If you are in a dangerous situation, you can call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
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Sadly, even if the glass slipper does fit, there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship. They all take work and commitment, but some become so poisonous and difficult that they make you miserable. There’s usually no happy endings in toxic relationships, so when you know you are in one, it may be time to take off the glass slipper and put on your walking shoes.
Of course, this is always easier said than done.
From the inside, it can be hard to identify a toxic relationship because they often start out happy and healthy and slowly break down over time. If your relationship is going from fairytale to horror story, you should consider these 11 toxic relationship warning signs.
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1. You aren’t able to be your true self
One of the best things about a healthy relationship is being able to truly be yourself and having someone who loves all of you…even the sometimes annoying bits.
However, in a toxic relationship, one partner may not fully accept the other and try to change them in drastic ways. Unfortunately, they may succeed over time if the relationship continues. Even if your partner doesn’t explicitly state that you cannot be yourself, you might be afraid to do or say things that would upset them. You find yourself walking on eggshells to avoid conflict or always trying to give them what they want .
When your romantic partner continuously tries to change your personality or even physical appearance, there is a snowball effect that occurs. It will erode your self-esteem and self-confidence, eventually making you feel that you do not deserve love. This makes it even harder to walk away since you may start to believe you are lucky to have this person and will not be able to find anyone else.
2. You become isolated from friends and family
Ideally, your love will fit in perfectly with your circle of friends and embrace your family as their own. This is something you should try to look out for when making him attracted in the first place (by the way, these tips will help get him attracted). It’s ok if it doesn’t work out exactly that way since everyone has their own taste in friends and family relationships can be tricky.
However, it becomes a problem if they try to change your relationships with the people close to you, either by preventing you from seeing them or by talking bad about them.
While it may appear on the surface that your partner doesn’t like your friends and family, in a toxic relationship there may be something darker going on. It may be that your partner wants you to devote your attention solely to them, or that they believe severing your relationships with others will make you more dependent.
In truly toxic relationships they may even wish to prevent you from talking with your friends and family alone so that they won’t be able to point out the red flags they have seen concerning your love life. And just to be clear, this has nothing to do with the no contact rule discussed here. Controlling behavior & mistreatment like this is absolutely a sign of a toxic, harmful and unhealthy relationship [2, 3].
3. Keeping score and bringing up past mistakes
Once upon a time, you were late to pick them up at the airport, forgot to call when you said you would or mentioned you didn’t like their mom’s casserole and you are still hearing about it even though it was months ago. Mistakes happen, and it’s even ok to argue about them when they do.
But, it’s not ok to keep score and resurrect past wrongs over and over again. Not only is this hurtful, when the past is brought into current arguments it takes the focus off the issue and prevents real problem-solving. Instead, deal with issues as they arise. Forgiving and forgetting is hard, so sometimes you have to go with the next best thing… forgiving and never bringing it up again.
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4. Passive Aggressiveness
Let’s say you ask your sweetie to wash the dishes.
They immediately smile and say they are coming, only to wait until just before bed to do it and then splash water all over the cabinet and miss bits of food. What might really be going on is that don’t like washing the dishes and rather than saying so they put it off and did a poor job so you wouldn’t ask again.
Passive aggressiveness comes in many forms including, but not limited to:
- Faking helplessness
- Hiding criticism in compliments
But it usually stems from a desire to avoid expressing feelings and communicating openly.
In a healthy relationship, both partners should feel safe in saying how they feel and calmly expressing anger. However, in a toxic relationship, one partner may resort to negative non-verbal communication or trying to provoke a response from the other by finding petty ways to upset them. To prevent your relationship from veering into toxic territory, be honest about your emotions, keep the lines of communication open and encourage them to do the same.
5. Buying Love
Who doesn’t love getting flowers or a just-because present, being whisked away on a spontaneous vacation or treated to an upscale restaurant? These are just a few super cute things you can do for your man. Here are a bunch more.
These may be signs that your honey is a keeper. But, if they are using material things to cover problems in the relationship or to buy your affection, these pretty presents may actually be red flags. A classic example of this is arguing the evening before and receiving a lush bouquet the next day.
