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Is Your Relationship Toxic? 15 Signs To Check

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15 min

Is Your Relationship Toxic? 15 Signs To Check

In every relationship, there are ups and downs, but sometimes those downs can be more than just a rough patch. Protecting your mental health and well-being requires you to be aware of the warning signals of a toxic relationship and to do something about it.

In this blog post, we’ll talk about the signs of toxic relationships, the impact they can have on your mental health, and the steps you can take to navigate through them.

So, have you ever wondered if your relationship is more “Twilight” than “The Notebook”? Or if your partner’s less Mr. Right, more Mr. Big from “Sex in the City”? Well, grab a cuppa ’cause we’re about to navigate the stormy seas of love gone wrong.

A place for the disclaimer: This blog post discusses toxic relationship behaviors. If you find these topics triggering, please exercise self-care and seek professional support if needed.

What is a toxic relationship?

First things first, let’s define what the “toxic” part of the toxic relationship phrase actually means. This is the increasingly popular adjective “toxic,” which was even named 2018’s Word of the Year by the Oxford English Dictionary, especially in the context of relationships.

So, what does toxic mean in relationships? It’s that behavior in your close interaction with your significant other that brings you down, drains your energy, and negatively impacts your overall well-being. If you are in a toxic relationship, it is like being around poison or toxic waste for a long time: it is hazardous for your health.

Originally coined by Lillian Glass, a psychology expert, in her 1995 book “Toxic People,” the term describes a relationship between people who don’t support each other, where there’s conflict, and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, disrespect, and a lack of trust.

In a nutshell, toxic relationships can arise from incompatible personalities, according to Glass. For example, a sarcastic person dating someone with thin skin could be an unsuitable match.

Why do therapists avoid using the term “toxic relationships”

Some therapists steer clear of using toxic in the context of describing relationships (therapist speak). Calling someone “toxic” may seem like a judgment or evaluation of a person. Instead, some therapists prefer to refer to the behaviors as healthy or unhealthy.

Labeling someone as ‘toxic’ also can oversimplify complex human experiences and overlook the underlying causes of their actions. Leah Aguirre, LCSW, for example, said she likes using the word “unhealthy” (like someone’s behavior is bad for you or your mental health) instead of saying they are completely toxic and cannot be fixed.

In this article, we will use the common non-psychology term “toxic relationship” to refer to a relationship where you feel disrespected, your boundaries are violated, or you feel unhealthy, which negatively affects your emotional health. The key here is to recognize the real red flags that can harm you and take the necessary action.

Toxic relationships vs. abusive relationships

Although abusive and toxic relationships have some things in common, it is important to know the differences between them. Toxic or unhealthy relationships can be draining and harmful to your emotional well-being, but they don’t necessarily involve the dynamic of control or harm that characterizes abusive relationships.

In a toxic relationship, someone might behave in an unhealthy way or lack respect. In an abusive relationship, someone might engage in behaviors with the intention of harming someone else.

Also, in abusive relationships, there’s a power imbalance, with one person having more influence, which allows them to harm others.

Your relationship might be toxic if your needs aren’t being met, or you often feel invalidated by your partner. Your relationship might be abusive if your partner tries to control your relationships or finances, belittles or berates you, or becomes physically violent.

So try to ask yourself, “Is my relationship unhealthy or really abusive?” If you find yourself in an abusive relationship or physical danger in toxic relationship, you have every right to seek support and help. 

Remember, you are not alone, and there are resources available to assist you on your journey toward healing and safety.

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • Love is Respect: National Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474

These hotlines work with trained professionals who can provide guidance, support, and resources specific to your situation.

15 signs of a toxic relationships

With our newfound definition of a toxic relationship in hand, it is time to hone our intuition and learn to recognize the red flags. Here are 15 signs that help you know if your relationship is toxic (more than a Britney Spears song):

1. Silent treatment 

Have you ever experienced the deafening silence that fills a room when someone you love shuts you out? Your partner’s idea of communication is sending you to a faraway land (a.k.a., a silent treatment city) whenever there’s a disagreement? 

Ah, the silent treatment. It’s like being trapped in a silent horror movie, where your words are met with vacant stares, and your emotions are dismissed with a flick of the wrist.

