that their relationship has a toxic twist, but decide to stay anyways. They may have a good reason to this from their own perspective, and be fairly content with their life. It is hard to say from the outside what is good for another person and definitely we should not impose anything on them that serves our own views and values. Every relationship is unique and from the outside you cannot know everything. In these cases we can signal that we are there when they need us. Of course, be mindful of your own well being, too. You do not need to act as a dirt bucket and therapist for someone to pour their trash onto over and over again, just to continue with same life style. Do your best and for the rest, trust people to do their part.

Is there any help at the Karls where one can talk or get help in relation to toxic relationship? 

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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 eroininen@karlshochschule.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. 

[1] Klemi, A. (2006) Henkinen Väkivalta Parisuhteessa, University of Jyväskylä. [2] Kelly, Z. (2008) #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou

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