A toxic relationship is one that makes you feel unsupported, misunderstood, demeaned, or attacked. On a basic level, any relationship that makes you feel worse rather than better can become toxic over time.
Toxic relationships can exist in just about any context, from the playground to the boardroom to the bedroom. You may even deal with toxic relationships among your family members.
People with mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, major depression, or even depressive tendencies, may be particularly susceptible to toxic relationships since they are already sensitive to negative emotions. For example, someone with bipolar disorder who is in the midst of a mixed or depressive episode may have a somewhat weaker grip on emotional stability than others, and that may make that person an easier target for toxic people. However, toxic people can affect anyone.
Here’s what you need to know about toxic relationships, including what makes a relationship toxic and how to determine if you’re in one. You’ll also find tips for effective ways to manage these types of relationships.
Signs of a Toxic Relationship
Only you can tell if the bad outweighs the good in a relationship. But if someone consistently threatens your well-being by what they’re saying, doing, or not doing, it’s likely a toxic relationship.
Relationships that involve physical or verbal abuse are definitely classified as toxic. But there are other, more subtle, signs of a toxic relationship, including:
It feels bad. All the time
You fall asleep hollow and you wake up just as bad. You look at other couples doing their happy couple thing and you feel the sting. Why couldn’t that sort of love happen for you? It can, but first you have to clear the path for it to find you. Leaving a relationship is never easy, but staying for too long in a toxic relationship will make sure any strength, courage and confidence in you are eroded down to nothing. Once that happens, you’re stuck.
You avoid saying what you need because there’s just no point
We all have important needs in relationships. Some of the big ones are connection, validation, appreciation, love, sex, affection. When those needs are mocked or ignored, the emptiness of that unmet need will clamour like an old church bell. If your attempts to talk about what you need end in a fight, (another) empty promise, accusations of neediness, insecurity, jealousy or madness you’ll either bury the need or resent that it keeps being overlooked. Either way, it’s toxic.
There’s no effort
Standing on a dance floor doesn’t make you a dancer, and being physically present in a relationship doesn’t mean there is an investment being made in that relationship. Doing things separately sometimes is healthy, but as with all healthy things, too much is too much. When there is no effort to love you, spend time with you, share the things that are important to you, the relationship stops giving and starts taking too much. There comes a point that the only way to respond to ‘Well I’m here, aren’t I?’ is, ‘Yeah. But maybe better if you weren’t.
All the work, love, compromise comes from you
Nobody can hold a relationship together when they are the only one doing the work. It’s lonely and it’s exhausting. If you’re not able to leave the relationship, give what you need to give but don’t give any more than that. Let go of the fantasy that you can make things better if you try hard enough, work hard enough, say enough, do enough. Stop. Just stop. You’re enough. You always have been.
When ‘no’ is a dirty word
‘No’ is an important word in any relationship. Don’t strike it from your vocabulary, even in the name of love – especially not in the name of love. Healthy relationships need compromise but they also respect the needs and wants of both people. Communicating what you want is as important for you and the relationship as communicating what you don’t want. Find your ‘no’, give it a polish, and know where the release button is. A loving partner will respect that you’re not going to agree with everything they say or do. If you’re only accepted when you’re saying ‘yes’, it’s probably time to say ‘no’ to the relationship. And if you’re worried about the gap you’re leaving, buy your soon-to-be ex some putty. Problem solved.
The score card. Let me show you how wrong you are
One of the glorious things about being human is that making mistakes is all part of what we do. It’s how we learn, how we grow, and how we find out the people who don’t deserve us. Even the most loving, committed partners will do hurtful, stupid things sometimes. When those things are brought up over and over, it will slowly kill even the healthiest relationship and keep the ‘guilty’ person small. At some point, there has to be a decision to move on or move out. Having shots continually fired at you based on history is a way to control, shame and manipulate. Healthy relationships nurture your strengths. Toxic ones focus on your weaknesses.
Physical or verbal abuse. Or both
These are deal-breakers. You know they are.
Too much passive-aggressive
Passive-aggressive behavior is an indirect attack and a cowardly move for control. The toxicity lies in stealing your capacity to respond and for issues to be dealt with directly. The attack is subtle and often disguised as something else, such as anger disguised as indifference ‘whatever’ or ‘I’m fine’; manipulation disguised as permission ‘I’ll just stay at home by myself while you go out and have fun,’ and the worst – a villain disguised as a hero, ‘You seem really tired baby. We don’t have to go out tonight. You just stay in and cook yourself some dinner and I’ll have a few drinks with Svetlana by myself hey? She’s been a mess since the cruise was postponed.’ You know the action or the behavior was designed to manipulate you or hurt you, because you can feel the scrape, but it’s not obvious enough to respond to the real issue. If it’s worth getting upset about, it’s worth talking about, but passive-aggressive behavior shuts down any possibility of this.
