5 Signs You’re in a Toxic Relationship, and What Steps To Take Next
Out of all the areas of development, relationships are the hardest to navigate. Finding common ground with two or more people, with competing needs, perspectives, desires, cognitive distortions, fears, and anxieties, is a complex challenge. Unlike meditation, reframing thoughts, or working on limiting beliefs, another person is unpredictable, and to an extent, mysterious.
Factor in unrealistic fantasies of perfection portrayed in the media, and dysfunctional dynamics that have been normalized, and knowing whether a relationship is healthy or toxic isn’t straightforward. What’s the correct balance, between unhealthy or even abusive dynamics, and a reasonable approach to healthy conflict or human imperfection?
This article will explore the nature of toxic relationships, putting them in the correct context, before offering guidance on what you can do if you believe your relationship is toxic.
Please note: this article will explore grey areas of human behavior without offering black-or-white conclusions. Conflict happens. People mess up. But emotional or physical abuse, the crossing of boundaries, or harmful behavior never has to be tolerated.
What Is a Toxic Relationship?
Toxic relationships are the result of people interacting in ways that are unhealthy or damaging. The “toxic” speaks to the unique chemistry that seems to create tension or conflict. It doesn’t mean either person is fundamentally bad or wrong (no person is “toxic”) but it explains dynamics that can cause harm. Psychologist and communication expert Lillian Glass coined the term toxic relationship in her book Toxic People, which was released in 1995. Her definition is:
“Any relationship [between people who] don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other, where there’s competition, where there’s disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.”
Although Glass was a psychologist, “toxic relationship” is a colloquial term for unhealthy relationships. Glass’ descriptions are nuanced. But as is often the case when psychological theories become mainstream, the term has become over-simplified and overused. As a result, there’s a risk the label can cause people to jump to conclusions, or dismiss relationships just because they don’t fit a certain expectation.
Is a Toxic Relationship an Abusive Relationship?
Because a toxic relationship isn’t a diagnosis or “official” term, there’s room for interpretation. Many of the traits of toxic relationships qualify as abusive. But healthy conflict can be mislabelled as toxic, too. There are differences between healthy, unhealthy, and abusive relationships.
- Healthy relationships include mutual respect, trust, and honesty.
- Unhealthy relationships include dishonesty and mistrust.
- Abusive relationships demonstrate controlling behavior and physical or emotional abuse.
Unhealthy relationships can become healthy if you’re committed to forming a long-lasting, fulfilling relationship. Dysfunction, if acknowledged, can be overcome. Anyone has the potential to slip into “toxic” forms of behavior, and it doesn’t mean the relationship itself is doomed. It’s important to discern between moments of toxicity, or whether the relationship is incompatible at its core.
A truly toxic relationship is one that is harmful, abusive, or simply unpleasant. In most cases, the solution is to end the relationship (we’ll explore this in more detail later) for the benefit of everyone involved — studies have found difficult social relationships can lead to inflammation, depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. Traits such as passive aggression and betrayal are also linked to negative mental health.
Toxic Relationships and Karmic Relationships
Many karmic relationships have the potential for toxic behavior. That’s because these “fated” relationships bring two people together with the purpose of spiritual growth (especially twin flame relationships). These dynamics often have “compatible” patterns of behavior that, if handled consciously, can catalyze both people’s development.
However, for growth to occur, you must first see limiting or negative patterns or become aware of unprocessed trauma. Without conscious effort or willingness to take responsibility, these relationships can become emotionally draining. “Fate” isn’t an excuse to engage in turbulent or cyclical dynamics.
5 Signs You’re In a Toxic Relationship
Perhaps a more accurate description is “signs your relationship demonstrates toxic behavior” — remember, anyone can slip into this type of behavior. What matters is the willingness to look at these behaviors, and the desire to change. Approach these signs not like a checklist to affirm or deny whether your relationship is toxic, but to gauge where the relationship needs work.
1. The Relationship Makes You Feel Bad Consistently
After spending time with this person consistently you feel drained, or on edge, or “off” in a way you can’t quite put your finger on. All relationships go through ups and downs. But with toxic relationships, the downs far outweigh the ups. Glass notes that when a relationship lacks joy, it’s a big indicator that it is toxic. Other indicators include regular anxiety, anger, or sadness.
2. The Relationship Lacks Support
Why build social bonds with people? We’re all in this together, and relationships are about mutual support. It’s unreasonable to expect unwavering support, 24/7, but toxic relationships fundamentally lack support most of the time. They may be competitive rather than collaborative. Competition isn’t always bad. If done with good intentions, it can be inspiring or supportive (for example, two work colleagues spurring each other on during a game of squash). But if the entire framework of the relationship centers around competition, it can lead to feelings of comparison, jealousy, and envy, ahead of support.
3. There’s Little Authenticity or Empathy
Any relationship where you struggle to be authentic is questionable. Consider, what is it in the dynamic that causes you to hide? Are you afraid of judgment or ridicule? Toxic relationships tend to be high in judgment and low in empathy. In a healthy, supportive relationship, any decent person would want to avoid upsetting someone they care for. In toxic relationships, there’s a lack of empathy or respect for one or both people involved. That includes little attempt to understand the other, see their point of view, or accommodate their needs.
4. Communication Is Hostile
Toxic relationships are full of blame. One or both people may consistently point out flaws or faults in the other, without taking responsibility for their role or shortcomings. A lack of communication is the root of all conflict, and toxic relationships are likely built upon a foundation of suppression, avoidance, or a lack of honesty.
Poor communication, a lack of boundaries, and the suppression of difficult feelings can fuel mutual feelings of resentment and bitterness in toxic relationships. That leads to passive aggression or even ridicule.
