Think You're In A Toxic Relationship? Here Are The Signs To Look For + What To Do
Toxic relationships can negatively impact our overall well-being, whether they're romantic, familial, or platonic. From subtle forms of manipulation to more outright abuse, dealing with toxic behavior can have lasting effects, such as eroding your self-esteem, distorting your understanding of love, and even causing you to question your sanity.
This is why it's important to understand what a toxic relationship is so you can protect yourself.
What makes a relationship toxic?
Almost any relationship can become toxic in nature if the underlying issues are not dealt with. As humans, we're not perfect, and even the most well-adjusted person may engage in mildly toxic behavior now and again—especially if they're under significant stress or they haven't processed past traumas.
However, when someone chronically engages in toxic behaviors, they tend to cause significant harm in their interpersonal relationships.
According to Shan Boodram, a sex and relationships expert at Bumble, a toxic relationship is one that doesn't complement or serve other areas of your life.
"A healthy relationship should be additive and make you excited about other parts of your life—friends, family, your job—but when it actually takes away from these things that should leave you feeling fulfilled, that's when you find yourself in a toxic place," Boodram tells mindbodygreen.
She goes on to say that while every healthy relationship will have high and low moments, you should ultimately be happy and supported more often than not.
"If you find yourself dealing with toxic behaviors more than 20% of the time, it's time to reevaluate," she says.
Signs of a toxic relationship
Love-flooding / love-bombing
Boodram says love bombing or flooding occurs when one party offers "an overwhelming amount of time, attention, and praise to you in the beginning of your relationship to entice you, when in reality, you do not know each other well enough for this behavior to be genuine."
After a while, the praise will lessen, and that'll leave you constantly trying to "please the other person to get back to the level of 'love flooding' you felt at the start," Boodram explains.
Reductions / isolation
According to Boodram, reduction (or isolation) is a controlling behavior in which a partner starts to limit the time you can have with your family and friends, removing other healthy relationships from your life "little by little until [they're] the only one that remains, leaving you feeling dependent."
Lack of support
Even when healthy conflicts arise, you should always feel like your partner has your back. As your relationship grows, you should be able to understand each other's needs and know that you need to feel supported to offer support in return. If you're feeling a lack here, it could be an early sign of a toxic relationship.
Open and honest communication is required in all healthy relationships. According to licensed marriage and family therapist Silva Depanian, M.A., LMFT, assertive communication in particular is helpful in allowing individuals to clearly and respectfully articulate what has been bothering them, how they feel about it, and what they'd like to see done differently.
However, the most common communication styles are passive, passive-aggressive, or assertive—none of which allow for openness, clarity, or vulnerability within difficult situations.
Avoidance of issues, minimizing topics that the other person deems important, and becoming verbally or physically aggressive are all signs that the relationship is in a toxic zone.
Healthy relationships also need mutual respect between both parties. According to Depanian, when individuals in a relationship feel safe and comfortable expressing their boundaries and can follow one another's boundary requests, the relationship is healthy.
However, if individuals within a relationship feel unsafe expressing their boundaries or have had their boundary requests consistently violated despite repeated attempts to articulate their needs, then the toxicity of the relationship should be assessed.
Another sign that your dynamic might not be healthy is control issues. Sexologist Carol Queen, Ph.D., says this can happen when a participant in the relationship makes decisions without the other's consent—such as overly dominant behavior, not sharing info about spending or contracts, or crossing sexual boundaries.
"The passive-aggressive relationship is one in which one or all participants do not communicate or act in a straightforward manner to get their needs met. Instead, the passive-aggressive person secretly manipulates situations in a variety of ways in order to obtain their goals," she says.
Codependency is another commonly known toxic relationship pattern, Manly also points out. The codependent dynamic is one in which participants enable each other's toxic behaviors in a variety of ways, from drug abuse to alcohol abuse to remaining stuck in patterns that perpetuate negative behaviors and avoid self-growth.
Emotional abuse can be hard to immediately identify. If the abuser is very adept at being abusive, they may be withholding in nature, "kindly" critical, or generally insult the other person in subtle, hard-to-spot ways that leave the abused feeling off-kilter and wondering why the interactions seem so difficult and painful.
There are also more obvious cases, where the abuser will be highly vocal in offering criticisms, disparaging comments, and ongoing verbal assaults.
According to Manly, enmeshment is mutually toxic behavior that overtly or subtly limits the ability to act as an individual. An enmeshed relationship offers little freedom, whether within a family unit or a romantic partnership.
In this form of a toxic relationship, the participants secretly fear the growth and challenge of moving beyond the bounds of the relationship.
The need to be right
A need to be right will rear its head when a person in the relationship is more concerned with being right than with anything else, including concern for the other person's feelings, says clinical psychologist Cynthia King, Psy.D. They are concerned with "rightness" even when it doesn't matter that much, which goes hand in hand with assigning blame, even when it's not necessary.
