In a healthy relationship, everything just kind of works. Sure, you might disagree from time to time or come upon other bumps in the road, but you generally make decisions together, openly discuss any problems that arise, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
Toxic relationships are another story. In a toxic relationship, you might consistently feel drained or unhappy after spending time with your partner, according to relationship therapist Jor-El Caraballo, which can suggest that some things need to change.
Maybe the relationship no longer feels at all enjoyable, though you still love your partner. For some reason, you always seem to rub each other the wrong way or can’t seem to stop arguing over minor issues. You might even dread the thought of seeing them, instead of looking forward to it as you did in the past.
Below, we’ll explore some hallmark signs of toxicity in a relationship, plus offer some guidance on next steps if you recognize any of these signs in yourself or your partner.
Depending on the nature of the relationship, signs of toxicity can be subtle or highly obvious, explains Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of “Joy from Fear.”
When you’re in a toxic relationship, you might not always find it easy to notice the red flags popping up. All the same, you could notice some of these signs in yourself, your partner, or the relationship itself.
1. Lack of support
“Healthy relationships are based on a mutual desire to see the other succeed in all areas of life,” Caraballo says. But when things turn toxic, every achievement becomes a competition.
In short, the time you spend together no longer feels positive. You don’t feel supported or encouraged, and you can’t trust them to show up for you. Instead, you might get the impression that your needs and interests don’t matter, that they only care about what they want.
2. Toxic communication
Instead of kindness and mutual respect, most of your conversations are filled with sarcasm or criticism and fueled by contempt — a
Do you catch yourself making snide remarks to your friends or family members? Maybe you repeat what they said in a mocking tone when they’re in another room. You may even start dodging their calls, just to get a break from the inevitable arguments and hostility.
3. Envy or jealousy
While it’s perfectly fine to experience a little envy from time to time, Caraballo explains it can become an issue if your envy keeps you from thinking positively about your partner’s successes.
4. Controlling behaviors
Does your partner ask where you are all the time? Maybe they become annoyed or irritated when you don’t immediately answer texts or text you again and again until you do.
These behaviors might stem from jealousy or lack of trust, but they can also suggest a need for control — both of which can contribute to relationship toxicity. In some cases, these attempts at control can also suggest abuse (more on this later).
Holding on to grudges and letting them fester chips away at intimacy.
“Over time, frustration or resentment can build up and make a smaller chasm much bigger,” Caraballo notes.
Note, too, whether you tend to nurse these grievances quietly because you don’t feel safe speaking up when something bothers you. If you can’t trust your partner to listen to your concerns, your relationship could be toxic.
You find yourself constantly making up lies about your whereabouts or who you meet up with — whether that’s because you want to avoid spending time with your partner or because you worry how they’ll react if you tell them the truth.
7. Patterns of disrespect
Being chronically late, casually “forgetting” events, and other behaviors that show disrespect for your time are a red flag, Manly says.
Keep in mind that some people may truly struggle with making and keeping plans on time, so it may help to start with a conversation about this behavior. If it’s not intentional, you might notice some improvement after you explain why it bothers you.
8. Negative financial behaviors
Sharing finances with a partner often involves some level of agreement about how you’ll spend or save your money. That said, it’s not necessarily toxic if one partner chooses to spend money on items the other partner doesn’t approve of.
It can be toxic, though, if you’ve come to an agreement about your finances and one partner consistently disrespects that agreement, whether by purchasing big-ticket items or withdrawing large sums of money.
9. Constant stress
Ordinary life challenges that come up — a family member’s illness, job loss — can create some tension in your relationship, of course. But finding yourself constantly on edge, even when you aren’t facing stress from outside sources, is a key indicator that something’s off.
This ongoing stress can take a toll on physical and mental health, and you might frequently feel miserable, mentally and physically exhausted, or generally unwell.
10. Ignoring your needs
Going along with whatever your partner wants to do, even when it goes against your wishes or comfort level, is a sure sign of toxicity, says clinical psychologist Catalina Lawsin, PhD.
Say they planned a vacation that will take you out of town on your mom’s birthday. But when they asked you what dates were convenient, you emphasized that any dates were fine — as long as you didn’t miss your mom’s birthday on the 17th.
You don’t want to point this out, since you don’t want to start a fight. So you say, “Great! I’m so excited.”
11. Lost relationships
You’ve stopped spending time with friends and family, either to avoid conflict with your partner or to get around having to explain what’s happening in your relationship.
Alternatively, you might find that dealing with your partner (or worrying about your relationship) occupies much of your free time.
12. Lack of self-care
In a toxic relationship, you might let go of your usual self-care habits, Lawsin explains.
You might withdraw from hobbies you once loved, neglect your health, and sacrifice your free time. This might happen because you don’t have the energy for these activities or because your partner disapproves when you do your own thing.
