What is a Toxic Relationship? – 8 Signs of Toxic Relationships
With few exceptions, human beings want to be emotionally and physically close to each other. Life seems better shared. And yet no human endeavor seems more fraught with challenges and difficulties than our relationships with others. Relationships, like most things in life worth having, require effort. Toxic relationships require even more effort.
By Thomas L. Cory, Ph.D.
(Updated with new content for 2022 by Camille Platt)
Think of it this way: Even good relationships take work. After all, our significant other, our close friends, and even our parents aren’t perfect (and, oddly enough, they may not see us as perfect either). We have to learn how to accommodate and adapt to their idiosyncrasies, their faults, and their moods, just as they must learn how to do the same with us. And it’s worth it.
Some relationships, however, are more difficult and require proportionately more work. We are not clones but individuals, and some individuals in relationships are going to have more difficulties or more disagreements. But because we value these relationships, we’re willing to make the effort it takes to keep them.
And then there are toxic relationships. These relationships have mutated themselves into something that has the potential, if not corrected, to be extremely harmful to our well-being. These relationships are not necessarily hopeless, but they require substantial and difficult work if they are to be changed into something healthy. The paradox is that in order to have a reasonable chance to turn a toxic relationship into a healthy relationship, we have to be prepared to leave it (more about this later).
The importance of understanding what defines a toxic relationship is elevated in a global pandemic. Pandemic precautions have us spending more time at home. In 2020 and 2021, many of us lost the outlets that brought balance to our social, physical, and mental health – work, friends, the gym, school. Isolation at home shed a new light on the indicators that a relationship is toxic, meaning recent years have been key in identifying unhealthy patterns in our relationships. In April 2020, the Journal of Clinical Nursing reported that “home can be a place where dynamics of power can be distorted and subverted … often without scrutiny from anyone ‘outside’ the couple or the family unit. In the COVID‐19 crisis, the exhortation to ‘stay at home’ therefore has major implications for those adults and children already living with someone who is abusive or controlling.”
So what exactly is a toxic relationship and how do you know if you’re in one?
By definition, a toxic relationship is a relationship characterized by behaviors on the part of the toxic partner that are emotionally and, not infrequently, physically damaging. While a healthy relationship contributes to our self-esteem and emotional energy, a toxic relationship damages self-esteem and drains energy. A healthy relationship involves mutual care, respect, and compassion; an interest in our partner’s welfare and growth; and an ability to share control and decision-making. In short, a healthy relationship involves a shared desire for each other’s happiness. A healthy relationship is a safe relationship, a relationship where we can be ourselves without fear, a place where we feel comfortable and secure. A toxic relationship, on the other hand, is not a safe place. A toxic relationship is characterized by insecurity, self-centeredness, dominance, and control. We risk our very being by staying in such a relationship. To say a toxic relationship is dysfunctional is, at best, an understatement.
“Keep in mind that it takes two individuals to have a toxic relationship, meaning our own words and actions matter as well.”
Keep in mind that it takes two individuals to have a toxic relationship, meaning our own words and actions matter as well. Initially, we’ll look at the behaviors of the toxic partner, but we must look equally hard at the individual who is the recipient of the toxic behavior. And we must ask, Why? Why does an adult stay in a relationship that will almost inevitably damage him or her emotionally and/or physically? And what, if anything, can we do short of leaving that might help mend such a relationship? We’ll examine both these questions later. First, however, let’s examine toxic behaviors and relationships in more detail.
Types of Toxic Relationships
Even a good relationship may have brief periods of behaviors we could label toxic on the part of one or both partners. Human beings, after all, are not perfect. Few of us have had any formal education on how to relate to others. We often have to learn as we go, hoping that our basic style of relating to significant others – often learned from our parents and/or friends – is at least reasonably effective.
As mentioned above, however, what defines a toxic relationship is dysfunction as the norm. The toxic partner engages in inappropriate controlling and manipulative behaviors on pretty much a daily basis. Paradoxically, to the outside world, the toxic partner often behaves in an exemplary manner.
“– what defines a toxic relationship is dysfunction as the norm.”
Note: Any relationship involving physical violence or substance abuse is by definition extremely toxic and requires immediate intervention and, with very few exceptions, separation of the two partners. While these relationships are not necessarily irreparable, I cannot emphasize enough how destructive they are. If you’re in such a relationship, get help now!
