After reading my friend Devina’s post describing an emotionally abusive relationship I started thinking about toxic relationships and potential for abuse (emotional or otherwise) – is it possible to spot toxic relationships before it’s too late? Is it possible to be in a toxic relationship and not know it?
It is easy to end up in a toxic relationship. It can happen to anyone, it doesn’t matter how “strong” or “weak” you are or if you are male or female. A lot of the time you are probably unaware that you are in a toxic relationship (which is why you may be reading this post). The warning signs of a toxic relationship aren’t always obvious when you’ve been in a relationship for a long time or you have very strong feelings for your partner.
- 1 What is a Toxic Relationship?
- 2 What Are the 7 Warning Signs You Are In a Toxic Relationship?
- 3 How Can I Get Out Of a Toxic Relationship?
- 4 A Final Thought
What is a Toxic Relationship?
In this post, when I refer to a “toxic relationship” I mean a relationship that is characterised by constant toxic and damaging behaviours (some which are described below). This article by Women’s Health quotes psychotherapist Ginnie Love Thompson, “Every single relationship has a level of toxicity. Nothing is perfect—there’s always some work to be done”. While all relationships are not perfect, some are more toxic and harmful than others.
What Are the 7 Warning Signs You Are In a Toxic Relationship?
Even if you are not in a toxic relationship or any relationship at all, it’s important to keep this information at the back of your mind. A healthy relationship can turn toxic for one reason or another. As I said above, sometimes you are in too deep to recognise the red flags. If you know what they are before you get into a relationship, the warning bells might go off immediately when you start experiencing them.
Toxicity in a relationship can be very subtle. The effects of it are slow and they can build over time. You often won’t notice it until someone points it out or you think about what things were like before your relationship. Were you a confident person years ago whereas now you second-guess almost every decision you make? If you start doubting yourself more often because of your partner’s behaviour, you might be in a toxic relationship
A common characteristic of a toxic relationship is that one person will hold the other in contempt and talk down to them. Does your partner insult you when you raise issues with them or you make a mistake? Are their jokes about you mean-spirited? Do they use rude words or swear at you when they are angry? Contempt is a very common reason relationships fail. It is extremely disrespectful to swear at a partner and use rude language. You should never feel inferior or be belittled in a relationship, it is unhealthy and will cause a lot of resentment and pain in the relationship (ultimately leading to failure). Repeating these actions can lead the other person to constantly doubt themselves and to lose their self-esteem.
Lack of Communication
I am sure you have heard the phrase “communication is key” dozens of times. It really is and the importance of communication cannot be underestimated. Communication is one of the building blocks of a relationship and healthy communication = a healthy relationship. If you are in a toxic relationship, your partner will often refuse to communicate and address your concerns.
If you try to raise issues in the relationship and your partner walks away or gets angry or keeps making excuses, that’s a red flag. Every relationship has conflict, conflict is normal. What sets apart a good relationship from a bad one is how the couple deal with conflict.
Do you find you are often making excuses for your partner’s behaviour? It’s easy to start explaining things away (even though you have a bad feeling inside), “oh it was my fault, I deserve it” or “that was a stupid thing to do, no wonder she thinks I’m dumb”, or “he’s just having a bad day”. Trying to justify negative behaviour is a red flag.
Soon, you find yourself using those excuses when you talk to friends. The toxic behaviour you are used to will be surprising to those around you and they will question you. Don’t laugh it off and make excuses, listen. Your partner isn’t exempt from societal expectations of kindness and decency, no one is.
A toxic partner will want control over your life and needs to know what you are doing and where you are at all times. In fact, what all abusive behaviours have in common is the need for the abuser to control and wield power over their spouse. One example of controlling behaviour is controlling who the other person socialises with. They dislike it when their partners are close with friends or family. Toxic people are often aware of their toxic behaviour and know if you talk about it, people will try to convince you to leave.
Many of them feel entitled to their partner and their partner’s time. If anything takes away your attention from them, they won’t like it. Their constant negative responses towards your hobbies and social life can result in you limiting them and withdrawing from life outside your partner to avoid conflict. Since you’ve been with this person are you seeing your friends less? Do you find it difficult to do things with other people or yourself? Do you often have to get “permission” to socialise? These can all be signs your relationship is not healthy.