But what exactly is the silent treatment? This passive-aggressive tactic involves one person refusing to communicate with or engage with the other, leaving the victim feeling isolated, hurt, and confused. 

2. Name-calling

Calling someone names in relationships means using insulting or degrading words to make someone feel bad about themselves. It is a type of verbal abuse meant to lower the abused’s self-esteem and make them lose control of their feelings.

There are many forms of name-calling. It can be more obvious ones, like “stupid,” “idiot,” and “worthless.” Insults or put-downs may also be hidden in the form of jokes or sarcastic comments.  Name-calling can damage communication and the well-being of the person on the receiving end.

3. Controlling behavior

Let’s say you got together with your friends for brunch every Saturday morning. This was your weekly opportunity to stay connected and have fun with your social circle.

Your partner pushes you to bring them and constantly starts arguments with you afterward about the topics you discussed. They ask you to stop talking about certain things with your friends. Eventually, they ask you to stop going to brunch altogether and then ask you to limit any interaction with your friends. 

Controlling behavior isn’t always obvious at first, but you may start to notice them more over time. This might look like isolating you from your support system, micromanaging you, or violating your boundaries.

4. Jealousy

Many of us experience jealousy from time to time. Jealousy often comes from a perceived threat. It can become unhealthy when we respond from our jealousy instead of looking at what’s causing it and communicating our needs. 

In an unhealthy relationship, your partner may express jealousy when you’re around your friends or co-workers. They might fear you developing close relationships with them and neglecting them. As a result, they constantly bring up the time you’re spending with others or accuse you of cheating or abandoning them. This can create resentment in a relationship.

5. Guilt-tripping 

It is a manipulation tactic. In an unhealthy toxic relationship, someone might use it to cause another to feel guilty or responsible for something they are not. This often leads the person feeling guilty to change their behavior. 

For instance, let’s say you stayed late at work to finish up a project for a big deadline, which means you got home late. Your partner says that you “always come home late” and that you “must not care” about the relationship. The next time your boss asks if you’re able to help with something that extends a little past 5 o’clock, you say “no,” even if it’s something you really want to do.

6. The blame game

Mistakes? Sure, we all make ’em. But instead of pointing fingers, you work together to fix the problem. It’s about saying, “Oops, my bad! Let’s clean this up,” rather than, “This is your mess! You deal with it.” But in a toxic relationship, blame is like that uninvited guest who not only crashes your party but also eats all the food. And let’s face it, nobody likes a snack thief.

Does a toxic partner not take responsibility for the bad things that happen in the relationship? And point fingers at you for every wrongdoing that happens within his/her life? I know it is really hurting.

But let’s be real: pointing fingers back and assigning blame doesn’t solve anything. In fact, it only adds fuel to the fire of unhealthy relationships. Instead of working together to find solutions, both parties end up stuck in a never-ending.

7. Manipulation 

Picture this: you’re at your favorite coffee shop, and this super rad latte art is just begging to be Instagrammed, but your partner is all like, “Nah, babe, it’s embarrassing.” Sounds innocent, right? Mmm, not quite right.

They’re playing a sneaky game with your self-esteem, carefully plucking away at your confidence until the tower topples. It’s like that one episode of “Stranger Things” where Billy is possessed by the Mind Flayer. It’s all fun and games until someone’s mind gets hijacked, causing you to fall into a deep emotional pit where you are trying to please your partner.

8. Gaslighting

If they’re making you question your sanity more often than a thriller movie, you might be getting gaslighted. It can be scary to be tricked into questioning your sanity. You question whether you overreacted when, in reality, your reaction was the right one. 

Your partner tells you over and over that you are too sensitive or do not understand how they feel. The goal of this emotional manipulation or other gaslighting examples is to stop you from reacting and keep you from taking responsibility.

9. Constant drama and conflict

It is true that there will always be small disagreements between people who are dating or in a relationship, but toxic relationships are built on constant negativity, and fighting might feel constant. Or, things can feel blown out of proportion.  For example, you might be talking about what to do over the weekend.

This could quickly become an argument in an unhealthy relationship and lead to statements like, “You never make enough time for our relationship!” Your relationship might be unhealthy if conflict between you and your partner often escalates.