A toxic individual behaves the way he or she does essentially for one main reason: He or she must be in complete control and must have all the power in his or her relationship. Power sharing does not occur in any significant way in a toxic relationship, meaning one person is overtly passive, whether they know it or not. And while power struggles are normal in any relationship, particularly in the early stages of a marriage, toxic relationships are characterized by one partner absolutely insisting on being in control. The methods used by such an individual to control his or her partner in a toxic relationship may or may not be readily apparent, even to their partner.
With the above in mind, let’s examine some of the more common types of dysfunctional behaviors that a toxic partner may use in a relationship with a significant other. These categories should not be seen as exclusive. Frequently, a toxic individual will use several types of controlling behaviors to achieve his or her ends. Also, while the examples below are most typically seen in toxic marriages and /or other committed relationships, they can certainly occur in parent-child interactions or friendships.
A further note: For the sake of brevity, I’ll often use the word “victim” to refer to the recipient of toxic behavior. In reality, however, this individual is not a victim, at least not in the sense that they are helpless to do anything about their relationship.
This type of toxic individual will constantly belittle you. He or she will make fun of you, essentially implying that pretty much anything you say that expresses your ideas, beliefs, or wants is silly or stupid. A toxic spouse or partner will not hesitate to belittle you in public, in front of your friends or family. Even though you may have asked your toxic partner to stop belittling you, he or she will continue this behavior, occasionally disguising it by saying, “I’m just kidding. Can’t you take a joke?” The problem is they are not kidding and what they’re doing is not a joke. The toxic partner wants all the decision-making power. Unfortunately, if you tolerate this deprecating behavior long enough, you very well may begin to believe you can’t make good decisions.
This type of toxic individual will often tell you that you’re lucky to have them as a partner, that no other man or woman would really want you. His or her goal is to keep your self-esteem as low as possible so that you don’t challenge their absolute control of the relationship.
2. The “Bad Temper” Toxic Partner
Frequently I’ll have a client who will tell me they’ve given up trying to argue or disagree with their partner because he/she gets so angry or loses his or her temper, and then often won’t interact with them in any meaningful way for days. “Controlling by intimidation” is a classic behavior of a toxic partner.
Often these individuals have an unpredictable and “hair-trigger” temper. Their partners often describe themselves as “walking on eggshells” around the toxic partner, never quite knowing what will send them into a rage. This constant need for vigilance and the inability to know what will trigger an angry outburst wears on the “victim’s” emotional and physical health.
Again, it is noteworthy that this type of emotionally abusive partner rarely shows this side to the outside world. No one else would label the relationship toxic, meaning he or she is frequently thought of as a pleasant, easy-going person whom almost everyone likes.
As you would expect, if you confront a “bad temper” partner about the inappropriateness of their anger, they will almost always blame their temper outburst on you. Somehow it’s your fault they yell and scream. This disowning of responsibility for their dysfunctional behavior is typical of a toxic partner.
3. The Guilt-Inducer
A toxic relationship can, of course, occur not only between two individuals in a committed relationship but also between friends or parents and their adult children. Control in these relationships, as well as in a committed relationship, is exercised by inducing guilt in the “victim.” The guilt inducer controls by encouraging you to feel guilty any time you do something he or she doesn’t like. Not infrequently they will get someone else to convey their sense of “disappointment” or “hurt” to you. For example, your father calls up to tell you how disappointed your mother was that you didn’t come over for Sunday dinner.
A guilt inducer not only controls by inducing guilt but also by temporarily “removing” guilt if you end up doing what he or she wants you to do. For guilt-prone individuals, anything or anyone that removes guilt is very desirable and potentially almost addictive, so the guilt inducer has an extremely powerful means of control at their disposal.
Incidentally, guilt induction is the most common form of control used by a toxic parent(s) to control their adult children. For example, perhaps your parents suggest you are limiting their ability to love their grandchildren when you limit the number of gifts and surprise packages they can drop off at the house. Guilt-inducing works the other way as well. Psychologist Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D., wrote in early 2022 about the toxic patterns of adult children laying guilt upon their aging parents. Adult children may consistently remind Mom and Dad of past parenting mistakes and demand they make up for it. They may accuse you of a lack of trust or confidence in them if you decline their request for a loan for an investment opportunity or decline to co-sign on a student loan for a child who has already left college multiple times. Guilt and shame tied to these often time-sensitive demands is unacceptable.
