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How to Know When You’re in a Toxic Relationship

by eharmony Editorial Team - November 22, 2023

It’s been a term that has been bandied around in this new era of trying to recognize the nuances of relationship dynamics: toxicity. These can exist in any human relationship, but a romantic toxic relationship can cause deep-rooted psychological damage.

Toxic relationships aren’t your relationship falling into a rut or you going through a rough patch, but rather when one or both parties in the relationship are having an actively malignant influence on it and are either consciously or subconsciously making relationships a damaging environment.

These are inherently unhealthy relationships so let’s explore it a bit more.

The meaning of a toxic relationship and understanding it better

The important thing is to distinguish between a toxic relationship from a problematic one. If you’ve been in a string of unhealthy relationships, you couldn’t be blamed for being convinced that all love is toxic, or at least sours and turns that way.

However, these relationship patterns are typically introduced by one of the people who has developed toxic dating behavior patterns or when you mutually have warped your communication model so that your interactions become psychologically and physically unsafe.

Here are some toxic relationship examples of behavior:

  • First, the easiest one. You aren’t happy when you’re around them.
  • You feel nervous or apprehensive in their presence.
  • Codependency and enabling of their behavior. 
  • They feel more like an opponent than someone on your side.
  • They affect your self-esteem.
  • The responsibility of change and compromise always falls on you.
  • You fight constantly or, even worse, not at all because it feels pointless.
  • The most blaring of toxic relationship examples is verbal or physical abuse.

These are just a few but there are many more. The basics of a toxic relationship and its meaning are that they don’t bring out the best in you.

Living in a toxic relationship: The different types

Romantic toxic relationships surely are the most important as you’re figuring out if this is your forever person and a true companion.

Familial toxicity is between siblings or your parents, where you find that it produces a disharmonious atmosphere due to family dynamics.

We can also have toxic friends who bring out unhealthy behaviors when we’re around them, producing a negative impact on our personal growth.

Workplace toxicity is one of the most common and can often crop up when feeling friction with a colleague or when your manager is over-demanding or has a disrespectful way of engaging with you. 

Spotting toxic behavior early

Here toxic relationship signs and behaviors that are easy to spot.

  • They’re manipulative and use these tactics to cross your boundaries
  • Your partner is constantly critical of you.
  • There are signs of emotional affairs in their correspondences with others.
  • They’re often passive-aggressive.
  • They’re very controlling of your behavior and check up on you often.
  • They keep a ledger of your transgressions in the relationship.
  • Aggressors in a toxic relationship gaslight you into accepting certain falsehoods in the relationship like you’re the problem.
  • There’s a visible pattern of dishonesty from them.

So, what does this end up doing to you?

What a toxic relationship does to your health and dating life

It’s incredibly important not to underestimate the very real impact toxic relationships have not just on our psychological health but can even manifest physically

Psychologically, they can often lower your sense of self-worth, making us more likely to accept the behavior you’re being subjected to as well as erode other healthy relationships in your life either through distraction or through coercive control, isolating you more.

Physically it has been linked in a study by the American Psychological Association to depression and reduced sleep quality1, causing constant fatigue, poor hygiene standards and even bring about digestive issues.  

Toxic relationship signs that are easy to identify

So we’ve gone over some signs and examples of a toxic relationship and how to identify it emerging in yours. However, as relationship toxicity can often be a slow and pernicious influence that often only takes hold later in the relationship, here are some surefire signs of a toxic relationship or it’s becoming one.

Everything’s a test

They often use innocuous questions and prompts to initiate an argument for further control, like suggesting you enjoyed talking to someone too much during a group event or asking a loaded question, like romantic hypotheticals.

They act flippant about fidelity

Conversely, they often use cheating as if it were a sword hanging over your head either by leaving obvious signs of emotional affairs or emerging one on their phone or computer to let you know they’re in romantic demand or actually telling you about other romantic prospects and how replaceable you are. Trust is the backbone of a healthy relationship

You can’t weather the bad times

When the chips are down are they the first person you think of calling, or is rather a family member or friend? Or worse, do you have a notion that calling them would actually make the situation worse? That even the smallest obstacles fracture the idea that your relationship is a team effort.

Your issues are never resolved

You certainly fight and argue but after the dust clears, you just go back to your old behaviors. And if anyone is going to compromise, it’s normally you. This is because they don’t want to change. Bizarrely enough, toxic people are disproportionately satisfied in toxic relationships as it’s on their terms.

You’re constantly stressed

When we’re in a toxic relationship (particularly romantic ones), it tends to slowly chip away at our self-esteem and mental health, eventually creating a perpetual sense of unease and anxiety. Relationships are meant to be work but not an all-consuming job. 

Breaking free from the toxicity

Somewhat surprisingly, some experts agree that toxic relationships can be put back on the rails but both people must be fully committed to healing it2, which is rare.

Sometimes the only way to fix it is to get out so you don’t end up feeling all love is toxic. So, start setting some line-in-the-sand boundaries to test whether there’s any flexibility. Plan out exit strategies. If you live together, where would you go stay and do you have people in your life who can reliably support you?

Have plans in place for legal remedies you may take to protect yourself from them if they become obsessive. 

Communication and conflict resolution

The first test you can take to see whether a toxic relationship is fixable is trying to open up the lines of communication and make them more authentic than confrontational. But you both have to come to the table and don’t let them gaslight you into thinking it’s all in your head.

Talking to a professional

If you’ve invested a significant amount of time and effort into the relationship, you may want to save it. A couple’s therapist or a personal psychologist can help you get an incredibly informed gauge of what aspects of your relationship are malignant, what’s salvageable and a roadmap forward.

Focus on healing after a toxic relationship

The problem with toxic and unhealthy relationships is they often mess with our models for healthy dating. Take on board that you too are damaged after this and need to take time for self-care, rebuilding self-esteem and reassessing the role of love in your life. Don’t rush.

How to avoid them in the first place

As the old saying goes, the best cure is prevention. Look at the toxic relationships as teachable moments and keep a keen eye out for when they crop up again. So keep a list of all those red flags and set healthy boundaries as soon as possible. Make it the new you.

Types of relationships – Which one fits you best and how do you find it?

Dating can be a variety pack so we explore types of relationships, how to define yours and the general notion of a romantic relationship.

Don’t waste your time on a toxic relationship, find healthy connections

It’s not hard to spot patterns in any toxic relationship: they’re all about the other person. At the heart of toxicity is selfishness and willingness to damage your well-being for their needs. It’s really not more complex than that and neither are they. So why keep these simple, self-serving, vain people in your life?

They add nothing, only subtract. So focus more on spotting them before they get too close and, while not being as single- continuously focused on it as toxic people, put your own well-being in a relationship first.

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