13. Hoping for change
You might stay in the relationship because you remember how much fun you had in the beginning. Maybe you think that if you just change yourself and your actions, they’ll change as well.
14. Walking on eggshells
You worry that by bringing up problems, you’ll provoke extreme tension, so you become conflict avoidant and keep any issues to yourself.
Many people assume toxic relationships are doomed, but that isn’t always the case.
The deciding factor? Both partners must want to change, Manly says. “If only one partner is invested in creating healthy patterns, there is — unfortunately — little likelihood that change will occur.”
A few signs you might be able to work things out together:
Acceptance of responsibility
If both you and your partner know the relationship is struggling and want to improve it, you’re on the right track.
Recognizing past behaviors that have harmed the relationship is vital on both ends, Manly adds. It reflects an interest in self-awareness and self-responsibility.
To put it another way, both partners should accept their part in contributing to the toxicity, from resentment to jealousy to not speaking out about concerns and disappointments.
Willingness to invest
Are both you and your partner both willing to invest in making the relationship better? That’s a good sign.
“This may manifest by an interest in deepening conversations,” Manly says, or setting aside regular blocks of time for spending quality time together.
Shift from blaming to understanding
If you’re both able to steer the conversation away from blaming and more toward understanding and learning, there may be a path forward.
For example, instead of saying, “It’s your fault” or “You always do XYZ” you might try, “I think we misunderstood each other, so let’s try again” or “I understand why you’re feeling stressed and upset — how can we work on that together?”
Openness to outside help
Sometimes, you might need help to get things back on track, either through individual or couples counseling.
There’s no shame in getting professional help to address consistent relationship issues. Sometimes, you can’t pick up on everything contributing to the toxicity from inside the relationship, and relationship counselors are trained to offer a neutral perspective and unbiased support.
They can also teach you new strategies for addressing and resolving conflict, making it easier to create healthier patterns that stick.
According to Manly, repairing a toxic relationship will take time, patience, and diligence.
This is especially the case, Manly adds, “given that most toxic relationships often occur as a result of longstanding issues in the current relationship or as a result of unaddressed issues from prior relationships.”
These steps can help you turn things around.
Don’t dwell on the past
Sure, part of repairing the relationship will likely involve addressing past events. But this shouldn’t be the sole focus of your relationship moving forward.
Resist the temptation to constantly refer back to negative scenarios, since this can leave both of you tense, frustrated, and basically right back where you started.
View your partner with compassion
When you find yourself wanting to blame your partner for all the problems in the relationship, try taking a step back and looking at the potential motivators behind their behavior, Caraballo says.
Have they recently gone through a hard time at work? Had some family drama weighing heavily on their mind?
These challenges don’t excuse bad behavior, but they can help you come to a better understanding of where it comes from.
Considering your own contributions, too. Do you tend to withdraw when upset, instead of sharing your concerns? Do you criticize your partner if they don’t do chores the way you prefer? These habits could also play a part.
An openness to therapy can be a good sign that mending the relationship is possible. In order to help the relationship move forward, though, you’ll actually need to reach out to schedule that first appointment.
While couples counseling is a good starting point, individual therapy can be a helpful addition, Manly says. Individual therapy offers a safe space to explore attachment issues and other factors that might contribute to relationship concerns. It also helps you get more insight on toxic behaviors versus abusive ones.
Concerned about the cost? Our guide to affordable therapy can help.
You can also get started by trying couples counseling techniques on your own.
Regardless of whether you decide to try therapy, look for other support opportunities.
Support might involve talking to a close friend or trusted mentor, for example. Other options could include joining a local support group for couples or partners dealing with specific issues in their relationship, such as infidelity or substance use.
Practice healthy communication
Pay close attention to how you talk to each other as you mend things. Be gentle with each other, and try to avoid sarcasm and even mild jabs.
Also focus on using “I” statements, especially when talking about relationship issues.
For example, instead of saying “You don’t listen to what I’m saying,” you could say “I feel hurt when you take out your phone while I’m talking because it gives me the impression that what I say doesn’t matter.”
“Both partners must acknowledge their part in fostering the toxicity,” Lawsin emphasizes.
This means identifying and taking responsibility for your own actions in the relationship. It also means committing to staying present and engaged during difficult conversations, instead of avoiding those discussions or mentally checking out.
It’s important for each of you to individually determine what you need from the relationship and where your boundaries lie, Lawsin advises.
Talking through boundaries is a good first step. Remember, though, that boundaries are flexible, so it’s important to keep discussing them as they change over time
The process of rebuilding a damaged relationship offers a good opportunity to reevaluate how you feel about certain elements of the relationship, from communication needs to physical intimacy.
Hold space for the other’s change
Remember, things won’t change overnight. Over the coming months, work together on being flexible and patient with each other as you grow.
Toxicity in a relationship can take many forms, including emotional or verbal abuse. Still, it’s not always possible to draw a clear line between toxicity and abuse.
