There’s a Name for That: A Glossary of Toxic Relationship Terms

Toxic relationships can be hard to define


Being in a toxic relationship but unable to pinpoint what is unhealthy about it can be crazy-making. When you know something is wrong but you can’t put your finger on it, you may second-guess yourself. Second-guessing can keep you in unhealthy relationships longer, leading to more pain over time.


People often wonder why someone would stay in an abusive relationship. The truth is, toxic, manipulative, or emotionally immature behaviors can be hard to identify in the moment. And when they’re part of the fabric of your relationship, it can be scary to start pulling at threads. But there is power in naming things. If you know what is happening, you can start to see patterns. When you see the patterns, you can decide if they fit your boundaries. And when you set your own boundaries, you can regain some of the power you lost when the relationship became toxic.


To help de-mystify these patterns, I have created a glossary of not one but 12 common traits and dynamics that are frequent flyers in problematic relationships. Have a look and see if any of these feel familiar.


Toxic behavior, defined


Double bind – A no-win situation where one is manipulated into having to choose between two bad options.


What this looks like: Sarah’s ex-wife Nora frequently fails to follow the court-ordered custody arrangement for their children. If Sarah confronts her, Nora blows up and accuses Sarah of interfering with her relationship with their children. If she says nothing, she loses time with the kids and feels angry with herself for not being more firm. She feels stuck, with no good options.


Fake/fauxpology – A false “apology” that deflects guilt or responsibility from the guilty party onto the person who wa wronged.


What this looks like: Evi’s dad would not take responsibility for his verbal abuse, and would respond with a snarky fauxpology when she tried to bring it up. “I’m sorry you think I was such a bad parent. I guess taking you to Disney World for your birthday makes me a horrible monster.”


Flying monkeys – Friends, family members, or acquaintances who are recruited to do someone else’s dirty work. They will (often unknowingly) try to pull you back into a negative cycle if you begin to pull away. A reference to the classic movie The Wizard of Oz.


What this looks like: When Dre tries to skip a family event to avoid a confrontation with his narcissistic mother, his aunt calls and pressures him. She insists he look at it through his mom’s eyes. “She’ll be so hurt and upset if you skip the graduation! Can’t you just put up with it for one day to make her happy?”


When you see it, you can do something about it


Gaslighting – An emotional/mental manipulation strategy to make the victim question their experiences, perceptions, and beliefs. The phrase comes from a 1944 movie called Gaslight. To read about this in more depth, check out my two-part series on gaslighting.


What this looks like: Elle’s mother hurt her feelings by telling Elle that she would never get a boyfriend until she dropped some weight. When Elle tried to express this to her mother, she denied ever saying such a thing. She claimed anything she said was out of love and refused to accept that her words were hurtful. She became angry and stated Elle was being manipulative by deliberately misinterpreting her words.


Golden child – In families with multiple children, one may be favored above the others. The golden child is singled out for love and approval, and others are often compared to them unfavorably.


What this looks like: Jen’s brother was the golden child who could do no wrong. Even when he failed his classes, his parents made excuses for him and harassed the teacher until she changed his grade. When Jen came home with a C, her parents grounded her for a month.


Hoovering – a technique to pull someone back into the patterns and cycles of a toxic relationship. This is often accomplished by the abusive person showing temporarily improved behaviors – “turning over a new leaf” – to convince their victim that they have changed. When the victim returns, the abusive behavior resumes.


What this looks like: Jon broke up with his girlfriend due to her verbal abuse and passive aggressive mockery. When he left, she showered him with apologies and extravagant gifts to show how sorry she was, and promised him she would change for the better. Jon was convinced by the over-the-top display of remorse, and gave her another chance. Once he got back together with her, however, the verbal abuse, put-downs, and gaslighting started up within a few weeks.


Lost child – In families with more than one child in particular, a child may be lost within the family. They learn to lie low to avoid being noticed negatively, and are rarely noticed for anything positive.


What this looks like: Amira’s sister was the golden child who could do no wrong, and her brother was a was a needy man-child. She just chugged along with average grades, an average career, and an average life. Her parents never noticed when she did well, and utterly ignored any evidence that she was struggling. She felt like a lost child within her own family.


Any relationship can be healthy or unhealthy


Narcissism/narcissistic personality traits: a set of persistent character traits including an inflated sense of self-importance and superiority; excessive need for praise, admiration, or reassurance; lack of personal boundaries in close relationships; manipulative and/or emotionally abusive behavior designed to control others; lack of insight into how their actions affect those around them; difficulty accepting criticism; lack of empathy; and envy of others’ success.


What this looks like: Jessica’s CEO father loved to talk about his important clients, name-dropping at every opportunity to impress everyone with his importance. He also loved to brag about how much money he made while cutting back his employees’ vacation days and benefits. He expected people to want to work for him simply because of who he was.

Parentification – When a child is thrust into adult responsibilities at an early age due to their parent(s) inability to maintain healthy boundaries. Parentified children may be expected to take care of their parents rather than the other way around.


What this looks like: 10-year-old Mark was expected to get himself and his younger siblings up and ready for school every morning because his mother was an alcoholic who couldn’t wake up in time. She often expressed guilt that he had to be so responsible, and would sob and berate herself until Mark comforted her and insisted that it was his job as man of the house.


Projection – When a narcissistic or emotionally immature person cannot acknowledge their own feelings and tries to paint them onto someone else.


What this looks like: Lina’s ex-fiance accused her of not recognizing or acknowledging his value, while devaluing her as selfish and unforgiving for ending their relationship when he cheated on her.


It’s not just you


Scapegoat – a family member designated as the black sheep or loser of the family. Scapegoats often bear the emotional brunt of family stressors.


What this looks like: Alanna was a good student and a quiet, obedient child, but her mother always found something to criticize. If mom had a hard day, she would take it out on Alanna and blame Alanna for her bad mood. “If you weren’t such a whiny pain in the ass, maybe I wouldn’t get headaches every day.”


Triangulation – When two members of a relationship draw a third party into their conflicts, placing unfair expectations and burdens on the third party to resolve their problems. In narcissistic or emotionally immature families, the third party is often a child.


What this looks like: Nicole’s parents constantly argued. After every fight, either her mother or father would come to her to complain about their other parent. Nicole felt obligated to listen and support her parents, and would sometimes go to the other parent to try to play peacemaker. This position was so stressful that she bit her nails to the quick, and her parents continued to fight anyway.


It can get better


If any of these seem familiar, take heart! You’re not alone in your experiences. This glossary is far from exhaustive, but covers a range of patterns and cycles that will be familiar to anyone who has experienced a toxic, abusive, or emotionally immature relationship.


Call or email me today to get started on your journey to heal the wounds from a toxic relationship.