Am I in a Toxic Relationship?

Trigger warning: Verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse are referenced in this post and specific examples are given.

Cutting ‘toxic’ people out of our lives seems to be the talk of the town these days. But what does it actually mean?

Toxic relationships can be with a significant other, but they can also occur within friendships, family relationships… even work relationships, like between a boss and employee.

Here, in no particular order, are 10 signs that a relationship you’re in may be toxic.

#1. Feeling like you’re constantly walking on eggshells

When you’re around the person in question, do you choose your words painstakingly carefully? And even then, sometimes one little thing you say turns into a blowout argument, or the silent treatment?

In a healthy relationship, both parties can express themselves openly and disagree. If you don’t feel emotionally safe to do so, it could be a sign that the relationship is toxic.

#2. Put-downs and insults

“You’re so dumb.” “Why do you dress like a slut?” “Hey a**hole! Answer your phone!”

These words and phrases may be played off as “just a joke,” or dismissed – “You know I didn’t mean it.”

But put-downs hurt, and they erode self-esteem over time. Put-downs and insults constitute verbal and emotional abuse, and are a sign of toxicity.

#3. Lying

Sometimes, it can be really hard to tell if someone is lying. Especially if you have a history of relationships with people who lied and cheated. You may be very attuned to behaviors or reactions that may not actually indicate dishonesty.

That said, most people who lie are in the habit of doing so. Sooner or later, they will be caught.

Honesty and trust are necessary to create a foundation for a healthy relationship. Without them, it’s nearly impossible to establish a healthy dynamic.

#4. Minimizing feelings and accomplishments

One of the most common ways that people minimize feelings is accusing someone of being “too sensitive” or “overreacting.”

If something hurts your feelings, it hurts your feelings! Period, end of story. You have every right to feel angry, sad, disappointed, or whatever else.

In a healthy relationship, each person understands and takes ownership for how they’ve hurt the other, even if it was unintentional.

In a toxic relationship, career choices or hobbies (in addition to feelings) could be dismissed as being silly or outlandish, or not acknowledged at all. A healthier dynamic occurs when each person supports one another and their dreams.

#5. Power struggles and ultimatums

A power struggle occurs when both parties in a relationship are refusing to budge, waiting for the other person to give in to what they want or how they see things. The problem with power struggles is that they don’t get anyone anywhere, except feeling angrier and more resentful than when they began.

An ultimatum is the biggest power struggle of all. There may be rare occasions when ultimatums are an effective choice. When people use ultimatums frequently or ineffectively, it’s not a good sign.

#6. Emotional withholding

… also known as “the silent treatment” or “the cold shoulder.” Emotional withholding is a lack of physical affection or praise and positive feedback (There’s a great post on emotional withholding here). Often, one person will emotionally withhold when the other has done something they dislike; this manipulates the other person into doing what they want more often.

In healthy relationships, both parties are able to provide the other with physical and verbal affection, and talk to each other about their emotions.

#7. Gaslighting

If you aren’t familiar with the term gaslighting, it means slowly making someone feel ‘crazy.’ People gaslight people by dismissing their experiences, telling them they aren’t remembering things correctly, or that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation meant to chip away at the target’s self-esteem. It’s a common sign of relationship toxicity.

#8. Mismatched effort

In toxic relationships, one person may invest significantly more effort than the other. For example, one person works, parents, cooks, cleans, works on themselves, tries to understand the other person… and the other person? They… don’t do much. Perhaps in a friendship, this would look like one person making plans all the time, giving rides or lending money, while the other doesn’t reciprocate.

There are times in every relationship when one person might get sick or have financial problems, and need more help than the other for a while. But if this dynamic persists over months or years, or is extremely pronounced, it may be a sign of a toxic relationship.

#9. Lack of privacy

If one or both people in the relationship read one another’s texts and e-mails, keep tabs on the other’s whereabouts, and/or don’t do anything without the other, this indicates a lack of privacy. We want to be open and honest in relationships, but at the same time, some space and time apart is good. Space indicates trust and establishes each of you as individuals.

#10. Physical or sexual abuse

When most of us think of physical abuse, we picture someone with a black eye. And certainly, punching and hitting constitute physical abuse. But physical abuse can also look like physical intimidation by cornering someone or blocking a doorway. Physical abuse can be grabbing someone’s shoulders or arms. Destroying someone’s property is also physical abuse. And sexual abuse is any unwanted sexual contact (not limited to penetration), including kissing, oral sex, and so on.

I know this is a lot of detail to go into, but it’s important for people to know so they can recognize the signs. Be aware that what may start out as small infractions can escalate quickly.

I think I might be in a toxic relationship. Now what?

Common sense would say that the best thing to do is leave the relationship right away.

I want to be very clear: that is NOT a one-size-fits-all solution.

Many people in toxic relationships are dependent on the other person for money, housing and so on, or are afraid that if they leave, the other person may try to find them and retaliate. Sound like you? You may want to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

If you might be in a toxic relationship, I highly recommend seeing a clinical therapist such as myself or someone in your area. Individual, family therapy, or both may help. Even if your concerns don’t feel ‘severe,’ you may benefit from talking to someone about them.

Remember: My blog posts are intended to provide general information, and do not constitute therapy.

Learn more about teletherapy.

Find out more about anger and forgiveness.

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