10. Lack of trust

Normally, people in a relationship start hiding things from each other when trust is broken. It starts with small lies that do not seem to hurt anyone and gets worse with big lies that could end the relationship. 

When trust isn’t repaired, especially in an unhealthy relationship, partners may experience resentment and anger, and in some cases, this can escalate to emotional or physical aggression.

11. Constant criticism and belittling

Embarrassing you in public and in private is more ‘Mean Girls’ than relationship material? Yep, it’s definitely a strong toxic sign. 

Constant criticism, no matter how subtle, can be very harmful. It could look like someone always pointing out your flaws or saying things that make you feel bad about yourself. You even start asking yourself, “Am I the problem in my relationship?” It leaves you feeling like you can never measure up or be good enough. 

Geralyn Dexter, Ph.D., LMHC, adds also A partner may give you feedback in a relationship. Feedback is an important part of expressing your needs. There’s a difference between sharing feedback compassionately and constantly criticizing and belittling your partner.

12. Overstepping Boundaries

People in healthy relationships respect and are able to communicate about their boundaries. In an unhealthy relationship, your partner might disregard or violate your boundaries constantly, leading to enmeshment trauma. Making decisions for you or without your permission is one example of overstepping your boundaries.

Overstepping boundaries can happen for a number of reasons, such as the boundaries not being clear, your partner choosing to ignore them, or they’re attempting to control your behavior.  

13. No Respect

Respect is another key ingredient for healthy and long-lasting relationships. It’s a way of showing others that we care for and value them. When your partner makes comments or behaves in ways that make you feel inadequate and unheard of, you might notice a lack of respect. This can seriously harm your sense of self.

That’s what no respect looks like in a relationship – your thoughts, feelings, or time are treated like leftover pizza – good to have around but not valued. Like Aretha said, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, if they ain’t got none for you, they ain’t worth it.

14. Emotional Unavailability

Have you ever tried to share your feelings with your partner and felt like you got nothing in return? When you’re dealing with someone who is emotionally unavailable, it doesn’t quite feel like things are reciprocal. 

Some signs of emotional unavailability are a fear of closeness, trouble expressing feelings, and a fear of commitment. People who are not emotionally available may act inconsistently when they talk to you, randomly answering or not answering or texting you back after a long wait, all of which are signs of an unhealthy relationship. It can definitely make you feel worse mentally or emotionally.

15. Lack of Support

In a healthy relationship, support is a cornerstone. It’s the foundation that allows both partners to grow, feel secure, and navigate life’s challenges together. But this is not always present in dysfunctional relationships. It can leave one partner feeling uncared and alone. 

Here is a tip: if they’re not supporting you like a good pair of Birkenstock, maybe they’re not the one. 

Discover with Breeze more about the signs of toxic relationships, how they can affect your mental health, and what you can do to get out of them

Effects of toxic relationships on your mental health

People are social animals, and their brains are wired to foster this. Intimate relationships and interactions with other people are very important to our emotional health.

The constant stress and anxiety that come with unhealthy relationships and their signs set off our body’s stress response system, which raises cortisol levels (aka the stress hormone). 

It can lead to increased anxiety, feelings of sadness, and hopelessness. As well as a significant decline in self-esteem and heightened stress levels that affect your overall well-being and provoke long-lasting emotional trauma.

  • Emotional Effects:  It might sound cliche, but it can feel like you’re on an emotional rollercoaster in a toxic relationship. Your self-esteem takes a hit, plummeting faster than you can say “breakup.” Constant criticism, manipulation, and belittlement eat away at your confidence, leaving you questioning your worth. Recognizing these feelings can be the first step to making a change.
  • Social Effects: Toxic relationships also have a knack for isolating you from your support network. Friends become distant, family ties strain, and suddenly, you find yourself feeling alone in a crowded room. Cutting you off from your support system may be intentional in an unhealthy relationship as a way to isolate and keep you feeling stuck.
  • Work and Productivity Effects: The effects of a toxic relationship can seep into every aspect of your life, including your career. Decreased focus, motivation, and even missed opportunities can become the norm.

Dump the toxic relationship cycle with my free mini course on attachment styles in the Breeze: mental health app. Download and immerse yourself in self-discovery!

10 steps to take when you detect toxic signs in your relationships 

Worried that your relationship might be toxic or unhealthy? Here are 10 tips or steps you can take to take care of yourself.

