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?
A toxic relationship is often characterized by abusing, controlling and disrespectful by one or both partners.
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:
“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.
Savannah Swain Wilson from Insider describes how a toxic relationship can affect you 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.”
7 toxic relationship patterns you need to break
Here are 7 of the most harmful relationship patterns you need to break if you want a healthy, long-lasting relationship with your partner.
1. Ghosting/Clinging when you are fighting
Arguments are normal. If handled well, they can make you stronger together. But couples tend to fill two roles when they’re fighting: they either go silent or become clingy and pushy.
According to Dr. Paulette Sherman, therapist, and author of Dating from the Inside Out:
“This is one of the most common patterns in my practice. One person will feel like their comfort zone is distance, especially after an argument, while the other will feel like they need to talk right way.”
Do you fill one role while your partner fills the other? If so, you’re probably not resolving your issues the right way.
And when these issues go unresolved, they tend to become the big elephant in the room.
So how do you fix it?
Dr. Sherman advises you to try and communicate using your partner’s pattern.
“People think “if you loved me you’d connect the way I do. It’s better if the person who wants to feel closer would just ask, “What would be a good time for you to talk? That way, the other person has the time they need to regroup.”
2. Blaming your partner
Ah, another familiar one. Are you fond of playing the blame game with your partner? Is it always their fault and not yours?
According to psychologist and dating coach Samantha Rodman:
“Some couples are in the habit of blaming each other for their own mistakes, no matter what. Example: ‘You left the water running…’ ‘Oh, that’s because you called me away in the middle of washing my hands.’
“This is a toxic habit because when partners are so busy defending themselves and blaming their partners, they lose the chance to be kind to each other and to feel close.
“The opposite of blaming is taking responsibility for your own actions, and that is the hallmark of a mature and emotionally healthy relationship,”
Instead of falling into this habit, try to take accountability for your actions, and talk it out with your partner. Nothing good ever comes out of blaming each other.
3. Complaining to your friends instead of your partner
Your friends are the perfect soundboard. They are always on your side and it feels good to vent it out. But to your relationship, it does more harm than good.
It puts your partner in an irredeemable light. Not only that, you can create a rift between your friendships and your relationship.
Andrea Syrtash, author of Cheat on Your Husband With Your Husband, has some advice:
“Take the issue directly to your partner and discuss it directly, discussing both or your wants based on your individual experiences and values.”
4. Bottling up your feelings
Relationships are hard in a sense that, you never want to willingly rock the both. And perhaps you feel like your concerns are more “complaints” than anything.
So what do you end up feeling?
You stay silent to keep the peace. You would rather keep your opinions to yourself than potentially make your partner angry.
But that’s wrong.
A healthy relationship should feel safe enough for you to be honest about how you feel. Open communication is essential in every relationship.
Psychotherapist Jude Treder-Wolff, believes the following:
“Communication is the lubricant in the gears of a relationship, which is a dynamic thing that is something bigger than the people involved. When communication breaks down — whether that is intentional, happens through lack of skill, or fear about what will happen when we open up — the relationship begins to lack the buoyancy and flow that is possible when people are clear and open with one another.”
5. Showing off too much on social media
There are studies that suggest that frequent use of social media has a negative correlation to people’s levels of relationship satisfaction.
What this means is, the more you try to show off your relationship, the bigger your need is to prove that the relationship is strong. But hey, maybe you just enjoy the dopamine your body receives when you receive that stream of “likes” and “comments.”
Most likely, it runs deeper than that. Maybe it’s your way of compensating or covering up the uncertainty you have about your relationship.
Either way, try to fix your issues rather than oversharing things on social media. Focus all that energy on something more productive.
Happy couples spend less time posting on social media, and more time creating great memories together.
6. Threatening to leave or break up when things get rough
When you constantly threaten your partner, what does it say about your commitment to your relationship?
It says you’re not really in it for the long haul. And nothing can break a bond more than such a lack of commitment.
Sure, it might feel good to do this when you’re trying to put a point across, or when your partner refuses to listen. But in the end, it just makes you both feel like the relationship is not worth it.
