9 Signs of a Toxic Relationship (From an Expert)

Women's Dating

9 Signs of a Toxic Relationship (From an Expert)

Rachel Dack Rachel Dack
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There is no such thing as the perfect partner who will do every little thing right. Even healthy, happy relationships have some level of conflict, but toxic relationships are consistently unhealthy and can do significant damage over time.

Oftentimes, there are warning signs early on in dating, but toxic partners may also be on their best behavior at the beginning of the relationship, which is part of their act. Then their toxic behavior escalates and worsens as the relationship progresses.

When you’re in a toxic relationship, it can be challenging to identify the signs because maladaptive behavior and abusive treatment from your partner becomes your norm. Many unhealthy partners are not toxic 100% of the time, so the good times can cause confusion, hope, and overstaying.

Denial may often kick in to keep you safe and protected, but the downside is that it can be hard to see the situation clearly. If you’re aware that you’re in a toxic relationship, you may feel scared to leave, question your worth, or feel this relationship is better than no relationship at all, so you stay. Regardless of how you feel, know you deserve a relationship filled with respect, trust, empathy, kindness, honesty, love, and mutual effort.

Below are nine signs that you’re in a toxic relationship. These signs commonly occur together and exist on a continuum. However, you don’t need to have every sign to signify a toxic relationship; even regularly experiencing a couple signs is problematic.

It’s important to take the signs seriously and consider leaving the relationship or getting professional help, such as counseling as an individual and couple, to repair it because staying in a toxic relationship is detrimental to your well-being. It changes the way you think about yourself and can do a number on your self-esteem.

1. Your Partner Runs the Show

This may include having a partner who tries to exert power over you, control you, boss you around, or manipulate you. Basically, it’s your partner’s way or the highway. “No” is one of your partner’s favorite words, and passive-aggressive behavior is often used to manipulate you to get his or her way.

You have little say in decisions, you’re kept out of the loop (for example, regarding finances or plans), and your partner exhibits a general inability to compromise. It’s important to understand that these behaviors are in line with boundary crossings and violations that can leave you feeling disempowered, unimportant, or trapped.

Photo of a couple fighting

A toxic partner will often try to tell you what to do, where to go, and who to be.

In healthy relationships, both parties make compromises and sacrifices, and you don’t have to give up the majority of what you want to keep the relationship intact.

If you find that you’re the only one giving and making changes for the sake of the relationship, you’re dealing with a toxic partner. Try asking yourself if your partner would do the same for you along with these other questions to ensure that you’re sacrificing for the right reasons and keeping your relationship healthy. Your feelings, needs, and opinions should be valued.

2. Your Partner is Emotionally Unstable

Therefore, you have to walk on eggshells. You feel fearful and scared to be your true self, which is a major red flag in a relationship.

You feel on edge about upsetting your partner or making him or her mad. There’s a pattern of unpredictability as one minute everything is OK, and then it’s not.

Photo of a man crying

One minute he or she is crying, and then the next minute everything is OK.

Minor things set your partner off, causing your relationship to feel like an emotional roller coaster. Your partner is moody, angry, or easily offended, so you try to keep the peace and not unintentionally cause conflict.

This is problematic because you’re neglecting your own needs to avoid an outburst in someone else. It can also cause you to overanalyze every move, keep your mouth shut, and live in constant fear and anxiety of your partner lashing out. In turn, it’s hard to relax and trust your partner.

3. Your Relationship Feels Exhausting

You feel drained, depressed, and bad about yourself. While all relationships go through stages and challenges, and your relationship will not always make you happy, the conflict in your relationship remains unsolved and worsens over time.

You have little energy to give because you’ve learned over time that speaking up for what you need, forgiving your partner, and making other repair attempts only leave you feeling hurt, rejected, and unfulfilled.

Photo of a tired woman

A toxic relationship can leave you emotionally and physically drained.

You’re increasingly exhausted because nothing seems to change long term despite your efforts to fix things. Your partner is unable to participate in constructive communication, so many issues are left unresolved. Overall, you feel unhappy with your relationship and yourself.

4. Your Partner Constantly Criticizes You

Your partner puts you down, or your partner tries to change you. In turn, you walk around feeling degraded, and this worsens over time.

You feel beaten down and begin questioning your worth. You doubt yourself and your reality because your partner makes you feel crazy, alone, and worthless.

Photo of a woman yelling at a man

If your boyfriend or girlfriend is always criticizing you, that’s not a good sign.

Your partner uses sarcasm or humiliation and assigns blame to you. For example, when you speak up about your needs and concerns, your partner accuses you of being needy and makes it your problem, not his or hers.

