In certain cases, that toxicity in action is much clearer than in others. “While physical and verbal abuse are ace-in-the-hole indicators, there are many other ways that toxicity manifests in relationships,” says Jennie Marie Battistin, LMFT, clinical director and founder of Hope Therapy Center.
“While a healthy relationship is based on equality and respect, an unhealthy or toxic one is about power and control.” —therapist Katarena Arger, MFT
In fact, one of the most harmful and overarching qualities of a toxic relationship is also, paradoxically, one of the reasons it can be so tough to simply escape: A toxic partner tends to have the upper hand at all times. “While a healthy relationship is based on equality and respect, an unhealthy or toxic one is about power and control,” says Katarena Arger, MFT, primary therapist at Alter Health Group. And there are a bunch of subtle ways that a person can take hold of that control over time, leaving you with less agency to rectify the situation or end it. Below, relationship experts break down the red flags of this power dynamic, so you can identify it in action and learn how to leave any toxic relationship with your well-being intact.
5 common signs of a toxic or otherwise unhealthy relationship
1. Hostile communication
No two people are going to see eye-to-eye at all times, and occasionally, natural disagreements can be fodder for arguments. But it’s how a partner communicates their viewpoint during a disagreement—particularly when their stance is different from yours—that can shed light on the health of your relationship.
Communication that comes from a place of contempt, or signifies that a partner feels superior to you, is “the archenemy of healthy relationships,” says licensed clinical social worker and relationship therapist Darcy Sterling, PhD, host of the E! network series Famously Single. In general, that can play out as a partner frequently aiming to one-up you in conversation or have the final word, or in the form of discussions laden with criticism or defensiveness, says Battistin.
While the heat of an argument can certainly prompt someone to blurt out something deeply hurtful that they don’t truly mean, it's a bad sign if a partner is regularly acting in ways that reek of toxicity, says Dr. Sterling: “Examples include name-calling, bringing up past incidents, criticizing you (rather than your behavior), stonewalling, and threatening to break up.”
2. Feeling like you’re walking on eggshells
“If you find yourself toggling between wanting to share something and worrying that it might provoke your partner, the relationship may be toxic,” says Dr. Sterling. A partnership who restricts you in this way can quickly cause you to turn on yourself—which is a control tactic that can leave you feeling as though you’re the problem in the relationship.
By contrast, in a supportive partnership, you’ll have the freedom to speak from the heart, and beyond that, to know that if you do offend or hurt your partner unintentionally (as everyone is bound to do at some point), they won’t hold it against you or resent you for it. “Grudge-holders don’t make good partners, and good partners tend not to be grudge-holders,” says Dr. Sterling.
3. Always giving—and never or rarely receiving—support
At risk of inching toward cliché, a partnership really is a two-way street, and support should run in both directions. No one person’s needs should always be prioritized over the other person’s, says Battistin. And if you feel as though your needs are often being sacrificed in the name of your partner’s, or that they’re simply being treated as an afterthought, that’s a toxic red flag.
4. Being isolated from life beyond your relationship
Even if you view your partner as your best friend or the person with whom you’re closest in the world, they still shouldn’t be your entire life, says Dr. Sterling. “If you find your world shrinking and your other relationships dwindling, that spells trouble,” she says. In general, it means you're on the slippery slope toward toxic monogamy, which is characterized by depending on your romantic partner to be everything you need.
That concept extends to your interests, activities, and hobbies, too: If you’re no longer doing the things you used to enjoy, you may be wrapped up in a toxic relationship that’s minimizing your sense of self, according to Battistin.
5. Any kind of manipulation that strips you of autonomy
Though manipulation can enter a relationship in many forms—from gaslighting to love-bombing to guilt-tripping—the common denominator is an attempt by one person to influence the other person’s actions so that they always stand to benefit. At its extreme, this type of behavior coming from a partner can quickly leave you without any sense of privacy or control over day-to-day decisions, both of which create a toxic power dynamic.
How to know when it’s time to leave a toxic partnership
Once you’ve identified that your relationship is toxic (or teetering close to that territory), ending it is almost always the safest, healthiest option. And it’s worth restating that if any level of physical or verbal abuse is occurring, you absolutely deserve—and will benefit from—an immediate escape route (like support from the National Domestic Violence Hotline or 911).
Otherwise, however, the decision to leave can be muddled by a whole slate of confounding factors, internal and external. On the one hand, there are practical reasons that could make leaving difficult, like financial ties or the fact that you live in the same home as your partner, says Arger. And on the other hand, there are more esoteric motivations, she adds, such as personal values and beliefs around calling it quits on something into which you’ve poured ample time, love, and energy.
“Often, your self-esteem becomes damaged in a toxic relationship, and you can start to believe that this is all you deserve.” —therapist Jennie Marie Battistin, LMFT
Not to mention, there’s the potential effect of the very manipulation in play: “Often, your self-esteem becomes damaged in a toxic relationship, and you can start to believe that this is all you deserve,” says Battistin. “Or, you might blame yourself, thinking something like, ‘If I try harder, things will get better.’” You could also become subconsciously hooked on the relationship’s unpredictability, which can read more like novelty than danger in real time.
In any case, pinpointing the reason you’ve stayed with your partner thus far can help you weigh its gravity against the nature of your relationship. If remaining in the relationship still seems worthwhile, try talking to your partner to gauge their level of openness to hear your concerns, says Battistin. “Explain to your partner how you are feeling about your relationship and what you need,” she says. “If your partner can reflect some level of insight and understanding, consider seeking couples’ therapy, which can help you learn to communicate your needs, find ways to compromise, and reduce unhealthy patterns.” These sessions will also give you unbiased professional insight into the behaviors of your partner and a clear directive on whether the relationship is really salvageable.
How to smoothly cut ties and leave a toxic relationship
Ending things with a partner is easier said than done, even if it becomes crystal-clear to you that that’s the best course of action. To start, gather loved ones in your corner and fill them in on the situation; you can lean on them both during the breakup and afterward, as you work to heal from the trauma of enduring a toxic relationship.
“If safety is of any concern, make a plan to move in with a family member or friend in another neighborhood or city, alert co-workers and friends not to make your whereabouts known, limit posts on social media, and consider changing your phone number,” says Battistin.
Alternatively, if you think a breakup conversation is safe and feasible, it’s typically best to have one, says Arger. “When addressing the situation, set a time to discuss your desire to end the relationship, so you’re not ambushing the person, and practice assertive communication,” she says. There’s also no need to go into any more detail than you’d like to share. “Remember that ‘no’ is a complete sentence,” says Arger. And in any case, your well-being isn’t up for debate.
If you are experiencing or at risk of experiencing any kind of domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance.
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