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Toxic relationships

couple sitting apart to show signs of toxic relationship

Chances are, if you’re in a toxic relationship, your relationship just isn’t what you thought it would be. You had an idea of how amazing being in love would be and how exciting your relationship would be from here on out. Granted, issues will pop up in every relationship, but toxic relationships go beyond the normal contrast that occurs.

What is a toxic relationship, and how do you know if you’re in one?

First of all, a toxic relationship is a relationship that is unhealthy at the foundation. It may look good from the outside, but things are going on behind closed doors, and red flags are waving that will alert you to trouble beneath the surface.

You may be in a toxic relationship with a partner, or it can be a friend, coworker, or family worker. The dynamics go beyond just the intimate relationships. The following are common signs that you may be in a toxic relationship. They’re “red flags” so to speak. See if you can relate to any of them.

In a toxic relationship, two people don’t communicate or relate to one another in healthy ways and where conflict quickly arises. There tends to be a lack of support and general unpleasantness. These relationships can be emotionally, psychologically, or physically abusive—or all of those things—and usually, one person tries to minimize the other’s perspective and increase their competitive nature.

The negative emotions outweigh the positive ones, and the relationship becomes a massive energy drain. Ultimately, the relationship leaves you feeling drained, bad about yourself, or emotionally or physically unsafe. It’s like being bitten by a vampire and drained of your life, where you find yourself serving someone at the expense of your feelings, needs and joy. A healthy relationship involves:

  • Mutual care, respect, and compassion.
  • An interest in our partner’s welfare and growth.
  • An ability to share control and decision-making.

In contrast, a toxic relationship damages self-esteem, drains energy, and is usually characterized by a lack of safety and security.

Please note for ease of reading, I refer to him as the perpetrator of the toxic relationship, but this could easily be a woman.

There is hostility

Whether it’s you or him, a lot of anger is running rampant. Do you feel afraid to be who you are or share your feelings out of fear of an angry backlash? Do you both scream at each other when an issue arises?  It’s normal to get angry at times, but how you deal with and express, that anger can turn a healthy relationship into a toxic one.

There is abuse 

If there is any abuse going on, the relationship is toxic. Does he physically abuse you? Even just a push up against a wall or grabbing you hard is abuse. How about verbal attacks? Does he call you names? Put you down? Demean you? Does he make fun of you? Abuse is a tell-tale sign of an unhealthy and toxic relationship.

He is absent

If you’re in a relationship and your guy just isn’t there for you in any shape or form, this could be a toxic relationship. He may promise you the moon, but be so busy with his life outside of you that he just isn’t around for you. Or he may be so shut down emotionally that even when he is with you, there is zero communication.

You have lost sight of who you are

Have you wrapped up your sole identity in your partner? Friend? Do you spend lots of time doing things to please him or her? Do you cater to his needs and forget about yours? Hold your opinions to yourself and go with his? If you’ve lost sight of who you are, this is unhealthy.  A healthy relationship is comprised of two individuals who have life together, but also a life outside of each other.

There is a lot of control going on.

Do you have to run everything by him before you can do something? Does he control all the finances? Tell you who you can hang out with? Or tell you that you can’t have friends of your own? Do you do this to him? Control is a sign of toxicity in a relationship.

There is mega jealousy.

A bit of jealousy is standard in relationships, but does it define your relationship? Are you afraid to talk to others out of fear of being called a cheater?  Do you go through is phone to see who he is texting? Calling? Are there a lot of accusations going on about affairs?

You want to leave him, but you can’t

If you want to break up with him but can’t for various reasons, the relationship may be toxic. Do you feel petrified to leave out of the fear of being alone? Does he control the finances, and you fear you won’t make it alone? Do you worry him coming after you? Making your life miserable? These are all red flags.

What are the types of toxic relationships?

Negative Relationships

A negative relationship is characterized by unhealthy communication, conflict, and lack of support. It is a type of relationship where one person tries to shut down the other person’s perspective and increase their competitive nature. Negative emotions take over the positive in this type of relationship, creating an atmosphere of hostility and a lack of trust.

Other signs of a negative relationship include a lack of balance, a constant feeling of being drained, judgment, unreliability, and an abundance of negative energy. 

