Have you ever found yourself in the kind of relationship where you’re asking, “Am I in a toxic relationship?” or “Is this relationship really good for me?”
We’ll offer 10 signs of a toxic relationship, plus some actions you can take to change your dynamic if you are in a relationship like this. Mind you, you don’t have to be in a relationship that can be classified as “toxic” in order for you to want to make serious changes.
Some of the signs we share, like #1 (physical violence) by themselves shows that you’re in a toxic relationship, whereas others, like #7 (blaming, etc.), can also show up in healthy, functional relationships, and it becomes a matter of degree or persistence of these patterns. In other words, your relationship isn’t necessarily toxic because you blame each other occasionally, but if you have a consistent, pervasive pattern of blaming and refusal to take any sort of responsibly, then it does point to a toxic situation.
Dr. Lilian Glass said back in 1995 that a toxic relationship is “any relationship [between people who] don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, where there’s disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.” There are of course other definitions too, but in order to help you determine if you might be in a toxic relationship, see how you relate to these 10 signs.
#1 Physical abuse, pain, or violence
This one doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room. If you’re experiencing physical violence, pain, or abuse in any shape or form, it’s a toxic situation, and you should get out. Or at the very least get help. No one deserves to be physically harmed in their relationship, period.
#2 Name calling, belittling, demeaning
Do you feel like an “emotional punching bag” in your relationship? Are you being put down, belittled, constantly criticized? Which leads directly into #3 …
#3 Public humiliation, spreading of negative gossip about you
The sign above pertains to your private relationship and communication. #3 is outward-facing behavior. Does your partner humiliate you in front of friends or family? Spreads negative stories about you behind your back?
One of our hallmarks for building trusting relationships is that we always represent each other well in public. Even when we’re mad at each other or we think the other person is wrong about something, we still speak well of our partner in public.
This extends to separate families where kids live in two (or more) households. We hold it as a standard to always speak well of mom or dad in front of the kids, even if you disagree with that person about everything. You know you want your ex to speak well of you to your kids when you’re not there, right?
#4 Lies, secrets, withholding
Deliberate holding back of information, affection, or resources is a sign of a toxic relationship. In terms of the impact it has on you, there are different degrees of lying. If I say I’m not going to eat sweets anymore, but I still go to the bakery and eat a cupcake, and don’t tell you about it; that’s technically a lie but it’s different impact on you compared to a consistent pattern of lying about money, sex, and many other aspects. Sometime you have to be your own judge about the severity of lying and withholding, although that can be tricky, hence our suggestions to get help and reach out to friends. Another aspect of withholding affection or resources points us to the next sign, which is about control.
#5 You feel controlled, coerced, manipulated
Withholding resources or financial support can be a means of exerting control which especially women have experienced since forever. If you have a sense, or direct knowledge, that your partner is trying to control your movements, your behaviors, or your freedom, or you feel emotionally coerced or pressured to do or not do something, it’s not a good sign. Granted, in a relationship, you might have different roles and responsibilities from your partner, but if you don’t have the same power or the same rights, you’re in toxic territory.
Sometimes, these signs are subtle and hard to tell, so it’s useful to listen to your own intuition.
#6 When you feel “crazy”, when something is “off”
Anyone who’s been in a toxic relationship, knows what it means to “feel crazy”. When the signs of toxic behavior are hard to pin down, but you consistently have a sense that something is “off”, and that your partners nice words and assurances don’t match up to his or her actions. Your partner might be talking a good game and showing up caring and present in public, but when you come home, the tone changes. Or whenever you try to confront your partner, he’ll say it wasn’t really like that, or that you misunderstood, or perhaps that you’re overreacting. No matter how the discrepancies show up, pay attention to your own sense of “feeling crazy”.
#7 Blaming, refusal to take responsibility
When your partner is consistently blaming you, unwilling to apologize, refusing to take responsibility, refusing to deal with conflicts, unwilling to learn or grow, it becomes extremely difficult, or impossible, to make any sort of progress. It is one thing to get mad at each other and blame each other, that’s common in almost any relationship, but if you come back together, apologize, and use the breakdown to learn or grow, it can be turned into a real strength. But if one person refuses to deal with conflicts, to admit any sort of wrongdoing, or to take responsibility and use it to learn and grow, then there’s pretty much no place to go.