You didn’t resolve the issue, but you sweep it aside because they sent flowers. That problem isn’t going anywhere, and no matter how much money is spent, it is going to come back again. To keep yours from becoming a toxic relationship, use gifts as a lovely addition to dealing with relationship issues instead of a replacement.
6. Threats To End The Relationship
What’s the difference between, “I think it takes you too long to get dressed” and “I can’t be with someone that takes so long to get ready?” The first is a simple statement while the second is a thinly veiled threat.
It’s completely natural to not like everything about another person, but threatening to end a commitment over every criticism is a form of emotional blackmail. Eventually, the victim becomes terrified that their every action might really be the one that sparks a breakup. Abusers may threaten to leave for someone else who is better than you.
To keep the relationship on a healthy path, hold back judgment and criticism and communicate concerns in a kind but honest way. However, if you are already in a toxic relationship riddled with threats, it may be best to grant them their wish and end it.
7. Excessive Jealousy
It might feel flattering when your sweetie desires your attention, but when jealousy rears it’s ugly head every time you speak to, glance at or mention another person, the relationship has undoubtedly turned sour. Jealousy and insecurity are definitely a sign of an unhealthy relationship [4, 5].
In truly toxic relationships, a jealous partner may go as far as peeking into email accounts, grabbing your phone to read text messages, hacking into your Facebook account and even showing up unexpectedly at your social events. Checking up like this is unhealthy no matter the form it takes . Often, jealousy doesn’t occur as a response to inappropriate behaviors, but rather stems from feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness.
Rather than letting it get that far, start with a foundation of trust, set boundaries (find out more about boundaries in a relationship), make sure to deal with any of your own feelings of inadequacy rather than forcing them onto your partner. And hopefully, your partner will do the same.
8. Never Getting On The Same Page
Emotions and commitment develop at different paces for everyone. It’s completely natural if you fall in love quickly and it takes him awhile, or if he is ready to move in together while she wants to hold on to her own place for a bit longer.
However, toxic relationships often develop when people aren’t on the same page about fundamental relationship issues. For example, if you want a marriage and a houseful of rug rats and they are looking for something more casual, resentment and bitterness are likely to build up.
It’s tempting for people in toxic relationships to tell themselves that their partner will eventually change their mind, but it’s just as likely that they never will. Rather than feeling like you have wasted time in a dead-end relationship, be open and honest about what you want and believe them when they tell you what they are looking for. If you cannot tell the truth, you’re contributing to your partner’s false perception of reality .
9. Criticizing In Front Of Others
Every girl’s night out features venting about how husbands and boyfriends leave laundry on the floor and work too late while sipping Cosmopolitans. It’s healthy to let off some steam once in awhile, but criticizing and tearing down the one you love in front of others can be a sign of a toxic relationship, especially if it’s particularly vicious.
A person who puts you down all the time you is a toxic type known as a Shamer .
In healthy relationships, partners want outsiders to see the best in their loved one and will praise their accomplishments and complement them in public while addressing issues in private. In toxic relationships, partners will showcase the worst in each other through criticism, belittling and airing issues publicly.
10. Using Sex For Manipulation
Let’s be honest; great sex is one of the biggest benefits of a healthy relationship. Not only is it fun, physical intimacy is a great way to express emotions and strengthen bonds.
However, sex can turn negative if it is used as a method of control in a toxic relationship. This can play out in several different ways. The first is asking for, or even demanding, sex when the other partner doesn’t have the desire. The second, less well-known way is withholding sex or physical affection.
However, withholding sex is not the same as saying no. It’s ok to say no due to a lack of desire, but it’s not ok to withhold sex as a way to control or manipulate the relationship or to use sex as a bartering chip. Withholding sex ends in feelings of rejection and vulnerability. These emotions can make it more difficult to leave the relationship because it may seem as though no one else will find you desirable.
11. There’s More Bad Times Than Good
The whole point of romantic relationships is enjoying a loving bond and having fun together. The clearest sign of a toxic relationship is when the bad outweighs the good.