Toxic relationships are unhealthy, but they’re not necessarily abusive. Sometimes, toxic behavior isn’t intentional — though, of course, that doesn’t make it any less hurtful. Keep in mind, too, that many unhealthy relationships involve toxic behavior from both partners, even when neither partner behaves in an abusive way.
Abuse, on the other hand, stems from a desire to hold power over someone else and control their behavior, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Since abuse often happens gradually, in subtle ways, you may not always recognize it easily, especially if the relationship has been toxic for some time.
There’s never an excuse for abusive behavior. Though change is possible for anyone, you can’t make your partner change. They have to choose that route themselves.
That’s why, if you recognize any of the following signs of physical or emotional abuse, a good next step involves working with a therapist or domestic violence advocate to create a plan to safely leave the relationship. (You’ll find some helpful resources below.)
Your partner blames you for everything that goes wrong and makes you feel as if you can’t do anything right. They may do this by patronizing, dismissing, or embarrassing you in public.
The ongoing result?
“You end up feeling small, confused, shamed, and often exhausted,” Manly says.
Chronic stress, anxiety, or doubt
It’s typical to have periods of frustration with your partner or doubts about your future together. But you shouldn’t spend significant amounts of time worrying about the relationship or your safety.
An abusive partner might say things that make you doubt the security of the relationship, or even your own self-worth:
- “You’re lucky I’m with you. I could have anyone.”
- “If you don’t want to have sex with me, I’ll find someone else who will.”
Separation from friends and family
Sometimes, dealing with a toxic relationship can lead you to withdraw from friends and family. But an abusive partner may forcefully distance you from your support network.
They might snatch your phone while you’re talking, answer it for you and say you’re busy, or make such a fuss when you say you have plans that you end up canceling. They may also convince you that your loved ones don’t want to hear from you, anyway.
Interference with work or school
An abusive partner may prevent you from seeking employment or studying in order to isolate and control you.
They may also attempt to humiliate you at your workplace or school by causing a scene, talking to your boss or teachers, or lying to your co-workers and classmates.
Fear and intimidation
An abusive partner might explode with rage or use intimidation tactics, such as slamming their fists into walls or not allowing you to leave the house during a fight.
Name-calling and put-downs
Insults aimed to humiliate and belittle your interests, appearance, or accomplishments all count as verbal abuse.
Someone using verbal abuse tactics might say things like:
- “You’re worthless.”
- “You can’t do anything right.”
- “No one else could ever love you.”
Financial abuse tactics involve:
- controlling the money that comes in
- preventing you from having your own bank account
- restricting your access to credit cards
- giving you a daily allowance and making you ask for more
Someone trying to gaslight you may:
- insist something you remember never happened
- tell you they never said something when you clearly remember it
- accuse you of being the one with anger and control issues
Threats of self-harm
Threatening to hurt themselves in order to pressure you into doing something is a manipulation tactic.
If they mention suicide, take them seriously and encourage them to connect with a crisis helpline or reach out for other support.
Just know supporting them doesn’t mean agreeing to what they want.
Threats and verbal insults can escalate to physical violence. If your partner is pushing, shoving, or hitting you, it’s a clear sign that the relationship has become dangerous.
If you’ve decided it’s time to move on from the relationship, these strategies can help you do so safely:
- Get support from a therapist or domestic violence advocate. They can help you make a safety plan and access resources for additional support.
- Open up to loved ones. You don’t have to do this alone. Family and friends can offer emotional support, but they may also be in a position to offer more tangible support, like a place to stay or help moving while your partner’s out.
- Bring a friend. Don’t feel safe having a breakup conversation with your partner alone? Ask a trusted loved one to come with you. Knowing you have their support may help you stick to your decision to leave, even if your partner tries to convince you otherwise.
- Change your phone number. If this isn’t possible, block your partner’s number and social media accounts so you won’t feel tempted to respond if they reach out.
- Take care of yourself. Leaving any relationship can feel painful and distressing. Honor your needs by taking time for relaxation, sleep, and self-care, along with time to heal before starting a new relationship.
Get help now
If you suspect abuse in your relationship, trust your instincts and consider reaching out to these resources to safely navigate next steps:
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides services at no cost and offers 24/7 chat and phone support.
- Day One is a nonprofit organization that works with youth to end dating abuse and domestic violence through community education, supportive services, legal advocacy, and leadership development.
- DomesticShelters.org is a mobile-friendly, searchable directory that can help you quickly find domestic violence programs and shelters in the United States and Canada.
Toxic communication and behavior patterns can crack and corrode the foundations of your relationship, but you don’t have to stand by and watch your bond with your partner crumble.
When you and your partner both want to create change, a relationship therapist can help you begin to identify underlying factors contributing to relationship toxicity and explore healthy, compassionate approaches to communication and problem-solving.
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.