Frequently, a spouse or significant other will disguise their guilt-inducing control by seemingly supporting a decision you make – i.e., going back to school – but will then induce guilt by subtly reminding you of how much the children miss you when you’re gone, or how you haven’t been paying much attention to him or her lately. As with all toxic behaviors, guilt-inducing is designed to control your behavior so the toxic partner, parent, or friend gets what he or she wants.
4. The Overreactor/Deflector
If you’ve ever tried to tell a significant other that you’re unhappy, hurt, or angry about something they did and somehow find yourself taking care of their unhappiness, hurt, or anger, you’re dealing with an overreactor/deflector. You find yourself comforting them instead of getting comfort yourself. And, even worse, you feel bad about yourself for being “so selfish” that you brought up something that “upset” your partner so much. Needless to say, your initial concern, hurt, or irritation gets lost as you remorsefully take care of your partner’s feelings.
A variation on this theme is the deflector: You try and express your anger or irritation regarding some issue or event – your spouse stays out with his/her friends two hours longer than they said they would and doesn’t even bother to call – and somehow your toxic partner finds a way to make this your fault.
The deflector is confused that the information you’re bringing to his or her attention is in direct conflict with their self-perception. This is so uncomfortable that they inadvertently convince you that you’re the one with “work to do.” Perhaps you are being too sensitive. Or perhaps instead of an apology, you’re offered a calculated question: “But do you love me?” Suddenly the criticism is replaced with praise.
5. The Over-Dependent Partner
Odd as it may seem, one method of toxic control is for your partner to be so passive that you have to make most decisions for them. These toxic controllers want you to make virtually every decision for them, from where to go to dinner to what car to buy. Remember, not deciding is a decision that has the advantage of making someone else – namely you – responsible for the outcome of that decision. And, of course, you’ll know when you’ve made the “wrong” decision by your partner’s passive-aggressive behavior such as pouting or not talking to you because you chose a movie or restaurant they didn’t enjoy. Or you choose to go to spend the weekend with your parents and your partner goes along but doesn’t speak to anyone for two days.
Passivity can be an extremely powerful means of control. If you’re involved in a relationship with a passive controller, you’ll likely experience constant anxiety and/or fatigue, as you worry about the effect of your decisions on your partner and are drained by having to make virtually every decision.
Separate from your own anxiety or fatigue, it’s important to consider the root of your partner’s control here. This type of toxic marriage, by definition, may hinge on control induced by anxiety. The Journal of Neuroscience has reported that the pre-frontal cortex allows us to be flexible in our decision-making while logically weighing the consequences of one decision over another. Anxiety “disengages brain cells” and may play a role in your partner’s insistence that you have all the power, and therefore all the risk in a potential perceived “mistake.”
6. The “Independent” (Non-Dependable) Toxic Controller
This individual frequently disguises his or her toxic controlling behavior as simply asserting his or her “independence.” “I’m not going to let anyone control me” is their motto. This toxic individual will only rarely keep his or her commitments. Actually, what these individuals are up to is controlling you by keeping you uncertain about what they’re going to do. Non-dependables will say they’ll call you, they’ll take the kids to a movie Saturday, but then they don’t. Something always comes up. They usually have a plausible excuse, but they simply don’t keep their commitments. In this relationship, “toxic” means they control you by making it next to impossible for you to make commitments or plans.
What’s even more distressing is that this type of toxic individual does not make you feel safe and secure in your relationship. It’s not just their behavior that’s unpredictable; you’re never quite sure that they are really emotionally committed to you, that you and your relationship with them are a priority in their life. You’ll often find yourself asking for reassurance from them, reassurance that they love you, find you attractive, are committed to your marriage, etc. Their response is often just vague enough to keep you constantly guessing and is designed to keep you doing what they want to “earn” their commitment. The anxiety you feel in such a relationship can, and often does, eat away at your emotional and physical health.
