Being in a toxic relationship can feel like a living hell.
You don’t know if you’re the crazy one or if they are.
You don’t know what to do, who to turn to, or what to make of your situation.
If you suspect that you might be in a toxic relationship, this article will help to confirm (or challenge) your suspicions and give you options for what to do next.
Let’s start off with a basic definition …
What is a Toxic Relationship?
A toxic relationship is a relationship that is mentally, emotionally or spiritually damaging. Toxic relationships are defined by the qualities of fear, submission/domination (or inequality), and deception.
27 Signs of Toxic Relationships
Pay attention to the following red flags:
- Walking on eggshells – you find yourself walking on eggshells all the time for fear of upsetting your partner
- Can’t speak freely – you can’t speak about your thoughts, feelings or needs openly without fearing negative repercussions
- It’s always about them – your relationship is always about pleasing, listening to, or upholding the other person – but they never return the favor
- Abandoning values – you compromise your own values, interests, friendships, etc. to keep the relationship
- Feeling drained and depressed – you mostly feel drained, depressed or distressed around your partner
- Playing the role of parent or therapist – you often find yourself in the role of therapist or parent to your partner, rather than an adult in a relationship
- Being made fun of – your partner makes fun of your flaws and sensitivities whether passively (by treating you “less than”) or actively (through name-calling or insults)
- Being taken advantage of – your partner takes advantage of you financially, emotionally, mentally or sexually
- Always agreeing with them – you always feel the need to agree with your partner (or else there will be negative consequences)
- Constant drama – you always feel a sense of endangerment around them as drama/chaos seems to follow them everywhere
- Strict roles – you feel like you have to play a role and if you dare change, your whole relationship will crumble (this is known as enmeshment)
- Jealous of your success – instead of celebrating your triumphs, your partner feels compelled to drag you down
- Brings out the worst in you – instead of helping you to be the best version of yourself possible, your partner fuels your shadow self and seems to enjoy watching you self-destruct
- Regressing instead of progressing – on a personal and spiritual level, you move backward instead of forwards and your self-growth stagnates around your partner
- No support – you can’t turn to each other for emotional and mental support in times of need
- Unreliable – you can’t trust your partner to offer financial support, lend a helping hand, or even turn up to appointments or commitments on time
- Deception, suspicion, and paranoia – there is an implicit lack of truthfulness in your relationship and you may have caught your partner red-handed in many lies
- Self-absorption – they are wound up in their own problems, goals, desires, and so are you – there is no meeting point or mutual ground to connect on
- Contempt – there is an undercurrent of festering anger in your relationship that manifests as sarcasm, negative and condescending tones of voice, curled lips, and eye-rolling
- Disrespecting boundaries – you struggle to maintain clear physical, emotional, mental or spiritual boundaries – and your partner may enjoy overstepping them
- Submission/domination – there are issues of control in your relationship and one person will enjoy lording it over the other resulting in numerous emotional and psychological games
- Non-stop obstacles – all relationships go through bumpy periods, but in yours it is never-ending
- Feeling unworthy – your self-worth has dropped to an all-time low and you carry a feeling of persistent worthlessness while being around your partner
- Keeping count of wrongdoings – instead of moving on from the past, there is a toxic fixation and “scorekeeping” of all past fights, arguments, and grievances
- Lack of self-responsibility – your partner doesn’t take responsibility for their mistakes or their happiness
- Justifying bad behavior – you always find yourself trying to excuse or justify the selfish, immature or nasty behavior displayed by your partner
- Unequal division of labor – you feel like you have to do all the emotional work in the relationship while your partner gets to be rude, cold, unreliable or immature
How many of these signs can you relate to? The more you agree with, the more toxic your relationship is.
What is the Difference Between Toxic and Abusive Relationships?
For most people, it’s a matter of semantics. The terms “toxic” and “abusive” are often used interchangeably – but is there a difference?
Can you be in a toxic, but not abusive, relationship and vice versa?
Yes, I believe you can. There does seem to be a mild difference between toxicity and abuse. However, they can and do overlap.
