Edited By Alex Santiago
Is Your Relationship Toxic?
When you’re in a healthy relationship, everything just kind of works. Sure, there are bumps in the road, but you generally make decisions together, openly discuss any problems that arise, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
Toxic relationships are another story. And when you’re in one, it can be harder to see red flags.
If you consistently feel drained or unhappy after spending time with your partner, it could be a sign that things need to change, says relationship therapist Jor-El Caraballo.
Here’s a look at some hallmark signs of toxicity in a relationship and what to do if you recognize them in your relationship.
What does it look like?
Depending on the nature of the relationship, signs of toxicity can be subtle or highly obvious, explains Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of “Joy from Fear.”
If you’re in a toxic relationship, you may recognize some of these signs in yourself, your partner, or the relationship itself.
Lack of support
Your time together has stopped being positive or supportive of your goals.
“Healthy relationships are based on a mutual desire to see the other succeed in all areas of life,” Caraballo says. But when things turn toxic, every achievement becomes a competition.
In other words, you don’t feel like they have your back.
Instead of treating each other with kindness, most of your conversations are filled with sarcasm, criticism, or overt hostility. You may even start avoiding talking to each other.
While it’s normal to experience jealousy from time to time, Caraballo explains it can become an issue if you can’t get yourself to think or feel positively about their success.
Questioning where you are all the time or becoming overly upset when you don’t immediately answer texts are both signs of controlling behavior, which can contribute to toxicity in a relationship.
In some cases, these attempts of control over you can be a sign of abuse (more on this later).
Holding on to grudges and letting them fester chips away at intimacy.
“Over time, frustration or resentment can build up and make a smaller chasm much bigger,” Caraballo notes.
You find yourself constantly making up lies about your whereabouts or who you meet up with to avoid spending time with your partner.
Patterns of disrespect
Being chronically late, casually “forgetting” events, and other behaviors that show disrespect for your time are a red flag, Manly says.
Negative financial behaviors
Your partner might make financial decisions, including purchasing big-ticket items or withdrawing large sums of money, without consulting you.
A normal amount of tension runs through every relationship, but finding yourself constantly on edge is an indicator that something’s off.
This ongoing stress can take a toll on your physical and emotional health.
Ignoring your needs
Going along with whatever your partner wants to do, even when it goes against your wishes or comfort level, is a sure sign of toxicity, says clinical psychologist Catalina Lawsin, PhD.
For example, you might agree to a vacation they planned, either intentionally or unintentionally, for dates that aren’t convenient for you.
You’ve stopped spending time with friends and family, either to avoid conflict with your partner or to get around having to explain what’s happening in your relationship.
Alternatively, you might find your free time is wrapped up in dealing with your partner.
Lack of self-care
In a toxic relationship, you might let go of your usual self-care habits, Lawsin explains.
You might withdraw from hobbies you once loved, neglect your health, and sacrifice your free time.
Hoping for change
You might stay in the relationship because you see the other person’s potential or think that if you just change yourself and your actions, they’ll change as well.
Walking on eggshells
You worry that by bringing up problems, you’ll provoke extreme tension, so you become conflict avoidant and keep any issues to yourself.
Can the relationship be saved?
Many people assume that toxic relationships are doomed, but that isn’t always the case.
The deciding factor? Both partners must want to change, Manly says. “If only one partner is invested in creating healthy patterns, there is —unfortunately — little likelihood that change will occur,” she explains.
Here are a few other signs that you might be able to work things out.
Willingness to invest
You both display an attitude of openness and willingness to invest in making the relationship better.
“This may manifest by an interest in deepening conversations,” Manly says, or setting aside regular blocks of time for spending quality time together.
Acceptance of responsibility
Recognizing the past behaviors that have harmed the relationship is vital on both ends, Manly adds. It reflects an interest in self-awareness and self-responsibility.
Shift from blaming to understanding
If you’re both able to steer the conversation away from blaming and more toward understanding and learning, there may be a path forward.
Openness to outside help
This is a big one. Sometimes, you might need help to get things back on track, either through individual or couples counseling.
How can we move forward?
According to Manly, repairing a toxic relationship will take time, patience, and diligence.
This is especially the case, Manly adds, “given that most toxic relationships often occur as a result of longstanding issues in the current relationship, or as a result of unaddressed issues from prior relationships.”
Here are some steps for turning things around.
Don’t dwell on the past
Sure, part of repairing the relationship will likely involve addressing past events. But this shouldn’t be the sole focus of your relationship moving forward.
Resist the temptation to constantly refer back to negative scenarios.
View your partner with compassion
When you find yourself wanting to blame your partner for all the problems in the relationship, try taking a step back and looking at the potential motivators behind their behavior, Caraballo says.
