A toxic relationship is one in which two people don’t communicate or relate to one another in healthy ways, and where conflict easily arises. In these relationships, at least one person tries to minimize the other’s perspective and increase their competitive nature. There tends to be a lack of support and general unpleasantness.
The negative emotions outweigh the positive ones and the relationship itself becomes a huge drain of energy.
What Is a Toxic Relationship?
Toxic relationships tend to exhibit a pattern of negativity where at least one partner causes harm in some way, whether purposeful or not. Sometimes that is intentional abuse in a relationship, or manipulative behaviors that can leave one partner feeling trapped or burned out on the relationship. It’s possible these behaviors were learned in childhood or experienced as an adult, and the expectation of any other behavior has not been established.
Sometimes, toxic relationships are ones that need time and care to work through issues together so more trust can be built in the relationship. For others, it’s just two people who are not a good pair together but are great apart. It’s important to separate the toxic relationship from accusing a partner of being toxic person, however both can occur at once.1
“Toxic relationships wear people down and have serious effects on one’s self-worth and feelings of dignity. They can be traumatic and leave permanent emotional damage. If you think your relationship is toxic, start seeking help from blogs, books, and professionals. The fog of abuse is hard to see through, and getting clarity from outside is crucial.” – Dr. Jason Whiting, PhD, LMFT
21 Toxic Relationship Signs
While toxic relationships can take on many different forms, common signs might include mutual disrespect, emotional manipulation, or feeling lonely even when you’re together.
Here are 21 signs of a potentially toxic relationship:2
- You feel disrespected
- Your needs are not met
- You both have a hard time communicating
- You don’t feel free to live your life autonomously
- You give more than you get
- You don’t feel valued
- You resent your partner
- One or both of you are passive aggressive
- Your self-esteem is deteriorating
- You feel attacked and unsupported
- Your sleeping and eating patterns have changed (like engaging in revenge bedtime procrastination because you don’t get enough time to yourself during the day)
- You feel depressed or anxious
- You bring out the bad qualities in one another
- You feel like you walk on eggshells around your partner
- Your feelings come second to theirs (the sign of a codependent relationship)
- You feel gaslighted and manipulated
- You don’t feel your best emotionally or mentally around them
- You feel alone in the relationship when you’re together
- You feel there is a lack of trust and excess jealousy
- You feel responsible for their happiness
- You are being abused physically, emotionally, mentally, or sexually
Amy Sherman, MA, LMHC says identifying a toxic relationship starts with being honest with yourself. “First and foremost, you should ask yourself how you feel in your relationship? If you don’t feel good about yourself, there is something wrong with the relationship. Watch out for any ‘red flags’ of abuse – blaming, shaming, insulting, demanding and ridiculing comments from your partner. Watch out for often and excessive anger, frustration, and defensiveness. These are clues that something is not working and that you may be in danger.”
Check out this video licenced therapist, Gabrielle Juliano-Villani, LCSW, for more signs of toxic relationships:
Abuse vs. Toxicity
Toxic relationships and abusive relationships can have some overlap, but relationships that involve abuse are no longer just toxic, they are abusive.
In an abusive relationship, one partner is always in control. A controlling husband, wife, or partner is aware of their actions and chooses abusive behaviors to show dominance and maintain control over the other partner. It can start out as emotional abuse and become physical over time.
Abusers tend to use mind games such as manipulation and gaslighting to undermine their partner’s needs and perspectives. In essence, abusive relationships involve the abuser who is the bully and the other partner as the victim—and usually these types of relationships don’t change.3
A Cycle of Abuse & Reconciliation
Abusive relationships can be hard to recognize, but it’s important to be aware of the cycles of abuse and different types of abuse outside of physical and emotional abuse, such as financial abuse. In any relationship, there needs to be respect, and toxic relationships that turn abusive can also use physical intimacy to perpetuate abuse, such as sexual coercion.
Impacts of Toxic Relationships
Toxic relationships involve one or both partners engaging in reactive behavior and having unhealthy communication. These people create issues and escalate problems, often seeing themselves as the victim. Toxic people or those in toxic relationships avoid taking any blame and ownership of their part in conflict, leading to issues like overthinking or resentment for each partner individually.
