Relationships are hard work. This may be the most misunderstood concept plaguing modern couples. While there is some kernel of truth in this statement, it can mislead us to our detriment.

What does it mean to “work hard” in a relationship? How can we know when we are putting effort into a worthwhile relationship or if we are keeping something alive that should have died long ago? And how can we tell the difference?

There are a ton of relationship catch-phrases and philosophies out there today. Gaslighting, love languages, attachment theory…I could go on. I have read about them all. And if you are reading this article, you probably have too. We are the autodidacts of all things relationship related. The self-taught experts, well-versed in the lingo and yet, no closer to an answer.

A toxic relationship. It sounds bad, right? Just the phrase conjures a vision of being involved with an evil person, constantly making your life a living hell. And you are the idiot who thinks this person is kind and benevolent while all your friends roll their eyes behind your back.

That could be the scene, but toxic is not typically as dramatic as all of that. As best I can tell from my research, the phrase originated in the 1995 book Toxic People by Dr. Lillian Glass. To quote the good doctor, a toxic relationship is between two people who “don’t support each other, where there is conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there is competition, where there is disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.”

The definition itself is interesting. It says, this person does not have your back. It is that simple. They don’t support you. It feels competitive. You aren’t really on the same team. There are two sides competing to win. Either I get what I want or you get what you want. Someone wins and someone loses.

Sound familiar? If you have felt this in your relationship, you are not alone. So have I. And it is exactly the part where relationships are hard work starts to muddy the waters.

Is there something wrong with this relationship or is there something wrong with me?

I had that desperate thought. But then I had an epiphany that changed everything. I finally saw clearly and it gave me the answer I had been seeking for so long.

I have four simple questions that will clarify the answer for you. No therapy required.

1. What happens in your relationship when you succeed?

In a troubled partnership, you will find that your success, any success is a problem. Your dreams and goals are not supported. As you attempt to pursue your ambitions, you are made to feel guilty for not prioritizing the relationship in every moment. What you want to achieve is seen as taking from the relationship, not adding to it.

When you have major success, they find a way to belittle it. Somehow, you should feel guilty for wanting anything else out of life other than to be in the relationship. The reason is simple, toxic partners prefer you when you are weak and small. Your success threatens the relationship from their perspective. You don’t love me anymore.

If you feel guilty for achieving anything in your life, solely for yourself, the problem is your relationship, not you. Deferring your dreams to make someone else happy will end in disaster, every time.

2. Are You Always the Problem?

Everything, even the most normal conditions in life are somehow your fault. They take no responsibility when things go wrong. There is no shared sense of the problem. It is all on you, all of the time.

Any show of strength or independence is met with complaints. But the true source of the problem is that your partner feels threatened by your growth. So their modus operandi is to put you down. Your weakness is their strength. When you feel bad, they can manipulate their own advantage. It is an inauthentic sense of power in the relationship and in their life. And you are just a pawn in their game.

The real danger here is that environment is everything. Your circumstances in life are a direct result of the people who surround you. It doesn’t matter how self-assured you are, you will be most affected by your primary relationship. There is no greater factor in determining the course of your life than who you choose to spend your time with. Toxic relationships will erode your self-confidence and damage your ability to make clear decisions in your own best interest.

3. Are You Walking on Eggshells?

You can never choose your words carefully enough. Asking for what you need in the relationship, requesting change of any kind is met with aggression. Even the simplest of conversations can turn into a bickering session.

Since it never goes well, you just stop bringing anything up. It isn’t worth it. Eventually, you find yourself waiting for the perfect day, the perfect moment to share something important to you, but it never works. So conversation dims. Hopes and dreams are out of the question and life becomes talking about a long string of harmless, mundane topics.

Why talk? He doesn’t care what I am doing or he will be infuriated by it. It’s just a lose-lose situation.

4. How Does it Feel When You Fight?

When you and your partner disagree, does it feel like you are getting to the bottom of the issue and trying to come to a compromise?

If you say to your husband, hey it really bothers me when you leave your dishes next to the sink. Can you put them in the dishwasher? He replies with, yeah well you never take the garbage out. I always have to do it! The problem with this exchange is that your partner isn’t trying to support you. He is trying to make you feel bad for making him feel bad. It is intentionally escalating an issue that can be so easily resolved.

It doesn’t matter if the problem is big or small. It is a means of relating based on defensiveness and aggression. It is a bad dynamic. It isn’t kind. And at its core, it erode trust.

If you are thinking, we don’t fight, refer back to number 3. Never arguing is unrealistic in relationships. It is not that you fight, it is about how you fight. We cannot reasonably expect two humans to spend their lives together and never experience conflict. If you stopped fighting, you have stopped resolving conflict, or even bringing it up, which is it’s own brand of toxic. Even in moments of disagreement, healthy relationships make you feel like your partner has your back.

In order to get to a healthier and more productive place, we need to give up our fear of conflict, turmoil and resistance. -Dr. John Gottman

When It Feels Wrong, It Is

Let’s set the record straight. Relationships are work, in that they require attention and effort. But that work is not supposed to be arduous. It is not an impossible mountain to climb.

You shouldn’t feel like you are always wrong. You should not feel as if you are a constant disappointment to your partner. Compromise should feel comfortable because you are spending your time with someone who wants to see you happy more than anything and you want the same for them. It should not feel like you are giving up parts of who you are, piece by piece, to appease someone else.

Some things are just supposed to be easy. Relationships are a place of growth where we find an even better version of ourselves. They are a place where we can take flight in our lives and spread our wings reaching for every goal we wish to accomplish. And all the while knowing someone who loves us has our back.

You deserve so much more than a lifetime of struggle.