If you are constantly arguing , always feel stressed about the partnership, frequently complain about the other, dread spending time together or feel worse after seeing them, the relationship may not be worth salvaging. There’s no such thing as a perfect relationship, and every one requires compromise, patience and a willingness to work through issues. However, in toxic relationships, the scales tip dramatically toward negativity.
Keep an eye out for any of those red flags even if we haven’t listed them here. These posts also list signs you should be aware of.
- 19 Relationship Red Flags To Avoid If You Don’t Want To Be Miserable
- Is Your Relationship Unhealthy? 11 Emotional Abuse Signs
- 6 Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship
Toxic relationships aren’t just unhappy; they are unhealthy. Over time they can lead to a severe lack of self-confidence and self-esteem and even depression. If you’re in a toxic relationship, you probably feel a lot of anxiety about it. More about relationship anxiety here.
Toxic Relationship Cycles
Many toxic and unhealthy relationships work in cycles. Initially, there will be calm, but you can feel anxiety and tension building, during which you might notice red flags . This leads to an incident such as a fight or physical or sexual abuse. After the fight, the couple will reconcile, perhaps with an apology and a promise to do better. This leads back to calm, which remains for a time until the tension begins to build again .
Once you’ve reached a stable stage in your relationship, you might feel that the issue has passed and your relationship is no longer toxic. But the fact that this cycle repeats itself is a sign of an overall toxic relationship.
Recognize Toxicity In Yourself
Rarely does a relationship become toxic because only one person needs to improve. Relationships are two-way streets, after all. Your toxic relationship got to its current state with help from both you and your partner. It’s likely easier to see the ways that your parent contributes to toxicity in your relationship, but you should beware the signs that you’re also being toxic.
- Being passive-aggressive
- Feeling excessively jealous and possessive over your partner (discover how to deal with jealousy).
- Viewing everything your partner does as wrong
- Focusing solely on making your partner happy while sacrificing your own happiness or ignoring your partner’s happiness for your own.
If you are insecure, it can manifest as toxic behaviors such as jealousy in your relationship . Insecurity can also lead to clinginess (Read: How to Deal with a Clingy Boyfriend). Decreasing insecurity can be good for you and your relationship.
Any Relationship Can Be Toxic
While we’re focusing on toxic romantic relationships, these are not the only relationships that can be toxic. Friends, for example, can become toxic. You may find yourself making a difficult decision if a friend always has to be right or becomes possessive. If your friend is always the taker and you wind up perennially being the giver, it could be a toxic friendship .
Similarly, our family relationships can be toxic. In fact, this may be why you find yourself in a toxic relationship later in life. After all, if you’ve never learned what a healthy relationship looks like, how would you have one as an adult? Toxic and dysfunctional relationships with your parents can impact your entire life, making it difficult to maintain healthy relationships and develop a secure attachment style.
Toxic relationships from your childhood can also cause trust issues. Learn more about this.
Signs of dysfunction in your familial relationships can include controlling or violent behavior, being exploited by your parents, neglect, and lack of basic provisions . You might need to cut out toxic parents or siblings like you would a toxic friend or boyfriend.
Negative Doesn’t Mean Toxic
While we have thus far focused on the signs of toxic relationships and how leaving is often the only thing you can do to save your sanity (we’ll provide advice for that in a bit), not every relationship is toxic. If your relationship only displays some of these signs occasionally, it may not be toxic. Stresses come and go. Feelings of love and even lust wax and wane, especially in longer relationships.
This is all normal and no cause for alarm; although, you might be worried when you hit the first or an extended rough patch. If you can work through your problems as a team, you don’t need to worry about your relationship being toxic.
Even if you do some toxic things in your relationship, you can work on communication, set boundaries and potentially seek the help of a professional to improve your relationship. It’s an uphill battle, but some couples achieve this.
However, ending your toxic relationship may be the only course of action if you’ve tried everything else or if your partner won’t work with it.
What Does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?
While we’ve detailed some of the signs of a relationship that’s unhealthy and toxic, it might be helpful to look for the signs that your relationship is actually a healthy one (and sometimes a relationship that isn’t toxic might not be exactly healthy). Although times of stress are unavoidable, a healthy relationship will ultimately bring more happiness and support to your life (and that of your partner) than stress.