A toxic relationship may not have begun that way. Oftentimes, it’s a relationship that may have started out well, but is now leaving a person feeling emotionally drained and stressed. A healthy relationship, on the other hand, helps to give energy back as opposed to taking energy away.
According to Sherman, “Anyone in a toxic relationship will feel disrespected, discounted, unappreciated, ridiculed, undermined and criticized to the point where they lose their self-worth, self-esteem, and perhaps their self-regard. Often, individuals would become a ‘shell’ of who they were before they entered the relationship. A toxic relationship is emotionally unhealthy and can often lead to dangerous physical situations, where one partner gets hurt.”
The impacts of a toxic relationship could include:4
- Worsened friendships
- Sleep changes
- Weight changes
- Poor performance at work or school
- Lack of communication in relationships
- Short temper
- Negative inner monologue
- Developing trust issues
- Pessimistic and negative moods
- Low self worth
How to Fix a Toxic Relationship
There are ways to improve a toxic relationship if all parties involved are motivated to change. These relationships can be better managed by setting healthy boundaries and working on your own self awareness.
Here are six tips for dealing with a toxic relationship:
1. Have Open & Honest Conversations
Have open, healthy communication with your partner about how you’re feeling and what you will own in the relationship. Having these discussions together and sharing the load also increases cohesion between partners. The timing of these conversations is also important, so pick a time where both partners are rested and in a good headspace to have meaningful and constructive conversations.
2. Don’t Dwell on the Past
Focusing on past mistakes won’t allow you to move forward. We can’t control the past, and the attention on the past will keep you from being attentive in the present. Take time to really process the past so you are not stuck dwelling on it as you try to move forward in your relationship.
3. View Your Partner With Compassion
As hard as it can be, our partners are human—and as humans, they make mistakes and have a history of relationships before us. It’s important to be mindful of that and sensitive to their struggles. Coming to your partner with compassion is important because it lets you see them as a human, as a true partner, and not as the enemy. Compassion in times of conflict can really help to reset the ways in which we communicate, which can make all the difference.
4. Take Responsibility for Your Part
Whiting states, “A key factor on whether a toxic relationship can change is if the unhealthy person(s) will take full responsibility for their abusive behavior. Denial is a common feature of unhealthy relationships and is actually the main clinical issue in batterer-intervention programs. If someone won’t admit they have a problem, they won’t change. For a relationship that has been damaged by verbal or physical aggression to turn around, the offender needs to be totally honest, accept full responsibility for the hurt they are causing, and work consistently for a significant time (6 months to a year) to try and make it right. Cheap apologies or promises won’t do it.”
5. Talk to a Therapist
Therapy is very effective for treating relationship issues and the stress that comes from these issues. Identifying the root cause of an issue or feeling is the first step towards recovery or moving forward from a toxic relationship. Therapy also allows for you to learn additional ways to manage relationship issues and expectations.5
It’s important to consider individual or couples therapy depending on what your concerns are.6 It is helpful to find a couples therapist and explore your relationship patterns as well as your childhood experiences. Digging deeper and laying out any dysfunctional patterns in your family history can help point out where your own relationship patterns may be coming from.
6. Hold Space for Your Partner to Change
Change takes time. It is important to remember that learning a new habit is just as challenging as unlearning old habits. When we are working on changing things in a relationship, both partners need to do the work. The work for one could mean holding the space for that change to occur–for you to see the change. Without the space to showcase new ways of relating in the relationship, you won’t ever get to see what the change looks like. It takes a lot of patience and self-care to do this, so make sure you are prioritizing taking care of yourself, too.
When & How to Leave a Toxic Relationship
For some, the best option for dealing with toxic relationships is to leave the relationship. When your own health and wellness is being impacted, the relationship is doing more harm than good for you. When there is any kind of abuse, it’s important to recognize your worth, protect yourself, and get help right away.
Seek out the support of a therapist and come up with an exit plan so you can leave safely. This can be hard to do and a hard decision to come to, but if you have tried couples therapy and feel that you have exhibited patience and made change, and you are still not satisfied, it may be time to end the relationship. Some people are inherently incompatible and it can take time to really come to terms with this. Working with a therapist to sort through this and find out how to end a relationship can be really helpful.
If you are dealing with issues stemming from toxic relationships, talking to a therapist can make a big difference in how you feel.