  1. Trust Your Gut: The first rule of the Fight Club of life: always trust your gut. If something feels as off as pineapple on a pizza, it probably is.
  2. Recognize the Signs: Know the signs. It can be easier to spot unhealthy behaviors if you’re aware of them and have a sense of what they look like in a relationship. You can always come back and reference the list above if you’re unsure.
  3. Seek Support from Loved Ones: Don’t hesitate to reach out to family, friends, or a support network to discuss your situation and gain perspective.
  4. Establish Boundaries: It’s important to set clear boundaries to protect yourself and communicate your expectations to your partner in a respectful way.
  5. Speak Up:  Beyond establishing your boundaries, you may need to enforce or communicate them again when your partner violates them. Express yourself in a way that’s assertive, yet clearly communicates your needs. It’s okay to let your partner know when they’ve done something that hurts
  6. Consider Professional Help: Therapy and counseling can provide valuable guidance and support as you navigate the challenges of a toxic relationship. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  7. Focus on Self-Care: Take care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Engage in activities that bring you joy and prioritize your own mental health.
  8. Make a Decision about the Relationship: Take a step back and assess whether the relationship can be salvaged or if it’s best to prioritize your well-being and move on. Seeking help is a sign of strength and an act of self-love.
  9. Stay Committed to Your Decision: Whatever decision you make about the toxic relationship, stay committed to it, and don’t let guilt or pressure from your partner sway your choice.
  10. Know Your Worth: You deserve someone who treats you with respect and kindness, not someone who constantly brings you down. Don’t settle for less than you are entitled to!

“Thank you, next”: How to leave a toxic relationships

If you do decide to move on from a toxic relationship, remember that communication is key. Be clear and assertive with your feelings and say that you are leaving the relationship. You may want to listen to your partner’s perspective. Know that if the conversation feels unhealthy or escalates, you can choose to end it. 

Use “I feel” statements to talk about your emotions and feelings. So they do not feel defensive; this helps. Ultimately, it’s not about winning an argument. This can help you clearly communicate your needs while reducing the chances the other person will become defensive.

Saying goodbye to someone you care about is never easy, even if it’s for the better. Take time to process your human emotions and remember that it’s okay to grieve the loss of the relationship.

After that, it’s time for some self-love! Treat yourself with kindness and compassion. Watch your favorite shows, indulge in your favorite foods, or dance around to your top playlist.

Leaving a toxic relationship is ultimately about prioritizing your own well-being. It’s like putting on an oxygen mask on a plane—you need to take care of yourself first before helping others. 

Trust in yourself and know that you have the strength to move on and find a healthier, happier relationship.

Conclusion: Your Toxic Relationships Sign-Free Future Awaits

Congratulations! You’ve successfully completed your crash course on how to spot toxic relationships. Armed with knowledge, awareness, and a hint of humor, you’re now equipped to navigate the treacherous waters of love and relationships

Remember, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and you have the strength to create a healthier, happier future. Start by trying our website tests on childhood trauma. It’s time to prioritize your mental health and embark on a journey of self-discovery and personal growth.

Now, go forth and conquer the world of healthy relationships. Embrace the love, respect, and happiness you truly deserve!

P.S. Just remember, toxic relationships are so last season. It’s time to upgrade to a healthier and happier you!

Geralyn Dexter, Ph.D., LMHC, shares some ideas about toxic relationshipsRomantic relationships aren’t the only types that can be unhealthy. Unhealthy behaviors and patterns can exist with people you work with, friends, and family members. You may find yourself in a situation where you’re unable to leave quickly or create distance, such as with your boss or relative. Chances are, you may not be in a position to just quit or move out. These situations can feel extremely distressing. In these cases, know your boundaries and communicate them clearly. Find spaces that feel safe. Seek out resources that can help you understand your options. Reach out to trusted people in your life or seek help from a therapist. Create moments to focus on your self-care until you can develop and act on an exit plan.
Geralyn Dexter, Ph.D., LMHC photo

Reviewed by Geralyn Dexter, Ph.D., LMHC

Geralyn Dexter, Ph.D., LMHC (she/her), is a licensed mental health counselor, writer, researcher, and psychology faculty member at...