Have they been going through a hard time at work? Was there some family drama weighing heavily on their mind?
These aren’t excuses for bad behavior, but they can help you come to a better understanding of where your partner’s coming from.
An openness to therapy can be a good sign that things are mendable. Actually following through on this can be key to helping the relationship move forward.
While couples counseling is a good starting point, individual therapy can be a helpful addition, Manly says.
Regardless of whether you decide to try therapy, look for other support opportunities.
Maybe this involves talking to a close friend or joining a local support group for couples or partners dealing with specific issues in their relationship, such as infidelity or substance misuse.
Practice healthy communication
Pay close attention to how you talk to each other as you mend things. Be gentle with each other. Avoid sarcasm or mild jabs, at least for the time being.
Also focus on using “I” statements, especially when talking about relationship issues.
For example, instead of saying “You don’t listen to what I’m saying,” you could say “I feel like you aren’t listening to me when you take out your phone while I’m talking.”
“Both partners must acknowledge their part in fostering the toxicity,” Lawsin emphasizes.
This means identifying and taking responsibility for your own actions in the relationship. It’s also about being present and engaged during difficult conversations.
It’s important for each of you to individually determine what you need from the relationship and where your boundaries lie, Lawsin advises.
Even if you feel like you already know what your needs and boundaries are, it’s worth revisiting them.
The process of rebuilding a damaged relationship offers a good opportunity to reevaluate how you feel about certain elements of the relationship.
Hold space for the other’s change
Remember, things won’t change overnight. Over the coming months, work together on being flexible and patient with each other as you grow.
Abuse vs. toxicity
Toxicity in a relationship can take many forms, including forms of abuse. There’s never an excuse for abusive behavior. You’re unlikely to change your partner’s behavior on your own.
Abuse comes in many shapes and sizes. This can make it hard to recognize, especially if you’ve been in a long-term, toxic relationship.
The following signs suggest physical or emotional abuse. If you recognize any of these in your relationship, it’s probably best to walk away.
This is easier said than done, but we’ve got some resources that can help at the end of this section.
Your partner blames you for everything that goes wrong and makes you feel as if you can’t do anything right.
“You end up feeling small, confused, shamed, and often exhausted,” Manly says. They may do this by patronizing, dismissing, or embarrassing you in public.
Chronic stress and anxiety
It’s normal to have periods of frustration with your partner or doubts about your future together. But you shouldn’t be spending significant amounts of time worrying about the relationship or your safety and security.
Separation from friends and family
Sometimes, dealing with a toxic relationship can cause you to withdraw from friends and family. But an abusive partner may forcefully distance you from your support network.
For example, they might unplug the phone while you’re talking or get in your face to distract you. They may also convince you that your loved ones don’t want to hear from you, anyway.
Interference with work or school
Forbidding you from seeking employment or studying is a way to isolate and control you.
They may also attempt to humiliate you at your workplace or school by causing a scene or talking to your boss or teachers.
Fear and intimidation
An abusive partner might explode with rage or use intimidation tactics, such as slamming their fists into walls or not allowing you to leave the house during a fight.
Name-calling and put-downs
Insults aimed to humiliate and belittle your interests, appearance, or accomplishments are verbal abuse.
Below are some examples of what things a verbally abusive partner might say:
- “You’re worthless.”
- “You can’t do anything right.”
- “No one else could ever love you.”
They may control all the money that comes in and prevent you from having your own bank account, restricting access to credit cards, or only giving you a daily allowance.
Gaslighting is a technique that makes you question your own feelings, instincts, and sanity.
For example, they may try to convince you that they’ve never abusive, insisting it’s all in your head. Or they may accuse you of being the one with anger and control issues by acting like the victim.
Threats of self-harm
Threatening suicide or self-harm as a way to pressure you into doing things is a form of manipulation and abuse.
Threats and verbal insults can escalate to physical violence. If your partner is pushing, slapping, or hitting you, it’s a clear sign that the relationship has become dangerous.
Get help now
If you suspect you might be in an abusive relationship, trust your instincts and know you don’t have to live this way.
Here are some resources that can help you safely navigate next steps:
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides services at no cost and offers 24/7 chat and phone support.
- Day One is a nonprofit organization that works with youth to end dating abuse and domestic violence through community education, supportive services, legal advocacy, and leadership development.
- Break the Cycle provides services to young people and adults in peer-to-peer abusive relationships.
- DomesticShelters.org is a mobile-friendly, searchable directory that can help you quickly find domestic violence programs and shelters in the United States and Canada.
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.
Last medically reviewed on November 11, 2019