7. The User
Users – especially at the beginning of a relationship – often seem to be very nice, courteous, and pleasant individuals. And they are, as long as they’re getting everything they want from you. What defines a toxic relationship with a user is its one-way nature and the fact that you will end up never having done enough for them. Users are big-time energy drainers who will, in fact, leave you if they find someone else who will do more for them.
“What defines a toxic relationship with a user is its one-way nature and the fact that you will end up never having done enough for them.”
Actually, a really adept user will occasionally do some small thing for you, usually something that doesn’t inconvenience or cost them too much. Be warned: They have not given you a gift; they’ve given you an obligation. If you ever balk at doing something for them or doing things their way, they’ll immediately hold whatever they’ve done over your head and work hard to induce guilt.
Staying in a relationship with a user is like paying $1,000 for a candy bar. You really aren’t getting much for your investment.
8. The Possessive (Paranoid) Toxic Controller
This type of toxic individual is really bad news. Early in your relationship with them, you may actually appreciate their “jealousy,” particularly if it isn’t too controlling. And most, but certainly not all, possessives will imply that once the two of you are married or in a committed relationship, they’ll be just fine.
Don’t believe it for a moment.
These toxic individuals will become more and more suspicious and controlling as time goes on. They’ll check the odometer in your car to make sure you haven’t gone somewhere you “shouldn’t,” or they’ll interrogate you if you have to stay late at work. They will, in short, make your life miserable. They may even use technology to their advantage, using smart devices to check on your physical location or doorbell cameras to eavesdrop or verify you actually arrived at home when you said you would. Over time they will work hard to eliminate any meaningful relationships you have with friends, and sometimes even with family. They do not see themselves in a relationship with you; they see themselves as possessing you.
Your efforts to reassure a toxic possessive about your fidelity and commitment to them will be in vain. If you stay in a relationship with such an individual, you will cease to really have a life of your own.
Bernstein, who published Why Can’t You Read My Mind: Overcoming 9 Toxic Thought Patterns that Get in the Way of a Loving Relationship, explains that “giving in” to toxic thoughts like paranoia is easier than you might think. The possessive partner often ends up with an “All or Nothing” thought (She is never the partner to initiate intimacy) and “Catastrophic Conclusions” (She must be cheating). Without mindfulness of the error of this line of thinking, the possessive partner doesn’t realize that his or her “feelings are probably not the reality of the relationship.”
Toxic Relationships and COVID-19
COVID-19 has complicated the already delicate dance at home for people dealing with a toxic spouse or partner. The truth is, in a pandemic, toxic relationships can worsen. While what defines a toxic relationship is not necessarily physical violence, the World Health Organization did see a 60% increase in women reporting emergency domestic abuse situations in April 2020. The loss of routine, perhaps even the loss of finances, can take someone who is already difficult to communicate with and turn up the heat. In turn, our loved one may experience a new intensity in his or her behaviors.
White House medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested in January 2022 that the coronavirus pandemic will eventually become endemic. As we experience both a renewed sense of normalcy and continued disruptions from variants like Omicron, we may find ourselves reflecting on what our relationships looked like in 2020 and 2021. For some, the past two years have meant more concentrated time under the same roof with a toxic partner. For others, the past two years has meant intentionally protecting ourselves from developing toxic patterns with the people we love. We’ve had to respect the boundaries of friends and family members while communicating our own – and while perhaps also feeling isolated or lonely. Moving forward, adjusting to the coronavirus as an endemic will happen at a different pace for different people. Fostering a toxic relationship in 2022 and 2023 may look like making someone feel guilty for communicating boundaries or deflecting responsibility for emotional outbursts by using pandemic stress as an excuse. The good news is just because we’ve developed a toxic trait while under stress does not mean we’ve entered territory that we cannot retreat from.
Further Thoughts on Toxic Relationships
The toxicity of the above individuals is clearly a matter of degree. You may have experienced some, if not all, of these behaviors – hopefully in a mild form – occasionally in your relationships. And that’s the key word: occasionally. In a toxic relationship, these behaviors are the norm, not the exception. Most of us manipulate once in a while, play helpless, induce guilt, etc. We’re not perfect nor are our relationships. What distinguishes a toxic relationship is both the severity of these behaviors and how frequently they occur.
