Some relationships are good for us—they make our lives bigger, introduce us to new things, and help us grow into better versions of ourselves.
But then there are relationships that degrade us as individuals.
Intentionally or unintentionally, our partners in these relationships hurt us and make us question our sanity.
It’s an insidious and deep kind of deceit, one that is commonly known as “gaslighting”.
Gaslighting relationships, or “toxic relationships,” are those in which your partner—a friend, a co-worker, or even a spouse—manipulates you into believing that you cause their problems and issues.
So are you in a toxic relationship? Check out our 10 warning signs of a toxic relationship.
What is a toxic relationship?
There are a number of habits that you or your partner might do repeatedly which can become toxic and cause serious harm to your relationship.
A toxic relationship doesn’t always start off bad. It’s nice to think that most people start off with good intentions, but a toxic person won’t be able to hold back on belittling their partner or creating a tense, volatile environment in the relationship. So, whether you’re 3 months into your relationship or 3 years, it’s never too late to identify toxic behavior.
Read on to find out the warning signs most commonly found in a toxic relationship, as well as what you can do to try and fix it.
What are the signs of a toxic relationship?
1) Disrespect during and after an argument
If you’re in a relationship where you both argue and resolve issues in the same way, that’s great. But for the majority of couples, each partner has their own way of communicating. Some prefer to back off during an argument and take some time to themselves, whilst others prefer to address the issue head-on.
Whilst the first few arguments establish these differences, what happens next is so important to having a healthy, open relationship. Your partner should respect your way of dealing with a problem, and you should respect theirs, even if you don’t like it. Many couples will try to meet in the middle somewhere and resolve their communication issues this way.
A toxic partner won’t try to communicate and compromise with you. Instead, they will often force ‘their way’ onto you, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. Not only is this disrespectful, it’s also a sign of controlling behavior.
2) Playing the blame game
If your partner often blames you for their own mistakes, it’s clear that they are trying to avoid taking responsibility for their words or actions. Even simple issues, like leaving the bathroom light on can become part of the blame game. It usually goes along the lines of ‘I forgot to do it because YOU distracted me’, which instantly reverses the issue and takes the spotlight off of themselves.
John Kim from Psychology Today uses the term “ownership” when talking about avoiding taking the blame:
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“If we never take ownership, it turns the relationship lopsided and ultimately toxic. Ownership is what makes relationships grow. If people don’t own, they are not learning, expanding, and evolving. They are repeating patterns. They are living in the past.”
To the victim, it might start to feel like they can do nothing right. Whatever they say is constantly thrown back at them. In a healthy relationship, both partners need to be open and willing to accept responsibility. After all, we are human and mistakes happen.
3) Discussing your relationship with everyone but you
Communication is key. Without it, a relationship can turn toxic very quickly. After an argument, a healthy couple will sit together and resolve their issues. Even if they can’t fix it, they might agree to put it behind them and actively move on from the problem.
A toxic partner will often prefer to talk to their friends or family than communicate with you. This can lead you to feel left in the dark, and often hurt when you hear that your relationship issues are the talk of the town. It also indicates that they aren’t willing to resolve issues together, which can lead to a lot of frustration and resentment within the relationship.
4) Feeling helpless and drained
When we think of a healthy, fulfilling relationship, we imagine smiling, loved-up couples who bounce off each other’s energy. If you feel exhausted and helpless in your relationship, it could be a sign that things are not right.
It is especially draining if it’s because of your partner’s behavior towards you, which can include constant arguments or always finding faults in things you do.
We often feel like we owe it to the relationship to try until the very end, and in some cases, this is a wonderful goal to have. But in the case of a toxic relationship, you need to put yourself first and recognize when the issues start to affect you mentally and physically.
“Maybe you’re struggling to stay awake because every single one of your interactions with your partner has been an argument.nIn any case, if a relationship is causing you anxiety or other mental health issues, it’s very possible for this to drain your physical body of its energy.”
Feeling constantly sad or a lack of energy because of your partner isn’t normal in a healthy relationship. Recognizing this early on can save you from a long battle later down the line, as it often takes time to bounce back to yourself after a toxic relationship.
5) Tiptoeing around your partner
Do you ever think twice before mentioning something to your partner? Do you often let things go just to keep the peace? It might seem like a solution for now, but in the end, this behavior won’t help if you’re dealing with a toxic person.
In a happy, healthy relationship, you should feel 100% comfortable talking to your partner. Whether it’s something serious or a minor issue, having trust in your partner that they will take on board your opinion is essential. As well as respecting your thoughts and feelings, your partner should also be open to fixing problems together, as a team.
6) Controlling behavior
Controlling behavior can often start out almost sweet and protective. Wanting you to come home straight from work because they miss you, or stopping you from meeting certain friends because they don’t ‘seem’ like a good influence on you.
The list could go on, from what you wear to who you interact with. One thing is for certain, it doesn’t get better.
Kevin Thompson, a breakup and relationship expert featured on Lifehack, summarises the actions of a controlling partner:
“Essentially, a controlling partner will try to affect your behavior by negative reinforcement. Every time you are not giving them full attention, they will get upset and it will most likely lead to a fight or argument. A caring partner will most likely be honest about their concerns instead of doing it indirectly with negative reinforcement.”
Often, it’s our friends and family who notice these patterns of control before the victims do. So regardless of whether your partner likes your family or friends, it’s never a bad idea to listen to their advice, especially if they start to notice a toxic trait like control.
