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Spotting the signs of a toxic relationship and what to do about it

The statement is true enough – relationships require a lot of work. Fights can happen, and those are just part of the challenges of having a significant other. 

However, one must recognize when rough patches happen way too often, and when difficulties cross boundaries, then you might actually be in a toxic relationship.

How does one know the distinction between a difficult, complicated, or a toxic relationship? Some people may not see the signs right away and fail to understand that there are legitimate causes for concern from what you experience in your romantic life.

The term toxic relationship was first coined by Dr. Lillian Glass, a communication and psychology expert based in California.

In her 1995 book Toxic People, she defined a toxic relationship as “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.”

While there are ups and downs in every relationship, Dr. Glass stated that a toxic relationship is consistently unpleasant and draining for the people involved and reaches a point where negative moments outweigh and outnumber the positive ones.

Conflicts become more common and, in many cases, at least one person in the partnership tries to minimize the other’s perspective. There tends to be a lack of support and an air of general unpleasantness.

Toxic relationships can also be mentally, emotionally, and even physically damaging according to Dr. Kristen Fuller, a California-based family medicine physician who specializes in mental health.

More importantly, toxicity is not confined to romantic relationships. Family and work interactions can deteriorate and turn into toxic relationships as well.

There can be so many reasons for toxic behavior, ranging from a harsh childhood, bullying at home and at school, mental health issues, or trauma.

An imperfect pairing between partners may also lead to a toxic relationship – partners may just be too different to be compatible with each other.

Still, people should be aware of the warning signs of a toxic relationship so that they can get out when they can, for their own physical security and mental health.

The most serious signs would include any form of violence, abuse, manipulative behavior, or harassment, which should be addressed immediately. Other signals, however, may not be so obvious.

Recognizing the signs

According to Dr. Glass, [1] the first and simplest sign of a toxic relationship is unhappiness. If there is no joy left in the relationship, and what remains are feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety, emptiness, and envy at the sight of happy couples, then the relationship may be toxic.

In a toxic relationship, [2] one significant red flag is when your self-esteem starts to deteriorate. Toxic dynamics often involve constant criticism, manipulation, or belittling from your partner, causing you to doubt your worth and capabilities.

[3] Trust is important in a relationship and when that is gone, then it means that you cannot rely on, or be vulnerable with your partner. Frequent lying may have eroded that trust and credibility, and the lack of honesty also signals a lack of respect in the relationship.

[4] A toxic relationship is also marked by hostile communication, which can include yelling, name-calling, aggressive behavior, physical intimidation, or force. This can also include silent treatment and constant interruptions. Hostile communication can create tension and heighten the distrust between partners.

Another sign of a toxic relationship is [5] when you listen to respond instead of truly hearing and understanding your partner. If communication revolves around defending your views rather than empathetically engaging with your thoughts and emotions, it may indicate deeper issues in the relationship.

Dr. Fuller shares that negative changes in one’s mental health, personality, self-esteem, and behavior are red flags as well. These include depression, eating disorders, and feelings of anxiety or discomfort, especially around your partner.

One may become conscious of how to spend free time since there might be an obligation to always attend to your partner.

The inability to express personal thoughts or feelings to your significant other may also be symptomatic of a toxic relationship. These may all negatively impact your other relationships, with family, friends, and work colleagues.

One should also seriously consider concerns voiced by family and friends. People in toxic relationships are often the last to realize how bad their relationship has become, since the damage may have multiplied over the years.

One can become so used to the toxicity that you become immune and used to it. And when others point out how demoralizing the relationship has become, you deny it because you can’t see the harm that has been caused.

A woman who was in a toxic relationship summed up her experience with this: ‘You get paralyzed in it, because you’re just used to it.’

Taking action

When you recognize and accept that you may be in a toxic relationship, the next step is to do something about it. In the most extreme cases, if there is a sense of being in physical danger, then it is important to involve the authorities.

Check the hotlines for domestic violence in your area or get in touch with people who can help you escape an abusive relationship. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available for 24/7 guidance at 1-800-799-7233.

However, if the wounds inflicted are mental or emotional, then you will have to decide whether the relationship is something worth saving.

Open lines of communication. Determine the triggers for destructive behavior. Perhaps get a third party or a therapist to mediate and help understand your issues.

Therapeutic or medical treatments may help or may actually be necessary. Understanding the root of the problem is important. Try to rebuild trust and respect.

Of course, relationships aren’t perfect but there is no reason to lose joy or one’s sense of peace. Love should not cost you your happiness, self-esteem, or dignity.

Perhaps the partner can change, but if the relationship is causing damage to your health and well-being, recognize your worth, and protect yourself. Perhaps you can resolve your issues but then again, there may be no choice but to walk away from a toxic relationship.

To learn more about toxic relationships, watch the video below:

(Note: This article is for informational purposes only and not to be treated as a professional opinion or diagnosis.)

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