5 signs a relationship is toxic, according to psychology

Time for a little confessional.

A few years ago, I was in a long-term relationship that had become so gutting I had to see a psychologist.

I had to do this for my own good: to come to terms with how bad it really was.

Let’s just call my psychologist Dr. Love, shall we?

As I sat in the plush lounge of Dr. Love’s workspace, it felt like my heart had been put through a Nutribullet—and the emotional aftermath left me grappling with a mixture of confusion, angst, and despair.

As the doctor skillfully navigated the depths of my heartache, I soon learned the truth: I had 100% found myself in a toxic relationship.

Like most loves turned sour, it certainly had not started out that way. Nope, not at all.

It all started with declarations of love and talks of “forever”, but then, over time, it became laced with lots of harmful patterns and red flags.

I wondered aloud, how could someone who seemed so perfect at first leave me feeling utterly broken?

Unfortunately, toxic relationships aren’t just about leaving and moving on, it’s about becoming aware of the signs of toxicity—so that they don’t come and knock you down again in the future.

In the spirit of turning trauma into hope, here’s my advice for you. Here are the signs that a relationship has turned toxic, according to psychology.

1) They have gradually eroded your self-worth, and you barely recognize yourself

When was the last time you felt truly in tune with yourself? 

If you’re currently in a toxic relationship, I’ll wager it’s been a long, long time since you have felt this kind of equilibrium.

Remember, it’s never too late to be real and check in with yourself.

Research in The Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume journal explored the concept of gaslighting in relationships.

It found that certain toxic partners would “manipulate rational justification to sabotage the victim’s self-respect” and “change the way [they] values [themselves].”

When a toxic partner “sabotages” your self-esteem and wellbeing, you might find that you lose a crucial part of yourself. In its place, doubt and insecurity have seized control.

But here’s the upside: that missing part of you isn’t gone for good.

That’s correct—you can get it back! But it will take some grit and maybe a visit to Dr. Love (as it was for me).

It’s important to remember having self-respect is an absolute non-negotiable—in or out of relationships. 

You need that respect to function as a person. And another little hint: you deserve it!

2) They are super possessive and jealous with you

A 2023 study investigating happiness in younger couples found that jealousy is a tell-tale indicator of a resentment-filled, toxic relationship.

“Given that jealousy is closely tied to anger, relationships are likely to turn into destructive behaviors towards partners,” found researchers.

And there’s even a different expression of this pattern when it comes to gender, which you might have already known to be true.

“Women tend to express jealousy accompanied by feelings of sadness or depression, while men tend to express it through anger or aggression,” continued researchers.

If your SO has started acting like they own you, your decisions, and your time, it can be a really challenging thing to confront.

At first, it might just seem as if they are merely curious about you and perhaps invested in your life.

But it pays to look closer—truly. If they constantly need to know where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re with, take it as a major red flag.

Remember, there is no place for possessiveness and controlling behavior in a healthy partnership.

3) They don’t forgive you when you deserve it

A study that appeared in the Journal of Family Psychology concluded that a lack of forgiveness is a sign of low relationship satisfaction. In other words, a relationship bordering on being toxic

The researchers came to the conclusion that the subtle art of forgiveness significantly prevents “negative communication patterns”. And this is of course a key part of toxic relationships.

We often require a healthy dose of forgiveness in all our relationships. Why? Well, it helps us all to move on, learn from the situation, and continue on living our lives.

It’s pretty much like giving each other a clean slate.

However, if you find that your SO is stingy with forgiveness, it potentially means your relationship might be shifting into toxic terrain.

4) They are not willing to communicate openly with you—or at all

A two-decade study on long-term partnerships found that one major sign of toxic relationships is stonewalling.

This basically means your partner has suddenly put up a major (metaphorical) wall in your space of communication.

Throughout all the romantic missteps of my twenties, I learned one major thing: communication is everything.

For real, you and your SO have very little without it—no matter how good all the other stuff seems!

With stonewalling, they have emotionally checked out of the relationship. They are not trying to engage with you on a deep, emotional level.

In a genuinely healthy, loving relationship, communication is a two-way system.

5) They believe they are being rejected or criticized by you

A Journal of Research in Personality study on anger in relationships investigated the concept that “perceived mistreatment from others, such as being rejected or criticized” can be a hint at toxicity in the relationship.

If you don’t know what this looks like, it’s basically when you make a seemingly innocuous comment or remark, and it flares up, becoming a large source of conflict for your partner.

Suddenly, they have begun taking every chat as a full-on, personal attack—and it can make it really hard to have real conversations and meaningfully connect with one another.

Final thoughts

The major signs of toxicity can be whittled down to stonewalling, jealousy, and a lack of forgiveness.

Stonewalling, when a partner avoids the issue, or dismisses it, can make you feel lonely and isolated.

When it comes to jealousy (not the casual kind), it can lead to overly controlling and possessive behavior from the other party.

When there’s a total lack of forgiveness, every mistake it clung to and inevitably, resentment and toxicity builds up.

Don’t be afraid to ask your partner to open up in order to improve the lines of communication. But if you believe the relationship has become toxic beyond measure, don’t be afraid to walk away—you deserve to be happy.

Pearl Nash

Pearl Nash

Pearl Nash has years of experience writing relationship articles for single females looking for love. After being single for years with no hope of meeting Mr. Right, she finally managed to get married to the love of her life. Now that she’s settled down and happier than she’s ever been in her life, she's passionate about sharing all the wisdom she's learned over the journey. Pearl is also an accredited astrologer and publishes Hack Spirit's daily horoscope.

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