If you're in a toxic dynamic, you might find that the other person struggles to receive feedback. King says this can come out as being argumentative when feedback is being given or deflecting or denying when feedback is delivered.
Lack of personal growth
According to Lisa Lawless, Ph.D., partners should encourage each other to grow. "When one or both partners cannot pursue their own interests and goals," she says, "this can signal a toxic dynamic."
Lawless also says jealousy and insecurity are expected to be felt on occasion, but when such feelings fuel a partnership and are without trust, the foundation of the relationship is no longer stable.
While everyone has negative thoughts and expressions, a relationship can begin to feel toxic when negativity is chronic. When a person continuously focuses their energy on things that bring them sadness, anger, or anxiety, it can begin to feel draining for the other person.
One of the main aspects of a healthy committed relationship is trust. If one or both people is constantly struggling with trusting each other, then it's also likely that the entire relationship may devolve into dishonest statements.
Manipulation is another major hallmark of a toxic relationship, according to therapist Steve Carleton, LCSW, CACIII. "This can take many forms, from gaslighting to guilt-tripping," he explains, adding, "They may make the victim feel bad about themselves or constantly use guilt as a way to control their partner's behavior."
For example, he says, a toxic person might use guilt-tripping phrases such as, "If you really loved me, you would...," or gaslighting phrases like, "You're being overly dramatic."
Lastly, according to licensed clinical psychologist Avigail Lev, Psy.D., one other sign of a toxic relationship is triangulation. "Triangulation is when your partner brings other people into the relationship, causing feelings of jealousy, insecurity, or competition," she explains.
For example, in triangulation, a toxic person might say something like, "Your cousin told me she was so mad at you and thought you were being selfish."
The impact of toxic relationships
As you can imagine, dealing with a toxic relationship and everything that comes with it will have an impact. In the short term, this could look like simply missing out on the opportunity to date people who are good for you. But it could also lead to embarrassment, according to sexologist and sensual yoga teacher Joy Berkheimer, Ph.D.
If a toxic person love-bombed you, for instance, "You end up telling all your friends about it and possibly posting about it," she explains, adding that this is often followed by the silent treatment with unknown causes, bouts of sudden passive-aggressive jealousy, or outright insults to your appearance and/or intelligence that leave you speechless.
"Then [you don't want] to share anything with anyone about this interaction anymore," Berkheimer explains.
And in the long term, the effects of dealing with a toxic relationship are more serious. This can look like being isolated from your loved ones, changes to your body from exhaustion due to arguments or anxiety from relationship distress, emotional turmoil from feeling confused by a partner who keeps you in an ongoing cycle of breaking up and getting back together, and trauma bonding.
Trauma bonding is connecting with an abusive person who mistreats you emotionally, physically, and/or sexually. Unconsciously, you form a strong bond with your romantic partner to cope with your trauma or abuse—and Berkheimer says this is a recipe for a dangerous disaster.
The longer you stay in a toxic relationship, the harder it is to break away. In these partnerships, there's an imbalance of control and continual aggression.
How to deal with a toxic relationship
The first step in dealing with a toxic relationship of any kind is to recognize the signs and be able to see it for what it is. All the aforementioned signs are red flags to watch out for, but if it's helpful, here's a straightforward quiz to help you figure out if your relationship is toxic.
It's important to try not to lie to yourself and deny the truth of your current reality. According to relationship expert Audrey Hope, once you've done this, consider making boundaries of self-love and self-care to take care of yourself. You can walk out of the room, leave the house, or simply not allow the person to mistreat you. You can say something neutral like, "I hear you, and I will be going now."
"If you have tried to set boundaries with [them] and advocated for your needs over and over and nothing has changed, then it might be best to cut all ties. During this time, you can reach out to family and friends who can provide emotional support and guidance in a safe environment," Purcaro says, adding, "You can find a therapist who can help you process your emotions, heal from the toxic experience, and rebuild your self-esteem."
What is a toxic relationship?
In the most basic terms, a relationship is toxic when it starts to negatively affect or threaten your overall well-being. This includes emotional, psychological, and even physical health.
What are the signs of a toxic relationship?
Signs of a toxic relationship include love-bombing, manipulation, and dishonesty. The biggest sign that your relationship has become toxic might be the way you feel after interacting with the other person.
Whether the toxic relationship in your life is romantic, platonic, or within your own family, these unhealthy dynamics can take a big toll on how you feel about yourself, and your well-being as a whole. Healthy relationships should be a source of joy and love in our lives, and anything less is not worth the cost.
Stephanie Barnes is a freelance writer from Kingston, Jamaica. She studied Information Technology from the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean and spent several years as a front-end/iOS engineer. Her work has been featured at The Huffington Post, Healthline, The Lily, HelloGiggles, Business Insider, and more. She's passionate about all things mental health, technology, and binge-worthy television.