You’ll find it difficult to impossible to have a healthy relationship without trust, honesty, respect, support, fairness, quality communication, fondness for your partner, and the ability to maintain separate identities .
In a healthy relationship, you’ll be able to take care of yourself as well as your partner. You make time for friends and family . Relationships with friends and family won’t suffer, which often happens when a partner is abusive or controlling.
The two of you will remain individuals with separate interests and value your differences. If your relationship is healthy, you’ll feel that you can truly be yourself and be able to express yourself including any issues that you may have with your partner. This means you deal with issues respectfully and promptly. Healthy communication and honesty are a must in a relationship that is healthy.
While maintaining separate identities, you’ll also take an interest in your partner’s hobbies. And you’ll recognize that being in a relationship means influencing one another.
A healthy relationship has boundaries that partners respect. Sexual boundaries (setting and respecting ) are also essential to a healthy relationship as is discussing sex in an honest way. This means not forcing your partner to do anything they don’t want to do .
Ultimately, you’ll feel secure and comfortable in your relationship because it improves your life.
Look for these 9 signs of a healthy relationship to make sure you’re doing it right.
Leaving Your Toxic Relationship
If you’ve realized that you’re in a toxic relationship, you might want to end it. First, remember that everyone experiences doubt in their relationship, and this may pass. Read this post to determine how to deal with doubt and when you need to take it seriously.
Maybe you’re positive that you want to leave, but if your partner is toxic or even abusive, this can be scary and difficult. Our post on how to leave your husband can help. You can also get tips for ending a relationship.
Your specific situation will affect what you need to do to get out of your toxic relationship, and while planning ahead can make the transition easier, sometimes you need to move now to prevent things from getting worse or even to save your life. Having a friend on whom you can rely is important. Don’t be afraid to reach out even if you’ve been isolated or disconnected because of an unhealthy relationship. Your friends and family care about you and want to help.
If you’re the friend or family member of someone who is in a toxic relationship, check out our FAQ below to learn how to help your loved one.
While compromise, problem solving and patience can repair a host of relationship issues, it’s unlikely you will ever be able to patch up a toxic relationship. Understanding the warning signs means you can recognize an unhealthy relationship and get out before causing lasting damage to your sanity and well being and, just as importantly, avoid them in the future.
The following resources can help if you or a loved one is in a toxic relationship.
- These 15 signs of a toxic relationship can apply to romantic or friendly relationships.
- This post on HuffPo discusses the habits people get into when they’re toxic.
- Here’s a post that discusses habits that you might think are normal that are actually toxic.
- Asa Don Brown Ph.D. tackles the subject of toxic relationships on Psychology Today.
- Learn how to leave a toxic relationship even if you’re still in love with your partner.
- Lolie Choi tells Lifehack readers how to deal with their toxic relationships.
- Watch a quick video about toxic relationships.
- Dr. Chris Grace talks about signs of a toxic relationship in this lecture.
Additionally, we’d like to recommend the following resources for toxic and abusive relationships.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline – call 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or 1.800.787.3224 for TTY
- National Association of Social Workers, Inc.– connects you with social workers
- American Psychological Association – can help you find a professional that offers therapy or counseling services
Frequently Asked Questions About Toxic Relationships
FAQ #1 – Why do people stay in toxic relationships?
It’s easy to be an outsider who looks at someone in a toxic or even an abusive relationship and wonder why they stay. It’s more difficult to answer that question, however. It may be that the person in that relationship suffers from low self-esteem and believes that this is the only person who would choose to be with them or that they do not deserve better . In the case of abusive relationships, the abuser often belittles their partner and makes them feel worthless on purpose, even if they did not suffer from low self-esteem before.
Sometimes, a person does not realize how unhealthy this toxicity or abuse actually is and may even believe it’s normal. If their partner is especially charismatic or well-liked, it becomes more difficult to see the behavior for what it is, and a person may not have support from people who do not see the toxicity within the relationship.