5. The Relationships Is Based On Mind Games
Rather than being seen as equal, toxic relationships are based on manipulative behavior, or a desire to control. This is usually a combination of the early points of blame, a lack of accountability, and poor communication. That can lead to power plays, mind games, and all sorts of unhealthy dynamics.
What to Do if You’re in a Toxic Relationship
No relationship is perfect. Relationships aren’t fixed or set in stone, they’re constantly evolving and changing, and require attention and care to improve. If you’re in a toxic relationship, you still have options. If you and your partner, or friend, are able to take accountability and express a desire to grow, then there is space to move closer and closer from unhealthy, to healthy.
Before writing the relationship off, here are steps you can take to transform from toxic to healing. It’s crucial that both people make the effort to work on whatever the “toxic” traits are. If this relationship is one-sided, it’s less likely to succeed. But together, it can become a huge opportunity for growth.
1. Acknowledge Issues
The first step is to accept the nature of the relationship. It’s easier to live in denial, to pretend things aren’t so bad. But without seeing issues clearly, it’s difficult to find solutions. This step requires a healthy dose of compassion for both people involved. If at this point blame or judgment arises, have compassion for that, too.
It’s impossible to move on and fix a toxic relationship if there isn’t some element of forgiveness. Big arguments, passive-aggressive comments, or regular heartbreak all build barriers of resentment or mistrust. Forgiveness is the antidote. Remember, this isn’t the same as condoning unhealthy behavior. But it does mean setting the intention to forgive and let go of resentments in order to heal.
3. Explore Issues Through Non-Violent Communication
If there are resentments and tension in the relationship, there’s a risk of blame, judgment, name-calling, or other messy forms of communication. It’s likely these dysfunctional ways of relating — even if only surfacing during stress or upset — are present and habitual. Overcoming this damaging form of communication requires the intention to be honest, open, and respectful when addressing issues.
4. Set Boundaries
Each of you requires clarity on what is or isn’t tolerable. You have to express this, keeping non-violent communication in mind. You may decide forms of behavior that are not tolerable, from either side. This starts the process of avoiding the normalization of unhealthy or damaging forms of communication. For example, you may agree that if either person swears or name-call, the conversation will end.
This is a litmus test for the future of the relationship. If both people are able to acknowledge boundaries, it shows there is a sense of mutual respect. If someone dismisses boundaries and continues to cross them, the next step is to consider ending the relationship completely.
Setting boundaries to fix a toxic relationship also involves mutually beneficial changes in the dynamic, such as agreeing to spend less time together or adjusting expectations. For example, you may notice that when both people have been drinking, the likelihood of arguing is higher, so you decide to drink less.
5. Take It Slow
Certain patterns of behavior may be deeply ingrained. If there’s a mutual desire to heal, patience is essential as the relationship undergoes transformation. There might be mishaps or slip-ups, but if the quality of the relationship is moving in the right direction, this can be navigated. A zero-tolerance policy will add a lot of pressure and a sense of unforgivingness. A consistent growth policy, however, will encourage both people to constantly try and do better.
Naturally, if some behaviors or interactions are damaging to your mental health or well-being, you may have less space for patience, which is also okay. That’s where boundaries around tolerable or intolerable behavior will help.
How To End a Toxic Relationship
What if there’s a lack of willingness to try? Or fixing the relationship is beyond what both of you are capable of? Glass succinctly summarizes the approach to fixing a toxic relationship. “I really am a firm believer that you have to try to work everything out and understand why the person is toxic,” Glass told Time. “You may be able to live with it — but on the other hand, you may not. [If you can’t], you’ve got to get out of it. We have to not put ourselves in that position.”
It’s worthwhile to understand why the relationship is toxic. As mentioned above, putting all the focus on a “toxic person” overlooks your role. But the message remains the same. If you’ve explored the toxic elements and gained understanding and clarity, you then have a choice: fix it or leave. If you’re considering staying in the relationship, reflect on the reasons why. Is this genuine? Or motivated by a fear of uncertainty or a sense of obligation?
Consider the Cost of Not Leaving
A study by the University of Ontario found 18 percent of people stayed in unhealthy relationships due to fears of being single. Further research has linked low self-esteem with staying committed to unhealthy relationships, notably due to “perceiving poor alternatives.” But whatever you choose, make a commitment to either have the courage to end the relationship, or move towards a healthy way or relating. The latter isn’t easy. In Ready To Heal, psychologist Kelly McDaniel writes:
“The energy it takes to endure withdrawal [to an addictive or toxic relationship] is equivalent to working a full-time job. Truthfully, this may be the hardest work you’ve ever done. In addition to support from people who understand your undertaking, you must keep the rest of your life simple. You need rest and solitude.”
To recap, there’s no such thing as a toxic person. Toxic relationships are a matter of dynamics, and what is more important than labeling is to discern whether the relationship is unhealthy, healthy, or abusive. From this place, it makes it easier for you to make a decision — do you want to continue, to try and heal? Or is it time to get out of the toxic relationship?
In this article, we’ve covered a lot of the nuances, from the way in which labeling can be an avoidance of responsibility, to the beliefs that keep people stuck in unhealthy relationships. All relationships experience conflict from time to time; it comes with the territory of having two individuals with different wants, needs, behaviors, and sensitivities.
The occasional mishap is forgivable. Periods of difficulty don’t signal the end. But we all deserve supportive, respectful, loving relationships. You deserve this. So if you feel in your heart of hearts that a relationship is toxic and unhealthy, one of the best acts of self-care is to take action, face the facts, and consider if it’s time to call it quits.