Nothing gets resolved
Every relationship will have its issues. In a toxic relationship, nothing gets worked through because any conflict ends in an argument. There is no trust that the other person will have the capacity to deal with the issue in a way that is safe and preserves the connection. When this happens, needs get buried, and in a relationship, unmet needs will always feed resentment.
Whatever you’re going through, I’m going through worse
In a healthy relationship, both people need their turn at being the supported and the supporter. In a toxic relationship, even if you’re the one in need of support, the focus will always be on the other person. ‘Babe like I know you’re really sick and can’t get out of bed but it’s soooo stressful for me because now I have to go to the party by myself. Next Saturday I get to choose what we do. K? [sad emoji, balloon emoji, heart emoji, another heart emoji, lips emoji].
Privacy? What privacy?
Unless you’ve done something to your partner that you shouldn’t have, like, you know, forgot you had one on ‘Singles Saturday’, then you deserve to be trusted. Everybody deserves some level of privacy and healthy relationships can trust that this won’t be misused. If your partner constantly goes through your receipts, phone bills, text messages this shows a toxic level of control. It’s demeaning. You’re an adult and don’t need constant supervision.
Big decisions are for important people. And clearly, you’re not one of them.
If you’re sharing your life with someone, it’s critical that you have a say in the decisions that will affect you. Your partner’s opinions and feelings will always be important, and so are yours. Your voice is an important one. A loving partner in the context of a healthy relationship will value your thoughts and opinions, not pretend that they don’t exist or assume theirs are more important.
Toxic vs. Healthy Behavior
It’s important to note that toxic relationships are not limited to romantic relationships. They exist in families, in the workplace, and among friend groups—and they can be extremely stressful, especially if the toxicity isn’t effectively managed.
Not all toxic relationships are caused by both parties. Some people are simply toxic to be around—they sap your energy with negative behaviors like constant complaining, critical remarks, and overall negativity. Or, they may argue with others constantly, explain why they know better, or point out the flaws of others—all of which may weigh on you over time.
Sometimes people act this way toward everyone and are unaware of their effect on others. They also may not know healthier ways to communicate. It’s likely that they don’t know how to read social cues well enough to know when they’re frustrating people or making them feel like they are being criticized or ignored.
But other times, people are deliberately rude and hurtful. In these situations, you may feel singled out and targeted through their mean words and actions. And, no matter what you do, you feel like you’re never measuring up or good enough.
If these scenarios are true of your situation, you may want to re-evaluate your relationship with this person. They may be causing real damage to your self-esteem and your overall mental health as well as your physical health.
In fact, a 2016 University of Michigan study found that “stress and [negative] relationship quality directly affect the cardiovascular system.” In the long-term, all of these factors damage your health and may even lead you to develop unhealthy coping behaviors like drinking or emotional eating.
While not every toxic relationship can be avoided, especially among co-workers or a family member, they can be managed with healthy boundaries, self-care, and awareness.
If you find yourself in a toxic relationship where you bring out the worst in one another (or simply fail to bring out the best), you may want to work on the relationship and change the dynamic—particularly if there are other benefits to the relationship.
Here are a few more steps for coping with a toxic relationship:
- Talk to the other person about what you’re witnessing. Be assertive about your needs and feelings while also taking responsibility for your part in the situation.
- Discuss what you see as a problem and decide together if you want to change the dynamic to ensure that both of you get your needs met.
- Re-evaluate your relationship and ask yourself: Is this person causing real damage to my self-esteem and overall mental health?
- Limit the time you spend with people who bring frustration or unhappiness into your life. If this person is someone you need to interact with, like a family member or co-worker, you may need to limit interactions.
- If you decide to talk about your concerns, use “I feel” statements when describing your feelings and emotions. Doing so helps keep them from feeling defensive.
- Realize that some toxic people simply are unwilling to change—especially those who lack self-awareness or social skills.
- Try to non-confrontationally stand up for yourself when the situation warrants it.
Seek professional help—together
The good news is that many toxic relationships can be healed if both partners can recognize the unhealthy dynamic and are willing to work to change it, Dr. Vasan says. “Both must be ready to work on the relationship and address head-on the issues that are making it toxic, and to do so with compassion and respect for the other person,” she says. “Start by working with a therapist; having a neutral third party on board can be helpful to facilitate open communication and reflection.