It makes your partner feel “disposable,” that you’re not fighting enough for the relationship.
Avoid doing this at all cost. It’s a dangerous pattern to fall into.
7. Being controlling
We all have our issues. We’ve had our hearts broken before. And we all have emotional and mental traumas from our past. But no matter how much you’ve been hurt before, you have no right to control someone else’s life – even if they’re your partner.
It might be cute when you tell your partner to come home early because you’re worried for their safety. But when you deliberately create rules or establish ultimatums that change their life, that’s toxic.
Don’t use your past relationships or emotional baggage as an excuse to control your partner.
Instead, deal with your own problems and let your partner live their life. It doesn’t mean they’ll be taken away from you. Giving each other space, having your own identities, friends, hobbies – they’re all essential to having a healthy relationship.
The moment you start playing god, that’s when you start losing someone you love.
How to get out of a toxic relationship
If you believe that you might be in a relationship with a toxic person, it’s crucial that you come to terms with the reality of your situation as soon as possible.
Here are three reminders to help you escape this relationship as painlessly as possible:
- Do not blame yourself. It isn’t your fault that the relationship became so toxic; it’s theirs. You’ve been tricked into believing that everything is your fault
- Be kind to the person who matters most: you. Accept that you deserve better, and give yourself the freedom to run away from this relationship as soon as possible
- Reclaim your identity. It’s about remembering who you were before your partner psychologically manipulated you, and reclaiming that person you once were
The end of any relationship is hard.
When you add an abusive, toxic partner, breaking up can be even harder.
Logic tells us that leaving an abusive relationship should be easy, but reality doesn’t always follow logic.
The end of a toxic relationship should be celebrated, but it’s usually just exhausting and trying.
Toxic relationships affect people that can last a lifetime; some people never recover.
Here’s how you can love yourself even after you’ve left a toxic relationship.
1. Get the help you need when you need it
Everyone needs someone to talk to, especially following a bad breakup.
If you have just gotten out of a toxic relationship, you need to find someone who can help build you back up.
Whether you seek out professional help or your best friend fills the void, it’s essential that you have someone you can lean on.
Professionals and even friends can help you see things from a different perspective and provide you with a sounding board so that you can get clear on the fact that none of what transpired was your fault.
It’s easy to blame ourselves for things falling apart, but when you are the victim of a toxic partner, you are never to blame.
2. Get your thoughts out
Take time to write down what you are thinking and feeling so that you can make sense of how you are processing the events of your breakup.
Make sure you are going easy on yourself and reminding yourself that you are not at fault. Journaling can help you reconcile feelings and thoughts that are holding you back from moving forward.
It’s hard to imagine moving on when you are hurting so much, but it’s important to process your worth and how you want to change things in your life.
When you write, you benefit from cathartic activities and a chance to organize your thoughts and make a plan for your next move.
3. Decide to be good to yourself
Above all else, it’s important that you take time to care for yourself.
After leaving a toxic relationship, you need time to normalize again and realize that toxic relationships are not the norm and that you have a right to be happy.
You don’t need to be beaten down for someone to love you.
You can be happy all your own. It’s a decision you need to make. You can decide to be happy and move on with your life, or you can decide to mourn a relationship that wasn’t good for you in the first place.
It’s better to choose yourself over someone else in these circumstances.
(Resilient people aren’t just able to cope with problems as they arise—they’re better equipped than others for life in general. To learn how to boost your own resilience, check out my eBook: The Art of Resilience: A Practical Guide to Developing Mental Toughness)
4. Bring joy into your life
Whatever may come, you need to find joy in your life again. Take a road trip, hang out with a good friend, do something nice for yourself.
As part of loving yourself again after leaving a toxic relationship, you need to revisit what makes you happy.
Do more of what makes you happy and let the joy back into your life. You’ll tell yourself that don’t deserve to be happy or that you can’t live without someone, despite them being mean to you.
Ask yourself what you used to do, what you used to like, what used to make you happy and pay attention to those things.