I think of it this way:
All types of abuse are toxic, but not all forms of toxicity are abusive.
For example, not taking self-responsibility is toxic but isn’t necessarily abusive. The same goes with being with an immature or untrustworthy partner – these are toxic, but not necessarily abusive.
Abuse is intentionally-inflicted whereas toxicity is the byproduct of bad behavior.
So you might like to ask yourself, “is there intentionally-inflicted negativity in my relationship?” Think about whether you or your partner deliberately set out to hurt each other. If you answer “yes,” your relationship is abusive.
On the other hand, if the issues in your relationship seem to be the result of poor communication, low self-esteem, or immaturity, you’re in a toxic relationship.
But yes, you can be in both a toxic and abusive relationship.
This article caters to both (but doesn’t explore domestic violence as that requires a whole other article). If you are experiencing domestic violence, please seek professional help or call a domestic violence hotline.
What Causes Toxic Relationships?
Here are four common causes of toxic relationships:
- Poor communication and personal boundaries
- Emotional or mental immaturity
- Childhood wounds and traumas
- Narcissism and sociopathy
Sometimes toxic relationships are the product of two normal people who simply don’t know how to communicate openly. There may even be a bit of emotional or mental immaturity thrown into the mix where one or both partners doesn’t know how to handle opposing interests, desires, values, or beliefs.
On the opposite end of the spectrum comes the darker and more complex causes for toxic relationships.
Being traumatized is a common cause of dysfunctional relationships. When there are unresolved childhood wounds in one or both partners, many issues arise such as enmeshment, codependency, toxic shame, and projection.
But darkest of all is narcissism and sociopathy. Getting into a relationship with a narcissist or sociopath is a recipe for extreme abuse and suffering. Those who are with these dark breeds of people often feel trapped and like they’re going crazy. They may struggle to distinguish reality from delusion (known as gaslighting) and are at the mercy of the psychological games of the predators they’re connected to.
Take a few moments to reflect. What do you think is the underlying cause of your relationship dysfunction? I’d love to hear in the comments.
Do Toxic Relationships Ever Get Better?
Can you fix toxic relationships?
It depends. If you’re with a normal person who doesn’t know how to communicate properly, that can be resolved through methods such as relationship therapy. If the underlying cause of the relationship toxicity is unresolved childhood wounds, that can be resolved through doing inner work and therapy and might improve your connection. And if the cause of the toxicity is narcissism or sociopathy, it’s best to run for the hills and leave the relationship ASAP.
It’s normal to want to salvage a relationship, especially if you’ve dedicated many years of your life to it. But ultimately it takes two to tango, so the two of you must work together to save your connection. You cannot “fix” or “save” your partner as that is depriving them of taking self-responsibility. Instead, focus on mutually seeking growth and healing. (Of course, this excludes narcissistic/sociopathic relationships which will never improve as they’re fundamentally broken, to begin with.)
Ultimately, it’s best to ask the questions, “is this relationship worth saving?” and “does this relationship have the potential to make me feel loved, safe, and uplifted?”
Tune into your body and your heart – do you feel constriction or a subtle warm glow of hope? Your body expresses the language of your true feelings and thoughts.
Toxic Relationship Quiz
If you’re still struggling to figure out whether your relationship is toxic or not, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I like the person I am around my partner?
- Do I feel safe around my partner?
- Does my partner respect my moral/sexual/emotional boundaries?
- Do I feel heard, seen, and respected by my partner?
- Can I express my thoughts and feelings openly around my partner?
- Does my partner say sorry or show remorse for wrongdoings?
- Do I feel equal with my partner?
- Can I often unwind and feel calm around my partner?
- Does my partner emotionally and mentally nourish me?
- Can I rely on my partner?
- Do I feel free to change and grow in my relationship?
- Is there a mutual desire to work through past grievances?
The more you answer “no,” the more likely you’re in a toxic relationship. If you’d like to take an actual test, try our Toxic Relationship Test.
Why People Stay in Toxic Relationships
Here are some common objections and forms of resistance people have to changing or leaving their toxic relationships:
I don’t want to be alone.
I still love him/her.
It’s my first serious relationship.