Controlling Relationships

If you are being controlled, your partner will probably tell you what’s right, threaten to out you, need to know everything you do and who you’re with, try to manage your money, seclude you from loved ones, always be present when you are with others, acting like you don’t know what you’re talking about, requiring access to your devices, and displaying jealousy.

These behaviours strike fear in many people and cause them to stay in unhealthy, unhappy relationships even when they want the relationship to end.

Emotionally Abusive Relationships

Emotionally abusive relationships manifest in explosive arguments, belittling the other partner, rejecting their realities, lying, manipulation, and other forms of emotional and psychological abuse. Signs of this type of relationship include gaslighting, isolation, and intense fear of leaving the relationship.

In an abusive relationship, the abuser is always in control and uses mind games to undermine their partner’s needs and perspectives. Financial and narcissistic abuse can also be present. 

Jealous Relationship

Signs of an unhealthy jealous relationship may include:

  • Possessiveness.
  • Getting upset when their partner interacts with others.
  • Accusing them of flirting, cheating.
  • Even stalking them.

Other destructive behaviours may consist of getting angry at their partner’s successes, being competitive, and generally being unhappy when they are doing well. In a healthy relationship, partners should support each other’s successes and strive to become their ideal selves. Jealousy should be acknowledged but not allowed to control the relationship.

Cheating Relationship

A cheating relationship is one where one or both partners act intentionally dishonest or disloyally. Common signs of a cheating relationship include lying, purposefully leaving the other out, being two-faced, manipulation, possessiveness, isolation, sabotage, belittling, guilting, volatility, deflecting responsibility, and betrayal. Usually, in these toxic relationships, one partner is consistently undermining or causing harm to the other. 

Lying is a significant sign of a cheating relationship, as it erodes the credibility of the relationship. Additionally, the “keeping score” phenomenon is expected in a cheating relationship, where one partner continues to bring up past mistakes and blames the other for them, creating guilt and bitterness.

Signs of a toxic relationship

Lack of communication

 Lack of communication can lead to resentment and a lack of self-worth in a toxic relationship. Furthermore, hostile communication, such as yelling, name-calling, using one’s body for intimidation, giving the silent treatment, blaming statements, interrupting, and listening to respond instead of understanding, can cause tension and distrust. Stonewalling is also a form of hostile communication wherein a partner refuses to talk about an issue, acts unresponsive, or walks away when trying to discuss something.

Dysfunctional communication can lead to a lack of self-esteem, healthy communication, boundaries, and problems in future relationships. Suppose both partners do not work to understand each other and put effort into communicating effectively. In that case, grudges can build up and erode intimacy. Finally, lacking trust in one’s partner to listen to and address their concerns can also signify a toxic relationship.

Lack of respect

What sign is a lack of respect in a toxic relationship? Disrespectful behaviour such as being chronically late, “forgetting” events, sarcasm, criticism, contempt, belittling, manipulation, dishonesty, possessiveness, guilting, and betrayal are signs of a lack of respect in a toxic relationship.

Constant fighting

One sign of constant fighting in a toxic relationship is when partner disagreements become unmanageable and unresolved. This can manifest in a partner becoming defensive or shutting down when their partner tries to bring up an issue or a problem. Additionally, an abusive partner may act angrily and aggressively, like slamming their fists into walls or becoming physically violent. In contrast, one partner always tries to call the shots. This constant fighting can also cause stress and tension within the relationship, leaving both partners feeling mentally and physically exhausted.


Blaming is attributing fault or responsibility to another person, usually antagonistically. In a toxic relationship, blaming can significantly indicate that things are not going well. Blaming is an unhealthy behaviour, often used to manipulate and control the other person.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse can involve a range of offensive behaviours such as degrading, humiliating, manipulating, lying, and rejecting reality. In toxic relationships, emotional abuse is used by one partner to maintain power and control over the other, leading to deep feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy.

Signs of emotional abuse in toxic relationships include explosive arguments, derogatory language, manipulation, lying, isolation, and intense fear. An abusive partner may try to prevent their partner from seeking employment or education or humiliate them publicly by making a scene or lying to co-workers and classmates. Gaslighting, which involves denying another person’s reality, is another form of emotional abuse common in toxic relationships.