Redirect your focus away from things that take your joy and refocus yourself in directions that are important to you.
5. Commit to seeing it through
Regardless of how you feel, you need to commit to doing what is best for you.
It might feel easier to just go back to your toxic relationship, but the truth is that it’s uncomfortable to see it through.
It’s just your old thoughts and ways that are dragging you back into that relationship, and you can overpower them and move on with your life.
Still want the relationship to work? Ask yourself these 7 questions
Are you in a relationship that feels like it’s going nowhere?
Do you feel like you are spinning your wheels and trying to figure out where this thing is going?
You’re not alone.
Relationships are complicated and make people feel crazy most of the time because of the unknown and the fear that they are screwing things up.
If you are in a relationship and you are worried about the future, it’s time to get crystal clear about what is important to you and whether or not this relationship is giving you all of those things.
It’s not about whether or not the other person makes you happy – that’s not actually their job.
Great relationships are about trust, love, comfort, safety, and teamwork.
Here’s how you can get clear about your toxic relationship and decide if it’s where you want to be at this point in your life.
1. Are you kind and are they kind?
The first checkpoint for your relationship is to determine whether or not you and your partner are kind to one another.
Are you treating each other with respect and love? Or are you just going through the motions trying not to be mean to one another. That’s not the same as kindness.
2. Are your beliefs aligned?
If your partner’s beliefs do not align with yours, you’ll run into trouble down the road.
This might not be an issue right off the bat, but you’ll find that as time goes on, you’ll have trouble meeting each other halfway and you’ll get tired of compromising on your beliefs so they can have things their way.
3. Is there trust?
You need to trust your partner in order for your relationship to last.
If you find yourself feeling jealous of others in their company or you can’t talk about past relationships with them, it might be a sign that things are not as safe as you once perceived them to be.
Ask yourself if you trust your partner, and more importantly, can your partner trust you?
4. Do you feel like you are part of the team?
Relationships are not about just one side of the story. If you are going to be in a relationship you are going to be a part of a team.
Both parties need to feel seen and heard in order to make these things work.
Ask yourself if you feel like you are contributing to a greater good by being together with this person or if you are giving up a part of who you are in order to appease them?
5. Do you think your relationship is successful?
Would you say your relationship has a long-term shot?
Do you think about what it looks like if the two of you were to break up?
Do you wonder how you would divide assets and who would spend time in the house or apartment?
If you find yourself trying to problem-solve for problems you don’t even have, it’s likely that your relationship won’t last long into the future.
Consider how you think about your relationship’s future as a sign of whether or not you think it is going to be successful and long-lasting.
6. Are negotiations open?
Is it all or nothing in your relationship? Do you listen to one another or do you push your views on your partner without any room for negotiation?
Likewise, do you feel like you can’t have a say and they are running the show?
Relationships are about negotiation and trying to find a way forward with the two of you as happy as possible in the decisions you make together. One should never make a decision for the other.
7. Is there friction?
Do you have friction that causes your relationship to run the risk of failure? Do you fight a lot without recovering well from it?
Do you carry spite or mistrust? Do you wonder when your partner will just up and leave and fear for the day that happens?
This isn’t a solid foundation with which to build a relationship. If you feel like things aren’t going well now, it’s likely that they won’t improve in the future.
The more you focus on the negative, the more negative there will be.
Pay attention to the status of your relationship to be clear on whether or not it’s the right one for you. If you are doubtful about any of these things, it’s time to talk to your partner to find out how he or she feels about the long-term stability and success of your partnership.
Toxic relationships can really harm you and your mental health. It can send you into a downward spiral of confusing emotions, which can take time to work through once you leave the relationship. With that in mind, it’s important to give yourself a break, especially if you didn’t pick up on these warning signs at the start. Remember – toxic people are often good at distracting you from their harmful behavior.
Relationships are supposed to uplift you and bring you contentment and happiness. Your significant other should be willing to grow with you and be open to working on themselves. An ideal partner will support you, build your confidence and take joy from seeing you succeed in life. Anything less than that is definitely not worth investing your time and emotions into.