Content warning: descriptions of domestic and relational abuse and sexual assault.
I ended up writing about toxicity and abuse this week because I have been wondering about the distinctions here for awhile. The words “toxic” and “abusive” are used pretty frequently in tandem when describing relationships, and sometimes they’re used interchangeably. I knew that toxic and abusive behaviors had overlaps, but I also knew that these words held very different meanings and weight. The way we use particular words changes constantly as we learn new things about what the term might mean and listen to how it is used. I was lucky enough to have learned about relational and domestic abuse back in high school through the Katie Brown Educational Program (check them out here: https://kbep.org). They taught us how to look out for abuse in relationships, what abuse can look like, and what to do if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship. It was pretty mind-blowing, and probably one of the lessons I most deeply engrained from high school sex ed. So I had an established understanding of what abuse meant when I first heard the word toxic. Toxic relationships seem to be everywhere, especially in hindsight. Almost everyone I knew at one point was simultaneously caught in a “toxic” situationship, whether they knew it at the time or figured it out later on.
Defining terms like “toxic” and “abusive” can be extremely useful and liberating to victims and survivors of unhealthy and unsafe relationships. They help other people understand the severity of a situationship, the depth of abuse, and the significance of someone’s trauma. But these words can also become conflated and too closely entangled with each other. It’s important to tease out the details between terminology to protect those who find power and liberation in these words. Overuse but especially misuse can dilute the validity of a definition, and ultimately harm those who most benefit from claiming the terms.
So I wanted to find out the difference between these two words because I honestly didn’t know what separated them. I figured that “abuse” was somehow much worse and had legal implications, but the ways I had seen “toxic relationships” and “abusive relationships” portrayed through personal stories and in social media bordered on identical. So let’s get into it. What is the actual difference between a “toxic” and an “abusive” relationship?
These two descriptors often go hand-in-hand, however the distinguishing line is there. It took a little digging, and a little bit of cross-referencing, but I figured out the distinction that I had been searching for. It makes the most sense to me like this:
Toxic relationships can be one-sided or two-sided, and toxic relationships tend to occur when people feel out of control of their relationship.
Abusive behavior works to elevate one person’s power while diminishing the other person’s agency. Abuse is all about control.
Broadly, toxicity can be understood as disproportionately negative reactions or interactions. These can look like:
“Everytime I ask my partner to do a chore it results in a fight that lasts for hours.”
“When I ask my partner to spend more quality time with me, they degrade me for being needy or attention-seeking.”
But this doesn’t mean that every fight or every offensive comment is a sure sign of a toxic situation. Over-reactions and negative encounters are natural and common in all kinds of relationships. We can often tell when a relationship becomes toxic when these disproportionate negative interactions outweigh any positive interactions. If the relationship feels frequently or consistently overwhelming, draining, or stressful, then it might be a toxic relationship. Toxic relationships aren’t inherently awful or doomed, though. Facilitated communication (with an impartial third party like a couples counselor or relationship therapist) can change the trajectory of toxic relationships. Relationships can also be reframed, meaning significantly altered, to maintain connection through toxicity. For instance, switching up expectations, accessibility, time spent together, or labels like partner, boyfriend, or best friend can reframe a relationship. And always, if you decide a relationship is too draining or unhealthy to maintain, you always have the right to leave it.
But abuse is very different from toxicity. Abuse intentional and all about control. Several studies on domestic abuse suggest that abusers tend to be both aware and intentional when it comes to manipulating their partners. This means that although an abuser may perform ignorance or innocence, abuse is calculated and meant to manipulate a partner into feeling weak, inferior, or powerless. To me, the element of control and calculation created the distinction between toxic relationships and abusive relationships in my mind.
There are six different kinds of relational abuse, and abusers tend to rely on multiple forms of manipulation. Let’s run through them quickly. For more information on the specifics of each kind, check out this helpful website.
1. Physical abuse
When a partner causes physical harm to another
This can also look like hitting walls or throwing objects
This can also look like causing harm to children or pets
2. Emotional abuse
Threats to physical, financial, or sexual safety
Degrading, demeaning, or belittling
3. Psychological abuse
Gaslighting or denying one’s reality
Chipping away at a partner’s self-esteem or confidence
4. Financial abuse
Taking control of a partner’s finances, bank information, etc.
Breaking or destroying possessions or property
Accumulating debt under a partner’s name
5. Sexual abuse
Assault, rape, coercion
Weoponizing sex or using sex to judge or evaluate a partner’s worth
6. Cultural abuse
Using ethnic or racial slurs
Threatening to ‘out’ a partner
Isolating a partner who doesn’t speak the dominant language
It’s also important to know the warning signs of abuse. These can include:
Degrading or belittling your self-image
Extreme jealousy or possessiveness
Inflicting control over your physical body or your location (i.e. not letting you see friends or family members)
Publicly humiliating you
Controlling finances or making financial decisions without you
Destroying your belongings
Threatening children, pets, or other loved ones
There is a large overlap between toxic and abusive behaviors. Abusive relationships are often toxic, but toxic relationships are not always abusive.
Remember: it is always imperative to believe victims/survivors who come forward to report abuse.
Remember: it is healthy to have arguments, conflict, and even fights in relationships. It becomes unhealthy as soon as someone feels unsafe or not cared for.
Remember: if you are currently weary of, surviving, trying to escape from an abusive relationship, there are established support systems and advocates for you to turn to and lean on.
Resources for victims or survivors of abuse:
Domestic Violence Support website and hotline: This website contains a wealth of information about how to spot abuse and how to escape abusive situations. When you click on the link, it will bring you to the hotline where you have the option to call or chat with a supporter. https://www.thehotline.org
Interactive Safety Plan: This interactive safety plan helps create a printable, personalized safety plan for anyone currently in an abusive situation, or someone who feels they might be at risk. It walks you through home, work, and other aspects of your life to identify key people who could be called in a crisis, code words that can be used over the phone or text, and established safe places to escape to in emergencies. https://www.thehotline.org/plan-for-safety/create-a-safety-plan/