Does your spouse make you feel that you won’t be able to survive without them? No one wants to break up and thinking about a life without someone you love is difficult, but there is a difference between that and worrying that your life will be ruined if you leave.
One characteristic of a toxic relationship is that one partner will try to get the other highly dependent on them. They may try to ruin your self-esteem and confidence to create more self-doubt in your mind. Self-doubt and lack of confidence will push you closer to your partner and will make you rely on them to take care of you and tell you what to do. Do you find that you can’t make decisions on your own and you don’t trust yourself? Do you feel convinced no one can love you like your partner can? Being “hooked” and obsessed with your partner can be a warning sign.
No one likes to hear criticism and no one wants to be told they are not perfect. We all seek positive reinforcement and validation, but we are human and won’t always get it right. Constructive criticism is actually important to anyone’s growth; be it at work, school or in relationships. However, there is a big difference between constructive criticism and unhelpful criticism. Constant criticism can erase positive feelings over time.
In this post I wrote about criticism, I learned that for every critical comment people receive they need to hear five positive to balance out the negative effects of criticism. If your partner is constantly berating you for making mistakes (big or small), you need to pay attention. Are they constantly criticising or commenting when you haven’t asked them to?
You should not be made to constantly feel stupid or inferior by the person you love, it will destroy your confidence over time. Everyone likes to joke around and make fun of people they love. It’s part of bonding, it’s part of life. But there is a line between good-natured humour and mean-spirited insults.
You’ve probably heard this term bandied about often these days. What does gaslighting mean? Gaslighting is when someone manipulates another so that they question their own thoughts and feelings. The term originated from a British play called “Gas Light” in which the female character is manipulated by her husband into believing she is insane. He manages to (falsely) convince her that the gaslight in their house was not dimming and she was just imagining that it was.
If you are constantly being gaslit in a relationship, you may eventually feel like you are overreacting (when you actually aren’t) and you will start doubting yourself. If someone keeps challenging and questioning your problems and concerns, it’s easy to start dismissing and ignoring your problems. People gaslight others as a way to control the relationship and to avoid conflict. Many times it is done so someone can keep doing something they know their partner will be unhappy with (affairs, spending money, addictions, etc.) while also keeping their partner hooked.
How Can I Get Out Of a Toxic Relationship?
If you think you might be in a toxic relationship, you are not alone. Most relationships have some sort of toxicity, I’m sure many of you have experienced one or more of the above behaviours (or have been accused of committing some yourself). But if you find it makes you unhappy all the time, if you find that it has changed you (for the worse) and you dread being with that person; then it may be time to do something about it. First steps you can take are:
Think about your situation
As I explained in my post about the meaning of life; looking at things objectively with a little space helps you gain control of the situation and manage your emotions. Take a step back and try to distance your feelings. If this were happening to a friend or family member, would it be ok? What advice would you give to that person? This can help you figure out how to move forward.
Once you’ve had some time to organise your thoughts, you might want to try to speak to your partner. If your partner is very toxic, you may have tried this already only to be rejected. A toxic relationship can potentially be fixed with therapy and both parties making an effort to repair the relationship, but both parties must be committed and willing to change.
Talk to Someone
When in toxic relationships, speaking to someone you trust is crucial. Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to make you realise what is happening to you and why it’s wrong. Your family and friends will be more objective and will help you realise whether you are being gaslit or not.
Put Yourself first
Many partners stay in relationships because they feel it would be wrong to leave. They can’t betray their partners and disappoint their families. When your mental health is suffering and your quality of life is deteriorating you should absolutely put yourself first and do what you can to make your life safe and healthy. You don’t owe anything to anyone who mistreats you. Putting yourself first is not selfish, it’s how we survive and thrive.
A Final Thought
Many of these behaviours are categorised as emotional abuse. Abuse is not limited to physical violence. If you have to change your behaviour because you are afraid of your partner’s reactions, you are experiencing abuse according to this explanation by Refuge. As the Metropolitan Police website explains, “the one constant element of domestic abuse is the abuser’s consistent efforts to maintain power and control over the victim“.
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse please visit the Refuge website (where you may be able to chat to someone online) or contact the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000 247 (freephone).
Have you been in a toxic relationship? If you have, how did you deal with it?