Being in a relationship with another human can be a beautiful, fulfilling thing. But not always. While there are relationships that just seem to work, others can quickly (or slowly, or subtly) cross the line from healthy to unhealthy. In fact, any one of us could end up in what’s known as a toxic relationship. One that we might be unwilling to call actually abusive, but that is just as bad for our mental health.
We’re not talking about occasional arguments – those can even be healthy for a relationship. We’re talking about no longer feeling happy in your relationship, dreading spending time with the person you once ran to, or feeling disrespected or even unsafe. When a relationship turns toxic, it can leave you feeling defeated, drained, and lost, but you might not even realize why you’re feeling that way. So it’s important to learn the signs of a toxic relationship, and what you need to do if you recognize your partnership in those signs.
10 Tell-Tale Signs of a Toxic Relationship
As we said, there is a difference between a healthy relationship that might just need some work (yeah, communication is hard!) and a really unhealthy, toxic one that could be potentially harmful. But when you’re right in the middle of things, it can be hard to see what’s really going on. Red flags might be popping up all around you. But you might not be seeing them for what they are, or you might not want to see them.
So if you’re evaluating the health of your relationship, you can start by asking yourself a few fundamental questions. For example, you can start as simple as “How do I feel around my partner?” According to Lillian Glass, Ph.D., communication and body language expert, a toxic person is anyone who makes you feel uneasy in their presence or bad about yourself, so this is important to consider. Also, ask yourself whether your relationship issues feel chronic: is there chronic disrespect in your interactions, for example? And how about this: do you feel emotionally safe?
Those questions are a good start. But you should also familiarize yourself with the most common signs that your relationship has turned toxic. Remembering that these signs can be totally obvious or really subtle. Check out the following:
1. There is a lack of trust
Trust should be the bedrock of any relationship. And we’re not just talking about trusting your partner to be faithful, if that’s something you’ve agreed upon. We’re also talking about trust in the bigger, emotional sense: your partner should be the person that you can be vulnerable with. And if you can’t trust them not to abuse that vulnerability, that’s a major problem. You should be able to trust that your partner will act in the best interest of your relationship. So if you don’t feel like they are, or trust that they will, you are probably in a toxic relationship.
2. There is a lack of support
Similar to feeling like you trust your partner, you should also feel like you can rely on your partner in other senses, like they have your back and will support and encourage you. If things get competitive between you, or if you feel like your needs and wants aren’t important to them, things are probably pretty unhealthy. After all, according to relationship therapist Jor-El Caraballo, “Healthy relationships are based on a mutual desire to see the other succeed in all areas of life.”
3. Your communication is unhealthy/toxic/hostile
As we said, occasionally arguing is not necessarily a bad thing in a relationship. But toxic communication is a whole different thing, and it can include the big, obvious things like yelling, name-calling, using your body to intimidate the other person, and throwing and breaking things. But hostile/toxic communication can also come in subtler forms, like:
- The silent treatment
- Relying on “you statement” accusations/turning everything around on you
- Constantly interrupting
- Sarcasm, criticism, and contempt
- Gaslighting/questioning your own experiences
If your partner reacts in these ways when confronted, or even in everyday life, they’re not genuinely listening and respecting your feelings.
4. You don’t feel comfortable around them
If you’re changing who you are around your partner, maybe out of fear of them ridiculing or criticizing you. And you don’t feel like you can truly be yourself around them, you’ve got a big problem. You might even feel controlled into being a certain way, or unattractive and not your best self around them. But it can be even more than that: you might even start getting visceral, physical reactions around them, like stomach issues or problems eating, which is a huge red flag!
5. They are trying to control you
If your partner is engaging in controlling behaviors, it’s time to really reevaluate things. Maybe they are constantly asking where you are and what you’re doing. Or get annoyed when you don’t immediately respond to texts and bombard you with messages. However small these things seem, they could point to not just a lack of trust, but a need to control you, which could escalate into a seriously toxic, or even abusive, situation. One thing in particular to look out for is your partner threatening you with the loss of something, or with taking something away (like money, time with your family, etc).
