What is a toxic relationship?

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Is Your Relationship Toxic? What to Look For

In a healthy relationship, everything just kind of works. Sure, you might disagree from time to time or come upon other 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. In a toxic relationship, you might consistently feel drained or unhappy after spending time with your partner, according to relationship therapist Jor-El Caraballo, which can suggest that some things need to change.

Maybe the relationship no longer feels at all enjoyable, though you still love your partner. For some reason, you always seem to rub each other the wrong way or can’t seem to stop arguing over minor issues. You might even dread the thought of seeing them, instead of looking forward to it as you did in the past.

Below, we’ll explore some hallmark signs of toxicity in a relationship, plus offer some guidance on the next steps if you recognize any of these signs in yourself or your partner.

What are the signs of a toxic relationship?

Depending on the nature of the relationship, signs of toxicity can be subtle or highly obvious, explains Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., author of “Joy from Fear.”

When you’re in a toxic relationship, you might not always find it easy to notice the red flags popping up. All the same, you could notice some of these signs in yourself, your partner, or the relationship itself.

1. Lack of support

“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 short, the time you spend together no longer feels positive. You don’t feel supported or encouraged, and you can’t trust them to show up for you. Instead, you might get the impression that your needs and interests don’t matter, that they only care about what they want.

2. Toxic communication

Instead of kindness and mutual respect, most of your conversations are filled with sarcasm or criticism and fueled by contempt — a predictor of divorceTrusted Source.

Do you catch yourself making snide remarks to your friends or family members? Maybe you repeat what they said in a mocking tone when they’re in another room. You may even start dodging their calls, just to get a break from the inevitable arguments and hostility.

3. Envy or jealousy

While it’s perfectly fine to experience a little envy from time to time, Caraballo explains it can become an issue if your envy keeps you from thinking positively about your partner’s successes.

The same goes for jealousy. Yes, it’s a perfectly natural human emotion. But when it leads to constant suspicion and mistrust, it can quickly begin to erode your relationship.

4. Controlling behaviors

Does your partner ask where you are all the time? Maybe they become annoyed or irritated when you don’t immediately answer texts or text you again and again until you do.

These behaviors might stem from jealousy or lack of trust, but they can also suggest a need for control — both of which can contribute to relationship toxicity. In some cases, these attempts at control can also suggest abuse (more on this later).

5. Resentment

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.

Note, too, whether you tend to nurse these grievances quietly because you don’t feel safe speaking up when something bothers you. If you can’t trust your partner to listen to your concerns, your relationship could be toxic.

6. Dishonesty

You find yourself constantly making up lies about your whereabouts or who you meet up with — whether that’s because you want to avoid spending time with your partner or because you worry how they’ll react if you tell them the truth.

7. Patterns of disrespect

Being chronically late, casually “forgetting” events, and other behaviors that show disrespect for your time are red flags, Manly says.

Keep in mind that some people may truly struggle with making and keeping plans on time, so it may help to start with a conversation about this behavior. If it’s not intentional, you might notice some improvement after you explain why it bothers you.

8. Negative financial behaviors

Sharing finances with a partner often involves some level of agreement about how you’ll spend or save your money. That said, it’s not necessarily toxic if one partner chooses to spend money on items the other partner doesn’t approve of.

It can be toxic, though, if you’ve come to an agreement about your finances and one partner consistently disrespects that agreement, whether by purchasing big-ticket items or withdrawing large sums of money.

9. Constant stress

Ordinary life challenges that come up — a family member’s illness, or job loss — can create some tension in your relationship, of course. But finding yourself constantly on edge, even when you aren’t facing stress from outside sources, is a key indicator that something’s off.

This ongoing stress can take a toll on physical and mental health, and you might frequently feel miserable, mentally and physically exhausted, or generally unwell.

10. 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, Ph.D.

Say they planned a vacation that will take you out of town on your mom’s birthday. But when they asked you what dates were convenient, you emphasized that any dates were fine — as long as you didn’t miss your mom’s birthday on the 17th.