#8 Your concerns aren’t listened to
We always say that in a healthy partnership, your concerns are as important as mine. Not more, but also not less. If your partner refuses to listen to you and dance with your concerns and needs; if your needs and concerns aren’t being listened to or taking into account; and if your partner is satisfying his or her own needs at the expense of yours, it’s a sign of a toxic partnership.
#9 Walking on egg shells
If you’re tiptoeing around the house, afraid to be yourself and speak your mind, you know it’s a bad situation, the classic “eggshell walk”. If you’re afraid for your physical safety, then it’s most certainly a toxic sign. When you’re walking on eggshells, it typically means you’re living more in fear than in love, which is the antithesis of a healthy, loving relationship.
#10 When you feel worse, bad, more of the time then you feel good.
This sign is a sort of summary of the first 9. If you spend more time feeling bad than good, afraid than safe, criticized and controlled than loved and appreciated, it’s a sign that something needs to change. If this is you, do something about it now rather than later, because pervasive patterns in relationship don’t change themselves or get better simply by time passing. Don’t wait for your partner to agree with you that you need help. If they’ll get support with you, wonderful, there’s hope. But if not, you get help on your own.
What’s “good” about these signs is that they’re meant to motivate to you to make a change. Sonika had a significant battering relationship early on in her relationship journey, and whereas it was a scary and hard experience, it also motivated her to get therapy, to learn about violence and abuse, to change her circumstances and never go back to a toxic relationship.
Toxic relationships are often complicated by being combined with a powerful attraction. We’ve had clients who one day are desperate to get out of an abusive situation, but the next day can’t wait to get back to their partner. It becomes like an addictive behavior where the “drug” of choice is the strong love/attraction you also feel. Remember, there are lots of people you can have strong attraction to who don’t make good relationship partners.
Here are some things we suggest you can do to begin to make some change:
Get help, outside support. You don’t have to go this one alone. Get help from coaches like us, a local therapist, group of friends, your extended family, or all of the above.
Learn about cycles of violence. One of the actions that helped Sonika never again put herself in a toxic relationship was learning about the cycles and dynamics of violence and abuse. It can be tricky to figure out on your own when you’re enmeshed the toxic relationship, which as we mentioned, also often has a powerful pull on you to keep coming back.
Learn about your own role in perpetuating the dynamic. For instance, choosing to stay in the relationship might be one way you help to keep it going, or choosing not to get help.
Become aware of where you might be in a victim mindset. Find a way to change into a powerful mindset. Change your victim story to a story where you become the hero/ine, where you prevail, grow, change, and become a stronger person from your experience. Perhaps you can even help others who have been in similar situation.
Claim your own value. People who’ve been in toxic relationships often stay there because they feel they don’t deserve any better. They take it upon themselves, consciously or unconsciously saying, “If I’m being treated this poorly, something must be wrong with me”. Take a stand for your own value. Ask yourself, “If I knew I deserved to be loved, what would I do?” or “What would a person who really valued themselves do in my situation?”
Back up your new mindset with action. Changing your mind is great, but action has to follow. You can take actions such as
- Setting very clear boundaries.
- Take actions that reinforce that you are a valuable person
- Make self-care a priority
- Get support! Because you’re worth receiving support, right? Suffering alone sends the message to yourself that you don’t deserve any better. Getting support sends the opposite message.
Finally, be gentle with yourself. Wanting to change the dynamics of a toxic relationship, or getting out altogether, might take some times. It took time to develop the patterns that got you and your partner into this situation, so don’t get down on yourself if you can’t change overnight.
I remember coaching a woman who wanted to get out of an abusive relationship because she knew it wasn’t good for her or her kids. And she also had powerful love and attraction with her boyfriend, so for a while it was a back and forth process of “one step ahead, two steps back”. it took some months before she was able to finally cut the ties and begin to stand firmly on her own feet and develop a true sense of self worth. She did it, and created a much healthier relationship. And it took some time.
So go easy on yourself!
Deeper dive: How to Rebuild Trust in a Relationship, 90-minute mini-workshop for couples.