Or maybe he or she takes little jabs at your personality and appearance. Your partner shouldn’t be responsible for meeting all of your needs, but your needs should be taken seriously. Your partner should lift you up, not tear you down.

5. Your Partner is Abusive

This may include a partner who uses violence, physical aggression, rape, stalking, and other harmful, hazardous behaviors. Your partner may attempt to convince you that you “owe” him or her sex, guilt you into getting their way, and not respect your boundaries or the fact that “no means no.”

It’s important to understand what consent means. Also, understand physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are never OK.

Photo of a woman holding her hands up

Physical and emotional abuse are among the top red flags.

Word of caution: It’s a myth that abusive relationships have a predictable pattern or cycle. However, it’s important to note that the calm phases in your relationship and your partner’s apologies (nice words, gift giving, kind gestures, etc.) often don’t equate to changed behavior and can be part of your partner’s patterns. Therefore, believe changed behavior, not apologies or more tolerable short gaps of time.

Learn more about the signs of domestic violence here:

6. You’re No Longer Living a Healthy Life

And other parts of your life are suffering. Your relationship interferes with your other relationships and other obligations such as school or work.

You’re growing more and more isolated from friends and family. Your partner is controlling about who you can see and when. Your partner sabotages career opportunities and your most important relationships.

Photo of a woman not eating

Being in a toxic relationship can cause you to neglect your health, career, and family.

You find yourself defending your partner to loved ones who express valid concerns and worry. You have little to no time for self-care, exercise, a social life, and other activities to replenish your energy.

7. You’re the Only One Making an Effort

You believe that if you try hard enough, you can save the relationship and make it feel good again. Unfortunately, this is not true.

If you feel that you have to work harder, say the right thing time and time again, compromise on most things, and do more for your partner’s love and respect, give yourself permission to let go of the burden. This is a dysfunctional way to live and approach relationships.

Photo of breakfast in bed

It takes two people to make a healthy relationship work.

Healthy relationships take two. It’s important to ask yourself if this relationship is offering you enough and, if the answer is no, assess why you’re staying in a one-sided relationship.

Exploring your reasons will provide important information about your intentions and feelings and may actually motivate you to end the relationship.

8. You Have Trust & Privacy Issues

This may occur with one or both partners, meaning your partner doesn’t trust you or you don’t trust your partner or both. Maybe your partner cheated or exhibits untrustworthy behaviors such as sending flirty texts to others, breaking plans often, lying, exhibiting inconsistent behavior, or not keeping his or her word.

Maybe your partner accuses you of cheating even though you haven’t. He or she bombards you with cheating accusations, is incredibly paranoid, and doesn’t believe the truth.

Photo of a woman looking over her boyfriend's shoulder

Trust is one of the most important foundations in a relationship.

They only trust you when they have all of your passwords and personal information and can track where you are at all times or vice versa. They spy on you and are obsessed with knowing where you are.

You have little freedom to have a life outside of the relationship, or you don’t trust your partner to either. Your whole relationship becomes an investigation with one or both of you continually on trial.

Also, you may not trust your partner to treat you and your feelings with the care and compassion you deserve. Relationships cannot thrive and survive without trust.

9. You’re Living Completely Separate Lives

You’ve lost the healthy balance of time together and time apart. You’re both technically in the relationship, but you’re no longer working to make things better and put little effort in the relationship.

You no longer spend time together, plan romantic dates or vacations, or look forward to each other’s company. You’re in the relationship but not physically present, and your love has faded.

Photo of a sad couple

You may physically be with your partner, but your heart isn’t in the relationship.

You may even admit to yourself that you’re staying in the relationship for financial or logistical reasons, to avoid being alone, or because it’s too emotionally or physically scary to leave. Or maybe you make up excuses for your partner’s toxic behavior and convince yourself things will get better through magical thinking and false hope.

Deciding What to Do Next Can Be Challenging, But It Can Be Done

Being in a toxic relationship can be terrifying, and it can be emotionally exhausting. Despite knowing you have good reason to walk away, toxic relationships can be the most difficult to end or repair.

It’s natural to feel that your confidence has been eroded and worry that there’s no way out. However, the above signs can help validate that what you’re going through is not OK and is not your fault.

You may not be able to control how others treat you, but you’re in control of who you let into your life and what types of relationships you’re willing to participate in. Unfortunately, it can be a harsh and disappointing reality when love doesn’t lead to a happy, healthy relationship, but know you deserve the total package. Love should not be toxic and painful. Consider how you can get your power back.

Also, check out the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, and the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence for more support and information.