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Interview: Michele Robin Hahn, J.D., MFT, explores the dynamics and differences between healthy and toxic relationships

On Feb. 19, “In Your Right Mind” explored characteristics of healthy relationships and common problems couples encounter in the episode “Toxic Relationships.” We sat down with one of the show’s guests, Michele Robin Hahn, J.D., MFT, who shared some practical tips for keeping relationships healthy and taking action when they are not.

Question: In your experience, are there any “red flags” that should alert people to the fact that their relationship problems are more than normal ups and downs – that they might be in a toxic relationship?

Answer: Great question, what many couples don’t realize is that these signs are very obvious; however, you must be willing to admit to yourself that this person is NOT the one. Often, one partner is invested in “getting/being married” to prove to themselves they are loveable often because, subconsciously, they lack self-confidence and feel unworthy.

Toxic red flags:

  1. Lack of empathy
  2. Critical, condescending attitude
  3. Deceitfulness: Facts don’t match explanations
  4. If relationship feels draining
  5. Contempt or sarcasm
  6. Overly controlling partner
  7. Feeling defeated and unheard
  8. Physical violence of any type (even grabbing an arm with force); for example, digging your fingers into partner’s arm and saying, “Get over here, I’m not done talking to you!” is not OK.

Q: Can two emotionally healthy people become toxic to one another simply because they are not a good match, or is there usually psychopathology in one or both partners?

A: I believe it can show up anywhere. We all have triggers from our past and lifetime experiences that make us vulnerable to becoming toxic to each other. Truth is, healthy people address the problems early on and get help to assist them in seeing their own contributions, learning new coping skills and taking responsibility for changing the dynamic. When one or both partners are not willing to look within to make changes, regardless of label of psychopathology, the toxicity can develop and the partners are going down a very slippery slope.

Q: Why do people stay in toxic relationships when they must know that it is unhealthy?

A: Victims of child abuse (sexual, emotional and physical) often grow into adults who cannot discern a toxic from a healthy relationship. Their internal gauges are “off” for a variety of reasons. For example, when a child seeks love and acceptance from a parent and that parent is abusive at times, but not at others (which is the case most of the time), the child learns that this is the form love takes: Take a beating, and love shows up somewhere in the picture. We are hardwired to look to our primary caregivers to reflect back to us our worthiness of being loved. Often, abusive parents (who, by the way, have often been abused themselves) reflect and mirror to their child messages like: You are a piece of crap, you make me mad and you are a bad person. Staying with a toxic partner may be ingrained in the minds of some adults as the only way to get love. Others are forced to stay due to emotional blackmailing, fear of what would happen if they leave or financial dependence.

Q: In your experience, do some people gravitate toward toxic partners?

A: Yes, there are some personalities (often those with personality disorders), that gravitate toward drama in their relationships, especially toxic partners. Many times a toxic partner has the skills to persuade through charisma and charm. A partner with low self-esteem often overlooks the warning signs and gravitates to the toxic person like a moth to a flame.

Q: Are there external factors that can poison a relationship or are truly healthy relationships “bulletproof”?

A: Yes. Contempt poisons. Violence poisons. Stonewalling poisons. Defensiveness poisons. Antidotes: gratitude, appreciation, turning toward each other in conflict, listening, openness, self-love, not blaming, not using terms like “all,” “always,” “never” in an argument.

Q: In your interview, you also discussed gender roles and how expectations play a central role in the health of relationships. In your experience, what is the most important part of establishing roles and at what point in the relationship are roles established? How do roles change over a long-term relationship?

A: Roles have helped society for centuries to establish order and harmony. They can also be limiting and rigid. Every couple has the power to discuss and decide together what their roles in the relationship can be. Relying solely on society-driven gender roles can lead to indifference, hostility, anger, resentment and unhappiness. It’s very important that couples keep an open mind when it comes to gender roles and check in frequently with each other about their role satisfaction.

Q: How do boundaries change over time, and how can people keep their boundaries healthy?

A: Boundaries are essential to healthy relationships and, really, a healthy life. Setting and sustaining boundaries is a skill. The boundaries established early in the relationship may change over time due to personal growth or maturity. Some ways to keep your boundaries healthy are: Name your limits, tune in to your feelings, be direct, give yourself permission to have self-respect, practice self-awareness, make self-care a priority and start small when exerting a new boundary.

Q: At what point should couples reach out for help from a couples therapist?

A: As a couples therapist, I believe couples should seek out help early in the relationship. Preventative care is golden. If there are any signs one partner feels uncomfortable, upset, or distance developing, it’s highly recommended you come in for a checkup, much like it’s recommended with your physical health care. If you have a rash, you probably don’t wait until it has covered your body and you’re extremely uncomfortable. Your mental health is as important as your physical health. Establishing a connection to a couples therapist early on, assures the couple will have a professional to turn to during some of the rough spots in a relationship. Trust is the most important element of a good therapeutic relationship, so getting in early, establishing trust before any problems get out of hand, is highly recommended. The therapist will then understand the history of the couples and an understanding of each partner’s unique past and individual history, including their tender spots.

Q: If one partner refuses to seek help, can the other person benefit from individual therapy?

A: Absolutely. There is much to be said for the ripple effect. If one partner seeks help, starts to make changes, shifts paradigms and chooses different ways of reacting, it can make a positive effect on the relationship.

Q: Is there anything else you would like our readers to understand about toxic relationships?

A: Toxic relationships hurt everyone involved, not only the partners in the relationship. These relationships affect entire families (children, stepchildren, siblings of the partners, parents and friends). There are health risks of being in a toxic relationship, namely stress-related disorders, obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, asthma and premature death to name a few. Without assistance from a professional, it is likely that harm will be done and sadly, passed on to future generations as well.

About Michele Robin Hahn, J.D., MFT

Michele Robin Hahn, J.D., MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles. She earned her doctorate in law and had a successful career in the legal field before earning her master’s in clinical psychology and specializing in emotionally focused therapy (EFT) for couples. Ms. Hahn’s natural gift for counseling others combined with her educational background in logic, analytical thinking and evidenced-based psychology provided the backdrop for her thriving therapy practice. She also relies on her own life experience to help people overcome their struggles and achieve their goals by relating with empathy and compassion. As a couples therapist, Ms. Hahn has vast experience identifying patterns of behavior in relationships that are healthy as well as those that are toxic.