This is the best I can do.
I have children, a house, a career, I feel trapped.
Our relationship didn’t start this way. I’m sure it will get better.
I’m scared of multiple negative repercussions.
As I mentioned above (in the section “Do Toxic Relationships Ever Get Better?”), not all toxic relationships are doomed for failure. For instance, if the issue is simply poor communication and immaturity, then that can often be resolved through relationship therapy.
But in the case of being with a narcissist or sociopath, the best thing to do for your sanity is to leave and get the hell out of there as quickly as you can.
Below we’ll explore some ways to either try and resolve or end toxic relationships.
How to End (or Save) a Toxic Relationship
Not all toxic relationships are the same.
Some are salvageable. But others (i.e., those that are full of pathological narcissism and sociopathic behavior) need to be ended as swiftly and firmly as possible.
If you’re unsure whether your partner is a narcissist/sociopath or not, I encourage you to look up the signs on a trusted psychological website (like Psychology Today). Or better yet, read a book such as Psychopath Free.
How to Save Your Relationship
- Go to relationship counseling
- Read up on non-violent communication skills
- Learn the art of active listening
- Find mutual interests and passions
- Make space for regular intimacy and affection
- Practice mindfulness
- Set clear personal boundaries
Of course, to save your relationship both of you must be genuinely willing to go the extra mile and do some work.
If you are the only one invested in saving your relationship, consider your relationship is dead. It’s now time to devise an escape plan …
How to End Your Relationship
1. Notice denial – Is a part of you still pining for that “happily ever after”? Is there still resistance in you to leaving? If you’re questioning your sanity, remember that you have likely been conditioned to distrust yourself across the course of your relationship. This is known as gaslighting, and it’s an abuse tactic. Trust in your instincts. The very fact that you’re reading this article shows that something is wrong in your life, and it’s time to get out.
2. Don’t fall for their manipulations – If your toxic partner senses that you’re going to leave them they may try to charm you back into staying. Understand this manipulation tactic beforehand and arm yourself with a goal and mission (i.e., to leave and live a happy life again).
3. Get a support person/group – Do you have a friend or family member that you can trust to help you leave – ideally a therapist? If you don’t have any of these people in your life (or can’t afford therapy), try an online group for narcissistic/toxic abuse survivors (such as on Facebook). A lot of help can be found online or simply through chatting to someone on a mental health hotline.
4. Plan an escape route – Get everything in order (including your belongings, finances, and children) and know where you’re going to (i.e., a friend’s house) after leaving. If you fear for your safety, do this all secretly, preferably when your partner is not home. Also, have the police on speed-dial on your mobile just in case.
5. Think about your life five years from now – If you’re struggling to get the motivation to leave, think about your future. Can you stand the thought of living five more years with your partner? Can you stand the emotional and mental abuse or stagnation?
6. Create a goal to work towards – Another way to motivate yourself to leave is to envision a life that you adore – then compare it to the life you live now. The harsh juxtaposition between the two will encourage you to make decisions that will help you feel free again. You are worthy of a beautiful, fulfilling life. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
7. Use empowering affirmations – Often, after being in a toxic relationship, we feel demoralized. We may feel drained of energy and doubtful of our innate worth as human beings. To help you leave your toxic relationship, find some inspiring morning affirmations that fill you with hope. Examples may include “I am worthy of happiness,” “I have the right to live a life I love,” “I am empowered to make wise decisions,” “I am strong and brave,” “I can do whatever I put my mind towards.”
Embrace Starting Again, Embrace Being a Lone Wolf
In conclusion, I want to encourage you to make a decision that feels right to your heart and soul. (But be careful of confusion the voice of fear with the voice of intuition.)
There are so many people in this world, there is so much out there for you to do and experience. Remember that it’s easy to mistake familiarity with “safety” in toxic relationships.
It feels so hard to leave because your life has been built around your relationship – and when that’s taken away it’s like you have to rebuild your life again from scratch. But the question must be asked, is it better to build a new house in a foreign terrain or stay in the same old house dying a little more each day on the inside?
I truly hope this article has benefited you.