7) Break-up threats
Threatening to break up and leave the relationship every time something doesn’t go their way is a clear sign of a toxic relationship. We might think about it in our head, but threatening your partner can make them feel replaceable and unvalued.
Not only does it make an argument worse, it’s pretty much a form of emotional blackmail. It’s like telling the other person that if they don’t behave as you wish, you’re out. In a healthy relationship, both partners need to feel secure.
Arguments will happen but a committed partner will try to resolve things rather than threaten their significant other.
8) The relationship is a one-sided effort
For a relationship to be healthy, both people need to be putting in the effort. The old saying “a relationship is a full-time job” wasn’t far off the mark, as living, communicating and compromising with your partner takes effort – every single day. If your partner often avoids making an effort with you or your relationship, this could be a sign of toxic behavior.
Of course, we all have bad days. It’s not natural to always be on 100% of the time. However, if you constantly feel like your partner doesn’t actively try to resolve arguments or respect your needs in the relationship, it’s a sure sign that they aren’t as invested in this relationship as you are.
9) Constantly keeping score of each other’s behavior
We all make mistakes, but if we never let go of each other’s slip-ups, the chances of having a healthy relationship become virtually impossible. If your partner constantly brings up mistakes you’ve made in the past, it can be extremely disheartening as you might feel that you can never move on from the past.
Even more frustrating is the fact that those mistakes should have been put to bed the first time you argued about them, not months or years later down the line.
In the end, if your partner isn’t willing to let go of things of the past, it might be time to let go of him or her. Relationships should be about progression and building a strong relationship for the future, not dragging up old mistakes whenever it suits their argument.
10) Abusive behavior
This might seem like an obvious one, but it’s often friends and family who start to notice patterns of abuse before the victim does. There’s often the question ‘why didn’t he/she leave the first time?’ when people hear about someone suffering from abuse, whether verbal or physical.
On the subject of why emotional abuse is just as dangerous as physical, Emma-Marie Smith writes for HealthyPlace:
“Because emotional abuse is so subtle, the warning signs of impending abuse are hard to spot. Verbal abuse mostly takes place behind closed doors, and there are no black eyes, finger imprints, or broken bones. Yet, as victims, we feel battered, exhausted, and weak, without a single scar or bruise to show for it.”
If your partner is physically aggressive to you, it’s a major red flag that you need to end this relationship immediately. Don’t be fooled by their excuses and apologies. The same goes for verbally abusing you, which can be things like commenting on your appearance, swearing at you or belittling statements that are aimed at making you feel miserable.
Can a toxic relationship be fixed?
So you’ve come to the realization that your relationship is toxic; what comes next? Should you leave straight away or does your relationship deserve a second chance?
A toxic relationship (depending on how extreme it is) absolutely can be fixed, but only if both people are willing to work on it. It won’t be easy, but if you’re successful you have the potential to be in a committed, secure relationship. With that being said though, there’s no point in trying if one partner is doing all the work and the other is begrudgingly joining in.
Here are some tips on how to improve your toxic relationship:
- Research together and alone. If BOTH people want to make it work, some time needs to be put into researching toxic behaviors and what you can do to fix them. In some cases, it might even open your partner’s eyes to their actions, which they might not have realized had such a toxic effect on the relationship.
Doing it together should be performed as an exercise, not a game of pointing out everything your partner does wrong. There should be clear guidelines where you talk openly and honestly, and if your partner is willing to listen and vice versa, you may begin to start understanding each other better.
- Self-reflection. This is a good habit to learn regardless of your relationship, but in a toxic partnership a little self-reflection can go a long way. There are numerous books which can train you or your partner in the art of looking introspectively and identifying where our personal issues lie.
Ultimately, a toxic person needs to better themselves and their behavior, you can’t do it for them (but you can support them through the process).
- Seek help. Whether it’s in the form of couples therapy or taking a course in communication, having an outside, unbiased opinion can really help couples to work through their toxic traits. Whilst some partners may embrace this change and really try to work on their toxic behavior, you should also be prepared to admit defeat if therapy doesn’t work.
At least you know you have tried and you can leave knowing you did your best.
Sophia Benoit researched into the use of therapy for couples in an article for GQ, and defines the therapists’ role:
“Their job is to identify patterns that you and your partner engage in, and then to help you change those patterns, by responding with kindness instead of snapping, or by opening up about what you really need rather than shutting down. Anything that repeatedly presents as a stressor or a roadblock in the relationship is a pattern that can be addressed.”
What to do if you can’t fix your toxic relationship
If you have tried your very best, and your relationship is still toxic, then it’s time to move on. Sometimes, you just really want something to work out. You love the person, you had planned a life with them, but it doesn’t mean they are the right person for you.
Knowing when to let go is a huge, huge factor in looking after yourself, both mentally and physically. And not only is it important in a toxic relationship, being able to let go of unhealthy family relationships or friendships are just as important to achieving a happy life.
Don’t fall into the trap of giving fifth, sixth and seventh chances, as by this point if your partner isn’t willing to change their toxic ways, you are probably fighting a losing battle. Breakups are hard, but reassure yourself with the knowledge that you will be opening yourself up to more positive, fulfilling and healthy relationships to come.
When it comes to moving on, Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod, has perfectly highlighted steps that can be taken to rediscovering yourself in life, in his article “7 powerful reasons to live when it’s impossible to go on“.
“Begin with kindness. Kindness to yourself and to those around you. Small and simple acts that remind you that you respect and love not only yourself but also others.”