 Manipulation can manifest in many forms, from checking in on a partner constantly and constantly bugging them about plans to weaponizing the relationship to get one’s way. Sometimes, people may pick a partner wrong for them from the start and then try to distort that person to mirror past unhealthy relationships. 

Being controlling

Being controlling is a behaviour that is often seen in toxic relationships, as one partner attempts to dominate the other. This controlling behaviour is characterized by trying to manage the other person’s actions, beliefs, and decisions. It is often seen in the form of threats, such as financial stability, time with children, or companionship. Other signs of controlling behaviour include:

  • Telling you what is right.
  • Needing to know everything you do.
  • Trying to manage your money.
  • Secluding you from loved ones.
  • Requiring access to your devices.

In extreme cases, this behaviour can be very manipulative, as it can hinder the growth and decisions of the partner. Even with innocent jealousy, trying to control who the partner spends time with and their actions is still toxic, implying a lack of trust in the other person. This behaviour is damaging, as it can lead to feelings of unworthiness and create unnecessary drama and discord. 

Having issues with trust

Signs of issues with trust in a toxic relationship can include a partner not following through on their promises, push and pull behaviour, low self-esteem, doubts about what your partner tells you, grudges, not feeling safe to speak up, competition and a lack of support, playing games, not knowing when you’ll see each other, making up lies, disloyal or intentionally dishonest behaviour, acting like a different person around others, sharing private information, lying, leaving you out, being two-faced, or cheating on you.

Having an unhealthy dependence

An unhealthy dependence is when one partner is too reliant on the other for love, money, or acceptance. This situation often occurs in codependent relationships and can signify a toxic relationship. 

Toxic relationships are common, but the good news is that there are red flags you can look at to see if yours is toxic. If it is, you don’t necessarily have to end it, as sometimes, when both partners are willing to work on the issues, the relationship can thrive. Oftentimes, it’s necessary to get some professional help individually and as a couple. If you feel your relationship is toxic, perhaps it is time to get honest with yourself and your partner. Have a conversation and take the necessary steps to work on both you and the relationship.

How to avoid and escape from a toxic relationship

  • Recognize that you are in a toxic relationship
  • Recognizing that you are in a toxic relationship is essential to action. Here are some steps to help you identify the signs of a potentially harmful relationship:
  • Look out for any “red flags” of abuse, such as blaming, shaming, insulting, demanding, and ridiculing comments from your partner.
  • Pay attention to often and excessive anger, frustration, and defensiveness. 
  • Notice any changes in your sleeping and eating patterns.
  • Pay attention to whether your needs are being met and if you feel respected and valued.
  • Observe if you bring out the bad qualities in one another.
  • Notice if you feel like you walk on eggshells or if your feelings come second to your partner’s.
  • Watch out for signs of gaslighting and manipulation.
  • Notice if you feel lonely even when you’re together.
  • Be aware of any physical, emotional, mental, or sexual abuse.

If any of these signs resonate with you, it’s essential to acknowledge that you are in a potentially toxic relationship. Seek help from a therapist and devise an exit plan if necessary. Ultimately, it’s important to recognize your worth and protect yourself.

Take action to break free from the toxic relationship

Breaking free from a toxic relationship can be difficult and time-consuming but also invigorating and freeing. To help you get on the right track, here are are some steps you can take:

Admit you’re in a toxic relationship. Acknowledging the situation is the first step to getting out of it.

Build a support network. Surround yourself with people who will support your decision to end the relationship.

Know your options. If you anticipate any possibility of retaliatory abuse or violence, know your local emergency contacts or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Take the time to do it properly. Ending a toxic relationship requires careful planning, so take the time to do it correctly.

Make an exit plan. This can help you leave the relationship safely and securely.

Remind yourself of your worth. It’s important to remember that you deserve a healthy relationship.

Talk to a therapist. A professional can help you understand your feelings and make sure you’re making the best decision for yourself.

Have a plan for the future. Think about what kind of relationships you want to build moving forward.

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Based on Dr Ryan’s private practice