You don’t want to point this out, since you don’t want to start a fight. So you say, “Great! I’m so excited.”

11. Lost relationships

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 that dealing with your partner (or worrying about your relationship) occupies much of your free time.

12. Lack of self-care

In a toxic relationship, you might let go of your usual self-care habits, Lawson explains.

You might withdraw from hobbies you once loved, neglect your health, and sacrifice your free time. This might happen because you don’t have the energy for these activities or because your partner disapproves when you do your own thing.

13. Hoping for change

You might stay in the relationship because you remember how much fun you had in the beginning. Maybe you think that if you just change yourself and your actions, they’ll change as well.

14. 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.

Is it possible to fix a toxic relationship?

Many people assume 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.”

A few signs you might be able to work things out together:

Acceptance of responsibility

If both you and your partner know the relationship is struggling and want to improve it, you’re on the right track.

Recognizing past behaviors that have harmed the relationship is vital on both ends, Manly adds. It reflects an interest in self-awareness and self-responsibility.

To put it another way, both partners should accept their part in contributing to the toxicity, from resentment to jealousy to not speaking out about concerns and disappointments.

Willingness to invest

Are both you and your partner willing to invest in making the relationship better? That’s a good sign.

“This may manifest by an interest in deepening conversations,” Manly says or setting aside regular blocks of time for spending quality time together.

The 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.

For example, instead of saying, “It’s your fault” or “You always do XYZ” you might try, “I think we misunderstood each other, so let’s try again” or “I understand why you’re feeling stressed and upset — how can we work on that together?”

These communication techniques can help.

Openness to outside help

Sometimes, you might need help to get things back on track, either through individual or couples counseling.

There’s no shame in getting professional help to address consistent relationship issues. Sometimes, you can’t pick up on everything contributing to the toxicity from inside the relationship, and relationship counselors are trained to offer a neutral perspective and unbiased support.

They can also teach you new strategies for addressing and resolving conflict, making it easier to create healthier patterns that stick.


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.”

These steps can help you turn 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, since this can leave both of you tense, frustrated, and right back where you started.

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 recently gone through a hard time at work? Had some family drama weighing heavily on their mind?

These challenges don’t excuse bad behavior, but they can help you come to a better understanding of where it comes from.

Considering your contributions, too. Do you tend to withdraw when upset, instead of sharing your concerns? Do you criticize your partner if they don’t do chores the way you prefer? These habits could also play a part.

Start therapy

An openness to therapy can be a good sign that mending the relationship is possible. To help the relationship move forward, though, you’ll need to reach out to schedule that first appointment.

While couples counseling is a good starting point, individual therapy can be a helpful addition, Manly says. Individual therapy offers a safe space to explore attachment issues and other factors that might contribute to relationship concerns. It also helps you get more insight into toxic behaviors versus abusive ones.

Find support

Regardless of whether you decide to try therapy, look for other support opportunities.

Support might involve talking to a close friend or trusted mentor, for example. Other options could include joining a local support group for couples or partners dealing with specific issues in their relationship, such as infidelity or substance use.

Practice healthy communication

Pay close attention to how you talk to each other as you mend things. Be gentle with each other, and try to avoid sarcasm and even mild jabs.

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 hurt when you take out your phone while I’m talking because it gives me the impression that what I say doesn’t matter.”

Be accountable

“Both partners must acknowledge their part in fostering the toxicity,” Lawsin emphasizes.

This means identifying and taking responsibility for your actions in the relationship. It also means committing to staying present and engaged during difficult conversations, instead of avoiding those discussions or mentally checking out.

Heal individually

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 your needs and boundaries, it’s worth revisiting them and then sharing them with your partner.

Talking through boundaries is a good first step. Remember, though, that boundaries are flexible, so it’s important to keep discussing them as they change over time

The process of rebuilding a damaged relationship offers a good opportunity to reevaluate how you feel about certain elements of the relationship, from communication needs to physical intimacy.

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.