6. You feel disrespected
Everyone is late now and again or forgets something important. But if things like this are constantly happening you might be getting the sense in your relationship that they just don’t value you as they should. This is a tricky one, because some people just struggle with this kind of thing. So it’s important to talk to your partner about it and gauge where these behaviors are coming from.
7. The relationship is filled with dishonesty
If your partner is constantly lying to you, even about small things, that’s a sign that they just don’t respect you as they should. And they don’t deserve your trust. On the other hand, you might feel like you have to lie to your partner about certain things, maybe so you don’t anger them, or so you can get out of spending time with them, and that’s also a big red flag.
8. You’re doing all the giving, and they’re doing all the taking
A relationship should always be a two-way street. If you find yourself constantly living your life around their needs, and feel like yours are being ignored, you could be in a toxic relationship. According to Kamil Lewis, AMFT, a sex and relationship therapist in Southern California, “Being considerate of your partner is one thing, but if you find yourself saying no to yourself frequently to say yes to them, you might want to consider setting some boundaries. If they dismiss, belittle, or bulldoze your boundaries, that could also be a sign of a toxic relationship.”
9. You think “If only they were more like this” or you’re constantly making excuses for them
It’s a tale as old as time: you get into a relationship with someone thinking you can change them. But in most cases, you just can’t. You can’t change the fundamental characteristics of a person, and you should love them for who they are, not despite who they are. In addition, if you’re feeling like you constantly have to defend who they are, you might want to talk to your friends and family. They might be seeing something you’re having a hard time acknowledging.
10. Your other relationships, and your self-care, are suffering
Whether it’s because you are tired of defending your partner to your friends and family. Or they are actively pulling you away from your other support system, losing (or diminishing) other important relationships in your life is a huge red flag that things are getting toxic with your partner. And if you’re ignoring the other things in life that are good for you, like your own self-care, and you’re feeling drained and unhappy, you’ve also got a big issue to deal with.
The Next Steps
The above are by no means the only signs that you’re in a toxic relationship. But they’re some pretty major ones. As we said earlier, it’s important that you reflect on and question your relationship if things don’t feel right. And when you do, you might see other signs of toxicity that need to be addressed.
But what does it mean to address them? What do you do after you’ve determined you’re in a toxic relationship? First of all, show yourself some kindness. You didn’t set out to enter into a toxic relationship. And you need to take a step back emotionally and give yourself some love.
Next, if you think this is a relationship worth working on, you can talk to your partner and see if they will both recognize and work to reverse the toxicity. Doing so will most likely mean therapy, and definitely mean – yes – doing a whole lot of work. As Debra Roberts, LCSW, an interpersonal communication and relationship expert and author, says: “If people are motivated to change, capable of change, and willing to show up to do the work, then a good therapist can help them learn healthier behaviors and ways of communicating.”
For example, you might be able to salvage things (if you want) if you and/or your partner can:
- Accept responsibility
- Invest time and effort
- Shift from blaming to listening and understanding
- Practice healthier communication
- Be willing to seek outside help and support
- Give space for the other to change
- Work on your own healing
But remember, you can only control yourself. So if they’re not going to show up for your relationship, it’s probably better to end it.
In addition, if there are signs that toxicity is turning to abuse, there is no healthy future for your relationship and you should seek help/get out of the relationship. These signs can also be glaring or subtle, and include:
- Physical, emotional, and sexual violence
- Taking control of finances
- Intense fear of what might happen if you leave the relationship
In the end, any relationship marked by a lack of trust, support, emotional safety, and respect is not a relationship that is going to enhance your life. You’ll need to ask yourself some tough questions if you’re experiencing this, and decide whether it’s worth working on your relationship, or whether you’re simply risking your own mental health. You don’t have to accept what is bad for you, and if your partner is not willing to be part of a healthy give and take, you don’t have to accept them in your life.
And if you’re in an abusive relationship, talk to your loved ones if you can, and contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which provides services at no cost and offers 24/7 chat and phone support.
Co-written by Joanna Bowling