Other reasons why a person might stay in a toxic relationship include fear of what their partner will do to them (or children, pets, friends, etc.) if they leave. Fear is a strong motivator in these situations, and people may fear the consequences of leaving a relationship that is toxic, especially if they are relying on someone to provide the necessities like food and shelter. People who are disabled are expecially vulnerable to toxic relationships for this reason.
Frequently in abusive relationships, the abuser will put their partner in a situation where they are reliant upon them. Combined with low self-esteem, these partners may not feel that they can make it on their own.
Adding children to the mix only makes it more complicated.
- Will a person be able to support their children if they leave the relationship?
- What about custody?
- Might it be better if parents stay together?
We know that this is not always the case, but these worries are not uncommon.
Pregnancy is such a significant factor that sometimes people will try to get pregnant to keep their relationship from ending or may stay with a toxic partner because they are expecting a child together.
While a relationship may be somewhat toxic, it this does not mean that there is no love. Love is a compelling reason to stay in a relationship despite it being an ill fit.
Not all of the reasons that a person stays in a toxic relationship are simply mental or emotional, however. A toxic relationship can lead to surges in adrenaline, which the brain may register as a good thing .
These are just a few of the reasons why a person might stay in an abusive relationship, and everything from a language barrier to immigration status to distrusting police can be a factor for someone to stay in a toxic relationship.
FAQ #2- Can you fix a toxic relationship?
In theory, many relationships can be improved to be healthy, even if they’re currently toxic. But this requires a few things, such as a willingness from both partners to work on their issues, establish and respect boundaries, and treat the other person with respect. While people absolutely can recognize and repair their own toxic behaviors, it’s usually more easily said than done. It’s all too easy to blame someone else or even to shoulder all of the blame yourself, but relationships are two-way streets.
Therapy can be helpful for rerouting your unhealthy relationship to a more healthy path .
If only one person is willing to work on the relationship, they may be able to develop mechanisms to cope with toxic behavior or even to break part of the cycle, but the relationship will not be improved entirely with only one person putting in the effort. Keep this in mind if you find yourself in a toxic relationship. Will your partner work toward improvement? If not, you might want to reconsider staying if change is really not a realistic outcome.
FAQ #3 – What should you do if someone you love is in a toxic relationship?
If your friend or family member appears to be in a toxic relationship, you may want to help. For the reasons mentioned above, it can be difficult to leave those relationships. If your friend cannot or will not leave a toxic relationship, you can provide support in other ways, however.
You can be supportive in the following ways;
- Listen to your friend; be a confidante
- Validate their feelings. Believe them and do not doubt their experiences.
- Let your friend know they are not to blame for another’s actions.
- Support decisions they make without trying to enforce your will over them.
It helps to understand the way your loved one views their relationship, even if it’s obviously toxic to you. Be aware that reaching out and trusting people may be difficult for them at this time . It’s normal for them to blame themselves or to worry that others will blame them. They may even try to minimize how toxic or abusive the situation is, so you may want to ask gently leading questions to determine if they’re in a toxic relationship.
While you might be concerned about your friend, your friend may express positive feelings for their abusive partner or even anger towards you when you start expressing your views. They may worry that you’re judging them for still being with this person. This is why it’s so important to give them space to confide in you while reserving judgment and harsh words . Do not demonize their partner even if you’re upset at them for hurting your loved one.
Express concern without blame and explain that you respect their choices .
FAQ #4 – What are the signs of a toxic relationship?
The signs of a toxic relationship can be placed into groups. A common method includes groups like: intimidation, domination (and not the sexual kind!), sexual abuse, physical abuse, humiliation, possessiveness, threats, minimization and blaming .
Specifically, yelling, threatening, belittling a partner, destroying items, making all the decisions, isolating a person from their support network, pressuring them to have sex, sexual assault, flirting to make a partner jealous, constantly criticizing, gaslighting, humiliating a partner in front of others, placing guilt trips, physical abuse, being possessive and jealous, controlling a partner’s clothing, accusing a partner of cheating, threatening to end the relationship or commit suicide if a partner leaves, blaming a partner for all the relationship problems, joking when a partner is hurt, and not accepting responsibility for one’s own actions are all signs of a toxic and unhealthy relationship.
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