So why do people behave in toxic ways, and why do others put up with such behaviors? The answer is the same for both individuals: poor self-esteem rooted in underlying insecurity. Toxic individuals behave the way they do because, at some level, they don’t believe they are lovable or that anyone would really willingly want to meet their needs. Their partners stay with toxic individuals because they too believe they are unlovable and that no one would willingly meet their needs.
But aren’t controlling individuals often narcissistic? Don’t they simply have inflated egos and believe they’re entitled to everything they want at no cost to themselves?
Occasionally, particularly in the case of the toxic user, narcissism may be part of the problem, but narcissism itself is often a reaction to underlying insecurity.
This brings up the question and the problem of what to do if you’re in a toxic relationship. Many of my clients initially come to me with the hope that I will give them a magical tool that will “fix” their toxic partner, or, at the very least, for me to sympathize with them and agree how bad their partner is. While catharsis may give temporary relief, it isn’t lasting. And while there certainly are things an individual can do to attempt to change the way a toxic partner behaves, most of my clients are often hesitant to do them, fearing their toxic partner may leave the relationship.
The paradox is this: If you want to improve your relationship with a toxic partner, you have to be willing to leave that relationship if nothing changes. If you’re unwilling to do so, you have very limited power available to you. Your toxic partner will know ultimately, regardless of what they do, you really won’t leave.
So before you attempt to confront a toxic partner, make sure your self-esteem and self-confidence are good enough for you to know that you will be alright if they end the relationship with you (or you have to end it with them). If you’re not there, I strongly urge you to get therapeutic help or join a co-dependency group.
What to Do if You’re In A Toxic Relationship
The bad news is that you cannot change your partner. The good news is that you can change yourself, which may lead you to behave differently with your partner, resulting in your partner deciding to change his or her behavior. Essentially what you do is calmly but firmly confront the toxic behavior. You do this by identifying the behavior(s) to your partner, letting him or her know they are no longer acceptable, and suggesting alternative behaviors that would work better. Simple, isn’t it?
Actually, it is. Once again, you have to believe you deserve to be treated with courtesy, compassion, and respect in a relationship or you will not continue the relationship.
When you first confront a toxic partner, you can expect that he or she will actually escalate their controlling behaviors. You have to be able to handle whatever they do. You have to stay calm and firm and simply repeat your request. If your partner refuses to change, consider separating from the relationship for 30 days. You should then talk with them again, repeat your requests, and let them know that you will not stay in the relationship if they continue their toxic behavior. If they once again refuse to change, you need to end the relationship. If they promise to change but relapse, repeat the cycle one more time. The bottom line: You can attempt to seriously improve a toxic relationship only if you’re prepared to leave it.
A notable exception: I believe strongly in a “zero tolerance” policy for physical abuse. No matter how apologetic your partner is, if you’ve been physically abused you must separate from them immediately. If they then seek appropriate help and you have reasonable confidence that they will not physically abuse you again, you may consider whether or not you want to return to the relationship.
What if you have a parent who behaves in a toxic manner? Fortunately, as an adult child you do not live with them 24/7, and you likely have the support of a significant other in dealing with them. Essentially you need to deal with a toxic parent in the same way you would deal with a toxic partner: You confront the controlling behavior, offer alternative ways the two (or three) of you could relate, and see what happens. If your parent(s) refuse to change their behavior, which will usually be control by toxic guilt induction, you will need to severely limit their contact with you. Since few of us would, or should, totally abandon an elderly parent who may need our help, you’ll probably maintain some contact with them, but you’ll need to take control of the relationship. This is not an easy task, but by taking control – for example, by limiting phone calls or by choosing when you see them – you may be able to offer them the help they need while keeping your emotional equilibrium.
We often label those who stay in toxic relationships as “co-dependent.” They may well be. Co-dependency is, in my opinion, a result of low self-esteem that can make it very difficult to follow the plan I’ve suggested. Again, if you’re in a toxic relationship and having trouble, or are reluctant to effectively confront your partner’s behavior, seek therapeutic help. You might well profit from joining a “co-dependency” group. By all means, read books or use the Internet to find other techniques to help yourself develop the self-esteem and self-confidence you need to live without a toxic relationship.
Tom Cory has lived in Chattanooga for 35 years. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and Miami University where he received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Today he practices clinical psychology specializing in interpersonal and marital therapy. Tom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.