Your partner said: “I like your outfit—it’s totally your style. But to be perfectly honest, it’s not very flattering. You should wear this outfit instead for your body type.”
A confusion of feelings cloud your mind: Do they not like the way I dress, or the way I look? you wonder. As tears start, your partner said:“Oh, stop crying. You’re overreacting!”–a dismissal of your emotions which makes you feel even worse.
If you’ve been in a situation where your partner criticizes, dismisses your emotions or is controlling, you might be in a toxic relationship. Judging can be difficult, as the signs of a toxic relationship can often be subtle and well-disguised.
What is a toxic relationship?
A toxic relationship is one that is mentally, emotionally or physically harmful to some or all of the participants, according to Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist and author.
Although the term toxic relationship can refer to codependent relationships (meaning one relies on their relationship for their self-worth), it typically refers to a relationship that is more abusive or dysfunctional in nature, Tessina said.
“The term has been more recently used to mean anyone who feels dependent, helpless and out of control in a relationship—or unable to leave an unsatisfying or abusive one,” Tessina said. “Dysfunctional relationships are relationships that do not perform their appropriate function. That is, they do not emotionally support the participants, foster communication among them, appropriately challenge them, or prepare or fortify them for life in the larger world.”
Unfortunately, toxic relationships are fairly common. Some toxic relationships will have intimate partner violence (IPV), which is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as, “physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse.”
IPV affects over 12 million people in the U.S. each year, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. In addition, 15% of women and 4% of men have been injured because of IPV, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
What are the signs of a toxic relationship
Below are seven common signs of a toxic relationship.
1. There is continual fighting and arguing. Couples argue every so often—it’s a part of life. But if you find yourself constantly arguing or fighting with your partner, and the two of you struggle to communicate in a positive way, you might be in a toxic relationship.
“Constant bickering and arguing are signs that both of you are unhappy and not getting what you want from the relationship,” Tessina said. “Fighting never solves anything. Instead, learn to listen to each other and work together to solve the problem.”
Big red flag: Any form of physical abuse or violence is a sign you are in a toxic relationship.
2. Your partner has a history of lying and/or cheating. Perpetual lying and cheating are signs you are likely in a toxic relationship. “If you can’t trust each other, you can’t build a future together or even enjoy the present,” Tessina said. “If you or your partner is a habitual liar, therapy is needed. If your partner is unwilling, go to therapy yourself, or start over with a more honest partner.”
3. Things seem too good to be true. This person is so amazing, you think. Where have they been all my life? Although the early butterflies of a relationship can be thrilling, Kelly Morrow Baez, Ph.D., a mental health professional and the founder of Aware and Prepared, said that if things seem way too good to be true early on, they probably are.
“If the connection between the two feels amazing and unbelievable, that’s actually a warning sign,” she said. “It takes an average of four months to get to know someone’s true colors. The best defense is to take it slow. Toxic people don’t have the energy for this, so it’s a great way to stop a problem before it starts.”
4. They use flattery or feigned concern to control you. Nicole L. Arkadie, Ph.D., a therapist and author, said some toxic partners will use manipulative tactics to dominate you. “[They’ll use] flattery to control you and what you wear—always complimenting you on your outfit and attire, but then offering or suggesting something different for you to wear,” she said.
They might also try to feign concern for you in order to carry out all the decisions in a relationship. “They don’t allow you to make decisions of your own or for yourself, and they take decisions away from you,” Arkadie said. “[They’ll tell] you that you are smart and have great ideas, but then always make decisions for you and say it’s because they don’t want you to be stressed out.”
5. They speak poorly of others, especially exes. We all gossip, but if your partner speaks negatively about people constantly (especially former partners), this could be a red flag that you’re in a toxic relationship.
“Listen to the way he or she talks about others,” Morrow Baez said. “It speaks volumes about their personality. Do they trash their ex? Chances are good that you’ll be next. Normal, healthy individuals don’t need to speak poorly of someone, even if the relationship ended badly.”
6. You feel as though you’re being isolated from people. Arkadie said one major warning sign is a partner who tries to keep you away from those you love, such as friends and family. If you feel like your partner wants you all to themselves, you might be in trouble.
“[They’ll say] that they love you so much and don’t want others to come in between the two of you, and that’s why they don’t want you going out with friends,” she said.
7. Silence is used in a manipulative way. A toxic person, Arkadie said, might use silence as a form of control, telling you that the reason they stop talking to you for days is because they’re trying to “figure out” how to fix the relationship and give you what you want. “Yet this always happens after an argument or disagreement, and then you are given the silent treatment for several days,” Arkadie said.
Keep in mind that no relationship is perfect—problems arise. The key is knowing when your relationship has gone from slightly problematic to toxic.
“The degree of dysfunction, codependency or toxicity in relationships can vary,” Tessina said. “Most of us get a little dependent, and therefore dysfunctional, from time to time— especially when we’re tired, stressed or otherwise overloaded. What makes the difference between this normal, occasional human frailty and true clinical dysfunction is our ability to recognize, confront and correct dysfunction when it happens in our relationships.”
How can I protect myself from a toxic relationship?
Once you’ve identified you’re in a toxic relationship, it’s important to take action. Use these steps to protect yourself.
Do your research. If you’re in a very new relationship and you suspect your partner is exhibiting toxic behaviors, it’s essential to be vigilant early on. Do a public records check on them using a people search tool. This is especially true if you’re a woman—four out of five victims of IPV are female, according to data from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Cut ties immediately. Once you’ve realized you’re in a toxic relationship, Morrow Baez said it’s important to cut off all contact with the person as quickly as possible.
“Your best bet is to stop giving the person any emotion at all, which is usually what feeds their behavior,” she said. “No fighting, no discussion, no explaining yourself. When you’re done, you’re done and that’s it. Unless you’re married and there are legal issues to attend to, a text or email breakup is sufficient.”
Arkadie said that when ending things, it’s critical to remain as calm as possible. Try to use a mellow, peaceful and polite tone.
Block the person’s phone number and email address if necessary. You might be tempted to keep the lines of communication open, especially if you were in a long-term relationship. But Arkadie said you should try to avoid this.
“After you end the relationship, make sure not to respond to text messages or emails,” she said. “If this is hard for you to do, then you want to block their number and send their emails to spam. Remember: toxicity can only thrive in places that is has access to, so make sure you no longer allow yourself to be available to be affected.”
Seek counseling. Leaving a toxic relationship can be difficult, which is why it’s often necessary to seek counseling or therapy in the aftermath.
“I strongly suggest getting support from a counselor,” Morrow Baez said. “It’s normal to have mixed emotions when leaving a toxic partner and having the right support can be helpful.”
Make sure you’re safe. Morrow Baez said toxic partners can often be violent, which means safety is crucial. “Toxic partners often get angry when they realize they can’t control you anymore, so make sure you keep your personal safety in mind,” she said.
One way to ensure you’re safe is by having another person nearby when you’re ending a toxic relationship.
“Safety is paramount and you want to make sure it is safe to talk to the person alone about ending the relationship,” Arkadie said. “If not, you want to have another person present with you for support. They can be in another room or, if you are at a more public setting, make sure they are close by so they are able to intervene if necessary.”